Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 10 : European Tensions

Anglo-French relations in the first ten years of Elizabeth’s reign had been poor. Whilst the powerful queen-mother, Catherine de’ Medici, had little liking for her former daughter-in-law, the Queen of Scots, the treatment of their dowager-queen by Elizabeth had not endeared the latter to the French – nor had the suspicion that Elizabeth was secretly supporting French Huguenots. Nevertheless, whilst Anglo-Spanish relations remained cordial, which they did during the 1560s, a coolness with France could be managed. However, as time passed, Philip became less comfortable with his tacit support of a ‘heretic’ queen, and matters were exacerbated when his new ambassador to England, Don Guerau de Spes, posted to London in 1568, saw his role as promoting dissension and religious dissatisfaction in England, rather than maintaining cordial relations.

Simultaneously, Philip’s own territories in the Netherlands were becoming restive. The territories were the paternal inheritance of his father, Charles V, and, after Charles became king of Spain, and then Holy Roman Emperor, they had been ruled by a succession of regents – Charles’ aunt, Margaret of Austria, his sister, Mary of Hungary, and then his illegitimate daughter, Margaret of Parma. Whilst Charles had had some rapport with the Netherlands, as the land of his birth and youth, Philip had none, and was determined to stamp the growing number of Calvinists there. The inquisition came down harshly, and public resentment was such that Margaret of Parma agreed to reduce the severity of the persecution. The Calvinist minority took the opportunity to unleash a wave of iconoclasm – destroying relics and images and smashing windows. Margaret was forced to accept a measure of religious tolerance, but this did not satisfy those who wanted full freedom for Calvinists and Margaret requested help from Philip. He decided to send an army to restore order and dispatched the Duke of Alva.

The Netherlandish nobles were largely Catholic, and control was restored before Alva arrived, with Calvinist towns brought to surrender. Margaret told Philip that she was back in command, and that Alva’s presence was unnecessary. Philip, however, over-ruled her, and Alva arrived, backed by 10,000 troops. Before long, members of the nobility who were thought to be resistant to Spanish domination were executed – one being the Count of Egmont, who had acted as Philip’s proxy for his marriage to Mary I. William of Nassau-Orange, who had once been on excellent terms with Philip, slipped out of the Netherlands, vowing to lead resistance. The scene was set for civil war.

Elizabeth’s initial reaction was, once again, to support her fellow-monarch, Philip, rather than her co-religionists (especially as she was not so radically Protestant as the Netherlandish Calvinists). Philip was the legitimate sovereign of the Netherlands, and it was up to him to rule his territory as he thought fit. But to allow Philip to control the Netherlands more closely than previously was not in England’s interests. Trade between the countries was important to both, but if Philip ruled with a heavy hand, he might turn his attention away from trade, to using the Netherlands as a jumping-off point for intervening in England, to upset Elizabeth’s religious settlement. This fear was certainly in the minds of some of the queen’s advisors, but she was not to be rushed into intervention. She confined herself to permitting Netherlandish exiles to return home to lead resistance and condemning Philip’s stance to his ambassador. But then temptation to intervene to her own advantage sailed into Elizabeth’s orbit in the shape of a fleet of Spanish ships, carrying money to the Netherlands to pay the army, taking refuge from pirates in an English port.

Elizabeth’s initial decision was to grant passports for the money’s overland transport from the south coast to Dover, for easy transport to the Netherlands, but when she discovered that the treasure was not yet Philip’s but had been shipped by Genovese merchants to lend to Philip on its arrival in the Netherlands, she withdrew the passports and held the cash. Elizabeth’s biographer, Anne Somerset, opines that it was not likely that Elizabeth intended to provoke Philip by outright confiscation of the money, rather, that she intended it to reach Alva slowly, hampering his efforts, and, perhaps, take a percentage as a handling fee. The Spanish ambassador, however, jumped to the worst conclusions and wrote to Alva, recommending he confiscate all property held by English subjects in the Netherlands.

Alva took his advice, but the action rebounded on the Spanish, as Elizabeth then impounded all Spanish and Netherlandish shipping in English waters. Realising that his action had been counter-productive, Alva sought to mend matters, but Elizabeth refused to meet his envoy. The upshot was a ban on trade between England and the Netherlands that seriously hampered the prosperity of both, although Cecil had already negotiated with the port of Hamburg for the Merchant Adventurers to have a depot there, somewhat limiting the financial damage to England, and enabling the English to impound any Spanish shipping found in English waters.

This quarrel soured relations with Spain. Philip, until this time, had had little interest in replacing Elizabeth. Although he deplored her religion, he did not want her to be replaced by Mary, Queen of Scots, as that would bring England into the French orbit. Now, however, with Mary a helpless prisoner, if he, rather than the French, could put her on the English throne, he could expect her eternal gratitude. Mary put the proposition to him in plain terms – if he sprang her from prison, and supported her to take the English crown, she would re-introduce Roman Catholicism in England, and support the betrothal of her son (an infant, now crowned as King James VI of Scotland) to Philip’s daughter.

Philip asked de Spes his opinion. The ambassador assured the king that the matter would easily be managed – English Catholics were only waiting for the word to rise up. Alva, however, counselled caution. Nothing should be done until the Netherlands had been brought to heel, after which Philip could turn to England.