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.