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To what extent was Mary, Queen of Scots the major cause of instability in Elizabethan England?

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To what extent was Mary, Queen of Scots the major cause of instability in Elizabethan England? During Elizabeth's reign, minor incidences occurred which could have caused instability if they had escalated including; Mary, Queen of Scots and the succession issue, plots in England, plots abroad and the puritans. Historian Heather Thomas stated, "Mary was always seen as a considerable threat to Elizabeth. Many Catholics did not recognize Elizabeth as the true Queen of the realm."1 This is shown to be incorrect with the lack of support for the Northern Earls Rebellion, the long lasting respect shown to Elizabeth by Pope Pius V and Phillip II and Puritan loyalty to the Queen despite grievances with her religious settlement. Furthermore, Mary could cause no instability after 1587 and her son James was a popular choice for Elizabeth's heir. Plots in England such as the Northern Earls Rebellion and the Ridolfi Plot were carelessly organised, closely watched by Walsingham and Elizabeth's spy network and therefore never came to fruition. The excommunication had little impact throughout Europe; it was not publicised, banned from display in Spain and as the majority of English Catholics resided in the north, they were in no position to cause Elizabeth any instability. The Spanish Armada came closest to causing instability in England, but weather and geographical conditions ensured its failure and so no instability arose. All puritans were loyal to Elizabeth as Queen, if not as head of the Church and they were too disunited and unorganised to ever become a cause of instability. Any instability during Elizabeth's reign was certainly contributed to by Elizabeth herself: she heightened tension concerning the succession by refusing to either marry or name an heir and being indecisive over Mary's execution.


The plot caused no instability as it was discovered early, Norfolk was executed and Mary's freedom of movement reduced. Mary was responsible for her own involvement in plots against Elizabeth's life, and she was actively plotting against her cousin in an attempt to assume the throne. However, although Elizabeth took measures in the form of Walsingham and his spy network, she could have ended plots involving Mary if she had executed her after the first attempt at treason, and so secured her throne; therefore Elizabeth was also responsible for the possibility of instability. But plots did not destabilise the Queen because none were successful and Elizabeth was never close to being overthrown. Therefore the plots involving Mary were not a cause of instability. In addition to threats at home; various foreign Catholic powers such as; Pope Pius V, when he issued the Regnans in Excelsis; the launch of the Spanish Armada by Phillip II and the Huguenots betrayal of Elizabeth could have caused instability within England because they brought the risk of invasion and the possibility of English Catholics betraying her to foreign powers. In actuality Elizabeth never came close to losing her throne, and countered threats made against her. Mary held no active role in foreign plots and was not central to them. Positive relations with France were necessary, particularly before Mary's execution because; Mary was related to the Guise family, who aimed to re-establish Catholicism and Mary, in Scotland. If Scotland renewed the 'auld alliance', it could become a stepping-stone through which Catholic forces could invade and threaten Elizabeth. During the French civil war, the Huguenots united with the Guises and turned on her, which could have caused instability.


As a monarch she was independent of the Pope, which gave her more authority and powers of patronage not available to other monarchs. Lack of unity within puritan factions and Elizabeth's decisive action meant that the puritans never successfully challenged stability. Although situations that had the possibility of causing instability arose during Elizabeth's reign, none of the threats against her materialised. There was no issue over the succession because Mary was executed in 1587 after which James became the natural successor; he was male, Protestant, and an experienced ruler. It was assumed he would take the throne so Elizabeth did not need to name him. Every plot in England was monitored by Cecil and Walsingham and none came to fruition even when Mary gave her full support; the Northern Earls Rebellion had 6000 supporters and still caused no instability because it was poorly motivated and badly organised. The excommunication had no impact on Elizabeth; it was badly publicised, ignored by Phillip II (the main Catholic power in Europe) there was no religious crusade and the majority of English Catholics lived in the north where they were less danger to stability. The Spanish Armada came the closest to panicking Elizabeth, but it failed, there was no invasion and Elizabeth never came close to losing her throne. The Puritans were too disunited to be effective and all accepted Elizabeth as ruler if not as Supreme Governor and so they caused no instability. In reality, Mary Queen of Scots was not the major cause of instability in Elizabethan England because Elizabeth's regime was stable throughout; despite threats she never had to increase her security or came close to losing her throne. She was popular with the people free from intimidating plots and ruled securely throughout her reign.

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