The Early Stuarts, 1603-1660

By Godfrey Davies | Go to book overview

II
FOREIGN RELATIONS, 1603-30

THE relations between England and foreign countries during the seventeenth century are peculiar in that their importance does not consist so much in their influence upon Europe as in their repercussions at home. Except for a brief but dramatic period under Cromwell, English diplomacy and English arms were singularly futile, and it would be difficult to name any event of the first rank in European history, during the reigns of James I and Charles I, which was determined by English intervention. Nevertheless the reaction upon domestic policies of the foreign policy pursued by the early Stuarts was so outstanding that it justifies separate treatment, even though a certain amount of repetition of the subject-matter of other chapters is inevitable from time to time.

Until the seventeenth century control of foreign policy in England had rested exclusively in the hands of the sovereign1 and had been little influenced directly by either parliament or people. Elizabeth had been able to abstain from active intervention in the Netherlands for a decade after the more venturesome of her subjects had demanded war with Spain, and her successful defence of the realm against the Armada had set the seal of popular approval upon her policy. Although in some other respects there were signs that the country was getting tired of an attitude of passive acquiescence in whatever its ruler did, there is no indication that parliament or any considerable body of public opinion wished to dictate foreign policy in the sixteenth century. James I therefore had some basis in history for his view that the direction of English foreign relations was the especial prerogative of the Crown. He regarded any criticism as the highest presumption in a subject, and was quick to rebuke the commons in 1621 when they made their first serious attempt to influence foreign policy. Apart from the changed attitude, in general, of parliament towards the king, there were three main reasons why it was improbable that there would be

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1

See the long list of precedents to support this thesis, quoted in a speech of the earl of Salisbury in 1607 ( Bacon, Works, x. 355-8).

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