Elizabeth I – Opening New Fronts Against Spain Part I

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud was the Moorish ambassador to Elizabeth in 1600.

A life-size portrait of Sultan Murad III (1574-1595), attributed to a Spanish artist, 17th century.

Europe 1600

Elizabeth was enjoying the final few days of her summer progress at Nonsuch late in September 1598 when the news filtered down via Paris, Venice and The Hague that Philip II was dead. After more than two months of unrelieved torture from his arthritis, the seventy-one-year-old Spanish king had taken the last rites of the Catholic Church in his study-cum-bedroom at the Escorial and died with his son and heir, the future Philip III, and the Infanta at his bedside. So severely afflicted by bedsores was he in these last, lingering days that his doctors were forced to wriggle underneath his bed and cut holes in his mattress from below to drain out the pus.

The Venetian ambassador to Madrid observed that Philip’s twenty-year-old son had the same prominent Habsburg jaw as his father and grandfather before going on to praise him as a man of peace: ‘affable, grave, temperate, beloved by those who serve him’. His assessment, many times repeated, helped to foster a myth that Philip was mild-mannered and agreeable, a keen horseman who loved music and magnificence and believed that the Spanish monarchy’s dignity was best preserved by peace, pomp and parade.

In reality, the new king of Spain was nothing of the sort. He demanded that force be met with force, agreeing with Don Baltasar Álamos de Barrientos, who wrote a steely memorandum to him on his accession, advising:

It would be neither proper nor profitable to make peace with England: nor would any such peace be firm, for this Crown has been extremely offended by that woman. She is a schismatic and utterly contrary to our religion, and will consequently never trust us; peace with her will be very unsure.

Philip III needed little persuasion. His feelings for the heretic bastard queen were no warmer than his father’s; he did, however, recognize the extent of Spain’s human and material losses since the failure of the Gran Armada of 1588. After his father’s bankruptcy, nothing on such a scale could be attempted again. Instead, the Treaty of Vervins presented an opportunity for the young king to open a new, limited front in the war against Elizabeth, one where he believed he could win a lasting victory. The result was a policy in which he decided to attack Ireland, England’s soft underbelly. He believed far fewer troops would be needed, as it was said in Spain that the English defences in Ireland outside Dublin were no more than rudimentary, while the Gaelic Irish were loyal Catholics almost to a man. The Protestant Reformation had made minimal inroads into Ireland. Henry VIII had even failed to dissolve many of the more remote Irish monasteries. Still better from the Spanish viewpoint, Ireland was now in open rebellion and had been for the last four years.

The revolt had begun in 1594 as little more than a regional uprising in the northern province of Ulster led by the wily and ambitious Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, but by the summer of 1598 much of Gaelic Ireland had been set aflame. Elizabeth’s Lord Deputy, based in Dublin, Lord Burgh, had mounted a strong offensive, building a new fort on the River Blackwater three miles north of the garrison town of Armagh to guard the main road to Dungannon. He had then fallen fatally ill on his return from revictualling it. Seeing his opportunity, Tyrone tripled the stakes, demanding liberty of conscience for all Catholic Irishmen and redress for English offences against the Irish over the past fifty years. When he was rebuffed, Tyrone laid siege to the Blackwater fort. On 14 August, after ambushing a relief force in the thick woods south of Armagh, his forces killed some two thousand English troops at the Battle of the Yellow Ford. It was the greatest victory ever achieved by Irish arms against the English and seemed to threaten the complete loss of Ireland.

And the reverberations echoed still further through the British Isles as Elizabeth increasingly suspected King James of colluding in Tyrone’s rebellion. Her quarrels with James had entered a new phase some two years into the revolt, when he had condoned a cross-border raid into England by the Laird of Buccleuch, who rescued one of the queen’s closely guarded prisoners in a midnight assault on Carlisle Castle.9 Elizabeth retaliated by slashing his pension again, and when negotiations for a new treaty for the regulation of the border did not go her way, she fumed to her ambassador in Edinburgh, ‘I wonder how base minded that king thinks me that with patience I can digest this dishonourable slur. Let him therefore know that I will have satisfaction, or else.’

In January 1598, Anglo-Scottish relations further deteriorated when Elizabeth levelled a raft of obscurely phrased but stinging accusations against James for criticizing her in the Scottish Parliament:

I do wonder what evil spirits have possessed you, to set forth so infamous devices void of any show of truth . . . I see well we two be of very different natures, for I vow to God I would not corrupt my tongue with an unknown report of the greatest foe I have, much less could I detract my best-deserving friend with a spot so foul as scarcely may ever be outraised . . . I never yet loved you so little as not to moan your infamous dealings which you are in mind. We see that myself shall possess more princes’ witness of my causeless injuries, which I could have wished had passed no seas, to testify such memorials of your wrongs. Bethink you of such dealings, and set your labour upon such mends as best may. Though not right, yet salve some piece of this overslip. And be assured that you deal with such a king as will bear no wrongs and endure no infamy.

After this, James began to ignore her, claiming, ‘It becomes me not to strive with a lady, especially in that art wherein their sex most excels’ (i.e. in trading insults).

Elizabeth’s misgivings about James’s intentions in Ireland were fuelled by his secret overtures to the European Catholic powers and by highly disturbing reports that Anne of Denmark was very close to converting to Catholicism. Up until Prince Henry’s christening, Anne had been safely Protestant, but afterwards her chief gentlewoman, the French-born Henrietta, Countess of Huntly, had slowly but surely begun to convert her. Late in 1596, a St Andrews clergyman noted for his attacks on the anti-English, pro-Spanish Earl of Huntly and his wife preached a sermon denouncing Anne as a renegade ‘papist’. ‘As to the queen,’ he declared, ‘we have no cause to pray for her. We hear no good of her. She will never do us good. It may be she [will] trouble us all shortly.’

James positively revelled in this growing appreciation of Anne’s apostasy: he found it an invaluable diplomatic tool in his quest to persuade the Catholic powers that he was the best candidate to succeed Elizabeth. Pope Clement VIII prayed for his conversion, and James went out of his way to foster this hope. Shortly before Philip II’s death, the Scottish king had sent Lord Robert Sempill to Madrid to rebuild commercial links between Scotland and Spain, armed with secret instructions to secure recognition of James’s title to the English throne. After Philip III’s coronation, Sempill’s mission encouraged the new king’s advisers to consider sending an ambassador to Edinburgh with instructions to work towards partitioning the British Isles into pro- and anti-Spanish spheres of influence. When Elizabeth learned of this, she raged against James, whom Cecil had also caught out drumming up Catholic support for his claim to the throne in Venice, Florence and Paris.

Elizabeth put two and two together and made five. Relying on warnings she had received from Tyrone’s former mentor, the Earl of Ormond, coupled with a leaked copy of a letter purportedly from James to the rebel leader, she convinced herself that James was in league with Tyrone and conspiring with Spain. She suspected him of joining clandestinely with Tyrone in a grand pan-Britannic conspiracy in which both men hoped to profit from her death. Prompted by dark hints from Cecil, she even harboured suspicions that there might be a plot, centred on James and Catholic Ireland, to force her to abdicate.

After their fatal encounter in the Privy Chamber on 30 June or 1 July 1598, when the Earl of Essex had insolently rejected her nomination of Sir William Knollys as Lord Burgh’s successor in Ireland, Elizabeth at first decided to leave him to sulk and feign illness at his country estate at Wanstead. ‘He hath played long enough upon me,’ she said. ‘I mean to play awhile upon him and to stand as much upon my greatness as he hath done upon [his] stomach.’18 But after news came in of the catastrophe at the Blackwater fort, she decided to recall Essex and make him live up to his proud boasts over so many years to be a true military leader. It was a coolly calculated gamble on her part, a toss of a coin she knew she could not lose. Heads, she would recover Ireland, and Essex his career. Tails, Essex would destroy himself, and she could distance herself from the disaster.

But before she gave Essex the command in Ireland, he would have to submit and apologize for the offence he had caused her. Until then, she refused to admit him to her presence. There seemed slender prospect of this after the Earl sent her a letter complaining of ‘the intolerable wrong you have done both me and yourself’. His friend and admirer Sir Henry Lee tactfully urged him to come to his senses:

Your honour is more dear to you than your life, but yet may it please your Lordship to consider these circumstances. She is your sovereign, whom you may not beat [treat] upon equal conditions . . . I grant your wrongs to be greater than so noble a heart can well digest, but consider my good Lord how great she is with whom you deal . . . What advantage you have in yielding when you are wronged, what disadvantage by facing her whom (though you deserve never so much) yet you must rely upon for favour.

The impasse was resolved only when Essex succumbed to a bout of genuine fever. Anxious for his welfare, Elizabeth sent one of her own physicians to treat him, and by 10 September he was sufficiently recovered to attend a Council meeting for the first time since their spectacular row. He met her privately two days later to kiss her hand. After that, it was said that, at least for the moment, he was ‘in as good terms as ever he was’. Although he lost out hands down to Cecil and his allies in the redistribution of offices after Burghley’s death, Elizabeth was still prepared to accept his service when it suited her, but strictly on her own terms.


By 20 October, the Court gossips were confidently placing their bets on Essex going to Ireland. But while, by December, it was certain that he would be sent there, a heated debate was taking place over the conditions of his appointment, which Essex contested clause by clause. Elizabeth signed his commission on 25 March 1599, granting him wider powers than any of his predecessors. In one notable clause she authorized him either to prosecute or conclude the war at his discretion, and even to come to terms with Tyrone. After endless discussion, he had finally convinced her that his expedition aimed at nothing less than ‘the saving of one of Her Majesty’s kingdoms’ and, to do this, he needed a free hand.

Given the sweeping nature of this last clause, the Earl secured a licence from the queen permitting him temporarily to put a deputy in place so that he might return and consult her at such times as he should find cause, ‘as well to see our person as to inform us of such things as may be to our important service’. He left London on the 27th and landed in Dublin just over two weeks later, feeling distinctly queasy after an unusually stormy passage across the Irish Sea. With him sailed twenty thousand infantry and two thousand cavalry, the largest English army ever sent to Ireland.

The key to the Earl’s initial plan of campaign was to dispatch amphibious forces to Lough Foyle in the far north, well behind Tyrone’s lines, with the aim of establishing a new English garrison there. Modelled on his earlier template for Cádiz, the idea was to create a permanent military bridgehead that could readily be relieved and provisioned by sea. Before he died, Lord Burgh had intended to march to Lough Foyle to establish exactly such a garrison. The problem for Essex was that Cecil and his allies in the Privy Council had in the meantime diverted the necessary forces and supplies much further south for the defence of Dublin.

This diversion of resources was undertaken despite confidential warnings Cecil had received from his chief intelligence officer in Dublin, Sir Geoffrey Fenton, suggesting that a strong garrison at Lough Foyle would be essential for the reconquest of Ulster. Essex had pledged himself to an immediate attack on Tyrone before leaving England, but the profound lack of support he received from Cecil and his allies invites the conclusion that they were setting him up to fail.

Unable to establish the garrison, Essex dissipated the prime campaigning months of May and June in a southerly march through Leinster towards Waterford and from there into Munster, capturing the supposedly impregnable Cahir Castle, relieving a fort at Askeaton and driving the rebels into the woods and mountains. His sweep through southern Ireland was approved by the Privy Council. It safeguarded Munster from the threat of attacks from Spain and from Tyrone, but it also wasted valuable time, money and supplies. In particular, Essex was much delayed by a dire shortage of carriage horses, which had to be sent from England. Despite repeated warnings from his own officials, Cecil refused to treat this question with anything like the seriousness it deserved, stonewalling Essex by pretending that the queen ‘will not be content to be put to any new charge for that’.

Early in July, Essex returned to Dublin to file a decidedly hysterical report to the queen outlining the difficulties he had so far faced. Now in the hands of his physicians, with his body (as he claimed) ‘indisposed and distempered’ by the harsh conditions he had endured, he found his spirit crushed by the tenacity of Irish resistance. Already seething over the spiralling cost of his expedition, Elizabeth was exasperated by a series of damning reports she had received from Cecil outlining Essex’s demands for further ‘liberal supplies of men, money and victual’, the appointment of his younger protégé, the Earl of Southampton, as his General of the Horse – she flatly refused to confirm this nomination – and delays in confronting Tyrone. ‘O miserable employment and more miserable destiny of mine’, Essex wailed to the Privy Council, ‘that makes it impossible for me to please and serve Her Majesty at once.’

In a scorching diatribe she dictated on 30 July, Elizabeth instructed Essex to march north without any more excuses or delay: he was to attack Tyrone in his heartland of Ulster. But by the time her letter reached him, his forces had shrunk to fewer than six thousand infantry and five hundred cavalry. Many had slipped away home to England; others were feigning sickness; some had defected to the rebels. Essex’s thoughts quickly turned to how he might parachute himself out of Ireland and return to Court to confront not Tyrone but his enemies on the Privy Council, whom he believed to be subverting him at every turn. For a single madcap moment he even toyed with the idea of going over to Wales with two thousand or three thousand troops and marching on Whitehall to purge the evil councillors who were poisoning the queen’s mind against him.

In a typically extravagant gesture, with his forces diminishing by the hour, Essex then invited Tyrone to fight him in single combat. After a game of high-stakes poker, he finally accepted the fifty-four-year-old Irishman’s offer of a parley. On 7 September, the two men came face to face on the opposite banks of a river at Ballaclinch ford near the town of Louth, between Ardee and Dundalk. With Essex’s horse at the water’s edge and Tyrone’s standing belly-deep midstream, as the river was too wide at this point to shout across, they talked alone for half an hour. Playing for time, but also genuinely torn between a new accommodation with Elizabeth and one with Spain, it would appear from what he said about it afterwards that Tyrone demanded freedom of conscience, liberation of the Irish from English domination and a full pardon as the price of a settlement. Essex refused.

At last, a rolling truce was agreed upon that was to last for six weeks at a time. Renewable until 1 May 1601, the truce was to be terminable earlier by either side at two weeks’ notice. Tyrone, who swore an oath to observe it, also offered his eldest son as a hostage as a sign of his good faith. Afterwards, the rebel leader boasted to Philip III’s agent in Ireland that he had almost persuaded Essex to turn against Elizabeth, but this was surely bluster. Like Ralegh, Essex was a genuine patriot who would never have been able to reconcile himself to colluding with Spain.

And yet, however honourably intended, the murky circumstances of the truce left Essex, who now disbanded what was left of his army, open to damaging smears. Francis Bacon later summed up the extent of his vulnerability. Just as ‘the secrecy of that parley’, as he put it, gave Essex ‘the more liberty of treason, so it may give any man the more liberty of surmise what was handled between them’. Almost certainly, Essex’s overriding aim was to protect Elizabeth from the threat of a Spanish invasion of Ireland. The danger was that his enemies would find it easy to feed a distorted account of the purpose of the truce directly into Elizabeth’s fears of a grand pan-Britannic conspiracy.

But that was still to come. On reading Essex’s first reports of the truce, Elizabeth was not unduly concerned, believing it to have been ‘seasonably made (though now it seems that in many provinces the rebels make use of it), as great good hath grown to the most of Her Majesty’s subjects by it’. But from the outset she expressed a justified anxiety over the lack of witnesses to the parley. ‘For comeliness, example and for your own discharge’, she chivvied Essex a mere ten days after his rendezvous with Tyrone, ‘we marvel you would carry it no better.’ But this was chiefly because Tyrone was as slippery as he was duplicitous. ‘To trust this traitor upon oath’, she parried, ‘is to trust a devil upon his religion.’


The fact is that Elizabeth had far more on her mind in the summer and early autumn of 1599 than Essex’s Irish expedition. Since mid-June, rumours that Philip III was intent on sending a fourth Gran Armada had triggered a panic throughout southern England. Sixty great warships and a hundred and twenty other ships with three thousand soldiers on board were said to be victualled and ready to sail from Coruña.

In response, the queen appointed the Earl of Nottingham, who was still Lord Admiral, to be Lieutenant-General of the Kingdom with supreme command by land and sea. Working closely with Cecil, he dispatched a full complement of royal navy ships to patrol the Channel approaches and the southern coast of Ireland, while another forty or so armed merchantmen and pinnaces were requisitioned as support vessels. An improvised barrage was hastily created across the Thames, near Barking, by scuttling eighty-three small ships half laden with ballast. The coastal defences were strengthened and the county militias from Cornwall to Norfolk put on full alert. As in 1588, plans were made to assemble a field army some twenty-five-thousand-strong, drawn from the southern counties, to defend the queen and Court if the Armada landed. A serious failure of intelligence left the Privy Council entirely unaware that the Spanish fleet’s true destination was to be Ireland.

Several false alarms brought turmoil to London as heavy iron chains were once again hung across the streets and the city gates locked and bolted. In early August, a rumour spread like wildfire that Spaniards had landed at Southampton and were marching towards London. This had arisen from a mistake during the night of the 6th, when lookouts on the Isle of Wight had spotted a flotilla of ships passing eastwards along the Channel and fired the beacons. In fear of her life, Elizabeth was driven at high speed in her coach to St James’s Palace, where she took refuge, exactly as in 1588. Several days would elapse before she could be certain that these mysterious vessels in the Channel were no more than innocent merchantmen plying their trade, and she could safely emerge.

1 thought on “Elizabeth I – Opening New Fronts Against Spain Part I

  1. Pingback: Elizabeth I – Opening New Fronts Against Spain Part I – faujibratsden

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