Philip II, say what you
will, a snappy dresser
Another follow-up on the saga of Mary, Queen of Scots. I am grateful to all who sent me messages that they do like the postings that deal with more distant history and in particular for those who like the series on the history of the Anglican Church. I must admit that I have found it very beneficial myself to work on this series as my own understanding of the history of Anglicanism and, in particular the issue of continuity in the Church of England before and after the various reformations of the sixteenth century, has helped me think more clearly about complex issues such as the Apostolic Succession and the “validity” of sacraments. And we have a long way to go in the history of the Church of England as we still have the Jacobean Church, the Civil War and the Dissenters, the Restoration, the Enlightenment, the Hanoverians, the Oxford Movement and a long string of complicated and at times contradictory histories.
Be that as it may. Let’s look at the impact that the execution of Mary Stuart, the Catholic Queen of Scots, had on England and English Society—Society, of course, including the Church of England.
The Spanish monarch, Philip II, was deeply involved with the plots to overthrow Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne—plots that led to Mary’s 1587 execution. Elizabeth’s England—Protestant of the Calvinist variation, though Episcopal in structure—supported the Dutch rebels—Protestant of the Calvinist variation, though Presbyterian in structure—in their revolt against Philip who, in addition to being King of Spain, was the ruler of the Netherlands. Philip needed to remove the English support for the rebels if he was to secure his authority in the Netherlands and so wanted to replace Protestant Elizabeth with Catholic Mary. It was not unreasonable. The old nobility (pre-Tudor) was still overwhelmingly Catholic (and resentful of the loss of power and influence to the new nobility created by the Tudors and overwhelmingly Protestant) and were anxious to support Mary’s ascendency to the throne. In addition to the nobility, Catholicism survived strongly—even perhaps a majority among the gentry and peasantry—in the North and the West. These Catholics were anxious to see the old religion restored and they were encouraged in their rebellion by the Papal Bull, Regnans in Excelcis, of Pius V that absolved them of any loyalty to Elizabeth. This Catholic commitment to regime change led to a number of plots, most especially the Ridolfi and Babington Plots, all of which failed and which ultimately led to Mary’s execution to put down the threat of a Catholic rebellion that would put Mary on the throne in place of Elizabeth. When Mary’s death put her out of the way, Philip had no choice in his campaign to end England’s aid to the Dutch rebels but to invade England and get rid of Elizabeth and her Protestant government.
As if the execution of Mary were not sufficient grounds in and of itself for Philip to want to strike against England, the English privateer, Sir Francis Drake, raided the Spanish port of Cadiz only two months after Mary’s death, burning ships and seizing supplies.
Philip drew up bold plans for the retaliatory invasion of England but some of his advisors had strong reservations about their likelihood to be successful. Anti-English courtiers prevented the critiques from reaching Philip, however, confident that this Catholic mission against Protestant England was God-ordained. This was a crusade. In fact, Pope Sixtus V permitted Philip to levy crusade-taxes to finance the expedition and the expedition’s banner was consecrated in a ceremony modeled on the blessing of the banner of the Christian forces against the Turks in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto. Regardless of the political issues of English support for the Dutch rebels, this was a religious war.
The Spanish fleet consisted of 130 ships, 8,000 sailors, 18,000 soldiers, and 2,500 canon. They were to be joined by the Duke of Parma’s armies from the Netherlands for the invasion. This was a serious threat to England.
In the event, the English bested the much larger and better-equipped Spanish fleet in a series of initial battles. On August 2, 1588, Elizabeth herself rode out to Tilbury to encourage her army preparing to resist Spanish attempts at invasion and, wearing a somewhat ridiculous breastplate of silver and equally ridiculous, with a page holding her silver helmet, gave her famous speech.
My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes for fear of treachery; but, I do assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself, that under God I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects; and, therefore, I am come amongst you as you see at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all – to lay down for my God, and for my kingdoms, and for my people, my honour and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms – I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, for your forwardness, you have deserved rewards and crowns, and, we do assure you, on the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.
This is considered one of the best speeches in the English language. It certainly served its purpose and rallied the English people. But note her: to lay down for my God, and for my kingdoms, and for my people, my honour and my blood even in the dust.
And we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.This was for Elizabeth, and for the English, a battle of religion. To be English was to be Protestant; to be Catholic was to be Spanish. This marks a turning point in English religious history where not only by law, but in the English political imagination, to be Catholic was to be something other than English. And so Lord Grantham would say in season 4 of Downton Abbey: "There seems to be something of the Johnny Foreigner about Catholics." Yes, there does—ever since the Armada. In many ways the Armada was the deathblow to English Catholicism as the surviving faithful in the rural areas of the North and the West gradually shifted from their foreign religion to the far more English Church of England.