The Rising of the Northern Earls

The rebellion of 1569 was the most serious crisis faced by the new Queen and the largest rebellion in England since Henry VIII defeated the Pilgrimage of Grace. Ostensibly it was caused by the Elizabeth's inability to decide on the succession. She created an atmosphere in which England was unsure of its future, and this tempted some to try and decide it themselves. The Queen's smallpox infection in 1562 showed just how important this issue was: if she were to die whom would replace her? Henry VIII had made provisions for this eventuality in his will. If Elizabeth were to die childless Henry wanted the crown to pass to a smaller offshoot of the Tudor family line: the Suffolks. At this time, however, the Suffolks had no realistic candidates for the throne. The greatest claimant to the throne was from a yet more distant family line. Mary Stuart, a Catholic with French relatives seemed, unfortunately, to be the best person to take the throne in the event of Elizabeth's untimely demise.

Elizabeth's seeming inability to find a husband exacerbated the situation; it appeared that not even the most basic step towards securing the succession was being taken. One problem was that there were no obvious candidates. Elizabeth could not be seen to marry beneath her rank, yet there were no foreign princes who could fit easily into the patriotic England she herself was creating. It was similarly difficult for her to marry within the English court. English politics worked by faction, she could not marry into one without running the risk of alienating another. This would have created a possibility for civil war. This is why most historians have never taken seriously the possibility that Elizabeth was thinking of marrying Robert Dudley: her heart may have told her to, but her head would never have allowed it. Besides, Dudley was the political enemy of her much valued and indispensable Lord Chancellor, William Cecil. This inability to find a match with whom all would be satisfied can be seen again in Lord Burghley's (Cecil) attempts to match the Queen with the Duke of Alencon. The poet Edmund Spenser aired his complaints in his Mother Hubberd's Tale (c.1580, published 1591). Here Alencon was represented as a frog and Burghley as a fox - this from Elizabeth's tendency to give her courtiers animal nicknames. Spenser clearly showed he thought the efforts of Burghley and the French would undermine Elizabeth's regime. Spenser also commented on the succession question in The Shepheardes Calendar (1579). Here again he used allegory, but this was not just literary convention; to do otherwise would be to risk imprisonment (an irate Elizabeth had banned all talk on the subject). Literature was considered the only safe way to conduct a discourse on political matters.

The stakes were raised in 1562 when Mary Queen of Scots took as her husband Lord Darnley, a cousin of Elizabeth. She thus furthered her claim to the throne of England. Over the following six years Mary's position in Scotland was eroded. In 1568 she was forced into flight and arrived in the north of England as a fugitive. The conservative Catholics (see Religion section) rallied around Mary and plots were launched to marry her to the Earl of Norfolk to further her English credentials (Norfolk was a Catholic but was willing to conform to Elizabeth's religion). Elizabeth, meanwhile, had no desire to be press- ganged into deciding on the succession. Norfolk began to worry about his position fearing the Queen's anger. He fled the court and seems to have made some sort of half-hearted attempt to stir up rebellion. He had made no solid plans, however, so thought it best to give himself up to his Queen and await her decision. The effect of the whole episode was to crystallise the feeling of discontent in the north. A few of the most discontented - namely Christopher Neville and Richard Norton - decided to try and overthrown Elizabeth's regime and replace her with Mary. It was people such as these who stirred up the Earls of Westmorland and Northumberland to attempt open rebellion. Westmoreland, incidentally, was exceptional in his Catholicism for having reconverted to Rome in 1567. The Queen immediately tried to nip the problem in the bud by calling the Earls to London to explain their behaviour. This forced their hand and during the final months of 1668 they began to gather their followers and supporters around them in their country estates. They justified their rebellion against an anointed monarch through the old argument that the Queen needed to be freed from the influences of evil councillors.

The rising was fundamentally a local affair, other Earls and Barons refusing to join the rebels, however it was initially quite successful. Indeed, it reached Durham, where Catholic Church services were imposed. The rebellion marched southward towards Tadcaster but then suddenly ran out of steam. By this time, the Queen had rallied strong forces in the south. This was coupled with the not insignificant fact that Mary herself had condemned the uprising. It became obvious that the attempt had failed. The rebels

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