Sunday, September 28, 2008

Question from Diane - Essex quote on the Spanish Infanta

When Essex rode through London trying to rouse the people against Elizabeth and her government he cried that they had been sold to the Spanish Infanta. I thought that might have been a hackneyed reference to Catherine of Aragon and the Catholic cause but it seems not. Does anyone know what he meant?


  1. Essex was referring to the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, the elder daughter of Philip II of Spain by Elisabeth de Valois. It may seem laughable that a Spanish infanta could be a contender for the English throne upon Elizabeth's death, but she had a reasonably good claim (by the standards of the time) through her paternal descent from John of Gaunt by his second wife, untained by bastardy (unlike the Tudors); their daughter Catherine married King Henry of Castile. Her father also had been King of England himself during Queen Mary's time, which to some minds might lend additional legitimacy to the claims of his children.

    Philip II was actively engaged in promoting the Infanta's cause (he also fielded her as a candidate for the French throne upon Henri III's death; her mother was Henri's eldest sister) and she may have commanded some support among English Catholics. However, I think Essex was just trying to stir up public hysteria, which was very anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish at the time, in an effort to solidify his own bid for power. In any case, he was already sold to King James of Scotland, the preferred candidate of the Protestants for the English succession, and Essex's patron abroad.

    If you're interested, you can see the precocious Isabella Clara Eugenia coveting her promised English throne in the movie "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," and her palpable disappointment when Daddy's Armada fails to bring it off. (This is how the screenwriters see it; I don't think there's any historical evidence about how she actually felt about prospectively being Queen of England. Excellent casting, though; the infanta looks just like her portraits.) There's also an interesting "alternative history" book, Britannia Ruled by Harry Turtledove, which posits a Britain where the Armada has conquered and Queen Isabella rules England with her consort Albert of Austria; Elizabeth is locked up in the Tower, Cecil is under house arrest, and the rest of the Privy Council has gallantly compounded with the enemy, so as to keep their property and pensions. Only young William Shakespeare and a few others are determined to free the rightful Queen and expel the foreigners ...

  2. Just to clarify, Essex was stating that the government (i.e., those against him) were in the pay of Spain and planned to bring in the Spanish infanta as Queen after Elizabeth's death. In this scenario, he becomes the Queen's loyal and Protestant servant, rather than a malcontent nobleman, massively in debt and in disfavor with Elizabeth, trying to mount a coup.

    Perhaps a reasonable modern analogy might be with the United States in 1950, when Senator Joe McCarthy announced dramatically that he had a list of names of some 205 communists in the State Department. Although he never revealed any of the names, his action triggered public hysteria and a political witch-hunt. Essex was probably hoping for something similar, political chaos in which he would emerge as kingmaker. In the event, the English people in London largely failed to respond to his stunt.

  3. There is a neat picture of Isabella Clara Eugenia with her dwarf in Leanda de Lisle's book AFTER ELIZABETH, THE RISE OF JAMES OF SCOTLAND AND THE STRUGGLE FOR THE THRONE OF ENGLAND.

  4. Just FYI, the Turtledove book is actually Ruled Britannia.

    Also, although Isabella is a front for Spanish tyranny and the Inquisition in this book, in real life she went on to become Regent for the Spanish Netherlands and presided over her own "Golden Age," when the arts flourished and Brussels became a haven for political refugees fleeing events in France and elsewhere. So having her as Queen of England might not have been quite the nightmare usually envisioned.


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