Sir Francis Drake

Martin Frobisher

Sir Walter Raleigh


Elizabeth I: exploration and foreign policy

The reign of Elizabeth was a great age of English exploration.
This expansion led eventually to the foundation of the British Empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it brought England into conflict with Spain.
The later years of Elizabeth's reign also saw a long and expensive war in Ireland.


English merchants were the main promoters of exploration and discovery. They wanted to buy the Oriental spices (cinnamon, peppers, cloves) that were needed to preserve and flavor meat in an age before refrigeration. (Salting and smoking were also used to preserve food, but these methods had a worse effect on taste).
Spices could be obtained through Middle-Eastern middlemen, but they charged a massive mark-up that made the spices very expensive. Europeans therefore wanted to establish a direct sea-route to the Far East so that they could buy directly from China, India, and the East Indies.
Spanish and Portuguese seamen sailed west to America, or south (around the Horn of Africa) and then east across the Indian Ocean.

An English pinnace

English explorers hoped to find a route by sailing north-west around America (the Northwest Passage) or north-east around Europe (the Northeast Passage). In the course of these voyages:

1497 - John Cabot discovered Newfoundland (his son, Sebastian made another attempt to find the Northwest passage in 1509).

1553 - Sir Hugh Willoughby took three ships to find the Northeast Passage; two ships were lost, but the third captained by Richard Chancellor reached Archangel.
Chancellor went to Moscow, met Ivan the Terrible, and returned to found the Muscovy Company (1555). (Its trade was never extensive as the voyage was so difficult).

"The poor is very innumerable, and live most miserably: for I have seen them eat the pickle of herring and other stinking fish: nor the fish cannot be so stinking nor rotten, but they will eat it and praise it to be more wholesome than other fish or fresh meat. In mine opinion there be no such people under the sun for their hardness of living."
Richard Chancellor on the Muscovites (1553)

1576-78 - Sir Martin Frobisher trying, but failing, to find a Northwest Passage, landed in Greenland and Canada.

1585-87 - John Davies  made three more voyages to Greenland and the Northwest. He sailed further north than any previous English sailor.

1577-80 -  Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe. It was widely believed that there was also a large wealthy Southern Continent, and Drake was searching for this in the South Pacific (plundering Spanish bases as he went).


Early map of Virginia


Frobisher along with Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539?-83) founded a colony in Newfoundland (1583), but their ship was lost on its return voyage.
Sir Humphrey  Gilbert's step-brother, Sir Walter Ralegh (1562-1618) decided to try and found a colony further south on Roanoke Island (now in North Carolina).

An early sketch of a native Virginian warrior

About one hundred settlers started building there in 1585, but abandoned the site in 1586. (A supply ship arrived shortly afterwards and left fifteen men behind in the partially completed fort: they were killed by native Americans).


In 1587, 117 more colonists were sent. (On 18 August 1587, Eleanor Dare gave birth to a daughter -  the first English child born on American soil.) When an English ship returned to check on their progress in 1591, (the attack of the Spanish Armada prevented an earlier return) all the colonists were gone - they had left the site and probably had either died at the hands of native Americans or been assimilated into friendly tribes.
The lessons learnt from the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke helped ensure that the next Virginia colony (1607) was better funded and organized.



The East India Company Coat of Arms

Most English trade was with Europe, but English merchants were looking further afield.

1581 the Turkey Company was formed, and in 1592 it merged with the Venice Company (founded 1583) to form the Levant Company. It obtained a patent from Elizabeth I for the exclusive right to trade in currants (dried white grapes, i.e. golden raisins). The Company also purchased wine, cotton and silk from the Eastern Mediterranean.
1585 The Barbary Company (formed in 1551 to trade with North Africa) was granted a monopoly by Elizabeth. The Barbary Coast (modern-day Morocco) was the main source of sugar for the English market, until the development of the West Indies sugar plantations.
1600 The East India Company was founded. Its main object was to contest Spanish and Portuguese control of the spice trade, by trading directly with the East Indies (modern-day India and Indonesia).
Ralph Fitch was one of the first Englishmen to visit India, Burma, and Malaya. He published an account of his travels (1598) that stressed Portuguese corruption and the great wealth of the area. The East India Company was formed by London merchants eager to tap that wealth.
(The East India Company began modestly; its first ships reached India in 1608. Later it founded trading posts in Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. By the early 19th century, it controlled much of the Indian subcontinent).




English Foreign Policy

1. To 1586
In the early years of Elizabeth's reign, England was still militarily engaged in Scotland and France (Le Havre). But thereafter, Elizabeth was eager to avoid war.
Elizabeth was also eager to ensure that neither France nor Spain controlled the entire coastline facing England, for the threats of military invasion and of trade isolation were far greater if one power controlled the Channel Coast. At some times Elizabeth feared that the French would ally with the Dutch rebels and control the whole coast; at other times it seemed possible that Spain might defeat both French and Dutch.


Relations between England and Scotland were generally good after the overthrow of Mary, Queen of Scots
6 July 1586: The Treaty of Berwick formalized a mutual defense pact between England and Scotland (a secret appendix granted James VI a pension of 4,000 per annum).


A Spanish treasure frigate

Enmity with Spain grew steadily. Elizabeth's financial support for the Dutch rebels (many of whom were Protestants) angered Philip II. In 1580, Philip also became king of Portugal and so controlled its great seaborne empire, but English seamen and merchants continually infringed his rights in the New World.

The Treaties of Tordesillas (1494) and Zaragoza (1529) carved up Asia and the Americas between the Spanish and Portuguese. English colonies in Newfoundland and Virginia, and Drake's claim of California for the English crown, were regarded by Philip as illegal trespass.


The assassination in 1584 of William the Silent (the leader of the Dutch rebels) increased the risk that Spain might defeat the rebellion, especially as in 1585 France fell under the control of the Catholic League. This zealously anti-Protestant alliance, led by Henry, 3rd Duke of Guise was closely allied with and dependent on Philip II.


2. War with Spain
In 1585, Elizabeth finally sent an army to the Netherlands to try and secure Dutch independence.

An early sketch of the Armada showing the crescent-shaped formation adopted by the Spanish fleet.

Philip II responded by sending an Armada of 140 ships through the English Channel to pick up Spanish troops and transport them to England.

The English navy - helped by favorable winds - scattered the Spanish fleet before it could reach the Netherlands.

In 1596 and 1597, Spain sent further Armadas but these were wrecked in storms before they became a threat to England.
The wars with Spain were very expensive, even though some of the costs were offset by English privateering against Spanish ships. The pressure on royal finances forced the sale of crown lands and led Elizabeth to unpopular devices like monopolies for paying her servants.
Elizabeth's government needed parliamentary taxation to continue functioning, and so she was obliged to bow before the House of Commons' complaints about monopolies in 1601.
Although the costs of war were high, England's successful defiance of Spain (the greatest power in Europe) increased its international reputation.


  1. Ireland

Henry VIII had named himself King of Ireland in 1541, and had attempted to extend his control beyond the Dublin Pale. His Lord Deputy, Sir Anthony St Leger with his assistant Thomas Cusack adopted a conciliatory policy to Irish nobles, paying them to accept Henry's rule.
In the later years of Henry's reign, the government had no money to bribe Irish nobles, and the energetic efforts of Edward VI's government to impose the Reformation were unpopular.


Sir Henry Sidney (1529-86)

In 1557, Mary's government confiscated Irish land and gave it to English settlers.
In the 1560's and 1570's, Elizabeth's Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney adopted an aggressive policy in Ireland. He continued to encourage colonization and rebuilt Dublin Castle.

1579-1583 - Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Desmond led a rebellion in Munster, that was encouraged by the Pope and supported by 800 Spanish soldiers. Lord Grey was sent to suppress the rebellion, and did so after years of bitter fighting.

In 1593, the Irish again revolted. Known as the Nine Years War to the Irish and as Tyrone's Rebellion to the English, this rebellion was led from 1595 by Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone. He was militarily able and unusually successful in uniting the Gaelic lords.
14 August 1598, he inflicted a crushing defeat on the English army at the Yellow Ford.

Elizabeth replaced the Earl of Essex as Lord Deputy with Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy. The Spanish sent 4,000 troops to assist the Irish, but they were nevertheless defeated at the Battle of Kinsale 1601. [More on the Battle of Kinsale].

Tyrone surrendered to Elizabeth, and Mountjoy began building forts to try and prevent further Irish unrest.


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