I. The Dutch Revolt

The final two decades of Elizabeth I's reign were a fascinating, dangerous, and doubtless frustrating time to be a diplomat.

During the 1580s, the traditional accord with the Habsburg Empire, maintained in the past as a counter against the other primary superpower of the era, France, was degenerating into open war. France herself was torn and bleeding from decades of civil conflict, and the days of England remaining officially uninvolved in the Dutch revolt against their Spanish overlords were numbered.

Despite the New Religion being a major cause of the conflicts across the Narrow Sea, it was not inevitable that Protestant England and Catholic Spain would come to open blows. Regardless of ideological stance, Spain, the Netherlands and England were inextricably, if not always beneficially, connected by trade and shared shipping routes.

Anglo-Spanish relations were certainly unstable over the decades leading to war, though mutual distrust and England's almost pathological fear of a Europe-wide Catholic conspiracy did not preclude diplomatic lip-service until the expulsion of the Spanish ambassador, de Mendoza, in 1584. The English appropriation of Genoese bullion bound for Spanish troops in the Netherlands in 1568 led to a series of escalating retaliations, including a temporary embargo on English trade and a tacit royal endorsement of privateering raids on Spanish ships.

Anti-Spanish sentiment continued to rise, fuelled by a fear of Catholic plots to supplant Elizabeth - which materialised in the Ridolfi (1571) and Throckmorton (1583) - plots and by the disruption to London-Antwerp trade that followed the sacking of the Flemish town in 1576 during the ‘Spanish Fury’. However, cold war relations were not to develop into declared hostilities until the 1585 treaty of Nonsuch, for neither England nor Spain wanted open conflict and its burdensome expense. It was the perceived change from ally to protector of Spain’s rebellious subjects in the Low Countries, arising from the treaty’s pledge of ongoing military assistance, that put the nail in the coffin of Anglo-Spanish relations.

The Dutch revolt, retrospectively dubbed the 80 Years’ War, was not one uniform rebellion of a Protestant North against Catholic oppressors, but rather was conducted over varying areas within the 17 provinces of the Low Countries, peaking in three Dutch Revolts (1565-8, 1569-76, and 1576-81), each with distinguishable causes.

The spread of Calvinism in a Spanish dominion was a key uniting cause, but so too was the desire to be rid of foreign rule regardless of denominational difference; indeed the majority of those fighting, even in the Northern Provinces, were not converts.

Spain’s recent anti-heretical movements, introducing new centrally-controlled bishoprics and intensifying the work of the Inquisition, had fostered a perception of the Church as antagonistic towards local privilege and tradition, causing widespread dissatisfaction and unwittingly priming the populace to be sympathetic towards the persecuted Protestants. Spain was also resented for its economic impositions, such as the ‘Tenth Penny’ tax, which drove the second revolt, and for its military presence, which became in parts unruly and mutinous, inciting the third revolt. Philip II of Spain himself spent very little time in the Netherlands, leaving for good in 1559. His commitment to a remote kingship created its own problems of governance, particularly in such a decentralised urban region. Though food shortages and trade disruptions helped prompt the first rebellion, conflict ensued in earnest after a great wave of iconoclasm in 1566: the sacking of churches and convents by a hardcore band of Calvinists, who for the most part met with either active support or passive acquiescence.

Though at first some accords were reached and religious concessions granted, Philip, for fear of setting precedent and risking rebellion in Italy and elsewhere, decided to react with a heavy hand. The commissioning of Don Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alva, or ‘the Iron Duke’, and his substantial military force turned rebellion into protracted civil war, solidifying opposition and smacking of Spanish imperialism not only to the Dutch people but also to the keenly attentive English government across the Narrow Sea. Alva had much success against the first group of rebels, dubbed ‘the Beggars’, and set up the zealously Catholic ‘Council of Blood’ that tried and executed many of those involved in the civil disturbances.

William of Orange (known as William the Silent), Stadholder of Holland, Utrecht and Zeeland, had already fled to his German estates following the violence of 1566 when he was summoned before the Council. Needless to say he did not appear. An early opponent to the Spanish religious reforms, William became a key leader and figurehead of the revolt and headed military expeditions against Alva in 1568. Though these incursions were unsuccessful, William helped to organise and finance the notorious Sea Beggars. The Sea Beggars’ capture of the strategic naval port of Brill (Briel) in 1572, was soon followed by other Zeeland ports. This gave the rebels a significant foothold in the North, marking a turning point in the rebellion.