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- England Under the Tudors - 50/90 -


[Sidenote: Strength of Elizabeth's position]

Here then lay the strength of Elizabeth's position, which she and her chosen counsellors were quick to grasp. The only alternative to Elizabeth was the Queen of Scots; her accession would mean virtually the conversion of England into an appanage of France. Of Elizabeth's subjects none-- whatever their creed might be, or whatever creed she might adopt--would be prepared to rebel at the price of subjection to France; the few hot-heads who had ventured on that line when Mary Tudor was at the height of her unpopularity had found themselves utterly without support. For the same reason, do what she would, Philip could not afford to act against her--more than that, he had no choice but to interfere on her behalf if Henry of France acted against her. He might advise--dictate--threaten--but he must, as against France, remain her champion, whether she submitted or no. As long as she kept her head, this young woman of five and twenty, with an empty treasury, with no army, a wasted navy, and with counsellors whose reputation for statesmanship was still to make, was nevertheless mistress of the situation. Mary Stewart's claim presented no immediate danger, though it might become dangerous enough in the future.

There were two things then on which Elizabeth knew she could count; her own ability to keep her head, and the capacity for loyalty of the great bulk of her subjects. If either of those failed her, she would have no one but herself to blame. The former had been shrewdly tested during her sister's reign, when a single false step would have ruined her. The latter had borne the strain even of the Marian persecution--nay, of the alarm engendered by the Spanish marriage, which showed incidentally that fear of domination by a foreign power was the most deeply rooted of all popular sentiments; a sentiment now altogether in Elizabeth's favour, unless she should threaten a dangerous marriage.

But the cool head and the clear brain, and unlimited self-reliance, were necessary to realise how much might be dared in safety; to distinguish also the course least likely to arouse the one incalculable factor in domestic politics--religious fanaticism; which, if it once broke loose, might count for more than patriotic or insular sentiment. And these were precisely the qualities in which the queen herself excelled, and which marked also the man whom from the first she distinguished with her father's perspicacity as her chief counsellor.

[Sidenote: Cecil]

Throughout the last reign, Cecil had carefully effaced himself. In matters of religion, though he had been previously associated with the Protestant leaders, he had never personally committed himself to any extreme line, and under the reaction he conformed; as did Elizabeth herself, and practically the whole of the nobility. He had walked warily, keeping always on the safe side of the law, never seeking that pre-eminence which in revolutionary times is apt to become so dangerous. He was not the man to risk his neck for a policy which he could hope to achieve by waiting, and he was quite willing to subordinate religious convictions to political expediency. On the other hand, he never betrayed confidences; he was not to be bought; and he was not to be frightened. Further, he was endowed with a penetrating perception of character, immense powers of organisation, and industry which was absolutely indefatigable. It was an immediate mark of the young queen's singular sagacity that even before her accession she had selected Cecil to lean upon, in preference to any of the great nobles, and even to Paget who had for many years been recognised as the most astute statesman in England.

[Sidenote: Finance]

Secure of her throne, Elizabeth was confronted by the great domestic problem of effecting a religious settlement; the diplomatic problem of terminating the French war; and what may be called the personal problem of choosing--or evading--a husband, since no one, except it may be the Queen herself, dreamed for a moment that she could long remain unwedded. To these problems must be added a fourth, less conspicuous but vital to the continuance of good government--the rehabilitation of the finances, of the national credit. A strict and lynx-eyed economy, a resolute honesty of administration, and a prompt punctuality in meeting engagements, took the place of the laxity, recklessness, and peculation which had prevailed of recent years. The presence of a new tone in the Government was immediately felt in mercantile circles, and the negotiation of necessary loans became a reasonable business transaction instead of an affair of usurious bargaining, both in England and on the continent. Finally, before Elizabeth had been two years on the throne, measures were promulgated for calling in the whole of the debased coinage which had been issued during the last fifteen years, and putting in circulation a new and honest currency. It seems to have been owing to a miscalculation, not to sharp practice, that the Government did in fact make a small profit out of this transaction.

[Sidenote: Marriage proposals: Philip II.]

Philip of Spain and his representatives in England had not realised the true strength of Elizabeth's position, and certainly had no suspicion that she and her advisers were entirely alive to it. On this point they had absolutely no misgivings. They took it for granted that the English queen must place herself in their hands and meekly obey their behests, if only in order to secure Spanish support against France. Philip began operations by proposing him self as her husband, expecting thereby to obtain for himself a far greater degree of power than he had derived from his union with her sister, while inviting her to share the throne of the first Power in Europe. But Elizabeth and Cecil were alive to the completeness of the hold on Philip they already possessed; and Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, would have utterly stultified her own position by marrying her dead sister's husband, since it would be necessary to obtain a papal dispensation, acknowledge the Pope's authority, and recognise by implication the validity of her father's marriage with Katharine of Aragon. To the ambassador's amazed indignation, the Queen with the support of the Council, decisively rejected the honour. Paget, who had in the last reign stood almost alone in commending the Spanish match, would have repeated his counsel now; but he had been displaced, while Cecil and his mistress were entirely at one.

The Queen's argument that the marriage, however attractive to herself or desirable politically, was, from her point of view out of the question, was unanswerable. The Spaniards had to cast about for some other candidate for her hand, whose success would still be likely to attach England to the chariot-wheels of Spain; besides seeking another bride for their own King.

When Philip's hand was definitely declined, three months after Elizabeth's accession, the most pressing danger arising out of the Marriage question was at an end. Thenceforward, dalliance with would-be suitors became simply one of the tactical tricks of Elizabeth's diplomacy, employed by her perhaps not less to the torment of her own advisers than to the perturbation of foreign chancelleries; seeing that whether she knew her own mind or not, up to the last she invariably took very good care that no one else should know it.

[Sidenote: The Religious Question]

One of Philip's main objects was as a matter of course to secure England, through its queen, for Catholicism; and there is very little doubt that at this time the majority of Englishmen--at any rate outside the dioceses of London, Norwich and Canterbury--would have acquiesced much more readily in the maintenance of the old forms of worship than in institutions modelled after Geneva. Elizabeth however, with her trusted advisers, leaned neither to the one nor to the other. They were guided by considerations not of creed but of politics. They had realised that the repudiation of the authority of the Holy See, and the assertion of the supremacy of the sovereign in matters ecclesiastical, were essential. If they were determined not to submit to Papal claims, they were equally disinclined to submit to the claims of a Calvinistic Ministry, posing as the mouth-pieces of the Almighty, demanding secular obedience on the analogy of Samuel or Elijah. As to creed, what the statesmen saw was that the utmost latitude of dogmatic belief must be recognised; provided that it was consistent with the supremacy of the secular sovereign, and with a moderately elastic uniformity of ritual. The personal predilections of Elizabeth might be in favour of what we call the Higher doctrines, or those of Cecil might lean to the Lower; but neither was willing to impose penalties or disabilities for opinions or practices which did not tend either to the anarchism of the Anabaptists, or to the Sacerdotalism of Rome on the one hand or Geneva on the other hand; both were even disposed to remain in official unconsciousness of such individual transgressors as could conveniently be ignored.

[Sidenote: A Protestant policy]

While the Spanish ambassador, De Feria, like his master, had almost taken it for granted that if Philip offered to marry Elizabeth he would be accepted, he was from the first greatly perturbed as to the attitude of the new Government towards the religious question. That Cecil was going to be chief minister, and that he was, in the political sense, a Protestant, were both manifest facts. All the extreme Catholics, and some of the moderate ones, were displaced from the Council; those who were left might prefer the Mass to the Communion, but only as King Henry had done. The new members were definitely Protestants. Heath, Archbishop of York, Mary's Chancellor, though personally esteemed, gave place to Nicholas Bacon (as "Lord Keeper"), whose wife and Cecil's were sisters, and measures were being taken to secure a Protestant House of Commons when Parliament should meet. The number of lay peers was increased by four Protestants; among the twenty-seven bishoprics, Archbishop Pole had omitted to fill up several vacancies, while a sudden mortality was afflicting the episcopal bench. Around the queen, Protestant influences were immensely predominant. It is quite unnecessary to turn to an injudicious letter from Pope Paul to find a motive for the anti-Roman attitude which from the very outset was so obvious to De Feria. [Footnote: _MSS. Simancas, apud_ Froude, vii., p. 27. De Feria to Philip.] Whatever prevarications or ambiguities Elizabeth might indulge in to him, it is quite clear that, whether she liked it or not, she felt that her position required an anti-Roman policy, if her independence was to be secured and the prestige of England among the nations was to be restored.

[Sidenote: 1559 Parliament: The Act of Supremacy]

The methods of the new Government however were to be strictly legal; changes must have parliamentary sanction. At the coronation, the authorised forms obtained. But at the end of January, the Houses met; and during the following four months the whole of the Marian legislation was wiped out, as Mary had wiped out the legislation of the preceding reign. The first measures brought forward were financial--as the first step Cecil had taken was to dispatch an agent to the Netherland cities to negotiate a loan--a Tonnage and Poundage bill, a Subsidy, and a First-fruits bill which marked the revival of the claims of the Crown against ecclesiastical revenues. These bills were skilfully introduced, and well-received; for it was expected that the money would be expended where it was needed, on national defence. Next, the new Act of Supremacy was introduced, against which the small phalanx of bishops fought with determination, supported by the protest of Convocation. It was not in fact carried till April; and then the actual title of "Supreme Head," which Mary and Philip had surrendered, was not revived, but a different formula was used, the Crown being declared "Supreme in all causes as well ecclesiastical as civil". The Act once more repealed the lately revived heresy Acts, and forbade proceedings on the ground of false opinions, except where these were opposed to the decisions of the first four General Councils or the plain words of Scripture. Moreover, the refusal of the Oath was not to be treason, as under Henry VIII.; it merely precluded the recusant from office. All save one of the Marian bishops did refuse it and were deprived; most of them doubtless would have done so even in the face of the old penalties. Incidentally it authorised the appointment of a Commission to


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