With the moderate Protestantism brought in with the religious settlement of 1559, Elizabeth became defined at home and abroad as a Protestant ruler. Despite the extreme displeasure with this situation from the European Catholic superpowers of France and Spain, for the first decade of her reign, Elizabeth did not experience any considerable problems at home from dissenting Catholics. The arrival of Mary, Queen of Scots, on English soil in 1568, however, changed everything.
Mary Stuart (1542–87) became Queen of Scotland when she was six days old and Queen of France when she was 16 through her marriage to the French heir, who acceded the throne in 1559. Mary was also Elizabeth's cousin, and an heir to the English throne through her Tudor grandmother, Margaret, Henry VIII's older sister. With the early death of her husband, Francis II of France in 1560, six months after the death of Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, 19 year-old Mary reluctantly returned to rule Scotland in 1561. As reckless and impulsive as Elizabeth was shrewd and careful, Mary made one disastrous decision after the other, embroiling herself in scandal and political intrigue.
First, she married her feckless cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley in 1565. He soon became jealous of Mary's affections for her Italian secretary, David Rizzio, and had him murdered in front of the heavily pregnant Queen. The following year Darnley was found strangled in the garden of his house which had been blown up. Three months later Mary married the chief suspect in her husband's murder, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Europe was scandalized and the Scottish nobles forced Mary to abdicate in favour of her infant son, James VI. In 1568 Mary fled to England where she became Elizabeth's unwanted guest and prisoner for the next 19 years. (See Elizabeth and Mary's family tree [PDF file].)
In England under house arrest, Mary reinvented herself as a devout Catholic and a rival legitimate claimant to the English throne. The deposed Queen of Scotland proved a very destabilizing presence, as she quickly became a figurehead for disaffected Catholics. Plots and conspiracies abounded, the first taking place within a year of Mary's arrival in England. Although the Northern Rising of 1569, led by the Earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland was crushed fairly quickly, it represented the first serious challenge to Elizabeth's authority and received the backing of the Pope.
In February 1570 Pope Pius V issued a damning Papal Bull which excommunicated Elizabeth, 'the pretended Queen of England, the Servant of Wickedness', declared her deposed and absolved her subjects from any oath of allegiance to her. It went even further, declaring that they were 'not to obey her or her Orders, Mandates and Laws' and included the penalty of excommunication for those who remained faithful to her.
The Bull put English Catholics in an untenable position, with its declaration that a Catholic could not be loyal to both the Queen and the Pope, and its choice of penalties – treason or excommunication. More dangerously for Elizabeth, it authorized and legitimized the actions of the more extreme factions attempting to depose her, and there were at least five more serious attempts to overthrow her
The plots thicken
The first was the Ridolfi plot, planned by Roberto Ridolfi, a Florentine banker living in London. Uncovered by the government in 1571, the conspiracy aimed to use Spanish troops from the Netherlands to depose Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne with Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, as her husband. Norfolk was found guilty of treason and finally executed in 1572, after Elizabeth stayed his execution three times. Although Mary was implicated in the plot, Elizabeth refused calls for her to be put on trial.
The next pope, Gregory XIII, elected in 1572, advocated an even more extreme anti-Protestant stance than his predecessor did, and encouraged numerous schemes to invade England, depose and, even assassinate, Elizabeth. Mary became the focal point of so many conspiracies to remove Elizabeth that the Privy Council and Parliament frequently pressed Elizabeth to put Mary to death. Elizabeth, however, remained reluctant to execute a fellow monarch.
It was the plot hatched by Anthony Babington to kill Elizabeth and start a Catholic uprising, which was to be Mary's undoing. In July 1586 Babington wrote to her that he had six friends 'who for the zeal they bear unto the Catholic cause and your Majesty's service will undertake that tragical execution'. Mary replied to Babington:
Then shall it be time to set the six gentlemen to work, taking order upon the accomplishment of their design…
Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's Secretary of State and spymaster, had already infiltrated Mary's network and was monitoring her correspondence. He intercepted and deciphered her coded letters and Mary's reply sealed her fate. It provided the proof Walsingham needed to finally convince Elizabeth to have Mary arrested and put on trial. She was arrested on 11 August 1586 and brought to trial in October. With reams of evidence against her, Mary was found guilty of being 'not only accessory and privy to the conspiracy but also an imaginer and compass of her majesty's destruction'.
Parliament approved the verdict and urged Elizabeth to sentence her to death. Elizabeth agonized and prevaricated for another four months, before finally signing Mary's death warrant. Mary was eventually executed on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. Elizabeth felt duped by her advisers and was angry that the execution took place.
The threat of Mary, Queen of Scots had been eliminated, but the threats to the Crown from Catholic forces had not. Catholic Europe was outraged by the regicide of a Catholic monarch, and Mary's execution played its part in convincing King Philip II of Spain to send the Spanish Armada to invade England. (See the timeline of Mary, Queen of Scots [PDF file].)
Francis Walsingham (1532–90), one of William Cecil's protégés, succeeded Cecil as Secretary of State in 1573. Although he and Elizabeth did not get along personally, she recognized that he was the right man for the job. In addition to his diplomatic work, he set himself up as a spymaster, establishing a very effective and elaborate intelligence network at home and abroad. He was extremely loyal and even paid for the spying department himself. He gathered evidence that foiled numerous plots against the Queen.