England’s relationship with continental Europe is at a crossroads. For essentially political rather than commercial reasons, England stands at the brink of a potentially catastrophic exit from its major European market. Long-time alliances are strained; England can count on few friends across the Channel. But some statesmen and merchants are able to see the opportunities that lie within this peril. As one door closes, others open: England breaks free of its old European dependencies and embraces the world. A glorious future is assured.
This is England not in 2017, but 1564. The market in question is the Flemish city of Antwerp, northern Europe’s commercial capital and the major destination for England’s major export, woollen cloth. The context is growing tension between Elizabeth I’s England and the Habsburg empire of Philip II of Spain, which encompasses Flanders and the Low Countries.
The import of English cloth has recently been prohibited on the pretext that it will carry the plague that then rages in England, but clearly the real aim is to exploit English dependence on Antwerp. Fortunately, English cloth is prized throughout Europe. A new market is found in the city of Emden, East Friesland; the Habsburg designs are thwarted. But for some merchants, what began as a short term necessity becomes the basis of a new commercial vision.
When an outbreak of religious rebellion in the Low Countries destabilises Antwerp, the way forwards is clear. A new cloth staple is found in the imperial free city of Hamburg, but why stop there? When it comes to sourcing the goods previously imported via Antwerp, English merchants travel to the Islamic Levant, and then the far east, the centre of the world economy, whose wealth would soon be accessed by the East India Company (chartered by Elizabeth in 1600).
Other possible markets lie in the Atlantic Ocean, though here the English are forced to overcome Habsburg claims to monopoly, laying the foundations for their own new world empire in the process. In this state of diplomatic and commercial isolation England finds herself: modern England, bold, enterprising, patriotic and freedom-loving.
This is a rousing vision to comfort the hearts of any Brexiteer today. And certainly, looking back at these years from the nineteenth-century heyday of British imperialism and global commercial leadership, the Elizabethan age could appear as the turning point towards greatness. But in fact the road to riches had been much rockier than the triumphalist account sketched out above would suggest.
In recent accounts Elizabeth I appears as a conservative figure, reluctant to throw her weight behind efforts to found an English empire, something which would eventually develop in a haphazard manner, characterised by many embarrassing failures. And any expectation that English merchants would be able to walk into new markets eager to welcome them and their goods were continually confounded.
One Elizabethan commercial diplomat, Anthony Jenkinson, travelled halfway across the Eurasian landmass to the court of the Persian Emperor, only to be scornfully dismissed with the question ‘of what country of Franks’ he was from: the name of the English Queen counted for little in this world.
Nor were English goods much in demand in the highly developed economies of the far east, least of all heavy broadcloth, which in the seventeenth century began to fall out of fashion in European markets. In Asia, English merchants found themselves latecomers playing catch-up to the Portuguese and the Dutch. Many Antwerp merchants had relocated to northern ports like Amsterdam, commercial capital of the newly independent United Provinces of the Netherlands, the rising middleman of European trade as well as commerce between Europe and the wider world.
By the mid-seventeenth century, England appeared to have exchanged its old dependence on Antwerp for a new reliance on Dutch shipping. In 1650, following the execution of Charles I, the English Commonwealth made a clumsy attempt to establish union with its fellow Protestant republic. When the Dutch failed to respond to this offer with the anticipated gratitude, the Commonwealth responded with a punitive act aimed at Dutch shipping (the Navigation Act), and then with war, the first of three fought between the two Protestant powers.
By the last, with England siding with Catholic France, the argument that war was for the benefit of the nation as opposed to the narrow interests of the Stuart dynasty rang increasingly hollow. Ultimately, the role England would play in the power-struggles of the great European rivals, France and the Netherlands, was decided by an invasion from the continent.
William of Orange, Stadtholder of the Netherlands, claimed the English throne along with his wife Mary, daughter of the incumbent James II, bringing England into William’s continental alliance against Louis XIV’s France. Britishness itself would increasingly become defined by a series of wars fought, initially at least, to protect the Netherlands from French expansionism.
By the eighteenth century, Britain was starting to replace the Dutch as Europe’s leading commercial nation. But there was no linear path from the Tudor exit from Antwerp to this position of global leadership, and clearly this had not entailed any straightforward exit from Europe, as the Glorious Revolution demonstrated.
Ultimately, if anything saved England’s commercial economy from decline in the long run, it was colonial products – tobacco, sugar and cotton – produced by African slaves in lands expropriated from the indigenous inhabitants of the new world. For this reason alone, the path which English commerce followed in the early modern period cannot provide a blueprint for the British economy in the post-Brexit years. If 1564 supplies some parallels to 2017, then the subsequent two centuries of commercial history are a poor guide for our own future.
Tom Leng is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sheffield, and is currently working on the merchant company who monopolised the English cloth trade, the Merchant Adventurers, in the years after their exit from Antwerp.
Author’s notes for further reading:
The best studies of Tudor England’s exit from Antwerp are two volumes by G.D. Ramsay, The City of London in international politics at the accession of Elizabeth Tudor (Manchester UP, 1975), and The Queen’s merchants and the revolt of the Netherlands (Manchester UP, 1986). The global pursuits of Elizabethan merchants and statesmen, including Anthony Jenkinson, have recently been the subject of Jerry Brotton, This Orient Isle. Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (Penguin, 2016), and Stephen Alford, London’s Triumph: Merchant Adventurers and the Tudor City (Allen Lane, 2017), but still worthwhile is Kenneth R Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement. Maritime Enterprise and the genesis of the British Empire (Cambridge UP, 1984). For England’s subsequent economic relationship with the Dutch, see David Ormrod, The Rise of Commercial Empires: England and the Netherlands in the Age of Mercantilism, 1650-1770 (Cambridge UP, 2003), and for Anglo-Dutch wars, see Steven Pincus, Protestantism and Patriotism. Ideologies and the Making of English Foreign Policy, 1650-1668 (Cambridge UP, 1996). A classic Victorian fantasy of Elizabethan empire is J.A. Froude’s ‘England’s forgotten worthies’, published in the Westminster Review in July 1852, the inspiration for John Everett Millais’ 1871 painting ‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’.
Image: ‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’ painting by John Everett Millais, 1871 [Via Wikicommons].