As part of project Armada, I have been reading a book which is only semi-related to wargaming. From the title, the unwary wargamer might suppose that it was suitable as a tome for the hobby: ‘War and Politics in the Elizabethan Counties’, by Neil Younger (2012, Manchester, MUP). Nevertheless, it is an interesting book, partly because Younger discusses the strategy of the Elizabethan regime, and partly because he has a much higher view of the Elizabethan military than has often been the case.
First things first, however:. Younger observes, correctly, that the wars Elizabethan England engaged in between 1585 and 1604 have no collective name. Intrigued, I checked what the set of army lists in DBR were called for the period. Barker calls it ‘The Wars of the Reformation’. These include English, Irish, Low Countries Spanish, Dutch Rebellion and both Huguenot and Catholic League French. The wars cover 1560 to 1605-ish, with the Spanish and Dutch lists going on to the end of the Thirty Years War. The name ‘Wars of the Reformation’ is rather a misnomer if you ask me. Lutcher did his bit of vandalism to a church door in 1517. John Calvin, who I (probably wrongly, granted) regard as a ‘second wave’ reformer died in 1564. The Reformation was well on by the time the period started. The Counter-Reformation was launched by the Council of Trent which met from 1545 – 1563, after all.
Perhaps ‘Wars of the Counter-Reformation’ would be a better term for the period. The religious situation in Germany was more settled after an agreement that the state would follow the brand of faith of the ruler, and so Germany was reasonably quiet in the period. There were various rebellions in the Low Countries, granted, and France went through one of its seemingly periodic collapses. How much all of this really had to do with faith is, of course, slightly moot. It did, but faith was not the only issue involved, even in the Low Countries.
England went to war in 1585 reluctantly. The country was poor and divided, it was felt. The Elizabethan settlement of the church in 1560 had tried to keep more or less everyone on board and had been reasonably successful, but there were still a lot of recusants around and their loyalty was in doubt. The Elizabethan regime employed classic delaying tactics to avert war, and it was only in 1585, when negotiations collapsed, that preparations for conflict were started.
The Elizabethan strategy consisted of three parts. The first was to avoid invasion. It was unclear how many people would rally to the Protestant regime’s defence, particularly as the head of it was an aging, childless woman. Avoiding putting the support for the Queen to the test was paramount. Allied to this was the control of Ireland, which was seen by many as a springboard to invading England itself. Thus, the major troop deployment of the regime was, in fact, from 1595 to Ireland.
The third element of the strategy was to keep the Channel ports, those on the south, in neutral or friendly hands. Thus Elizabeth sent support to both the Dutch rebels and Henry IV, even when the latter turned to Catholicism. A mildly Catholic but tolerant regime in France was preferable to a Counter-Reformation inspired Spanish backed radical Catholic one.
The English strategy was, thus, defensive in nature. This did not, of course, preclude local offensive action. Some of the Elizabethan raids on Spanish ports were among the most spectacularly successful of their type ever. But, overall, the government tried to reign in those politicians and generals who were most enthusiastic about offensive warfare, either at sea or on land. War, the government knew, was expensive. A defensive war was the cheapest option, and that was what was fought. In strategic terms, although Elizabeth was dead before the peace treaty was signed, the English obtained their objectives.
Part of the war preparations in England and Wales were the creation of county lieutenants, crown representatives. These tended to be reliable (radical Protestant) nobles from the area, and to them passed the requirement to organise the Elizabethan defensive militias, in this case, the trained bands. Militias had, of course, always existed. Theoretically any male between 16 and 60 was in the militia. But warfare had developed, and pike and shot units were required. Each county was called upon to train a proportion of its men in modern methods, as well as arm and pay them.
As Younger observes, the Elizabethan militia was never (well, hardly ever) tried out in action. We have no historical evidence whether the measures would have been sufficient to defend to country if the Armada had landed. Much historiography, however, argues that it would have done badly against Parma’s professionals, or the troops from Spain carried on the ships themselves. Younger begs to differ a little. Some of the militia seems to have been of reasonable quality and trained to some extent at least. Further, quite a few of them were enthusiastic and, as the Dutch had demonstrated, a lot could be done with enthusiasm and a fair bit of digging.
The idea behind the defences against the 1588 Armada are not, Younger observes, as is usually represented in the history books. They suggest that three armies were formed, one to track the Armada along the south coast, one at Tilbury to defend against landings in Essex when that seemed likely, and one in London to defend the capital and Queen. In fact, the first army never existed. The trained bands mustered in each county as the Armada approached. The plan was that this would be the initial resistance if there was a landing, and the county trained band would be reinforced by trained bands from neighbouring counties, fighting, presumably, a drawn out delaying battle until the Spanish were exhausted and cut off, by the navy, from reinforcements and supply. Given the defeat of the Armada and the fact it never landed, the third army never existed – the trained bands were sent home practically before they had set out. The Tilbury army did come into being, but only for a short time.
Younger observes that this might not have been the best way of defending the realm, but it was financially efficient. Unlike most early modern European powers, Elizabeth’s government fought a long war without going bankrupt or losing credit status. The focus is often (probably rightly) on the navy, but Younger observes that when the regime of Charles I went to war in the 1620’s it was soon in financial and political straits. Both the strategy and the trust of the county elites for the government were lost.