Shifting the Balance of Power

As English naval power grew stronger under Elizabeth I (1558-1603), England drifted toward direct conflict with Spain. Francis Drake and John Hawkins aroused Spanish ire by their exploits in the West Indies, and Elizabeth was under great pressure from the Spanish to bring them to justice. Elizabeth had no desire for a costly war with Spain but welcomed the riches being added to her treasury by these English naval captains. With its resources already spread thin on the continent and unable to defend her colonies, Elizabeth gambled that Philip would not move against England, relying on a foreign policy agenda that had served English monarchs well since the thirteenth century. In the words of G.M. Trevelyan:

From Tudor times onwards, England treated European politics simply as a means of ensuring her own security from invasion and furthering her designs beyond the ocean. Her insularity, properly used, gave her an immense advantage over Spain and France in the maritime and colonial contest.

England's rapidly expanding naval fleet was only one important outward sign that changes were afoot in the British Isles. Of the new empire-building states, England had moved the greatest distance from feudalism and headlong into privatization of landed property for commercial exploitation. The conversion of large tracts of rural land from subsistence agriculture to pastures for cattle and sheep sent peasants into the towns and, increasingly, to the ports where shipbuilding and commerce thrived. Henry VIIIs navy was, therefore, manned by a large and well-established class of private merchants and seamen who shared a degree of social equality previously unknown. At the direction of Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake then forged the privateers into a well-disciplined fighting force. G.M. Trevelyan notes with obvious approval that Drake instinctively recognized the "the hierarchy of the sea is not the same as the hierarchy of the land."

From the very beginning of her ventures into the Americas, then, England dispatched no conquistadors of a type similar to those who carried the Spanish or Portuguese flags during the sixteenth century; rather, individuals formed joint stock companies to explore and exploit whatever lands and resources might be found. Charters were granted by Elizabeth I to the Muscovy, Levant and East India Companies. Sir Walter Raleigh then acted on his grant -- over the whole of North America north of Florida -- by organizing two unsuccessful attempts to establish settlements on Roanoke Island (off the coast of North Carolina). The first group gave up and returned after one year; the second group of 117 men, women and children disappeared without a trace before a relief expedition arrived in 1590. There is some evidence that these colonists attempted to establish a new settlement on another island, named Croatoan, located thirty miles south and closer to the North Carolina coast. Robert Lacey, in his biography of Ralegh, speculates that "the colonists were probably attacked ... by hostile Indians [but that] the women and children would almost certainly have been spared and incorporated into the Indian community, intermarrying and adopting willy-nilly the lifestyle of their savage masters." Lacey provides more than circumstantial evidence to support his conclusion:

There are, in fact, in the present day Robertson County of North Carolina survivors of a tribe of Indians called the Croatoans whose language incorporates incongruous words of Elizabethan English. Some of them have fair hair and blue eyes -- and some even carry the same surnames as Sir Walter Raleigh's lost colonists.

Elizabeth I was moving with deliberate caution into the Americas. Henry VIII had left her with a nearly empty treasury, which only a gradual expansion of trade (and the privateering of Drake and Hawkins) managed to restore. Her support of the Dutch in their war of independence against Spain finally startled the Spaniards out of complacency toward England's increasing boldness. Despite Spanish protests, Drake was knighted by Elizabeth I upon his return to England in 1580. Then, in 1587 the English queen added even more fuel to the fire by ordering the execution of Mary (Queen of Scots), Catholic heir to the English throne. Mary's execution ignited war with Catholic Spain, and Philip II proceeded to claim the English throne as his own. Now, all he had to do was to take England by force.

The ensuing naval battle between the English navy and the Spanish Armada represented in the widest sense a contest between a fragile, though comparatively open society and a declining feudalistic empire. The outcome on the oceanic battleground proved to be a serious disaster for the Spaniards. After losing a significant number of ships and men in the actual fighting, the escaping Armada was torn apart by storms and wrecked against the Scottish and Irish coasts, where Celtic tribesmen murdered and stripped thousands of Spanish soldiers as they came ashore. Out of 130 ships, less than half managed to return to Spain. The balance of power in Europe shifted almost immediately away from Spain and to northern Europe.

Spain's socio-political structure and the internal strife this caused would have eventually brought about a similar result; however, the loss of this military capability hastened the Spanish decline; and, as Trevelyan suggests, the future of European history may have been altered in an even more encompassing fashion:

The defeat of the Armada ensured the survival of the Dutch Republic and the emancipation of France under Henri IV from Spanish arms and policies. Less directly it saved Protestant Germany, whose Lutheran Princes, at this crisis of the onslaught made by the organized and enthusiastic forces of the Counter-Reformation, had shown themselves more interested in persecuting their Calvinist subjects than in helping the common cause. The fate of the Armada demonstrated to all the world that the rule of the seas had passed from the Mediterranean peoples to the Northern folk. This meant not only the survival of the Reformation in Northern Europe to a degree not fully determined, but the world-leadership of the Northerners in the new oceanic era.