Broadening the Scope: The Expansion of Imperial Aims from the Tudors to the Stuarts

The accession of James VI of Scotland as King James I of England after Elizabeth’s death marked a significant shift in the three kingdoms. Elizabeth’s choice of remaining without an heir meant with her death came the end of the Tudor dynasty and the foreign policy they employed for decades. With the Tudors, their intention of consolidating power over Scotland and Ireland meant their foreign endeavors ended at the isles themselves. With James’ acquisition of the English throne, he became, in theory, a figure head for unity and a symbol for hope that England, Scotland, and Ireland could unite and transform into “Britain.” With this transformation, “Britain” could turn its sights outward and adopt a new, more aggressive, foreign policy. James would later prove, however, that his plans differed.

After the death of Queen Mary, Elizabeth acceded to the throne as Queen of England and Ireland which caused a huge disturbance as she was a devout Protestant. The Catholic kingdoms of Europe were a huge threat forcing Elizabeth into adopting a defensive strategy. Thus, in the eyes of her advisor William Cecil, Scotland and Ireland had to be securely under English control and a domestic empire within the isles created. Cecil was a novel man of his time for he understood the geographical unity of the isles and learned that many of England’s weaknesses were in its borders.[1] Namely Scotland, their neighbor to the north and a constant obstacle to Elizabeth’s empire. Thus he set his sights on unity and adopted a strategy that encompassed both nations.[2] The opportunity arose when Mary, Queen of Scots, became queen of France thus putting Scotland under French control. This shift led to a group of Protestant Scottish lords who rebelled wanting the ruler of Scotland to remain Scottish.[3] Naturally, Cecil wanted to appeal to these lords in order to have Scotland under Elizabeth’s control. He had learned from the Rough Wooing, Henry VIII’s failed attempt at Scottish control via an invasion which proved incorporation using force was not an option.[4] His lessons culminated in the Treaty of Berwick creating the alliance between Scotland and England with the latter being more of a partner of the former as opposed to a ruler. With the borders secured, Elizabeth could look forward to her dream, a trans-Atlantic trade route to the New World. Her ambitions were buffered with the strength of her navy and the endeavors of explorers like Drake and Raleigh, the latter of whom had already attempted establishing colonies in the New World. In Elizabeth’s eyes, an overseas empire seemed well in the making. The only thing that stood in her way was the Armada War which began in 1585.

The war would not be resolved until the accession of James VI and I. James was a much more physically active ruler in that he enjoyed activities such as hunting when compared to Elizabeth who rarely left London. As a result of his frequent absence from the capital due to his hobbies, it was up to Robert Cecil, William’s son, to handle foreign diplomacy and to prove himself as an administrator.[5] During his time as secretary, he was able to secure peace with Spain, finally ending the Armada War. Cecil supposedly stood out prominently, as he consistently outshined the other ambassadors minus one Henry Howard.[6] The peace with Spain also allowed England greater access to trade in the Mediterranean and eased, at least to a small degree, the tensions between the island nation and Europe. For this reason, the foreign policies of James and Elizabeth differed. Elizabeth’s reign was constantly in jeopardy from foreign powers. With her limited resources, she was unable to spread English influence beyond the British Isles. James VI and I had the opportunity to look outside of Europe though rarely did so. He preferred to keep out of European affairs though he was forced to intervene when religious tensions in Europe reached a fervor.

A lynchpin in both monarch’s reigns was their relationship with the rest of Europe, namely Spain and France. For Elizabeth, the constant threat of invasion by these countries through Ireland and Scotland meant securing these two kingdoms was her initiative. As James VI and I took the throne, these obstacles had somewhat been surpassed by the Union of the Crowns in 1603. He already had experience in foreign relations as the king of Scotland when he succeeded in forging an economic alliance with Spain and France leading to his nickname of pacificus rex, a king of peace.[7] Robert Cecil, having just seen to the end of one of the longest conflicts ever recorded in European history, was eager to make good terms with Spain and create an Anglo-Spanish alliance.[8] His hopes were crushed when James’ son-in-law led an uprising in Bohemia that left relations between England and Europe strained. James wished to avoid a conflict despite the jingoistic attitudes of his Privy Council who saw the conflict as an opportunity to spread English influence in Europe once again. He tried reasoning with the Habsburgs in a letter stating that if his son did not accept peace, James would disown him.[9] His dedication to keeping the peace and maintaining his identity as a pacificus rex would limit England’s imperial hopes.

Despite having all three kingdoms under one crown, James VI and I was not a man with imperial endeavors. While Elizabeth’s thoughts on empire ended within the isles, James’ sights never went beyond continental Europe. He was more interested in relations with foreign European powers and establishing good relations with them, a carryover from his days as the king of Scotland. Ironically, the spirit but not the means were in Elizabeth while the opposite applied to James.

-Sean Park


[1] Jane Dawson, “William Cecil and the British Dimension of early Elizabethan foreign policy,” History Vol. 74, (1989): 197.

[2] Ibid., 198

[3] Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005), 175.

[4] Jane Dawson, “William Cecil and the British Dimension of early Elizabethan foreign policy,” History Vol. 74, (1989): 206.

[5] “Cecil, Robert, first earl of Salisbury (1563–1612),” Pauline Croft in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, October 2008, (accessed October 27, 2015).

[6] Ibid.

[7]“James VI and I (1566–1625),” Jenny Wormald inOxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, September 2014, (accessed October 27, 2015).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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