Elizabeth I’s Final Years outlines the interwoven relationships and rivalries between politicians and courtiers surrounding England’s omnipotent queen in the years following the death in 1588 of the Earl of Leicester, whose life has been explored in Elizabeth I’s Secret Lover. Elizabeth now surrounded herself with magnetically attractive younger men with the courtly graces to provide her with what Anna Beer has called ‘an eroticised political relationship’. With these ‘favourites’ holding sway at court, they saw personal bravery in the tiltyard or on military exploits as their means to political authority. They failed to appreciate that the parsimonious queen would always resist military aggression and resolutely backed her meticulously cautious advisors, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and later his son Robert.
With its access to New World treasure, it was Spain who threatened the fragile balance of power in Continental Europe. With English military intervention becoming inevitable, the Cecils diverted the likes of Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex, despite their lack of military experience, away from the limelight at court into colonial and military expeditions, keeping them just short of the resources needed for success. The favourites’ promotions caused friction when seasoned soldiers, like Sir Francis Vere with his unparalleled military record in the Low Countries, were left in subordinate roles.
When Spanish support for rebellion in Ireland threatened English security, Robert Cecil encouraged Elizabeth to send Essex, knowing that high command was beyond his capabilities. Essex retorted by challenging Cecil’s government, for which he lost his head.
Both Elizabeth and Cecil realised that only the bookish Lord Mountjoy, another favourite, had the military acumen to resolve the Irish crisis, but his mistress, Essex’s sister, the incomparable Penelope Rich, was mired by involvement in her brother’s conspiracy. Despite this, Cecil gave Mountjoy unstinting support, biding his time to tarnish his name with James I, as he did against Raleigh and his other political foes.
Robert Stedall is the author of Elizabeth I’s Final Years: Her Favourites & Her Fighting Men, published by Pen & Sword.