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Excerpt: The Shortest History of The Crown

Excerpt: The Shortest History of The Crown

The Shortest History of The Crown condenses the story of Britain's kings and queens (their battles, their scandals and their legacies) into a gripping history

The story of Britain's monarchy would certainly give Game of Thrones a run for its money. It is one rife with bloodshed, betrayals and feuding families, as well as social and political upheavals around the United Kingdom. Stephen Bates traces this history in his new book, The Shortest History of the Crown.

Starting with the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings who first conquered Britain, Bates details the lives of every king or queen who has left their mark on life in the UK, including a chapter on the late Queen Elizabeth II

In this excerpt, Bates explores the reign of the first sovereign Elizabeth, Elizabeth I, and one of the most significant battles ever to threaten British shores—the Spanish Armada invasion.

The conflicts that led to the invasion, and England's victory, would define not only Elizabeth I's reign but the UK's national and religious identity for centuries after.

Shortest history of the crown by Stephen Bates book cover

The extract

Early in her reign she was reluctant to persecute Catholics, if they were discreet and did not threaten her rule. "I would not make windows into men’s souls," she apparently declared, and there were even some Catholics at court.

She also disliked the more extreme Calvinist clergy: "Mr Doctor, this loose gown becomes you mighty well; I wonder your notions be so narrow," she told one.

The Book of Common Prayer was made compulsory, the Thirty Nine Articles defined the Church of England’s doctrine, and Elizabeth became Supreme Governor of the Church of England (as opposed to "Supreme Head", like her father: a position then and now reserved for God himself.)

But her tolerance faded in 1570, after Pope Pius V issued Regnans in Excelsis, an order of excommunication against Elizabeth: "the pretended Queen and servant of crime", instructing her subjects that it was their Christian duty to overthrow her.

"It shaped the way Catholicism would be perceived in England for centuries"

It was a counterproductive move, causing the persecution of a sizeable group who had been loyal to Elizabeth, but could now not be treated as such.

Effectively, it cemented Protestantism in England, ensuring that she would provide safe haven for continental Protestants fleeing persecution and committing Catholic rulers to wage war on her.

It also shaped the way Catholicism would be perceived in England for centuries: as a tyrannical, hostile, foreign and subversive threat, urgently in need of rooting out.

If they failed to attend (Protestant) church services, English Catholics faced fines and the seizure of property and assets. If they met and worshipped in secret, they risked detection by Sir Francis Walsingham’s efficient spy network.

But persecution in Protestant England never approached the levels seen in Catholic France and Spain.

Approximately 200 Catholics were executed during Elizabeth’s reign, compared with 10,000-plus Protestants killed across France in the eight weeks of violence around the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of August 1572.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada depicting fire ships scattering Spanish ships at sea painted by Philip James de LoutherbourgDefeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588, painted by Philip James de Loutherbourg in 1796

Despite the papal threats, moreover, Elizabeth declined to help Europe’s Protestants by joining a military alliance with them; indeed a few years on, she was considering deeply unpopular marriages with the French Catholic dukes.

This only meant pressure from elsewhere, though. Spain—now a global power thanks to its territories in the Americas—was growing increasingly aggressive by the mid-1580s, not least because of attacks on its shipping by English privateers.

Philip II was happy to back Catholic insurgents plotting to replace Elizabeth with Mary, Queen of Scots, still imprisoned in England. Mary was eventually implicated personally—via coded letters, intercepted by Walsingham—in a plan to assassinate the Queen.

After long resistance, Elizabeth was obliged to order her cousin’s execution. Having obtained the Queen’s signature on the death warrant, Burghley sent it off before she could rescind it.

This led, in the summer of 1588, to the greatest external threat England had faced in centuries: Spain’s attempt to invade and end English Protestantism for good.

"But for the weather and Spain’s incompetence, the outcome could have been very different"

Elizabeth had at last reluctantly forged an alliance with the Dutch Protestants, who were at war with their Spanish overlords. In retribution, Philip II sent an armada of 130 ships to Calais, the plan being to join the Prince of Parma’s 30,000 troops and invade England.

The fleet was harried up the Channel by blustery winds and the smaller, faster English ships, then trapped in the French port when Parma’s army proved unready to sail.

Fireships scattered the Spanish vessels into the North Sea; with no alternative escape routes, they had to sail north and west round Scotland and Ireland, many being shipwrecked on the rocky coasts en route.

Only sixty Spanish ships made it home, defeated.

It was the largest attempted foreign invasion of England since 1066, and the greatest English naval triumph before the Napoleonic Wars.

Celebrated around the land, commemorative coins depicted God Himself in the clouds over Philip’s ships, reinforcing the notion that the English were especially favoured by the Almighty.

They belied an uncomfortable truth: but for the weather and Spain’s incompetence, the outcome could have been very different. 

Queen Elizabeth I in white dress standing on map of England, The Ditchley portrait painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the YoungerQueen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait'), painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger circa 1592

The Armada was the highpoint of Elizabeth’s reign. Thereafter her ships concentrated on plundering Spanish trade routes from the Caribbean and South America, producing private profits for investors, including herself.

The Navy’s rise coincided with Elizabeth’s army becoming costlier and inefficient.

The land invasion of the Netherlands, headed by the Earl of Leicester in 1585, was as disastrous and costly as the attempt to conquer Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone at the end of the century, though both failures, in part, came down to Elizabeth’s favouritism.

As she’d entrusted Leicester with the Netherlands and regretted it, so it would be with his stepson. Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex was 32 years younger than Elizabeth; his energy must have been a tonic as the Queen’s health flagged, and trusted allies like Leicester and Burghley died (1588 and 1598, respectively).

"The Armada was the highpoint of Elizabeth’s reign"

She made Essex Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland and, in March 1599, he departed to subdue the restive colony. Six months later he returned, unauthorised and minus his army, having struck an equally unauthorised truce with the key rebel, the Earl of Tyrone.

That was the end for Essex. Arriving intemperately at the palace, he burst in on the Queen, who was still in her bedchamber, without her wig or makeup on, to justify his actions. Instead he received censure and house arrest.

Elizabeth’s court was riddled with corruption and conspiracies. The country was suffering from poor harvests, high taxation to fund the foreign wars and inflation as a consequence.

In 1601 Essex stopped trying to win back Elizabeth’s favour and led a coup in London, which fizzled out within hours, leading to his execution.

The Tudor dynasty was also expiring. In March 1603 Elizabeth retired to her chamber where, propped up on cushions, she may – or may not – have finally indicated that James VI of Scotland should follow her.

As she died, couriers were heading north to tell him so.

The Shortest History of The Crown is out on October, 4, published by Old Street Publishing

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