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The Lurch Into War

In May of 1588, Spain's great Armada set sail, bent on the invasion and conquest of Elizabethan England. Simon Adams re-examines the strategic considerations that underpinned the actions of both England and Spain before and after the Armada.

Early in the present century the American historian Conyers Read drew attention to the prolonged debate in the Elizabethan Privy Council over the Revolt of the Netherlands in the late 1570s and early 1580s. The debate, he discovered, split the councillors into distinct 'war' and 'peace' parties. Both were ostensibly Protestant, but one was radical, the other conservative.

The war party – inspired by a sense of international Protestant solidarity' – supported military intervention to assist the Dutch even though it would lead to war with Spain. The peace party, less affected by religious enthusiasm, more insular and traditional in outlook, and more concerned with financial prudence, sought to avoid the major conflict that would ensue. The war party (led by the Earl of Leicester and Sir Francis Walsingham) finally achieved their aim of military intervention in the Netherlands in 1585. Elizabeth was now committed to a confrontation with Spain. If the lurch into war represented a political defeat for the peace party – led by Lord Burghley and (until his death in 1583) the Earl of Sussex – they were still able to curb the proposals of their rivals. It was Burghley's caution and careful management that enabled the country to withstand the Armada successfully.

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