English diplomacy in the early seventeenth century was a delicate business. The 1604 Treaty of London ended nearly two decades of war between England and Spain, but did not address the on-going conflict between Catholic Habsburg forces and the Protestant Dutch, England’s erstwhile allies. Thus, James I found himself trying to stay on friendly terms with two foreign powers who themselves remained locked in a bitter struggle for control of the Low Countries. Simple neutrality was not an option. England continued to maintain Protestant garrisons on Dutch soil, but English Catholics were now permitted to fight under the Habsburg archdukes who ruled Flanders on behalf of Spain. In this complex situation, it was essential that command of these Catholic volunteers was given to a man with reliably sound judgment. Instead, James appointed the 1st Lord Arundell of Wardour.
Arundell, a Catholic kinsman of the powerful Howard family, was undoubtedly brave, but also arrogant and stubborn. He had already fought for the Habsburgs in 1595, serving in Hungary against the Turks. Indeed, Rudolf II had rewarded him by making him a count of the Holy Roman Empire. Flushed with success, Arundell failed to realize that he should not accept a title from a foreign power without first consulting his own monarch, and found himself in deep disgrace upon his return home. He then compounded his problems by refusing to renounce his imperial rank, and by consorting with Spanish agents. As a result, he spent the final years of Elizabeth I’s reign under virtual house arrest.
By 1605 ‘Count Arundell’ had still achieved only partial rehabilitation, and he leapt at the chance to command the English volunteers in Flanders. Wanting to take up this commission in style, he arranged to cross the Channel with two Spanish ambassadors who were about to return home. Unfortunately, in order to guarantee their safe passage, James had just promised the Dutch government that these envoys would not carry any English soldiers with them. Accordingly, Arundell was instructed to make other arrangements. Interpreting this command as a personal disgrace, he had himself smuggled aboard the ambassadors’ ship ‘disguised with a false beard, and raggedly clothen’. Inevitably his actions were soon general knowledge, and caused a diplomatic storm, the Dutch concluding that England was now openly siding with Spain against them.
A furious James, anxious to offend neither the Dutch nor the archdukes, ordered Arundell to complete his preliminary duties with the English Catholic regiment, and then return home to face punishment for his ‘manifest contempt’. However, far from rushing to placate the king, Arundell promptly aggravated his offence by appointing as his lieutenant a soldier who had only recently been spared execution for plotting against James. As his cousin the earl of Northampton despairingly observed, Arundell, ‘by adding one absurdity to another, hath by circles of error plunged himself into the most just indignation of the king’. Understandably, Arundell waited more than nine months before venturing back to England, in which time he so mismanaged his command that the archdukes were obliged to disband his regiment. Although ultimately forgiven by James, he was carefully excluded from public office for the rest of his life.