Four-hundred seven years ago on this day, March 24th, 1603, Queen Elizabeth I breathed her last. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and the unfortunate Ann Boleyn, and when Good Queen Bess died, the relatively brief but celebrated Tudor Dynasty died with her. Yet, Elizabeth I’s significance in the shaping of the England, and the Great Britain that followed, is difficult to overstate. A pope once said of the staunchly Protestant Elizabeth that “she be Maiden to but half an island, yet Spain, France, and all in her realm fear her”. Perhaps her description of herself is most accurate. She told her subjects on the eve of war with Spain that, despite her weak and feminine frame, she “had the heart of a King, and a King of England, too”. Indeed, she did. Twenty-nine years into her 44 year reign came the seminal event that transformed England from a marginal and fractious power on the edge of Catholic Europe into the premier sea power in the history of the world to that time.
During the Spanish crisis of 1587-88, it was Elizabeth I who commissioned her cousin, Charles Howard, to command a 55-ship fleet that included the Devon privateer Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, erstwhile Royal Navy treasurer who rebuilt Henry VIII’s decayed navy in to a force of fast and maneuverable ships that defeated Philip II’s Spanish force under the Duke of Medina Sidonia.
Though Elizabeth set England on the path to preeminence on the world’s oceans and ruled for the first time over an English maritime power, subsequent events tell a cautionary tale of advantage squandered and ruinous complacency. Not fifty years after the defeat of the Armada, Charles I found himself unable to raise the required “ship money” from his inland subjects as well as the coastal counties because he failed to show to them that the Royal Navy protected and secured the economic and cultural prosperity enjoyed by ALL of what Churchill called “the Island Race”. The challenge to the authority of the Crown was a critical event in the spiral toward the English Civil War.
Worse was to come. Following the Restoration in 1660, England became embroiled in two disastrous wars with the Dutch. The English suffered a series of humiliating defeats, including a raid by the Dutch fleet under de Ruyter venturing up the Thames and Medway, burning several British ships and capturing the flagship Royal Charles. The defeats were in large measure due to the neglect of the Royal Navy, the instrument on which, the Act of Parliament so eloquently stated, “the wealth, safety, and strength of the kingdom chiefly depend.”
To ensure the lesson of humiliation did not fade in the centuries since the Dutch wars of 1664-72, the words of none other than Rudyard Kipling gives us a stark reminder.
No King will heed our warnings,
No Court will pay our claims,
Our King and Court for their Disport
Do sell the very Thames!
For, now de Ruyter’s Topsails
Off naked Chatham show,
We dare not meet him with our Fleet,
And this the Dutchmen know!
There is a sad and ironic symmetry to the fact that England first became a great sea power under Elizabeth I, while three and a half centuries later, under Elizabeth II, an England wracked with debt would cease to be one.
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