Elizabeth I was a survivor. She had weathered her mother’s fall, plots, and intrigues and her near execution at the hands of her sister Mary I after her implication in the Wyatt Rebellion of 1554. When she ascended the throne in 1558, Elizabeth has determined to exercise a more moderate regime than her predecessors. Yet several times she was forced to execute individuals who threatened her throne and her life- including several people related to her.
First came Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk in 1572. Howard was Elizabeth’s second cousin on her mother’s side. Elizabeth executed him because of his support of Mary Queen of Scots in the Ridolfi plot. Then, in the last years of her reign, Elizabeth was forced to execute her former favorite and the son of her second cousin once removed Lettice Knollys, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Essex had become involved in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth’s government, and despite her affection for the young nobleman, he met the axman in 1601.
However, the most famous of these deaths was that of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary, who was Henry VIII’s great-niece through his sister Margaret had sought refuge in England in 1568, after losing her throne. Elizabeth received her cousin with caution, as she knew Mary was the perfect Catholic candidate to the throne of England. However, despite keeping her under house arrest, Elizabeth initially corresponded with Mary in a friendly manner. She claimed to have “great contentment and lyking” for a “frendshippe” of “one so neerely tyed unto us in blood and neighborhood.”
However, as the years progressed and more and more plots emerged with Mary at their center, Elizabeth’s regard began to cool to bitter disappointment. By 1584, Elizabeth had stopped writing to Mary directly, addressing correspondence instead to Mary’s jailor, Sir Ralph Sadler who was required to read them out to the imprisoned Queen. The letters “greeved” for the “altyeration and interruption” of Mary’s “friendshippe” because of Mary’s “sundry hard and daungerous coorses heald towarde” Elizabeth. The Babington Plot of 1586 was the last straw. Elizabeth’s spies intercepted a letter sent by Mary to the conspirators, endorsing their aims to remove Elizabeth from her throne. So, in 1587, with great reluctance, Elizabeth signed the order of execution, which ended her cousin’s life.
Other female rulers, disposed of close relatives with far few scruples and for ambition, not survival.