Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Elizabeth’s French Wars

Those of us who have been knocking around the early modern arena will be aware that, for a monarch of distinctly pacifist leanings, Elizabeth I was involved in rather a depressing number of wars. For a start, there were wars in Scotland, against the Catholics and French. According to something I vaguely remember having read, it was this activity that convinced her that wars were simply a matter of wasted money and wasted blood.

Still, wars continued, rather unabated. Quite a lot of people would probably blame the religious wars created by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Modern propensities are to downgrade religion to something that is individualised and personal, rather than of national significance. Thus religion is a matter for which individuals are willing to die for and kill for, but is not a matter of national concern, at least in the liberal West.

Religion, in the sense of Protestant and Roman Catholic in early modern Europe, was a matter of national concern, but it was not the only matter. Elizabeth, after all, is also famous for the settlement of the Church of England, which attempted to keep as many of her people on board with the national church as possible. However, England did also have strategic concerns which were issues from the earliest times right up to today. Those concerns are with respect to the balance of power in Europe.

The major concern of Elizabeth’s time was who controlled the southern shores of the English Channel. This was not quite as it is today: the Dutch were in revolt, Antwerp was dubious, Calais had, of course, recently been lost to France and the French monarchy was doing one of its spectacular falling apart jobs to which it seemed frequently to succumb. Added to that was the increasing power of Spain and its attempts to suppress the Dutch revolt, French involvement in Scotland and the assorted outbreaks of civil war in France (again, religion was a factor, but over-mighty subjects was another), and Elizabeth and her ministers faced a strategic crisis.

I have been reading this:

Heap, W. (2019). Elizabeth's French Wars 1562-1598. London: Unicorn.

It is a worthwhile book but is a bit oddly written. I suspect it has at its origin the academic work of the author, and it makes certain assumptions which, even for an aficionado of the times, are a little less than valid. In particular, it does not give a potted history of the French Wars of Religion, which makes life a little tricky for those of us whose understanding of the trajectory comes from Oman. But after a while, you get used to the thematic chapter structure and realize that the reader’s ignorance of what was going on is matched, more or less, by the monarchs and ministers of the period.

The book is a very interesting one, but it does not really go too far into the motives for Elizabeth getting involved in the internal affairs of France. Yes, there was religion, but there was also the fear of Spain in alliance with a newly united and Catholic France just across the Channel. In the thousand years or so of England being a reasonably united country trouble had usually brewed from Normandy or the Low Countries, often mediated through the French polity. Keeping the balance of power in Western Europe was a major factor in English foreign policy for centuries.

The book focuses on English reasons for intervening, how the intervention was achieved, what happened during the three main periods of English intervention (1562-3, 1589-94, and 1596-7), and the war at sea. The life of the soldiers is discussed and the issues arising after Henri negotiated a peace with the rebels and Spain. The English view of things is also discussed.

The conclusions are quite interesting as well. Something which I was vaguely aware of, but which always seems to be rather dismissed in the standard histories are the English subsidies to assorted German generals to intervene in France. These were usually defeated, and so are rather overlooked. However, Heap makes the interesting point that, even though they usually ended in retreat or defeat at the hands of the Leaguers, their principal effect was to divert French Catholic armies from elsewhere. The Germans usually invaded Lorraine, which was key homeland territory for the Guise, and had to be defended. This gave the Huguenots or, later, the Royal army under Henri IV, a much freer hand in the rest of France. Defeat on the battlefield did not necessarily mean strategic disaster.

The book is also extremely well illustrated with contemporary maps, prints, and portraits. In fact, it is one of the best things about it, although that does not mean that the rest of the book is at all bad. The plates of sieges (and most of the war, from the English perspective, at least, consisted of sieges) are inspiring to someone who recently finished painting a star fort.

Another point Heap makes which I suspect is important is about the relative strengths of the fleets. The Royal Navy commanded the Channel. The French navy did not exist meaningfully in northern waters, and the Spanish navy had too many other things to be doing. English armies were operating in northern France, not French armies in southern England. English supplies were being landed (sometimes in significant quantities) in French ports. The navy gave English intervention significant flexibility, although it did have the limitation that English commanders were reluctant to move far from their supply bases on the coast.

In a short epilogue, Heap suggests that Anglo-French rivalry continued into the Nineteenth Century, and has not fully subsided today. He draws a parallel between Henri IV’s refusal to repay Elizabeth’s loans and De Gaulle’s refusal to use France’s gold reserves to pay for World War Two. Perhaps. I did expect some sort of apocalyptic Brexit related rant from the author, but, fortunately, the reader is spared that, although the issue, that of the balance of power in Europe and the relationship of the UK to the Continent is still a live one, I suppose.

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