Petitions were presented to Elizabeth and she generously granted them a patent under the Great Seal of England to colonise nine million acres (36,000 km2) in Florida on the banks of the ‘River Norumbega’. Unknown to its organisers, there were inherent problems with the expedition. Firstly, the river belonged to legend, and today can be identified with the mighty Penobscot in Maine, rather than in Florida. Secondly, Gilbert had some unfortunate personality traits, verging on mental instability. Thirdly, Florida was claimed by Philip and was occupied by Spanish troops. Those issues aside, the promoters also had not reckoned with the machinations of the Spanish ambassador Mendoza, who argued that establishing such a colony would weaken Catholic resolve to fight against the Protestant state. He reported to Philip on 11 July 1582 that as Peckham and Gerard
were desirous of living as Catholics, without endangering their lives, they thought the proposal was a good one and they gave an account to other Catholics who . . . offered to aid the enterprise with money . . .
They are to be allowed to live as their consciences dictate and enjoy such revenues as they may possess in England.
This privilege is not confined to those who leave here for the purpose of colonisation but is extended to all Englishmen away from England, even to those who may have been declared rebels and whom the Queen now restores to her grace and favour, embracing them once more as loyal subjects.
The ambassador fumed:
The only object of this is to weaken and destroy [the Catholics] . . . since they have now discovered that persecution, imprisonment and the shedding of martyrs’ blood only increase the number of Catholics; and if the proposed measure be adopted, the seminaries abroad cannot be maintained, nor would it be possible for the priests who come hither to continue their propaganda if there were no persons here to shelter and support them.
By this means, what little blood be left in this diseased body would be drained.
Mendoza went to great pains to reveal the stark truth behind Elizabeth’s generosity. Florida belonged to Spain and was defended by fortresses – ‘so directly they landed they would be slaughtered’. As a result, some withdrew from the expedition but others ‘persist in their intentions, believing it is not really against your majesty because on the map the country is called “New France” which, they say, proves it was discovered by Frenchmen and that since Cortés fitted out ships . . . to go and conquer countries for the Catholic church, they could do the same’.
Despite Mendoza’s best efforts, the plan failed for other reasons. Eleven months later Gilbert sailed from Plymouth with five ships on a reconnaissance mission that proved disastrous, mainly due to him capriciously ignoring wise advice in seamanship. One vessel returned home early because it ran out of supplies. Then, instead of sunny Florida, Gilbert found himself off Newfoundland and he lost two ships during the voyage home. Delight ran aground and sank, drowning all but one of her crew of sixteen. The brand-new Squirrel disappeared in mountainous seas with all hands, including Gilbert himself. It is not hard to imagine the scale of Walsingham’s wrath that his adroit plan to dump recusants in the New World had failed.
Plots to invade England meanwhile continued to be hatched with varying degrees of credibility. In July 1572, the madcap adventurer and privateer Sir Thomas Stukeley suggested a hopelessly optimistic scheme to Philip of Spain to overthrow Elizabeth:
[Sir Leonard] Dacres offers for the hire of six thousand soldiers, one thousand being foreign harquebusiers, in six months to wrest the kingdom [of England] from the pretended [queen], or at least to wrest from her [the counties of] Cumberland, Westmorland, Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire and Lancashire, and make of them a safe refuge and, as it were, a realm free and independent, wither all Catholics may repair.
This plan was conceived in a fantasy world. Stukeley was either unaware of the depredations inflicted upon the northern counties following the 1569 rebellion, or his sanguinity was unconnected with reality. Could he really believe that Elizabeth’s ministers would allow part of her realm to be hived off to become a safe haven for her Catholic subjects? Would they permit it to survive as a secure base from which the rest of England could be conquered? His confidence was astonishing: if Philip entertained any doubts about this plan, Stukeley could capture and occupy the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth and Southampton instead ‘because these places are in that part of England where there are many Catholics’. These three objectives could be seized ‘at a stroke, in a single night and in less than twelve hours. From thence to London is not a two days’ journey and one can march straight upon the city.’ Not for nothing was Philip nicknamed ‘the Prudent’ by his subjects. He ignored Stukeley.
The adventurer was not discouraged. Moving from Madrid to Louvain, Stukeley drew up proposals for a new papal policy on military action against England, urging Gregory to promote an attack, when, he pledged, ‘a vast number [of Catholics] will join the invader and very few will oppose him’. He emphasised: ‘His Holiness should not desert the cause of the Queen of Scots, who after suffering much and sorely for so many years for the Catholic faith ought now not [to] be deprived of her realm.’
In 1575–6, another scheme for invasion was proposed by English exiles in Rome, amongst them the peripatetic Stukeley; Sir Richard Shelley, prior of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in England; and Sir Francis Englefield, Mary Queen of Scots’ agent in Spain. They craved papal blessing and support for their enterprise and Gregory graciously provided them with special crucifixes and ten separate indulgences to those who treated the conspirators ‘with reverence or devotion’. These graces included:
For each time that prayer is made before any one of them for the prosperity of Holy Mother Church and the exaltation of the Holy Catholic Faith and the preservation and liberation of Mary Queen of Scots and the reduction of the realms of England, Scotland and Ireland and the extirpation of the heretics . . . fifty days and on feast [days] one hundred days’ indulgence.
Like the others, this plan came to nought.
Two that did get off the ground were successive attempts to raise Ireland against Elizabeth’s rule. The exiled priest Nicholas Sanders won papal support for an invasion involving the Irish noble James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald of Desmond in Munster and Stukeley in 1578. Unfortunately, the tiny force was unexpectedly diverted to Morocco to support the campaign by King Sebastian of Portugal against the infidel Turks, and Stukeley was killed at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir that year, when a cannonball tore off his legs.
Another expedition with just fifty soldiers landed in Ireland the following year, accompanied by Sanders as papal commissary. Gregory had already named his own illegitimate son, Giacomo Boncampagni, as King of Ireland if the invasion and a rebellion by Irish feudal lords succeeded. Reinforcements of six hundred papal troops – Irish, Italian and Spanish mercenaries under Sebastiano di San Guiseppe – landed in Smerwick harbour (now called Ard na Caithne) on Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula on 10 September 1580. However, William Wynter’s English naval squadron captured the papal ships and blocked the invaders’ escape by sea. Undaunted, they refortified the nearby Iron Age earthwork, Dún an Óir (‘Fort of Gold’) and Sanders proudly unfurled the papal banner abo ve the earth ramparts.
It took some time for the English authorities in Dublin to react, but when their vengeance came, it was predictably brutal. After a ten-day siege that October, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Arthur Grey, Fourteenth Baron Grey of Wilton, courteously accepted the invaders’ surrender and then beheaded every one of the garrison and their women. The rebellion collapsed after the English burnt crops and laid waste most of Munster. Subsequently, famine and disease killed up to a third of the county’s population. Sanders escaped and spent months as a fugitive in the wilds of south-west Ireland before dying of dysentery and starvation in the spring of 1581.
Walsingham uncovered a plot in 1583 involving Mendoza, his French counterpart Michel Castelnau, and twenty-nine-year-old Francis Throckmorton to land French troops at the port of Arundel in West Sussex, liberate Mary Queen of Scots and return England to Catholicism. Throckmorton was arrested on 4 November and papers found at his home identified a number of Catholic noblemen and an illegal pedigree of the descent of the crown of England, demonstrating the justice of Mary’s claim to the throne. The invasion had been delayed only by lack of funding, despite the promises of Pope Gregory and Philip to underwrite the costs of the expedition.
Mendoza was given fifteen days to leave England and he angrily retorted: ‘Bernardino Mendoza was born not to disturb kingdoms but to conquer them.’ For all his bluster, he departed quietly. The following November he took up a new position as the Spanish ambassador in Paris.
Throckmorton was executed at Tyburn on 11 July 158483 and there was a general round-up of the usual suspects. Henry Percy, Eighth Earl of Northumberland (brother of the leader of the 1569 rebellion), was arrested but committed suicide in the Tower on 20 June 1585 by shooting himself with a pistol loaded with three bullets for good measure.
There is little doubt that Elizabeth’s life was frequently endangered by Catholic fanatics. On 17 July 1579, William Appletree, a serving man at court, fired a gun during Elizabeth’s stately progress by barge up the Thames, hitting one of her watermen in both arms. ‘She saw him hurt; she saw him fall, yet shrank not at the same. Neither made she any fearful show to seem dismayed,’ according to a contemporary ballad. The queen dramatically exercised her prerogative of mercy at the last minute as Appletree stood on the ladder of the gallows.
Despite a rash of assassination conspiracies, Elizabeth developed an obstinate dislike of security precautions to protect her sacred person – much to Walsingham’s fury.
In October 1583, some of the prisoners held in the Tower were interrogated about ‘certain speeches against the queen’s majesty supposed to have been spoken by John Somerfield’ when he protested against the treatment of Catholics. He announced that he intended to ‘shoot her through with his dagg [pistol] and hoped to see her head set on a pole [because] she was a serpent and viper’. He hanged himself with ‘his own garters’ in his cell in Newgate prison twenty-four hours before his execution; but one of Walsingham’s agents alleged he was killed ‘to avoid a greater evil’ by Catholic sympathisers.
Assassination fears were heightened by the murder on 10 July 1584 of the Dutch Protestant leader William of Orange in Delft in the Netherlands by Balthazar Gérard, a French Catholic. The result was the so-called Bond of Association, aimed at neutralising the threat of Mary Queen of Scots, as it decreed that anyone involved in Elizabeth’s death would be ineligible to succeed her as ruler. Those who ‘procured’ the queen’s assassination would also be executed, whether or not they were aware of the conspiracy to take the queen’s life. Furthermore, the Bond was to be signed by loyal subjects who pledged themselves to ‘act [with] the utmost revenge’ on any heirs to the pretender to the throne for ‘their utter overthrow and extirpation’. In essence, it was lynch law, but its impact was rather dissipated when Mary happily signed it herself on 5 January 1585, promising to be ‘an enemy to all those that attempt anything against Queen Elizabeth’s life’.
The Bond was enshrined in law in an Act for the Surety of the Queen’s Person, passed in March 1585, which created a commission of privy councillors and judges to hear evidence of the guilt of a claimant to the throne alleged to be complicit in any assassination plot or in plans for rebellion or foreign invasion. If guilty, they faced death. Far-sighted Burghley also tried to introduce a Parliamentary Bill to authorise the creation of an interregnum government led by a ‘Great Council’ in the event of Elizabeth’s murder. But the queen felt this impinged dangerously on her God-given right to rule, so she vetoed his proposals.
The same year, the deranged William Parry was executed for conspiring to kill the queen while she was riding in St James’. A special prayer of thanksgiving was written for Elizabeth’s safe deliverance which described Parry as a
miserable, wretched, natural-born subject, a man of no religion [who] . . . determined very often most desperately to have with his own cursed hand destroyed her majesty’s sacred person.
Fortunately, God had protected her and had ‘diverted [Parry’s] desperate heart and bloody hand’.91 Parry expected to be reprieved at the last minute, pledging on the scaffold:
If I might be made Duke of Lancaster and have all the possessions belonging thereunto, yet I would never consent to shed the least drop of blood out of the tops of any of her [the Queen’s] fingers.
The crowd were having none of his protestations of innocence. They chanted: ‘Away with him’, urging the executioner to get on with his bloody business.
Walsingham was determined to entrap Mary Queen of Scots, ‘that devilish woman’, as he called her, and finally destroy the threat she posed to England. Elizabeth ostensibly shared his opinions of her; in 1578 she told a French envoy who came to London to plead on Mary’s behalf, that her ‘head should have been cut off years ago’. Walsingham’s opportunity came when he intercepted and decoded letters to and from the Scottish Queen which discussed an invasion, her rescue and Elizabeth’s murder. Anthony Babington, the naïve twenty-five-year-old leader of the plot and his fourteen fellow conspirators were executed 20–21 September 1586.
For all her grave misgivings about taking the life of an anointed queen, Elizabeth was finally persuaded to sign a death warrant authorising the execution of Mary Queen of Scots on 1 February 1587. She dropped broad hints that it would be far more convenient if Mary was assassinated, but her gaoler, Sir Amyas Paulet, was having no truck with such illegalities, despite his sovereign’s fury at his non-cooperation.95 Elizabeth’s Privy Council, fearful that she would change her mind and spare her cousin, hastened to execute her, sending down Bull, the Tower’s executioner, in disguise to Fotheringay Castle, Northamptonshire, where Mary was imprisoned. He agreed a price of £10 (or £1,880 at today’s prices) for the job and duly completed the grisly task on 8 February, holding aloft her severed head and crying out: ‘God save the queen!’
Mary was wearing an auburn wig, and the head fell from his grasp and rolled across the scaffold, grey-haired and nearly bald, leaving a shocked Bull with only her dainty white cap and wig in his hand. Horribly, with the nerves in her dead face still twitching, her lips continued to move soundlessly as her blood soaked the straw and black cloth of the platform.
She had enjoyed the very last word.