The Elizabethans And America


With this account of the Great Queen and her captains and their struggle to master a great prize—the New World—we commence a series of articles specially prepared for AMERICAN HERITAGE by A. L. Rowse, Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and author of many distinguished books, among them The England of Elizabeth. The series is based on Dr. Rowse’s recent George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures, given at Cambridge University and named for the dean of British historians. The second article, on Virginia, will appear in June.

The discovery of the New World, it has been said, is much the greatest event in the history of the Old. Certainly as that discovery went further and gathered momentum it marked a vast difference, after all, between the modern world and the Middle Ages—which, in contemplation, have a certain static, enclosed quality in contrast with the ceaseless dynamism, the expansiveness characteristic of our world. In this connotation—it is the heart of the subject—the discovery of America ultimately made the fortune of Great Britain and transformed its situation in the world. In Trevelyan’s words, here was a very taut, efficient little society within an island lying athwart the main seaways from America to northwestern Europe, a situation from which the country profited more and more. As America prospered and became more important, so did England.

We live in the midst of another profound transformation. In the dangers of our time, the separateness of English history may be thought of as merging in the general history of the English-speaking peoples, who are drawn closer together by them. But already twice in our lifetime Great Britain’s existence has been assured by its preponderant partner, the United States.

We owe this factor of our safety, the very condition of our lives, to the ambition and foresight, the enterprise and persistence, of our common ancestors, the Elizabethans. Their struggle to establish an English foothold on the other side of the Atlantic, their part in extending our language and institutions across the seas, the essential first steps that have led to an English world community—history can hardly offer a more significant theme.

But our ancestors arrived on the scene rather belatedly: the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the French, were all there before us. It is a striking thought that more than a century elapsed between the time when the Spaniards made their first permanent settlement in America in 1493 and the English made theirs at Jamestown in 1607. The Elizabethan effort, which did not really get going until the second half of the Queen’s reign, is all the more impressive: it shows what can be done by a small people, in the right circumstances, with a will.

They had, under the early Tudors, with the backing mainly of the Bristol merchants and the inspiration of the Cabots, John and his son Sebastian, made various sporadic, inadequate, baffled efforts into and across the Atlantic. We may well think that Henry VIII would have done better to put some of the energy that went into matrimonial, into geographic, enterprises. However, he did create an English navy, the prime condition of later maritime achievement, and he did procreate Elizabeth; he could not have done much better.

The Cabot voyages were more important for their consequences than for what they achieved. The significance of John Cabot’s crossing of 1497 was that he was the first to discover the mainland of America, while Columbus and the Spaniards were still occupied with the West Indies. Since the Spaniards based their claim to monopoly of the New World upon the right of prior discovery, the Elizabethans rejoined that Cabot had got to the mainland first. The one argument was as good as the other, and it becomes a cornerstone in the Elizabethans' fabric of resistance to Spain’s claim to monopoly, in the English demand for an open door to the territory not previously occupied by other European powers.

It is fairly certain that we should have taken this line and refused to recognize the division of the outside world between Spain and Portugal, confirmed by the Spanish Pope Alexander VI, and agreed between Spain and Portugal by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). Where would Great Britain have been if we had accepted a Spanish prohibition on English voyages in their sphere, or even if we had not fought it unitedly, undeviatingly throughout the Elizabethan Age? It was unthinkable that England should sit down under this sentence of exclusion: the whole future of the country and of its place in the world was at stake. But on the Spanish side, that was the settled determination—to keep everybody else out. Here was one of the two main causes of the long struggle the Elizabethans had with Spain.

What would have happened if we had not conducted the struggle unitedly, consistently, with Elizabeth’s firm grasp of power, we may observe from the case of France. The French were active in America, North, Central, and South, long before we were, and more aggressively. The French kings, however, lacked the will of Portugal and Spain for overseas expansion: they remained faithful to the traditional Mediterranean policy turned toward the Levant, uninterested in northwestern expeditions. The merchants and seamen of the Norman and Breton ports were left to their own devices.