Entering her final years, Elizabeth remained as popular as ever. Indeed, after 1588, most of Europe regarded the once-mocked queen with profound awe. She became associated with supernatural imagery, especially that of Diana, the Virgin Huntress. However, while old age brought her reverence, it also brought loneliness: Elizabeth outlived all of her advisors and friends. Robert Devereaux (Earl of Essex) and the stepson of the late Leicester attempted to win the favor once bestowed on deceased ministers. Essex was clearly one of the Queen's favorites; he was related to Leicester and a minor war hero as well, having led battles against the Spanish at Cadiz. His enemies included Burleigh's son Robert Cecil, as well as Walter Raleigh.
In 1598, when an Irish earl rose up against an English deputy, Elizabeth selected Essex to command the force that would go to Ireland and discipline the rebellious earl. In Ireland, Essex refused to follow the orders to attack immediately, instead choosing to wait. Ultimately, his mission failed. On his return, the disgraced Essex was not even allowed into the Queen's presence. Yet the fall from favorite to outcast was too much to bear, and he attempted to raise a rebellion. Quickly thwarted in his effort, Essex was captured and then executed on February 25, 1601.
Although Elizabeth had always tolerated religious difference under her reign, in her late years she became very fearful of a conspiracy against her led by Jesuits (an order of Catholic priests). Thus, outside of the law courts, Elizabeth initiated a private hunt for Catholic conspirators, naming Richard Topcliffe as chief of the operation. Topcliffe proved particularly cruel, and this period marked the one period of Catholic persecution under Elizabeth. Eventually, however, she decided this measure had been a mistake, and became angry at the Privy Council, which, she became convinced, had tricked her into initiating the Jesuit hunt.
Near the end of Elizabeth's life, England's economy started to go downhill. The many years of prosperity had led to rapid inflation, and Elizabeth, though always stingy and thrifty, nonetheless started losing money as her royal funds ran low. She was forced to sell some property, and Parliament had to appropriate new funds in 1601. Yet through it all, Elizabeth continued to worry about the welfare of her people, maintaining a profound sense of duty. When several of the monopolies she had earlier granted began to be abused, she responded by revoking them in the interest of the people. Elizabeth continued to reign with the people of England as her first consideration. Addressing her people, the elderly Queen said that "Though God hath raised me high" she considered it her greatest happiness and glory to have "reigned with your loves."
The crucial question persisted, however, of who would succeed Elizabeth. In March of 1603, Elizabeth contracted a bad cold. Knowing she would not live long, the Queen signed a document the day before she died making King James I of Scotland the rightful heir, even though he was the son of her nemesis, Mary Queen of Scots: Elizabeth would not sacrifice the well-being of the country for the sake of her personal grudges. Although the Stuarts would rule in such a way as to create instability for England, Elizabeth's action ensured a peaceful succession process. Her duty completed, Elizabeth died at Richmond Palace in London on March 24, 1603.
After facing the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth's main advisors passed away. In the 1890s, she was in her sixties. The result was a changing of the guard: Elizabeth now had much younger and less experienced advisors serving her. As she was old, some people in he court thought she was becoming frail and senile, and tried to take advantage of her. The best example of this was Essex, who thought he could get away with anything around the Queen, such as disobeying her orders and once even turning his back on her in court (she promptly smacked him hard in the back of the head). However, her actions proved that, although old, she had not lost her wits. Essex, in fact, despite being a somewhat talented military leader, ignored prudent warnings from Francis Bacon and completely miscalculated just how shrewd the elderly Elizabeth still was.
When he rose to power, Essex was only 21, while Elizabeth was 54. Despite the age gap, however, their relationship was a romantic one. Over the years, the story of Elizabeth and Essex has been repeated as a tumultuous romance second only to that between Elizabeth and Leicester. When Essex disobeyed her in Ireland, Elizabeth was characteristically upset about the money his delay had wasted: especially with her reserves now dwindling, Elizabeth, always thrifty, wanted Essex to attack immediately, get the invasion over with, and come home, incurring as little cost as possible. Essex, distantly related to the Plantagenet line, the Tudors' traditional opposition-family, hoped to cash in on his obscure claim to royalty with his poorly thought-out rebellion.
An old story states that Elizabeth once gave Essex a ring, saying that if he ever fell into her disfavor, he could send her the ring and receive a pardon. The story claims that he tried to send the ring in his last days, but that his enemies intercepted it, tragically preventing Elizabeth and Essex from reconciliation. Although the story has romantic appeal, there is probably little truth to it: after all, to give Essex the liberty to do whatever he wanted free of consequences was not in keeping with Elizabeth's lifelong caution and paranoia.
At the very end of her life (after 1601) Elizabeth did start to show signs of senility, though of course no one was willing to correct the Queen's mistakes. Some people suggest that her rapid decline before her death was the product of her own will--that she knew she was getting too old to rule effectively any more and thus allowed herself to die. Thus although her old age and declining health had allowed the English people to foresee her death for many months, Elizabeth's passing was nonetheless greeted with a period of great national mourning: the great Queen had ruled England with wisdom and skill for nearly half a century.