The trouble with Mary, Queen of Scots, was not over yet. The Babington Plot of 1586 saw Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham beginning to assemble a case against her. Following a letter in which Mary incriminated herself1 in the plot, she was put on trial. However, putting a sister sovereign to death would be difficult for Elizabeth. She tried to find ways to avoid executing Mary while securing her own safety, saying that she had, “just cause to complain that, who have in my time pardoned so many rebels, winked at so many reasons, and either not produced them or altogether slipped them over with silence, should now be forced to this proceeding, against such a person.”2 On 1 February 1587, Elizabeth finally signed Mary’s death warrant, and it was dispatched quickly to avoid a change of heart. Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed at Fotheringhay on 8 February. Elizabeth became enraged that Mary had been put to death and even sent Mary’s son a letter to explain that she had been executed contrary to her wishes. The sincerity of this letter is under debate.
In any case, a significant threat to Elizabeth’s throne had been removed, but Elizabeth said, “This death will wring her heart as long as she lives.”3 Just a year later, Elizabeth would face the Spanish Armada, sent by King Philip II of Spain in order to invade England and to overthrow Elizabeth. She held her famous Tilbury speech, not knowing that the threat of invasion had already passed after the Armada had been driven from the Strait of Dover in the Battle of Gravelines. Several versions of the speech exist, and this is one of them:
My loving people.
We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.
I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.
I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you on a word of a prince, they shall be duly paid. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over these enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.4
Her reign after the Armada was marred by the conflict with Spain and a new generation of councillors came on board as the others died. Her own image remained important to her, and paintings from that time became less realistic as she aged. As she grew older, her temper became progressively shorter, and she became more melancholic. One courtier recalled, “Towards her last, she grew somewhat hard to please.”5 Elizabeth still exercised regularly to keep fit and agile. Elizabeth never did publicly acknowledge who her successor would be but among her subjects most believed that it would be the King of Scots, Mary’s son.
At the end of February 1603, the Countess of Nottingham – a granddaughter of Mary Boleyn and thus a cousin of Elizabeth, died, plunging Elizabeth into a depression. She began to suffer from various aches – insomnia, lack of appetite and incessant thirst. She had lost the will to live and spent her days on the floor on cushions. By 22 March, she was finally coaxed to her bed and lost her speech the following day. She died between two and three in the morning on 24 March 1603. At ten in the morning, King James VI of Scotland was also proclaimed King of England, Ireland and France. Elizabeth lay in state at Whitehall before being given an elaborate funeral on 28 April. She now rests in a shared tomb with her half-sister Queen Mary I, though only Elizabeth is depicted.
Pope Sixtus V once said, “She is only a woman, only mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all.”6