Elizabeth I’s early reign

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Marie de Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots. Born:Nov. 22, 1515 – Died: June 1,1560. Eldest daughter of Claude of Lorraine, Duke of Guise, head of the House of Guise, and his wife Antoinette de Bourbon, herself the daughter of Francis, Count of Vendome, and Marie de Luxembourg.

It would be fatuous to deny that Pope Pius V, in excommunicating Elizabeth, intended to destroy her. Or that he hoped to recruit the leading Catholic powers for a crusade aimed at removing her from her throne.

Nor were such hopes ridiculous. Three decades before, the Pilgrimage of Grace had exposed the unpopularity of Henry VIII’s religious innovations and left hanging the question of what a rising might accomplish if given strong enough leadership and sufficient encouragement and support. The rebellions of Edward VI’s reign, and the ease with which Mary I had overcome John Dudley’s attempted coup, bolstered the credibility of those wanting to make Rome believe that Elizabeth’s regime, if given a firm shove, might fall almost of its own weight.

As for the idea of involving France and Spain, here again hope was not entirely without a footing in reality. Though Pius V had become pope with little experience in politics and even less in diplomacy (it is a measure of how rapidly the church was changing that he had grown up in poverty and spent much of his life as a Dominican friar known for austerity), he was not naïve enough to expect kings to sacrifice their thrones on the altar of religion. But in Philip of Spain he had an ally who genuinely believed that if he could save England from the Protestants he would save her people from eternal damnation. And Pius could hope to find support at France’s Valois court if he could point to practical advantages of removing the English queen.

Thus it is entirely understandable that Elizabeth and her council went to great lengths to prevent a Catholic combination from forming. If they can be faulted, it is for going too far with their meddling in continental affairs, thereby helping to bring into existence something very like what they most feared. The worst of their mistakes was to overreact, bringing down upon England hardships that might and even should have been avoided.

For in fact their position was less dangerous than they understood. Under any circumstances it would have been difficult in the extreme for France and Spain, locked in a struggle for European domination that was already half a century old, to join forces for any shared purpose involving sacrifice and risk. They had already shown themselves to be incapable of organizing a common defense even against the Ottoman Empire, which unlike England posed a threat to the very survival of their civilization. And that was only half the story. The Reformation had come to France by this time, giving rise to conflicts that were draining away the kingdom’s power. Yet another new phenomenon, nationalism, had come at the same time to the Spanish possessions in the Netherlands, sparking a rebellion that Philip would need all the resources of his sprawling empire and all the gold being stripped from the New World to keep from overwhelming him. France and Spain alike—though France more than Spain—rarely ignored an opportunity to exploit and worsen the other’s problems and to ally themselves with England whenever it seemed advantageous to do so. Neither was easily drawn into fantasies of returning England to the universal church by force of arms. Philip, though more the idealist than Marie de’ Medici, understood from personal experience that, in the almost forty years since Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the number of Englishmen likely to see any sense in fighting to repair that break had shrunk severely.

The brilliant success of Elizabeth’s first international adventure, the 1560 foray into Scotland, served to encourage further enterprises more distant from home. An opportunity came just two years later with the eruption of France’s first religious war, which pitted Calvinist Huguenots against the regime headed by the queen dowager Catherine de’ Medici in the name of her sickly and ineffectual second son, the adolescent Charles IX. It was easy to argue that England could both help itself and do God’s work by becoming involved on the Protestant side, and the Dudley brothers, ambitious and eager for action, argued exactly that. Intervention could frustrate Philip of Spain, who was supporting the royal Catholic party in the hope of building a lasting alliance. At the same time it could undermine the Valois by enhancing the strength of their internal enemies. Conceivably it could lead to the recovery of Calais, which would be a tremendous propaganda coup for Elizabeth, a demonstration of the superiority of her rule to that of her late sister.

William Cecil, who by pushing the Scottish incursion to its conclusion had laid at the feet of his queen an achievement of genuine strategic importance, was not enthusiastic about making war on France. As a committed Protestant he naturally favored the Huguenots, but he was not as confident as the Dudleys that providing assistance required going to war with a kingdom whose population was several times that of England. The queen, however, approved the sending of an expeditionary force. She disappointed Robert Dudley, who wanted command, by selecting his brother the Earl Warwick instead. He was to land his troops at, and take possession of, the port of Le Havre—the English called it Newhaven—on the Normandy coast. The plan, from that point, was to win the gratitude of the Huguenots to such an extent that they would exchange Calais for Le Havre. Exactly how this was to be accomplished appears to have been left rather vague.

All did not go according to plan. Ambrose Dudley showed himself to be an effective enough leader, maintaining order and discipline in his little army under difficult conditions and establishing good relations with the inhabitants of Le Havre. But his instructions from the queen made it impossible to achieve anything. Throughout the first two months following his arrival in France, Dudley remained under orders to take no action. Then, when the opposing French sides surprised him by making peace, the earl was ordered to hold on to Le Havre until a trade for Calais could be arranged. This led—a crowning absurdity—to his erstwhile allies joining forces with the Catholics to drive him out. After several months of standing their ground in spite of the inadequacy of Le Havre’s defensive works, the English were so ravaged by plague that Dudley was left with no choice but to surrender. A final, tragic chapter was added when the remnants of his expeditionary force returned to England and brought the plague with them. In the subsequent Peace of Troyes, England abandoned forever its claim to Calais. Robert Dudley, as responsible as anyone for putting the whole debacle in motion, was rewarded with appointment to the Privy Council. Perhaps because Elizabeth’s refusal to part with him had spared him exposure to the hardships of the campaign, his appetite for war was undiminished. Cecil, whose responsibilities made him acutely aware of the strain the affair had put on the treasury, would henceforth be incapable of mustering much enthusiasm for sending armies across the Channel for any purpose.

Cecil was not averse, however, to tweaking the tail of the despised king of Spain whenever he found opportunities to do so without excessive risk. This tendency became increasingly pronounced, in fact, as the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign approached its end and Cecil persuaded himself that France and Spain were preparing a great joint invasion. About this he was consistently, demonstrably wrong—a rare and even weird miscalculation by one of the most astute, careful, and successful politicians of the age. Above all it was a misreading of the king of Spain. Perhaps Cecil could not understand Philip, could think only the worst of him, simply because his contempt was so deep. Probably he had no idea that Philip had concluded, during his years as England’s uncrowned king, that it was an alien and treacherous place and best left alone. At this stage Philip was, despite his religious convictions, almost desperately eager for England’s friendship, and if he could not have that he wanted her neutrality. He had more than enough other matters demanding his attention, more than enough other uses for resources that never seemed sufficient to his needs, and little reason to be confident that he stood to gain anything by deposing Elizabeth and replacing her with Mary, Queen of Scots. Cecil might have benefited from remembering how supportive of Elizabeth Philip had been both before she became queen and during the uncertain early days of her reign. He might have asked himself if conditions had changed enough to turn Philip into an actively aggressive foe. Instead he allowed his concerns to grow into something akin to paranoia, and to drive him—and with him England—into dangerously provocative actions that could serve no significantly good purpose and for which there was absolutely no need.

A particularly dangerous temptation came within Cecil’s grasp late in 1568, when a fleet of Spanish ships traversing the Channel en route to the Netherlands found itself threatened by pirates and took refuge in English ports. The fleet’s commander had good reason for wanting to avoid capture: he was carrying a fortune in gold and silver that Philip had borrowed from his Italian bankers and was sending to the Low Countries to pay the troops he had stationed there. Cecil, when he became aware of what had fallen into his clutches, did not hesitate. He ordered the money seized and locked away. The Spaniards, needless to say, were outraged. Philip’s governor in the Netherlands, the tough old Duke of Alba, responded by seizing English trade goods. England retaliated in its turn, and the dispute escalated until there was a real danger of war. Alba, however, had a turbulent region on his hands and so dispatched envoys with instructions to make themselves agreeable to the English. Cecil for his part wanted nothing less than outright war, and gradually the situation was defused.

The Privy Council then fell into an angry dispute over what Cecil had done. A substantial number of its members, Robert Dudley prominent among them, accused him of having recklessly put England in danger. There followed a contest over whether he should retain his position as secretary and with it his control over what information was allowed to reach the queen, what business was brought before the council, and how the council’s decisions were translated into action. This became the decisive crisis of Cecil’s long career. It ended with Elizabeth intervening so decisively on his behalf that it was no longer possible to doubt that he enjoyed her full confidence. He became and would remain unassailably secure. Not coincidentally, by protecting him the queen implicitly endorsed his policy of harassing the Spaniards by almost every possible means while pretending innocence. She and her government were turning a benignly blind eye to the raids that freebooters like John Hawkins and his cousin Francis Drake, privateers destined to rank high among the immortals of the Elizabethan age, were making on Spanish ports and shipping. It seemed an ideal arrangement: Cecil and even Elizabeth herself not only provided the pirates with a secure home base but helped to finance their voyages in return for a share of the profits. When Spain protested they claimed, unconvincingly, to know nothing and to be unable to do anything. Philip’s restraint through years of this undeclared naval war is the strongest possible indication of just how badly he wanted to avoid conflict.

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