A Summer 2003 NEH Institute.
Directed by David Cressy
and Lori Anne Ferrell.


Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677).
Section from "The long bird's eye view of London," 1647.

• The Spanish Match

Full-text of A Game at Chess Folger shelf mark: V.a. 231

    The Spanish Match

Throughout his reign, King James pursued an Anglo-Spanish match. Negotiations for a marriage between the Spanish Infanta and Henry, Prince of Wales, officially began in 1604, following a treaty between England and Spain. They accelerated in 1613, when Sarmiento de Acuna, Condé de Gondomar, arrived in England as the Spanish ambassador. They continued after Prince Henry's sudden and tragic death, with his younger brother Charles taking his place. And they reached a critical stage in 1623, when Charles and long-time court favorite, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, embarked on a secret mission to Madrid. When Charles and Buckingham returned home in October, empty-handed and vowing never to resume negotiations with the Spanish, the mood in England was nothing short of exuberant. Spontaneous celebrations broke out all across the nation. Within the year, Parliament was urging war with Spain with uncustomary enthusiasm.

What were the advantages to the proposed marriage? Why did James pursue it for so many years? What were the conditions of marriage and why were they finally deemed unacceptable? What additional factors complicated the negotiations? Why was the nation so demonstrably excited when they finally did collapse? Such questions resist easy answers. However, a few observations will help explain why the proposed marriage proved to be at once so crucial and so controversial.

As king of England, James took seriously his position and responsibility as Rex Pacificus, and he saw himself in the unique position to restore the balance of powers across Europe. While the Reformation had polarized Europeans and turned the once universal church into an array of warring factions, James pursued a policy that would re-unite Protestants with the Church of Rome. Among his many strategies, he used marriage alliances as a way to forge diplomatic alliances across the continent. Thus, while he pursued a marriage between his sons and the Catholic Infanta throughout his reign, in 1613 he celebrated the marriage between his only daughter Elizabeth and Frederick V, the Elector Palatine—a Calvinist prince viewed by many as a potential spearhead for a pan-European Protestant union against the Catholic Hapsburg empire.

In other words, part of James' strategy was to bring about peace through dynastic marriage. Having already married his only daughter to the Calvinist prince, an additional marriage between his only surviving son and the Catholic Infanta would have brought about two advantages. For England, it would have made diplomatic alliances more complicated, thus decreasing the nation's chances of being dragged into war. England's intricate family arrangements might also encourage other European countries to put aside their differences. If this was perhaps wishful thinking on James' part, it was a far more attractive alternative to war. One did not need to be a military expert or a pacifist to recognize that England was horribly outmatched by the Hapsburgs. Moreover, as vehement as the population's support for a war might have seemed on the surface, very few people really wanted to finance it. Since England could neither afford nor survive war with Spain, a marriage match struck James as a perfectly reasonable alternative.

In the end, the marriage proposal between the Prince of Wales and the Spanish Infanta turned out to be wishful thinking. Religious differences between England and Spain proved a bigger obstacle than James anticipated. While he tried to emphasize the similarities between the churches of England and Rome, the Spanish ambassador Conde de Gondomar would settle for nothing less than the prince's conversion to Catholicism. Meanwhile, tensions between the Hapsburgs and the Calvinist opposition had deteriorated to the point of all-out war. In 1618, Protestants in Bohemia forcibly ousted their king from the throne and invited the Elector Palatine to take his place. Within the year, he accepted. When Hapsburg forces moved to drive out the Protestant King, Parliament called upon James for military and political support; in the eyes of many, it was King James' personal obligation to defend his son-in-law from the Hapsburg armies. By the 1620s, a marriage alliance with Spain would have proved awkward. Certainly by 1624, when Parliament began to clamor for war with Spain, such a match would have been impossible.

The fact that both English and Spanish alliances were split by the conflict in the Palatine meant trouble for the marriage negotiations. Unfortunately, King James had as hard a time convincing the public as he had executing his plan in the first place. In Spain, Gondomar perceived the marriage negotiations as a sign of England's weakness. The longer he could perpetuate the negotiations by haggling over details, the longer he could keep England sidelined from support of the Elector Palatine. Meanwhile, in England, the population saw the King's frosty response to the Elector as a sign of senility, if not an outright betrayal of his only daughter.

There were widespread expressions of joy when Prince Charles and Buckingham returned from Madrid without a bride. The King's policies with regard to Spain, in particular, and the brewing Continental war in general, had been inscrutable at best. At worst they were taken as signs of a Catholic fifth column that threatened to bring down the nation from within. The conflict between the crown and the general population was mostly—though not entirely—one of perception with regard to England's supposed role in European affairs. Would England lead Europe toward re-unification? Or would it instead stand alongside its Calvinist allies, united in open hostility against the Catholic Church?

Perhaps the intense hatred over the Spanish Match can be summed up through the following irony: neither Charles nor the infamous Buckingham ever enjoyed so much popularity and public support as when the two returned empty handed. Rarely in history has a nation collectively heaped so much praise on their ruler for failing.

Adam H. Kitzes

© 2004 Folger Institute