Saturday, 1 April 2017

Brexit ~ Tudor Style

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'
The Queen was served with this religious 'Brexit'  for ''usurping Supreme Control of the Church in England''. She was described as Elizabeth, pretended queen and daughter of iniquity”, and was in effect, publicly branded a heretic. The fallout was immediate: the whole country was cut off from doing any trade or business with Catholic Europe. At that time Philip 11 of Spain controlled most of trade in the Low Countries, especially in Antwerp, where 70% of the country's woolen cloth was traded. As a result there was a sudden and complete collapse of the most important of England's exports.

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. 
Spanish galleon

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.
Francis Drake

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)


  1. I have always believed that all politicians should study history. Only then can they begin to see how they make the same mistakes again and again and again.

    1. It always surprises me how little people in government seem to know of their own history! Even those MPs who purport to be historians

  2. Brilliant post! Those who don't learn from the lessons of history...

    1. I was so glad I caught the programme...and then researched a little further, finding even more pertinent similarities

  3. What's that ça change, plus c'est la même chose...I agree...history should be compulsory for anyone going into politics. so many of the mistakes being made today could have been avoided had politicians only looked at the past! While times change, people don't...not in essence anyway!


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