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War in Spain and the Murder of Mary, Queen of Scots (GCSE Example Answer)


Last updated 11 Apr 2020

Here is an example answer to the following 16-mark question on whether. the murder of Mary, Queen of Scots was the main reason for war with Spain in 1588.

‘The main reason for war with Spain in 1588 was the murder of Mary, Queen of Scots’. How far do you agree? (16 marks + 4 marks SPAG)

Stimulus = Babington Plot / Francis Drake

[Examiner commentary following each paragraph and at the end is provided in italics]


The attempted invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was due to a variety of factors, including revenge for the murder of Mary, Queen of Scots but also due to the fact that England, as a Protestant nation, continued to interfere in the Netherlands in support of Dutch Protestantism (undermining Spanish influence there) and how Francis Drake’s expeditions, privateering and outright attack on Cadiz in 1587 meant Spain’s commercial interests were challenged too.

[Awareness of other factors here helps signpost what the answer will focus on.]

The invasion was also motivated by religion, as Phillip II wanted to establish Catholicism throughout Europe and saw invasion as an opportunity to do this, as well as win the favour of the Pope. Ultimately, it was the increasing involvement in the Netherlands which prompted the invasion, as success would remove England from European entanglement and leave Spain in control of the north of Europe. Importantly too, Mary’s death was not until 1587 and the Spanish were building a fleet for invasion as early as January 1586.

[Here, clear knowledge of the chronology of events helps establish persuasive criteria for the judgement.

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in July 1587 was in response to the discovery of Mary’s role in the Babington Plot via secret letters. The plot aimed to kill Elizabeth, place Mary on the throne and restore Catholicism. The execution was highly controversial because one monarch had signed a death warrant on the other, which even Elizabeth felt set a dangerous precedent. In the aftermath too, increased action against the Catholics took place (with 300 recusants arrested in London and the execution of 31 priests). This hardened approach served as one reason for the Armada because Spain, backed by the Pope, felt England was being fully lost to Protestantism and the true faith of Catholicism needed to be restored. Moreover, revenge for such a violent act against a recognised Catholic monarch was seen as justified.

[Contextual knowledge here strengthens the argument that Elizabeth was increasing her ostracism of Catholicism within England.

However, as already stated, Spain was building a maritime invasion force for the purpose of subduing Elizabeth as early as January 1586, in anticipation of an invasion, so other reasons must have been more important. One of these reasons linked to the exploits of Francis Drake. Financed by Elizabeth, Drake raided Spanish colonies and ships that were travelling across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1572, for example, he captured £40,000 of Spanish silver. During his circumnavigation of the globe, between 1577 and 1580, Drake managed to capture almost £400,000 in gold and silver following attacks on Spanish ports in Chile and Peru. This had a direct impact on Spain’s ability to deal with rebellion in the Netherlands.

[Specifying the sums of money involved helps capture the scale of Drake’s achievement and helps explain why Spain was so angry. Moreover, it showcases how precisely-selected information can give an argument more impact.]

The attacks by Drake and other English privateers were not only directly provocative, they also made England richer at the direct expense of Spain, which in turn undermined their own foreign policy. In addition, whilst an invasion was already planned, a key factor was Drake’s attack on Spanish ships (again under the direct orders of Elizabeth) at the port of Cadiz in 1587. 30 ships were destroyed as well as huge amounts of supplies for the naval fleet. The ‘singeing of the King’s beard’ was an integral reason for the invasion date in that it prompted a hurried revenge attack in 1588. Drake’s role in provoking an invasion was therefore clear. He stole Spanish money, challenged its imperial supremacy and was responsible for the killing of its men. The fact all of this was encouraged by Elizabeth meant that Spain saw this as a reason for war.

However, because this privateering of Drake had gone on for a long time prior to the building of a naval fleet, another reason must also have been involved, and this was the continual interference of Elizabeth in the Netherlands, which reached its height following the Treaty of Nonsuch in 1585. Crucially, this involved Elizabeth agreeing to get involved directly in support of the Dutch rebels by financing an army of 7400 men. This was important, because it was different from previous tacit support of the Dutch rebels, via the Sea Beggars using English ports as early as 1567 for example. Elizabeth’s public commitment was no doubt in response to her alarm at the Treaty of Joinville in 1584, which put Catholic rivals Spain and France at peace and left Elizabeth fearful of further joint Catholic collaboration at the expense of England. At the time of the Treaty of Nonsuch, Elizabeth also commanded Drake to attack the New World to divert Philip’s attention, but this only strengthened Philip II’s resolve, by the end of 1585, to invade England.

[Effective links back to the question to chronology in the subsequent paragraph helps lead in to the final reason which supports the overall judgement.]

Ultimately then, I disagree with the statement as whilst the killing of a Catholic monarch was highly controversial and Spain (emboldened by the Pope) wanted to restore Catholicism in England, self-interest was a bigger factor for Spain’s use of the Armada. In the long term, the work of Drake increased tension but it was the involvement in the Netherlands and the direct commitment of troops under the Treaty of Nonsuch which meant Elizabeth had essentially accepted a conflict with Spain, to which their response was the building of a fleet from 1586.

Overall Examiner Comments:

Level 4, 13-16 (+3-4 marks SPAG)

Strong response. The candidate provides detailed arguments with wide-ranging knowledge and presents these in a coherent and logically-structured way. This is demonstrated by how the relevant information is placed in an effective chronology to establish clear links between factors, which helps with the justified criteria for the judgement.

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