The fragile succession heralds dangerous times for the young Princess Elizabeth. Having narrowly avoided implication in Sir Thomas Seymour's attempted abduction of her sickly half-brother, the boy King Edward VI; she becomes an unintentional figurehead for a Protestant rebellion led by Thomas Wyatt the Younger when her half-sister Mary I of England, a devout Catholic, succeeds to the throne. Will Elizabeth survive her emotionally unstable half-sister's reign?
The new Queen Elizabeth I is 25 years old - and unmarried. Her council, particularly the man she trusts most Sir William Cecil, urges her to marry quickly, (to insure the succession, among other valid reasons). Only Lord Robert Dudley, at first her Master of the Horse, and eventually the Earl of Leicester, seems to interest the Queen. When Dudley's wife dies under mysterious circumstances, Elizabeth must decide if she really wants to marry; and if so, is Dudley the right choice?
Elizabeth meets her most eligible suitor yet: Francois, Duke of Anjou. A marriage will cement France's sought for alliance with England. Both Sir William Cecil and Thomas Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex (especially the latter), eagerly support this marriage offer. Despite the Puritans' rousing opposition in the country (which her zealously anti-catholic councillor Sir Francis Walsingham secretly approves of), Elizabeth seems taken with the witty and flower-tongued Francois. As her duties as Queen clash with her feelings as a woman (and she discovers to her fury that Dudley has secretly married her cousin Lettice Knollys), Elizabeth faces her toughest decision. In the end, her good friend and councillor Sussex helps Elizabeth make her painfully honest, final decision.
As long as Mary, Queen of Scots lives, she is the focus of plotters and revolutionaries. Despite a harsh clampdown against conspiring Catholics, Mary, in domestic exile, inspires an earnest attempt to overthrow Elizabeth. Is the execution of Mary the only way Elizabeth will remain on the throne? Sir Francis Walsingham definitely thinks so, and will use any means to convince Elizabeth to eliminate Mary. But Elizabeth fears Mary's death will condemn her in the eyes of God. In the end, Elizabeth makes the final tragic choice.
Whispers of war fill the air in Elizabeth's court and in Spain. The infirm King Philip II of Spain is eager to avenge the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, (and incidentally , make good on his inheritance from Mary as the Catholic claimant to the English throne - which Mary bequeathed to him). Philip urges an unprepared fleet, commanded by the incompetent Duke of Medina Sidonia, to sail on England. Even as Elizabeth rebukes the hawks (privateers) in her council (both Walsingham and Sir Francis Drake), with hopes of peace (encouraged by Cecil, who is now Lord Burghley), the Spanish Armada appears on the horizons of England. Her fate and the future of the country now lie in the hands of Drake, and the Navy. England triumphs, but Elizabeth pays a heavy emotional price.
"He is the sun in splendor, he is all our pride." Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex ( the stepson of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and the son-in-law of Francis Walsingham), is the people's champion, but he openly disputes the Queen's opinions. Elizabeth 'rewards' his daring feats in Spain with a tougher challenge: to quell the Irish uprising led by O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone. But Essex has a rebellion of his own in mind. Can an old and dying Queen face a final