In 1533, it was solemnly decreed “with the consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and the Commons” that “this realm of England is an Empire”
By today’s standards, the assertion was extraordinarily optimistic: Scotland remained untamed, Wales was not yet annexed, control in Ireland was almost non-existent and, except for Calais, the crown could claim no overseas possessions
But the writers of the statutes were in no way concerned by the lack of world domination, for they had another meaning of empire in mind. Henry VIII’s decision to declare the kingdom independent of the Pope and, by extension, all foreign domination.
Moreover, Henry’s statute makers possessed in their characters, elements essential for the achievement of world empire: optimism, aggressiveness, self-confidence. Understandably so. Henry’s parsimonious father had set the economy to rights, founded a navy and curbed the power of his nobles. Now prosperous, ambitious landed gentry and merchants stood ready to finance overseas enterprise.
The foundations for expansion were secure, and remained so throughout Henry’ s break with Rome. Within a generation, Elizabeth’s adventurers were to set about building a finer empire than Henry could ever have imagined.
Whosoever commands the seas, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world and consequently the world itself. This axiom was first voiced by Sir Walter Raleigh but was fully understood by the Spanish and the Portuguese long before the British. Englishmen were latecomers to the sea which surrounded their land and Spanish merchants, not London traders had first responded to the three voyages of Columbus, Da Gama and Magellan between 1492 and 1519. Voyages which revolutionised men’s thinking on the world and enlarged its known circumference by 5,000 miles and revealing the new world of America. Shipwrights and navigators now set about the ultimate dream; a sea route to the fabled land of Cathay and its reputed treasures
But the New world, rich in gold and ripe for the picking together with the wealth of the East Indies proved to be a greater attraction. Spain and Portugal proceeded to carve up the new territories between them. Within a decade Portugal had turned the then Indian Ocean into a private lake and the Malabar coast a closed trading preserve. Spain took slightly longer. Not until the 1540’s was the New World safe for commercial exploitation.
Spaniards and Portuguese calmly accepted that the profits of the world belonged to them.
The one man in England who was caught up in the dream of discovery was not even a native but a Venetian merchant who had settled in Bristol. In 1497, two months before da Gama set out on the journey that took him from Lisbon to Calicut, John Cabot sailed west in search of the Lands of the Dragon Throne. What he found was the barren rock-ribbed coast of Cape Breton Island, off the West coast of Canada. In three more voyages his record was no better. Unfriendly sightings of Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland and New England, a wildcat and a brace of barbaric Eskimos brought back to London as curiosities; but no Asia and no civilisation rich in gold and spices.
Only an oddity proved significant, off the Newfoundland Banks was discovered a portion of the sea where the fish were so plentiful that they could be pulled in by the basketful without net or hook. Henry VII had commissioned Cabot’s first voyage but the only official document that remains is the brief notation of £10 for “him that found the New Isle”.
It is puzzling why the British were so slow to go “down to the sea in ships” as this island kingdom was more politically unified, and early Tudor sovereigns were just as interested in ships and trade as the kings of Spain and Portugal. Henry VIII, like his father, was receptive to the possibility of new markets for English wool and during the 1520’s he backed a number of abortive efforts to find the “North West Passage” to bring China within reach of London.
There were plenty of seamen who doubted that the Deity had reserved the New World for Spain and Portugal, however the kingdom’s political efforts during most of Henry’s reign were still directed towards the conquest of the lost provinces of France.
As the King’s matrimonial affairs dragged the realm into religious schism, Divine Providence had plenty to do keeping the island safe for Protestantism without worrying about the North West Passage.
Within a generation as the Elizabethan era took shape, apathy turned into unprecedented naval daring. Political, economic, and religious dynamism gelled and turned outward, producing a breed of adventurers just as ruthless as any conquistador. In part, the metamorphosis was simply the product of malice, why should Spain and Portugal harvest the riches of the East and west?
Whatever the explanation it was not long before Elizabeth's brave seafarers were setting out to seek new worlds for gold, for praise, for glory.
In 1550 the English wool industry faced disaster as export figures fell by 35%. Confronted with bulging warehouses and constricted by the privileges still retained by continental traders of the moribund Hanseatic League, London merchants looked over the top of the world to the Orient, where, even in the 16th Century it was argued that China’s teeming millions would be England’s economic salvation. The path to Cathay was not obvious, some favouring the north-west, others the north-east route. Learning from the abortive voyages west by the Cabots, John and son Sebastian, who encountered nothing but endless miles of icy water and fog, the experts favoured the opposite direction, north into the Norwegian Sea, east round Norway into the Barents Sea and then hopefully a warmer trip down the north coast of China. As no individual could contemplate such a risky adventure and to impress the Celestial Court of China, London merchants in 1553, joined under Royal patent to form “The Company of Merchant Adventurers of England” for the Discovery of Lands Unknown”. What a prophetic word “Unknown” proved to be for instead of finding the Son of Heaven they encountered “Ivan the Terrible of Russia”. Of three ships setting out in 1553 under Sir Hugh Willoughby, only the ’Edward Bonaventura’ returned. The’ Good Hope’ and the ‘Confidence’ perished in the arctic wastes of Lapland. Although Richard Chancellor, captain of the Bonaventura was fortunate on the first trip, to be invited to the Court of the Tsar of Russia he perished on a return journey the following year.
If not north-east then north-west! If the eastern passage to China proves elusive, perhaps Cabot’s straights and the broken lands just north of Hudson’s Bay may prove more attainable for they were well known to ‘such as have any skill in geography’. As the Muscovy Company’s Charter did not limit the prospect of ‘Lands Unknown’ to the north-east, the company had a monopoly to the West as well and the desire to sell English cloth was insatiable.
In 1586, Sir Richard Grenville’s squadron of seven ships returned to Devon after a fruitless voyage to relieve the English colony set up in Virginia in July 1584. The colony is the project of Sir Walter Raleigh who appointed Arthur Barlow and Philip Amadas to lead the first expedition. A second party of 108 colonists, led by Grenville arrived at Roanoake Island in July 1585. Poorly supplied they faced starvation and so when Francis Drake passed in June the next year, they eagerly took passage.
A supply ship sent by Grenville, who was unaware of Drake’s actions, turned up days later, to find only the bodies of a native and an Englishman.
Dressed entirely in black velvet, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, faced her accusers in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, knowing that her chance of acquittal on a charge of treason was slender. Crippled by rheumatism and her once slender figure thickened, after 17 years imprisonment in England (nearly all of it in Sheffield Castle), Mary has, nonetheless been defiant. ‘I am a queen by right of birth and my place should be there’ she declared pointing to a throne bearing the English Coat of Arms. She was directed instead to a chair covered in crimson velvet and sat quietly as the Lord Chancellor read out the case against her.
Mary vehemently denied that she had plotted with Anthony Babbington to kill Queen Elizabeth. “Can I be responsible for the criminal projects of a few desperate men, planned without my knowledge or participation”. Mary told the commissioners of the illness that had kept her bedridden for much of her imprisonment. “I have only two or three years to live and do not aspire to any public position” she insisted.
So it turned out. Carefully provided with opportunities for treachery by Elizabeth’s agents, Mary signed her own death-warrant by supporting rebellion
Together, Mary Queen of Scots and Philip of Spain, were a formidable threat. Mary, driven from her native Scotland in 1567, fled to England proclaiming her right to the succession through her grandmother, Henry VIII’s sister. Mary was imprisoned almost at once. But for another 19 years she remained the centre of the Catholic conspiracy, supported from afar by Philip, whos marriage to “Bloody Mary” Tudor and a sense of a divine mission gave him a perennial interest in restoring a Catholic to the British throne.
But both were shut off from reality. Philip immured in his forbidding palace, the Escorial, brooded endlessly on ways of curbing England’s “heretical wolf”. Mary Stuart, driven on by her own passion for romantic intrigue, spun out her hopes with messages to Philip and the Pope, smuggled out in her shoes, mirrors or beer barrels. “Ah” exclaimed her brother-in -law, Charles of France, prophetically, “the poor fool will never cease until she looses her head”.