It’s the early hours of the morning, on March 24th, 1603.
An English nobleman gallops through the dark streets of London, his spurs digging into his horse’s flanks. Perspiration glistens on the steed’s muscular body, but the nobleman doesn’t dare slow down. His future, and the future of England, depends on it.
The turrets of Richmond Palace loom up ahead, black against the inky blue sky. The nobleman approaches the gates and announces himself as Sir Robert Carey – one of Queen Elizabeth’s closest advisors.
The guard lets him through.
Inside the palace, Carey rushes through the candlelit corridors, until he arrives outside the royal bedchamber.
The Queen’s ladies-in-waiting huddle near the door – their cheeks streaked with tears. Seeing their grief-stricken faces, Carey realizes the reports he received are true: Queen Elizabeth I is dead.
Carey knows her closest living relative and heir, James VI of Scotland, is four hundred miles away in Edinburgh. Carey also knows that the first person to bring James the news of Elizabeth’s death will likely receive a considerable reward.
So Carey turns and hurries back the way he came. But just as he reaches the palace doors – Carey finds himself surrounded by twenty noblemen, all members of the Queen’s Privy Council – and looking at Carey with venomous disdain. Among them is the Queen’s foremost advisor, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. Cecil knows where Carey is headed, and he has no intention of letting him arrive.
In the weeks running up to the Queen’s death, Cecil and the Privy Council created a detailed plan for the peaceful transfer of power from one monarch to the next. Their plan did not involve an opportunist like Robert Carey riding out on his own to curry favor with the new King. So they trap Carey in the palace, where he will remain under the watchful eye of guards.
For now, Carey is stymied. His rival, Cecil, has gained the upper hand in the struggle that will unfold in the wake of Elizabeth’s death, as competing nobles seek to preserve their status in the new court of King James.
During her forty-five-year reign, Elizabeth I emerged as one of England’s most successful monarchs, winning the people’s affection by defeating foreign enemies, and by preserving peace in a nation bitterly divided between Protestants and Catholics.
But one major shortcoming of Elizabeth’s reign will loom large at the time of her death – her failure to produce an heir. Without a clear line of succession, there’s no knowing what the future holds for England or her people when Queen Elizabeth draws her final breath, on March 24th, 1603.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 24th: The Death of Queen Elizabeth I.
Act One: The Virgin Queen
It’s February 1559, in London; 44 years before the death of Queen Elizabeth I.
On a cold winter’s morning, in the Palace of Westminster, members of parliament have assembled to discuss a most pressing matter: finding a husband for the newly crowned queen, Elizabeth I.
Since Elizabeth’s coronation last year, the twenty-six-year-old’s lack of an heir has become a cause of concern. Without a child to inherit the throne, the future of the realm is uncertain. And after years of political and religious turmoil in England, the last thing parliament wants is more uncertainty.
The troubles began some twenty-five years ago, when Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII, made England not a Roman Catholic nation but a Protestant one. Henry wanted a divorce from his first wife, but the Roman Catholic Church wouldn’t allow it. So Henry split from Rome, divorced her, and re-married a woman named Anne Boleyn, who later gave birth to their daughter, Elizabeth.
Henry VIII’s actions sparked a period of religious upheaval known as the English Reformation. Soon, all the powerful positions within the church and government were filled by Protestants. But there were still plenty of Catholics in England, who felt persecuted by these reforms.
When Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, came to power in 1558, she tried to appease these Catholics by introducing a more moderate form of Protestantism. And, to an extent, it worked. However, Elizabeth’s peacekeeping efforts will all be for nothing if she dies without an heir.
At present, the next in line to the crown is Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, the Queen of Scotland. Mary is a staunch Catholic. If she becomes queen, England will most likely erupt into civil war.
Parliament’s solution is to find Elizabeth a husband with whom she can produce an heir. This would cement the Protestant grip on the crown, and preserve a line of succession for Elizabeth’s so-called Tudor dynasty. So, in February 1559, parliament sends a delegation to petition Elizabeth to consider the question of marriage.
The delegates arrive at Richmond Palace, where they kneel before the monarch. Elizabeth is clothed resplendently in a jewel-encrusted gown. Behind her snow-white makeup, the young queen smiles. She thanks the delegates for the visit, but politely declines their request.
Elizabeth is fiercely independent and politically shrewd. She knows that if she were to marry, her husband would effectively rule through her, limiting her power. Furthermore, by selecting one suitor, she would likely arouse jealousy in the others – thus opening up the possibility of rebellion.
Elizabeth believes that to preserve national stability, she must remain unmarried. But it’s not an easy decision. Elizabeth is beautiful and intelligent. She has no shortage of handsome suitors, some of whom she develops genuine feelings for.
Elizabeth grows especially fond of one nobleman: Lord Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Marrying Dudley would bring her great joy, but Elizabeth is not willing to jeopardize the security of the realm for the sake of her own happiness.
For the men in parliament, the notion that Elizabeth should reign without a husband is unthinkable – it contravenes their deep-rooted ideas about the primary role of women as child-bearers and caregivers.
So short of giving birth to a child, many in parliament want Elizabeth to at least name an heir. In response, the Queen angrily replies that “at this present, it is not convenient to name a successor, nor never shall be without some peril unto you, and certain danger unto me.”
Elizabeth is shrewd. She knows that by appointing an heir, she opens herself up to plots of insurrection, as factions might rally around her successor and oust her from power. So instead, she remains silent, ruling as a powerful single woman in a world dominated by men.
But it will soon become clear that the most imminent threat to Elizabeth’s power does not come from a man, but a woman – her own cousin – and next in line to the throne, Mary, Queen of Scots.
It’s February 1st, 1587.
Queen Elizabeth I, aged 53, sits in a drawing room in Richmond Palace. The Queen’s mood is solemn. She has recently learned that a group of Catholic noblemen have been conspiring to have her killed and install her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, on the English throne.
Elizabeth hoped that Mary no longer posed a threat to her power. Decades back, following a Protestant revolt in Scotland, the Catholic Mary was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne and flee to England. After she arrived on English shores, Elizabeth had her arrested to neutralize any threat of Mary plotting against her. But while in captivity, Mary became a hero to many English Catholics. In their eyes, Mary is the rightful queen of England. Elizabeth is a Protestant heretic.
Soon, whispers of Catholic plots against Elizabeth began to swirl. Elizabeth dismissed most of these rumors. But eventually, her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, showed Elizabeth damning letters written by Mary to her Catholic conspirators. In these letters, Mary consented to the Queen’s assassination.
After reading Mary’s treasonous words, Elizabeth was quick to execute the other conspirators. But she’s been reluctant to sign Mary’s death warrant. Mary is, after all, family. Additionally, Elizabeth fears that killing Mary will only lead to bigger problems – a retaliation from Catholic nations in Europe. But her advisers, including Francis Walsingham, encourage her relentlessly to rid the country of the troublesome Scot. So, finally, the Queen signs the order.
Seven days later, on February 8th, Mary, Queen of Scots, is executed. Once the ax has fallen, the executioner grasps her severed head, holds it aloft, and shouts: "God Save Queen Elizabeth!”
With her greatest rival dispatched, Elizabeth’s power seems undisputed and unimpeachable. But more trouble is coming to England. Mary’s execution will soon incite a war.
Act Two: Gloriana
It’s August 9th, 1588.
In the town of Tilbury, on the south coast of England, thousands of troops have assembled to meet an invading army. The 54-year-old Queen Elizabeth parades before her soldiers on the horseback, her armor gleaming. And though she appears confident and eager to meet the challenge before her, the Queen harbors nervous thoughts.
The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots outraged the Catholic King of Spain – Francis II. Francis believes Mary is a martyr who was wrongfully executed by Protestant criminals. Shortly after Mary's death, Francis began plotting to oust Elizabeth and restore Catholicism to England. So in May 1588, he sent a fleet of 130 warships to invade.
But before the Spanish Armada reached English shores, it was met by England’s navy. A ferocious sea battle commenced. And just yesterday, at the Battle of Gravelines, a fortuitous wind scattered the Spanish ships, and the English forces emerged victorious. The English then fell back, to defend their coast from the expected ground invasion.
Now Queen Elizabeth rides before her troops, her red hair blazing beneath her helmet. She cries out: “I am come amongst you, not for my recreation, but for being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle to lay down my life for my God, my kingdom, and my people.” Her words are met with the rattle of swords, and cries of “God save the Queen!”
Elizabeth waits for the noise to die down, then she continues, her voice resonant with conviction: “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king!”
An even louder roar goes up. Elizabeth turns to face the horizon, where the black sails of her enemies’ ships threaten to appear at any moment. But no such invasion comes. Elizabeth and her generals soon learn that the Spanish fleet has limped back to Spain, and England celebrates a great victory over its Catholic enemies.
For Elizabeth, the news of the defeat of the Spanish Armada makes for great propaganda. The gale that scattered the Spanish ships is dubbed “the Protestant Wind”, and is held as proof that God is on the Protestant side.
Elizabeth is carried through the crowded streets of London on a golden litter – a victory procession rivaling her own coronation in terms of splendor and extravagance. The people of England celebrate her as an almost figure, a mythical “Virgin Queen”.
And the years following the Armada’s defeat will be remembered as a golden age for Elizabeth’s reign and for England. The theater and the arts will flourish, with figures such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare emerging as the period’s leading literary lights.
In 1596, the poet Edmund Spencer writes The Faerie Queene, an epic poem paying homage to Elizabeth. Spencer refers to Elizabeth as Gloriana – an eternally youthful monarch, whose beauty and wisdom are unparalleled.
But in truth, by the dawn of the 1600s, Elizabeth’s beauty has faded. Her hair has almost entirely fallen out; her teeth are black and rotten from a lifelong sugar habit; she cakes her face with white makeup, which cracks around the corners of her mouth and eyes.
Despite the patriotic propaganda, Elizabeth is not immortal, and as she approaches seventy, her health is in rapid decline. She has reigned for over 40 years, bringing peace and stability to a nation beset with religious discord. Many in England cannot envision a world in which Elizabeth is not their queen.
And yet, there are some who are doing exactly that.
The Queen’s closest advisors realize that her reign will soon be over. Their attention turns to the question of succession. Members of the Privy Council – men like Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, and Sir Robert Carey, Earl of Monmouth – begin angling to secure positions of power, so as not to lose influence when Elizabeth passes.
Cecil begins writing secretive letters to Elizabeth’s closest living relative: James VI of Scotland, son of her old enemy, Mary Queen of Scots. Cecil informs James of Elizabeth’s condition, effectively lining him up to succeed the ailing Queen.
But no decisive action can be taken until the Queen actually names her successor. And by March 1603, this is looking increasingly unlikely. Elizabeth’s condition has worsened; her throat is now swollen and she is unable to speak.
In her final days, Cecil, Carey, and her other advisors crowd around her sickbed – their eyes red from weeping, their legs stiff from kneeling – praying for the Queen to speak.
But she never does.
With time running out, Cecil makes a move. He suggests James VI as a potential heir to the throne. In response, Queen Elizabeth manages to raise a withered hand in a gesture of approval.
Soon, Elizabeth will die childless. But with her successor named, her death will trigger a scramble between her former advisors, all jockeying to secure positions of power in the court of the new king.
Act Three: Carey’s Ride
It’s early morning on March 24th, 1603.
Sir Robert Carey prowls the dark corridors of Richmond Palace, searching for an unguarded exit. Hours ago, Queen Elizabeth I drew her final breath.
After her death, Carey intended to ride to Scotland to inform James of his succession, thus currying favor with the monarch and guaranteeing himself a position of power. But his plan was derailed. Carey’s rival, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, found out about his scheme and forbade him from leaving the palace. Cecil is the senior noble, with executive authority over the royal guards. If Carey wants to escape the confines of the palace, he will have to do so by stealth.
But luckily for Carey, a familial connection comes in handy. His elder brother – Henry, the 1st Baron of Hunsdon – is also in the palace. Henry stands to gain from his brother securing favor with James. And Henry holds more authority than his younger brother, so he escorts Carey to the palace gates, and orders the guards to let him through.
On his way out of Richmond Palace, Carey passes by a low window. A woman leans out: it’s Carey’s sister, Lady Philadelphia Scrope. As Carey rides by, Philadelphia throws him something: a ring, prised from the dead finger of Elizabeth I moments before. The ring will prove to James VI that the Queen is dead and that the crown now belongs to him. With the ring in hand, Carey gallops into the night, bound for Scotland.
By the time Cecil and the other lords realize he’s gone, it’s too late. Carey completes the 400-mile journey in a remarkable three days. He reaches Edinburgh in the dead of night. Exhausted and disheveled, Carey staggers into Holyrood Palace, and kneels before James, presenting him with Elizabeth’s ring, and addressing him, for the first time ever, as King James I of England. Carey’s efforts are duly rewarded; the King offers him exactly what Carey wanted - a prestigious position in the new court.
James’ succession marks the end of the Tudor dynasty, and the beginning of the Stuart period - one of the most turbulent in British history. Following Elizabeth’s death, England will be plunged into a chaotic era, one characterized by gunpowder plots, civil wars, and great plagues, leaving many in the country longing for the strong, wise leadership of Queen Elizabeth I, which ended with her death, on March 24th, 1603.
Next on History Daily.March 25th, 1807, the British Parliament abolishes the slave trade in the British West Indies.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Derek Behrens.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.