In the year 1581...
- The Dutch Revolt really heats up. The Northern States under William the Silent make a final break with Spain and declare their independence by signing the Oath of Abjuration. An enraged Philip II declares William a traitor to the Spanish crown, sets a huge bounty on his head, and dispatches a massive army under Spanish general Alessandro Farnese to try to crush the rebellion once and for all.
- Learning of a plot by his stepbrother Mirza Muhammad Hakim, ruler of Afghanistan, to invade Punjab, Mughal emperor Akbar invades Afghanistan with a huge army of 50,000 warriors and 500 war elephants. Mirza is suitably impressed, gives up the plot, and is allowed to retain his rule over Afghanistan for now.
- The Livonian War draws to a close as the forces of the Swedish-Polish alliance, led by Polish king Stephan Báthory, overrun Livonia. Russia sues for peace the following year.
- Cossack bandit Yermak Timofeyevich and his motley band of ne'er-do-wells begin the Russian conquest of Siberia, subduing several towns and kidnapping a tax collector.
- Robert Browne and his "Brownist" followers are compelled to flee England, taking refuge in Middelburg, in the Netherlands, where their ideas contribute to the formation of the Congregational Church.
- The first performance recognizable as a ballet, "Le Ballet Comique de la Reyne," is put on by violinist Balthasar de Beaujoyeux for the entertainment of Catherine de Medici.
- Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible lives up to his name, killing his son, his son's wife, and his unborn grandson in a fit of anger at what he felt was the wife's inappropriate attire. In his free time, he creates the oppressive institution known as Russian serfdom by passing laws banning tenant farmers from moving or changing landlords.
- The English Parliament outlaws Roman Catholicism, declaring it a crime equivalent to treason.
- Sir Philip Sidney writes A Defence of Poesy.
- Spanish playwright Juan de la Cueva writes his greatest play, El infamador ("The Scoundrel").
- German astronomer Cristoph Clavius publishes his Commentary on the Sphere of Sacrobosco, which quickly becomes the standard astronomy text of the day.
- Finland gains increased autonomy from Sweden as it is raised to the status of a Grand Duchy.
- Sir Francis Drake is named mayor of Plymouth by Queen Elizabeth I.
These people were born in 1581:
These people died in 1581:
- Ram Das, fourth Guru of Sikhism, succeeded by his son Arjun.
- Burmese king Bayinnaung, survived by 97 children, and succeeded by his eldest son Nandabayin.
- Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, whose account of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, The Conquest of New Spain is the major source of historical knowledge about the conquests of Cortez.
- English Jesuit martyr Saint Edmund Campion, tortured, hanged, drawn and quartered for sedition.
- English Jesuit martyr Saint Ralph Sherwin, also tortured, hanged, drawn and quartered.
- Danish naval hero Peder Skram.
- Scottish nobleman James Douglas, 4th earl of Morton.
1580 - 1581 - 1582