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The Western Invasion: Warfare Between England and Spain in North America, 1585–1604

The Western Invasion: Warfare Between England and Spain in North America, 15851604


Old World Wars. Following the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559, most European crowns accepted the doctrine that fighting beyond the Line did not affect peaceful relations in the Old World. The opposite, however, did not hold true: conflict in Europe in the late sixteenth century often extended into the Americas. This occurred, in part, because Spainby far the dominant power of the dayderived much of its strength from the gold and silver it received from its New World possessions. Aware of both the importance of Spains New World empire and of its vulnerability, rival powers attacked Philip IIs possessions in the Americas and commissioned private ship captains known as privateers to raid Spanish shipping in the Caribbean. Periodically they even sought to establish bases such as Fort Caroline from which their corsairs could prey upon the richesladen treasure fleets. Spain, meanwhile, worked diligently to protect its New World settlements and the vital sea lanes on which the treasure fleets sailed by sending warships to sweep privateers from the seas and by attacking any European bases that it found on the North American coast.

Origins. The pattern of European conflicts spreading to the New World held true during the Anglo-Spanish War of 15851604. Relations between Spain and Britain had been deteriorating steadily since Henry VIII officially broke with Rome and declared England a Protestant nation in the 1530s. Unauthorized trading and privateering in the Spanish territories of the West Indies by men such as Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake further eroded ties between Queen Elizabeth I of Britain and King Philip of Spain. The final break occurred in 1585 when Elizabeth dispatched troops to help Dutch Protestant rebels in their uprising against Spain. After Philip retaliated by outlawing British trade with Spain and by seizing hundreds of English ships in Iberian ports, the two nations found themselves at war.

War in the New World. From virtually the moment she sent troops to Holland in 1585, Elizabeth pursued two policies that extended the war to the Americas. First, she initiated overt raiding against Spains New World possessions by sending a 23-ship, 2,000-man fleet under the command of Drake to the West Indies with orders to capture key Spanish ports and to attack the treasure fleets. Second, she commissioned Sir Walter Raleigh to build a fortified settlement on the North American coast to provide British corsairs with a year-round New World base from which to operate against Spanish shipping in the Americas. Sailing first, Drake swept the Caribbean of Spanish merchantmen and sacked the cities of Cartagena, Santo Domingo, and St. Augustinethe latter to ensure the safety of Raleighs colony. In the meantime, Raleighs men had established the settlement of Roanoke on North Carolinas Outer Banks. Conflict with the Indians and the failure of reinforcements to arrive, however, led the colonists to abandon the settlement and return home with Drakes fleet. Raleigh again founded a settlement on Roanoke Island in 1587, but it too failed. The Spanish responded to the Drake raid by consolidating their North American garrisons at St. Augustine and reacted to the establishment of the Roanoke colony by sending ships to scout its location in preparation for an attack.

The Treaty of London. Although small-scale British privateering continued in the Caribbean, the Anglo-Spanish War remained a largely European affair after the Spanish Armada of 1588, especially after Drake and Hawkinss failed 1595 raid on the Spanish West Indies. It eventually came to an end in 1604 when the financial and human costs of the war led Spain and Britain to agree to the Treaty of London. As with the earlier Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis, the Treaty of London included an informal agreement that war beyond the Line did not produce hostilities in Europe and that there was no peace in the Americas. The Treaty of London thus strengthened the two-spheres doctrine that war in the New World did not lead to conflict in Europe. At the same time, the agreement and the war that preceded it reinforced the notion that conflict in the Old World could and would be extended to the Americas.


Karen Ordhal Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allandheld, 1984);

Max Savelle, The Origins of American Diplomacy: The International History of Angloamerica, 14921763 (New York: Macmillan, 1967);

J. Leitch Wright, Anglo-Spanish Rivalry in North America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1971).

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