The Courtships of Queen Elizabeth: A History of the Various Negotiations for Her Marriage


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Dec 31, 1896
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The history of modern Europe takes its start from an event which must have appeared insignificant to a generation that had witnessed the violent end of the English dominion in France, had been dinned by the clash of the Wars of the Roses, and watched with breathless fear the savage hosts of Islam striking at the heart of Christendom over the still smoking ruins of the Byzantine Empire.

Late one night, in the beginning of October 1469, a cavalcade of men in the guise of traders halted beneath the walls of the ancient city of Burgo de Osma in Old Castile. They had travelled for many days by little-used paths through the mountains of Soria from the Aragonese frontier town of Tarrazona; and, impatient to gain the safe shelter of the fortress of Osma, they banged at the gates demanding admittance. The country was in anarchy. Leagues of churchmen and nobles warred against each other and preyed upon society at large. An impotent king, deposed with ignominy by one faction, had been as ignominiously set up again by another, and royal pretenders to the succession were the puppets of rival parties whose object was to monopolise for themselves all the fruits of royalty, whilst the monarch fed upon the husks. So when the new-comers called peremptorily for admittance within the gates of Osma, the guards upon the city walls, taking them for enemies or freebooters, greeted them with a shower of missiles from the catapults. One murderous stone whizzed within a few inches of the head of a tall, fair-haired lad of good mien and handsome visage, who, dressed as a servant, accompanied the cavalcade. If the projectile had effectively hit instead of missed the stripling, the whole history of the world from that hour to this would have been changed, for this youth was Prince Ferdinand, the heir of Aragon, who was being conveyed secretly by a faction of Castilian nobles to marry the Princess Isabel, who had been set forward as a pretender to her brother’s throne, to the exclusion of the King’s doubtful daughter, the hapless Beltraneja. A hurried cry of explanation went up from the travellers: a shouted password; the flashing of torches upon the walls, the joyful recognition of those within, and the gates swung open, the drawbridge dropped, and thenceforward Prince Ferdinand was safe, surrounded by the men-at-arms of Isabel’s faction. Within a week the eighteen-years-old bridegroom greeted his bride, and before the end of the month Ferdinand and Isabel were married at Valladolid.

To most observers it may have seemed a small thing that a petty prince in the extreme corner of Europe had married the girl pretender to the distracted and divided realm of Castile; but there was one cunning, wicked old man in Barcelona who was fully conscious of the importance of the match that he had planned; and he, John II. of Aragon, had found an apt pupil in his son Ferdinand, crafty beyond his years. To some extent Isabel must have seen it too, for she was already a dreamer of great dreams which she meant to come true, and the strength of Aragon behind her claim would insure her the sovereignty that was to be the first step in their realisation.

The greatest diplomatic game ever played on the world’s chessboard was that consummate succession of intrigues which for nearly half a century was carried on by Queen Elizabeth and her ministers with the object of playing off one great Continental power against another for the benefit of England and Protestantism, with which the interests of the Queen herself were indissolubly bound up. Those who were in the midst of the strife were for the most part working for immediate aims, and probably understood or cared but little about the ultimate result of their efforts; but we, looking back as over a plain that has been traversed, can see that, from the tangle of duplicity which obscured the issue to the actors, there emerged a new era of civilisation and a host of young, new, vigorous thoughts of which we still feel the impetus. We perceive now that modern ideas of liberty and enlightenment are the natural outcome of the victory of England in that devious and tortuous struggle, which engaged for so long some of the keenest intellects, masculine and feminine, which have ever existed in Europe. It seems impossible that the result could have been attained excepting under the very peculiar combination of circumstances and persons then existing in England. Elizabeth triumphed as much by her weakness as by her strength; her bad qualities were as valuable to her as her good ones. Strong and steadfast Cecil would never have held the helm so long if he had not constantly been contrasted with the shifty, greedy, treacherous crew of councillors who were for ever ravening after foreign bribes as payment for their honour and their loyalty. Without Leicester as a permanent matrimonial possibility to fall back upon, the endless negotiations for marriage with foreign princes would soon have become pointless and ineffectual, and the balance would have been lost. But for the follies of Mary Stuart, which led to her downfall and lifelong imprisonment, the Catholic party in England could never have been subjected so easily as it was. Elizabeth, with little fixed religious conviction, would, with her characteristic instability, almost certainly at one difficult juncture or another have been drawn into a recognition of the papal power, and so would have destroyed the nice counterpoise, but for the unexampled fact that such recognition would have upset her own legitimacy and right to reign. The combination of circumstances on the Continent also seems to have been exactly that necessary to aid the result most favourable to English interests; and the special personal qualities both of Philip II. and Catharine de Medici were as if expressly moulded to contribute to the same end. But propitious, almost providential, as the circumstances were, the making of England and the establishment of Protestantism as a permanent power in Europe could never have been effected without the supreme and sustained statecraft of the Queen and her great minister. The nimble shifting from side to side, the encouragement or discouragement of the French and Flemish Protestants as the policy of the moment dictated, the alternate flouting and flattering of the rival powers, and the agile utilisation of the Queen’s sex and feminine love of admiration to provoke competing offers for her hand, all exhibit statesmanship as keen as it was unscrupulous. The political methods adopted were perhaps those which met with general acceptance at the time, but the dexterous juggling through a long course of years with regard to Elizabeth’s marriage is unexampled in the history of government. Not a point was missed. Full advantage was taken of the Queen’s maiden state, of her feminine fickleness, of her solitary sovereignty, of her assumed religious uncertainty, of her accepted beauty, and of the keen competition for her hand. In very many cases neither the wooer nor the wooed was in earnest, and the courtship was merely a polite fiction to cover other objects; but at least on two occasions, if not three, the Queen was very nearly forced by circumstances or her own feelings into a position which would have made her marriage inevitable.
FOR three hundred years a bitter controversy has raged around the actions of Philip II. of Spain. Until our own times no attempt even had been made to write his life-history from an impartial point of view. He had been alternately deified and execrated, until through the mists of time and prejudice he loomed rather as the permanent embodiment of a system than as an individual man swayed by changing circumstances and controlled by human frailties.

The more recent histories of his reign—the works of English, American, German, and French scholars—have treated their subject with fuller knowledge and broader sympathies, but they have necessarily been to a large extent histories of the great events which convulsed Europe for fifty years at the most critical period of modern times. The space to be occupied by the present work will not admit of this treatment of the subject. The purpose is therefore to consider Philip mainly as a statesman, in relation to the important problems with which he had to deal, rather than to write a connected account of the occurrences of a long reign. It will be necessary for us to try to penetrate the objects he aimed at and the influences, personal and exterior, which ruled him, and to seek the reasons for his failure. For he did fail utterly. In spite of very considerable powers of mind, of a long lifetime of incessant toil, of deep-laid plans, and vast ambitions, his record is one continued series of defeats and disappointments; and in exchange for the greatest heritage that Christendom had ever seen, with the apparently assured prospect of universal domination which opened before him at his birth, he closed his dying eyes upon dominions distracted and ruined beyond all recovery, a bankrupt State, a dwindled prestige, and a defeated cause. He had devoted his life to the task of establishing the universal supremacy of Catholicism in the political interests of Spain, and he was hopelessly beaten.

The reasons for his defeat will be seen in the course of the present work to have been partly personal and partly circumstantial. The causes of both these sets of reasons were laid at periods long anterior to Philip’s birth.

Thus wrote William Camden with reference to his projected life of Lord Burghley, which was never written; and the words may be applied not inappropriately to the present book and its writer. Some years ago I passed many laborious months in archives and libraries at home and abroad, searching and transcribing contemporary papers for what I hoped to make a complete history of the long reign of Philip IV., during which the final seal of decline was stamped indelibly upon the proud Spanish empire handed down by the great Charles V. to his descendants. I had dreamed of writing a book which should not only be a social review of the period signalised by the triumph of French over Spanish influence in the civilisation of Europe, but also a political history of the wane and final disappearance of the prodigious national imposture that had enabled Spain, aided by the rivalries between other nations, to dominate the world for a century by moral force unsupported by any proportionate material power.

The sources to be studied for such a history were enormous in bulk and widely scattered, and I worked very hard at my self-set task. But at length I, too, began to wax faint-hearted; not, indeed, because my "noble Lord had died"; for no individual lord, noble or ignoble, has ever done, or I suppose ever will do, anything for me or my books; but because I was told by those whose business it is to study his moods, that the only "noble Lord" to whom I look for patronage, namely the sympathetic public in England and the United States that buys and reads my books, had somewhat changed his tastes. He wanted to know and understand, I was told, more about the human beings who personified the events of history, than about the plans of the battles they fought. He wanted to draw aside the impersonal veil which historians had interposed between him and the men and women whose lives made up the world of long ago; to see the great ones in their habits as they lived, to witness their sports, to listen to their words, to read their private letters, and with these advantages to obtain the key to their hearts and to get behind their minds; and so to learn history through the human actors, rather than dimly divine the human actors by means of the events of their times. In fact, he cared no longer, I was told, for the stately three-decker histories which occupied half a lifetime to write, and are now for the most part relegated, in handsome leather bindings, to the least frequented shelves of dusty libraries.

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