The Elizabethan era of the late 16th century was filled with problems between England and Spain. When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 the two kingdoms had enjoyed a few years of alliance due to the ‘Spanish Match’ between Queen Mary I and Philip of Spain. Although the marriage does not appear to have been based on love (not for Philip, that is for sure), it brought the two nations together against a common enemy: France.
However, 1557-1558 exposed the weaknesses in this alliance: a new French war resumed, and this time Calais – England’s last remaining territory on the continent – was taken. Mary’s death in 1558 saw the Anglo-Spanish relationship shift once more, with Elizabeth declining Philip’s honourable offer of marriage. But then during the 1560s divisions formed, linking to the rise of the Elizabethan seadogs (and their insistence on taking Spanish treasure), Elizabeth’s support of the Dutch rebels (against their Spanish masters), and the bigger factor of religion. Philip was at the vanguard of combating heresy in Europe in defence of the Catholic Church, whereas Elizabeth took the route of compromise in establishing a Church of England which combined both Catholic and Protestant elements.
Key defining points of tension include Mary, Queen of Scots, fleeing to England in the late 1560s; this roused Catholics to look to the Scottish Queen to lead a rebellion, thereby promoting a series of plots. By 1570, the Pope himself excommunicated Elizabeth, leading to the development of a cold war of sorts. Then, in 1585, Elizabeth allied with the Dutch rebels in the Treaty of Nonsuch, due to her fear of being overwhelmed by the Spanish-French alliance of 1584. This kickstarted the Anglo-Spanish War which dragged on until 1604 (after both monarchs had died), which of course brought about the nationally famous Armada defeat of 1588.
This relationship is incredibly varied and fascinating. But this blog post concentrates on a small Cornish sideshow in the town of Saltash. Within the local context, Saltash’s role during this period has become utterly dwarfed by the larger neighbour of Plymouth. We are told time and again how it was Drake who played bowls on Plymouth Hoe before tackling the enemy; how a Plymouth mayor, William Hawkins, commanded the front against the Armada. However, Saltash – both its port and people – played a significant role.
One example is found in the efforts of Saltash-born Robert Barret, who in the words of local historian Crispin Gills ‘might well have become the greatest sea captain of the age’, until his capture from a Spanish fleet resulted in him being burned at the stake by the Inquisition.
Saltash was used most spectacularly as a port for captured cargo and booty in this period. In 1568, Spanish ships ‘laden with treasure’ to pay for her army – which currently was situated in modern day Netherlands to fight an uprising – were chased into English harbours by pirates in the Channel. One such ship ended up in the waters of Saltash, with the ship’s captain being persuaded to unload its cargo: 64 cases of silver coins!
This event opened a series of confrontations between the English and the Spanish, and more ships were chased up the River Tamar in this fashion; notably a year later when Philip Budockshead (of nearby St. Budeaux) led 4 ships sailing under the Spanish flag to Saltash, where they were stripped of all goods. Philip himself would later die fighting in Europe, thereby bringing an end to fourteen generations of his family at Budshead Manor in Plymouth.
Within the wider European scene, the above examples are a small sideshow. But they offer up interesting questions: to what extent did local communities play a significant role during the period? Or how did the Anglo-Spanish tension and war impact the people of England? I don’t have any answers to these questions, but I am interested in delving in and finding out more.