A new courage had arisen since the beginning of her reign, when Cecil and the Queen stood alone in their belief in England's strength, and when the diplomatists of Europe regarded her obstinate defiance of Philip's counsels as " madness." The whole people had caught the self-confidence and daring of their Queen. The seamen of the southern coast had long been carrying on a half-piratical war on their own account. Four years after Elizabeth's accession the Channel swarmed with " sea-dogs," as they were called, who sailed under letters of marque from the Prince of Condé and the Huguenot leaders, and took heed neither of the complaints of the French Court nor of Elizabeth's own attempts at repression. Her efforts failed before the connivance of every man along the coast, of the very port-officers of the Crown who made profit out of the spoil, and of the gentry of the west, who were hand and glove with the adventurers. They broke above all against the national craving for open fight with Spain, and the Protestant craving for open fight with Catholicism. Young Englishmen crossed the sea to serve under Condé or Henry of Navarre. The war in the Netherlands drew hundreds of Protestants to the field.
The suspension of the French contest only drove the sea-dogs to the West Indies; for the Papal decree which gave the New World to Spain, and the threats of Philip against any Protestant who should visit its seas, fell idly on the ears of English seamen. It was in vain that their trading vessels were seized, and the sailors flung into the dungeons of the Inquisition, " laden with irons, without sight of sun or moon." The profits of the trade were large enough to counteract its perils; and the bigotry of Philip was met by a bigotry as merciless as his own. The Puritanism of the sea-dogs went hand in hand with their love of adventure. To break through the Catholic monopoly of the New World, to kill Spaniards, to sell negroes, to sack gold-ships, were in these men's minds a seemly work for the " elect of God." The name of Francis Drake became the terror of the Spanish Indies. In Drake a Protestant fanaticism was united with a splendid daring. He conceived the design of penetrating into the Pacific, whose waters had never seen an English flag; and backed by a little company of adventurers, he set sail for the southern seas in a vessel hardly as big as a Channel schooner, with a few yet smaller companions who fell away before the storms and perils of the voyage.
But Drake with his one ship and eighty men held boldly on; and passing the Straits of Magellan, untraversed as yet by any Englishman, swept the unguarded coast of Chili and Peru, loaded his bark with the gold-dust and silver-ingots of Potosi, and with the pearls, emeralds, and diamonds which formed the cargo of the great galleon that sailed once a year from Lima to Cadiz. With spoils of above half-a-million in value the daring adventurer steered undauntedly for the Moluccas, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and after completing the circuit of the globe dropped anchor again in Plymouth harbour.
The romantic daring of Drake's voyage, as well as the vastness of his spoil, roused a general enthusiasm throughout England. But the welcome he received from Elizabeth on his return was accepted by Philip as an outrage which could only be expiated by war. Sluggish as it was, the blood of the Spanish King was fired at last by the defiance with which Elizabeth received all demands for redress. She met a request for Drake's surrender by knighting the freebooter, and by wearing in her crown the jewels he had offered her as a present. When the Spanish ambassador threatened that "matters would come to the cannon," she replied "quietly, in her most natural voice, as if she were telling a common story," wrote Mendoza, "that if I used threats of that kind she would fling me into a dungeon." Outraged as Philip was, she believed that with the Netherlands still in revolt and France longing for her alliance to enable it to seize them, the King could not afford to quarrel with her. But the sense of personal wrong, and the outcry of the Catholic world against his selfish reluctance to avenge the blood of its martyrs, at last told on the Spanish King, and the first vessels of an armada which was destined for the conquest of England began to gather in the Tagus. Resentment and fanaticism indeed were backed by a cool policy.
His conquest of Portugal had almost doubled his power. It gave him the one navy that as yet rivalled his own. With the Portuguese colonies his flag claimed mastery in the Indian and the Pacific seas, as it claimed mastery in the Atlantic and Mediterranean; and he had now to shut Englishman and heretic not only out of the New World of the West but out of the lucrative traffic with the East. In the Netherlands too and in France all seemed to go well for Philip's schemes. His forces under Parma had steadily won their way in the Low Countries, and a more fatal blow had been dealt at his rebellious subjects in the assassination of William of Orange; while all danger of French intervention passed away with the death of the Duke of Anjou, which left Henry of Navarre, the leader of the Huguenot party, heir of the crown of France. To prevent the triumph of heresy in the succession of a Protestant king, the Guises and the French Catholics rose at once in arms; but the Holy League which they formed rested mainly on the support of Philip, and so long as he supplied them with men and money, he was secure on the side of France. It was at this moment that Parma won his crowning triumph in the capture of Antwerp; its fall after a gallant resistance convinced even Elizabeth of the need for action if the one "bridle to Spain which kept war out of our own gate" was to be saved.
Lord Leicester was hurried to the Flemish coast with 8,000 men. In a yet bolder spirit of defiance Francis Drake was suffered to set sail with a fleet of twenty-five vessels for the Spanish Main. Drake's voyage was a series of triumphs. The wrongs inflicted on English seamen by the Inquisition were requited by the burning of the cities of St. Domingo and Carthagena. The coasts of Cuba and Florida were plundered, and though the gold fleet escaped him, Drake returned with a heavy booty. But only one disastrous skirmish at Zutphen, the fight in which Sidney fell, broke the inaction of Leicester's forces, while Elizabeth strove vainly to use the presence of his army to negotiate a peace between Philip and the States. Meanwhile dangers thickened round her in England itself. Maddened by persecution, by the hopelessness of rebellion within or of deliverance from without, the fiercer Catholics listened to schemes of assassination to which the murder of William of Orange lent a terrible significance. The detection of Somerville, a fanatic who had received the Host before setting out for London "to shoot the Queen with his dagg," was followed by measures of natural severity, by the flight and arrest of Catholic gentry and peers, by a vigorous purification of the Inns of Court where a few Catholics lingered, and by the despatch of fresh batches of priests to the block.