Imperial ambition

The state of the nation

ElizabethWhen Elizabeth ascended the throne, England was a small European nation on the periphery of world power, which was centred on the continent. England's only overseas territory, Calais, had been lost by Mary in 1558 and the New World had been divided up for colonization between Spain and Portugal, by the Pope in 1493. By the end of Elizabeth's reign, England had become a force to contend with and the seeds of Empire had been sown.

In 1570, Robert Dudley and Christopher Hatton, two of Elizabeth's favourites, commissioned John Dee to produce a report on the state of the nation's political, economic and social affairs. Dee was one of the leading intellectuals of the day and the result was his Brytannicæ Republicæ Synopsis (Summary of the Commonwealth of Britain). This was a flow-chart in which Dee presented the problems facing the nation, his suggested solutions and the potential outcomes of various actions. The synopsis was used to lobby Elizabeth for more expansionist policies.

Imperial vision

Dee was one of the main architects of an imperial vision for England and promoted the concept of the 'British Empire'. In 1577, in General & Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation, he proposed the rise of the British Empire using historical precedents which asserted England's prior claims to the New World. He argued that this vision could become reality through maritime supremacy and that England should reap the rewards offered by colonizing new lands and exploiting new resources. The text was dedicated to Hatton, indicating his influence at court at this time and his ability to get the Queen's ear.

While this was a captivating and exciting proposal, Elizabeth, as Head of State, had to tread carefully: Dee's grand plan presented a direct challenge to the Spanish/Portuguese economic and religious monopoly. Elizabeth could not afford to give overt support to such ventures, either financially or politically. The boldness of the vision and the delicate nature of foreign diplomacy required a more subtle approach.

Elizabeth did not initiate the maritime adventures or commit state funds to them. She was, however, informed about them and occasionally invested in them herself. In these circumstances she was more of an enabler, offering passive approval to those entrepreneurs who were 'thinking big'. In this way she helped to create a confident 'can-do' culture.

The spread of the vision

During the 1570s and 1580s there were numerous expeditions to search for a North-East and a North-West Passage to open up new markets in the East. There were also expeditions to establish permanent colonies in eastern America, potentially as trading posts en route to the East. These were encouraged by members of the Privy Council and received tacit state approval – but no state finance.

Elizabeth backed a number of exploratory ventures to the New World, such as those of Francis Drake and Walter Ralegh. In addition to these, she also supported trading initiatives in other parts of the world by investing in enterprises such as the Turkey Company, founded in 1580, and the East India Company, established in 1600. England's entrance into world trade was thereby assured and the nation’s shift from the periphery of world power towards its centre was set well under way.

The spread of Dee's imperial vision and England's increasing maritime confidence are demonstrated by the terrestrial globe made in 1592 by Emery Molyneux of Lambeth (right), who had travelled with Drake on one of his voyages. The globe, the first made in England, features the tracks of several important English voyages and, more significantly, shows the Royal Coat of Arms stamped across America.

Molyneux presented the manuscript for the globe to Elizabeth at Greenwich in 1591.

Petruccio Ubaldini, the Italian ambassador, was a witness and noted that 'he gave her the globe to let her see at a glance how much of the world she could control by means of her naval forces'. The English challenge to Spain's global holdings was no longer secret but out in the open, for all to see.

John Dee

John Dee (1527–1608/9) was very well connected with intellectuals in Europe. A brilliant mathematician, an advocate of imperialism and a promoter of maritime affairs, Dee advised various explorers in the art of navigation and lobbied for a larger navy. Elizabeth called him 'my philosopher' and Dee was in a sense, a one-man 'think-tank' of his day and the visionary of the Elizabethan court.

Searching for trade routes to the East >>