I had to fly over to London last week for a meeting and to see some old friends; I lucked into one of those rare spring days when the English weather was perfect. The sky was blue, the sun was warm, and the flowers and fountains in St. James Park were at their absolute best. Happy tourists from all over the world mingled with pasty white Brits basking in the unaccustomed sun; dogs romped as South American tourists snapped pictures of exotic English wildlife like squirrels.
The grandeur of the vanished British Empire surrounds the park on every side; the imposing monument of Frederick, Duke of York (a son of George III who reorganized the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars and founded Sandhurst, the West Point of the UK) looms over the north and the Ministry of Defense rises on the east beside the bunker (now a museum) in which Winston Churchill fought the Battle of London.
I don’t envy the British politicians trying to guide their country in the shadow of these intimidating monuments and memories. Torn between nostalgia for the greatness that was once theirs and a rejection of the concept of empire and domination, the political life of Britons today is still shaped by the fall from world power between World War II and the end of the Sixties. Britain still, however, punches well above its weight in world affairs and in many ways the UK is a greater force in today’s world than it was in the grim, pre-Thatcher days of the gloomy 1970s.
I’d been thinking a lot about British history this spring; in the Bard grand strategy course, we moved from Machiavelli’s prescriptions for Italy to Elizabeth I, Philip II, and the struggle for England. The text we used was Garrett Mattingly’s delightful The Armada, a triumph of scholarship, strategic analysis and literature all at once.
Even today, when historical knowledge once thought central to an understanding of American society and politics has been largely forgotten, many students still have a vague knowledge that there was once something called the Armada, and that it failed. But the details and the drama of that history have been lost along with much else; one of Garrett Mattingly’s many successes is that he makes that history come alive.
More than that, he recreates the complicated political and strategic environment in which Philip and Elizabeth operated. The complicated story of the three-cornered civil war in France between the fanatically pro-Catholic (and Spanish-supported) Holy League, the weak but crafty Henri III, and the Huguenot armies under Henri King of Navarre (for whom, famously, Paris was well worth a mass) is made clear. The murky struggle between the Protestant Dutch rebels and the redoubtable Duke of Parma is explained, along with Elizabeth’s grudging and half-hearted support for the rebel cause. Something of the complex calculations of Philip II, ruler of the greatest empire in world history up to that date, as well as the power of the faith that drove him is explained as well. And Mattingly gives an extraordinarily vivid picture of Elizabeth and her realm as he illuminates the twists and turns of her policy.
What he also does, and rather brilliantly, is to show how all the might of England rests on the achievements of a canny and resourceful woman whose greatest asset was her grasp of the powers of the weak.
Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603 (Wikimedia)
A grand strategy course concentrates mostly on strength: how to acquire it, how to defend it, how to use it. Elizabeth I was never a strong monarch in the classic sense. Her government was always underfunded, and she had to coax any additional revenue from a stingy Parliament. Her realm was religiously divided; the North remained largely Catholic, and English Protestants were increasingly divided between moderate and radical factions.
Worse, the European balance of power which had been the mainstay of English security since the time of Elizabeth’s grandfather Henry VII had broken down. Everything the Hapsburgs touched in the sixteenth century turned to gold. They sent a few hundred conquistadors to the New World, and conquered Mexico and Peru with their mountains of silver and gold. Clever dynastic marriages brought half the crowns of Europe into the family; although Charles V divided his dominions (giving Spain to one son and the Holy Roman Empire to another), Philip inherited the kingdom of Portugal and its vast overseas empire as well.
Meanwhile France, the traditional enemy of the Hapsburgs, had fallen on hard times. The Reformation split the country and spawned the murderous fanaticism of the (Catholic) Holy League. A three cornered civil war distracted the country; Henri III, last of the Valois dynasty that had ruled France for half a millennium, was a weak king with no children. His closest male relative was Protestant and his dynastic and religious rivals were trying to defeat him before he could claim the throne. Spanish gold kept the war going; as long as France was torn by conflict it could not act against Spain’s European ambitions.
The one bright spot was the Dutch rebellion in the Spanish Hapsburg possession of the Low Countries (roughly modern Belgium and the Netherlands combined). The Low Countries had long been major customers for English products, especially wool, and geographically they were the best base for an enemy wishing to attack across the Channel. The Protestant Dutch had risen up against Spanish religious persecution and as long as they held out, Spanish control of this vital territory could not be assured.
The Dutch cause was popular with England’s merchants who cared about their markets and with the Protestants who thought England should be defending fellow-believers from the Inquisition. Grave councilors of state also approved; if the Dutch fell England would have to face Spain on its own.
It all made sense, but Elizabeth was stingy. She doled out money to the Dutch grudgingly, seizing any excuse to cut her commitments. She resisted pleas from all sides to send troops to the Low Countries as long as she could.
Her courtiers and advisers — and not a few historians — condemned her irresolution. How like a woman, they said: emotional, fearful, hesitating. Vague and fretful she preferred the mists of uncertainty and deceit to straightforward, manly action.
Mattingly makes the case that Elizabeth’s irresolution and dithering reflected her strategic genius, not her character flaws or her ‘unworthy’ gender.
Take the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary, the dowager Queen of France and the exiled Queen of Scotland, had, next to Elizabeth, the best claim to the throne of England — and in the eyes of many Catholics she was the rightful queen already. If Mary Queen of Scots assumed the throne, she would bring the Old Religion back with her, and Catholicism once more would be the dominant faith.
Mary Queen of Scots (Wikimedia)
Everyone around Elizabeth wanted Mary dead. Her most loyal councilors and supporters knew that Mary’s succession to the throne meant their ruin and death. The struggle between Catholics and Protestants had become much more bitter since the death of Bloody Mary. The St. Bartholomew Day massacres in Paris showed what Catholic fanatics could do as thousands of Protestants were murdered and the Huguenot movement was fatally weakened. Of the international leaders of the Protestant cause, two (Admiral Coligny of France and William of Orange in the Netherlands) had been assassinated by Catholics; only Elizabeth was left. The fear that at any moment an assassin would strike Elizabeth and that religious war would engulf England as Mary sought the throne horrified Elizabeth’s supporters.
St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris, 1572 (Wikimedia)
But she hesitated — less, Mattingly suggests, because her devotion to public duty was paralyzed by ‘womanly weakness’ than because she knew that Mary was more than just a danger. She was an insurance policy. Mary was Catholic, but she was not pro-Spain. She was pro-France. While Mary lived, Elizabeth’s most dangerous adversary, Philip of Spain, was not going to try to assassinate or overthrow the one person who kept England out of the French camp. By killing Mary, Elizabeth would both enrage Catholic opinion in France and strengthen Philip’s claim to the English throne. (Philip had not only been King of England while married to Elizabeth’s half-sister; the ever-industrious teams of Hapsburg genealogists and lawyers could make a plausible case that through marriage and kinship Philip had a reasonable claim to the English throne through descent.)
Elizabeth’s hesitation to have Mary executed (she hinted rather broadly to her priggish associates that a tragic accident would be greatly preferable to a formal execution) did not reflect weakness of character; it reflected a solid grasp of the strategic realities. When the execution took place, Elizabeth responded with rage, tears, shutting herself in her room: again, this was directed at the international arena. Mary’s estranged son was king of Scotland; Mary still had many friends in France. Elizabeth needed to give both Scotland and France plausible reasons for not acting against her: by blaming her courtiers for carrying out a warrant of execution she herself had signed she was giving both countries a reason not to go to war with her. (She also gave Mary’s son a nice pension as a way to reconcile him to his tragic loss.)
None of this spared Elizabeth from the worst consequence of Mary’s death. With Mary Stuart out of the way, Philip had no further reason to postpone war with England, and the preparations for the Armada began. Again, Elizabeth would use tactics of delay and deceit — and again, she would come through the crisis with her power preserved.
Elizabeth’s story illustrates that there is more than one way to succeed. The weak have resources denied to the strong. The party on defense, a Clausewitzian would say, may be weaker in some respects — but the defense is inherently stronger than offense in war and a clever and resourceful defender may well prevail over a stronger opponent. Elizabeth understood this perfectly and her resourceful weakness laid the foundations of Britain’s eventual strength.
There are many powers today who play weak hands with great skill. The 800,000 Greek Cypriots have been defying the EU, the US and the United Nations for some time. Pakistan and Israel have both been able to frustrate the Obama administration — as they have frustrated many American presidents in the past. The Castro brothers in Cuba, the junta in Myanmar, and, as of this writing, the Great Loon of Libya have all withstood international pressure from an assortment of great powers.
In power politics as in life, the Preacher got it right. The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. (Eccl. 9:11)
There is more to say about the world of Elizabethan grand strategy; I will come back to it in another StratBlog post.