Monday, November 15, 2010

A couple of book reviews

This is a short review of Susan Ronald’s The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire, and John Nolan’s Sir John Norrys and the Elizabethan Military World. Since I have never mastered the ability to write anything short, I will throw in some additional observations.

The Pirate Queen is a generally enjoyable and accessible discussion of Elizabeth I and her pet “sea dogs”- Drake, Frobisher, Raleigh, and the like.

I found the most interesting part of the book to be the first few chapters, which present an incisive examination of the relationship between the queen and her adventurers.

Most of Elizabeth’s adventurers were younger sons or the peerage or gentry, men raised with expectations of a certain quality of life, but who would not ordinarily inherit the familial wealth to maintain it. They had to earn it, as in past centuries their ancestors had done by going off on Crusade, plundering foreign lands as mercenaries, or attempting to carve holdings out of the Irish chaos. Is for this reason that Elizabeth’s adventurers generally “were not the stuff of ordinary merchant stock… who thirsted for knowledge, had tremendous egos, were desperate to make their fortunes, had an acute business sense, and possessed more than a fair portion of intelligence and cunning.” (17)

As Ronald puts it:

“If a lucky adventurer had a cunning plan to find treasure that mitigated the risk to the crown, then royal patronage would not be far behind. However, before the queen would commit herself or her ships to dangerous and costly overseas expeditions, she demanded that her men put their own personal fortunes alongside hers at the realm’s disposal for most voyages seeking treasure.” (22)

Elizabeth managed, in a sense, to privatize her naval war against Spain by combining the twin incentives of plunder and royal favor. Royal favor could bring opportunities for plunder—command of a ship, army, or fleet, a government sinecure, or a position in Ireland-- and plunder itself could buy royal favor. After all, the Crown got a cut of every expedition’s profits, and the bigger the booty, the bigger her cut.

There was thus a very fine line between public service and private ambition, since the one could be the means to satisfying the other. This was by no means limited to the adventurers—even members of what passed for the regular civil service indulged in wanton corruption and considered it a prerequisite of the job. Competition for such gleanings of office was fierce, and spawned countless bitter rivalries that spilled over into national policy based on who was more popular at court at a given time—for example, stripping troops from Sir John Norreys’ army in Brittany and sending them to the Earl of Essex’s in Normandy (see below).

The remainder of the book consists primarily of potted histories of the various sea dogs’ adventures, ranging from bloody raids on all things Spanish to the more epic achievements—Drake’s three-year circumnavigation of the globe, Raleigh’s failed colonies at Roanoke, the Armada, and the like. Although most of them are interesting, particularly the less commonly-known ventures such as the “English Armada” of 1589, the sequential recounting of these leaves something to be desired, as after the fourth or fifth voyage to the Caribbean to plunder galleons, the narrative becomes rather repetitive.

For those with a view of early modern history that extends beyond PBS reruns, Elizabeth is not an easy monarch to like. Even by the admittedly low and Machiavellian standards of her time she was inconstant, capricious, paranoid, easily taken in by her favorites such as the Earl of Essex, vindictive, displayed an exasperating unwillingness to commit to anything that had the slightest risk to it, and had a favorite sport in bear-baiting. Her preferred method of raising money was to bypass Parliament whenever possible, by handing out land grants or monopolies on trade in certain goods to her favorites.

In short, she probably had more personality traits in common with her correspondent Ivan the Terrible of Muscovy than any of her other contemporaries. Granted, one can hardly blame her, given whose daughter she was (Henry VIII) and what her early life was like, with religious wars, interregnums, foreign intrigue, and the like. Miranda Richardson’s comically vicious portrayal of the monarch in a series of Blackadder is probably much closer to the mark than most people realize.

Ronald’s book does, however, help illustrate England’s position in the grand scheme of things. For all that Britannia ruled the waves (and much of the land bobbing amidst those waves) in later centuries, during the later 16th Century and most of the early 17th Century, the cluster of small kingdoms set on a clutch of islands in the North Atlantic comprised second or third-rate powers at best. Christendom as a whole was in turmoil, with religious wars wracking France and Germany, the Turk literally battering at the gates of Vienna, and the Catholic powers were lashing out on all sides. Great Britain was not an important theater, the egos of the English-speaking world notwithstanding. Even the Spanish Armada of 1588, probably one of the two defining events of the century for England and the English (the other being Henry VIII’s break with Rome) is generally misinterpreted. The purpose of the Enterprise against England was principally to stop the English from meddling in the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and her rebellious Dutch and Belgian subjects. By the time of the Armada battles in 1588, Elizabeth had been openly supplying troops to the Dutch for three years, and had been sending money for decades (Sir John Norreys had led an expedition of ‘volunteers’ to the Netherlands in 1577), and then had the effrontery to be upset when the Spanish launched an attack on her!

Now remember, the modern distinction between public and private business was still in its infancy in Elizabeth’s day. Her reign sat at the beginning of one of the great eras of disingenuousness in international politics, which lasted until the modern monarchical state was cemented into place during the early Enlightenment. Rulers could claim—sometimes even truthfully—that they couldn’t control their subjects, since the machinery of control was so primitive. It was entirely in keeping with the spirit of the times for Elizabeth to turn her sea dogs loose on Spain’s lands and commerce, in exchange for a cut of the take, while heatedly denying to Philip II’s ambassadors that she had any part of the business. It’s entirely possible she did the same thing in her famous ‘Golden Speech’ of 1601, in which she professed she had no idea how badly her favorites were abusing the commercial monopolies she had granted them.

Other rulers did the same thing—allowing border populations or ambitious ‘private citizens’ to wage a private or proxy war on a kingdom’s behalf, without the kingdom itself becoming involved. The Ottoman dynasty allowed its frontier freebooters free rein, and so on. A century’s worth of English and Scottish monarchs let the Border Reivers raid, kill, and burn at will—the West Riding of Yorkshire, site of so many Bronte novels, was formerly a thinly-populated wasteland in which every house was of necessity a fortress. Charles II let the English buccaneers of the Caribbean do whatever they wanted, so long as he wasn’t actually allied to Spain at the time. The Cossacks of the Ukraine, in their century long barroom brawl across the steppe, fought first for the Poles against the Russians, and later vice versa, and warred the whole time against the Ottomans and the Crimean Tatars (or put another way, the Cossacks sat in the middle and fought all their neighbors in turn),

It may sound laughable to modern ears to hear of a monarch protesting that he can’t control his own subjects, but this is largely because people today expect governments to be able to control people. The machinery of social control was very primitive in the Sixteenth Century—with a government numbering at most a thousand clerks, justices of the peace, courtiers, and so on, the best that Henry VII and Henry VIII had been able to do to keep public order was to forbid the nobility from keeping private armies, and that mostly by threatening them with charges of treason and the prospect of the royal army coming down on their heads. Likewise, much of what made the Spanish Inquisition seem so horrible to contemporary eyes was how unprecedented it was—it may not seem like much compared to the legal machinery of the 21st century, but for its time it was a terrifying panopticon.

Sir John Norreys and the Elizabethan Military World will be of less interest to the general reader, and will probably appeal more towards the historian (professional or amateur) or the military hobbyist, as it is one of the very few biographies of the Elizabethan fighting man. It is a fairly straightforward biography of one of Queen Elizabeth’s relatively small coterie of what might be termed professional soldiers, and one of the even smaller number of successful and competent ones.

Sir John Norreys was born in 1547 at Yattendon Castle in Berkshire, the son of gentry who were staunch partisans of Queen Elizabeth. His family’s connection to the Tudors was occasionally a little awkward, as his grandfather had been Anne Boleyn’s friend and possible lover, and had been executed for it.

Nolan’s account then follows Norreys’ life and career in a chronological sequence. Much of the narrative focuses on administrative matters—cities taken, raids made, skirmishes with the Spanish, Irish, or Catholic French. Nolan discusses Norreys’ problems with money, food, and logistics in such detail that these constant complaints become rather tiresome, but their discussion is important because they were a major feature of Norreys’ career.

The book opens like a novel, with the young John and his brother Henry as sideline observers of the 1567 Battle of St. Denis, a particularly bitter clash in the French Wars of Religion. Norreys then spent some months fighting as a gentleman volunteer in the Huguenot army, before seeking out opportunities in Ireland under his father’s command. In this capacity he was responsible for the notorious Rathlin Island massacre of 1575.

This abrupt change in styles of warfare—cavalry actions in France in 1571, brutal hack—and-stab raids in Ireland in 1573, siege warfare in the Low Countries in 1577, back to Ireland in 1584, the Low Countries again in 1585—were a good general introduction to extremely diverse styles of warfare, and probably a much broader education than most of his continental contemporaries got (aside from those who had fought the Turks).

Save for being a soldier rather than a sailor, Norreys is by background or lifestyle not out of place in the company of Drake, Frobisher, and the other Elizabethan adventurers as a combination swashbuckler and venture capitalist. “Black John” Norreys had a lifelong reputation as a hard man; both his superiors and his subordinates considered him to be stubborn, opinionated, and arrogant, and he was certainly prone to allowing or encouraging atrocities. Very unusually for men of his age and social station, Norreys never married. He was conspicuously religious, and was apparently a strict Protestant with, in Nolan’s evaluation, possible Calvinist leanings acquired during his time spent with the Huguenots and Dutch.

One of the more interesting aspects of Norreys’ career, to which Nolan devotes some well-deserved attention, is the Norreys family’s ‘affinity,’ or a loose association of family members, feudal retainers, employees, and other trusted comrades who worked together in various arenas over a period of decades. Norreys would use many of the same officers and petty-captains (the contemporary equivalent of the non-commissioned officer) in most of his campaigns, also endeavoring to keep a core of veteran common soldiers available. In some circumstances, such as the early 1590s, Norreys was desperate for the Queen to restore him to favor and give him a job so that he could keep his affinity together. Without the Exchequer footing the bill, Norreys’ affinity would have disintegrated as his followers and comrades had to move on to greener fields in order to keep body and soul and estate together.

The most important difference is that while the sea dogs represented Elizabeth’s successes, Norreys’ career is often a list of her failures. Norreys was perpetually starved of resources, harassed and micromanaged by the government in London, accused of peculation and embezzlement, and generally prevented from doing anything worthwhile on the Continent because the Crown so dreaded the possibility of defeat that it dared not take a chance on victory. After his successful assault on a fortress at Arnhem and the Battle of Aarschot in 1585 earned him a thinly-veiled rebuke from the Queen for taking what the Queen saw as too much of a gamble. Within months after this victory, however, Norreys’ little army of raw recruits had virtually disintegrated due to lack of food, pay, and the like.

Norreys was also the chap saddled with the miserable task of preparing a land defense against the Spanish Armada. This was Norreys’ apogee, as he was given command of the largest land army England had assembled since the 1540s, and the largest before the outbreak of the Civil War. Ultimately it was all for naught, as the Armada was defeated at sea, without any Spanish forces landing in England

For all the national trauma the 1588 invasion scare had brought, Elizabeth’s government was quick to revert to its old miserly and vacillating ways. While on campaign in Brittany, which was to prove a pointless exercise, Norreys and his men went for long periods without receiving food, pay, or even ammunition, and had to resort to living off the land like their ancestors did during the Hundred Years’ War. At the same time, Lord Burghley’s government and the Queen herself spared no effort in sending a tide of nagging ‘suggestions’ to Norreys.

In the years after the Armada crisis, this miserly and crippling attitude towards the Queen’s wars was exacerbated by Lord Burghley, who succeeded Norreys’ erstwhile patron Lord Walsingham as the Queen’s Principal Secretary in 1590. Largely as a result of the shocking expense incurred by the Armada crisis, Burghley rather foolishly attempted to run the war against Spain on a strictly limited budget. The result was that if the bills came to more than Burghley wanted to spend, he simply let them go into arrears, sometimes for years and sometimes ad infinitum. Several once-promising campaigns in Brittany, the Low Countries, and Normandy thus quickly ground to a halt for lack of money and supplies, and Norreys’ older brother Henry was warned during Henry’s defense of Ostend, that excessive spending on fortifications would come out of his paycheck.

Between the two of them, these books give the reader a decent inside look into the Elizabethan world, government, and military. I’m going to go watch The Young Ones now.

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