"This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea."
U P to this time Spain had been the strongest and mightiest nation in Europe. Not only did she rule a great part of Italy, Sicily, the Netherlands, nearly all North America, all South America, but Portugal had fallen to her, with rich possessions in South Africa and India.
She commanded the land, because she commanded the sea. Her galleys were in every port and harbour of the known world, trading with all the rich countries under her sway.
It has been truly said, "Whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade: whosoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself."
This, then, was quite true of Spain in the sixteenth century. She was the first empire in the world of whom it could be said that the sun never set on her dominions. This sunny Spain, washed by the waters of the great Atlantic on one side and the blue Mediterranean on the other, was yet looking round for new worlds to conquer when as yet the other nations of Europe had scarce ventured beyond their own fishing-grounds. The largest merchant ship of either England or Holland was not fit to brave the storms of the Atlantic. But the sea-loving spirit of the old Vikings was in these northern countries. It had slept through the long ages of over five hundred years, but now it was to burst forth again with its old vigour and its old strength. England and Holland were side by side to regain the mastery of wind and wave, until Spain lay crushed and powerless before their superior seamanship.
How did it all come about? What was this race of English who manned the ships that carried the flag of their country round the world, who fought the Spaniard on his own ground, who destroyed his "invincible" fleet, known to history as the Spanish Armada?
How did this little island, "set in a silver sea," manage to destroy the great power of Spain, and finally possess themselves of an empire on which the sun never sets?
The answer lies in the romantic life-story of the old sea-captain Drake, and the encouragement given to sailors by the English queen under whom he sailed, the "Good Queen Bess" of the sixteenth century.
But before beginning this old story it will be well to see what had been happening in England while Spain was so busy trying to crush out the Protestants in the Netherlands. What part had this England played in the great Awakening of mankind, and in the Reformation that had spread over Europe?
England has been called the "sea-cradle of the Reformation," because it was by reason of the Reformation that the King of England, Henry VIII., was induced to strengthen his coasts and build his navy to protect Protestant England against Roman Catholic Spain. Like the Netherlands, England had taken a strong Protestant line; when the choice had to be made, Henry VIII. had cast off the supreme power of the Pope but retained the title of "Defender of the Faith," a title which to this day is borne by sovereigns of England.
There was danger in the air. The whole country was divided into two sides. France became Roman Catholic and sided with Spain. England must prepare for possible invasion.
Now, when Henry VIII. came to the throne England had no fleet at all. A few merchant hulks traded with Lisbon and Antwerp, a fishing fleet sailed to Iceland for cod. It is true that Cabot had sailed across the Atlantic, but his enterprise had not been followed up, and Spain ruled the waters as before.
But Henry VIII. was not blind to the needs of the nation. If war broke out, the merchant and fishing ships must help to defend the coast. He repaired all the important dockyards and built fortresses, ruins of which may still be seen from Berwick to the Land's End. He built new ships capable of carrying guns. The Great Harry was the wonder of the day; she carried 700 men and was 1000 tons burden. But when Henry died the fleet perished. His daughter Mary was a stern Roman Catholic, and, married to Philip of Spain, there was no further danger of war with that great empire. The new queen was too busy warring against Protestantism to look to the seas; her father's fine ships rotted in the harbours. She left the seas to privateers—that is, to any men who were rich enough to buy, fit out, and command ships for themselves.
And this privateering ruled the day till the death of Mary in 1558, when her sister Elizabeth came to the throne. Elizabeth was an English woman; she loved the spirit of adventure and enterprise that took her sailor subjects on the high seas. She encouraged privateering, for the risk was small and the hope of profit was great. So she became the restorer of England's naval glory, the "Queen of the Northern Seas."