Westward the Course

Posted: Jun 27, 2006 12:01 AM

 Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Bill Bennett’s latest book, America: The Last Best Hope, released last month. The book can be purchased here.

When she received word of her half-sister’s death, twenty-five-year-old Princess Elizabeth fell to her knees and recited in Latin the words of the Psalm: “This is the Lord’s doing. It is marvelous in our eyes.”

Although she suppressed the public celebration of the Catholic Mass, Queen Elizabeth was unwilling to search out secret Catholics. “I have no window to look into men’s souls,” she famously said. Despite a number of plots against her life—encouraged by the pope and framed by Jesuit priests—Elizabeth continued to rely on the loyalty of her subjects, including not a few great Catholic noble families. In turn, Elizabeth wanted no religious turmoil in England. She ran the Church of England as a Protestant monarch, but she wanted to stop arguments among the fractious Protestants. After breaking from the Catholic Church, Lutherans and Calvinists disputed with Baptists and with each other over the meaning of communion and baptism. Elizabeth cleverly glossed over such theological disputes. About the Lord’s Supper, she said:

Christ was the word that spake it.
He took the bread and break it;
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.

Elizabeth had an amazing knack for politics and public relations. She turned her greatest liabilities—that she was a woman and unmarried—into her great strengths. She cultivated her image as “the virgin Queen,” and fostered a cult of personality that dubbed her “Gloriana.” English arts and letters flourished under her rule. Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Spencer made everlasting contributions of world literature. Elizabeth created a heightened sense of English nationalism and remained highly popular throughout her long reign (1558–1603). She looked and acted the part, dressing extravagantly and displaying herself before the people as she went forward on as many as twenty-five “royal progresses”—visits to great estates around the country. These visits served a dual purpose; they were also a shrewd way of avoiding the cost of maintaining a splendid court, since her hosts were expected to feed and house Elizabeth and her hundreds of nobles and retainers. To keep France and Spain at bay, she held out for nearly twenty years the prospect of her hand in marriage. To undermine their power, she financed rebellions against Spanish rule in the Netherlands and gave aid to the French Protestants, the Huguenots. One of the most remarkable personalities in history, Elizabeth relied on her people’s affection to secure her throne: “There is no jewel, be it of never so high a price, which I set before this jewel; I mean your love,” she told Parliament.

Queen Elizabeth encouraged the explorations of Sir Humphrey Gilbert (Newfoundland) and the colonization schemes of Sir Walter Raleigh (in the land he named Virginia in her honor). After the pope issued a decree absolving English Catholics from obedience to her in 1570 (thus inviting her overthrow or assassination), Elizabeth waged a cold war against Spain. Excitement over the discoveries in the northern voyages of Sir Martin Frobisher faded when the ore he brought back from Canada proved to be, like that of Cartier, worthless.

Still, the idea of an English greatness at home as well as beyond the seas would not die. Shakespeare’s immortal writings fired men’s imagination:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,—
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Francis Drake resolved to equal Magellan’s great feat and challenge Spain’s rule of the seas in the process. Sailing in his flagship, the Golden Hind, he led his flotilla southwest to the coast of Argentina. Drake had to contend, as Magellan had, with mutiny. Master Doughty, who had soldiered with Drake in Ireland, was convicted and executed at Puerto San Julian—the same place Magellan had suppressed his mutineers. Drake continued on through the Strait and then headed north. He raided the Chilean coast, seizing silver and gold and capturing Spanish vessels laden with rich cargoes.

Drake led his “sea dogs” on a merry adventure. Spanish writers long considered him no more than a pirate, Spanish grandees (the noblemen) called him El Draque (The Dragon), but documents unveiled in the last century from Spanish archives showed that his prisoners uniformly praised his humanity and good nature. He did not, however, hesitate to burn Spanish towns and loot magnificent Catholic churches. Chasing the Spanish treasure ship Cacafuego, he took time to grab another prize that yielded a golden crucifix and a clutch of emeralds that would later appear in Queen Elizabeth’s crown. A Spanish prisoner wrote sympathetically of Drake that “he has a fine countenance, ruddy of complexion and fair beard. He has the mark of an arrow wound in his right cheek . . . in one leg he had the ball of an arquebus. . . . He read the Psalms and preached. . . ” (Apparently not dwelling long on that part of the Good Book that says, “Thou shalt not steal.”)

Drake explored the coast of California before setting off across the Pacific. By duplicating Magellan’s feat, Drake gave a great boost to English self-confidence. The Golden Hind returned to London in November 1580, following three years at sea. She off-loaded silver into the Tower of London by night. Queen Elizabeth showed her great favor by knighting Drake on the deck of his flagship, in 1581. This act of open defiance of Spain’s Philip II prompted the king to commence plans for an invasion of England.

Drake was to play a crucial role in his famous raid on Cadiz in 1587. He burned the city and the fleet that Philip II was then preparing for his invasion, a daring exploit known to history as “singeing the beard of the king of Spain.” He delayed for a year the fateful clash. The decade of mounting tension between England and Spain came to a head when Elizabeth’s ministers lured her captive cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, into a plot against the queen’s life. Brought to trial and beheaded, Mary Stuart became in death what she never was in life, a martyr to the Catholic cause. Elizabeth spat defiance. She played the part of warrior queen to the hilt:

I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart 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 realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms.

Supported by Pope Sixtus V, who renewed the excommunication of Elizabeth and subsidized his costs, Spain’s King Philip II in 1588 assembled the greatest war fleet in history—the Armada. One hundred thirty ships—great galleons, galleases, galleys, and merchant ships—and thirty thousand men (of whom three-quarters were soldiers primed for the invasion) proceeded up the English Channel. They were set upon by the English sea dogs—Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher. The Armada was greatly hampered by ineffective leadership. Philip II had insisted that the duke of Medina Sidonia assume command. Brave and honest as he was, the duke was a soldier, completely inexperienced in the ways of the sea. The duke could not rely on the support of English Catholics who, in the main, were energetic in their defense of their island against their fellow Catholics from Spain.

Drake and his fellows set upon the great and ponderous ships of the Armada with fire ships. Less maneuverable, burdened by horses and cattle and great masses of supply, the Spanish ships were almost helpless against the fierce English warships. When a great storm came up, the Spanish Armada was dispersed. Many of the ships were wrecked on the forbidding coasts of Scotland and Ireland.

The victory of the English against the Armada broke the back of Spain’s sea power, and the empire began its centuries-long decline. This clash marked the transfer of admiralty—command of the seas—from great Spain to little England. English sea dogs could go where they wished with confidence. From this time until 1941—with one important local exception—it was England that “ruled the waves.” That temporary exception—in the waters off Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781—would have the greatest consequences for America.

Dominance over the seas assured that England in the next century would be able to send more and more colonists to North America without fear of Spanish interference. It gave the English a sense of national destiny. They knew the battering storm had as much to do with the wreck of the Armada as did English fighting skill. “God blew and they were dispersed,” read the official medallion Elizabeth ordered struck to commemorate England’s great victory.

And the English believed it.