Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II reigned centuries apart, but the years of both on the throne witnessed transformational changes in British – and world – history. The first Elizabeth’s reign saw the first steps of Britain’s rise to global empire, while Elizabeth II’s years on the throne witnessed the decolonization and demise of the mighty British Empire. Below are thirty one fascinating but often overlooked things from the lives and reigns of the two Elizabeths.
As a Child, Queen Elizabeth II Was Evacuated to Escape German Bombs
Queen Elizabeth II was thirteen-years-old when World War II began in 1939. Like many British children, the then-princess was evacuated to the countryside to avoid the risk of German aerial attacks on British cities. To be sure, she was not just like any other child: she was evacuated to a palace – Windsor Castle, about twenty miles from London. Still, she was separated from her family and loved ones, and felt it keenly. In 1940, she spoke about that in her first public address on BBC’s Children’s Hour, as part of an effort to boost public morale.
As Princess Elizabeth told other British children: “Thousands of you in this country have had to leave your homes and be separated from your fathers and mothers. My sister Margaret Rose and I feel so much for you, as we know from experience what it means to be away from those you love most of all. To you living in new surroundings, we send a message of true sympathy and at the same time we would like to thank the kind people who have welcomed you to their homes in the country”. As seen below, she involved herself in other public service activities as the war progressed, until she eventually ended up in the military.
A Princess Determined to Do Her Bit for the War Effort
Britain was not self-sufficient in foodstuff and other raw materials, and had long relied on imports from around the world to feed her population and supply her industries. Enemy submarines and bombers crimped British supply lines in WWII, and between that and the urgent needs of the military, the country experienced many shortages. As result, many food items and other goods were rationed. To supplement rations, the authorities encouraged the populace to grow as many foodstuffs as they could in their gardens and any other small plots of land suitable for agriculture. Even the royal family was subject to rationing just like everybody else. Princess Elizabeth became an avid participant in what came to be known as the “Dig for Victory” drive. In 1943, she was photographed as she tended her allotted plot of land at Windsor Castle.
As a royal, and heiress to the British throne, the princess was designated honorary colonel of the Grenadier Guards regiment. At age sixteen, she performed her first inspection of a military unit at a Windsor Castle parade. However, she was not content to simply inspect troops. She wanted to personally serve in uniform. In WWII, Britain made extensive use of women in the war effort, and unmarried women under age thirty had to either work in the fields or factories, or serve in the military. Women made weapons and munitions in armaments factories, and served in Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), a female branch of the British Army. Princess Elizabeth did her bit.
Many dramatic narratives describe how a young Princess Elizabeth drove ambulances in the Blitz in WWII, as German bombs fell upon London. They are great stories, and it would have been awesome if they were true, but alas, they are not – although there is no doubt that the Princess would have loved to do that. The fact of the matter is that she was still a child, only fourteen-years-old during the Blitz, and thus too young to serve. What she did do when she turned eighteen in 1944 was to join the ATS, the British Army’s female auxiliary branch. Her father, King George VI, made sure she received no special rank or privileges, and she was duly commissioned as a subaltern, later promoted to junior commander – the equivalent of a captain. She began to train as a mechanic in March, 1945, just a few weeks before WWII ended in Europe.
At the Mechanical Transport Training Section in Camberley, Surrey, she learned how to drive and maintain army ambulances and other vehicles. The press dubbed her “The Princess Mechanic”. Germany surrendered on May 8th, 1945, before she got to see any action. London and the rest of the country erupted into victory celebrations, and Princess Elizabeth, dressed in her ATS uniform, slipped incognito into the crowd with her sister to enjoy the festivities. As she recalled decades later: “We asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves. I remember we were terrified of being recognised … I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief … I remember we were terrified of being recognized so I pulled my uniform cap well down over my eyes“.
Queen Elizabeth II held multiple records. Until her recent demise, she was the world’s longest reigning current monarch, and also the oldest and longest serving current head of state. Additionally, Her Majesty was the longest lived and longest serving monarch in British history. She was also the longest serving queen in history, and got close Louis XIV’s record as longest-reigning monarch of a major state – a record she would have broken had she lived until 2024. Her long reign, which began in 1952, witnessed major changes. Not least among them was the completion of the decolonization and dissolution of the British Empire, once history’s largest , and one over which the sun literally never sent.
The queen’s reign also saw major constitutional changes in the UK, such as the devolution of statutory powers from the Parliament in Westminster to Scotland, Wales, Northern Island, and London. At the time of her death, she was queen and head of state not only of the United Kingdom, but also of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, as well as eleven other countries that became independent after she was crowned: Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.
Buckingham Palace’s security has often been lax. A laxity that dated as far back – at least – to the reign of Queen Victoria, whom many a stalker got dangerously close to. The fact that they had done so, without hindrance, was a black eye for the palace’s security. A century and a half later, palace security got another – and even worse – black eye when yet another stalker got close to another queen. Early on July 9th, 1982, Queen Elizabeth II was awoken by some unusual noises in her bedroom. When she opened her eyes, there was a strange man seated at the edge of her bed. Blood seeped out of a cut in one of his hands, and he held a shard of broken glass in another.
When Her Majesty talked to him, she realized that he was a disturbed individual. So she phoned the palace switchboard and asked that police be sent over, but none arrived. She phoned again, but again, no help was sent. So Queen Elizabeth eventually left the bedroom, and personally summoned the police, who eventually came in and arrested the intruder. The man, Michael Fagan, had been able to simply walk into the queen’s bedroom. Apparently, the armed police officer responsible for guarding her door had left his post before his replacement had arrived.
A Nutcase Who Made it to the Queen’s Bedroom More Than Once
Buckingham Palace’s security got even more egg on its face when subsequent investigation revealed that it was not a one off screwup. Apparently, it was the second time that Michael Fagan had simply walked into the palace, and freely wandered all over the place. A few weeks earlier, he had shimmied up a drainpipe and startled a maid, who called security. By the time they arrived, Fagan was nowhere to be seen. The guards dismissed the maid’s report of an intruder as a figment of her imagination. In the meantime, Fagan entered the palace through an unlocked window. He then ambled about for almost three hours. Nobody stopped him, as he snacked on cheese and crackers.
The intruder checked out the royal portraits, sat on the throne for a bit, drank half a bottle of wine that he had found, then eventually got bored and left. As Fagan roamed the palace, he tripped two intruder alerts. Rather than respond, palace security turned them off because they thought it was just a faulty alarm system. At the time, Fagan’s intrusions into the palace and the queen’s bedroom were civil offenses rather than criminal ones. So he was only charged with theft of the wine that he drank on his earlier visit. That charge was eventually dismissed when he was committed for psychiatric evaluation. He was institutionalized for three months, before he was eventually released in early 1983.
When Queen Elizabeth II Met a Famous Hollywood Queen
Queen Elizabeth II demonstrated that she took her coronation oath seriously. She exhibited a strong commitment to her civic and religious duties in her decades on the throne. The royal family around her might have often been engulfed in scandals and provided the tabloids with steady fodder for decades on end. However, the queen has been not only scandal-free, but seemingly free of any hint of frivolity. While the queen was a cultural icon, she was worlds apart from another cultural icon born the same year as Her Majesty, in 1926: Marilyn Monroe.
Queen Elizabeth was born on April 21st of that year, while Marilyn was born about six weeks later, on June 1st. The two icons lived worlds apart, one in Hollywood, the other in Buckingham Palace. However, the two did meet once on common ground, when the monarch met the movie star at the London premiere of the Battle of the River Platte. Both women were thirty-years-old at the time, when Monroe waited in a line of guests to shake the queen’s hand. It was the only time those two different types of royalty – a Hollywood queen and a real life one – met.
Elizabeth II is a Descendant of the Prophet Muhammad
Burke’s Peerage, an authority on British royal pedigree, traced the ancestry of Queen Elizabeth II back 43 generations in 1986. It determined that she was descended from the founder of Islam. The research revealed that Her Majesty’s bloodline runs through a fourteenth century Earl, to medieval Spain, and eventually to Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Those findings were supported by records from medieval Spain, which in turn have been verified by a grand mufti – the highest Islamic religious scholar – of Egypt.
Burke’s noted that: “It is little known by the British people that the blood of Mohammed flows in the veins of the queen. However, all Moslem religious leaders are proud of this fact“. In a letter to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Burke’s cautioned that the queen’s bloodline would not protect her from Islamic radicals. As they put it in a letter to the Prime Minister: “The royal family’s direct descent from the prophet Mohammed cannot be relied upon to protect the royal family forever from Moslem terrorists“. As seen below, Islam’s founder and the British royal family are linked through a medieval Muslim princess who fled to the Christian kingdom of Castile.
Britain’s Royal Family is Connected to the Founder of Islam
Abu al Qasim Muhammad ibn Abbad, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima, became ruler of Seville in 1023. In 1091 the Almoravids, a Berber Muslim dynasty from Morocco invaded Muslim Spain, and Abu al Qasim’s grandson, al Mu’tamid ibn Abbas, lost his throne. His daughter Zaida fled Seville, and took refuge in the Christian kingdom of Castile. There, she became a mistress of its ruler, King Alfonoso VI. She eventually converted to Christianity, and took the name Isabella. When Alfonso’s sickly wife died, he married Zaida, and she bore him three children. Two centuries later, Maria de Padilla, a descendant of Zaida and Alfonso became the mistress of King Pedro “The Cruel” of Castile. She bore him four children. Of those, two daughters, Constance and Isabella, married sons of King Edward III of England.
Constance married Prince John of Gaunt, and became Duchess of Lancaster. Isabella married John of Gaunt’s younger brother Edmund of Langley, and became Duchess of York. Isabella bore Edmund Richard of Conisburgh, 3rd Earl of Cambridge. He in turn became the grandfather of kings Edward IV and Richard III, and an ancestor of the Hanoverian line from which Queen Elizabeth II is descended. As it stands at present, the queen’s official title is Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her Other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. It seems that if she had so wished, Queen Elizabeth II could have to her titles something along the lines of “and Direct Descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Founder of Islam“.
The Creepy Courtier Who Took Advantage of Elizabeth I When She Was a Child
Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley (1508 – 1549), was one of the Tudor era’s slimiest figures. He and his older brother Edward pimped out their sister Jane Seymour to King Henry VIII, then married to but soured on Anne Boleyn. After the king had Boleyn’s head chopped off, he married Jane in 1536, and she gave him a son, the future King Edward VI. Overnight, the Seymour family was catapulted from minor country gentry into the upper reaches of the aristocracy. Thomas Seymour’s older brother Edward gained more power, however, and Thomas resented that. Soon, the siblings had morphed into mortal enemies. Thomas adopted a two track strategy to increase his power. He would either gain personal influence over his nephew, the child King Edward who ascended the throne in 1547, or wed one of the king’s sisters, Mary or Elizabeth.
Within a month of the death of her father, King Henry VIII, Thomas Seymour wrote a letter to thirteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth, and asked her to marry him. An alarmed Elizabeth wrote back that she was too young – Seymour was 25 years older – and that she planned to mourn her father for the next two years. Thomas was not interested in Elizabeth because of who she was as a person, but because of what she was. She was the king’s sister, and a potential heir to the throne if the sickly Edward VI died. Seymour wanted to marry a princess – any princess. To hedge his bets, even as he tried to get Elizabeth to marry him, he also proposed to her older sister, Princess Mary. She also turned him down.
When princesses Elizabeth and Mary rejected Thomas Seymour’s marriage proposals, he simply moved down the ladder to the next closest royal marital link. He made his moves on their stepmother and the late king’s widow, Katherine Parr, who had been his lover before he ceded her to Henry VIII. They wed within six months of the king’s death – a scandalously brief period of mourning for Parr. Thirteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth, who had rejected Seymour’s marriage proposal, was faced with a serious problem when he married her stepmother. Elizabeth’s father had chopped off the head of her mother, Anne Boleyn, and now that he too was dead, the princess was a double orphan. Katherine Parr had filled the role of mother when she married Henry VIII, and Elizabeth was raised in her stepmother’s house, Chelsea Manor.
Parr’s marriage to Thomas Seymour brought into that house as a stepfather the man who had sought to marry Elizabeth just a few months earlier. He turned out to be an exceptionally creepy stepfather. Katherine Parr had been in love with Seymour since before her marriage to Henry VIII. However, whatever affections he might have felt for her years earlier, he probably married Parr only to get closer to her stepdaughter, Princess Elizabeth, who lived in the dowager queen’s house. Elizabeth was a potential route to power, and perhaps to the crown itself, so Thomas was determined to secure her. He decided that the best way to do that was to seduce the thirteen-year-old old. He got started on that before he finished unpacking.
Thomas Seymour’s Behavior With Princess Elizabeth I Scandalized Her Governess
Soon as he moved into Katherine Parr’s house, Thomas Seymour moved on Princess Elizabeth, and began to flirt with her nonstop. Under the guise of fun and games, he burst into the thirteen-year-old old girl’s room at all hours of the day and night, sometimes dressed just in his nightgown. He would tickle, pinch, wrestle, “romp with”, and smack her butt as she lay in bed. Eyebrows were raised in the household. Elizabeth’s governess, Kat Ashley, was so scandalized by the creepy behavior that she complained to Parr. As Elizabeth’s household staff later testified, Seymour subjected the young girl to early morning visits in her bedroom as soon as he moved in. As the governess put it, he would: “make as though to come at her“, and she would shrink back from him.
Elizabeth tried to thwart him, and began to wake up earlier so he wouldn’t catch her in bed when he stopped by. In response, he began to visit her earlier still, to ensure that she was still in bed when he dropped by. It became clear that Seymour wanted to catch the young Elizabeth when she was barely dressed. As her governess testified in a later deposition, if Elizabeth was in her nightgown when Seymour burst into her bedroom, he would proceed with an icky routine. He would tickle, “romp”, slap her behind, “strike her in the back or the buttocks familiarly“, and otherwise endeavor to cop a feel. However, if the princess was fully dressed when Seymour arrived, he would promptly turn around and leave her bedroom.
The Creep Who Constantly Tried to Cop a Feel with a Young Princess
People complained about Thomas Seymour’s behavior around Princess Elizabeth to Katherine Parr, but she accepted her husband’s protestations that it was just innocent fun. In a bid to demonstrate just how little credence she gave to the gossip, Parr joined in the “romps” between her husband and stepdaughter. She even reportedly held the princess down at times, while Seymour tickled the girl and slapped her butt. On one occasion, Seymour wrestled with Elizabeth in a garden, and Parr stepped in to hold the girl down while he cut the princess’ gown “into a hundred pieces“. Understandably, it got confusing and uncomfortable for the teenage Elizabeth. She lived with a stepfather who had wanted to marry her not that long ago, and who frequently felt her up under the guise of play whenever he could.
On the one hand, Elizabeth reportedly bore Seymour a certain degree of affection. On the other hand, the girl exhibited signs of discomfiture around her stepfather that modern child sex abuse investigators could readily identify. In the winter of 1547 – 1548, Seymour and Parr moved to London. At her stepmother’s suggestion, Elizabeth was left behind with the household staff. It was a welcome break from Seymour’s advances, but it only lasted for a few months. When Elizabeth joined her stepmother and her husband in the spring of 1548, Seymour promptly resumed his routine of early morning visits and creepy conduct. The princess’ governess once again complained of the unseemliness of his dropping into “a maiden’s chamber” in his nightgown, but to no avail.
Eventually, Seymour’s Scandalous Behavior Forced His Hitherto Complicit Wife to Put Her Foot Down
In the summer of 1548, when Thomas Seymour was away, Katherine Parr asked Elizabeth to arrange the delivery of a letter to him. Before she handed the letter to a messenger, Elizabeth took the opportunity to write on the outside, in Latin, “thou, touch me not“. She then scratched it out, and replaced it with “Let him not touch me“. It spoke volumes of her desperation. She was in a helpless situation, in the clutches of a predator whom she wanted to warn off, yet was too frightened to challenge or confront directly. Things came to a head on June 11th, 1548, when Parr found her husband and stepdaughter alone in a room, in a tight embrace. She hit the roof. As a household servant put it: “they were all alone, he having her in his arms, wherefore the queen fell out” with Thomas Seymour and her stepdaughter.
Parr finally decided to act. She packed off the by-then fourteen-year-old Elizabeth, and sent her away to go and live with the family of Kat Ashley, the princess’ governess. Parr died soon thereafter, and shortly after his wife was buried, Seymour went back to creeping on Elizabeth. When she moved into and set up her own household at Hatfield House, Seymour sent his nephew, John, to help her move and settle into the new place. However, Seymour being Seymour, there had to be a creepy angle. Sure enough, Seymour wanted his nephew to find out whether Elizabeth’s butt had filled out, and instructed him to ask: “whether her great buttocks were grown any less or no“.
Thomas Seymour Eventually Shifted His Pursuit from Elizabeth I to Her Sister
In addition to his attempts to seduce Princess Elizabeth, Thomas Seymour also tried to marry her older sister, Princess Mary. Luckily for Mary, she never had the misfortune of living under the same roof as Thomas. Thus, she did not have to endure what her younger sister had. Thomas asked the Privy Council for permission to marry Mary Tudor, but his older brother, Edward Seymour, shot that idea down. He explained that neither of the Seymour siblings should be king or marry a king’s daughter. As to Mary, when she was informed of the proposed match, she laughed.
By early 1549, Thomas Seymour had become increasingly frustrated by the failure of his plans to increase his power and supplant his older brother. His efforts to manipulate and control his nephew, the child king, had borne no fruit. Similarly, his attempts to marry either princess Mary or princess Elizabeth had gone nowhere: Mary loathed him on general principal, while Elizabeth was shook by her experiences living with him. So Thomas began to contemplate a more direct path to power: open rebellion.
Queen Elizabeth I Bore the Scars of Her Slimy Stepdad for the Rest of Her Life
Princess Elizabeth had been constrained in her ability to openly defy Thomas Seymour when she lived under the same roof as Katherine Parr and her creepy husband. When she moved into and set up her own household, she became more independent. When rumors circulated that she was to marry Seymour, and she was asked whether she would accept his proposal if he asked, she replied: “when that comes to pass, I will do as God shall put in my mind“. It was an ambiguous response that contemporaries interpreted as a rejection. Elizabeth was finally delivered from Seymour’s creepiness when, driven to distraction by jealousy over his older brother’s power at court, he tried to kidnap the child King Edward VI. As seen below, it was a farce. He was arrested and locked up in the Tower of London.
It ended with the execution of Thomas Seymour. Before that, it is unclear if he had ever known Princess Elizabeth in the biblical sense, but he had clearly wanted to. Like any child victimized by a predator, Elizabeth’s experience at a tender age was bound to leave some scars. When she wrote about Seymour “Let him not touch me“, it seems to have applied not just to him, but to all men. Whether or not the “Virgin Queen” ever had any lovers or was literally a virgin, she certainly never married. Her decision to stay single was probably associated, at least in part, with the harassment she had been subjected to by Seymour in her formative years.
Thomas Seymour hated his older brother Edward, Lord Protector of England in the reign of the siblings’ underage nephew, King Edward VI, and sought his ruin. Despite that, Edward Seymour went out of his way to try and save his kid brother from himself. When the Privy Council grew alarmed at Thomas’ brazenness, such as efforts to stir up rebellion, and alliances with pirates in a bid to secure their support, the Protector invited his younger brother to come and explain himself. Thomas failed to do so, and instead, tried to kidnap the king. On the night of January 16th, 1549, Thomas Seymour tried to break into the child monarch’s apartments.
His attempt was foiled when one of the king’s spaniels woke the place up with its barking. So Thomas shot it dead. The next day, Thomas Seymour was locked up in the Tower of London. In light of the fact that he had been caught outside the king’s bedroom at night, with a loaded pistol, there was little that his older brother – or anybody else for that matter – could do to help. Thomas was charged with thirty three counts of treason, convicted, and sentenced to death. Parliament passed a Bill of Attainder against him on March 5th, 1549, and he was beheaded fifteen days later.
The Pirate Who Became a Favorite of Queen Elizabeth I
Sir Francis Drake (circa 1540 – 1596) was many things: a sea captain, naval officer, explorer, politician, slave trader, and privateer. At times, he was also an outright pirate. And not just any pirate, but Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite pirate. He gained her favor for good reason. The Virgin Queen invested in English pirates like modern venture capitalists invest in Silicon Valley startups, and she made out like a bandit from the returns on Drake’s high seas hijinks and predations.
Drake was the most celebrated seaman of the Elizabethan Era, and led one of history’s more adventurous careers. He first went to sea at an early age. As a teenager, he joined his relatives, the Hawkinses, a clan of privateers who preyed upon French coastal ships. By the 1560s, Drake had risen to command his own ship, entered the slave trade, and smuggled shackled captives illegally into Spain’s New World possession. By the time his storied career and life came to an end, Drake had become the greatest pirate of his day.
The fame – or infamy – of Francis Drake as a pirate is based on his track record of predation upon Spanish sea trade and coastal settlements. Much of it was driven by a desire for payback worthy of a Hollywood action adventure flick. In one of his early voyages, Drake was cornered by Spanish authorities, and escaped only with heavy loss of life among his crew. The experience left him with a lifelong hatred of Spain. In 1572, he received a Letter of Marque from Elizabeth I, that authorized him to plunder Spanish property.
Letters of marque were basically piracy licenses issued by governments. They allowed the bearers to prey upon and seize enemy ships. They could keep most of the proceeds, with a proviso that part of the profits from each seized ship belonged to the government that had issued the letter of marque. Armed with that authorization, Drake raided Panama, but was wounded and forced to retreat. After he recovered, he raided Spanish settlements around the Caribbean, and returned to England in 1573 with a rich haul of gold and silver.
The Virgin Queen Was Into Slavery as Well as Piracy
Piracy wasn’t the only dubious activity that Elizabeth I was into. She was also into slavery, indeed, she was one of the key early players who helped jump start the trans-Atlantic slave trade that saw tens of millions of shackled Africans shipped over to the New World. British involvement in the slave trade began in the sixteenth century. John Hawkins, a pioneering English naval commander, administrator, and privateer, became an early promoter of the slave trade. Indeed, he is the first known Englishman to have included African slaves in his cargo. Queen Elizabeth approved of the trade venture, and invested in it. Hawkins became the first Englishman to profit from the Triangle Trade. English goods were traded for slaves in Africa; slaves were shipped across the Atlantic and traded for New World goods; New World goods were shipped to England, and traded for English goods.
In 1562, Hawkins transported 300 slaves to the New World. He exchanged them for sugar, ginger, and hides, with which he returned to England. Elizabeth I got a cut of the profits, and for Hawkins’ next slave trade voyage, she contributed a ship by way of investment. She continued to profit from slave trade ventures for the rest of her reign. In the meantime, more and more Africans arrived in England, and became a noticeable presence. The queen did not mind the profit from Africans, and even employed some African entertainers in her court. However, the noticeable presence of Africans in England bothered her, and in 1596 she issued a decree to expel Africans from her realm.
Sir Francis Drake was more than just a highly successful pirate. Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite sailor also became the second man to circumnavigate the globe after Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition. However, scratch the surface of any of Drake’s occupations, and piracy lurked beneath. True to character, he combined his voyage of exploration with opportunistic plunder of the Spanish. In 1577, he led an expedition of five ships to raid the Pacific coast of Spanish South America, which was wholly undefended in those days.
Drake braved massive storms, and passed through the Straits of Magellan in his flagship, the Golden Hind. He then sailed up the coasts of Chile and Peru, and near Lima, captured a Spanish ship that yielded 25,000 gold coins. Soon thereafter, he seized a fabulously rich prize, the Cacafuego, a Manila galleon that yielded a treasure of eighty pounds of gold, thirteen chests of coins, and twenty six tons of silver. Queen Elizabeth made out quite well from that prize. Both as an investor in Drake’s voyage, and as the sovereign who had issued him a permit to privateer, and to which a portion of the loot was owed.
Drake’s Exploits Cemented His Place as a Favorite of the Queen
His holds full of loot, Francis Drake crossed the Pacific, sailed the Indian Ocean, rounded the tip of Africa, and returned to England on September 26th, 1580. He had circumnavigated the globe. It was a first for a pirate, and the first time that anybody had accomplished that feat after Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition, over half a century earlier. Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite pirate was personally knighted by her aboard his ship, the Golden Hind, in 1581. He was also appointed mayor of Plymouth, England’s most important naval base.
In 1585, he was put in charge of a fleet that harried Spanish trade, captured Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands, and plundered Spanish settlements in Florida and Hispaniola. In 1587, as Spain’s King Philip II threatened war, Drake led preemptive raids against Spanish fleets that had begun to assemble in Cadiz and Coruna for an invasion of England. He inflicted significant damage, which prevented the Spaniards from sailing that year. As contemporaries described it, Drake had “Singed the King of Spain’s Beard“. He further cemented his place in history – and in the esteem of the queen -when he played a prominent role in the defeat of the 1588 Spanish Armada.
Sir Francis Drake’s preemptive raids in 1587 delayed King Philip II’s plans to invade England, but did not scotch them for good. A year later, the combined Spanish fleet, the famous Armada, set sail. Drake played a key role in its dispersal and eventual destruction. Particularly on the night of July 29th, 1588, when he organized fire ships against the Armada assembled in Calais. In a panic, the Spanish ships sailed out of that port and into the open sea. There, they were scattered by a combination of English warships and bad weather. It was the peak of Drake’s success, as well as his popularity both with the public and in the royal court. From then on, things were mostly anticlimactic, until his eventful life eventually came to an anticlimactic end in 1596.
After a series of failed raids and attacks against Spanish America, Drake caught dysentery while anchored off Portobelo in Panama, and died. His career, with its turns from soldier and sailor to pirate, illustrates the era’s murky lines between outright piracy and legalized piracy, also known as privateering. In the years to come, the difference between a pirate liable for the hangman’s noose, and a privateer likely to receive official acclaim and adulation, was no more than a piece of paper. Those who plundered the seas with a letter of marque in their pocket were lionized. Those who did the same without such a fig of legality were condemned as pirates.
As seen above, the fondness of Queen Elizabeth I for Francis Drake was indicative of a soft spot for pirates and piracy – at least of the legalized kind. Another example of her softness on pirates – of the outright illegal kind – can be seen in how the Virgin Queen dealt with female pirate Lady Killigrew. A strong, fearless, and independent woman, Mary (sometimes Elizabeth) Wolverston, better known to history as Lady Killigrew (circa 1525 – circa 1587), was an English gentlewoman from Suffolk who led a double life as a pirate. She was accused and convicted of organizing a piracy ring that preyed on English ships that passed through the coastal waters of Cornwall.
The rocky coast of Cornwall, where Killigrew carried out her piratical activities, had long been a home to smugglers, wreckers, and pirates. Piracy was in Mary’s blood, as her father, Phillip Wolverton, Lord of Wolverton Hall, had been a gentleman pirate for years. It was an era when piracy was almost an English pastime, often abetted or outright encouraged by the authorities. Particularly in the wars against Catholic Spain, when the line between English pirates and the English navy was often indistinguishable.
Mary Wolverston was married and widowed at a young age. She then remarried, this time to Sir John IV Killigrew, and became Lady Killigrew. Her second husband, like her father, had also been a pirate. However, unlike her father, who had retired from piracy, Mary’s second husband was still an active pirate. In of itself, that was not too problematic. Elizabeth I and her officials encouraged piracy on the high seas, as a form of economic warfare against the country’s enemies. So long as it was conducted far away and in a manner that allowed the English government some measure of plausible deniability, it was not much of a problem.
Unfortunately, Lady Killigrew and her husband did not prey solely upon enemy ships in the high seas, but also engaged in piracy in English waters, against foreign and English ships. Lady Killigrew’s downfall came in early 1583, when a Spanish ship, Marie of San Sebastian, docked at Arwenack near her castle. When she learned that the ship carried treasure, Lady Killigrew entertained the captain and crew at her castle, and had them visit her estates inland. While her guests were absent from their ship, Lady Killigrew led a raid that seized the Spanish ship, killed all who resisted, and absconded with the cargo.
Elizabeth I Accepted Bribes to Let This Pirate Off the Hook
When the captain and crew of the Marie of San Sebastian returned to Arwenack and discovered what had happened, they complained to the local authorities. The local judge, however, was Lady Killigrew’s son, so their complaint went nowhere. Enraged, the Spaniards journeyed on to London, where they enlisted the Spanish ambassador’s help. Lady Killigrew’s latest piratical foray was not the kind of discrete piracy carried out far away, but a brazen act of piracy carried out in English waters. It threatened to cause a diplomatic crisis.
The authorities in London were forced to act, and they sent officials to take a look. When it was discovered that Lady Killigrew’s son, the judge, had tampered with the local investigation, she and her chief accomplices were arrested. Some of the stolen goods from the Marie of San Sebastian were discovered in her house, so receiving and fencing stolen goods was added to her charges. She was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Two of her accomplices were executed, but she received a commutation from Queen Elizabeth, and was later released from prison after her son doled out lavish bribes.
The Most Famous Female Pirate of the Elizabethan Age
Grace O’Malley (circa 1530 – circa 1603) was a sixteenth century Irish heroine. She fought the English in the reign of Elizabeth I on land, and preyed upon their ships at sea. Her English foes vilified her as “a woman who hath imprudently passed the part of womanhood“, and she was mostly ignored by contemporary chroniclers. Yet, her memory lived on in native folklore, and nationalists later lionized her as an icon of the Irish fight for freedom and struggle against foreign domination.
There were two Irelands back in those days, with two distinct cultures. On the one hand, there was Dublin and its surrounding counties, an English enclave ever fearful of the hinterland that comprised the rest of Ireland. That rest of Ireland was the land of the native Irish and the Gaelicized Old English. The English viewed them as uncivilized and wild, given to raid and strife and interminable violence. Grace O’Malley was born and raised in Connaught, in western Ireland, and belonged to that “wild Irish” hinterland, which consisted of numerous autonomous territories.
The rulers and inhabitants of Connaught frequently feuded, raided each other, rustled cattle, captured and lost castles and strongholds, and otherwise vied for advantage and dominance. All were part of a clientele system, in which the weak aligned with the strong, and offered tribute in exchange for protection. The O’Malleys were Irish nobility with clients of their own, who looked to them for protection. They were, in turn, clients of another, even more powerful family. They traded produce and raw materials for luxury good, fished, ferried passengers, levied tolls on ships that passed through their waters, and engaged in opportunistic piracy.
For protection, the O’Malleys built a row of castles along the coast. Grace was born in that environment, married in 1546, and bore three children before her husband was killed in an ambush in 1565. Because of the era’s misogynistic laws, she was unable to inherit her husband’s property. So she settled on Clare Island, and made it her stronghold and base of operations. O’Malley started off with three galleys and a number of smaller boats. She commenced her career in piracy with attacks on ships that plied the region’s waters, and raids against coastal targets.
Grace O’Malley seethed over the laws that deprived her of her husband’s property, as she built up her pirate fleet. In the meantime, she consoled herself with a shipwrecked sailor, who became her lover. When he was killed by a rival family, the MacMahons, history got its first glimpse of O’Malley’s ferocity. To avenge her beau, she attacked Doona castle, where her lover’s murderers were holed up, and killed them. That earned her the nickname: “Dark Lady of Doona“. She remarried in 1566, but still mad at her sailor lover’s murder, she had another go at the MacMahons in Doona Castle. She seized it in a surprise attack, while the garrison was busy with prayers.
Around that time, O’Malley also went after a thief who stole from her, then fled to a church for sanctuary. She surrounded the church and decided to wait him out, as she taunted him that his only choices were starvation of surrender. He chose a third option, dug a tunnel, and escaped. O’Malley became Ireland’s sea mistress, and a pirate queen who controlled the waters around Connaught with an iron fist. She preyed on sea traffic and coastal communities along Ireland’s western coast, as well as on eastern settlements on the Irish Sea.
While she expanded her control and power, Grace O’Malley personally led a raid on a seaside stronghold known as Cocks Castle. She captured it, and to commemorate her courage, it became known thereafter as Hens Castle. Unfortunately for O’Malley, things soon took a turn for the worse. After they defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, the English were able to focus on the consolidation of their grip on Ireland, and the fight against Irish piracy and pirates such as O’Malley. To resist that English expansion, O’Malley allied with Irish lords who had risen in revolt against the English. However, in 1593, the English captured her sons and brother.
So O’Malley sailed to England, to personally petition Queen Elizabeth I for their release. She met the English queen at Greenwich Castle. There, O’Malley reportedly refused to bow, on the grounds that she did not recognize Elizabeth as Queen of Ireland. Elizabeth extracted O’Malley a promise to cease her assistance to Irish rebels. Elizabeth did not live up to her part of the bargain, however, so Grace O’Malley went back to helping the rebels, and reportedly died in one of her castles in 1603.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading