The Spanish Armada – Queen Elizabeth I’s Greatest and Only Success?
Posted: 28 August 2013 7:00 am Edited by: Martin
“I know I have the body of a weak, feeble Woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England too” (Queen Elizabeth I to her troops at Tilbury)
What springs to mind when you think about Elizabeth I, is it ‘The Virgin Queen’, ‘Gloriana’ or maybe The Spanish Armada?
It’s the last of these that I want to focus on in this blog today – The Spanish Armarda. Can anything else in Elizabeth’s reign live up to this success? She has been voted this country’s favourite monarch – but it is my experience that she divides opinion. I have chosen some, of what I consider to be the key moments of her reign to look at how successful she was.
Elizabethan Religious Settlement
“There is one thing higher than Royalty: and that is religion, which causes us to leave the world and seek God” (Queen Elizabeth I)
The Settlement (described as the revolution of 1559) was comprised of two acts of parliament. The first act being the Act of Supremacy 1558 which re-established Elizabeth as the supreme governor of the Church of England. Elizabeth wanted the reintroduction of crucifixes and candlesticks and the restoration of roods, however some of the new bishops of whom she promoted protested against this idea. Another part of this act was Elizabeth’s appointment of a new Privy Council, expelling many Roman Catholics of the previous council by doing so. The Act of Uniformity 1558 required the population of England to attend Sunday service in an Anglican church where a new book of common prayer was read from. This act revoked the harsh laws proposed against Catholics and opposition was fierce in the Shires where the majority of its people were Roman Catholic. What do you think? Was the religious settlement enough to tarnish the reputation of the newly appointed Queen? In my opinion, yes, this was probably enough to tarnish Elizabeth’s reputation, England had just come out of a reign whose Queen had been in favour of Catholics and now its Queen was wanting to persecute them once more, it was as though the country was in an invisible game of Tug of War, between the Monarch and their people.
Mary Queen of Scots
“The Queen of Scots is this day leichter of a fair son, and I am but a barren stock” (Queen Elizabeth I after Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to a Son)
Elizabeth’s fears were great that the French planned to invade England and put Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne. Elizabeth sent a force to Scotland to aid the Protestant rebels, this resulted in the Treaty of Edinburgh removing the French threat from the north. In May 1567 Mary married the Earl of Bothwell James Hepburn, who had been an almost certain suspect in the murder of her previous husband Henry Stuart. This aroused suspicions that Mary too was involved in his death and eventually led to Mary’s imprisonment at Loch Leven Castle. Mary managed to escape the Castle and crossed the border into the realm of her Cousin Elizabeth. Instead of helping to restore her fellow Queen, Elizabeth used the situation to her advantage and detained Mary in England, a detainment that would last nineteen years. Mary’s imprisonment caused rebellion against Elizabeth, 1569 saw a major Catholic rising in the north where 750 rebels were executed on Elizabeth’s orders. The most dangerous rebellion was the Babington Plot of 1586 which aimed to assassinate Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne. The plot grew out of two originally separate plans, the first being a Spanish invasion of England to depose of Elizabeth and replace her With Mary, the second being a plot by English Catholics to assassinate Elizabeth themselves. Mary denied having any part in the plot however by late 1586 Elizabeth sanctioned her trial and execution on the evidence of the letters she had written during the plot. On 8th February 1587, Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle, Elizabeth vehemently denied ordering the death even though she signed the warrant. The sincerity of Elizabeth’s remorse has been questioned throughout history since but what do you think? Just how far would Elizabeth go to protect herself and her throne? And what sort of impact did these events have on the remainder and legacy of her reign? Once again I believe that these events could have damaged Elizabeth’s legacy. Although Elizabeth may not have ordered the death warrant to be sent, she did sign it and she was signing it against a fellow Queen, a Catholic Queen who had supporters not only in her homeland Scotland, but also in Elizabeth’s own realm. What stood in good stead for Elizabeth was that Scotland now had a King they adored and England’s people were loyal to their Queen, the remorse that Elizabeth expressed may have also helped a great deal.
The Spanish Armada
“I too can command the wind Sir, I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare if you dare to try me” (Quote taken from the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age”)
When Sir Francis Drake undertook a major voyage against Spanish ports, destroying the Spanish fleet of ships intended for the Enterprise of England, Phillip II of Spain declared war on England. Phillip of Spain made plans for a fleet of 130 Spanish ships to block the English Channel and allow the Duke of Parma to invade England, the fleet was further increased when the execution of Mary Queen of Scots happened, this was then when Sir Francis Drake made his voyage to Spain which further increased Phillip’s anger. Because of storms, it wasn’t until July 1588 that Phillip’s Armada was ready to sail. Under the control of Medina Sidonia, the Armada reached the approach to the English Channel where beacons were lit all along the south coast of England so the English Navy were put to sea. At midnight on the 8th August 1588, Lord Howard, Commander of the English fleet sent eight fire ships in to the congested Spanish ranks, to escape the flames many Spanish Captains blundered away in to the gunfire of the waiting English whose fire power was much more superior to that of the Spanish. It was this same day that Queen Elizabeth was making her famous speech to the troops at Tilbury. When no invasion of England came the nation rejoiced and a thanksgiving service was held at St Pauls Cathedral. No doubt the defeat was a defeat however it was also a propaganda victory for Elizabeth and for her Protestant England and the nation took the defeat as a symbol of God’s favour and the fact that England was a great power under the ever popular Virgin Queen. What are your opinions on the matter? Was the defeat of the Spanish Armada down to having Elizabeth as Queen? Or was most of the defeat just down to luck and just how great a success was it? For me, this probably was Elizabeth’s greatest achievement, to fend off one the world’s superpowers. Yes some of this may have been down to luck, but Elizabeth proved herself to be not just a great Queen but a great military commander, surely that can’t be down to luck as well.
“Monarchs ought to put to death the authors and instigators of war….” (Queen Elizabeth I)
Ireland was one of Elizabeth’s two Kingdoms however she faced a hostile Irish population that adhered to Catholicism and was willing to defy her and plot with her enemies. Elizabeth’s main policy in Ireland was to grant land to her courtiers and prevent the rebels from giving a base to the Spanish which would have made it easier for them to attack England. Throughout a series of uprisings in Ireland, forces of the crown burnt land and slaughtered men, women and children presumably under the orders of the Queen. Between 1594 and 1603 Elizabeth faced her most severe test in Ireland, during a period known as the nine years war, a war which was taking place while Elizabeth’s hostilities with Spain were still at an all-time high. Spain backed the leader of the rebels, the Earl of Tyrone and in 1599 Elizabeth sent Robert Devereux to put an end to the revolt. Devereux made little progress and returned to England in defiance of the Queen, Elizabeth then sent Charles Blount who was successful after three years of trying. The Earl of Tyrone finally surrendered in 1603, just a few days after Elizabeth’s death and just shortly before a peace treaty was signed between England and Spain. What’s your view on this matter? Was the problem in Ireland really a problem for Elizabeth? Again what, if any, impact did this have on Elizabeth’s reign? It appears to me that on the scale of everything, the troubles in Ireland was a minor problem for Elizabeth in comparison with everything else and would have hardly damaged the Queen’s stature, especially at home.
Elizabeth’s Later Years
“God forgive you, but I never can” (Queen Elizabeth I)
Elizabeth’s last years saw increasing criticism towards her resulting in a decline in public affection towards the Queen. Reasons for this criticism included the on-going conflicts in Spain and Ireland, Elizabeth’s increasing reliance on propaganda and internal spies and the intensified repression of Catholics. Although not the Queen’s fault the economy of England was severely hit by poor harvest and costs of war. The “second reign” of Elizabeth was highlighted by the change of character within Elizabeth’s governing body, the Privy Council. A new generation was in power and the Queens personal authority was lessening, a completely different story to the one some 40 years previous when Elizabeth ascended the throne. I personally believe that the criticism Elizabeth faced in her last years was totally out of her control and was slightly unfair, here we have an ageing Queen who only wanted the best for her people and yet the control she once had is slipping away from her. Surely this must have been frustrating for Elizabeth and so with what power she had left, she exercised it the way she wanted, surely she can’t be blamed for that.
I have continuously mentioned quite a few negative points in relation to Elizabeth’s reign however I must stress that I was never trying to play down the fact that her reign was a Golden Age in English history. The Elizabethan era not only saw significant scientific progress, advancements in the fields of cartography and surveying, it also saw Sir Francis Drake circumnavigate the globe and Martin Frobisher explore the Artic. William Shakespeare was at his peak throughout her reign as was Christopher Marlowe and the Globe theatre was built in 1599.William Byrd and John Dowland were two of the era’s greatest composers and the Renaissance was still going strong. Economically the Country was benefitting from the new era of Trans- Atlantic trade, while the governments of the reign were centralised, well organised and effective. There is no doubt whatsoever that England was flourishing with Elizabeth as Queen, and with Elizabeth being voted our favourite monarch it seems that most of us think of her reign positively.
The aim of this blog was never to cast a shadow over the remarkable reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it was just to get to the bottom of the opinion of some people that the defeat of the Spanish Armada was Elizabeth’s greatest and only success. I knew that was wrong, then again as mentioned in the blog, there are some events that could have seriously damaged the legacy of Queen Elizabeth. There is no denying that the Spanish Armada win was a great achievement for Elizabeth but to be honest, in my opinion clearly it was not her only success and neither should it be credited as. Everyone will have their own opinion on this matter but surely like the majority of all of our Monarchs, Elizabeth’s reign was a huge success with its fair share of testing and turbulent times. Nobody can argue that some situations which occurred throughout the era could have seriously damaged Elizabeth’s legacy as Gloriana. I must say this though, surely they did not cause too much damage as nearly 500 years on and people are still in awe of The Virgin Queen.
What is your opinion? Do you think the Spanish Armada was Queen Elizabeth I’s only success as Monarch? What else contributed to her successes and failures? And just what sort of legacy did Queen Elizabeth I really have?