II. England's open support

With national security, commercial and dynastic interests as the main drivers behind Elizabethan foreign policy, it is not surprising that England wanted to retain its tradition of friendship with her Dutch neighbours. The maintenance of England’s important commercial relationship with the Netherlands was essential for her economic security, whilst the presence of a large military force aimed at crushing heresy so near to English borders was felt as threatening regardless of official amity. The fear was that, after subduing the Dutch Protestants, Alva’s army would continue in its path and look to England and her heretical Queen as the next target. Thus Elizabeth offered covert support to the rebels, claiming to Philip that her rejection of their offers of sovereignty in 1575 and again in 1578 was evidence of her neutrality.

Elizabeth’s covert loans and preferential treatment continued, both directly to the Netherlands and via Francis, Duke of Anjou, until the treaty of Nonsuch in 1585 laid the details of English aid open to view. The reasons for this change, dangerous as it was in terms of jeopardizing peace with Spain, were manifold. By the early 1580s, the war appeared unwinnable. Alva’s third replacement, the Duke of Parma, was preparing the military reconquest of the northern United Provinces, the South having submitted to Philip’s supremacy after the 1579 split of the Catholic states in the Union of Arras from the Protestant Union of Utrecht.

Philip conquered Portugal in 1580, thus greatly expanding his naval resources and adding the practical means to his ideological motive regarding his designs against England. In May 1585, he also confiscated English trading ships docked in Spanish ports, provoking fears that they would be used against England.

In addition to this, 1584 had seen the death of Anjou and the assassination of the rebel leader William of Orange, causing shockwaves through the Low Countries and beyond. Anjou’s premature death made the Huguenot Henri of Navarre heir presumptive to the childless French King Henri III. In response to the prospect of a Protestant succession, Henry of Guise established the Catholic League and so re-intensified religious discord in France. With the resumption of civil unrest on the horizon, Henri III was in no position to support the Netherlands following Anjou’s death.

If Elizabeth did not decisively intervene, Dutch fortunes and all that rested on them were at risk of total collapse. On hearing of the secret signing of the treaty of Joinville in December 1584, in which Philip promised financial assistance to the Catholic League in a joint pledge to eradicate Protestantism from France and the Low Countries alike, England felt that conflict with Spain had become unavoidable, and moved quickly to officially ally themselves to the Dutch in a Protestant counter-league.

Following the death of William of Orange, Elizabeth decided to seek additional support against the Catholic enemies she saw converging on England and its interests, namely the Spanish, the Catholic League, and the powerful French Houses of Guise and Lorraine. At this point, she regarded the weakened United Provinces as dependents rather than equal allies.

In April 1585, Thomas Bodley was sent on his first official diplomatic mission to King Frederick II of Denmark and the German signatories of the Augsburg Confession in order to rally support for a Protestant league to counter that of the treaty of Joinville and specifically to succour the embattled Huguenots in France. Bodley did not meet with a positive response. Elizabeth’s overtures of friendship were regarded as motivated purely by self-defence and fear of Spain, whilst they themselves preferred a more conciliatory approach and disliked Calvinism and Henri of Navarre in particular. Frederick II would not act without the support of the Princes of Germany, and the Hanseatic towns also approached refused to favour a country whose merchants had expanded competition and whose ruler had removed trading privileges.

Despite these negative responses to his mission, in May 1588 Bodley was entrusted to undertake a secret and unaccompanied journey into war-torn France bearing a letter in Elizabeth’s own hand and a private oral message for Henri III, imploring him to stand firm against the Guise faction who had forced him to flee Paris during the Day of the Barricades. Bodley was to convey the Queen’s sympathetic support for the beleaguered Catholic King, though it was hardly a secret that she was also receptive to the needs of the Huguenots and the King of Navarre. Henri was cordial but distant. However this was to matter little as the approach of the Armada changed Elizabeth’s focus of attention, and Henri’s death the following year changed the French political landscape yet again.