Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Elizabeth I and the Armada

Elizabeth I
The Armada Portrait

In a previous posting I discussed the myths regarding the alleged incompetence and lack of experience of the commander of the Armada, The Duke of Medina Sidonia, and showed what a simple perusal of Spanish records and archives would have shown, that the Duke was a supremely competent administrator and his handling of the Armada was if not brilliant was over all competent.1

Here I will tackle another historical myth, that of the parsimony and “incompetence” of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) in her handling of the war with Spain.

This myth got off to a start during the reign of Elizabeth I with Elizabeth’s councilors complaining about her indecision and parsimony and of course complaining about her being a women.

So in other words we got good old fashioned sexism, complaining about how much better Elizabeth would be if she was a man.2

Of course during Elizabeth’s reign such complaints were kept private but after the Queen’s death misogyny could run riot. Thus we get Sir Walter Raleigh saying:
...if the late Queen would have believed her men of war as she did her scribes, we had in her time beaten that great empire [Spain] in pieces and made their kings kings of figs and oranges as in old times.3
And has per usual then has later some of Elizabeth’s councilors complained about her parsimony and reluctance to finance military expeditions etc. They also complained about her “womanly” foreign policy and reluctance to take risks.

Those conclusions have been taken up by many, many historians.

In Elizabeth’s court there existed a faction of militant Protestants who believed in engaging in a Manichean struggle with the forces of International Catholicism, which was viewed as Satanic. That this view was a mirror image of the attitude of militant Catholicism seems to have entirely passed them by.4

One of the leaders of this faction was Elizabeth’s spy master; the able but sinister and repellant Francis Walsingham. He like several others was constantly pressuring Elizabeth to pursue a more militant political posture in favour of the international Protestant cause.5

Although Elizabeth’s councilors and far too many later historians like to blame her alleged “timidity” on her being a women that is totally bogus.

Elizabeth’s caution was based on an innate conservatism that was based not just on her character and experiences but on her position.

It is important to remember that Elizabeth had inherited a realm deeply and bitterly divided over religious issues, (Catholic vs. Protestant). The realm had been repeatedly shaken up by religious reform and counter-reform along with rebellion and intrigue. Further the realm had been involved a whole series of bitter wars that had all, uniformly ended in failure. The crown had been impoverished and seriously weakened. Elizabeth’s own claim to the throne was subject to serious dispute and threat. Under the circumstances Elizabeth’s desire to avoid foreign entanglements and religious and social experiments at home was perfectly sane. What Elizabeth wanted as much as possible was peace at home and abroad, so that her realm could recover from all the turmoil of her father’s, her brother’s and her sister’s reigns.

Amazingly some Historians still consider Henry VIII (1509-1547) to have been a very successful monarch. Aside from keeping his throne and repudiating the Papal supremacy his reign was over all a slow moving disaster for crown and country.

Henry inherited a full treasury and during his reign he confiscated huge amounts of church property, yet by the end of it he had dissipated vast amounts of crown assets and the church lands confiscated had slipped through his fingers. Further his continual wars aside from creating great enmity with Scotland and France had been financial disasters and militarily / politically utter failures. Henry’s aggressive “manly” foreign policy had been a disaster for England.

The reigns of Elizabeth’s brother (Edward VI 1547-1553), and sister (Mary I 1553-1558), saw a continuation of a costly adventurous foreign policy and wars with social experimentation at home. The results were not pleasant.6

With the examples of her father, brother and sister at hand it should not be a surprise that Elizabeth was not at all interested in following in their footsteps.

When Elizabeth came to throne she quickly found out that royal finances were in a complete mess, aside from the economy being in a shambles due to the repeated devaluations of the coinage that had been going on since her father’s reign as a way of raising money for the crown. Royal revenues were also very low and insufficient for even ordinary expenses of the crown.

Elizabeth was able to significantly raise royal revenue, from c. 200,000 lbs a year to c. 300,000 a year sufficient to pay royal expenses and to put aside a sum for emergencies. Further through a mass reminting of the coinage she was able to restore the value of the currency.7

However compared to revenue and holdings that her father had in much of his reign before he pissed it away Elizabeth I was a pauper at even the best of times.

Elizabeth also faced the problem that her realm had a small and rather poor population so that her resources always remained very limited. For has Elizabeth I said on one occasion:
Owning neither the East nor the West Indies, we are unable to supply the constant demands upon us; and although we have the reputation of being a good housewife, it does not follow that we can be a housewife for all the world.8
This also raises the point of Philip II (1556-1598) of Spain Elizabeth’s great enemy and the one who sent the Armada against England. Philip II of Spain was with the exception of the Ottoman Sultan the wealthiest King in Europe. His wealth outstripped that of any other European monarch. Philip II had the great wealth from the silver mines of the New world and the considerable and massive wealth of Castile, one of the kingdoms then constituting Spain. In c. 1590 Philip II’s total yearly revenue amounted to 9,803,000 ducats, or about 2,450,000 lbs. That is a little over 8 times Elizabeth I yearly revenue (300,000 lbs).9 Not surprisingly Elizabeth didn’t think she could possibly out spend Philip II.

Further the military and maritime resources of Spain were very large. With the Spanish and Portuguese, (Philip II had acquired Portugal and the Portuguese empire in 1580 and with it a very good fleet), overseas empires, by far the largest merchant marine in Europe and the best army.

The overall result of Elizabeth I’s financial position and her awareness of Spanish power was that Elizabeth was forced to wage a basically defensive and conservative war effort. In other words Elizabeth right from the beginning of the war adopted moderate and conservative war aims and endeavored to not bankrupt herself or impoverish her kingdom by seeking war aims that given the power and wealth of Spain were mere pie in the sky. Or by trying pie in the sky military endeavors that would cost an enormous amount and would likely not deliver because Philip II could easily spend more, much more.

To give but one simple example, although Elizabeth had an excellent Navy and a remarkably effective Naval administration bureaucracy to mobilize it in short order, the financial constraints were such as to limit such mobilization for short periods of time, because otherwise the money would simply run out.10

Finally for those historians, generally male, who complain about Elizabeth I’s interference in naval operations, most of this carping is without substance; the worst tactical and strategic decision made by the English during the war was a decision that was utterly contrary to Elizabeth I’s express orders.

The story is has follows. After the defeat of the Armada and the terrible damage done by storm and shipwreck on the voyage home, the remnants of the Armada took refuge in ports in northern Spain. Around these ships Philip began to build up a new fleet.

Elizabeth agreed to send a “counter” Armada with a force that would try to place a pretender on the Portuguese throne, perhaps take some wealthy Spanish ships, maybe even the annual Spanish treasure fleet from the Americas. The cost was great but Elizabeth was able to raise the huge sums required. However the main object of the expedition and the first thing Elizabeth’s admirals were supposed to do was attack and destroy the remnants of the Armada in the relatively, then, undefended northern Spanish ports. Instead of doing that Elizabeth I’s officers chased a couple of Spanish prizes they never caught, made a half hearted attempt to take Lisbon sailed around a great deal, failed to buy fresh provisions and sailed around a lot more even after a significant outbreak of disease and scurvy broke out on their ships during which many thousands of their men died.11

In other words it was a costly failure, not a disaster like the Armada but pretty bad. For all that money and effort Elizabeth I got zip from it.

It is interesting to note that Elizabeth I is frequently condemned for allowing, allegedly, thousands of her sailors to die in ports when she demobilized the fleet after the Armada campaign. (Elizabeth had run out of money and it had to be done.) The fact that it was routine after mobilizing the fleet for a few months (at most) to dismiss the men is forgotten, or that the disease outbreak was unusual and that under Elizabethan rules regarding seamen the persons supposed to be responsible for seamen after demobilization was their captains. Instead we get rants about Elizabeth’s parsimony and callousness. The state simply utterly lacked the financial resources to keep the fleet permanently mobilized. Oh and it does appear Elizabeth I did try to do something for the seamen.12 The same historians who complain and rant about Elizabeth being responsible for those seamen’s deaths and the lack of care for them, are silent about the many thousands of seamen who died, to a large extent because of their officers’ actions, greed and incompetence during the “counter” Armada.

The failure to destroy the remnants of the Armada infuriated Elizabeth I to no end along with the rank disobedience to her perfectly rational and utterly correct orders. The failure to destroy what was left of the Armada is an outcome for which Elizabeth I has little responsibility and her officers a great deal. It seems the fact that Elizabeth I was a women played a role in them disobeying her. Not surprisingly Elizabeth I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic to try similar stuff in the future, to say nothing of the fact that the money would have to be raised again and that would take a few years. And her officers disobedience would of course make Elizabeth I suspicious that despite what future expeditions were supposed to do the officers might on the spot decide to do something else for private gain and utterly irrelevant to the purpose of the expedition. Despite this Elizabeth I did finance several more expeditions when she had the financial wherewithal.

It also wasn’t lost on Elizabeth that the failure to destroy the remnants of the Armada put an end to any chance of ending the war quickly.13

The war was long and tactically basically indecisive and although peace was not made until after Elizabeth I died the terms were basically the fairly conservative objectives Elizabeth I strived for. Not the impossible aims of the militant Protestant faction.

The writer Jasper Ridley in his biography of Elizabeth I says that Elizabeth I is judged leniently because she was a women.14 This is so contrary has to be risible. It is very easy to show that the contrary is the truth. Elizabeth I has been given a much more severe analysis from historians, largely male, than the male rulers of the time. Elizabeth I’s father for example is treated with kid gloves considering that describing his reign as a disaster for crown and country is not that far off.

Finally a more apt comparison is with Elizabeth I’s great antagonist Philip II of Spain. Philip II of Spain was an able, hardworking and very competent ruler; he also had at his command vast, financial, economic, military, commercial, maritime resources that positively dwarfed Elizabeth I’s. Yet his reign ended in costly repeated failures.15

Elizabeth fought her war as reasonably expensive has she could manage, achieved her overall aims, avoided impoverishing the crown and country and left a stable and reasonably prosperous country to her successor James I.16

Battle During the Armada Campaign

1. See Here.

2. Examples of this are very numerous see Somerset, Anne, Elizabeth I, Fontana Books, New York, 1991 for many, many examples.

3. Raleigh, Walter, quoted in Rodger, N. A. M., The Safeguard of the Sea, HarperCollins Pub., London, 1997, p. 254.

4. See Hutchinson, Robert, Elizabeth’s Spy Master, Phoenix, London, 2006, MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Reformation, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pp.382-393, Somerset, pp. 71-76.

5. IBID, Rodgers, pp. 254-258.

6. Rodger, pp. 164-203. See also Somerset, pp. 1-57.

7. Rodger, pp. 186-189, 340-342, Somerset, pp. 142-143, 280-282.
8. Elizabeth I, quoted in Somerset p. 572.

9. Elliot, J. H., Imperial Spain 1469-1716, Penguin Books, London, 1963, pp. 285-286, Parker, Geoffrey, The Grand Strategy of Philip II, Yale University Press, London, 1998, pp. 253. Rodgers, pp. 247-248, The calculations of ducats into lbs are my own.

10. Parker, pp. 253-257, Rodgers, pp. 327-346.

11. Rodgers, pp. 372-374, Somerset, pp. 478-480.

12. Footnote 10.

13. IBID, Footnote 14.

14. Ridley, Jasper, Elizabeth I, Penguin Books, London, 1988. Another example of a basic misogyny in regards to Elizabeth I see Fuller, . F. C., A Military History of the Western World, v. 2, Da Capo Books, New York, 1955, pp. 1-39. The above is Fuller’s treatment of the Armada campaign.

15. See Parker, pp. 269-296, Elliott, pp. 285-292.

16. Rodgers, pp. 341-342, Somerset, pp. 570-575.

Pierre Cloutier

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