I’d been thinking a lot about British history this spring; in the Bard grand strategy course, we moved from Machiavelli’s prescriptions for Italy to Elizabeth I, Philip II, and the struggle for England. The text we used was Garrett Mattingly’s delightful The Armada, a triumph of scholarship, strategic analysis and literature all at once.
Even today, when historical knowledge once thought central to an understanding of American society and politics has been largely forgotten, many students still have a vague knowledge that there was once something called the Armada, and that it failed. But the details and the drama of that history have been lost along with much else; one of Garrett Mattingly’s many successes is that he makes that history come alive.
More than that, he recreates the complicated political and strategic environment in which Philip and Elizabeth operated. The complicated story of the three-cornered civil war in France between the fanatically pro-Catholic (and Spanish-supported) Holy League, the weak but crafty Henri III, and the Huguenot armies under Henri King of Navarre (for whom, famously, Paris was well worth a mass) is made clear. The murky struggle between the Protestant Dutch rebels and the redoubtable Duke of Parma is explained, along with Elizabeth’s grudging and half-hearted support for the rebel cause.
Something of the complex calculations of Philip II, ruler of the greatest empire in world history up to that date, as well as the power of the faith that drove him is explained as well. And Mattingly gives an extraordinarily vivid picture of Elizabeth and her realm as he illuminates the twists and turns of her policy.
What he also does, and rather brilliantly, is to show how all the might of England rests on the achievements of a canny and resourceful woman whose greatest asset was her grasp of the powers of the weak.
A grand strategy course concentrates mostly on strength: how to acquire it, how to defend it, how to use it. Elizabeth I was never a strong monarch in the classic sense. Her government was always underfunded, and she had to coax any additional revenue from a stingy Parliament. Her realm was religiously divided; the North remained largely Catholic, and English Protestants were increasingly divided between moderate and radical factions.
Mattingly makes the case that Elizabeth’s irresolution and dithering reflected her strategic genius, not her character flaws or her ‘unworthy’ gender.
Elizabeth’s story illustrates that there is more than one way to succeed. The weak have resources denied to the strong. The party on defense, a Clausewitzian would say, may be weaker in some respects — but the defense is inherently stronger than offense in war and a clever and resourceful defender may well prevail over a stronger opponent. Elizabeth understood this perfectly and her resourceful weakness laid the foundations of Britain’s eventual strength.