|Queen Elizabeth 1: the Ermine Portrait|
On 29th of March, Sir Tim Barrow, the UK's ambassador to the EU, entered the Europa building in Brussels carrying Prime Minister Theresa May's Article 50 letter, signifying the beginning of the UK's withdrawal from the European Union. A momentous event with unseen consequences for every citizen of the United (so far) Kingdom.
But it was not the first time that an exchange of diplomatic correspondence had far reaching consequences. On May 24th 1570, some time between 2 and 3 in the morning, John Felton, a wealthy Catholic, pinned a copy of Pope Pius V's Bull, 'Regnans in Excelsis', excommunicating Queen Elizabeth 1, to the gates of the Bishop of London's Palace, situated close to St Paul's cathedral.
|A Papal bull with the 'bulla'|
It became a matter of extreme urgency for the country to find new trading partners as quickly as possible. Elizabeth decided to send emissaries to Persia, North Africa and Turkey. These were Muslim countries, and were 'forbidden' territories in the eyes of the Catholic Church. It was therefore not only an act of desperation, but a sub-textual two-fingered reply to the Papal Bull.
As a result of the Queen's actions, great trading companies like the Turkey Company, the Muscovy Company and the Levant Company were formed. They traded in metals: lead and tin, taken from sacked Catholic churches and sold for the production of arms, which were in turn used against the Catholic church and its forces by the Islamic world.
The other form of trade, far more questionable, was that of pillage and plunder. Spanish treasure ships were regularly targeted by the English fleet under Francis Drake, who was commissioned by Elizabeth in 1572 to act as a privateer targeting Spanish ports and raiding Spanish ships. The cargoes were looted and brought back to England to add to the Treasury. In one raid alone in 1573, Drake's men took 15 tons of silver ingots and about 100,000 pounds of silver coins. A fortune in contemporary terms.
It is tempting to see the reign of Elizabeth 1 as a Golden Age, but that would be wrong. The loss of trade with Europe was considerable and was never compensated for by the long distances and astronomical costs of opening up new markets. The collapse of the woolen cloth industry and the rural economy that supported it meant that large parts of the agricultural population were reduced to starvation.
It wasn't until James I came to the throne in 1603, uniting the two countries of England and Scotland, that any sort of economic stability was restored through his policy of deliberate re-engagement with the European continent. And although the situation in 1570 cannot be compared to that of today, the past still offers a salutary lesson for citizens of the UK as we stand upon the threshold of a second Brexit.
(Thanks to BBC Radio 4: The Long View presented by Jonathan Freedland, for inspiration)