The foreign policy of Queen Elizabeth I of England

Throughout the Early Modern Period English foreign policy underwent many dramatic shifts as the Monarch moved within the Franco-Spanish-Burgundian triangle. King Henry VII had been incredibly isolationist and intent on recovering from England's internal problems after the War of the Roses, but his son Henry VIII had grandiose imperial ambitions. Elizabeth had more in common with her grandfather than her father, and yet her reign would see England involved in fighting from Brussels to the New World and one of the great martial victories of English history, over the Spanish Armada. She was very sensitive to the European situation and it was often a catalyst for change in her foreign policy. This was a time of change for English foreign relations and Elizabeth learnt after a decade that the old-fashioned and well-trodden paths of her ancestors would need re-examining.

When Elizabeth came to power, Lord Paget wrote a paper for her and her Councillors on the relationship between England and its neighbours. Two principles he espoused were that there was a 'natural emnity' between England and France, and that good English relations with the House of Burgundy were absolutely vital. G. R. Elton believes that on top of this, the 'guiding star of English foreign policy' since 1501 (when Prince Arthur had married Catherine of Aragon) had been the alliance with Spain. There had been blips in it (such as the apparent betrayals during a joint invasion of France carried out by Charles V and Henry VIII), but it had survived fairly inviolate because it was mutually beneficial. A big reason for this was because the King of Spain had been the representative of the House of Burgundy since 1515. Burgundy was important to England because Antwerp was the main stopping-off point for English cloth. Cloth was England's only real 'industry' and social stability was influenced greatly by the success of the cloth trade, as was the flow of ordinary revenue into the Crown's coffers (through custom duties).

With the rise of militant Calvinism in Europe, the fire of the Catholic Reformation belching from the mouth of the Curia and the Catholic Spanish Empire at its height, the international situation was volatile and changeable. England was secure in herself (England could 'resist any invasion from abroad, provided there be union within the Kingdom' wrote the Venetian ambassador in 1557) but not powerful enough to be a huge threat to France or Spain either - rather, she could be a nuisance. Militias existed for the defence of the counties but Elizabeth couldn't raise the feudal host to fight abroad with her like her distant ancestors had.

Relations with Spain & France prior to 1567

Philip II of Spain, most powerful man in the World, had been married to Elizabeth's estranged sister, Mary I. But such a direct Spanish link to England had offended the common people, and Elizabeth declined Philip's offer of marriage to herself upon her accession. This did not mean, despite the later war, that she was spurning the Spanish at all - in fact, following the Elizabethan religious settlement, it was only Philip's influence that delayed Elizabeth from being excommunicated from the Catholic Church. In 1559 the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis spelled the end of war between England, Spain (on one side) and France. But for it Elizabeth was forced to sacrifice Calais and its pale, meaning that England no longer had any territory south of the Channel. This was quite a blow for Elizabeth in terms of prestige, and whilst the port had been a drain on financial resources it was useful in controlling the Straits of Dover through which Spanish shipping passed to the Netherlands and French to Scotland. But France was still to be feared, for its power was extending deep into Scotland.

Henry II of France, wrote William Cecil (Elizabeth's most trusted advisor) was 'bestriding the realm, having one foot in Calais and the other in Scotland'. Mary of Guise was Regent of Scotland on behalf of her daughter Mary, Queen of Scots and when a Protestant and anti-French rebellion broke out in Scotland it looked as if the French would send a large army to subdue it and extend their influence in the aftermath. William Cecil persuaded a reluctant Elizabeth to side with Protestant noblemen in Scotland and help them dislodge the French garrisons. Elizabeth was reluctant not because she approved of the French garrisons in Scotland, but because it was abhorrent and 'against God's law' to aid nobles in battle against their lawful sovereign. Cecil eventually convinced her by making plain to her the full extent of the threat from French domination of Scotland, and in 1560 the Treaty of Edinborough ensured the withdrawal of both English and French troops from Scotland. They were free to decide their own fate, religious and political, and the back-door into England long favoured by her enemies was closed for ever. In 1604, the two countries became one.

The first French War of Religion started in 1562 with the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre of the Huguenot faction by the Duke of Guise. The Huguenots looked likely to flounder and fail without outside help and it was feared that if France wasn't kept politically divided it would soon be able to extend its tendrils into Scotland again. Elizabeth's advisors urged her to send troops to France to help the rebels, which she did in 1562. She even hoped to regain Calais or, as Cecil wrote, 'something to countervail it'. Sadly the enterprise to France would be a great failure - English troops landed at Le Havre in 1562, but soon the French factions (temporarily) resolved their differences and turned unilaterally against the English. Elizabeth's forces also suffered a bout of plague and the disaffections of Philip II, who was none too pleased with Elizabeth backing heretical rebels for the second time in two years. The English were attacked at Le Havre in 1563 and in 1564 the Treaty of Troyes brought peace and French ownership of Calais once and for all. Elizabeth had succeeded in Scotland but failed in France.

Whilst Elizabeth's support for the heretics was damaging to Anglo-Spanish relations, they need not have been fatal blows to amity between the two nations. Cardinal Granvelle, who was Philip II's regent in the Netherlands, provoked a brisk trade war in 1563-4. He was convinced that the spread of Protestant ideas in the Netherlands by English merchants was sponsored by Elizabeth's government, and as a punitive measure he used an outbreak of plague in England in 1563 as an excuse to ban the import of English cloth. Elizabeth reciprocated with a ban on the import of Dutch goods into England, and the new state of affairs was mutually damaging to the point that things were restored to their former state in 1564. But during the brief interlude, English merchants had discovered a new market beyond the Dutch frontier, in East Friesland. It was perhaps alarming to Philip and his regent that the embargo was as, if not more, damaging to the Netherlands as it was to London, and so the Anglo-Burgundian alliance survived. But from England's point of view it seemed perhaps a little less neccesary than was once thought, and the seeds of war with an old ally were sown.

Anglo-Spanish relations before the Armada, 1567-88

In 1566, the Dutch revolt began. In the Netherlands the people turned against Granvelle and Philip, and the Duke of Alva was sent at the head of a great army to resolve the situation. The appearence of a great army under Spanish command in the Netherlands changed the international situation enormously. Many of Philip's advisors wanted him to take a harder line against the Protestant England, and the English themselves perceived that the Spanish would try to assault Protestantism wherever it was found. The actions of Alva in the Netherlands during the Dutch Revolt only augmented the image of the Spanish King as wicked and hateful of heresy. The outbreak of the Second French War of Religion meant that France would not be able to check Spanish power, and the English were fearful. The first major clash occured in 1568.

In an event known as the Affair of the Spanish Bullion, Elizabeth seized five Spanish ships which were sailing to the Netherlands with £85,000 in gold bullion to pay the Spanish Army. This was done perhaps in response to Spanish attacks on Drake at San Juan de Ulua, which had been launched because the Spanish guarded their trade monopolies jealously and thought Drake was encroaching on them. The attack was carried out with great treachery because Drake received the Spaniards into the harbour as friends. Roy Sloan argues that news of this occurence would not yet have reached England, however, and that the Queen was merely reminding the Spanish King who controlled the Channel. The money was officially the property of Genoese bankers until it reached Burgundy, anyway, so legally Elizabeth was merely taking over the loan, a move to which the Genoese were apparently agreeable. The Duke of Alva was now in a dire situation because his army was owed months of back pay, and he regarded this as an act of an enemy - in December of 1567, he had all English merchants in the Netherlands seized and trade between England and Spain/Burgundy broke down completely for five years.

Philip and Alva now started to countenance an invasion of England, using the English Catholics as a fifth column. The Ridolfi Plot was a plot to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots and the Spanish offered help to this (although it never happened). The Spanish ambassador, Don Guerau de Spes, offered support to the Revolt of the Northern Earls and was extremely damaging to the Anglo-Spanish alliance. In fact, G. D. Ramsay says that he "through sheer bungling, managed to wreck the ancient Tudor-Habsburg alliance". It was he who advised Alva to seize all English merchants in 1567 and he described Lord Cecil as a "bare-faced heretic". Ramsay says that if one thing is certain in the Anglo-Spanish breakdown of 1567-8, it is that neither of the chief protagonists desired it. They were merely doing what they thought had to be done. After the embargo was lifted in 1573, an uneasy peace reigned which saw England flirt more with France in preparation for the inevitable clash with Spain. The English were now convinced that they could not be at peace with Spain indefinitely, although they did not desire a war themselves.

During the 1570s there was considerable support for English intervention on the side of the French Huguenots and the Dutch rebels so that the realm's security might better be served - but Elizabeth refused. For this she has been criticised by some historians, for instance Charles Wilson. She disliked the uncertainty of war and was not so zealously religious as to want to enter into one for spiritual purposes - unlike Francis Walsingham, whose spy network would be influential in persuading Elizabeth of the Spanish threat. As far as England was concerned, the ideal situation would be for the Netherlands to return to their old independence from the Spanish Crown, without French influence extending into them either. In the 1570s privateer companies crossed into the Netherlands and fought the Spanish and English privateers harassed Spanish shipping in the Channel. She contemplated serious intervention occasionaly before 1585, such as following the Spanish Fury of 1576. But in 1585 Elizabeth signed the Treaty of Nonsuch with the Dutch rebels, pledging 7000 troops and monetary support. This was the last straw for Philip.

Even though she simultaneously sent ships to attack Spanish ports, Elizabeth did not perhaps realise the escalation that would occur following her impetuity. She was cautious and prudent in keeping resources available for the defence of England, refusing to send more troops to the Netherlands following the initial 7000 promised at Nonsuch. In the Netherlands her troops sought to deny the Spanish access to a port which they could use to launch a raid against England. As with all 16th century wars there were brief spurts of action followed by periods of inaction and long sieges in which disease took its toll more effectively than enemy canon. Whilst England's efforts on the land in the Netherlands proved embarassing for all involved, her naval exploits amazed all and raised Sir Francis Drake to the status of legend. He sacked the capital of Cuba and the Spanish Main, and forced Philip to divert resources from the Netherlands to re-build the West Indies.

With the threat of invasion looming, Elizabeth recalled her forces and prepared for the defence of her home waters. In 1587, Drake 'singed the King of Spain's beard' by entering Cadiz harbour and destroying 30 Spanish ships.

The Enterprise of England and its aftermath: 1588 - 1603

It is possible Philip planned to send the Armada as early as mid-1585, and the famous one was actually only the first of four. But it is the first that went down in English martial history as one of the country's greatest achivements, and it is fully deserved of this place. Only half of the Armada arrived back in Spain, and Great Neb has written at length and with skill about it in the event's node. Suffice to say it destroyed Spain's naval power and paved the way for English naval hegemony. Unlike many great victories of this period, an attempt at least was made to follow it up, although not with great success. A counter-Armada, an Expedition to Portugal (which Spain had annexed in 1580) was planned and dispatched, but it met with dismal failure. But the sack of Cadiz in 1596 was a spectacular achivement. The Armadas of 1596, 1597 and 1599 were scattered by strong winds rather than English seapower, however.

Another theatre of battle was France - the assassination of Henry III paved the way for Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV) to grab the succession. Henry was an ally to England and Elizabeth sent him 20,000 troops and £300,000 in the early 1590s in his battles against a Catholic League which included Philip II. He eventually converted to Catholicism in 1593, which meant that he could easily retain the throne and become a check on Spanish power. Indeed, his war with Spain continued and was a boon for England because it drew Philip's resources away from the Netherlands. The Franco-English alliance survived despite Henry's Catholicism because they were useful to one another against Spain.

So the war raged on, and it would took the death of both its protagonists - Philip in 1598 and Elizabeth in 1603 - and new blood to end it. Whilst we could question the wiseness of Elizabeth's foreign policy as it drew her into combat with Europe's superpower, we should remember that she herself had done little to provoke it, and had in many cases been acting in the belief that a good offence was the best defence. Throughout the war she did try to seek peace when possible, although she became increasingly embittered as time wore on. She could not really have foreseen all the things that eventually drove her to war (Spanish success in the Netherlands, events in France) and although both sides had little to gain from it, it was in many ways inevitable. The dynamics of religion and Spain's far-flung Empire (which Geoffrey Woodward has said the very nature of made it inclined to constant wars) meant that it was unavoidable. She goes down in history for the success of the Spanish Armada and the successful repulsion of a great challenge to English sovereignity. She may have dissolved the ancient Anglo-Burgundian alliance, but in doing so she compelled her merchants to find alternatives so that they no longer depended on one nation.


Elton, G. R. England under the Tudors 2nd ed.: Cox & Wyman, 1974.

Haigh, Christopher. The reign of Elizabeth I: Macmillian, 1984.

Helm, P. J. England under the Tudors and Yorkists: 1471-1603: Bell & Hyman, 1968.

Lotherington, John. The Tudor Years: Hodder & Stoughton, 1994.

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