England and the Peace with Spain, 1604: Pauline Croft Analyses the Causes and Traces the Consequences of a Momentous Treaty

By Croft, Pauline | History Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview

England and the Peace with Spain, 1604: Pauline Croft Analyses the Causes and Traces the Consequences of a Momentous Treaty


Croft, Pauline, History Review


August 2004 saw the 400th anniversary of the Treaty of London (1604), one of the most significant treaties in British history and splendidly commemorated in the great portrait of the diplomats--English, Spanish and Flemish--sitting around a carpeted table in the old royal palace of Somerset House, London. There are two versions of this remarkable painting, one of the very largest of its era, and unique in its depiction of a key political moment in European history. Clearly the agreement was regarded as momentous by contemporaries, but to appreciate why it was so important we need to understand the background.

The Armada War

The negotiations of 1604 brought to an end the long conflict between Spain and England which had broken out in 1585.

There was never a formal declaration of war by either side, but the main bone of contention was the 1585 treaty of Nonsuch, a formal alliance which Elizabeth I contracted with the leaders of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule in the low countries (roughly modern Belgium and The Netherlands).

She began to send them substantial military aid, which in turn provoked Philip II of Spain to gather his military and naval forces together in an ambitious scheme to conquer England. In 1588 he sent the Spanish Armada into the Channel, with orders to link up with the Spanish army harrying the Dutch rebels.

The army's general, Philip's nephew the duke of Parma, was commanded to divert his forces and assemble them on the coast of Flanders. The plan was that the Armada would escort Parma's men across, and once on land, they would storm through Kent to take London and capture Elizabeth.

The grand design of 1588 failed, and so did the English counter-attack, the shambolic 'Portugal expedition' in the following year. With the outcome a stalemate, it might have been expected that the Anglo-Spanish war would soon come to an end. This was not the case; the conflict was not simply a bilateral one but part of a much wider European struggle in which the Dutch, the French and the Irish were also involved. In the 1590s Elizabeth was faced with the opening of two new theatres of war, in France and Ireland. She had little choice but to commit her forces to both, to fight off threats less dramatic than the Armada but almost equally alarming.

France, 1589-1594

Throughout the 1580s France was riven by religious and dynastic warfare. Spanish funding sent by Philip II supported the Catholic League, which opposed any concessions to the Huguenots (French Protestants). In August 1589, the assassination of King Henri III of France led Philip II to intervene directly with the Spanish armed forces commanded by Parma. The possibility of Spanish control of France and the French coastline posed an intolerable threat to England, quite apart from the strong feelings of solidarity felt by many English Protestants for their Huguenot brethren. For five years English troops and English money supported Henri of Navarre, the Protestant claimant to the French throne, whose accession was determinedly contested by Spain. For Elizabeth the financial burdens were heavy, amounting to nearly one-fifth of her total income. In July 1593 Henri of Navarre converted to Catholicism, thereby removing the Catholic League's raison d'etre, and by 1594 the Spanish threat to France was receding as the newly-acknowledged Henri IV began to assert his control over his ravaged kingdom.

Ireland

As English troops withdrew from France another war sprang up, this time in Ireland. Troubles there were endemic and a revolt against English rule broke out in Ulster in 1593-94. The situation worsened in 1595 when Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone and the greatest magnate in the north of Ireland, joined the rebels. Philip II had considered sending an expedition to Ireland in 1586-87, as part of his pre-Armada strategic review, since it was a fixed conviction of Spanish military thinking that an assault force operating from an established Irish base would divert English troops away from the low countries. …

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