Queen Elizabeth may well have been vain, but her political acuity may have never been matched since her reign. She was raised as a Protestant in a world that was still overwhelming Catholic and in a country that still had more than a tenuous attachment to the Catholic faith. Where Queen Elizabeth’s political astuteness is most assured is her realization that she had to walk a tightrope between the two faiths.
Her vain qualities may be confused with her acuteness. She was a master of vagueness, allowing both sides to interpret her statements and loyalties as they would, without giving them so much as to become encouraged that they possessed all her loyalty. That vain quality may also have led to her decision to at least never marry if not necessarily to remain the virgin she was thought to be. If indeed she was a virgin, it’s possible to believe she was so because she felt no one deserved the reward of her virtue except God. At any rate, her virginity-whether real or myth-came to be quite highly valued tool. As she grew older and it became more apparent that she would never marry, Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to bride of God deepened. She became a thing worth protecting; a symbol of God choosing England for something special.
The split from the Romans had begun the process of the British seeing themselves in a different light from the rest of the world. The defeat of the Spanish Armada under Queen Elizabeth and the rise toward naval dominance certainly helped to feed that view that England was destined for something great; perhaps even destined toward replacing Rome as the next great empire? Elizabeth’s wisdom in knowing when to speak and when to keep quiet helped imbue that sense of destiny almost certainly.
The major issues facing Elizabeth early in her reign revolved around the disputes between the protestants and Catholics. Although there was little doubt that she would set England firmly on the course toward Protestantism, there was still enough loyalty to the Catholic church to force Queen Elizabeth to engage in extreme measures to ensure that the primacy of the Anglican church would rule out.
Equally important was the threat from the Puritan faction which Queen Elizabeth addressed by forcing them out of the Anglican church, thereby relieving them of any official sanction and any real power to exert influence. Elizabeth’s greatest success occurred ironically. Her speech before the invasion of the Spanish Armada did much to rally the country around her and to inculcate among them a sense of the great destiny. In actuality, of course, as they were listening to the stirring patriotic speech, any real danger the country faced was in effect stifled.
The longest-lasting failure of Queen Elizabeth’s reign may well have been related to her greatest success. Try as she did to walk the fine line that existed between the Protestant and Catholic divide, the problem remained of what to do about the personification of that problem-and the threat to her reign-Mary, Queen of Scots. Although summarily executing her rival upon ascension would have resolved the pressing issue of Mary’s claim to the throne, the problem was that Mary had a loyal following, many of whom were desperate enough to plot against Queen Elizabeth in hopes of removing her from the throne and replacing her with Mary and returning England to a Catholic country. For as long as she could Queen Elizabeth contained the threat by keeping Mary alive, but imprisoned. Finally, after one plot too many it was decided the best thing would be to execute Mary. While this fateful decision firmly removed all fear of a war of succession, it unfortunately created a Catholic martyr with enough substance to push Spain into war with England.
The hostilities between Catholic Spain and predominantly Protestant England erupted into a full scale war due to a variety of causes both religious and economic in nature. The execution of the Catholic Queen of the Scots, Mary, may have the match that lit the necessary emotional fuse, but there were far more important underlying issues.
Chief among these was Spanish incursion into the New World which brought them great wealth. Queen Elizabeth feared antagonizing Spain because her coffers were not nearly as full. Complicating this issue were the wars going on in the Low Countries which was both hurting England’s economy and was shaping up to become a front line in the battle between Catholic and Protestant domination.
When major losses by the Protestants were incurred in the Netherlands, the fear quickly grew that England would become the next target for the sweeping armies of the Catholics. As a result Queen Elizabeth moved to fund the resistance there, further deepening the divide between England and Spain.
King Philip responded by viewing Queen Elizabeth’s actions as a direct assault upon his reputation as the strongest ruler in the world. Spain was clearly the dominant power in Europe and England was still a relatively minor power, even when speaking of naval power. It was certainly not the fearsome maritime force it would come to be as it spread its empire around the globe. Philip no doubt saw the small island kingdom as little more of a threat than the Dutch. The hostilities between Philip and Elizabeth were building.
When Queen Elizabeth had Mary, Queen of Scots executed, it served to confirm to him that Elizabeth was an illegitimate monarch who would go to any length to protect her throne. Philip’s dream was empire; an empire stretching from the Iberian peninsula all the way up through the continent.
The British strategy for defending itself against the Spanish Armada was to rely on what might be termed the home field advantage. The British naturally were far more familiar with the sea and terrain and knew how to maneuver with smaller ships than the big Spanish galleons. In addition, they were equipped with more firepower and used that to their advantage.
Queen Elizabeth herself was a great weapon as well. She used all the acting skills at her disposal to present herself as the personification of the British isles and so mustered a huge military force ready to protect and defend the realm. Even better, however, was the British plan to draw the enormous Spanish ships into a sea with which they were unfamiliar and unequipped to handle. Because the Spanish could not easily maneuver under the conditions in which they found themselves, they were forced to follow the trap the English had set for them. The great British victory over the mighty Spanish Armada had far less to do with superior military skills or a greater army than with utilizing the intelligence of working with what you have. The victory accomplished two things that were to benefit England for centuries.
In the first place, the geography served to instill a sense of a natural line of defense against invasion. In many ways England can be looked upon like an impenetrable castle surrounding by a moat. If the Spanish navy couldn’t defeat them, who could? This sense of security also deepened the sense of destiny among the English who began to have dreams of empire of their own. The ultimate result of the victory over the Spanish was a psychological one that would quickly be expressed in a more physical nature. England stood on the verge of becoming the next great European superpower and at last the people were convinced that it was possible.