CHAPTER XXV. ELIZABETH (x), 1588-98-BRITANNIA VICTRIX

[After the Armada]

The sceptre had passed. The world awoke suddenly to the truth of which the great debacle was only the unexpected testimony. The Spanish People were slow to realise the overwhelming fact - overwhelming, because for the best part of a century at least they had accounted themselves the nation favoured by Heaven, chosen for the crushing of the heathen and the heretic, assured of victory. So, for a few years, had the English thought of themselves; but with a difference; for their spirit was that expressed in the later Puritan adage, "Trust in God and keep your powder dry". The Spaniard had neglected to keep his powder dry. The nation which observes both injunctions is tolerably certain to defeat that which observes only one.

The sceptre had passed; but Spain would not acquiesce without a struggle, and, in his slow fashion, Philip set himself to adapt to his own navy the lesson taught by the fate of the Armada. England had won the lead, but she was not to hold it unchallenged, though she did maintain it convincingly. For her alertness did not leave her, and to her had been transferred not the power only but also the enormous prestige which Spain had hitherto enjoyed, and which counts for much in every struggle where it is recognised on both sides.

But the re-organisation of the Spanish Navy was a matter of time. For the moment, the result of the collision was absolutely to reverse the hypothetical though not the actual position of the two countries. Spain was reduced completely to the defensive. England no longer thought of guarding herself, but only of smiting her foe - a theory of the mutual relations on which, unofficially, the seamen had been acting for the last decade.

If during the closing ten years of his life Philip's strongest desire was to recover the lost supremacy, his energies were still divided by his extreme anxiety to prevent the Bourbon succession in France; while the conviction was proving day by day more irresistible that the Protestant Netherlands would be lost for ever to Spain. Yet the eternal series of abortive plots for restoring the old religion and placing either Philip or a tool of Philip on the English throne went on; not in fact ending till the death of Elizabeth joined England and Scotland under a single crown.

[A new phase]

Politically the dramatic climax of Elizabeth's reign is the dispersion of the Armada. The dragon has been fought and vanquished, and at this point, the curtain ought to ring down and leave the audience to imagine the Red-cross knight and his ladye-love living happy for ever afterwards. But in history no climax is more than an incident; at the most it is but the decisive entry on a new phase. The chain of causation, of the interdependence of events, is continuous.

The moment of the Armada then may be regarded as the conclusion of a phase. The work of the great statesmen, whose names are most intimately associated with that of Elizabeth, was accomplished. They had kept England united and at peace within her own borders through a long period of recurring crises. They had so fostered the national spirit and the national resources that she had finally proved herself a match for the mightiest Power in Europe. They had achieved for her the premier position upon the Ocean. They had defeated every attempt to entice or to force her back to the Roman obedience. They had secured a larger latitude of religious tolerance than prevailed in any other State of Europe. These things they had definitely won, though there was still need of keen brains, stout hearts, strong hands, and sturdy consciences to hold them. They had been responsible for the planting and watering. It was left mainly to others in the last years of Elizabeth to assure the beginnings of the increase.

[1588 The Death of Leicester]

Of the counsellors who had played a prominent part in Elizabeth's reign, Nicholas Bacon had died in 1579. The rest still lived, but none of them for long. The next to disappear was Leicester, who survived the dispersion of the Armada by only a few weeks. So long as he had been an aspirant to the hand of his royal mistress, he existed chiefly to trouble the minds of statesmen - a piece of grit in the machinery; an apparently quite worthless person After he had settled down into the less ambiguous position of a mere personal favourite, with no chance of satisfying swelling ambitions, he became a definite partisan of the Walsingham school whose ideal lay in the advancement of protestantism and antagonism to Spain. When not warped by the vain imaginings of his earlier years, he would seem to have been a person of respectable abilities, little decision of character, decently loyal; an ornamental figurehead whose position enabled him to serve his friends; shallow; neither dangerous, nor conspicuously incapable; not entirely deserving of the extreme contempt which is usually poured upon him; but at best a poor creature whose importance was wholly adventitious.

[France, 1588-89]