One of the books on my ‘to be written about’ pile is:
Hammer, P. E. J., Elizabeth's Wars (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
I got this because, as you may have noticed, I am trying to update my historiography of the sixteenth century. On the other hand, the book does not really contain any of the descriptions of battles, weapons, uniforms and campaigns which wargamers so frequently hanker after.
You get quite a lot more in the book than just wars from 1558. Elizabeth’s reign was constrained significantly by the activities of her father and siblings. Henry VIII managed spectacular diplomatic isolation in the 1540’s and spent vast sums of money on defending England, invading Scotland and also invading France. He also managed to upset a fair number of people along the way, including the Scots, French and Imperial Emperor. The fact that he was a Protestant (sort of) in an increasingly aggressive Catholic Europe also did not help; nor did the rather ambivalent point of view of some of his subject to the matter of religion, on both sides.
Somehow the realm survived, made peace in Europe and struggled on with an ultimately unsuccessful war against the Scots. Quite what was to be achieved by fighting in Scotland was a bit of a mystery by Edward’s reign. Certainly, Scotland’s alliance with France was a problem for the security of the realm, but there was no way that, after being invaded, the Scots were going to allow Mary Stuart to marry Edward. Still, fighting continued until the English regime fell and a series of revolts, partly about religion and partly about taxation paralysed England and forced some sort of peace.
It did not last all that long of course. Peace in Early Modern Europe rarely did. Mary Tudor married Phillip of Span and England was again embroiled in continental war, albeit with a more reliable partner. However, the loss of Calais in 1558 had rather wider implications for England than the humiliation and loss of the entry port into Europe (much used of course, by Henry – if Edward III had not captured Calais, England’s involvement in continental wars would have been much lower – discuss). Calais and its garrison provided England with a cadre of trained professional soldiers. The royal garrison of Berwick was too small and remote (not to mention in too peaceable part of the realm, as it turned out) to replace it.
The problems facing Elizabeth when she came to the throne were manifold: religion, foreign affairs, the nature of the Scottish settlement (or lack of it), her own marriage and the succession and, above all money. These would have tested most monarchs of that or any other age. Above that Elizabeth had another issue that of her sex. This influenced many of the others – if she married she would lose power to her husband ad Mary Tudor had, and possibly have her realm dragged into wars which were not in its best interests. But beyond that she could not, by the mores of the day, command armies. The problem was that men, aristocratic men with an inflated idea of their own importance as it was, would command her armies and, if successful could threaten her throne.
Hammer takes us through the wars Elizabeth had to fight. The early interventions convinced her that wars were expensive, costly in the lives of her subjects and rather pointless. The assistance to the Protestants in Scotland was vaguely successful but the military aspects bordered on fiasco. The intervention in France was worse. The Tyrone rebellion in Ireland was both bloody and expensive, and the outcome was not the subjection of the island that might have engendered security. Against this background was the rising threat of Spain, chaos, from time to time, in France and the revolt of the Netherlands.
As an additional complication, the more Protestant elements of the kingdom, who often happened to be West Country sailors, wanted to expand their trade and piracy, at the expense of the nearest thing to a regional superpower there was at the time, Spain. The raids they launched were, mostly, irritants to the Spanish Empire, but did not help diplomatic relations at all, especially as the Queen and her council, desperate for money, had a tendency to take profit from the attacks (when they were profitable).
Elizabeth’s government did not wander blindly into war with Spain. They were, so far as it was possible, prepared, but money was always a constraint. English armies in the Low Countries were under-supplied, under-equipped and under-manned. The navy was better prepared but still the government had a tendency to not pay the seamen. The Armada was fought off by a combination of good fortune and strategic error by the Spanish high command.
The Elizabethan regime counter-attacked, of course. The 1595 Cadiz expedition is described as one showing a high degree of coordination by navy and army, and was carried out with a great deal of success. After a decade of war lessons had been learnt although it does have to be remembered that the Elizabethan strategy was always ultimately defensive. Elizabeth aimed for a draw in the war, while some of the aristocrats seem to have seriously thought they could win.
The exception is, of course, Ireland. The Tyrone rebellion had to be won. Strategy and religion combined here in a lethal cocktail that sucked men and money from England and left Ireland itself devastated and depopulated. But Elizabeth’s government could do no other – a Spanish base in Ireland would leave the whole of the west of England (to say nothing of Scotland) exposed to invasion. Further, despite the navy which defended against the Armada being based in Plymouth, there was no viable naval base to control the Irish Sea – logistically, London was the key.
Of course, the paradox of all this is that from historiographical viewpoints, Elizabeth and her government just about hung on. In myth and propaganda things are rather different. The cover of the book shows ‘The Armada Portrait’ of Elizabeth, serene with imperial crown (Henry VIII had declared England an empire, by the way), her victorious navy in the background and her hand resting on a globe. Later generations looked back to the tradition of the Elizabethan sea dog and contrasted their own age unfavourably with it – this was particularly true of the run in to the English Civil War, but not exclusive to it. It is also possible that this requirement for image making and propaganda stimulated the cultural golden age that did flourish – Shakespeare, Spenser and all that. If you want propaganda, you need someone to write it, but now I am speculating.