My original objective in writing my new book Elizabeth I’s Final Years (published by Pen and Sword History in May 2022) was to provide a biography of Charles Blount who had proved himself as the most able general of the Elizabethan age despite being largely ignored in most studies of Tudor History. It was he who brought Spanish hopes of using Ireland as its launching pad for an invasion of England to an end.
Spanish aggression against England was triggered not just as a Counter Reformation to restore the Catholic faith, but to bring an end to English privateer attacks on Spanish treasure fleets and the use of English land forces in support of the Protestant Dutch in their determination to protect their sovereignty against Spain’s dominions in the Low Countries. The English were only too aware that if the Dutch should capitulate, England would be next on Spain’s agenda. While the Spanish Armada in 1588 had been triggered by the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, this was not in revenge for her death as is often assumed but to enable the Spanish to promote the Infanta Isabella as the Catholic pretender to the English throne in place of the Catholic Scottish queen with her Francophile connections. The defeat of the Armada did not bring an end to Spanish aggression. With its access to South American gold and East Indian spices, it was soon on the front foot again.
With warring clans in Ireland remaining determinedly Catholic, Tudor monarchs always foresaw Ireland as England’s Achilles heel. Successive English attempts to ingratiate themselves with Ireland’s belligerent chieftains, imbued with years of internecine strife, had achieved little. English offers of titles and military support for them against less co-operative rivals did little to settle differences. While the shortcomings of Scotland’s corrupt Catholic church had opened the door for the English to promote a Scottish Reformation which proved the turning point in breaking its Auld Alliance with France, the Irish Catholic Church, based as it was on monastic foundations, was not corrupt. It received vehement support from its populace despite English efforts to establish a Protestant Church of Ireland. Furthermore, attempts to infiltrate English colonists supported by military garrisons met fierce resistance from those who found themselves being dispossessed of their ancestral lands with their feudal authority diminished.
With the story of Charles Blount being so closely associated with the Anglo-Spanish wars, I chose to focus on the largely untold military history of the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign. I had already written Elizabeth I’s Secret Lover, my somewhat inappropriately titled biography of Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, encompassing both his rivalry with William Cecil and his role in command of the English troops in the Low Countries prior to the Armada. When he died in 1588, I was left with the story of the Anglo-Spanish Wars being unfinished. I thus decided to focus my book on completing this, so that it could be read both as a sequel to Elizabeth I’s Secret Lover and as a stand-alone history of the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign. With her later ‘favourites’ such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Robert, Devereux, Earl of Essex and Charles Blount all seeking to achieve political authority by establishing their military credentials, the remaining story of the Anglo-Spanish wars could be told through each of their perspectives.
Charles was the second son of the 6th Lord Mountjoy, whose family, despite their descent from Norman knights, had fallen on hard times. His father had dabbled unsuccessfully in alchemy and the death of his bachelor brother in 1594 was hastened by ‘debauchery’ which dissipated what was left of the family patrimony. Yet Charles was determined to rebuild his family’s name. He stood out as an exceptional horseman in the lists with the swagger of a soldier about him. His good looks made him eye catching to women, especially Elizabeth, who admired the way he determinedly studied the ‘pratique’ of war at a time when English military strategy (and equipment) had become outmoded. As a young man Charles had made a name for himself serving under Norreys and Leicester in the Low Countries but Elizabeth kept him at her beck and call to provide here with military advice and to prevent his involvement in support of French Huguenot interests against the Spanish in Brittany. With the Spanish having access to the Channel from their bases at Dunkirk and at Blavet in Brittany, Elizabeth appointed him as Governor of Portsmouth, England’s largest naval base, to improve its defences against a threatened Spanish attack.
Despite their rival claims to Elizabeth’s attention, Charles became Essex’s close friend, and it was Essex who seems to have introduced him to his sister Penelope who was married to the wealthy but lacklustre Robert, 3rd Lord Rich. By all accounts, Penelope was the most jaw-droppingly attractive and talented lady of her generation. She sang and danced angelically, spoke perfect French and several other languages fluently, and became the political lynch pin of the Essex faction. Despite having five children by Rich, she remained the unparalleled beauty of her day.
In all probability, a close relationship between Charles and Penelope did not begin until 1590 after the birth of Henry, the fifth of her children by Robert Rich. Although her next five children were all by Charles, she remained married to Rich, and, to avoid any scandal, the children took her husband’s name. Some confusion has arisen on when the relationship began. In Charles’s evidence at the divorce proceedings between Penelope and Rich initiated in 1605, Charles claimed to have entered into a precontract to marry her before her marriage to Rich in 1581. This has to have been a fabrication, in a vain attempt to gain acceptance for them to marry, by arguing that her enforced marriage to Rich had been bigamous (thereby making her children by Rich illegitimate). Yet we know that Charles only visited court for the first time in 1583 and as a second son did not live in Penelope’s exalted circle. Furthermore, there is no plausible evidence, despite Charles’s claims, that Rich treated Penelope unkindly. With rivalries between the Cecil and Essex camps becoming clearly drawn, Charles’s relationship with Penelope sided him with Essex who sought support from James VI in Scotland in return for backing his claim to be Elizabeth’s heir. They argued that Robert Cecil, who was attempting to negotiate a peace deal with the Spanish, opposed James’s accession, although this turned out not to be true.
With Cecil’s negotiations with Spain coming to nothing, it became clear that the Spanish would use Ireland with its ardently Catholic populace as its bridgehead for challenging the English. The English Government urgently needed to employ more military resources in Ireland to bring it to heel before any Spanish invasion manifested itself. The issue was in the choice of commander, a role which was likely to be a poisoned chalice. While Essex was seen as politically unbalanced, he had undoubted standing and charisma and had demonstrated his bravery both in the lists and on the battlefield. Though his earlier military exploits had failed to achieve all their objectives, he could argue that the Cecils had habitually left him short of the resources needed to meet them. With Robert Cecil anxious to keep Essex away from the Council table, he promoted his appointment with Elizabeth who agreed to him becoming Lord Lieutenant of Ireland with command of a large but inadequately trained force, which was soon to be decimated by sickness. There can be little doubt that Cecil expected Essex to fail and may have hoped that he would. With the Irish Earl of Tyrone receiving military equipment and training from Spain and with pockets of rebellion breaking out elsewhere, Essex’s force proved woefully inadequate and under-provisioned. In frustration he called a truce with Tyrone and returned to England without authority to hold a personal discussion of his predicament with Elizabeth. With Cecil drip-feeding Essex’s shortcomings to her, she arranged for him to be held under house arrest while these were investigated.
With Essex side-lined, it was Charles who was picked to take command in Ireland. Although Cecil would have preferred to avoid another member of the Essex faction, he accepted Elizabeth’s assessment that Charles was the right man for the job. Realising the critical urgency of the situation, Cecil gave Charles his full support. By the time Essex had been released from his house arrest and was able to plot his rebellion against Cecil’s government, Charles was safely in Ireland although he was implicated in earlier attempts to provide him with support. Although Essex had hoped for military backing from both James in Scotland and Charles in Ireland, Cecil had second guessed him and was in secret contact with James and had patched up a working relationship with Charles. Although Essex’s rebellion proved almost a non-event, Elizabeth was left with no option but to agree to his execution.
Charles proved a great tactician in Ireland, barricading Tyrone in the north to prevent him from linking up with the main Spanish invasion force which landed at Kinsale in the south. When Tyrone had no choice but to set out south to support the Spanish, who were critically short of provisions, Charles’s superior generalship put Tyrone’s numerically larger force to flight while containing the Spanish in Kinsale, from where they were granted terms to depart for Spain never to return. For Charles it was a brilliant achievement, perhaps more so even than the defeat of the Armada, and he eventually forced Tyrone into submission.
With James VI being the obvious and preferred successor to Elizabeth, Cecil’s spy network had kept him abreast of his correspondence with Essex. To protect his position, Cecil developed a secret correspondence with James, progressively ingratiating himself with the Scottish King, so that when Elizabeth died, his accession could be handled seamlessly. Although Charles returned to England to a hero’s welcome and was granted the Earldom of Devonshire by a grateful monarch, Cecil continued to bide his time to bring down the former members of the Essex faction. When Rich co-operated to provide Penelope with a divorce, this was in terms that prohibited her from remarrying. When Charles ignored them and remarried her six weeks later, Cecil alerted James. While Elizabeth might have condoned such a flouting of her laws, James pedantically refused and strongly condemned the couple, banning Penelope from court. By this time Charles, who had become a tobacco addict was suffering from terminal lung cancer and he died in 1606. This caused Penelope to suffer a miscarriage and she died a year later when she was buried in an unknown grave.
It is interesting to assess why Charles has not received greater recognition from historians. It should be recognised that all the propaganda of the era was managed by the Cecils. Those who threatened their supreme political standing and their cosy relationship with Elizabeth and later with James tended to be demeaned. They employed William Camden to write the official history of Elizabeth’s reign. Although Elizabeth never mentioned Penelope’s infidelity to Rich, Camden recorded: ‘The Lady Rich … having violated her husband’s bed was in the Queen’s heavy displeasure.’ This gave the story the spin that the Cecils wanted. William Cecil may have had good reason to avoid a second Catholic monarch after the perceived iniquities of Mary Tudor, but it has to be remembered that many of the atrocities committed during Elizabeth’s reign particularly against Catholics and against the Irish, were initiated by the Cecils and were every bit as bloodthirsty as those of Mary Tudor. It was William Cecil who gave Mary Queen of Scots a bad press. Those who challenged their supreme political authority have tended to come off worst with historians. It was the Cecils who saw to it that Elizabeth did not marry Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, feeding Elizabeth with just enough criticism of his political shortcomings to make him unacceptable as a Royal consort. It was not just Charles; Robert Cecil succeeded in bringing down all the surviving members of the Essex faction and those, like Raleigh, who saw through the shortcomings of his government.
Robert Stedall is the author of Elizabeth I’s Final Years: Her Favourites & Her Fighting Men, published by Pen & Sword.