Elizabeth I – Opening New Fronts Against Spain Part II

Philip III of Spain, 1599-1601

The Somerset House Conference between English and Spanish diplomats that brought an end to the Anglo–Spanish War (1585–1604).

At the very last moment, Philip III’s ships sailed not northwards for England or Ireland, but southwards for the Azores, where a formidable fleet of Dutch warships lay in wait for the New World treasure convoys. Unaware of the change of plan, the queen resumed an intriguing diplomacy she had pursued intermittently since 1587, when, after vigorous lobbying by Walsingham and the London merchants for the best part of two years, she had appealed to Sultan Murad III of Turkey to open up a new front in the war. Her aim then was to distract the Spanish navy by inciting Murad to attack Spain on its Mediterranean flank.

Strongly encouraged by Walsingham, Elizabeth had from the very outset justified her initiative on religious as well as strategic grounds, arguing that both Protestantism and Islam were haters of idolatry. Perhaps surprisingly for a woman who, by the time of her translation of Boethius, had come to interpret contemporary events as a test of character imposed on her by God, she had no compunction about setting the Muslim ‘infidels’ against the Christians of Spain. For their part, a number of London merchants trading in Venice and Turkey had joined forces to form the Levant Company, chartered in 1592. Lobbying the queen continually to open up diplomatic and therefore improved commercial relations with the Sultan, they were able to make huge profits from exporting raw iron and munitions to the Ottoman empire, returning from Istanbul and Aleppo with spices, raw silk, cotton, indigo, carpets, apothecary wares, currants, sugar and sweet wines.

Begged by Elizabeth for support at the time of the great crisis of 1588, the Sultan had excused himself, saying that he lacked the resources to wage war simultaneously in Persia and the western Mediterranean. When, however, the Persian war ended in 1590, Burghley and the queen had tried again to unleash Ottoman forces against Spain, channelling much of their diplomacy through Dr Lopez. The most influential westerner in Istanbul, the Portuguese Jewish merchant Don Solomon Abenaes was Lopez’s kinsman. And it was largely through Don Solomon that Burghley and the queen spent much of the next three years urging Murad and his advisers to attack Spanish possessions in southern Italy. In fact, the queen’s links to Don Solomon may go some considerable way to explain her decision to stay Lopez’s execution warrant.

Unfortunately, Murad always replied that he had more pressing problems than Spain. Chief among them were the episodic upheavals in his tributary principalities beyond the Danube, either in Moldavia, the last Christian outpost in the Balkans, or in Hungary, where in 1593 the Ottomans resumed war against the Habsburgs. When, two years later, Mehmed III, Murad’s eldest son and heir by the Albanian-born Sultana Sāfiye, mounted the throne, Elizabeth wrote again (her letter is lost but its contents can be worked out from the reply). An offer of amity was swiftly returned by the Grand Vizier, Sinān Pasha, but it came with a sting in the tail. After reminding the queen that the Hungarian war was the new Sultan’s top priority, Sinān Pasha invited her to send him troops and money first. When Edward Barton, Elizabeth’s newly appointed first resident ambassador in Istanbul, provided her with a translation of this document, he tactfully omitted that last passage.

A superficially more enticing offer followed in the summer of 1596 on the back of Philip II’s second Gran Armada, which was at first thought to be directed against Calais or Marseilles. In a reassuring letter to the queen, the Sultan explained that he would not want her war effort to be compromised by a Spanish attack on Marseilles: if the town fell, he would send a fleet to relieve it and restore it to France. Once again, self-interest lay at the heart of the Turkish response, as Marseilles, along with Venice, was the chief hub for imports of Ottoman goods into western Europe.

No sooner had the ink dried on the Sultan’s letter than he left Istanbul for Hungary at the head of an army of thirty thousand, accompanied by Barton, who followed in a coach with his luggage, carried by thirty-six baggage camels provided at Mehmed’s expense. For the next three years, Anglo-Ottoman diplomacy slumbered and the Sultan’s letters to Elizabeth were restricted to reporting Turkish victories in central Europe.

Then, in 1599, at the height of the fresh crisis created by the threat of a fourth Spanish Armada, Elizabeth decided to write, woman to woman, to Mehmed’s mother, Sāfiye. Her approach made perfect sense, because the Ottoman state, during both Murad III and Mehmed III’s reigns, notoriously, was ruled mainly from the harem. Elizabeth had employed very similar tactics on Barton’s advice six years earlier in 1593, using Sāfiye as her intermediary in an attempt to influence the direction of the Hungarian war. At that time, her letter had been accompanied by a few handsome gifts, paid for by the Levant Company. These consisted of ‘a jewel of Her Majesty’s picture’ (possibly a Hilliard miniature) set with rubies and diamonds, three great gilt plates, ten garments of cloth of gold and a very fine case of glass bottles, silver and gilt.

Elizabeth’s letter of 1593 has disappeared, and Burghley, maddeningly, kept no copy, but even if this is likely to have been far from a candid personal correspondence, Sāfiye replied courteously and effusively. ‘Let there be a salutation so gracious’, she had declared in the course of a raft of diplomatic compliments, ‘that all the rose-garden’s roses are just one petal from it and a speech so sincere that the whole repertoire of a garden’s nightingales is but one stanza of it.’ Advised by Barton that ‘a suit of princely attire being after the Turkish fashion’ would be the ideal gift, Sāfiye sent the queen a fine gown of cloth of gold, together with a kirtle of cloth of silver and ‘a girdle of Turkey work, rich and fair’.

When, in 1599, acting on the advice of Barton’s replacement as ambassador, Henry Lello, Elizabeth wrote again, she sent more gifts. As before, the queen’s letter is lost, and the gifts, a richly upholstered coach for Sāfiye and a magnificent mechanical organ for her son, were to be paid for by the Levant Company. Elizabeth’s Ottoman diplomacy did not extend so far as spending her own money.

Sāfiye sent two letters in reply, each to similar effect, reassuring Elizabeth that she would not cease to intervene on her behalf with her son, not least to the benefit of mutual trade, and thanking her for the coach. The gift was presented to her on 11 September by Lello’s secretary, Paul Pindar. ‘It has arrived and has been delivered,’ reported Sāfiye. ‘It had our gracious acceptance.’

As Lello later informed the queen, Sāfiye received the gift ‘very gratefully’. She ‘made a great demonstration of joy’, handsomely rewarding the coachman. She then proceeded to ride out with her son in the coach ‘often times’. Afterwards, she ‘sent to me to send her the queen’s picture to behold, which I have here given order to make by one that came with the ship’ – by which he probably meant Rowland Buckett, the organ-painter. She also ‘did take a great liking to Mr Pindar, and afterwards she sent for him to have his private company, but their meeting was crossed [prevented]’.

The queen’s gifts had travelled on the Hector, which had sailed from Gravesend, along with the organ-maker Thomas Dallam, a coachman Edward Hale and their assistants. The coach, built in Cow Lane, near Smithfield in London, was modelled on the queen’s own. Said to be worth £600 and thus more valuable than the organ, it closely resembled another built in 1604 with ironwork by Elizabeth’s former locksmith, Thomas Larkin, and with decorations by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. A gift from James I to Tsar Boris Godunov of Russia, this coach is still intact and now preserved in the Armoury Museum in Moscow.

Also crated up on board the Hector during the six-month voyage was the Sultan’s organ. Dallam and his assistants toiled day and night to repair it on arrival in Istanbul, as it had been severely damaged by heat and storms during its journey. At last assembled in the Topkapi Palace, the instrument stood sixteen feet high and was adorned with ‘very curious work of gold and other rich colours’. Four or five feet above the keyboard was a twenty-four-hour striking clock, framed by the organ’s pipework, cased in Corinthian columns carved from gilded oak. Higher up was a platform with angels holding silver trumpets to their lips, and above that a cornucopia of baroque wood-carving surmounted by a holly bush on which silver thrushes and blackbirds perched.

Every hour, on the hour, once the clockwork was wound up and a pin moved, a peal of bells went off, after which the trumpeters sounded a tantarra. The organ then played a series of voluntaries, all by itself, the keys of the instrument going up and down. When the music stopped, the thrushes and blackbirds burst into song and flapped their wings.

Mechanical instruments were a particular favourite of Elizabeth’s. Before Dallam left Gravesend, she had made him set up the organ at Whitehall for a bespoke performance. And while in the Privy Chamber, he would have seen ‘a certain jewel’ specially made for her by her resident instrument-maker and tuner, Edmund Schetz: ‘a pair of virginals with three thousand rich stones’ that came complete ‘with trees, branches, herbs, flowers, weeds, birds, beasts and such like of perfect sterling silver’. When Elizabeth played the instrument, as Schetz helpfully recorded, the birds and animals moved ‘without rattling or any noise’ so that it seemed as if Orpheus by his melodies had ‘made the brute beasts to rejoice’.

So entranced was the Sultan with his gift, he asked Dallam to repeat the mechanical display and then to give a brief solo recital. The second of these requests struck terror into Dallam, since it meant turning his back on the Sultan, which he had been warned that ‘no man on pain of death might do’. Fortunately, Mehmed was sufficiently delighted by Dallam’s virtuoso performance to overlook the breach of protocol, rewarding him with forty-five pieces of gold. In fact, he was so overcome he begged Dallam to stay with him for ever, offering him two royal concubines or any two virgins he cared to select for himself as wives. Dallam managed to extricate himself only by the skin of his teeth. But before he could return home, he had to dismantle the organ and move it to Mehmed’s favourite spot, a pavilion on the shore of the Golden Horn known as the Pearl Kiosk, where he liked to relax.


On 18 October, a week before Dallam finished his second reassembly of the organ, the Hector left Istanbul and began its homeward journey. To Sāfiye’s dismay, it departed without the letters and further gifts she had prepared for Elizabeth, which included a gown of cloth of silver, a matching pair of sleeves, gold-embroidered handkerchiefs and a crown studded with pearls and rubies. Liaising with Sāfiye’s chief gentlewoman Esperanza Malchi, a Venetian Jewess, Lello arranged for Paul Pindar to travel to Greece with Dallam and his assistants on a Turkish vessel, and from there to cross to the island of Zante, where he could rejoin the Hector. Pindar’s task was to deliver Sāfiye’s messages and gifts safely to London.

Pindar finally reached Dover in mid-May 1600. When he handed over the gifts to the queen in the Privy Chamber at Greenwich Palace, she was said to be ‘very well’ and enjoying herself as if she had stripped twenty years from her true age. ‘This day she appoints to see a Frenchman do feats upon a rope . . . Tomorrow, she hath commanded the bears, the bull and the ape to be baited in the tiltyard. Upon Wednesday she will have solemn dancing.’

Whatever triggered her sunny mood, though, it was not Sāfiye’s gifts. Elizabeth barely glanced at them. With the threat from Spain’s fourth Armada finally dissipated, but with Tyrone’s revolt now commanding ever more of her time and attention, she had lost all interest in the prospect of opening up a new front in the Mediterranean. Pressure from the London merchants had also largely evaporated. For the sensational news had just arrived from Aleppo that a flotilla of Dutch merchant ships had successfully sailed to the East Indies around the Cape of Good Hope, defying Portuguese claims to exclusive rights to navigation in the region. Once the astronomical value of the cargoes they had returned with became known, the London merchants forgot about Turkey and rapidly switched their attention to Asia.

It was another nail in the coffin of the more fully joined-up ways of devising a war strategy that men like Walsingham, Ralegh and Essex had pioneered. Since the assassination of William of Orange in 1584, all three, in their radically different ways, had advocated a more aggressive, better coordinated strategy for dealing with Spain and Catholicism, one that at the same time could transform England’s economic and commercial position in the world, but always the queen had proved to be the obstacle. Now, it was to be a matter of defeating Tyrone as quickly as possible, and at almost any cost, before Philip III sent a fifth Armada to land in southern Ireland.

Ever since the Treaty of Vervins, cries for peace with Spain had steadily become more strident. Robert Cecil, with his own mercantile investments to think of, had led the peace party in the Privy Council. And, as the long anxious months went by, the queen’s resolve never to make peace with Spain in her lifetime had slowly begun to waver. In September 1599, a bare fortnight after Archduke Albert had made his triumphant entry into Brussels with his new bride, the Infanta Isabella, he had put out an olive branch, assuring Elizabeth of his desire for peace. Lying through his teeth, Albert added that he had received full authority from his new brother-in-law, the Spanish King Philip III, to discuss terms.

Elizabeth swiftly reassured Count Maurice and the States General that she would do nothing without them. She already knew their response: they adamantly opposed a settlement with Spain. Barely was his father cold in the grave than Philip had imposed a trade embargo on the Dutch, aiming to hit them where it hurt most. And she knew only too well, as they did, that Albert’s olive branch had been triggered not by goodwill but by mutinies in his armies.

On the afternoon of Sunday, 9 March 1600, Lodewijk Verreycken, the Archduke’s special envoy, requested an audience at Richmond Palace. To his dismay, Elizabeth gave him a bruising reception, fencing irritably with him. For his part, Verreycken was overconfident. Rather than preparing for the interview, he had been wined and dined by Lord Buckhurst and attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I.

Deeply vexed with Verreycken for talking down to her as if a peace was a virtual certainty, Elizabeth quibbled that his letters of credence were signed only by Albert and not by Philip. She then ostentatiously changed the topic to the appalling weather, asking him how the Infanta was coping with her move from the Escorial to freezing Brussels. Afterwards, Cecil, Nottingham and Buckhurst tore his proposals to shreds. When Verreycken demanded that the queen’s remaining auxiliary troops be withdrawn from the Netherlands and that all trade between England and the Dutch should cease, he was greeted with a deafening silence. Curious to see if a deal could still be done, the privy councillors asked whether Philip would concede English merchants free passage to the trade of the East Indies, but Verreycken refused. Nor was he able to promise that no Spanish aid would be given to Tyrone’s rebels.

Verreycken was sent back to Brussels with a demand that the Archduke should fundamentally revise the peace terms and was offered a month to provide an answer. The result was a much-heralded peace conference at Boulogne in May, when Spanish, Flemish and English delegates finally sat down together. The Dutch held their breath, but the negotiations were doomed to fail. Elizabeth’s instructions to Sir Henry Neville, the new ambassador to France who led the English delegation, ran to ten closely written pages and made it clear that there was to be no compromise over the auxiliaries and no agreement to a hostile move against the Dutch States. Neville was also told to stipulate that free trade to the East Indies would be considered a litmus test of a ‘true amity’ with Spain, without which the two countries must remain at war.


With peace once more off the agenda, Philip made fresh plans to invade Ireland, where Mountjoy was fast boxing the rebels into their Ulster homeland. Just as the Spanish delegates to the Boulogne conference were on their way to file their report in Brussels, Tyrone, who had a price of 4,000 marks (£2.6 million today) put on his head, made a loud appeal for Spanish aid. Without delay, Philip consulted the Council of State. ‘We think that to protect and help these Catholics will be an act most worthy of Your Majesty’s greatness’ was the unanimous reply. ‘Your Majesty will be able to copy what the queen does through the rebels of Holland and Zeeland, and at a very small cost.’ Juan de Idiáquez, one of the hawks who had encouraged the Portuguese double agent Manuel de Andrada to incite Dr Lopez to poison the queen, argued for a fifth Armada to be sent to southern Ireland to bring Elizabeth to her knees. His fellow councillors urged caution: Spain could barely find enough money to pay the Archduke’s troops and an expedition that went off at half-cock would jeopardize the very interests that Philip hoped to protect.

But Philip sided with de Idiáquez. On Monday, 24 August 1601, a fifth Armada set sail from the port of Lisbon, destined for Ireland. On board a fleet of thirty-three ships, nineteen of them warships and the rest armed merchantmen and transport vessels, were 4,500 soldiers under the command of Don Juan del Águila. The expedition would be jinxed from the beginning. Many of the mariners were foreign conscripts, pressed into service by a last-minute raid on foreign shipping. They could not understand their officers and had no loyalty to the king or to the cause. As one of Águila’s naval commanders complained, ‘When the action came, I had more need to protect myself from the enemy I was carrying with the Armada than from the enemy without . . . Once in Ireland, many of them left me for the enemy.’

A shortage of victuals combined with a disagreement as to the Armada’s final destination sowed further confusion. Was the fleet to undertake the slower, much riskier Atlantic route to Ulster around the west coast of Ireland or the quicker, safer one to the southern coast between Cork and Waterford? If the former, food would be short. If the latter, Águila’s troops would be left with the almost impossible task of marching across the hostile terrain to join up with the rebels.

As luck would have it, a storm decided the issue by scattering the fleet. Not until the evening of 21 September, after an atrocious journey lasting more than three times longer than anyone had predicted, would Águila make dry land, at Kinsale to the south-west of Cork. By then, he had only 1,700 men and they were on half-rations. After a week, the number rose to 3,400, as the stragglers drifted in. Sir George Carew, a fine soldier and Cecil’s key informant in Ireland, was the closest of Mountjoy’s senior officers to the invading Spaniards and he marched from Cork to assess the threat. Soon Mountjoy followed him. On the 29th, the Lord Deputy rode with a few of his men to reconnoitre the area around the town of Kinsale, which the Spaniards had fortified. It took him a month to pull together his field army but, by the end of October, he had laid siege to the hungry Spaniards with seven thousand men, who would soon be reinforced by two thousand raw conscripts and three hundred cavalry from England, with another three thousand conscripts to follow.

Tyrone would first try ravaging Leinster in an attempt to force Mountjoy to abandon the siege of Kinsale. When that failed, he continued to march southwards, elated to find a new threat ravaging the English ranks – an unidentified zoonotic disease that killed 2,500 soldiers and put 2,000 more out of action. Carew wrote to Cecil in dismay: it was beginning to look as if Mountjoy could end up trapped in a pincer movement between the Spaniards and the Ulstermen with a much-reduced fighting force.

Carew’s fears proved to be unwarranted. Although Tyrone had almost 10,000 men at his disposal, the Spaniards would dwindle to fewer than 2,500 fit for combat. With his proud soldiers soon thinking themselves lucky to be eating dogs and cats when they could find them, Águila appealed to Tyrone not to delay. And, shortly after dawn on Christmas Eve, the battle began. Caught between firm ground and a bog by an English cavalry charge that broke his lines, Tyrone would have no choice but to flee. Seeing that the rebels’ cause was in tatters, the Spaniards declined to sally forth from Kinsale, fearing a massacre. By dusk, a thousand Irish lay dead and eight hundred were wounded, as against only a handful of English.