Learndojo icon
Latest Specification Fully Covered.

Edexcel GCSE History Challenges to Elizabeth at home and abroad, 1569–88

This section provides revision resources For Edexcel GCSE History and the Challenges to Elizabeth at home and abroad, 1569–88 chapter. The revision notes cover the Edexcel exam board and latest specification. As part of your GCSE History course, you will need to know the following content:

Edexcel GCSE History Signups
aqa gcse psychology social influence

Plots and Revolts at Home

The second chapter for Early Elizabethan England, 1558–88 looks at Challenges to Elizabeth at home and abroad, 1569–88. For this you will need to know about the following for Edexcel GCSE History:

  • The reasons for, and significance of, the Revolt of the Northern Earls, 1569–70.
  • The features and significance of the Ridolfi, Throckmorton and Babington plots. Walsingham and the use of spies.
  • The reasons for, and significance of, Mary Queen of Scots’ execution in 1587.

What Was The Revolt of the Northern Earls?

In 1569, one of the wealthiest landowners in England, the Duke of Norfolk concocted a plan to marry Mary, Queen of Scots and have her recognised as Elizabeth’s heir. The plan was supported by various Catholic nobles, including the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland as this would mean Elizabeth (a Protestant) could be succeeded by a Catholic queen.

The plan was discovered and the Earls feared being executed for treason, so in a desperate attempt to escape punishment, they rebelled against Elizabeth and tried to overthrow her. On November 1569, the Earls managed to capture Durham and proceeded to celebrate Catholic Mass in the Cathedral before marching south in the direction of Tutbury, Derbyshire where Mary was imprisoned.

Before the rebel army was able to reach Tutbury, a large royal army forced them to retreat. Many of the rebel troops deserted while the two Earls fled to Scotland.

Queen Elizabeth showed no mercy to the rebels and the Earl of Northumberland along with 400 rebel troops were executed while the Earl of Westmorland fled abroad.

Why did the Revolt of the Northern Earls happen?

The Northern Earls were unhappy and rebelled for several reasons:

  1. Many northern nobles were still committed Catholics and wanted to see the restoration of Catholicism under a Catholic monarch. When Mary, Queen of Scots arrived in England in 1568, replacing Elizabeth with Mary became a realistic possibility.
  2. Queen Elizabeth has confiscated large portions of land from the Earl of Northumberland and given it his main rivals in the north and south who were both Protestant. Elizabeth had also claimed all the profits from copper mines that were discovered in his estates which meant he lost a significant amount of money too.
  3. Elizabeth had also reduced the power of the northern nobles and increased her own control over the north through the Council of the North, which helped govern the area. The Council was controlled by southern Protestants and this caused resentment by the northern nobles.
  4. The northern nobles felt Elizabeth’s advisors were responsible for many of these policy changes. They believed privy council members such as William Cecil had become too powerful and instead wanted to remove those they deemed ‘evil’ and replace them with councillors more sympathetic to their causes.

Why was the Revolt of the Northern Earl’s a Serious Threat to Elizabeth?

The Revolt of the Northern Earl’s was arguably the most serious rebellion during Elizabeth’s reign and presented a threat for a number of reasons:

  • The rebellion showed the danger Mary, Queen of Scots represented as a rallying point for English Catholics, many of whom had not accepted Elizabeth as the true legitimate monarch.
  • The news of the rebellion caused widespread fear among English Protestants and paranoia about Catholic plots and revenge. These fears were fuelled by the memories of the harsh persecution Protestants endured during Queen Mary’s reign.
  • In 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth which meant she was officially excluded from the sacraments and services of the Christian Church. This was supposed to strengthen the revolt, however, news of her excommunication did not arrive until after the rebels had fled. Elizabeth’s excommunication made the Catholic threat seem much more serious as it meant Catholics no longer had to obey the Queen and were being encouraged to overthrow her.

The Features and Significance of the Ridolfi Plot

During the 1570s and 1580s, there were several plots by Catholics to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots. The plots involved European conspirators and were supported by France, Spain and even the Pope.

Roberto di Ridolfi was an Italian banker who played a small role in the Revolt of the Northern Earls. In 1571, he developed a plot to overthrow Elizabeth using his Catholic contacts in England and Europe. Ridolfi’s plan was to have Mary made queen by first assassinating Elizabeth and then marrying Mary to the Duke of Norfolk. This plot was supported by the Pope and King Phillip II, who agreed to provide troops for a Spanish invasion. 

The Ridolfi plot failed mostly due to Elizabeth’s allies passing the names of the main conspirators involved to her. Letters sent to Mary were also intercepted which implicated her and the Duke of Norfolk in the plot.

The Duke of Norfolk was arrested and executed however Mary was not punished beyond her supervision being made tighter.

The Features and Significance of the Throckmorton Plot

  1. The Throckmorton plot was a conspiracy to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scot’s in 1583. Those involved planned for an invasion of England by French troops and were financed by Phillip II of Spain and the Pope.
  2. The leading figure involved in the plot was Francis Throckmorton, a young Catholic man who carried messages between Mary and Catholic conspirators abroad.
  3. The plot failed as it was discovered by Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s principal secretary and spymaster, who placed Throckmorton under surveillance for several months. Walsingham had established a large spy network and was able to intercept letters of Catholic conspirators and work with an expert cryptographer to decode them. He also used ‘double agents’ to infiltrate Catholic networks.
  4. In response to the Throckmorton Plot, Elizabeth’s advisors drafted the Bond of Association, which was aimed at deterring any further plots. This was signed by the English nobility and gentry and required the signatories to execute anyone who attempted to overthrow the Queen. 

The Features and Significance of the Babington Plot

  1. The Babington Plot was yet another conspiracy to overthrow Queen Elizabeth and involved France and Spain.
  2. The plan was to assassinate Elizabeth and make Mary, Queen of Scots Queen with the support of a joint French and Spanish invasion.
  3. The key conspirator was Anthony Babington, who was responsible for sending information to Mary from her supporters in England and Europe and relaying back her replies.
  4. Francis Walsingham used his spy network to follow the plot along every stage of its development. He used a double-agent to secretly intercept the letters from Mary and had them decoded. One letter gave Mary’s approval to assassinate the Queen and free her from prison.
  5. By August 1986, Walsingham had gathered enough evidence to dismantle the plot. The conspirators including Babington were all arrested, tried and executed for treason.

Why Were These Plots a Serious Threat to Queen Elizabeth?

Mary’s presence in England posed an on-going threat as she had a strong claim to the throne herself.

As long as Mary was alive, the plots could always be deemed credible and many Catholics secretly wanted a return to Catholocism.

The Pope, as head of the Catholic Church, could rally support for these plots and for some Catholics, obeying the Pope was more important than obedience to Elizabeth. Spain and France were also involved in these plots and so there was always the danger of a foriegn invasion.

Why Did The Plots to Overthrow Queen Elizabeth Fail?

The plots to overthrow Elizabeth failed for a number of reasons such as:

  1. Elizabeth was actually popular which meant those conspiring to overthrow her lacked public support. The defeat of the Northern Earls showed there was little appetite for a Catholic revolution.
  2. Phillip II of Spain was reluctant to destroy his alliance with Elizabeth and therefore his support for the plots were heart-hearted. Although he promised to help the conspirators, he rarely followed through on these promises.
  3. The plots were often uncovered due to Elizabeth’s informants and Walsinghams highly efficient spy network. These ensured the plots were uncovered before they could be fully developed.

Mary Queen of Scot’s Execution in 1587

In 1568, the Queens Spymaster, Francis Walsingham used his spy network to prove that Mary had supported the Babington Plot.

The evidence was enough to persuade Elizabeth to put Mary on trial and eventually execute her for treason. Mary, Queen of Scot’s had been linked to Catholic plots before, but Elizabeth had always been reluctant to take any action against her. This time, however, the evidence gathered by Walsingham was enough to persuade Elizabeth to put Mary on trial.

In October 1586, Mary was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Elizabeth hesitated for several months, however, eventually signed Mary’s death warrant.

She was reluctant to execute Mary as she was Queen of Scotland and she believed in Divine Right – that rulers were sent by God to govern their country. Elizabeth also felt she had no right to execute a legitimate monarch but also, executing a queen could set a dangerous precedent that could undermine her own claim to rule by Divine Right and fuel more plots against her.

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scot’s eventually took place on 8th February 1587.

What Were The Effects of Mary’s Execution?

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, finally removed the on-going threat at home from Catholics who wanted to replace Elizabeth with her. The English Catholics now had no-one they could rally around and effectively lost hope of ever replacing Elizabeth and reversing the religious settlement.

Following Mary’s death, there were no more major Catholic plots during Elizabeth’s reign.

The Increased Threat From Abroad

Abroad, however, was another matter as Mary’s execution inflamed Catholic opposition and increased the threat of foreign invasion. The relationship with Spain and King Phillip II in 1587 was at a low point as the two countries were at war over the Netherlands.

King Phillip had been preparing for an attack on England since 1585 and Mary’s execution made the situation worse, with him even more determined to invade England. Another danger was the risk Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland posed as he might seek revenge for his mother’s death.

There was a very real risk that he could form an alliance with other Catholic powers such as France and Spain and invade England.

Relations With Spain

For Edexcel GCSE History and Challenges to Elizabeth at home and abroad, 1569–88, you need to know about the following for Relations with Spain:

  • Political and religious rivalry.
  • Commercial rivalry. The New World, privateering and the significance of the activities of Drake.

Political and Religious Rivalry

England and Spain had tried to remain on good terms but a growing rivalry between them led to increased tensions.

King Phillip II had been married to Queen Mary I of England and the two had been allies in a war against France in the 1550s. The war against France ended in 1559, and following Elizabeth’s accession, they tried to maintain good relations between the two countries.

Spain had become a great military power as Phillip ruled Spain, the Netherlands and parts of Italy. He also had a big empire in North and South America and by 1581, he had also become King of Portugal which gave him control of the important Atlantic port of Lisbon.

During the 1570s, England was starting to have ambitions of establishing an empire of its own and had hoped to become an imperial power that could rival Spain. As Phillip was a devout Catholic, he disliked Elizabeth’s religious settlement and Protestanism.

A number of Catholic plots to remove Elizabeth in the 1570s and 1580s had his involvement although he was reluctant and half-hearted in their execution.

“Spains naval and military strength was much greater than England’s at the time, so Elizabeth was reluctant to do anything that could damage their already fragile relationship and lead to open war with Spain.”

Commercial Rivalry Between England and Spain

English exports to Europe were vital to the English economy and reached the European market via the Dutch ports, particularly Antwerp. As King Phillip II ruled the Netherlands, he had control over the access to these vital Dutch ports and he could, therefore, limit English access.

Spain had colonies in North and South America and England’s trade with them was very profitable, but foreigners needed a license to trade there. Not many Englishmen were granted licenses and therefore Elizabeth would encourage privateers, men who sailed their own ships, to trade illegally with the Spanish colonies.

These privateers also raided Spanish ships and attacked the treasure fleets that carried gold and silver from the America’s to Spain.

As these privateers were ‘supposedly’ independent, Elizabeth could deny any responsibility for the activities and this helped to prevent open conflict with King Phillip and Spain directly.

Elizabeth would receive a share of the privateers profits and as Englands financial situation was poor at the time, this proved to be an incredibly important source of income for the Queen.

In 1580, she received treasure from Sir Francis Drake from his exploits which was worth more than all the rest of her income for that year put together.

The Significance of Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake was a leading privateer and responsible for leading several expeditions into the New World in the late 1560s and 1570s.

Between the period between 1577 and 1580, Drake sailed around the world and carried out a number of raids on Spanish settlements and ships. He would often return with huge amounts of treasure for Queen Elizabeth. In the eyes of the Spanish, Drake was a pirate however in the eyes of the English and Elizabeth, he was a patriot.

Elizabeth wasn’t able to publically acknowledge his achievements and when the Spanish Armada attempted to invade England in 1588, he was the vice-admiral in command of the English fleet that helped successfully defend the attack.

The Outbreak of War with Spain, 1585-88

For Edexcel GCSE History and Challenges to Elizabeth at home and abroad, 1569–88, you need to know about the following for the Outbreak of war with Spain, 1585–88:

  • English direct involvement in the Netherlands, 1585–88.
  • The role of Robert Dudley.
  • Drake and the raid on Cadiz: ‘Singeing the King of Spain’s beard’

By the 1580s, the relationship between England and Spain was at its lowest point and the tension was at boiling point.

Queen Elizabeth and King Phillip II were still reluctant to openly declare war with one another however, in 1585, this changed due to dispute over the Netherlands.

Why did England and Spain go to war in 1585?

In 1581, Protestant rebels in the Netherlands declared independence from Spain and established a Dutch republic.

Elizabeth had given financial help to the rebels, however, remained reluctant to provoke King Phillip by getting directly involved.

In 1584, the rebel leader, William the Silent was assassinated, and the Dutch resistance was at risk of defeat.

Elizabeth chose to give direct help to the rebels by signing the Treaty of Nonsuch, which placed the Netherlands under her protection and promised military help.

There were several factors that influenced Queen Elizabeth’s decision to sign the Treaty of Nonsuch including:

  1. Religious reasons: Elizabeth wanted to protect the Dutch Protestants and prevent King Phillip from imposing Catholocism on the Netherlands.
  2. Commercial reasons: The ports at the Netherlands were essential entry points for trading with Europe and most English exports travelled through them.
  3. Military reasons: The Netherlands provided a strategic advantage to King Phillip because if the rebels were defeated, the Netherlands could be used as a base for an invasion into England. Therefore, it was crucial was Elizabeth to hold the country to prevent this.
  4. Strategic reasons: Spain wanted to control the French crown and the defeat of the Dutch rebels would mean Spain would control the entire Channel and Atlantic coasts of Europe.

“Elizabeth believed in Divine Right and due to this, she didnt want to remove King Phillip as the ruler of Netherlands. Instead, her goal was to ensure freedom of worship for Dutch Protestants and protect Englands Military, commercial and strategic interests listed above”

The Role of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

  1. Robert Dudley was the Earl of Leicester and during the time of the conflict involving the Netherlands, he was appointed to lead the military expedition to the Netherlands.
  2. Upon his arrival, he accepted the position of Governor-General which proved to be a big mistake as it suggested that Elizabeth had taken control of the Netherlands. This risked provoking King Phillip further and to avoid this, Elizabeth forced Dudley to resign his position immediately.
  3. Dudley’s campaign in 1586-1587 proved to be unsuccessful and he suffered heavy defeats at the hands of the Spanish general, the Duke of Parma.
  4. With no clear military successes for Dudley, he resigned his post in 1587 and returned to England.

Why did Robert Dudley fail in his campaigns in the Netherlands?

  • One reason Dudley failed was that he wasn’t a talented general or tactician.
  • Another reason Dudley failed was a number of his officers were divided over questions of strategy.
  • The Spanish had a greater army and Dudley’s army was significantly smaller.
  • The English army was also poorly equipped and Elizabeth did not provide sufficient funds to pay for the English troops.
  • Naval support by the English proved to be more effective for the Dutch rebels and a fleet of English ships patrolled the Dutch coastline to prevent the Spanish from landing some of their forces by sea.

Drake’s Raid on Cadiz, 1587

In 1587, Sir Francis Drake attacked the Spanish port of Cadiz in what would become known as ‘the Singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’. This attack proved to be a major setback for Spanish preparation for the Armada.

King Phillip saw the signing of the 1585 Treaty of Nonsuch as a declaration of war on Spain and in response, he began to build a huge fleet of ships known as an Armada to invade England. Queen Elizabeth had become aware of this plan and in 1587, sent her most successful privateer, Sir Francis Drake, to spy on Spanish preparations and attack their ships and supplies.

The Singeing of the King of Spain’s Beard

Learning of the Spanish plans to build an Armada and invade England, Drake’s mission was to try and stop this.

  1. Most of the new ships were being built in the deepwater Portuguese port of Lisbon which was protected by strong fortifications. Drake knew he wasn’t able to attack this port with any realistic hope of success.
  2. Instead, Drake’s plan was to attack the port of Cadiz, which wasn’t as well defended. There were fewer naval ships anchored there and the port was the centre for a large number of naval supplies which Drake intended to either seize or destroy.
  3. In April 1587, Drake sailed to Cadiz and began attacking the anchored ships there. Approximately 30 ships were destroyed and tonnes of supplies were also seized including food and weapons.
  4. After his successful raid on Cadiz, Drake sailed along the coast of Portugal and Spain, seizing Spanish ships and destroying supplies that were being sent to Lisbon for the Armada.
  5. Drake also managed to capture a Spanish ship called the San Filipe, which was returning from the Americas with gold, spices and silk. The cargo was so valuable that it easily covered the cost of Drake’s expedition and enabled Elizabeth to vastly improve England’s defences.

The Significance of Drake’s Raid on Cadiz

  1. The raid on Cadiz proved to be a major setback for King Phillips plan’s to invade England and delayed the Armada by more than a year.
  2. The loss of ships, weapons and supplies were proving incredibly costly for Spain as these needed to be replaced and obtaining fresh supplies put a strain on Spain’s finances.
  3. During Drake’s raid, he captured more than 1000 tons of planks made from seasoned wood, which was needed to make the barrels used to carry food and water. As the Spanish had lost these to Drake, they were forced to make their barrels from unseasoned wood, which couldn’t preserve food or water very well.
  4. These problems all led to supply issues for the Spanish Armada and had a major impact on the morale of the Spanish troops. Freshwater supplies were lost and many tons of food rotted as the fleet eventually sailed to England in 1588.

‘The raid on Cadiz was a good strategic move by the English and not only weakened the Spanish, but strengthened the English. Drake himself described the raid as ‘Singeing the King of Spain’s beard’. What he meant by this was he had inflicted significant temporary damage on the Spanish Armada and it would regrow in time’.

The Armada

The next section of Early Elizabethan England, 1558-88 will look at challenge to the religious settlement, which covers The Armada:

  • Spanish invasion plans. Reasons why Philip used the Spanish Armada.
  • The reasons for, and consequences of, the English victory.

Why King Phillip Used The Spanish Armada

The Spanish invasion didn’t go according to plan when the Spanish Armada was launched in 1588.

  • By spring 1588, the Spanish Armada was complete and King Phillip was ready to launch his ‘Enterprise of England’.
  • The Armada was a huge fleet consisting of 130 ships, with a crew of 8000 sailors and carrying approximately 18,000 soldiers.
  • The Duke of Medina Sidonia was appointed by King Phillip to lead the Armada as he respected the Duke’s high social status and trusted him to obey instructions. The Duke, however, had little military or naval experience and tried unsuccessfully to turn down the command.
  • The Spanish also had thousands of more soldiers stationed in the Netherlands under the command of the Duke of Parma and the plan was to have the Armada meet Parma’s army at Dunkirk.
  • The plan was then for the combined forces to sail across the Channel to England under the protection of the Armada’s warships.

The Armada reached the English Channel in July 1588

  1. The Armada set sail in May 1588, but due to bad weather and attempts by an English fleet to intercept it, was delayed for several weeks in the Bay of Biscay.
  2. In July, the Spanish fleet was seen off Cornwall and signal fires known as beacons were lit along the south coast to send the news to Elizabeth who was in London.
  3. English ships departed from Plymouth to meet the Armada.
  4. The Armada sailed up the Channel in a defensive crescent formation which used the large armed galleons to protect the weaker supply ships and infantry ships.
  5. The English navy attempted some minor raids but they were largely ineffective as only 2 Spanish ships were lost, and these were by accident.

The English attacked the Spanish Armada at Calais and Gravelines

  1. The Duke of Medina Sidonia sailed up the Channel and anchored at Calais while waiting for reinforcements from the Duke of Parma’s troops. Parma and his men, however, were being blockaded by Dutch ships and weren’t able to reach the coast in time.
  2. The English sent 8 fireships loaded with flammable materials in the middle of the night towards the anchored Spanish ships. This caused panic among the Spanish sailors, who cut their anchor cables and broke their defensive formation as they headed for the open sea.
  3. The Spanish attempted to regroup at Gravelines, however, the weather made it impossible for them to reform their defensive crescent formation which opened up an opportunity for the English to intercept and attack.
  4. The English ships moved in for the attack and the following battle lasted several hours with 5 Spanish ships having been sunk.
  5. The rest of the Spanish fleet was forced to sail away from the French coast and into the North Sea with the English fleet on their trail.
  6. The Spanish sailed as far north as Scotland to make sure they did not regroup and return to collect Parma’s army.

Reasons For The English Victory & Spanish Armada Defeat

There were a number of factors that contributed to the English victory and Spanish defeat which included English strengths, Spanish weaknesses, as well as luck itself.

What were the English strengths that helped defeat the Armada?

  • The English had drastically improved their shipbuilding techniques which gave them several technological advantages. Spain depended on large ships which were heavy and difficult to handle whereas the English built long, narrow ships that were faster and easier to handle. English canons could also be reloaded more quickly than the Spanish ones allowing them to inflict greater damage.
  • The English also had better tactics that were more effective. The Spanish had planned to come alongside their opponents and attempt to board their ships to try to overcome the enemy through hand-to-hand fighting. They were not able to do this because the English used their greater manoeuvrability to stay out of range while firing broadsides (massive barrages of cannonballs) that could sink the Spanish ships.

What were the Spanish Armada weaknesses?

  • A significant amount of the Spanish troops lacked the experience of naval warfare, whereas the English fleet was manned by experienced sailors.
  • The Spanish plan to meet the Duke of Parma at Dunkirk was seriously flawed. Spain did not control a deep water port where the Armada could anchor safely and this left them extremely vulnerable to an attack while it waited for Parma’s troops to escape the Dutch blockade. The use of fireships by the British exposed this weakness.

How did luck play a role in defeating the Spanish Armada?

  • The death of Spain’s leading admiral, Santa Cruz, in February 1588, led to the appointment of the inexperienced Duke of Medina Sidonia to lead the Spanish Armada.
  • The harsh weather conditions made it impossible for the Spanish fleet to return to the Channel after the battle of Gravelines. This forced the Spanish fleet to travel into the dangerous waters off the Scottish and Irish coasts.

‘The Armada’s journey back to Spain was a disaster’.

  1. Medina Sidonia decided to retreat back to Spain and call off the attack on England.
  2. He chose to sail around Scotland and Ireland which presented a dangerous route which the Spanish sailors were unfamiliar with.
  3. During this journey, they encountered several powerful Atlantic storms and this resulted in many ships sinking or being wrecked on the Scottish and Irish coasts.
  4. The local inhabitants showed little mercy to the survivors of these wrecks.
  5. The ships that did manage to make the journey back ran short of supplies, and many men died of starvation and disease.
  6. In total, less than 10’000 men and half the fleet made it back to Spain.

England’s Victory Removed The Threat of Spanish Invasion

The victory over the Spanish was not just a military success for England, but it also helped to strengthen Elizabeth’s rule over the country.

  1. King Phillip tried to send two further Armada’s in the 1590s however, both were unsuccessful. The war with Spain continued for 15 years, but the Armada of 1588 was the last real serious Spanish threat to Elizabeth’s throne.
  2. England’s victory over the Spanish navy in 1588 contributed to their development as a strong naval power to rival Spain. English ships were went on many voyages of discovery and established valuable trade routes with India and the far east. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the navy was also playing an important role in settling up an English colony in North America.
  3. The victory over the Spanish boosted Elizabeth’s popularity and strengthened the Protestant cause as it was a sign that God favoured Protestantism.
email us icon
Teachers and Schools Get Free Resources
That's Right! We give free access to teachers and schools for our growing library of content covering A-level and GCSE subjects! As well as access to our premium downloadable revision packs!
Get in Touch
Learndojo iconstudents revising

Welcome Back.

Don’t have an account? Create Now

Lost your password?

Create a free account.

Already have an account? Login Here

student account
Student Account Signups
Teacher Account Signups