Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 17 : The Netherlands

The uneasy peace effected in part of the Netherlands collapsed in 1577, when, in defiance of his agreement with the local rulers, Don John recalled Spanish troops and took the city of Namur. Revolted by his treachery, the provinces again united in opposition. According to letters intercepted by spies, Don John, unlike Alva, would have preferred to turn his troops against England, rather than concentrating on the Netherlands, but had obeyed orders from Spain to finish the job in hand.

Informed of these bellicose sentiments, Elizabeth was willing to give financial aid to the States-General (as the local governing body in the Netherlands was known). Not only would she make a generous loan, but she would send her dear councillor and friend, the Earl of Leicester, to lead a body of English troops. Her offer was not accepted with the enthusiasm she had anticipated after so many years of the Netherlanders requesting help, and was annoyed to find they were contemplating inviting the Archduke Matthias (brother of the Emperor, and cousin of Philip) to replace Don John.

Exasperated at their lack of cohesion, Elizabeth began to have second thoughts, and when she was requested to send the promised aid, responded that she would first make another attempt at mediation. War with Spain was the last thing she wanted, and Don John’s victory at Grembloux in January 1578 suggested that unwelcome intervention from England would make war more, rather than less, likely.

By and large, Elizabeth’s council disagreed with her assessment, and pushed her to fulfil her promise to the States-General. She compromised by offering the funds to Duke John Casimir to lead a force, rather than providing one herself, and agreeing to underwrite any loans he managed to raise.

The States-General now turned to Elizabeth’s former suitor, François, who was once again at odds with his brother, Henri III. Since the plan for marriage between them had never been formally rejected by either party, Elizabeth now resurrected it, once again hoping to balance the risks of French versus Spanish dominance in the Netherlands. It is important to remember that we have the benefit of hindsight – England and Spain had been allies for centuries, and whilst relations had seriously deteriorated, for most English people in the sixteenth century, France seemed a far greater threat.

Elizabeth hoped that if François still wanted to marry her and become king of England, he would be obedient to her wishes in the Netherlands – helping the States-General, but not seeking to annex territory to France. Her councillors were less convinced of François’ trustworthiness, with Walsingham going so far as to tell her that François ‘entertaineth her at this present only to abuse her’. This warning was not well received by Elizabeth, and she avoided seeing any of her councillors, tired of their constant urgings to keep François out of the picture by providing money and men herself. She would only respond that, until the States General had paid back what they already owed her, she would do nothing.

For unknown reasons, in mid-August, Elizabeth had a damascene moment, and rushed out letters to the States-General, offering them men and money if they broke off negotiations with François. But it was too late – a treaty had been signed with François. Elizabeth was furious, but refused to accept her Council’s advice that she still send money to the Netherlands, to prevent the States-General being entirely dependent on François. Eventually she agreed to a small loan, but insisted on collateral in the form of the Burgundian ducal jewels.

Elizabeth was saved from the results of her indecision when François proved to be entirely incompetent, negating the likelihood that France would become dominant. Unfortunately, her chosen instrument, Duke John Casimir, also failed, not through military blundering, but because he allied with a group of extreme Calvinists, alienating the moderates and the Catholics of the Netherlands. The situation worsened when Don John of Austria died, to be replaced by Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, son of the former Regent, Margaret of Parma.

Parma was an outstanding general, and the tide turned in favour of the Spanish. Elizabeth still refused to send an army, but decided instead to bind François more closely to her and to English interests by marriage.