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The Hard Brexit (1570)
06 May 2020 @ 23:06

12 years after her coronation, Elizabeth I of England was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. The Papal Bull issued on February 25th 1570 declared: "Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime." It went on to say that that: "She has removed the royal Council, composed of the nobility of England, and has filled it with obscure men, being heretics. We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects, peoples and others afore said that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication." Apart from inciting civil disobedience against Elizabeth, it meant that any Catholic in England could plot to kill her and be absolved of all sin. It also meant that no Catholic could deal with the English.

With nearly the whole of Europe dominated by the Catholic faith, it effectively cut England off from any trade with the continent.

Queen Elizabeth I

It would have been issued sooner if it were not for the delaying tactics of the various Catholic suitors who had been offering marriage to the Queen in the hope of healing the rift. She had tolerated Catholic worship in private, unlike Mary who had Protestants burned at the stake. Fearing Scottish Catholic insurrection, Henry VIII had moved power from the nobles in the north and brought it under royal control. William Cecil, Elizabeth’s counsellor and spymaster, urged her to do the same. Mary Queen of Scots had returned to Scotland three years after Elizabeth had taken the throne, and many of the northern Catholic lords were looking to Scotland for support. Mary’s father in-law, King Henry II of France, and the King of Spain were actively stirring up rebellion in favour of Mary. They were still questioning the legitimacy of Elizabeth’s mother’s marriage to Henry VIII, and the pope’s intervention added fuel to their cause.

Elizabeth's spymaster, William Cecil.

In the Atlantic, the Spanish were suffering so much from English privateers raiding their ships and Elizabeth’s support of the Calvinists, that they impounded all English trade goods in Antwerp. That same year, Queen Mary fled Scotland’s civil war and sought refuge in the north of England where she soon became a focus for rebellion backed by the powerful Catholic earls of Northumberland and Westmorland who had vowed to depose Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne. Though it was successfully put down, her recalcitrance in not accepting Mary was enough to induce the pope to excommunicate her.

There was another dimension to this plotting against the Queen. Ireland was then a part of England, and the Papal bull had given the staunch Catholic Irish a reason for discontent. Landowning nobles began to seek support from Europe, which alerted Elizabeth to the danger of an uprising there. She became more suspicious of her hidden Catholics, as well as the Jesuits who were inciting them to overthrow her. As if this was not enough, she now had a serious trade problem with the rest of the Catholic world.

With Spain controlling the Americas and the north of Europe, and Portugal dominating the African trade routes, there was nobody left to trade with. The Portuguese had made an error in north-west Africa by sending military incursions into the ruling Wattasid ports and cities. But the Wattasid dynasty was coming to an end, and Sa’adians, of Arab descent, overthrew them and made their capitol Marrakesh. What made all this interesting to the English, was that in 1537 they defeated the Portuguese at Agadir and expelled them. By 1554 they were the rulers of the west coast of Africa.

This was before Elizabeth became queen, but the English traders had seized the opportunity when the Portuguese had been ousted, and sent a trade delegation led by Thomas Windham to Morocco to trade English linen and wool and “diverse other things well accepted by the Moors.”          

In exchange they returned with dates, almonds and sugar. Four of Windham’s backers were Muscovy Company members and the profits began rolling in. The Portuguese still held Tangier and Magazan near Casablanca, but that left thousands of miles of West African coast open for trade.

When Mary and Philip ruled England, this trade had been stopped to please the Portuguese, but in her first parliament, Elizabeth ordered the traders to seek new opportunities for commerce including, “Those to Guinea, to Barbary, to Muscovy.” Within ten years of her giving free rein to the traders, England was importing 25 tons of Moroccan sugar every year, with total imports totalling £25,000 a year. The Portuguese were very unhappy with English ships making the relatively easy 1800 mile voyage to trade, but what really alarmed them was that the English ships were selling weapons to the Sa’adians to fight the Portuguese with. English traders began to clash with Portuguese warships and their ambassador to Elizabeth complained.

William Cecil drafted a letter for Elizabeth to sign, which airily explained that trade with the Moroccans, could only spread the faith and expand Christendom. The letter continued that “I cannot allow that more regard should be had to the enriching any particular person by monopolies or private navigation than to the public utility of the whole of Christendom.” It was a discreet slap in the face for the Portuguese. They were fighting the Moroccans who had besieged Magazan. In 1571, a year after the excommunication order, the Portuguese ambassador asked Elizabeth to stop trading with Morocco and she refused, telling him that it was not a Portuguese possession, and that the Moroccans could trade with whoever they wished. One third of the rich merchants in London were now trading with Morocco, and in most cases, they worked through Jewish intermediaries. With an ironic twist of fate, the Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain nearly eighty years before were the trusted allies of the Sa’adian Arabs. They had a common enemy with the English; Spain.

The pope had made a fundamental mistake in excommunicating Elizabeth. In a slip of protocol, he had not informed Philip II of Spain, who was furious. In England, the bull divided the Catholics and enraged the Protestants strengthening Elizabeth’s hand. The widespread suspicion of a Catholic plot against Protestants was seemingly confirmed when in 1572 the House of Guise murdered 3,000 Huguenots in the streets of Paris and thousands more in the rest of France, sending shockwaves throughout Europe.

La masacre de San Bartolomé, by François Dubois.

Elizabeth’s court went into mourning, but Rome openly rejoiced, and Philip of Spain said that the massacres were “One of the greatest joys of my life.” Meanwhile, Philip had domestic troubles fuelled by the Ottoman Empire. In 1566 Suleyman the Magnificent had died, and his successor, Selim II continued the Ottoman expansion with a new fervour. Philip had been treating his Moriscos badly and they rebelled, using their old capitol of Granada as a centre. They offered to recognise Selim II as emir if he gave them aid to fight.

Emir Selim II

Philip now had the Protestants against him in the low-countries, and the Ottoman Empire re-establishing Muslim rule within his own boarders. The mosques of Constantinople offered prayers for the fighters in Granada as their ships carried weapons and men to assist them. After a string of successes by his predecessors Emir Selim now controlled the whole Mediterranean coast of North Africa, and he was poised to invade Spain and aid the Moriscos if they were successful in establishing Granada again.

Selim now looked east, and his covetous eyes settled upon Cyprus, well aware that an invasion would provoke war with its Venetian rulers. Cyprus was the fulcrum of power between the Ottoman Empire and Christendom, and in preparation, he ratified treaties with the French to ensure that they remained neutral in any disputes with Spain, the pope or Venice.

In the summer of 1570, he sent a Turkish army of 60,000 men to take the island. After sixteen months of brutal fighting, the Turks had besieged Famagusta. The pope and the Venetian authorities cobbled together a weak alliance that included Spain and the Knights of Malta. Don Juan, the half-brother of Philip of Spain, led a fleet of 200 ships, but they were too late to save Famagusta. Before they arrived, it had fallen to the Turks. When Don Juan heard of this, he led his fleet to Lepanto, where the Ottoman fleet of 300 ships lay at anchor. Early on the 7 October the two fleets engaged each other in what became the greatest naval battle of the century. By evening, the Turks had lost 210 of their ships and 15,000 troops, and the whole of Christendom united in celebrating the defeat of Islam. Processions and Masses all over Europe proclaimed the great victory.


Amongst the injured on that day was a 24 year-old Spanish sailor who had received three gunshot wounds whilst serving on the galley Marquesa. One of the wounds rendered his left arm useless, and he was hospitalised in Messina in Italy for six months. After an odyssey of further adventures, he finally arrived at home to his family in Madrid, where he put his one good hand to excellent use, and began to write. Miguel De Cervantes never made a living from writing, but one of his books, Don Quixote, has been translated into more languages than the Bible.


In London, bonfires were lit in the streets to celebrate the victory of Christendom over the Turk, but the euphoria was short lived when it was realised that with the Ottoman Empire in retreat, Philip II and Pope Pious V could now give their full attention to what he called “The English Turk.” Philip hated the infidel Protestants more than he hated Islam or the Jews, and Elizabeth was advised to seek alliances with Morocco and Portugal. Portugal might be difficult, but the Moroccans were a totally unknown quantity. All that was known was that they opposed Spain and Catholic Europe, making them valuable allies. Secretary of State William Cecil, now Lord Burghley, began trade talks with Portugal and arrived at a deal in 1576 in which England abandoned its trade with Guinea. The Portuguese treaty made no mention of Morocco, and so the English traders began to strengthen their hand with the Sa’adian rulers of North Africa. They now had a unique opportunity to trade with the Muslim world when nobody else could or would.

One of London’s “wisest and best” traders was Edmund Hogan, and 1572 he sent one of his top men to seek opportunities for trade with the Moroccans. John Williams immediately discovered a source of Saltpetre, or Potassium Nitrate, that was superior to anything the British could produce. In those days, the only way to synthesise this essential ingredient in gunpowder was a foul and messy process involving urine and animal excrement, and it was never as good as the naturally occurring compound.

The only problem was that the new Sultan, Abdallah Muhammad, did not want to trade wool or cloth for his Saltpetre. Williams reported that the Sultan had asked “If we would take it upon us to bring us bullets of iron for his great ordnance, we should have saltpetre.” Williams brought the saltpetre to England and showed it to Burghley and the Queen who promptly authorised the export of iron shot for the Sultan’s cannons. By the time that Williams returned with a trading deal, the Sultan had gone. Abd-al-Malik had marched into Morocco at the head of an Ottoman army and was the new ruler of the country. He was much more of a diplomat than his predecessor, and having just fought several battles, was in need of ammunition. He was eager to encourage the trade with England and ordered the casting of new cannons for his army. Williams was sent back with saltpetre and a substantial order for military ordinance.

Hogan wrote to Elizabeth’s advisors that al-Malik was favourable to giving English ships free and unrestricted passage to the Ports of North Africa, and the far-sighted Hogan saw another opportunity which might be exploited to England’s benefit. If a trade route could be opened across North Africa to Asia with the Ottoman Empire’s blessing, it would be much shorter and less perilous than the Arctic route now operated by the Muscovy Company. For his persistence, he was given the dual role of England’s first Ambassador to Morocco and chief negotiator for trade deals.

Three weeks after leaving Portsmouth, he arrived in Marrakesh to find that al-Malik had told the furious Portuguese and Spanish traders and ambassadors to greet him cordially. They gritted their teeth and smiled for the Sultan, whilst penning angry letters home in protest.

For a month, the Sultan entertained Williams. They watched what the trader called a “Morris dance” and cheered as the Sultan’s English dogs baited bulls. During these diversions, Williams managed to solve some of the problems that had slowed trade in the past. One of the Jewish traders had gone bankrupt, owing many English traders thousands of pounds. The Sultan persuaded the other Jewish dealers that it would be best if they settled the debt as a group to facilitate further trade. Finally, al-Malik presented Williams with 13 tons of saltpetre, without any mention of weapons in return. Williams wrote to Elizabeth that the Sultan had told him that “I make more account of you coming from the Queen of England than from any of Spain.” He added that the Sultan believed that “Philip cannot rule his own country, but is ruled by the Pope and the Inquisition.”

Williams discovered that the Sultan was extremely well read concerning other religions and had more respect for Protestants then Catholics, whom he saw as idolaters. He wrote to the Queen that the Sultan had offered unrestricted passage for his ships along the north coast of Africa to the Ottoman Empire for the purpose of trade. In late July Williams returned to England with a request to exchange ambassadors to formalise their agreements.

The Portuguese ambassador to Elizabeth was furious at the reception that Williams had received at the court of the Sultan and said that the whole of London was talking about new trading deals about to be granted to England. The Queen had been issuing stern letters condemning arms trades with the Muslim countries, whilst secretly giving her ambassador carte blanch for their sale. She was forced to write to al-Malik to preserve secrecy in their dealings. Even though there are no records of Williams taking arms to Morocco, it is extremely unlikely that the two other ships that sailed with him went with empty holds.

At the other end of the Mediterranean, the Ottomans had not only rebuilt their fleet, but enlarged it. They rolled back their losses by taking back Tunis a year after it had fallen into Christian hands. Worse was to follow. When Selim II, the Ottoman Sultan, died suddenly by supposedly falling in the bath, his son, Murad III succeeded him, and promptly had all five of his younger brothers strangled to avoid any later confusion over succession.

The strangest outcome of Murad taking the throne was due to his belief that Protestantism was more akin to Islam than Catholicism. He wrote a letter of praise to the Lutherans in Flanders and Spain saying that they do not worship idols or pictures that they have made with their own hands, but recognise the one God, with Jesus as his prophet.

Like al-Malik, Murad was well read and well informed, and whilst Hogan thought Malik was ‘nearly’ Protestant in his beliefs, he thought Murad believed the English ‘nearly’ Muslim in theirs. No doubt an alliance with England against the hostile Catholic block of Europe that threatened his empire was uppermost in Murad’s mind, but it was an opportunity that English traders could not miss. However, it soon became clear that Murad danced to his own tune, and not England’s.

In 1577 the Sultan’s attention turned to Persia, where the death of Shah Tahmasp had created instability, leaving the troublesome Shi’a dynasty at war with itself. Sensing an opportunity, Murad declared war and invaded. The effect on the Muscovy Trading Company was disastrous; their trade route to Asia was immediately closed by war. In England, Walsingham decided that the obvious answer was to embrace the powerful Ottoman Empire and its sympathetic-to-England leader, and supply him with the arms and clothing which his army needed; commodities which the English could supply in abundance.

Two years earlier, in 1575, Edward Osborne and Richard Staper, two of London’s biggest cloth traders and members of the Clothworkers’ Company, had come to the same conclusion as Walsingham. They already had extensive business interests in Spain, Portugal, Brazil and the low-countries, and now they were intent on opening up a trade route to Turkey through Poland. They sent John Wright and Joseph Clemens overland to Constantinople to negotiate free passage for William Harborne, an agent for the now, Sir Edward Osborne.

He stayed for eighteen months discussing terms, and while Clemens was in Constantinople talking with the agents of the Sultan, Thomas Cordell of the Mercer’s Company of London arrived by sea with a licence to trade Tin, Lead and Steel with Tripoli, Alexandria and Constantinople. His licence to trade was probably obtained from the French, and passed down from earlier trade deals.

English traders, diplomats and artisans were now plying their trade throughout the Islamic world from Marrakesh and Constantinople to Quazvin in Persia, but one king’s naivety and another’s bitterness were going to boil over into a war which would set back the Elizabethan expansion into Muslim lands. When al-Malik deposed Sultan Abdallah Muhammad, the Sultan fled to Portuguese-occupied Ceuta, where he stayed in exile seething with anger. Finally, he penned a letter the young King Sebastian of Portugal, offering to rule Morocco as a vassal state to Portugal if he helped him invade and take back power. Against all advice, Sebastian said yes and began to recruit an army. The pious king was desperate to prove his worth by fighting a glorious crusade against the Moor. His zeal blinded him to the fact that his tiny country would be attacking a foe that was backed by the mighty Ottoman Empire and that nobody else in Christendom was even going to consider helping him.

King Sebastian of Portugal

In the spring of 1578 he had begun to assemble a motley army of sixteen thousand mercenaries, renegades and adventurers, who were soon outnumbered by the staggering number of non-combatants and hangers-on that fed off the army. He sailed in July and the two armies met at El-Kasar-el-Kabir, where sixty thousand experienced Berbers, Turks, Arabs and Moriscos, thirty thousand of whom were cavalry and three thousand armed with wheel-lock arquebuses, which were probably loaded with English supplied shot. Outnumbered four to one, Sebastian’s advisors wisely suggested that they head for the coast and re-embark their ships. Sebastian dismissed them all, claiming that he had the element of surprise, and that an attack the next day would send al-Malik’s army running.  Fighting like a demon, he killed so many of the enemy that his men were inspired to follow him. He was last seen alive charging into the lines of Moors, his sword bringing death to all in his path; thus died the last undisputed King of The House of Avis that had ruled Portugal since 1385. The six hour battle ended with the total annihilation of Sebastian’s army. Only two hundred escaped, and the rest, including all the camp followers, were taken as slaves. Though Sebastian’s body was brought home, many believed that he had never died. Even today there is a yearning for what might have been and what might still be; called saudosismo, like the English legend of Arthur.

With Portugal leaderless, she became an easy conquest for Spain. In August 1580, Philip invaded and took control of all Portuguese trade routes and New World possessions. He now ruled all the Americas, the low countries and Iberia. With the pope’s backing, this made him leader of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, and he turned his baleful gaze on a small country led by a frail Queen, who was defying his church and his power.

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Like 1


Matt said:
09 May 2020 @ 10:10

Well done, very interesting and great article!

tess said:
09 May 2020 @ 11:07

Another superb post, Thankyou Marinero.

w Nicol said:
09 May 2020 @ 12:05

'Fearing Scottish Catholic insurrection, Henry VIII had moved power from the nobles in the north'
How could Scots rebel against a monarch not their own?
Otherwise, a very interesting article.

animate said:
10 May 2020 @ 12:59

Thnk you Matt. I am glad that you enjoyed it.

animate said:
10 May 2020 @ 13:01

Thank you, Tess. Much appreciated comment.

animate said:
10 May 2020 @ 13:21

Thank you Nicol. Well spotted. I should have said that she feared an insurrection from her northern Catholic nobles, who might have aligned themselves with Mary to depose Elizabeth. In the end, Mary had to flee Scotland to England and beg sanctuary from Elizabeth, who kept her confined and watched.
Thank's for keeping me on my toes!

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