The recent news that several hundred British nationals are fighting alongside Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq has given rise to fears for British domestic security, and that the ISIS fighters of today might become the terrorists of tomorrow. Perhaps surprisingly, similar concerns beset the English Protestant state just over four hundred years ago.
In the second half of the sixteenth century, England’s neighbours, the Dutch, fought (with English assistance) to throw off the rule of Catholic Spain and create a Protestant state of their own. During the lengthy war that followed, the Spanish forces in the Netherlands recruited from far and wide. Among those who joined the Army of Flanders in the early 1590s was a certain young Yorkshireman named Guy Fawkes. His commanding officer was another Englishman, Sir William Stanley, who had originally fought alongside the Dutch before defecting to Spain in 1587.
Prior to 1604 the number of Englishmen in Spanish military service was too small to be a cause of grave concern to the English government. However, this situation changed after England and Spain signed a treaty of peace in August 1604. For the first time the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands were granted permission to recruit English volunteers. The English government confidently assumed that few of its citizens would wish to serve a foreign Catholic power. It soon realized its mistake. In October 1605 Robert Cecil, chief minister to James I, expressed concern at the ‘strong and visible torrent’ of disenchanted young men who were crossing the Channel to take service in the Army of Flanders. His anxiety can only have increased the following month, when a group of Catholic hot-heads
attempted to blow up both the royal family and Parliament. Chief among the conspirators was Guy Fawkes and Robert Catesby, who had recently contemplated applying for a commission in the Army of Flanders. They were aided and abetted by Hugh Owen, the ‘Welsh Intelligencer’, who lived in Flanders and was responsible for putting Fawkes in touch with Catesby.
In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, Cecil realized that it was imperative to stem the flow of English recruits to the Spanish Netherlands. While most of the plotters had never served in the Army of Flanders, the connections between the conspiracy and the Spanish Netherlands were impossible to ignore, and what was once no more than an irritant might soon become the basis for an invading army. However, it was equally impossible for Cecil to denounce publicly the peace treaty that he himself had helped to negotiate. For this reason, he was obliged to act through others. It was thus one of his clients, Sir Christopher Parkins, rather than Cecil himself, who told the House of Commons in February 1606 that the Englishmen serving in Flanders ‘intended all their purposes against England’. As a result of Cecil’s behind the scenes campaign, Parliament enacted legislation prohibiting Englishmen from undertaking military service for a Catholic prince. Ironically, this new law came into force at precisely the moment at which the threat it was designed to counter receded dramatically. In May 1606, to the surprise of the English ambassador in Brussels, the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands ordered the disbandment of the English regiment that had recently been formed after the soldiers mutinied for want of pay. The threat to England’s security had been averted not by Parliament but by the poverty of the Spanish crown.
For more on English involvement in the wars between the Netherlands and Spain, see Dr Paul Hunneyball’s blogpost: ‘How to cause a diplomatic incident with a false beard’, and for more on the Gunpowder plot, see: ‘Apprehending Guy Fawkes with his garters’.