THE PROTECTORATE OF THE NETHERLANDS: 1584-86
WE are now approaching the great crisis of the reign, some may think of English history–the grand struggle with Spain; a struggle which, if Elizabeth had allowed herself to be guided by her most celebrated counsellors, would have been entered upon a quarter of a century earlier. England was then unarmed and weighed down with a load of debt, the legacy of three thriftless and pugnacious reigns. The population was still mainly Catholic. The great nobles still thought themselves a match for the crown, and many of them longed to make one more effort to assert their old position in the State. Trade and industry were languishing. The poorer classes were suffering and discontented. Scotland was in the hands of a most dangerous enemy, whose title to the English crown was held by many to be better than Elizabeth’s. Philip II., as yet unharassed by revolt, seemed almost to have drawn England as a sort of satellite into the vast orbit of his empire.
Nearly a generation had now passed away since Elizabeth ascended the throne. Every year of it had seen some amendment in the condition of the country. Under a pacific and thrifty Government taxation had been light beyond precedent. All debts, even those of Henry VIII., had been honourably paid off. While the lord of American gold mines and of the richest commercial centres in Europe could not raise a loan on any terms, Elizabeth could borrow when she pleased at five per cent. But she had ceased to borrow, for she had a modest surplus stored in her treasury, a department of the administration managed under her own close personal supervision. A numerous militia had been enrolled and partially trained. Large magazines of arms had been accumulated. A navy had been created; not a large one indeed; but it did not need to be large, for the warship of those days did not differ from the ordinary vessel of commerce, nor was its crew differently trained. The royal navy could therefore be indefinitely increased if need arose. Philip’s great generals, Alva and Parma, had long come to the conclusion that the conquest of England would be the most difficult enterprise their master could undertake. The wealth of landed proprietors and traders had increased enormously. New manufactures had been started by exiles from the Netherlands. New branches of foreign commerce had been opened up. The poor were well employed and contented. I believe it would be impossible to find in the previous history of England, or, for that matter, of Europe, since the fall of the Roman Empire, any instance of peace, prosperity, and good government extending over so many years.
Looking abroad we find that in all directions the strength and security of Elizabeth’s position had been immensely increased. Her ministers, especially Walsingham–for Burghley in his old age came at last to see more with the eyes of his mistress–believed that by a more spirited policy Scotland might have been converted into a submissive and valuable ally. Elizabeth alone saw that this was impossible; that, so treated, Scotland would become to England what Holland was to Philip, what “the Spanish ulcer” was afterwards to Napoleon–a fatal drain on her strength and resources. It was enough for Elizabeth if the northern kingdom was so handled as to be harmless; and this, as I have shown, was in fact its condition from the moment that the only Scottish ruler who could be really dangerous was locked up in England.
The Dutch revolt crippled Philip. The conquest of England was postponed till the Dutch revolt should be suppressed. Why then, it has been asked, did not Elizabeth support the Dutch more vigorously? The answer is a simple one. If she had done so the suppression of the Dutch revolt would have been postponed to the conquest of England. This is proved by the events now to be related. Elizabeth was obliged by new circumstances to intervene more vigorously in the Netherlands, and the result was the Armada. If the attack had come ten or fifteen years earlier the fortune of England might have been different.
Elizabeth’s foreign policy has been judged unfavourably by writers who have failed to keep in view how completely it turned on her relations with France. Though her interests and those of Henry III cannot be called identical, they coincided sufficiently to make it possible to keep up a good understanding which was of the highest advantage to both countries. But to maintain this good understanding there was need of the coolest temper and judgment on the part of the rulers; for the two peoples were hopelessly hostile. They were like two gamecocks in adjoining pens. The Spaniards were respected and liked by our countrymen. Their grave dignity, even their stiff assumption of intrinsic superiority, were too like our own not to awake a certain appreciative sympathy. Whereas all Englishmen from peer to peasant would at any time have enjoyed a tussle with France, until its burdens began to be felt.
Henry III, with whom the Valois dynasty was about to expire, was far from being the incompetent driveller depicted by most historians. He had good abilities, plenty of natural courage when roused, and a thorough comprehension of the politics of his day. His aims and plans were well conceived. But with no child to care for, and immersed in degrading self-indulgence, he wearied of the exertions and sacrifices necessary for carrying them through. Short spells of sensible and energetic action were succeeded by periods of unworthy lassitude and pusillanimous surrender. Before he came to the throne he had been the chief organiser of the Bartholomew Massacre. As King he naturally inclined, like Elizabeth, William of Orange, and Henry of Navarre, to make considerations of religion subordinate to considerations of State. Both he and Navarre would have been glad to throw over the fanatical or factious partisans by whom they were surrounded, and rally the Politiques to their support. But it was a step that neither as yet ventured openly to take. The one was obliged to affect zeal for the old religion, the other for the new.
Elizabeth’s ministers, with short-sighted animosity, had been urging her throughout her reign to give vigorous support to the Huguenots. She herself took a broader view of the situation. She preferred to deal with the legitimate government of France recognised by the vast majority of Frenchmen. Henry III., as she well knew, did not intend or desire to exterminate the Huguenots. If that turbulent faction had been openly abetted in its arrogant claims by English assistance, he would have been obliged to become the mere instrument of Elizabeth’s worst enemies, Guise and the Holy League. France would have ceased to be any counterpoise to Spain. The English Queen had so skilfully played a most difficult and delicate game that Henry of Navarre had been able to keep his head above water; Guise had upon the whole been held in check; the royal authority, though impaired, had still controlled the foreign policy of France, and so, since 1572, had given England a firm and useful ally. As long as this balanced situation could be maintained, England was safe.
But the time was now at hand when this nice equilibrium of forces would be disturbed by events which neither Elizabeth nor any one else could help. Alençon, the last of the Valois line, was dying. When he should be gone, the next heir to the French King would be no other than the Huguenot Henry of Bourbon, King of the tiny morsel of Navarre that lay north of the Pyrenees. Henry III. wished to recognise his right. But it was impossible that Guise or Philip, or the French nation itself, should tolerate this prospect. Thus the great war of religion which Elizabeth had so carefully abstained from stirring up was now inevitable. The French alliance, the key-stone of her policy, was about to crumble away with the authority of the French King which she had buttressed up. He would be compelled either to become the mere instrument of the Papal party or to combine openly with the Huguenot leader. In either case, Guise, not Henry III., would be the virtual sovereign, and Elizabeth’s alliance would not be with France but with a French faction. She would thus be forced into the position which she had hitherto refused to accept–that of sole protector of French and Dutch Protestants, and open antagonist of Spain. The more showy part she was now to play has been the chief foundation of her glory with posterity. It is a glory which she deserves. The most industrious disparagement will never rob her of it. But the sober student will be of opinion that her reputation as a statesman has a more solid basis in the skill and firmness with which during so many years she staved off the necessity for decisive action.
Although the discovery of the Throgmorton plot (November 1583), and the consequent expulsion of the Spanish ambassador, Mendoza, were not immediately followed by open war between England and Spain, yet the course of events thenceforward tended directly to that issue. Elizabeth immediately proposed to the Dutch States to form a naval alliance against Spain, and to concert other measures for mutual defence.
Orange met the offer with alacrity, and pressed Elizabeth to accept the sovereignty of Holland, Zealand, and Utrecht. Perhaps there was no former ruler of England who would not have clutched at such an opportunity of territorial aggrandisement. For Elizabeth it had no charms. Every sensible person now will applaud the sobriety of her aims. But though she eschewed territory, she desired to have military occupation of one or more coast fortresses, at all events for a time, both as a security for the fidelity of the Dutch to any engagements they might make with her, and to enable her to treat on more equal terms with France or Spain, if the Netherlands were destined, after all, to fall into the hands of one of those powers.
While these negotiations were in progress, William of Orange was murdered (1584). Alençon had died a month earlier. The sovereignty of the revolted Netherlands was thus vacant. Elizabeth advised a joint protectorate by France and England. But the Dutch had small confidence in protectorates, especially of the joint kind. What they wanted was a sovereign, and as Elizabeth would not accept them as her subjects they offered themselves to Henry III. But after nibbling at the offer for eight months Henry was obliged to refuse it. His openly expressed intention to recognise the King of Navarre as his heir had caused a revival of the Holy League. During the winter 1584-5 its reorganisation was busily going on. Philip promised to subsidise it. Mendoza, now ambassador at Paris, was its life and soul. The insurrection was on the point of breaking out. Henry III knew that the vast majority of Frenchmen were Catholics. To accept the Dutch offer would, he feared, drive them all into the ranks of the Holy League. He therefore dismissed the Dutch envoys with the recommendation that they should apply to England for protection (1585). The manifesto of the Leaguers appeared at the end of March (1585). Henry of Navarre was declared incapable, as a Protestant, of succeeding to the crown. Henry III. was summoned to extirpate heresy. To enforce these demands the Leaguers flew to arms all over France. Had Henry III. been a man of spirit he would have placed himself at the head of the loyal Catholics and fought it out. But by the compact of Nemours he conceded all the demands of the League (1585).
Thus began the last great war of religion, which lasted till Henry of Navarre was firmly seated on the throne of France.
Elizabeth had now finally lost the French alliance, the sheet-anchor of her policy since 1572, and she prepared for the grand struggle which could no longer be averted. As France failed her, she must make the best of the Dutch alliance. She did not conceal from herself that she would have to do her share of the fighting. But she was determined that the Dutch should also do theirs. Deprived of all hope of help from France they wished for annexation to the English crown, because solidarity between the two countries would give them an unlimited claim upon English resources. Elizabeth uniformly told them, first and last, that nothing should induce her to accept that proposal. She would give them a definite amount of assistance in men and money. But every farthing would have to be repaid when the war was over; and in the meantime she must have Flushing and Brill as security. They must also bind themselves to make proper exertions in their own defence. Gilpin, her agent in Zealand, had warned her that if she showed herself too forward they would simply throw the whole burden of the war upon her. Splendid as had often been the resistance of separate towns when besieged, there had been, from the first, lamentable selfishness and apathy as to measures for combined defence. The States had less than 6000 men in the field–half of them English volunteers–at the very time when they were assuring Elizabeth that, if she would come to their assistance, they could and would furnish 15,000. She was justified in regarding their fine promises with much distrust.
While this discussion was going on, Antwerp was lost. The blame of the delay, if blame there was, must be divided equally between the bargainers. The truth is that, cavil as they might about details, the strength of the English contingent was not the real object of concern to either of them. Each was thinking of something else. Though Elizabeth had so peremptorily refused the sovereignty offered by the United Provinces, they were still bent on forcing it upon her. She, on the other hand, had not given up the hope that her more decisive intervention would drive Philip to make the concessions to his revolted subjects which she had so often urged upon him. In her eyes, Philip’s sovereignty over them was indefeasible. They were, perhaps, justified in asserting their ancient constitutional rights But if those were guaranteed, continuance of the rebellion would be criminal. Moreover, she held that elected deputies were but amateur statesmen, and had better leave the haute politique to princes to settle. “Princes,” she once told a Dutch deputation, “are not to be charged with breach of faith if they sometimes listen to both sides; for they transact business in a princely way and with a princely understanding such as private persons cannot have.” Her promise not to make peace behind their backs was not to be interpreted as literally as if it had been made to a brother prince. It merely bound her–so she contended–not to make peace without safeguarding their interests; that is to say, what she considered to be their true interests. Conduct based on such a theory would not be tolerated now, and was not tamely acquiesced in by the Dutch then. But to speak of it as base and treacherous is an abuse of terms.
It would be impossible to follow in detail the peace negotiations which went on between Elizabeth and Parma up to the very sailing of the Armada (1586-8). The terms on which the Queen was prepared to make peace never varied substantially from first to last. We know very well what they were. She claimed for the Protestants of the Netherlands (who were a minority, perhaps, even in the rebel provinces) precisely the same degree of toleration which she allowed to her own Catholics. They were not to be questioned about their religion; but there was to be no public worship or proselytising. The old constitution, as before Alva, was to be restored, which would have involved the departure of the foreign troops. These terms would not have satisfied the States, and if Philip could have been induced to grant them, the States and Elizabeth must have parted company. But, as he would make no concessions, the Anglo-Dutch alliance could, and did, continue. The cautionary towns she was determined never to give up to any one unless (first) she was repaid her expenses for which they had been mortgaged, and (secondly) the struggle in the Netherlands was brought to an end on terms which she approved. There was, therefore, never any danger of their being surrendered to Philip, and they did, in fact, remain in Elizabeth’s hands till her death.
Elizabeth has been severely censured for selecting Leicester to command the English army in the Netherlands. It is certain that he was marked out by public opinion as the fittest person. The Queen’s choice was heartily approved by all her ministers, especially by Walsingham, who kept up the most confidential relations with Leicester, and backed him throughout. Custom prescribed that an English army should be commanded, not by a professional soldier, but by a great nobleman. Among the nobility there were a few who had done a little soldiering in a rough way in Scotland or Ireland, but no one who could be called a professional general. The momentous step which Elizabeth was taking would have lost half its significance in the eyes of Europe if any less conspicuous person than Leicester had been appointed. Moreover, it was essential that the nobleman selected should be able and willing to spend largely out of his own resources. By traditional usage, derived from feudal times, peers who were employed on temporary services not only received no salary, but were expected to defray their own expenses, and defray them handsomely. Never did an English nobleman show more public spirit in this respect than Leicester. He raised every penny he could by mortgaging his estates. He not only paid his own personal expenses, but advanced large sums for military purposes, which his mistress never thought of repaying him. If he effected little as a general, it was because he was not provided with the means. Serious mistakes he certainly made, but they were not of a military kind.
Leicester was now fifty-four, bald, white-bearded, and red-faced, but still imposing in figure, carriage, and dress. To Elizabeth he was dear as the friend of her youth, one who, she was persuaded, had loved her for herself when they were both thirty years younger, and was still her most devoted and trustworthy servant. Burghley she liked and trusted, and all the more since he had become a more docile instrument of her policy. Walsingham, a keener intellect and more independent character, she could not but value, though impatient under his penetrating suspicion and almost constant disapproval. Leicester was the intimate friend, the frequent companion of her leisure hours. None of her younger favourites had supplanted him in her regard. By long intimacy he knew the molles aditus et tempora when things might be said without offence which were not acceptable at the council-board. The other ministers were glad to use him for this purpose. There can be no question that his appointment to the command in the Netherlands was meant as the most decisive indication that could be given of Elizabeth’s determination to face open war with Philip rather than allow him to establish absolute government in that country.
Since the deaths of Alençon and William of Orange, the United Provinces had been without a ruler. The government had been provisionally carried on by the “States,” or deputies from each province. Leicester had come with no other title than that of LieutenantGeneral of the Queen’s troops. But what the States wanted was not so much a military leader as a sovereign ruler. They therefore urged Leicester to accept the powers and title of Governor-General, the office which had been held by the representatives of Philip. From this it would follow, both logically and practically, that Elizabeth herself stood in the place of Philip–in other words, that she was committed to the sovereignty which she had so peremptorily refused.
The offer was accepted by Leicester almost immediately after his arrival (14/24 January 1586). There can be little doubt that it was a preconcerted plan between the States and Elizabeth’s ministers, who had all along supported the Dutch proposals. Leicester, we know, had contemplated it before leaving England. Davison, who was in Holland, hurried it on, and undertook to carry the news to Elizabeth. Burghley and Walsingham maintained that the step had been absolutely necessary, and implored her not to undo it. Elizabeth herself had suspected that something of the sort would be attempted, and had strictly enjoined Leicester at his departure to accept no such title. It was not that she wished his powers–that is to say, her own powers–to be circumscribed. On the contrary, she desired that they should in practice be as large and absolute as possible. What she objected to was the title, with all the consequences it involved. And what enraged her most of all was the attempt of her servants to push the thing through behind her back, on the calculation that she would be obliged to accept the accomplished fact. Her wrath vented itself on all concerned, on her ministers, on the States, and on Leicester. To the latter she addressed a characteristic letter:–
To my Lord of Leicester from the Queen by Sir Thomas Heneage.
“How contemptuously we conceive ourself to have been used by you, you shall by this bearer understand, whom we have expressly sent unto you to charge you withal. We could never have imagined, had we not seen it fall out in experience, that a man raised up by ourself and extraordinarily favoured by us above any other subject of this land, would have in so contemptible [contemptuous] a sort, broken our commandment, in a cause that so greatly toucheth us in honour; whereof although you have showed yourself to make but little account, in most undutiful a sort, you may not therefore think that we have so little care of the reparation thereof as we mind to pass so great a wrong in silence unredressed. And therefore our express pleasure and command is that, all delays and excuses laid apart, you do presently, on the duty of your allegiance, obey and fulfil whatsoever the bearer hereof shall direct you to do in our name. Whereof fail not, as you will answer the contrary at your uttermost peril.”
Nor were these cutting reproaches reserved for his private perusal. She severely rebuked the States for encouraging “a creature of her own” to disobey her injunctions, and, as a reparation from them and from him, she required that he should make a public resignation of the government in the place where he had accepted it.
It is not to be wondered at that Elizabeth should think the vindication of her outraged authority to be the most pressing requirement of the moment. But the result was unfortunate for the object of the expedition. The States had conferred “absolute” authority upon Leicester, and would have thought it a cheap price to pay if, by their adroit manœuvre, they had succeeded in forcing the Queen’s hand. But they did not care to intrust absolute powers to a mere general of an English contingent. After long discussion, Elizabeth was at length persuaded that the least of evils was to allow him to retain the title which the States had conferred on him ( June 1586). But in the meantime they had repented of their haste in letting power go out of their own hands. Their efforts were thenceforth directed to explain away the term “absolute.” The long displeasure of the Queen had destroyed the principal value of Leicester in their eye. He himself had soon incurred their dislike. Impetuous and domineering, he could not endure opposition. Every man who did not fall in with his plans was a malicious enemy, a traitor, a tool of Parma, who ought to be hanged. He still enjoyed the favour of the democratic and bigoted Calvinist party, especially in Utrecht, and he tried to play them off against the States, thereby promoting the rise of the factions which long afterwards distracted the United Provinces. The displeasures of the Queen had taken the shape of not sending him money, and his troops were in great distress and unable to move. Moreover, rumours of the secret peace negotiations were craftily spread by Parma, who, knowing well that they would come to nothing, turned them to the best account by leading the States to suspect that they were being betrayed to Spain.
Elizabeth had sent her army abroad more as a warning to Philip than with a view to active operations. It was no part of her plan to recover any of the territory already conquered by Parma, even if it had lain in her power. She knew that the majority of its inhabitants were Catholics and royalists. She knew also that Parma’s attenuated army was considerably outnumbered by the Anglo-Dutch forces, and that he was in dire distress for food and money. The recovered provinces were completely ruined by the war. Their commerce was swept from the sea. The mouths of their great rivers were blockaded. The Protestants of Flanders and Brabant had largely migrated to the unsubdued provinces, whose prosperity, notwithstanding the burdens of war, was advancing by leaps and bounds. Their population was about two millions. That of England itself was little more than four. Religion was no longer the only or the chief motive of their resistance. For even the Catholics among them, who were still very numerous–some said a majority –keenly relished the material prosperity which had grown with independence. Encouraged by English protection, the States were in no humour to listen to compromise. But a compromise was what Elizabeth desired. She was therefore not unwilling that her forces should be confined to an attitude of observation, till it should appear whether her open intervention would extract from Philip such concessions as she deemed reasonable.
Leicester was eager to get to work, and he was warmly supported by Walsingham. Burghley’s conduct was less straightforward. He had long found it advisable to cultivate amicable relations with the favourite. He had probably concurred in the plan for making him Governor-General. Even now he was professing to take his part. In reality he was not sorry to see him under a cloud; and though he sympathised as much as ever with the Dutch, he cared more for crippling his rival. Hence his activity in those obscure peace negotiations which he so carefully concealed from Leicester and Walsingham. To keep Walsingham long in the dark, on that or any other subject, was indeed impossible. It was found necessary at last to let him be present at an interview with the agents employed by Burghley and Parma, which brought their backstairs diplomacy to an abrupt conclusion. “They that have been the employers of them,” he wrote to Leicester, “are ashamed of the matter.” The negotiations went on through other channels, but never made any serious progress.
To compel Philip to listen to a compromise, without at the same time emboldening the Dutch to turn a deaf ear to it–such was the problem which Elizabeth had set herself. She therefore preferred to apply pressure in other quarters. Towards the end of 1585, Drake appeared on the coast of Spain itself, and plundered Vigo. Then crossing the Atlantic, he sacked and burned St. Domingo and Carthagena. Again in 1587, he forced his way into Cadiz harbour, burnt all the shipping and the stores collected for the Armada, and for two months plundered and destroyed every vessel he met off the coast of Portugal.
Philip had so long and so tamely submitted to the many injuries and indignities which Elizabeth heaped upon him, that it is not wonderful if she had come to think that he would never pluck up courage to retaliate. This time she was wrong. The conquest of England had always had its place in his overloaded programme. But it was to be in that hazy ever-receding future, when he should have put down the Dutch rebellion and neutralised France. Elizabeth’s open intervention in the Netherlands at length induced him to change his plan. England, he now decided, must be first dealt with.
In the meantime, Parma’s operations in the Netherlands were starved quite as much as Leicester’s. Plundering excursions, two or three petty combats not deserving the name of battles, half-a-dozen small towns captured on one side or the other–such is the military record from the date of Elizabeth’s intervention to the arrival of the Armada. Parma had somewhat the best of this work, such as it was. But the war in the Netherlands was practically stagnant.
At the end of the first year of Leicester’s government, events of the highest importance obliged him to pay a visit to England ( Nov. 1586). The Queen of Scots had been found guilty of conspiring to assassinate Elizabeth, and Parliament had been summoned to decide upon her fate.
From Queen Elizabeth by Edward Spencer Beesly. Published in London by Macmillan and Co., 1892.
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