Did Elizabeth have a foreign ‘policy’? If so what principles drove it – dynasty, parsimony, protestantism? This week Elizabeth intervenes in Scotland and France.
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This week, let us turn away from all that court and marriage stuff, and return to serious, hard history – to foreign policy. Now, I sense outrage. Policy I hear you roar, POLICY?! But you yourself, have poured scorn on the very idea of policies in the Tudor era; we have heard a guest episode from Zack Twambley poo-pooing the very idea in Henry VIII’s reign. So now what – policy? What is this – the Rise of the great powers, balance of power theory or what?
Well maybe you are not as argumentative as that, but it would be fair comment; we are still not in the era I suppose of formal bureaucracy leading discussions of policy towards various counties, and yet there was a policy to Elizabethan foreign affairs, or at least a set of assumptions and values. It is true to say that Elizabeth rarely sends armies marching around, and so there’s a general absence of clear decisions you might say, but as Geddy and the boys carefully explained in Freewill, if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.
So, if there was some sort of policy in Elizabeth’s international relations, however vague, what was it? What principles drove the bus? Well, the received wisdom, or at least the wisdom from wise historians, is that Elizabeth was essentially about realpolitic; a policy based on the art of the possible rather than the one of principle, and one driven by the sort of dynastic concerns – such as reclaiming Calais for example; or for security – so, working to prevent an encircling Franco Scottish realm for example, or undermining their enemies, such as, should I need to say it, the French. After all, generations of English Noblemen stretching back into time immemorial essentially saw their role as one of killing Frenchmen. And I’m only partly joking. Or finally, the policy of defending trading interests – for which read the low countries, the most important destination for English products, and it most important source.
This is a framework for the principle that drove Elizabeth’s foreign ventures owes a lot to our old friend William Camden – or at least I believe he’s becoming our friend now, we’ve heard so much about him. Writing in James I’s reign, Camden stressed Elizabeth’s aversion to Calvinists, particularly in the form of John Knox, but Calvinists generally/ Camden does this, though to disassociate her from the later Jacobin Puritans. A tradition has grown up of the practical, solutions oriented, commonsense approach to foreign affairs, of a queen not really terribly bothered about religious considerations. This a view which ties in nicely with English prejudices. I.e. we think of ourselves as an unexcitable bunch, not much given to the kind of highfalutin’ stuff the French get aeriated about, all those revolutions & things. This was a view I indeed held myself before I had the misfortune of watching Big Brother and heard the screams and squealing as the contestants emerged, all the hugging kissing and so on. Seriously, real men don’t cry. Anyway, moving on, the other preconception is that Elizabeth was herself not dogmatic about her religion – she wanted unity, so tried to find a middle way in her religious settlement, rather than having firm beliefs on particular dogma.
And so the traditional view has generally stayed. And yet, its interesting that England’s traditional orientation was entirely changed in Elizabeth’s reign. In 1589, William Cecil wrote to the Earl of Shrewsbury
The state of the world is marvellously changed…when we true Englishmen have cause for our own quietness to wish good success to a French king and a king of Scots; and yet they both differ one from the other in profession of religion; but seeing both are enemies to our enemies, we have cause to join with them in their actions against our enemies
I imagine Shrewsbury grunting unhappily and scrawling ‘too much repetition of the word enemies, Bill’ in the margin, but Cecil was reflecting a couple of things. Firstly, England’s orientation had always been against France and she had frequently looked to support from the Empire, or from Spain, or Aragon. She’d allied with Burgundy against France. Secondly, Cecil seems to be marvelling at the lack of confessional influence on policy – France was catholic, Scotland protestant. Along with this tradition of pragmatism is a reputation for parsimony, meanness, thrift – a desire for foreign influence and security on a shoestring budget.
Now of course Cecil really shouldn’t have been so surprised should he? I mean he’s a bright guy isn’t he, and it should have been obvious to everyone that war with Spain was inevitable eventually, surely? After all for Phillip II defending Catholicism was a matter of conscience rather than expediency, and England was a major Protestant nation.
I think you are well aware that a but is coming. So, but me no buts Bernard. Let’s deal with the inevitability of conflict with Catholic Spain first. This is where a healthy reminder is helpful; one day England will join the ranks of the great powers, even top the league for a while, but that is a long way off. England was very rarely on the top of Philip’s list in the 16th century. Firstly because we are still a small, damp island with a budget relative to the Empire and France of tuppence ha’penny. Secondly because Phillip stood at the head of an empire on which the sun never set, extraordinarily complex. In the early days of Elizabeth’s reign he was far more concerned about the France, and then about French religious strife, fearing that she’d become protestant; at the same time he was worried about Turkish naval power and control of the Mediterranean. England? Where’s that? England me no Englands Bernard. I mean I exaggerate for effect, but England was low down the priority list, and it’s probably more the Dutch Revolt that leads to war with England in the 1580s rather than Philip’s desire to convert England back to Catholicism, though that of course was indeed his desire.
Second ‘but’ then, is about the pragmatism thing, the lack of confessional principle. Don’t be so sure I think is where I would go on this. The historian and archivist David Trim argues that confessionalism does indeed drive Elizabethan foreign policy[i]. It is true to say that England was not in the market to export Protestantism in quite the way that the Hapsburgs were for Catholicism, seeking to re-impose Catholicism wherever possible; but there’s quite clear evidence that diplomatic thinking encompassed the idea that protestant countries should work together. So, in Scotland, the policy was never one of conquest, it was about the triumph of protestantism to build a protestant British Isles; Elizabeth approached the German Lutheran states to build relationships and encourage support for other states with reformed religion. As we will see, in the early 1560s England intervenes with boots on the ground in both France and Scotland.
Many diplomats believed that England and Elizabeth in particular were driven by a desire to export Protestantism – the Spanish ambassador warned that Elizabeth would seek to raise protestant revolt in France, Scotland and Flanders; and the same ambassador noted with horror that England was quick to offer refuge for protestants from Catholic persecution; he remarked of London that he was
Quite astounded to see the flocks of heretics who come hither to the city and are well received.
It is through this that we know the collective noun for heretic. The flock. I’m sure there should be something more exciting. An outrage of heretics for example. Or a conflagration. Ideas on a postcard …Meanwhile, Elizabeth was keen to encourage Protestantism in the low countries, sending the fiercely Calvinistic William Haddon on a mission to Bruges in 1561; that gloomy Spanish ambassador again predicted Elizabeth was thinking hard about
How to oust [Philip] from the Netherlands, and she believes the best way to effect this is to embroil them over there on religious questions
I bet he and Cecil got on like a house on fire, gloomily predicting imminent disaster in their respective fields. And as a further example, in the early 1560s, Nicholas Throckmorton, another passionate Calvinist was appointed as Ambassador to Paris, where it was reported that he ‘worked openly’ with Huguenot resistance. Finally, there is public opinion; there emerges in Elizabeth’s reign the idea of a public space which gives public opinion greater power, leverage and influence; the trend is influenced by greater literacy, by newsprint, chap books and ballads that are circulated freely and sung or read in pubs and at home. And public opinion is often fiercely concerned with religion and catholic conspiracy.
So the argument goes quite convincingly, that English policy was relentlessly oriented towards support for Protestantism; and that policy pursued not just future allies against Catholic aggression; but out of fellow feeling for protestants to achieve collective action and freedom of conscience for them in Catholic countries.
Well maybe – we’ll see; the traditional approach is to see blocs emerging in Elizabeth’s Privy Council, between firebrandy and interventionist types like Dudley and Walsingham, up against the cautious Cecil, and a queen then who shared his caution, and brought a politique, unconfessional approach as well. Let us see what we think, but it is worth saying is that whatever the motivation was, it was hard in the later 16th century to ignore a ruler’s religion in international deals, and the re-orientation of English policy is quite dramatic in the medium term away, from Spain as I have mentioned. But although this supports the argument for a protestant oriented policy, it is also true to say that allying with protestant countries probably ticks the security box anyway, and is not of itself evidence of English support for the exporting of Protestantism.
In this episode, then we are in what is termed England’s activist period, where Elizabeth took action to intervene. Let us first hie to Scotland.
In 1559 then, England is firmly fixated on France and through France to Scotland – I think I have covered that French ambition extended to a Franco Scottish state, ruled by Mary Queen of Scots and Francis II when he succeeded to the throne; and that the current French king Henry II had persuaded Mary anyway to sign away her rights if she died without an heir to France. I am sure I have mentioned the peace of Cateau Cambresis in May 1559 which finally put an end to the Hapsburg – Valois conflict, and incidentally did not return Calais to England. However, the negotiators kept their heads because there was a face saving formula, whereby England would get it back after 8 years, or France would buy it.
In Scotland, Mary of Guise had been regent since 1550 and had done a good job for many years of keeping the Franco Scottish realm from falling to pieces from the centripetal forces of regionalism and confessionalism. Mary followed a policy of careful co-existence of traditional and reformed religion. But Mary’s room for manoeuvre shrunk and squeezed as the decade went on. Confessional lines began to be drawn more clearly, as privy kirks offering reformed practice sprung up and preachers travelled from place to place; so whereas the strength of kinship had often prevented conflict or allowed local deals to be struck, confessionalism began to trump kinship. Although Mary had been careful to avoid heretic trials and execution, Archbishop James Beaton achieved a public relations disaster with the burning of an elderly Walter Mylne in April 1558. And now that the English had been firmly kicked out and Scotland was safe, the disbenefits of having the French over in force instead began to raise discontent – as Mary tried to introduce some elements of French approaches to government, and Frenchmen in key positions dominated government too. From the other end of the stick, Henry II of France became less patient of accommodation for the Scottish Protestantism, and the approach of toleration looked as though it was wobbling; the Catholic Guise faction, Mary’s relations the Duke of Guise and the Cardinal of Lorraine influenced Henry to seek to wipe out the French Huguenots and Scottish Protestants. So the Scottish lords were faced by a Mary of Guise no longer prepared to offer public concessions. As a result, in 1557, a group of protestant lords had formed the Lords of the Congregation, seeking to spread the protestant religion. The lords of the Congregation began to offer an opposition to Mary’s regency. By October 1559, the Lords had rather stalled however; and it was to England that they looked for support.
Or more specifically to Cecil. William Cecil remembered the positive bit of the rough wooing – the idea of a protestant British Isles, which offered security to England from the threat of a Catholic Franco Scotland. But it took Cecil months to build support in the PC – and more especially with Elizabeth. Elizabeth was chary of the idea of supporting rebels against their monarch…though given Mary of Guise was a regent not a monarch, the idea was a little more palatable in Scotland. Cecil corresponded with the Lords of the Congregation, and managed to get to the point where he could write that
Rather than that the realm should be with a foreign nation and power oppressed…the authority of England would adventure with power and force to aid that realm against any such foreign invasion
Into this tinderbox came the news that Henry II had been killed in France by a freak jousting accident; the reality had therefore come to pass. Francis II and his Queen Mary I of Scotland were monarchs of France and Scotland; and Nicholas Throckmorton reported that they quartered the arms on England on theirs. Effectively, Mary was claiming the throne of England as well – because in the eyes of Catholic powers, Elizabeth was a bastard, and Mary I was therefore the rightful monarch of England too. It could be described as a little inflammatory. Cecil started laying eggs.
He also started laying strategy papers, and in August 1559 it was probably him that produced the ‘Memorial of certain points meet for restoring the realm of Scotland to the ancient weal’. It’s a radical document; in it, Cecil advanced the argument that Scotland and England must be allied and must be both protestant, and should be ruled by the Scottish Parliament with reference to their king and queen in France. But frankly, if the king and queen didn’t agree with this constitution, ‘in respect of the greedy and tyrannous affection of France’ then they should be deposed, and the succession moved along to the next heir. I might note that by 1563 and the petition of parliament to the queen that she get her skates on and get married, Cecil will twice have proposed a succession plan in both Scotland and England that relied on the rule of a council appointed by parliament, rather than simply the operation of heredity on which monarch rules next. Under that rather severe and traditional exterior, beat the heart of a bit of a wicked radical. However, the petition was not completely a waste of time – the Queen did agree to clandestine financial support of the Rebels, and English gold found its way north of the border. But no military intervention.
In December, in increasing desperation, the lords of the congregation sent an envoy down to London. This was William Maitland of Lethington, who will be a part of the story for the next few years. Here is a fierce intellect and talent, deeply committed to Protestantism. His great skills as a politician won him many enemies – he was known as Michael Wylie, a pun on Machiavelli, or known as Chameleon according to the Scottish author George Buchanan. He shared the vision of a protestant union, and corresponded frequently with Cecil; Elizabeth recognised his talents describing him as ‘the flower of the wits of Scotland’. Mary QoS was aware of Maitland – and when she returned to Scotland would make him her principal secretary – though warning him to stop corresponding with England off his own bat.
Anyway, Maitland came to ask for English military support against France; Mary of Guises’ forces already had the Congregation on the run, and news was that a major new contingent of troops was planned from France – 15,000 German mercenaries according to Cecil’s intelligence. Still Elizabeth remained to be convinced – the Congregationalists were rebels. On 27th December the PC debated and agreed to petition Elizabeth for military intervention in Scotland, and Cecil formally presented the proposal to the Queen. On the back of the paper, are scrawled the words ‘not allowed by the queen’. Which hides a river of tears, because Cecil was besides himself. He went as far as to draft a letter of resignation to the queen; he was like a bug impaled on a thorn by a Shrike; it was his duty to offer advice to the queen, and yet the pain of her refusal to accept that advice had him wriggling around in mortal pain. How’s the Shrike metaphor working out for you by the way? Hopefully there are some twitchers out there.
It’s not clear if Cecil sent his letter to the Queen – but he continued to badger and nag, in the finest tradition of a bored teenager. And bit by bit, he talked Elizabeth round. In January 1560 an English fleet appeared in the Firth of Forth, guarding against any French re-inforcements; and then eventually Elizabeth agreed to muster an army, and by March 1560, Cecil agreed the treaty of Berwick with the rebels.
Honestly the performance of the English troops was patchy. But the French had a run of bad luck which sank their campaign. Firstly, their fleet bringing re-inforcements was lost in a storm; on 15th March the French Huguenots, that is French Protestants, tried to seize the Duke of Guise and King Francis and the French religious conflict formed a major distraction to goings on in Scotland; and then the final straw was the death of Mary of Guise on 11th June. Within a Month, Cecil had negotiated the Treaty of Edinburgh with the Lords, though it needed to be ratified by Queen Mary before it would be operational. The treaty was a triumph for Cecil; all foreign troops were to be removed, and France was to recognize Elizabeth’s right to the English throne – and stop half inching the English arms for use in their own. For the moment, there were Dodos which looked more healthy that the idea of Franco Scotland – whether it could be revived depended on Francis II. Cecil’s plan for a protestant British Isles took a big step forward in 1560 with the Scottish Reformation parliament. The reformation parliament made Scotland officially a protestant country and rejected the authority of the Pope; but it did not remove the Catholic church or infrastructure. Most Scots were probably still catholic at this point – and the catholic church would limp on for some time in increasing pain – but it’s future in Scotland looked bleak.
And then in December 1560, Francis II died too. For Mary QoS this was both a personal and political disaster. Mary had spent most of her life in France – she was now 18. With Francis’ death and the continuing ramping up of the French religious conflict, Mary’s future in France was effectively over; her family, the Guise, tried to organise another marriage but to no avail. And Mary now faced the opposition of her mother in law and regent, Catherine of Medici – who wanted her gone from the French Court.
So, Mary made preparations to return – going on a tour of France to visit relatives, and meeting representatives from Scotland. These gave her conflicting advice. The advice from the Earl of Huntly, head of the Gordon family and one of the two families, along with the Campbell earls of Argyll who dominated the Highlands and Western Islands. Huntly was a Catholic. He proposed that Mary land near Aberdeen and together they march on Edinburgh and bring Scotland back to Catholicism. The other was Lord James Stewart, another man like Maitland who will be part of Mary’s story for a long time. James Stewart was Mary’s half brother, illegitimate son of Mary’s father, James V, and Margaret Erskine. Mary will very soon make him the Earl of Moray, so we are going to call him Moray from the start – accepting I’ve gone a little early. I apologise to all you purists out there, and for the rest of this episode whenever I say Moray you have my full permission to grit your teeth, or indeed any part of your anatomy, and mutter, Lord James Stewart to yourself.
Anyway, Moray was another protestant, but one who had only recently left the French side to join the congregation. He was ambitious, clever and politically astute. He advised Mary to accept the Scottish religious settlement, which was essentially one of toleration, Protestant and Catholic churches side by side. As queen, it was important that Mary upheld the official religion, but she would be able to practice Catholicism in her own chapel of Holyrood house. Mary’s instincts were very much towards conciliation – and she accepted Moray’s advice. By August 1561 she was back in Scotland, and initially at least her skills at conciliation, her charm and authority brought the Scottish Political nation back together. At the same time, she sent her Principal Secretary, Maitland, to England, to start a long, complex and frankly mind blowing tedious diplomatic process with Cecil and Elizabeth. Mary was extremely concerned to have her rights of succession to the English throne recognised, and will do all her life. For Mary this is partly about the attractions of her personal glory, more about simply enforcing what she firmly believed to be her god given right; but also because she felt that recognition of her right was a requirement to establish her rule in Scotland, a bulwark against the factionalism of the lords of her council. On the English side of course Elizabeth as we have discussed, hated the thought of recognising a successor around whom might coalesce rebellion. For her and the PC, the real issue was whether or not Mary would ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh – which she refused to do. And so back and forth they went.
There’s a personal dynamic too; Mary was desperately keen to establish a ‘loving’ relationship with her ‘sister’ Elizabeth as she called her, though not at the expense of being seen in anyway as inferior in status; Elizabeth was equally fascinated by Mary, but very circumspect, and a little jealous. It is a show that will run and run. Cecil was very worried that if the two of them met, he would lose control – and Mary in particular pushed hard for a meeting. In 1562, it came very, very close and a meeting was planned for York – but at the last moment, Cecil managed to talk her out of it, and Elizabeth cancelled.
Let us leave Scotland for a while; in terms of our earlier argument we might note the conflict in Elizabeth between her dynastic reluctance to intervene against another monarch, as against a desire for security and the call of the support for Protestantism. Within a year, the supposedly reluctant militarist Elizabeth would be once more embroiled in military action over religious conflict. This time, the theatre was France.
Religious conflict at the French court grew steadily, and the English Ambassador Nicholas Throckmorton was alarmed at the prospects for the Protestant side. Throckmorton was a convinced Calvinist, and from 1560 he was advocating intervention, and talking to the leader of the Huguenots, Louis de Bourbon, the Prince of Conde.
In this Throckmorton was joined by Robert Dudley, and it’s been argued that over this affair Robert first emerged as a voice in policy making. Dudley favoured intervention, and took Throckmorton under his wing as his protégé. He was probably joined by Cecil though it seems Cecil would have preferred to stop short of feet on the ground. In March 1562 tensions in France escalated with the Massacre of Vassy, when the Catholic Duke of Guise had 63 Huguenots killed and hundreds wounded. Both sides started to arm, and the Huguenot leaders Conde and Coligny sent envoys to England to discuss the possibility of English intervention. Negotiations were led by Dudley at Hampton court.
Elizabeth once again took some persuading. There were two considerations in her mind probably; the first was that the prospect of a Guise and Catholic victory in France was reasonably scary, on the same basis as a victory in Scotland would have been. England wanted Conde and Coligny at very least to survive, as a bulwark against possible French catholic aggression, and to promote the cause of Protestantism. But secondly, an intriguing possibility emerged in discussions. The Huguenots controlled the French port of Le Havre; if England supported the Huguenots, the English could be given control of Le Havre, against the return of Calais. Which of these considerations – the eternal triangle of Protestantism, Security and the return of Calais meant the most to Elizabeth is moot. In September 1562, the treaty was signed and an English army of 6,000 set off for Le Havre, and a loan of £30,000 agreed for Conde. Dudley became a member of the PC, and in terms of influencing policy making, he had arrived, he was no longer just the Queen’s fancy man.
At this point, October 1562, Elizabeth and her English subjects had a bit of a scare. On the night of 10th, Elizabeth complained of a fever, and the fever turned out to be the arrival of smallpox. Cecil started laying eggs again – Elizabeth’s death would be the arrival of his nightmare, a disputed succession. During her illness, Elizabeth felt close enough to death to confess her sins – none of which included sex with Dudley – and she made Dudley the Protector of the realm should she die. As it happens Elizabeth recovered. It is speculated that the illness may have left Elizabeth’s skin heavily pockmarked, and maybe this was the start of Elizabeth’s habit of smearing thick layers of white make up on her face – but it is just guesswork. But while I am on this digression, Elizabeth certainly starts wearing heavy makeup and a wig at some point in her life. When Elizabeth got up in the morning, it was quite a process, she used a liberal supply of warpaint, and her ladies applied a wide array of unguents. Curd for the forehead to keep it from going all wrinkly, a cleansing lotion made from two freshly laid eggs and their shells, burnt alum, powdered sugar, borax and poppy seeds ground with water. Then she treated her entire face, neck and hands with ceruse, which is a nasty sounding mixture of white lead and vinegar; the idea was to give her the palest possible complexion, since dark skin was of course evidence of working under the sun all day and therefore of being a peasant. Her lips were painted a vivid red, and kohl used around the eyes.
The thing is that some of these were toxic, especially the ceruse, and Elizabeth probably had this white face paint applied more and more thickly as time went on. The habit spread because the court wanted to show their solidarity, and so the ladies of the household in particular did the same thing.
Anyway, back to war in France! The commander of the 6,000 man army that arrived in Le Havre was Dudley’s brother Ambrose, the Earl of Warwick, another Calvinist, and the strength of Calvinists among his officers suggested a religious angle to the appointment as well as the obvious connection with Dudley. It has to be said that things didn’t go that well. The English arrived too late to make a difference in the defence of Rouen which duly fell to the Catholics. Immediately afterwards, in March 1563, the Huguenot and Catholics met in a bloody battle at Dreux; both sides suffered high losses, but the Catholics held the field and captured Conde.
At this point, the French agreed the peace of Amboise between them; the Huguenots were given a certain amount of religious toleration but with services restricted to the houses of noblemen and a few specified towns. The events of 1562-3 have been seen purely as a miserable failure for the English – but it should be said that the presence of the English army at Le Havre gave the Huguenots a negotiating power they would not otherwise have had at Amboise, so not completely useless. But that was the high point. The English army by now had come down with plague. Meanwhile Elizabeth kept the army there, angling for a swap of Le Havre for the return of Calais. Well, as far as the Huguenots were concerned this changed the status of the English from helpful allies to blood dripping imperialist invaders, and much to English chagrin, the Catholics and Huguenots now combined to chuck the English out. The English surrendered and slunk back to home. There was a certain lack of glory in their return.
The end of this enterprise now starts 20 years or so before the English will attempt again to send any army anywhere. Partly this was due to a realisation that the English military organisation was simply not up to it – poorly trained soldiers, out of date armanents and out of date strategy. Archers still formed a large part of the army – and their arrows could not penetrate the armour of the heavy cavalry. The English did not combine pikemen and cavalry, a staple now of continental armies. The PC realised they were simply not in a state to take on the big guys. Changes were made in the training of the armed bands that formed the backbone of the English militia, but until physical intervention became crucial, the PC preferred to operate secretly, and though things like financial assistance rather than war.
Ok, that is enough on foreign stuff for this week I think – Cecil 1, Dudley 0 I think, but the crashing and burning of the French adventure appears to have damaged Dudley’s reputation with the queen not one jot. As far as that debate about policy, the adventures in both Scotland and France can be presented through either lens – support for the Protestant cause or the search for security; and maybe that’s the answer, that both are important, and when push comes to shove, they tend to overlap – security is more likely to be offered by Protestant allies rather than Catholic.
 Croft, P England, Spain and Europe 1558-1604 in Doran & Richardson, Tudor England and its Neighbours p178
 Borman, Tracy. The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty . Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle Edition.
[i] Trim, D: Seeking a Protestant Alliance in Doran & Richardson, Tudor England and its Neighbours pp 139-170