Sunday, June 8, 2014

Against All Odds: How Elizabeth I of England Outwitted Philip of Spain

by Barbara Kyle

Elizabeth at her Coronation
The Elizabethan period is considered a golden age. We picture England bursting with confidence and vigor, her queen triumphant and proud. But, in fact, at the beginning of Elizabeth's reign England was a small, weak country, standing alone. Philip II of Spain, the most powerful monarch in Europe, whose empire spanned half the globe, itched to conquer the island nation. By the second year of the young Elizabeth's reign, Philip set out to destroy her. Within a few years, she was fighting for her life.

Philip was Elizabeth's brother-in-law. He had married her half-sister, Mary I of England. Immediately after Mary's death in 1558 and Elizabeth's ascension to the throne at the age of twenty-five, Philip sought his comely sister-in-law's hand in marriage, the easiest way for him to control England, and her. Elizabeth spurned him. Thus began their cold war that continued for thirty years.

Elizabeth would need all her ingenuity to survive.

Philip believed he had a mission from God to exterminate heretics. Under his rule the Spanish Inquisition maimed and killed thousands of his subjects. To him the most offensive heretic of all was Elizabeth of England.

Phillip II of Spain
Like all of Catholic Europe, Philip considered Elizabeth a bastard, since Catholics did not acknowledge the marriage of her mother, Anne Boleyn, to her father, Henry VIII. Worse, Elizabeth's first act as queen had been to make her realm Protestant and herself the supreme head of the church in England. Catholics found the concept grotesque: a woman as head of a church.

So Elizabeth's small Protestant nation stood alone against all of Catholic Europe. In 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth and proclaimed that anyone who murdered her would be committing no sin. Philip made plans to invade her realm. He abetted several assassination attempts against her. He cut off English merchants from Europe's trade centres; English "interlopers" were imprisoned by the Inquisition. He froze English assets in his dominions. Elizabeth retaliated by freezing Spanish assets, worth far more. She won that round.

But Philip was stupendously wealthy thanks to his vast possessions in the New World. Twice a year the Spanish treasure fleet crossed the Atlantic to deliver hoards of New World gold, silver, and precious gems to his treasury in Spain. He used this constant river of riches to finance his constant wars. Throughout Europe, Spain's armies were feared and triumphant. Nowhere were they more feared than in the Netherlands, suffering under Spain's brutal occupation. To strike at England, Philip's troops would sail from there, less than a hundred miles off Elizabeth's shores.

With no standing army, and a small and underfunded navy, Elizabeth's only weapons against her powerful Spanish adversary were her cleverness and courage. She protected England by "making fires in her neighbours' houses" (a phrase used by her brilliant first minister, William Cecil) —that is, she covertly supported Dutch rebels fighting their Spanish overlords and helped Protestant (Huguenot) uprisings in France. She also encouraged and rewarded her merchant adventurers in their outright piracy against Spanish shipping. And, always, she showed her deep love for her people, uniting them, whatever their faith, in a powerful feeling of "Englishness."

Ingeniously, she dared to go further. She extended safe conduct to a motley little fleet of Dutch privateers who had fled Spain's occupation. These rebels, calling themselves the Sea Beggars, carried out raids on Spanish shipping. For several years Elizabeth allowed them to make Dover and the creeks and bays along England's south coast their home as they continued to harry Spanish vessels. This infuriated Philip. When his fury grew dangerous, Elizabeth ordered the Sea Beggars to quit her realm. It was assumed she expelled them to placate Philip, but it turned out that she had struck a hard blow at Spain: by forcing out these fierce privateers she had unleashed their latent power.

The Capture of Brielle

For a month the Sea Beggars wandered the Channel, homeless and hungry. Then, in April 1572, on the verge of starvation, they made a desperate attack on the Spanish-held Dutch port city of Brielle. They astounded everyone, even themselves, by capturing the city. The Sea Beggars' victory provided the opposition's first foothold on land and launched a revolution: the Dutch War of Independence against Spain.

Eventually, Elizabeth openly supported the Dutch revolution, sending an army under the Earl of Leicester to fight alongside the Dutch resistance. This further enraged Philip and the long cold war between him and Elizabeth flamed into outright combat. In 1588 Philip sent his famed armada of over a hundred ships against England. Though Elizabeth rallied her troops with a rousing address at Tilbury, her people were sure they were doomed. But luck was on Elizabeth's side. A fierce storm devastated Philip's fleet. Again, Elizabeth survived.

Twice more in the following years Philip sent an invasion fleet, but each time he failed.

Philip's obsession against Elizabeth ended only with his death in 1598. She, the David who stood up to his Goliath, outlived him, dying peacefully in her bed in 1603 at the age of 70.

The Sea Beggars' desperate, valiant rebellion against Spain's brutal occupation of the Netherlands is the setting of Barbara Kyle's new novel, The Queen's Exiles.

Barbara is the author of the acclaimed Thornleigh Saga novels which follow a middle-class English family's rise through three tumultuous Tudor reigns. All are published internationally. Barbara is known for her dynamic workshops for writers' organizations and conferences. Before becoming an author she enjoyed a twenty-year acting career in television, film, and stage productions in Canada and the U.S. Visit


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