Anglo-Spanish Relations in the Elizabethan Age

Anglo-Spanish Relations in the Elizabethan Age

At Elizabeth’s accession, England and Spain were allies. With Phillip II of Spain the consort of England, ties had become as close as ever. In the coming years this changed. The Elizabethan Age saw ties become frayed as a result of English actions, Spanish actions, Religion, The Netherlands and Trade.

England’s Actions against Spain

Over the course of Elizabeth’s reign the English did several things that angered the Spanish. In 1568, the Duke of Alva had 5 of his ships intercepted and robbed of £85,000 in gold bullion. This was a huge amount of money at the time. The gold would have paid his soldiers for quite some time. Ten years later, on his circumnavigation of the globe, Sir Francis Drake attacked Spanish ships near Lima. Again a huge amount of gold was plundered. The reasons for attacks such as these are varied. The English treasury was in need of gold, particularly at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. England also had also a historic control of the Channel, the former of these incidents may have been asserting this supremacy.

Phillip II of Spain


Religion was a major issue throughout Elizabeth’s reign. From her accession there were political issues and plots that were motivated largely by religion. Elizabeth’s government became involved in several religious conflicts that increased tensions with Spain.  Involvement in the French religious wars had implications for the Netherlands, ruled by Phillip II of Spain. In 1562 Elizabeth’s government signed a treaty promising support for French protestants: The Netherlands, a neighbour of France, had similar religious problems: would England become involved there?

The Papal Bull of 1570 was prompted by the Scottish Reformation and the Northern Rebellion. It’s very existence meant that politically the two countries religions were quite incompatible. Spanish involvement in Catholic plots followed. English involvement in mainland European religious conflict also continued.

The Netherlands

During the reign of Mary I many English Protestants had fled to The Netherlands. Here they had become radicalised due to the nature of the their exile. Upon Elizabeth’s accession to the throne a large number  of them returned from exile. In The Netherlands however, there was a repression of the Protestant faith by the Duke of Alva. With so many links between the City of London and the Dutch Protestants involvement was likely. The Netherlands was also the major centre for the European trade in cloth. Some 80% of English trade was in cloth so protecting the trade was of importance. This and a fear of Spain’s ability to dominate an entire coastline led to England dispatching troops and funding the defence of Antwerp. This was the basis of the Treaty of Nonsuch in 1585.

Trade Disputes

The cloth trade of Antwerp led to a dispute between England and Spain. The Spanish Cardinal, Grenvelle, imposed import duties on English cloth. This was in retaliation for English Merchants increasing their prices. Elizabeth’s Government responded by forbidding any imports from the Netherlands.

England also grew wary of Spain’s growing trading power. The Spanish annexed Portugal in 1580. This meant that Spain now had a much larger system of trade routes and natural resources to exploit.

Spanish Actions

Spain was involved in numerous plots against Elizabeth’s reign. The seriousness of these varied but each did little to improve relations between the two countries. The Spanish Ambassador was sent back to Spain as a consequence of them.

Ships under the command of John Hawkins were attacked by the Spanish in 1568. The Spanish killed 500 and destroyed 4 ships.

Other considerations

The relationship between England and Spain at the time of Elizabeth was complex. It wasn’t just the relationship between the two that had a bearing on either sides actions, or policy. Neither England or Spain had any great desire to see the French emboldened. It would pose a threat to England if strong, or to the Netherlands. Therefore on some occasions the advantage held by one side of the other was not pressed home as firmly as perhaps it could have been. This was in part due to the need to control the wider balance of power. This was not always appreciated by the public but led to relations thawing at times.


The Spanish Armada


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