A Surfeit of ‘What If’s

Just finished reading Pavane by Keith Roberts (1966), an alternative history where England falls to the Spanish Armada and stays in thrall to the Catholic Church for several more centuries (the action in the novel begins in 1968). A fascinating aspect of the book is that the technology available is at least a century behind the1960s in our own jolly little time-line. There are steam-trains, vast semaphore systems (or ‘clacks’ in Pratchett parlance) and a zealous system of inquisitors, putting the dampers on new technologies such as electricity and the internal combustion engine. All in all, the author paints a grim picture where the main preoccupation of the characters is to find a way to break free from the Roman Church and its stifling regime of personal and national subjugation.

The language employed is rich and evocative, one of the most poetic science fiction books I’ve read (particularly in the latter half, as the first sees Roberts’ infatuation with steam locos become particularly enervating). It is also highly thought-provoking, as all good alternative history should be, on the points where we could have gone one way or another.

This alternative history thing has also got me thinking. So what if the Armada had won? Would Robert’s vision have been the likely outcome? An England dominated by the Catholic Church for the next 500 years seems a bit far fetched. For a start, Anglicanism was already established and fairly militant by the 1580s. Serious disturbances throughout England would be difficult to avoid if Spain’s armies had marched into London and garrotted Good Queen Bess. Organized resistance would also be on the cards. Protestant nobles with large fiefdoms would not take kindly to having their lands handed over to Catholics. From the outset there would be serious unrest and even rebellion. Spain was also in quite a weak position. At the time Spain had a population of about eight million. The number of troops it could levy was small and stretched thinly throughout the Americas, Germany, Holland and elsewhere. It is unlikely they would have had the manpower to either pacify or convert the English; a more expedient strategy would be to weaken England’s sea power and ability to attack Spanish shipping. In my opinion, Spain could hold on to England only for a short time, perhaps a couple of years. Not long enough to re-establish Catholicism, but long enough to make a lasting impact, namely:

1) Weaken England by strengthening its enemies. Ireland and Scotland would be favoured and freed from English influence. Perhaps other areas (Wales and Cornwall) persuaded to secede. French allies given land-holdings on English soil and Catholic nobles set in charge of the country. The colonies would, of course, be seized (particularly those adjacent to French and Spanish possessions: Jamaica, Virginia etc)

2) Destroy English sea power. Burn Portsmouth and the Admiralty. Set up a permanent Spanish naval garrison on the Isle of Wight to control shipping through the Channel. Remove English captains, navigators, ship-builders and craftsmen to Spain. Seize England’s remaining ships (some could be given to the Scots and Irish to patrol British waters and destroy any remaining English warships).

3) Ecological pillage. Making ships in the 16th century required a lot of wood. To build the Armada, Spain had had to chop down vast swathes of its forests (the Monegros desert, around Zaragoza, was one area of forest cleared to build Philip II’s fleet). With no forests, England would be unable to build warships. England had lots and lots of precious trees that the Spanish could have either exploited, shipping the wood back to Spain for storage, or burned. A few years of intensively logging and burning forests could have denuded huge areas of the country, leading to flooding, landslides, etc. It would take decades for the trees to regrow.

Good Queen Bess, ungarrotted and lovin' it.

These three actions alone could be completed in just a few years and would eliminate the threat of English sea-power for at least a generation (particularly 1 and 2). Spanish troops could then be withdrawn to operate in other theatres of war (Germany, Holland etc). England would be likely to rebel and throw off its Catholic overlords and re-establish herself as an independent nation, but it would be from a much weaker base.

In terms of Spanish power, the success of the Armada might not have made much difference in the long run. Spain would still be a basket-case economy propped up by silver from the Americas. It would still be over-committed militarily. It would still be a nation where most people were poor, overtaxed, ruled over by a repulsive and incompetent caste of nobles and grandees. None of these problems would have been solved by a successful invasion of England. My view, therefore, differs from Roberts in that, even in the best-case scenario for Spain, I don’t see the impact on England as being as devastating or game-changing as Pavane would paint it. The invasion would be a serious blow, not least to national morale, but given a century or two England would rise again (given its scientific and commercial acumen) to eclipse Spain once more.

Despite such misgivings (and even with them, Roberts’s vision is compelling), it was a really interesting read. So, if you know of anyone who is a fan of alternative history and steam trains and has a birthday coming up, you know what to do.

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About floppybootstomp

Lecturer, teacher, writer and traveller all perfectly good nouns aren't they? Do they have anything to do with me? Ask the taxman.

Posted on June 9, 2011, in Writing Stuff and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Interesting to think of the different ‘what if’ situations that could have happened. I love history, and it does get you thinking. If things had of played out differently, would we, as individuals be in the situations we are now? Would we be at all?

    Good post Dan.

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