When Elizabeth became Queen in 1558 on the death of her half-sister Mary, England had a decent relationship with Spain. Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain obviously helped to cement this even if the marriage itself was not a success. There were those in the Privy Council and Parliament who believed that Elizabeth would marry Philip herself to ensure that both nations stayed close. However, this was not to be and during the first ten years of Elizabeth’s reign a drift occurred between England and Spain. Historians do not believe that this was a deliberate policy by either nation – it simply happened. Religion was not the cause of this as Philip made it clear that he wanted Elizabeth on the throne of England as opposed to Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots) who would have been pro-France, the result of her marriage to Francis II, king of France. Even though Francis died young and Mary returned to her native Scotland, she was still held in high regard in Paris and she, herself, was pro-France. The last thing that Philip wanted was a pro-French English monarch. On two occasions he used his influence to pressurise the Pope into excommunicating Mary. While Elizabeth was a heretic in the eyes of Spain, a good relationship with England ensured that the French felt sufficiently surrounded by two enemies – enough to put her off of any expansionist policy.
Regardless of this, a separation between Spain and England did occur. It may have been the result of Elizabeth’s failure to marry Philip. Philip may have got the idea that Elizabeth would marry him as a matter of course. When this did not occur, Philip may have let his personal feelings influence his policy decisions. However, there is no proof of this.
Two areas of major contention between both states were the Netherlands and the activities of English sea dogs in Spanish waters.
Ironically, the position of the rebels put Elizabeth in a difficult position. If she was seen to be supporting those who had rebelled against their monarch, would she somehow encourage rebels in her own kingdom? However, she was also more than aware that Alva was a major threat to England. Therefore, Elizabeth allowed the ‘Sea Beggars’ to use English harbours and she gave her agreement for mariners like Hawkins and Drake to make inroads into markets overseas that had traditionally been Spanish trade routes.
All of this was seen in Madrid as being very provocative. Dr John Mann, the English ambassador in Madrid, was dismissed and had to return to England. Mann did not help his cause, of course, by calling the Pope “a canting little monk." Philip recalled his ambassador in London, Guzman de Silva. Silva had made a very favourable impression in London. He was replaced by Guerau de Spes – a man so incompetent that he antagonised many in the court in London. Spes had so little tact that he described William Cecil, the most powerful nobleman in England as:
“He is a man of mean sort, but very astute, false, lying, and full of artifice. He is a great heretic, and such a clownish Englishman as to believe that all the Christian princes joined together are not able to injure the sovereign of his country."
In 1568 a major incident occurred that effectively meant that Spain and England would never come to terms while Elizabeth was on the throne. Whereas the decline in relations had been ongoing slowly from 1558 to 1568, it dropped markedly in 1568. In this year, the English seized some Spanish bullion ships that had been blown into English waters. These ships had gold on board that was to be used to pay for Alva’s army in the Netherlands. The Spanish responded by seizing English merchant ships that were docked in Antwerp.
Cecil had given his blessing to the seizure of the Spanish bullion ships. However, he underestimated the Spanish response and for five years (1568 to 1572) relations between both nations were very poor. By 1572, a thaw occurred as both Elizabeth and Philip realised that the situation they were in was of no value to both nations.
Philip was also getting more and more involved in establishing Spain as the dominant nation in the Mediterranean Sea.
The removal of the Sea Beggars from England actually backfired on Elizabeth. If her primary aim in doing this was to develop better relations with Spain, it accidentally backfired. The Sea Beggars, having left England, had to find a port. They captured Brill and as a result rekindled support for rebellion against the Spanish in the Netherlands.
In 1576, mutinous Spanish soldiers who had not been paid sacked Antwerp. Many civilians lost their lives. Influential men in the English government now felt that the time was right to apply more pressure on the Queen to help the rebels. Walsingham and Leicester urged Elizabeth to militarily intervene and to accept the Dutch offer of sovereignty over the Netherlands.
The Spanish ambassador to London, Bernardino de Mendoza, recognised a change in mood. Mendoza was shrewd enough, unlike his hapless predecessor de Spes, to recognise that three men dominated the Royal Court. He observed that Cecil diplomatically stayed out of discussions on the Dutch issue because he disagreed with Leicester and Walsingham. This left the field clear for both men to persuade the Queen to adopt a more robust approach in support of the Protestant rebels in the Netherlands.
In a letter to Philip, he wrote:
“Leicester, whose spirit is Walsingham, is so highly favoured by the Queen, not withstanding his bad character, that he centres in his hands most of the business of the country."
The acquisition of Portugal greatly increased the power of Spain. Not only did Portuguese wealth and overseas territories come into the hands of Madrid – so did the navy. Elizabeth and her ministers now recognised that they faced a potentially far more powerful foe. France could no longer be guaranteed to be the enemy of Spain as the Catholic League, formed in 1584, received the support and backing of Philip II. In 1585, Elizabeth finally agreed to the requests of Leicester and Walsingham. As a result of the Treaty of Nonsuch, Elizabeth agreed to send to the Netherlands 5,000 foot soldiers and 1000 cavalry.
But even in 1585, Elizabeth wanted peace and advised her diplomats in Madrid to pursue this goal. The activities of Drake and the building of the Armada clearly undermined this. When it became obvious that Spain was creating a huge naval force, which, according to English spies in Spain, was to sail for England with the sole intention of overthrowing Elizabeth, then there was no hope of peace between England and Spain.
War was never officially declared in 1585. Leicester’s intervention in the Netherlands and Drake’s continued attacks on Spanish shipping were seen as acts of war in their own right. However, even with this background, Elizabeth wanted Leicester to take a cautious approach. She placed restrictions on what he could militarily do – his sole purpose was to ensure that Spain did not overwhelm the Netherlands. This was meant to be a signal that Leicester should be defensive as opposed to offensive. Leicester was severely rebuked by the Queen when he made himself Governor-General of the Netherlands as she felt that this would provoke the Spanish even more. Elizabeth’s anger was conveyed to Leicester in a letter written by Sir Thomas Shirley:
“Her Majesty used most bitter words against your lordship for your receiving that government, affirming that she did expressly forbid it unto your lordship in the presence and hearing of divers of her council."
The presence of Leicester and an English military force did a great deal to boost the morale of the Dutch and the continued damaging raids on Spanish bullion ships by the likes of Drake were starting to have a major impact on Spain’s economy. On paper Spain had a very strong economy boosted by the vast earnings that came from the New World. In reality, Spain’s economy was bolstered only by the heavy taxation of those who could least afford it. Overwhelmed by this economic gloom, Philip took the decision that the only way out of both these problems was to remove the cause of them – Elizabeth.
There were those who advised against the Armada of 1588 but Philip ignored them all. He believed that he was on a mission from God. Its complete failure effectively ended any threat England faced from Spain.
Elizabeth did not follow up this success. Despite the advice of the ‘sea dogs’, she knew that England needed a strong (but non-threatening) Spain to counter-balance France. If Spain was weak, France might be prompted into resurrecting her association with Scotland – which would be a direct threat to England.
England kept troops in the Netherlands for the next 18 years in an effort to get a favourable treaty from the Spanish. Elizabeth offered support to the Protestant Henry IV of France but found him an difficult ally to get on with. Henry believed that Elizabeth wanted France to go to war with Spain while England looked on and would benefit from the probable weakening of both.
In 1595 Elizabeth had to deal with a rebellion in Ireland led by Tyrone and O’Donnell. In September they wrote to Philip asking for support:
“Our only hope of re-establishing the Catholic religion rests on your assistance. We therefore beseech you to send us 2,000 or 3,000 soldiers, with money and arms. With such aid we hope to restore the faith of the Church, and to secure you a kingdom."
Defeating the rebellion greatly harmed England’s economy. Spanish troops did land in Ireland in 1601 but they were defeated. However, this was six years after they were requested by the Irish rebels – such was the weakened state of Spain.