Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empireby Susan Ronald
Extravagant, whimsical, and hot-tempered, Elizabeth was the epitome of power, both feared and admired by her enemies. Dubbed the "pirate queen" by the Vatican and Spain's Philip II, she employed a network of daring merchants, brazen adventurers, astronomer philosophers, and her stalwart Privy Council to anchor her throne—and in doing so, planted the seedlings
Extravagant, whimsical, and hot-tempered, Elizabeth was the epitome of power, both feared and admired by her enemies. Dubbed the "pirate queen" by the Vatican and Spain's Philip II, she employed a network of daring merchants, brazen adventurers, astronomer philosophers, and her stalwart Privy Council to anchor her throne—and in doing so, planted the seedlings of an empire that would ultimately cover two-fifths of the world.
In The Pirate Queen, historian Susan Ronald offers a fresh look at Elizabeth I, relying on a wealth of historical sources and thousands of the queen's personal letters to tell the thrilling story of a visionary monarch and the swashbuckling mariners who terrorized the seas to amass great wealth for themselves and the Crown.
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The Pirate Queen
Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire
The Lord's Doing
November 17, 1558
The dominion of the sea, as it is the ancient and undoubted right of the crown of England, so it is the best security of the land. . . .
The wooden walls [of ships] are the best walls of the kingdom.
—Thomas Coventry, first Baron Coventry, 1635
When Elizabeth Tudor inherited the kingdom from her half sister Mary I, in November 1558, England was on the brink of ruin. The feeling of despair among the nobles can only be imagined: not only had the country been torn between the ultra-Protestant reign of Elizabeth's half brother, Edward VI, followed by the fanatically Catholic Mary, but the crown was now proffered to the daughter of the reviled Queen Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth, who had lived her life as an unwelcome reminder of the union of Henry VIII and her mother, would most assuredly have been burned at the stake by Mary without the intervention of the queen's absentee husband, Philip II of Spain. If there was one thing Elizabeth Tudor understood intuitively, it was life on the edge.
Personal security was a luxury of which she must have dreamed as a child and young woman, and barely dared to hope for when her sister was queen. Mary had kept her prisoner, removing the Lady Elizabeth from palace to palace to prevent the next heir to the throne from plotting against her. During Elizabeth's time locked away in the Tower of London, each day could have brought the royal command for her execution, yet each day, the queen hesitated. It was in the Towerthat Elizabeth's lifelong devotion to another prisoner, Robert Dudley, blossomed.
Dudley, too, knew life on the edge: his father and grandfather had been executed for high treason, and it looked highly likely that he would follow them to the scaffold for plotting to overthrow Queen Mary. Dudley's loyalty to Elizabeth had been absolute before their imprisonment, often to the detriment of his own security. After their time together in the Tower, Elizabeth could never doubt his loyalty again. It was the only sure thing in her vulnerable life.
When Mary's latest phantom pregnancy in the spring of 1558 did not produce a child, it was obvious to King Philip, the Privy Council, and the court that the swelling in Mary's abdomen was a tumor and not the heir that the king and queen had so desired. With only Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, remaining as a potential heir apparent, this left Philip in no doubt as to the course of action to be undertaken: Elizabeth must be set free and named as his wife's heir. If Mary Queen of Scots were to take the throne of England, she would have become queen of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and England. These titles and kingdoms would have been added to her title as Queen of France, since she had lived in the French court since the age of five and had married the Dauphin Francis earlier in the year. Although Catholic, Philip was not prepared to allow the teenagers Mary and Francis to become the powerful pawns to Francis's mother, Catherine de' Medici. At all cost, he must stop the French crown from trying to abscond with Elizabeth's throne.
Besides, Philip could not promote Mary Stuart's claim to the English throne above his own, since he, too, had a direct claim through his mother, Isabelle of Portugal, a descendant of John of Gaunt of Lancaster. No, Elizabeth was a far better alternative as heir presumptive for Philip despite the fact that he had long known that she practiced the Protestant rites in private. This may have been the most important act of religious tolerance and clemency in the history of his long rule.
While Philip was agonizing over his deliberations and eventually paving the road for Elizabeth to take the crown, the English nobility—Protestant and Catholic alike—had already made up their minds. A mood of desperation had crept over the country. As the autumn of 1558 turned chillier in early November, the roads to Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, Elizabeth's childhood home, were gridlocked with those who had served her half sister, as well as others who had been exiled from power. All of them were singular in their purpose: to serve the new queen and better their positions.
For the power brokers like William Cecil, who had served faithfully as secretary of state for Mary and Philip, Elizabeth not only represented the only viable successor, but also a fiercely intelligent one with whom he could do business. Others had different viewpoints. Philip's ambassador, Count Feria, who had also made his way to Hatfield, wrote to the king on November 10 that "she is a very vain and clever woman. She must have been thoroughly schooled in the manner in which her father conducted his affairs and I am very much afraid that she will not be well-disposed in matters of religion. . . .
There is not a heretic or traitor in all the kingdom who has not joyfully raised himself from the grave to come to her side. She is determined to be governed by no one."1
This was no "news" to Philip.During Elizabeth's imprisonment in the Tower, she had written to Mary that "I so well like this estate [spinsterhood] as I persuade myself there is not any kind of life comparable unto it . . . no though I were offered to the greatest prince of all Europe . . . [I would] rather proceed of a maidenly shamefastedness than upon any certain determination."2 For Elizabeth, who had undergone so many wrongs and near rape at the hands of her uncle, the hapless Thomas Seymour, the future queen had learned all the brutal lessons required of a young, handsome woman that were necessary in the art of sexual politics of the sixteenth century. No man would ever become her master and make her insecure in her position. . . .The Pirate Queen
Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire. Copyright © by Susan Ronald. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Meet the Author
Susan Ronald, author of The Sancy Blood Diamond, has consulted for five British government departments and The National Trust. Born and raised in the United States, she has lived in England for more than twenty years.
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Thoroughly enjoyed reading this book because it presents a well integrated, chronological history of the English seafarers and the circumstances under which they sailed during a pivotal period in British history. Never realized how important English piracy was to Elizabeth's foreign policy, defense, and treasury. Most importantly, it allowed England to be at war without going to war which would have risked its people and treasure. Highly recommended.
While easily read, The Pirate Queen is slightly lacking in original research. Much of the endnotes consist of secondary sources, and the book itself is greatly one-sided. However, it is a great overview of Elizabeth, her court, and how she helped England become an empire.