III. Equal allies

In supporting the Netherlands in their revolt against Spain, Elizabeth’s aim was not to conduct all-out war but to pacify the situation and return the rebellious provinces to their previous position as nominally under Spanish control, though with an additional degree of religious independence. The provinces of Gelderland, Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht and Friesland had formed a confederate body, the States General, which organized the sustained resistance against Spain and sought assistance from potential allies. Elizabeth had no desire to become a champion of the States’ liberation, only wanting to reduce the Catholic military presence across from her borders. She had therefore already sought a peace treaty between the States and Spain based on the Pacification of Ghent, the largely ignored treaty of 1576 calling for the removal of Spanish troops and an end to religious persecution. England consequently encouraged at least five peace negotiations between 1585 and the Armada of 1588, after which point diplomatic accord with Spain seemed unobtainable.

Elizabeth’s calculated reserve explains in part her wrath towards Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Leicester, Lieutenant-General under the treaty of Nonsuch, unilaterally accepted the title of Absolute Governor of the Netherlands in January 1586 incurring the Queen’s displeasure. This lack of judgement was typical of Leicester’s behaviour throughout his post. Ever since, he has been criticised for his poor handling of financial and military affairs and for his antagonistic attitude towards the Dutch. Charles Wilson mercilessly sums up his character as ‘conceited, quarrelsome, ungrateful, disloyal, jealous, stupid and corrupt’ (Wilson, 103). The dishonourable surrender of Deventer in January 1587 by captains appointed by Leicester, followed by the loss of Sluys to Parma later that year, eroded all trust between the Dutch and the English and made Bodley’s diplomatic commission extremely difficult to navigate.

Even before Leicester’s return from the Netherlands in the Autumn of 1587, Anglo-Dutch relations were experiencing a change in the balance of power. The approach of the Spanish Armada meant that the English required Dutch assistance, and switched Elizabeth’s concern from Dutch soil to maritime expeditions.

Seeking to retire from her commitments of the treaty of Nonsuch, and re-deploy her troops to the Portugal expedition of 1589 and to the religious wars in France, Elizabeth was content to allow Leicester’s pro-English faction to dissolve on his departure. Times had changed since William of Orange sought to exchange sovereignty for protection. Strong Dutch leaders such as the statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, and Count Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange and captain-general, regained both civil and military positions previously filled by the English. To Bodley’s exasperation they were less and less willing to share political control.

With the success of Nassau’s offensive of the early 1590s and Parma turning his attention to France, Elizabeth could trust the States to stand firm against Spain while she concentrated on supporting the succession of the Huguenot Henri of Navarre following the assassination of Henri III. Both Lords Willoughby and Killigrew, who took up Leicester’s command after his departure from the Netherlands, were re-deployed to France in this cause.