‘To kill or capture Elizabeth’


Queen Elizabeth imprisoned Norfolk in 1569 for scheming to marry Mary, Queen of Scots.Following his release, he participated in the Ridolfi plot with King Philip II of Spain to put Mary on the English throne and restore Catholicism in England. He was executed for treason in 1572. He is buried at the Church of St Peter ad Vincula within the walls of the Tower of London. Norfolk’s lands and titles were forfeit, although much of the estate was later restored to his sons.

The Lepanto campaign was not Philip’s only crusading venture in 1571. No sooner had he agreed to sign the Holy League than he authorized the duke of Alba to invade England and overthrow Elizabeth Tudor. This dramatic policy change towards ‘a sister whom I love so much’ began two years before when the queen seized some ships carrying money from Spain to the Netherlands. Although the money was not strictly royal property, it belonged to a consortium of Genoese bankers who had agreed to lend the duke of Alba money to pay off his army. Philip’s ambassador in England, Don Guerau de Spes, saw this as the prelude to a trade war and he urged both Alba in the Netherlands and Philip in Spain to confiscate English ships and goods. Both obliged, and Elizabeth promptly placed Spes under arrest. Earlier that year, Philip had expelled the English ambassador at his court, Dr John Man, a married Protestant cleric, on the grounds that his continued presence at court might offend ‘God Our Lord, whose service, and the observation of whose holy faith, I place far ahead of my own affairs and actions and above everything in this life, even my own’.24 The rhetoric disguised the fact that, without Man and Spes, Philip possessed no direct diplomatic channel through which to resolve disputes with England.

This anomaly increased Alba’s influence over the king’s policy. The duke had resided in England during the 1550s; he maintained his own intelligence network there; and, above all, he possessed his own strategic agenda. On the one hand, he never saw the point of replacing Elizabeth Tudor with Mary, Queen of Scots, whom many Catholics saw as the rightful ruler of England, because she had grown up at the French court and retained close relations with the French royal family. On the other hand, since the prosperity of the Netherlands depended on trade with England, Alba opposed any action that might jeopardize it. Curiously, although Philip recognized that his Dutch subjects ‘always want to remain friends’ with England, he never seems to have realized that Alba himself shared this view – even though it would torpedo his plans to overthrow Elizabeth.

In February 1569, outraged by the imprisonment of Spes and the confiscation of the Genoese treasure, Philip asked Alba to suggest how best to launch an outright attack on England. The duke refused: he replied forcefully that defeating the prince of Orange had left his treasury empty, and so all funds for intervention in England would have to come from Spain – knowing very well that the revolt of the Moriscos would prevent this, at least for a while. Alba’s intransigence made Philip more receptive to a proposal from Roberto Ridolfi, a Florentine banker who handled secret funds sent by the pope to the English Catholics. In 1569, Ridolfi visited Spes (despite his confinement) bearing a message from the duke of Norfolk and two of Elizabeth’s Catholic councillors saying that they intended to force her to restore close links with both Rome and Spain.

The ease with which Ridolfi glided between the government’s various opponents does not seem to have aroused Spes’s suspicions, and early in 1571 he entrusted to Ridolfi an ambitious plan, for which he coined the term ‘the Enterprise of England’. It called on Philip to persuade the other states of Europe to boycott all trade with England; to send financial support to Norfolk and his allies; and to fan the discontent of Irish Catholics. More radically, Spes suggested that the king should either support Mary Stuart’s claim to the English crown or else claim it for himself. Ridolfi first went to Brussels, where he explained the Enterprise to Alba, whose suspicions were immediately aroused by the effortlessness with which Ridolfi had managed to leave England with incriminating documents. Nevertheless, he allowed the conspirator to proceed to Rome.

Ridolfi arrived at an auspicious moment. Pius V had recently issued a bull deposing Elizabeth and now sought a means to carry it out. For a while the Holy League distracted him but on 20 May, the same day that representatives of Spain, Venice and the Papacy signed the Holy League, Pius entrusted Ridolfi with letters urging Philip to support the Enterprise of England. Six weeks later, the king granted Ridolfi an audience. The Italian made a remarkable impression on the king: a few days later, when the nuncio urged the king to support the Enterprise, much to his surprise ‘His Majesty, contrary to his normal custom [at audiences], spoke at length and entered into great detail about the means, the place and the men’ that he would devote to it.

He ended by saying that he had wanted and waited for a long time for an occasion and opportunity to reduce, with God’s help, that kingdom to the [Catholic] faith and the obedience of the Apostolic See a second time, and that he believed the time had now come, and that this was the occasion and the opportunity for which he had waited.

Philip proved as good as his word. In July he sent a secret letter to Alba affirming that Mary Stuart was ‘the true and legitimate claimant’ to the English throne, ‘which Elizabeth holds through tyranny’, and asserting that the duke of Norfolk

has the resolve, and so many and such prominent friends, that if I provide some help it would be easy for him to kill or capture Elizabeth [le sería facil matar o prender a la Isabel] and place the Scottish queen at liberty and in possession of the throne. Then, if she marries the duke of Norfolk, as they have arranged, they will without difficulty reduce [England] to the obedience of the Holy See.

In the course of the next six weeks, Philip continued, Alba must therefore prepare a powerful fleet and army to carry this out. He promised to send immediately 200,000 ducats – but ‘I warn and charge you expressly that you must not spend a single penny of this sum on anything else, however urgent it may be’. No doubt sensing how unrealistic all this would seem, Philip concluded that ‘since the cause is so much His, God will enlighten, aid and assist us with His mighty hand and arm, so that we will get things right’. The king’s enthusiasm increased as the festival of St Lawrence approached, when one of his ministers noted that ‘His Majesty proceeds in this matter with so much ardour that he must be inspired by God’; and it persisted even after news reached him that Elizabeth had ordered Norfolk’s arrest. Even with experienced rulers, one must never underestimate the power of self-deception.

MOU52694 Portrait of Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) by Moro, Antonio (c.1519-c.1576) (studio of) (attr. to) Private Collection © Philip Mould, Historical Portraits Ltd, London, UK Spanish, out of copyright

MOU52694 Portrait of Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) by Moro, Antonio (c.1519-c.1576) (studio of) (attr. to)
Private Collection
© Philip Mould, Historical Portraits Ltd, London, UK
Spanish, out of copyright

Philip II alone

In his History of Philip II, Cabrera de Córdoba later identified 1571 as ‘a fortunate year for the Monarchy’, but by the time it ended Philip had managed to alienate virtually all his former allies. Unravelling the Ridolfi plot revealed to Elizabeth that her ‘good brother’ had planned to murder her. Not surprisingly, she never trusted him again and instead increased surveillance of all Catholics in England and executed those who proved obdurate (including the duke of Norfolk). She also supported privateering activity against Philip (a dozen major expeditions left England in the 1570s to plunder Spanish property) and provided material assistance to his Dutch rebels because, as Alba later pointed out, ‘the queen knew full well that the king our lord had tried to deprive her of the kingdom and even to kill her’. He therefore ‘regarded the queen as quite justified in what she had done and is still doing’ to disrupt the Netherlands. Philip’s faith-based strategy had left a toxic legacy.

Philip also managed to alienate Emperor Maximilian in 1571. When intelligence reports suggested that France stood poised to intervene in support of a rebellion against the ruler of the small but strategically important Imperial fief of Finale Ligure, adjacent to Genoa, Philip mounted a surprise invasion. This unilateral action infuriated Maximilian, who mobilized the independent states of Italy to condemn Philip’s unprovoked attack. Empress María tried to mediate between her brother and her husband, assuring Philip:

God knows how much I want to settle this accursed dispute over Finale, so that Your Highness need not exhaust yourself over it. I really believe that if it were not for the prestige that blinds us so much, the emperor would not act as he does, which is to importune Your Highness; but I am very confident that it will turn out as we wish, because Your Highness can see that the emperor does not lack good cause.

Since Philip refused to ‘see’ this, Maximilian sent a special commissioner to reside in his duchy of Milan – also an Imperial fief – with orders to watch ostentatiously over the interests of the Austrian Habsburgs in Italy. This was a major humiliation, and it led Philip to withdraw his forces from Finale – but this recognition that ‘the emperor does not lack good cause’ came too late: Maximilian provided no assistance to Philip in 1572, when a new rebellion broke out in the Netherlands.

The war of Granada had greatly impressed the exiled prince of Orange. ‘It is an example to us,’ he confided to his brother early in 1570: ‘if the Moors are able to resist for so long, even though they are people of no more substance than a flock of sheep, what might the people of the Low Countries be able to do?’ Since the prince knew that the ‘people of the Low Countries’ would not be able to tackle Alba and his Spanish troops alone, he worked hard to find allies. His agents forged links with the numerous communities of Dutch exiles – perhaps 60,000 men, women and children who had fled to England, Scotland, France and Germany to escape condemnation by the council of Troubles – and these exiles provided recruits for a fleet of privateers known as the ‘Sea Beggars’, sailing under letters of marque issued by Orange. The exiles distributed plunder taken by the Sea Beggars from merchant ships belonging to Philip’s subjects and allies, thereby raising money for Orange’s cause as well as sustaining his fleet. Meanwhile Orange and his brother Louis of Nassau fought with the French Calvinist leader Gaspard de Coligny, unsuccessful defender of St Quentin in 1557 and equally unsuccessful patron of the attempt to colonize Florida in 1565. Now Coligny persuaded Charles IX of France to recognize Louis and Orange as his ‘good relatives and friends’ and to pay them a subsidy.

King Charles also agreed that his sister Margot would marry the Protestant leader Henry of Navarre, and that as soon as the wedding had taken place Coligny and his Protestant followers could invade the Netherlands in support of Orange and the exiles. On the strength of this commitment, Orange laid plans for other invasions to coincide with the main attack by Coligny: the Sea Beggars, together with a squadron to be assembled at La Rochelle by Filippo Strozzi, a Florentine exile with extensive military and naval experience, would capture ports in Holland or Zeeland; Orange’s brother-in-law, Count van den Berg, would invade Gelderland with a small force from Germany; and Orange himself would raise an army in Germany and invade Brabant. The only problem lay in timing: everything depended on the date fixed for the marriage of Margot and Henry, but after frequent postponements in April 1572 Charles IX announced that the wedding would take place the following August.

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