From allies to enemies: Queen Elizabeth and King Philip

Struggles over faith and politics turned the two ambitious monarchs to rivals, competing for glory and power on the world stage.

The Armada Portrait of 1588 shows Queen Elizabeth I majestic in victory over Spain. Over her right shoulder, the ships of the Spanish Armada are destroyed, while her opposite hand rests on a globe, reflecting England’s imperial ambitions.
WOBURN ABBEY, UK/BRIDGEMAN/ACI

During the summer of 1588, England prepared to face the full might of the Spanish Empire, its most dangerous foe. The indomitable Spanish Armada was sailing toward Albion’s shores, carrying soldiers set to invade. Anticipating the attack, Queen Elizabeth I prepared to address her troops stationed at Tilbury Fort in England. Accounts describe her like a goddess of war: white plumes in her hair, a metal cuirass over white gown, and astride a warhorse as she delivered a rousing speech to her men: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman,” she said, “but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that . . . Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.”

The ultimate defeat of the Spanish would cement Elizabeth’s position as a formidable leader of a world power, strong enough to rival Philip II of Spain. But Philip had once been Elizabeth’s family, then a potential mate and uneasy ally. Elizabeth and Philip—these two powerful people—would begin their relationship peacefully, even warmly, but they would become enemies, facing off in a battle of empires and faiths that would last until death.

The future Queen Elizabeth I was conceived in controversy, a beginning which perhaps forged her strength and skill. Her father, Henry VIII, divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and broke with the Catholic Church, to wed Anne Boleyn, who would bear Elizabeth. The birth did not please Elizabeth’s father, who had hoped for a son and heir. Anne Boleyn soon fell from favor and lost her head, as Henry’s wandering eye sought a new queen, one who would give him a son. He eventually found one.

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