Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 15 : Tensions Rising

Any prospect of marriage with France was destroyed following the Massacre of St Bartholomew – a wholesale extirpation of Huguenots across France, which shocked Elizabeth and her ministers to the core. Whilst the French government assured Elizabeth that the massacre had got out of hand, following justified killings of individuals suspected of planning to assassinate Charles IX and his family, and was not intended as a sustained attack on the Huguenots, the idea of marrying François d’Alençon in its immediate aftermath was unthinkable. She accepted French mollifications to the extent of accepting Charles’ invitation to be godmother to his daughter.

The English ambassador to France at the time of the Massacre, Francis Walsingham, returned to England, traumatised by what he had seen and determined both to protect Elizabeth from Catholic plots and persuade her to support Protestants in Europe. As a member of her council, he preached early and late on the need for Elizabeth to help her co-religionists. Whilst his arguments did not fall entirely on deaf ears, the queen was extremely reluctant to intervene in French or Spanish domestic affairs – both because it would encourage enmity against her, and also because she was always more attuned to the rights of monarchs than the rights of her co-religionists.

Walsingham was frequently supported by Leicester, whose commitment to his religion was steadfast. Burghley was more circumspect – agreeing in principle with Walsingham’s dark forebodings, but not so ready to promote solutions. Elizabeth dealt with the constant importuning for her to formulate a pro-active, rather than a reactive, foreign policy by procrastination, avoiding signing documents, or ordering signed documents to be put in abeyance whilst she mulled further.

While it is likely that Elizabeth was naturally prone to indecision, the long view suggests that her misgivings were well-founded and her apparent dilatoriness masterful. Although stringent economy during the first decade of the reign had improved the Crown’s financial positions somewhat, England lacked money and manpower for war, and provocation of greater powers, unless absolutely unavoidable, was best avoided.

Once councillor at least, agreed with Elizabeth. The Earl of Sussex warned her in 1578 that aggravating Spain would bring her into ‘that which [his] simple head [saw] no possibility for [her] to maintain, nor know no way how to bring [her] out of it’.

On the death of Charles IX, Elizabeth’s erstwhile suitor, Henri, became king as Henri III. He was more enthusiastic in his anti-Huguenot stance than Charles had been, and given his previous coolness towards Elizabeth, she began contemplating providing support to French Huguenots. Into this complex mix was thrown the fact that Henri’s brother, François, now promoted to duke of Anjou, was out of favour with Henri and Catherine.

Feelers were put out to Duke John Casimir, brother of the Protestant Elector Palatine, with the suggestion that Elizabeth might fund a sizeable army to help the Huguenots obtain a permanent settlement of liberty of religion – and also give England back Calais. Perhaps getting wind of the plan, Henri III suddenly became more amenable, endorsing the previously negotiated, but never completed, Treaty of Blois. In light of this, Elizabeth withdrew most of her offer to John Casimir.

The situation for the Huguenots in France veered between toleration and oppression. François also veered between support for them, and reconciliation with his brother – who had no sons. Simultaneously, the support Elizabeth would give to the King’s Party in Scotland changed depending on how much she was concerned about provoking Henri. If she felt Henri was likely to pursue an aggressive course for the restoration of Mary, she would give more covert aid to the Scottish government, but she was not willing to publicly endorse it.

The distinct chill in Anglo-French relations encouraged rapprochement with Spain – especially as Alva wanted to minimise the possibility of Elizabeth assisting the Netherlandish Protestants. Consequently, he persuaded Philip to enter the Treaty of Bristol in 1574, to reopen trade. Elizabeth was so far supportive of Philip’s rights that the following year, she branded William of Orange-Nassau a rebel and refusing him refuge.

Elizabeth’s suggested solution was for herself to act as an honest broker between Philip and his Netherlandish subjects, to encourage him to regrant their ancient rights and freedoms – although she in no way advocated the idea that they should have religious freedom. Just as Catholics in England were forced to conform to the law, so should Calvinists in the Netherlands conform to Philip’s decision on the outward conduct of religion – although she deplored the heavy-handed activities of the Inquisition. Philip and his advisors rejected the idea out of hand – nothing would suffice but the complete subjugation of the Netherlands.

By the end of 1575, the Netherlanders were desperate for support against Spain. William informed Elizabeth that if she would not help, they would turn to France. If Elizabeth did not like that idea, the country would offer her sovereignty of two of the Netherlandish states (Holland and Zealand), in return for military aid.

Elizabeth was horrified by the choices before her – do nothing, and allow the Spanish to over-run the Netherlands, which would give Philip leisure to turn his eyes across the English Channel: accept that the French would control the Netherlands, and might then slip into Scotland, overturn the Reformation there and place Mary on England’s throne; undertake a war for which she had no inclination and which would cost herself and her people dearly, with limited prospects of success. It was no wonder that she was reported to be in a foul mood, and distracted by worry.

In March 1576, Elizabeth returned her answer to the Netherlanders – she would make another effort at mediation. In the meantime, they were not to even consider approaching the French. The Dutch envoys wrote home that ‘where [they had] hoped for salvation, there was the cause of our ruin.’

Until this time, not all the numerous states that made up Philip’s territories had joined the resistance of Holland and Zealand, but when his unpaid troops sacked Antwerp in a welter of bloodshed, all the provinces agreed that things had reached such a pass that a united front was the only route forward, and signed the Pacification of Ghent in November 1576.

Philip was forced to take a marginally more conciliatory line, and his representative, his illegitimate half-brother, Don John of Austria, hero of the Battle of Lepanto, indicated that Spanish troops might be withdrawn – but there were to be no concessions on religious policy. Elizabeth hoped that William would take the deal, especially as the Catholic provinces were willing to accept it but Holland and Zealand would not take the terms.