Elizabeth I 1533-1603

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.

Drake statue in Devon

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.

Howard’s Ark Royal battles Medina Sidona’s San Martin

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.”

Dutch Warships in the Medway

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.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Foreign Policy, History, Maritime Security, Navy

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  • YNSN

    Check out the book “Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind” by Peter Padfield. His insights to the maritime power of England and all European powers is very insightful, let a lone a pleasure to read.

    It is not the tonnage of Ships that allowed England to be the power she was. It was the banking system she had, and the debt she could float. The ebb and flow of conflict in Europe was due to each power paying off their debt and rebuilding their mercantile network. England had the ability to absorb more debt than any other nation. So, she won.

    Debt is the ultimate enemy of a Navy. When budgets are short, the first ballast a state throws overboard are its ships and naval stores.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Can you type that LOUDER? Some people on the Potomac need to hear it… 🙂

  • RhodeIslander

    YNSN, Are you really an E-3 ?

    You sound more like an O-6 or even higher.

    Actually, if you get out and run for governor or senator, please let us all know your true name, so we can vote for you in the future.

    Half of our Congress is not even lucid ! You’ll have easy victories in future political life.

  • YNSN


    When I came up with my handle I was an E-3. I am now an E-5, YN2(SW) type.

    Thank you for the kind words.

  • Bill Wells

    The “divine wind,” and the King of Spain, Phillip, had as much to do with Elizabeth’s success as her debt.

    Phillip did not understand naval warfare. He treated is as an army function at sea. Had his commanders been able to call an audible and attack the Brits they would have been in better shape in the end. Do not forget that part of the Spanish plan for the fleet was to support an amphibious landing.

    Apart from the old saw that the first causality of war is the plan, had Spain been able to pull it off, Elizabeth I may have been known as one of the short-lived (literally0 English monarchs.

    Well, things just don’t work out sometimes. Elizabeth’s need for cash (specie in the era of bullionism) gave rise to English piracy in the Gulf of Mexico. Drake was a great pirate and set off the felonious acts for the next two and half centuries.

    “Debt is the ultimate enemy of a Navy. When budgets are short, the first ballast a state throws overboard are its ships and naval stores.”

    I disagree. The first chucked are people. Then ships, training, travel and every other personnel related facet that costs money. The U. S. Navy has never worried about the national debt since its inception in 1798.

    One of the reasons the Congress was opposed to having a navy early on was not the initial outlay of funds. Their fear,proved true, was that the United States naval hierarchy would want to use the navy in some conflict and then costs really rise.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    You are right about the circumstances of the Armada. But the Royal Navy did achieve an astonishing victory. Had either Elizabeth I or Drake been a baseball fan, they would have said something about how it was better to be lucky than good. They were both, and tactically were far superior to the Spanish, at least on that day.

  • Bill Wells

    I would say very lucky. I suppose the Protestant God was on their side that day.

    It is interesting that Drake took off from the fleet to take capture the larger Spanish vessel — for the prize money of course.

    C. S. Forrester in one the Hornblower books said it was about his sailors eating English beef. Other nationalities did not eat the same amount and were less aggressive in battle. Just another tick mark in the protein argument.

    I do have to admire Elizabeth I. She had executed the Earl of Leicester, a man she considered her son, for ‘ghosting’ troops in the Netherlands (among other things). Now that is tough love.


    All of what you say about Good Queen Bess is true, but let us also remember how shabbily she trated poor Edmund, Lord Blackadder.