Elizabethan Foreign Policy

What were the threats to Elizabethan England and were they overcome successfully?

The country: Spain

What threat did the country present:

1) Spain was potentially able to use a lot of her ships to attack England on the sea and on land if Spain did not like England’s behaviour on the European political scene.

2) Spain, because of her massive fleet, could damage England’s weak trade links, therefore damaging England’s economy at home. England’s most important export market, Antwerp, was controlled by the Spanish and thus Spain could prevent England trading there whenever tensions between the two states arose.

Map of main trading centres in Western Europe in late 1500s and early 1600s

Was this threat overcome successfully:

1) yes

2) yes


1) The main factors that contributed to the success were extraordinary lucky circumstances. During the first Armada, in 1588, the South Eastern wind caused the Spanish ships to be blown to the wrong direction, towards the French coast. This in turn benefitted the English as the wind direction conveniently allowed them to shoot at the Spanish ships.

During the three more consequent Spanish Armadas Spain was unable to invade England for similar reasons although the conflict with Spain continued after Elizabeth’s death.

This a 30 minute documentary about the Spanish Armada. The narrative is a bit slow, but hopefully you will find it interesting!
SOURCE TIME: This is one of the most famous paintings of Elizabeth I. It is known as the “Armada Portrait” and it was painted by an unknown artist in 1588 after the English success during the Spanish Armada. Do you think the source can tell us about Elizabeth and her character or more about the Spanish Armada?

2) Trading routes were predominantly preserved by Elizabeth legalising privateering and investing much resources into the improvement of English ships so they could increase the damage to the Spanish galleons that carried valuable silver from the New World. Her actions proved to be a success because John Hawkins managed to capture 40,000 florins form the Spanish galleons that travelled to the Netherlands. Apart from preservation of the pre-established trading routes Elizabeth also attempted to expand them. For instance, Elizabeth sent Drake and Hawkins to the Caribbean to break up the Spanish trading power there in 1595. This allowed Elizabeth to demonstrate that England was powerful enough to affect the Spanish trade.

The country: Netherlands

What threat did the country present: This was because the Netherlands were part of the Spanish Empire, and thus there was always a possibility of the Spanish utilising the Netherlands as a gateway into England. The level of potential invasion was increased when the key leader of the Protestant uprising, William of Orange, was assassinated in 1584. Without a powerful opposition the Spanish could have easily invade England from the Netherlands.

Was this threat overcome successfully: yes

How: a mixture consisting of advantageous circumstances and Elizabeth’s readiness to exploit England’s political position as a Protestant state on contemporary European scene. For instance, during the Spanish Fury in 1576, she promised to pay the rebels £100,000 via the terms of the Pacification of Ghent to make them continue their resistance against the Spanish. Furthermore, in order to protect England’s borders after the death of William of Orange, Elizabeth signed the Treaty of Nonsuch in 1585 and provided circa 7,000 troops for the rebels in the Netherlands. Although such expenditure did not directly influence the split of the Netherlands into the Spanish Netherlands and the independent Dutch Republic in 1581, the security of England’s borders remained intact given Dutch Republic’s Protestantism. Consequently, Elizabeth was successful because she was able to gain much needed allies and thus to overcome the threats posed to her country’s national security by the Netherlands.

The country: France

What threat did the country present: from the start of Elizabethan reign France presented a threat to England’s borders given its geographical proximity to England, which would have made an invasion from any Catholic based alliance much easier. The fear of invasion was reinforced when the Catholic de Guise family (French) and the Spanish Hapsburgs signed the secret Treaty of Joinville in 1584 in order to provide more support for the Catholic faction in France.

Was this threat overcome successfully: yes

How:  At the beginning stages of the reign, Elizabethan government attempted to gain France as a possible ally against the Spanish by trying to arrange a marriage between Elizabeth and the Duke of Anjou in late 1560s and early 1570s. This marital alliance would have been beneficial because the Duke was a direct Protestant heir to the French throne and thus would have been a helpful ally to counter the Spanish Catholic power. As a result of these marriage negotiations a successful Treaty of Bois was achieved in 1572 since France formed a defensive league against the Spanish.

However, the success of this treaty was short lived as by 1580s England became politically isolated, which caused Elizabeth to experience an enhanced level of threat.

Nevertheless, this was overcome by Elizabeth providing some aid to the Huguenots. Elizabeth offered troops to the official French monarch, a Huguenot Henry IV, to fight against the Spanish in 1589-95. This action was beneficial for England’s security as it allowed Elizabeth to remain in alliance with her fellow Protestants, whilst simultaneously defending England’s coastline. Although Henri IV converted to Catholicism in 1593, political relationships between France and England remained relatively warm and did not cause nearly as much trouble to England’s national security as it did in relation to earlier Tudors.

To understand what on earth were the French Wars of Religion please watch this video.

The country: Scotland

What threat did the country present: Since the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth felt threatened by Scotland given the country’s geographical proximity and its links with the French Catholics via the Auld Alliance. These factors thus allowed Scotland to become a potential gateway into England for France during the reign of earlier Tudors.

Was this threat overcome successfully: yes

How: Elizabeth sent her fleet to Flirth of Forth in 1559 to help the Calvinist Lords of Congregation, which was a faction that fought against the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. This was a success because the French troops withdrew from Scotland and the Scottish government allowed various religious groups to worship any faith without legal prosecution by the terms of the 1560 Treaty of Edinburgh. Consequently, the Auld Alliance, which caused a lot of issues for the earlier Tudor monarchs, permanently fell apart. This was evidenced by the fact that the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James, did not interfere after the execution of his mother 1587.

Think like a Historian:

How important are alliances between countries? What do you think is a purpose of an alliance?

Although the breakdown of the Aulde Alliance contributed to Elizabeth overcoming national threats, another important factor to the Scottish non-interference was due to the skill of Elizabethan ministers. For example, Robert Cecil, one of the key ministers of the Elizabethan Privy Council, communicated with James VI to ensure his smooth relationship with the English, thus laying ground for the latter’s smooth succession after the death of Elizabeth. As a result, given that the Scots did not invade any English territories despite having a good reason to do so, it is justifiable to argue that Elizabethan foreign policy was indeed characterised by threats which were overcome.

This is a documentary about James VI/I. if you would like to find out more about him.
Map of World Empires c.1600 (Key: yellow- Spanish Empire; Brown- French Empire; Purple- English Empire; Green- Scotland)

Think like a Historian

What is the difference between an Empire and a country owning an island? What makes an Empire an Empire?

Important Vocabulary

  • Antwerp: a port in Belgium which was used by English merchants to trade with the rest of Europe. It was owned by the Spanish.
  • First Armada: an attempted naval invasion of England by the Spanish.
  • Privateering (verb)/ privateer (noun): an armed ship owned by individuals who have a legal right to capture other countries’ merchant ships
  • Calvinism (a person who believes in religious teachings of John Calvin): a very strict branch of Protestantism that emphasises predestination of a soul. This means that Calvinists believe that the soul of an individual person can only go to heaven or hell and this person cannot change anything about where their soul will go to.
  • Huguenots: French Protestants
  • Auld Alliance: an long standing alliance between the French and the Scots
If you would like to research this topic further…
  • Read a biography of Elizabeth I’s by John Guy called Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years. In this book the author argues that the existence of the ‘Golden Age’ under Elizabeth I did not mean that everything in Elizabethan Government and foreign policy was in tip-top condition.
  • Read Tudor England by John Guy, which will give you a nice overview of various changes that had occurred throughout the Tudor reign, from Henry VII to Elizabeth I.

Elizabethan Religious Settlement

Elizabethan religious settlement: what was it?

Elizabeth’s religious settlement was introduced via two Parliamentary acts, both passed in 1559—the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity.

The Act of Supremacy:

  • Aimed to put Elizabeth in charge of the English Church, whilst having the Pope already doing this job
  • Aimed to make all of the English Churchmen obedient to Elizabeth

The Act of Uniformity:

  • Aimed to make people believe in the same form of religion, rather than having a split society

The main aim of Elizabeth’s religious settlement was to unify the religiously divided English society to prevent any internal shakeups. Historians usually refer to her religious settlement as a “via media”, a fancy Latin term which literally means the “middle way”, to signify the middle and unificatory aspect of Elizabeth’s settlement.

Elizabethan religious settlement: the Timeline of key events
  • 1559: Parliament passes the Act of Uniformity and the Act of Supremacy
  • 1559-60: 400 Catholic clergymen who served under Mary I resign
    • Same period: some extreme Protestants were disappointed by the religious settlement because think that the religious changes are not extreme enough. For example, they disliked the traditional priest clothes and declared them to be “too Popish” (i.e. too Catholic)
  • 1563: 39 Articles of Faith become statute law
  • 1565: Vestiarian Controversy—a debate within the English Church about what the clergymen should wear
  • 1569: Rebellion of the Northern Earls. It was led by three prominent English Catholic noblemen—Duke of Northumberland, Duke of Westmoreland and Duke of Norfolk. It aimed to undermine Elizabeth’s religious authority by installing Mary Queen of Scots onto the English throne
  • 1570s: Mary Queen of Scots arrives to England
  • 1570s: Prof. of Divinity Cartwright starts voicing more and more anti-Elizabeth views by arguing that the English Church should be more similar to the one established by Calvin in Geneva
  • 1570: Elizabeth is excommunicated from the Catholic Church
  • 1571: Ridolfi Plot—involved Mary Queen of Scots, Duke of Norfolk (the same one as before) and a Spanish ambassador
    • Same year: new Treasons Act is passed
  • 1576: wave of prophesying in Warwickshire + removal of Archbishop of Canterbury, Grendall, from his post
  • 1580: Jesuit (a branch of Catholicism that focuses on educating people about Christianity) priests start arriving to England
  • 1581: the Parliament passes an Act of Parliament To Retain Queen Majesty’s Subjects in Their Due Obedience
  • 1583: the Throckmorton plot—involved Mary Queen of Scots, and another Spanish ambassador
  • 1585: the Parliament passes an Act Against Jesuits And Seminary Priests And Other Disobedient Persons
  • 1586: the Babington Plot—involved Mary Queen of Scots
    • IMPORTANT PLOT because it “proved” that Mary Queen of Scots was conspiring against Elizabeth. Led to Mary’s execution
  • 1588: circulation of Martin Marpelate Tracts
  • 1593: Act Against Seditions Sectaries is passed
Why was the religious settlement implemented?
  1. Internal stability to prevent a rebellion

Elizabeth I assumed the English throne at a difficult time in terms of religion. Her father, Henry VIII, made England only Protestant in name by 1547 because his main aim was to gain a divorce to produce an heir to the throne and not to impose Protestantism onto his subjects. Consequently, the vast majority of the English people remained Catholic. Henry’s son, Edward VI, however, was much more assertive about the role of Protestantism in the English society and pursued a more direct religious policy which aimed to install Protestantism as the official religion in England. Such policy made a lot of Catholics leave England. Yet, after Edward’s untimely death in 1553, with his sister Mary I assuming the throne the Crown’s religious policy was reversed—now Protestants were prosecuted heavily, and England attempted to rebuild its link with the Papacy, which was broken in 1534. Consequently, when Elizabeth started her reign in 1558, the English society was a big mess. The society was split religiously between the two camps—Protestants and Catholics, with both sides strongly disagreeing with each other on religious matters, such as how the services should be conducted and the role of the church hierarchy. As a result, to keep internal stability and to avoid a potential rebellion Elizabeth had to keep her religious settlement mild without favouring too much either Catholics or Protestants.

2. Internal stability to protect England against other European nations

However, there was a wider reason linked to the contemporary European politics to the implementation of the “via media” religious settlement. This reason was that England had to be prepared to defend herself from any potential threat from other European countries at any moment. An internal religious divide would prevent England from doing so, as less people would be willing to defend their country if they feel that they did not belong to it. The start of Elizabeth’s reign in 1558 coincided with plenty of political shake-ups in Europe. For example, in 1559, France was plunged into an on scale civil war, called the French Wars of Religion, over tensions between the Protestant and the Catholics. In the same year, the Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands started rebelling against the Spanish rule. This rebellion started to spiral out of control fairly soon. Both of these rebellions were dangerous because rebels from either side could easily reach England, thus worsening the English religious divide. Consequently, Elizabeth had to unite her own people to deal with any threats from the outside.

Map of the European powers in 1560s (the arrows are to demonstrate England’s geographical closeness to the Spanish Empire and France)
Was Elizabeth’s religious settlement successful?

Overall, Elizabeth’s religious settlement was successful. This was because she got what she aimed for by 1603—majority of the English population was united religiously.

To understand how she achieved that, you should take a look at different religious groups’ reactions to the Elizabeth’s religious settlement and how the Government dealt with these groups.

Extreme Catholics

Was the settlement successful: yes

Why were dangerous: could instigate a rebellion with Mary Queen of Scots as a figurehead and potentially replace Elizabeth with her.

Evidence of danger: One of such cases was the Northern Earls Rebellion in 1569 as the rebellion clearly demonstrated the disagreement with the religious settlement. This was done by the rebels serving a Catholic mass in Durham Cathedral and aiming to replace Protestant Elizabeth with Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. The Northern Earls were not the only instances when radical Catholics challenged Elizabeth’s religious settlement.

Other cases included, the Ridolfi and Babington plots. During these plots extreme Catholics attempted to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots.

What was done by the Government: the 1571 New Treasons Act made a denial of supremacy treason and the appointment for capable men such as Walsingham, allowed the plots to be discovered and neutralised in their embryonic stages.

A documentary about Mary Queen of Scots

More Moderate Catholics

Was the settlement successful: yes

Why were dangerous: the wider the scope of disagreement, the less political stability there is, the higher is the chance of a rebellion occurring. This was dangerous because Elizbeth needed to keep the internal stability in case of an attack from other European nations.

Evidence of danger: More Northern areas, like Durham, had local magistrates refusing to impose recusancy fines, local gentry refusing refuse to attend Anglican services and sometimes going as far as to hide incoming Jesuit priests from the continent in 1570s.

What was done by the Government: The Parliament confirming the 39 Articles of Faith and increasing the recusancy fines, with the effect being that less people were willing to disobey. This policy was very successful long-term as by the end of Elizabeth’s reign about 90% of the English population was Anglican as opposed to Catholic.

Everyone’s favourite Horrible Histories made a clip about very sneaky Jesuit priests

Think like a Historian:

Can absolutely everyone agree on a particular view point, especially if the debate centres around social policies and religion?

More extreme Protestants

Was the settlement successful: yes

Why were dangerous: could start a rebellion because they disagreed with the settlement

Evidence of danger: the Separatists, were a radical branch of Protestants and who rejected Elizabeth’s adoption of the title of ‘Supreme Governor’ due to them wanting to eradicate the Church hierarchy altogether. To them it had very little difference whether the Church was run by the Papacy or by the Supreme Governor, they disagreed with both. This is evident from the content of pamphlets that circulated in England at that time, which attempted to undermine the Elizabethan settlement. For instance, the Marpelate Tracts which circulated in 1588-89 called bishops “that swinish rabble… petty antichrists…proud prelates” and Browne’s A Treatise of Reformation Without Tarrying Any criticised the newly established Anglican Church for being too Catholic given the usage of traditional Catholic hymns and decorations.

What was the result: Elizabeth’s government reacted quickly and efficiently. The government passed the Act Against Seditious Sectaries in 1593, giving itself the power to disband such radical Protestant groups. Furthermore, popular support for such groups was very small.

If you would like to find out more about the Marpelate Tracts, please click onto the links below…

This link has a good short explanation about what these tracts were and why they were important– http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/marprelate.htm
This link has the original text and grammar, which some may find a little bit complicated–http://www.oxford-shakespeare.com/Marprelate/Protestation.pdf

Less extreme Protestants

Was the settlement successful: yes

Why were dangerous: could challenge Elizabeth’s authority as a religious leader

Evidence of danger: 37 clergymen were forced to resign from their positions due to their disagreement over the Elizabethan religious settlement during the Vestments Controversy in 1565. The controversy concerned itself with what clothing the Anglican priests should wear. In the view of the opposition the clerical robes were too papist as they were too decorative, which was distracting and irrelevant to the core values of Protestantism.

What was the result: The government dealt effectively with this issue. Whitgift’s Three Articles made the clergy subscribe to religious conformity in 1583, thus controlling the Protestant opposition.

Think like a Historian:

How else do could any political leader unite their country’s society if religion is not as important to the majority of the population as it had been in Elizabethan England?
Important vocabulary:
  • The Act of Supremacy: aimed to make Elizabeth in charge of the Church in England, whilst having the Pope already doing this job
  • The Act of Uniformity: aimed to make people believe in the same form of religion, rather than having a split society
  • Via Media: a Latin term that means “the middle way”. It’s usually used by academics to show that a certain policy was moderate.
  • Catholic: a branch of Christianity that follows the teachings of the Pope
  • Protestant: a branch of Christianity that was formed during the Reformation. It rejects having an overall figurehead of the Church.
  • Prophesying: the act of preaching which was done by extreme Protestants
  • Jesuit: a member of a Catholic monastic order of the Society of Jesus. Whilst the order played an important role in opposing the Reformation, it was (and still is) an important influence in Catholic theology and education.
  • Recusancy fines: fines that had been installed by the Elizabethan Government to make people go to the Church
  • Anglican: a member of the Church of England. It is a branch of Protestant Christianity that became separate during the Reformation.
  • Separatists: an extreme branch of Protestants
  • Puritans: another extreme branch of Protestants. They differed from Separatists in that they believed any source of entertainment was is sinful.
If you would like to find more about this topic…
  • Read a biography of Elizabeth I’s by John Guy called Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years. In this book the author argues that the existence of the ‘Golden Age’ under Elizabeth I did not mean that everything in Elizabethan Government and foreign policy was in tip-top condition.
  • Read this article from ‘The Historian’ about the letters that were used to prove Mary Queen of Scots’ treachery against the English Crown.

Elizabethan Government

How well was england governed under elizabeth/was Elizabeth successful at controlling her government?

To answer this question you will have to look at different administrative bodies that Elizabeth controlled and then judge whether she had done so successfully or not.

This is a diagram that shows how Elizabethan government functioned

Administrative body: the Privy Council

Its purpose: to give advice to the monarch, to administer public policy by overseeing the work of Justices of Peace (JPs) in counties, to make sure that the rebellions do not occur locally

Problems with it:

  1. Too many issues to deal at once by a small group: There were only 20 members of the Privy Council and all of them had to deal with large-scale issues (e.g. advising Elizabeth on foreign policy matters) and the small-scale ones (e.g. looking after the localities)
  2. Ministers often disagreed with the Queen over what should be done in a specific situation: for example, when Mary Queen of Scots had presented a significant threat to Elizabeth’s royal authority in the 1580s as she was involved in the Babington and Throckmorton plots Elizabeth wavered to execute Mary. Elizabeth went as far as to ask the Privy Council not to enact Mary’s execution in 1587, but the Privy Council did it anyway and Mary was executed in the same year.

Was it successfully controlled/ was it well governed: before 1580s- yes; after 1580s-no

How was it controlled/not controlled:

Before 1580s:

Elizabeth managed to control the ministers within her Privy Council to her advantage in this period. This was mainly done through patronage by offering it to capable men, such as Cecil. Cecil proved long-standing loyalty to the Queen since 1550s, as he moderated her income at that stage, which then allowed him to become a member of the Privy Council in 1558. Furthermore, Cecil was useful to the Queen as he held the title of an MP since 1543, thus potentially becoming a ‘bridge’ between the Queen, her Privy Council and the Parliament. Cecil was controlled effectively by Elizabeth. He prioritised Queen’s wishes, such as having a limited foreign policy. This was evident by the fact that Elizabethan period had a reactive, rather than proactive foreign policy.

SOURCE TIME: this is the portrait of William Cecil by Marcus Gheeraets the Younger. What can you find out about Cecil and his character by just looking at this portrait? 

After 1580s:

In this period Elizabeth’s control of her ministers in the Privy Council grew worse. This could be seen in the type of men she picked to replace the old ministers who had died. One of them was the Earl of Essex. Not only had he failed to resolve the Hugh O’Neil Rebellion in 1598, but he had also rebelled against the Crown in 1601. Essex’s rebellion was particularly dangerous for Elizabeth because it threatened royal authority because Essex and his followers planned to attack Whitehall and the Tower in London, which demonstrated that Elizabeth lacked her former ability to control her ministers effectively as these rebels considered to attack important governmental locations.

Portrait of the Earl of Essex by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger which was painted in 1598

Think like a Historian:

Can a ruler ever fully control an individual minister? And if yes, how?

Administrative body: Parliament

Its purpose: to pass any law the Queen and the Privy Council decide on

Problems with it: the MPs could argue their way not to pass the Crown’s legislation

Was it successfully controlled/ how well governed: well governed up to 1580s; after 1580s some ‘hiccups’ start happening but they never go out of hand

How was it controlled/not controlled:

Before 1580s:

Elizabeth manages to control Parliament successfully in this period. She was able to do so because she had ministers who were both within her Privy Council and Parliamentary MPs. such as Cecil and Hatton. Having such men allowed the Queen to understand the perspective of the Privy Councillors and the MPs. This was an effective strategy, which could be seen in the type of legislation the Parliament passed in this period. For example, because of the religious divide in England the Parliament willingly passes the religious Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity that start Elizabeth’s religious reform in 1559. Similarly, the Parliament was willing to support Elizabeth when there was an external threat. When the war with Spain was about to start in late 1570s the Parliament was willing to grant Elizabeth subsidies– in 1589 the Parliament granted a double subsidy to the Crown and in 1593 it granted the Crown a triple subsidy.

After 1580s:

Elizabeth has less success in this period. This was predominantly because most of her former ministers, such as Cecil, had died by this stage. Her lack of control could be evidenced by the monopolies crisis and her giving the famous ‘Golden Speech’ after she cancelled the monopolies. Both of these events demonstrated that Elizabeth was lacking in control because she felt that one of the few ways to calm the angered nobles was to employ emotive language in her speech

Administrative body: Local control (no one body to control the localities)

Its purpose: to control local areas to prevent a rebellion

Problems with it: too many things to do for a relatively small group of people

Was it successfully controlled/ how well governed: no, badly governed

How was it controlled/ not controlled:

Elizabeth was not as successful in controlling the localities as in the case of her control of the Parliament and the Privy Council. This was mainly because the people responsible for controlling the localities had too many things to do at once. For example, by 1579 the JPs were responsible for building and equipping the Houses of Correction and to buy tools to give locals work to do. Very few JPs were good at doing this job as many ignored some of the policies if these policies had a potential to be unpopular on local levels. for example, almost no JPs made Catholics in the North of the country to pay recusancy fines which were laid out by 1559 legislation. Similarly to the JPs Elizabeth and her ministers failed to control the Lord Lieutenants because there were simply not enough of them to do their job properly. The failure could be seen in 1597 food riots in various areas across England.

Source time: this is “Starvation in the Workhouse” by Harry Furniss. It was created in 1910. Until 1835 the Houses of Correction, or the Workhouses, were functioning pretty much the same system as in Elizabethan England. What can you find out about the conditions in Victorian workhouses by looking at this source? (The text and the image was scanned and provided by Philip V. Allingham)

Think like a Historian:

Does personality of the individual in power matter and why?
Important vocabulary:
  • Privy Council: a governmental body, which consisted of various ministers and was used by the monarch for advise on important governmental matters
  • Parliament: a legislative body that passed laws that were made by the monarch
  • Justices of Peace: an individual appointed by the Crown to keep the peace in the localities. Usually obeyed the local Lord Lieutenant.
  • Lord Lieutenants: the ‘boss’ of Justices of Peace
  • Patronage: the support offered by an individual (called the patron) to another individual to promote the patron’s cause
If you would like to explore the topic further…
  • Read a biography of Elizabeth I by John Guy called Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years. In this book the author argues that the existence of the ‘Golden Age’ under Elizabeth I did not mean that everything in Elizabethan Government and foreign policy was in tip-top condition.
  • Read a biography of Elizabeth I by Christopher Haigh, which focuses on her political power called Elizabeth I.