Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Friday, March 24, 2006

Dead Queen Watch: Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I died on 24 March 1603, which makes today the 403rd anniversary of her death. She was born in 1533 and ruled from 1558 until her death. Elizabeth is one of the most popular monarchs in English or British history, and she has been played by many of Britain's most established actresses, from Judi Dench to Helen Mirren, from Miranda Richardson to Cate Blanchett. She even came seventh in the BBC's 'Greatest Britons' poll (2002), outranking all other British monarchs. Given the competition on offer here from other monarchs, this is of course hardly that much of a feat, but I suspect that it is high time that we had another more critical look at the life of Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, who he had married once he knew she was pregnant. The court physicians and astrologers all told Henry that the baby would be a boy, and the court was even moved from Windsor to Greenwich, so that the baby could be born where Henry was born. Elizabeth was then born into a world where she was not really wanted - what the Tudor dynasty wanted was a male heir. Her mother accordingly quickly lost favour and in 1536 was to be executed, when Elizabeth was just three years old. It is likely that Elizabeth had no memory of her disgraced mother, though she was now described as a 'royal bastard' and the court discussed the possibilities of marrying her off to some foreign prince or other. When Elizabeth was just nine years old, Henry tried to marry his son Edward to Mary, Queen of Scots and marry Elizabeth off to Lord Arran, but this fell through. Two years later, when she was eleven, it was proposed that she should marry Philip of Spain, son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Again, this fell through.

In terms of personality, Elizabeth grew up an active and intelligent child, far more like her mother than her father though from her father she did inherit his vibrant red hair. Henry VIII died in 1547 and was succeeded by Edward VI. Edward VI's Protector, Edward Seymour (Duke of Somerset) had a brother Thomas Seymour (Baron of Sudeley) who now married the dead King Henry's wife, Catherine Parr. Catherine and Thomas, who was also Lord High Admiral, took the teenage Elizabeth into their household at Chelsea. There, Elizabeth learned to speak or read six languages (her native English, as well as French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Latin) and under the influence of Catherine Parr was raised a Protestant. Yet living with Seymour and Parr was a rather dodgy arrangement, as Thomas Seymour seemed to make all sorts of sexual advances towards the young Elizabeth while she lived in his house. She was eventually sent away to Hatfield, as Catherine felt things had gone way too far. Elizabeth's experiences with Seymour may well have been a factor in explaining why she never married as a monarch.

In 1553, when Elizabeth was twenty, her half-brother King Edward died at the age of fifteen, having left a will which purported to supersede his father's. Contravening the Act of Succession 1544, it excluded both Mary and Elizabeth from succeeding to the throne and declared Lady Jane Grey to be his heiress. Lady Jane ascended the throne, but was deposed less than two weeks later. Armed with popular support, Mary rode triumphantly into London, her half-sister Elizabeth at her side.

Mary I contracted a marriage with the Catholic Spanish prince Philip, later King Philip II of Spain, and she worried that the people might depose her and put Elizabeth on the throne in her stead. Wyatt's Rebellion in 1554 sought to prevent Mary from marrying Philip and put Elizabeth and her friend, Edward Courtney, on the throne instead. This was not a successful rebellion and after its failure, Elizabeth was imprisoned by her half-sister in the Tower of London. There were demands for Elizabeth's execution, but few Englishmen wished to put a member of the popular Tudor dynasty to death. Mary attempted to remove Elizabeth from the line of succession, but Parliament would not allow it. After two months in the Tower, Elizabeth was put under house arrest under the guard of Sir Henry Bedingfield; by the end of 1554, when Mary was falsely rumoured to be pregnant, Elizabeth was allowed to return to court at Philip's behest. Philip seems to have been attracted to Elizabeth and, worried that his wife might die in childbirth, wanted to ensure Elizabeth would succeed to the throne rather than Mary I of Scotland. This period of imprisonment and then limited freedom was not a happy time for Elizabeth, who fell ill.

For the remainder of her reign, the staunchly Catholic Mary persecuted Protestants, and came to be known as "Bloody Mary" because of a desire to present her assertion of authority as cruel. She urged Elizabeth to become a Catholic, but the princess kept up a skilful show of allegiance to suit her ambitions while Mary and Philip became more and more unpopular. Then in November 1558, Mary died and Elizabeth, aged 25, finally became Queen.

What was England like in 1558, when Elizabeth became Queen?

Firstly, political life was expressed through religion to a great extent and the Counter-Reformation of Mary Tudor had been deeply unpopular and Elizabeth was determined to try and get some sort of religious settlement - 'The Church of England as by law established'. As AL Morton noted, 'the authority of the Pope was once more abolished, and a slightly modified form of royal supremacy, that is of the subordination of the Church to the State, was substituted. At the same time, the form of organisation existing in the Catholic Church, government by the bishops and an elaborate ecclesiastical hierachy was preserved. The more uncompromising and democratic forms of Protestantism were avoided...Protestantism assumed the form most compatible with the monarchy and with the system of local government created by the Tudors. The parson in the villages became the close ally of the squire and alsomst as much as part of the State machine as the Justice of the Peace.'

England was also country racked by monetary 'debasement' - inflation - which had led to repeated price rises, wage cuts and trade thrown into confusion. AL Morton in his People's History of England noted that one of her first acts of her Government 'was to call in the whole coinage in 1560...this stabilisation, coming at the end of the period of enclosures and of the plunder of the Church, marks a definite stage in the consolidation of the position of the bourgeoisie in England, at the opening of an era of armed struggle with Spain for the more intensive exploitation of the world market'.

The Spanish Armada

Elizabeth's reign was then one beset by the struggle against Spain and so the Catholic Church - and complicated by Mary Stuart in Scotland. While Mary was alive, open struggle was unlikely and instead there were all sorts of 'plots' and Catholic 'risings' against Elizabeth. However, with the death of Mary in 1568, all bets were off. In her will, Mary had left Philip her claim to the English Throne; under force of the threat from Elizabeth's policies in the Netherlands and the east Atlantic, Philip set out his plans for an invasion of England. In April 1587, Sir Francis Drake burned part of the Spanish fleet at Cádiz, delaying Philip's plans. In July 1588, the Spanish Armada, a grand fleet of 130 ships bearing over 30,000 men, set sail in the expectation of conveying a Spanish invasion force under the command of the Duke of Parma across the English Channel from the Netherlands. Elizabeth encouraged her troops with a notable speech, known as the Speech to the Troops at Tilbury, in which she famously declared, 'I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and of a King of England too! And I think it foul scorn that Spain or Parma or any prince of Europe should dare invade the borders of my realm'.

The Spanish attempt was defeated by the English fleet under Charles Howard, Second Baron of Effingham and Sir Francis Drake, aided by bad weather. The Armada was forced to return to Spain, with appalling losses on the north and west coasts of Ireland; the victory tremendously increased Elizabeth's popularity. The English had lost no more than one hundred men in the whole action. AL Morton notes that 'the defeat of the Armada has often been regarded as something of a miracle: in fact it would have been a miracle if it had succeeded' - as the English and Dutch had developed 'a totally new method of war' - with faster small ships laden with artillery rather than relying on close encounters and 'grappling' - human hand to hand combat with troops - as the Spanish still did.

Yet the defeat of the Spanish Armada was a turning point in English history - both with respect to domestic and foreign policy, as Morton notes. 'Up to 1588 the English bourgeoisie were fighting for existence: after that they fought for power...it was the merchants, with their own ships and their own money, who had won the victory and they had won it almost in spite of the half-heartedness and ineptitude of the Crown and Council.' Morton continues: 'The war with Spain, especially in its earlier stages, was less a national war than the struggle of a class against its class enemies at home and abroad. It was carried on mainly by the English merchant class both against Spain as the centre of the reactionary and feudal forces in Europe and against their allies in England, the Catholic section of the nobility. Nothing is more surprising than the depth and sincerity of the religious convictions of many of the English seamen of the Sixteenth Century. Their Protestantism was the religion of a class in arms.'

More than this, 'the victory transformed the whole character of the class relations that had existed for a century. The bourgeoisie became aware of their strength and with the coming of this awareness the long alliance between them and the monarchy began to dissolve. It might still need their support but they no longer needed its protection. Even before the death of Elizabeth, Parliament began to show an independence previously unknown. The war with Spain, therefore, can best be understood as the first phase in the English Revolution. First, because it was a defeat for feudal reaction in Europe and consolidated the victory of the Reformation in those areas where it had already triumphed. And, second, because the classes inside England which defeated Philip were exactly those which afterwards led the opposition to Charles. It was a striking fact that at the opening of the Civil War the whole Navy and every important seaport was found to be on the side of Parliament. It was in the war with Spain that these classes had been tempered and mobilised and had developed that sense of being a special people, "the elect", which made their Puritanism so formidable as a political creed.'

Capital, Colonialism and Conquest

Yet what is often forgotten about Elizabeth's life is what the English were doing when when they were not giving the Spanish Armada a damn good thrashing, and this is a story which needs more attention.

Firstly, there was Ireland, which Morton notes 'was the first English colony, the place where they learnt all the tricks of governing subject races.' The Desmond Rebellions occurred in the 1560s, 1570s and 1580s in Munster, a province in southern Ireland led by the Earl of Desmond dynasty and their allies against the efforts of the Elizabethan English government to extend their control. The rebellions were primarily about the independence of feudal lords from their monarch but also had an element of religious conflict (Roman Catholic against Protestant). They were bloodily suppressed and resulted not only in the destruction of the Desmond dynasty and the subsequent plantation or colonisation of Munster with English settlers, but also widespread devastation.

People continued to die of famine and plague long after the war had ended, and it is estimated that by 1589 one third of the province's population had died. Two famous accounts tell us of the devastation of Munster after the Desmond rebellion. The first is from the Gaelic Annals of the Four Masters:

'the whole tract of country from Waterford to Lothra, and from Cnamhchoill to the county of Kilkenny, was suffered to remain one surface of weeds and waste… At this period it was commonly said, that the lowing of a cow, or the whistle of the ploughboy, could scarcely be heard from Dun-Caoin to Cashel in Munster'.

The second is from the View of the Present State of Ireland, written by English poet Edmund Spenser, who fought in the campaign against the Irish:

'In those late wars in Munster; for notwithstanding that the same was a most rich and plentiful country, full of corn and cattle, that you would have thought they could have been able to stand long, yet ere one year and a half they were brought to such wretchedness, as that any stony heart would have rued the same. Out of every corner of the wood and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them; they looked Anatomies [of] death, they spoke like ghosts, crying out of their graves; they did eat of the carrions, happy where they could find them, yea, and one another soon after, in so much as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves; and if they found a plot of water-cresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue therewithal; that in a short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or beast.'

Yet, as Morton notes, 'it proved easier, however, to ruin Ireland than to enrich England by such means...there was neither the surplus capital nor population to permit of large-scale ventures, and what spare capital there was tended to be attracted into trade which promised a far higher return. Consequently, the most significant economic development of the late Tudor and early Stuart period was the birth and consolidation of a number of chartered companies, each engaged in the promotion of trade in a specific area.' Of particular import here was the East India Company, which was given a Charter by Elizabeth in 1600.

The East India Company was, Morton notes, 'the real founder of British rule in India. From the start it was a company of a new kind, better adapted for large scale trade and making a more flexible use of its capital...The East India Company was the first important Joint Stock Company, its members investing so much capital to be pooled and used jointly and receiving a proportionate share of the common profit. At first the shares were taken only for a single voyage, after which the whole proceeds were divided out and fresh shares subscribed for a new voyage. Very soon they were left in from one voyage to another, forming a permanent capital. This gave the Company obvious advantages over the older kinds, allowing a continuous development and making possible large scale enterprises. The Company could afford to wait for a return on its activities where the private trader could not.'

The East India Company had been set up by Sir James Lancaster in response to the Dutch, who were also eagerly establishing themselves in India through control of the spice trade. As Morton notes, 'how important spices, and especially pepper, were to Europe at this time will only be understood when we remember that the whole population had to live on salted meat during the greater part of the winter months...salt being dear and scarce, and, in England, imported from abroad' meant that 'a liberal amount of seasoning was needed to make the meat even palatable. Spices accordingly fetched high prices, and a monopoly such as the Dutch established was extremely profitable to themselves and extremely vexatious to their customers and rivals.'

As Victor Kiernan notes of the Dutch and English in The Lords of Human Kind (1969), it was not long before 'these two rivals represented a new imperialism, not in need of any crusading motives to nerve it for enterprises in continents now relatively familiar, or of any ideology beyond that of the counting house. The Turkish threat to Europe was receding; besides, to Dutchmen and Englishmen, Spain and the Inquisition, not Turkey and the Koran, were the menace. They had no notion of spreading Christianity in Asia; these Protestants kept religion, business and politics in separate compartments. As the natives were going to be roughly handled in either case, it may have been better for Christianity not to be compromised, as it was in America, by getting mixed up in the matter. Anglo-Dutch power in the East Indies, until well on in the nineteenth century, marked the most sordid but least hypocritical phase of European expansion.'

It was not just in India that Morton notes Elizabeth 'like all the Tudors, appreciated the importance of trade and of securing the support of the merchant class'. Typical of this class of privateers was Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595). Hawkins arguably was the founder of the slave trade - what Morton called 'the great trade of supplying the Americas with negro slaves from West Africa.'

In the Spanish West Indies, in little over a generation, the native population had been exterminated by their conquerors through hard work, and the new settlers needed labourers so desperately that they were ready to buy from anyone, from anywhere, in spite of the fact that the Spanish Government decreed this illegal. Hawkins saw the niche in the market - and was determined to fill it.

Hawkins first voyage, of 1562, led three small ships to the Sierra Leone coast in order to capture slaves. He left Africa with a cargo of around 300, having seized them from the Portuguese. Despite having two ships seized by the Spanish authorities, he sold the slaves in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) and thus made a profit for his London investors. His voyage caused the Spanish to ban all English ships from trading in their West Indies colonies.

Yet Hawkins was not to be deterred by the rules of some bloody foriegners, still less when there were some Africans who could be worked to death for these bloody foreigners at some profit to himself. That's the spirit! Here the plucky Hawkins was helped by Queen Elizabeth, 'Good old Bess' herself. In 1564, Elizabeth rented Hawkins the huge old 700-tonne ship 'Jesus of Lubeck', and he set forth on his second voyage along with three small ships. This was a longer and more extensive voyage than the first and the expedition again proved a financial success, although he had to force the Spanish colonies to trade with him at gunpoint.

His third voyage was in 1567. Hawkins again traded for slaves with local leaders, and also augmented his cargo by capturing the Portuguese slave ship Madre de Dios (Grace of God) and its human cargo. He took about 400 slaves across the Atlantic on the third trip. At Vera Cruz he was chanced upon by a strong Spanish force that was bringing the new viceroy to the colony there. Only two of the English ships escaped destruction, and Hawkins' voyage home was a miserable one.

Although his first three voyages were semi-piratical enterprises, Queen Elizabeth I was in need of money and saw such privateers as fighting England's battles at their own cost and risk. Hawkins was duly promoted by Elizabeth to be Treasurer of the Royal Navy by the time of the Spanish Armada. He was indeed, as one recent book by Nick Hazlewood has described him, 'the Queen's Slave Trader'.

Helping conquer Ireland, helping establishing English power in India, sponsoring the first slave traders - it is no wonder that in 2005, in a History Channel documentary, a group of establishment historians and commentators declared Elizabeth 'Britain's Greatest Monarch'. Elizabeth I's 'new imperialism' inspired future British rulers in their 'Empire Building'. It is therefore not surprising that she is remembered with respect by apologists for British imperial power today - though quite why so many of the rest of us seem to think of her so highly is perhaps more difficult to explain.

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