By England’s Aid Or, the Freeing of the Netherlands, 1585-1604, by G A Henty

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This is the follow-up to By Pike and Dyke, but features a different cast, led by two brothers who entered the service of Sir Francis Vere, a real-life English soldier who fought in the Netherlands. Despite the title, not that much of it is actually set in the Netherlands. Our heroes have a rather eventful time of it even by G A Henty’s standards. First of all, they uncover a “Papist plot” in, er, Essex, and then unmask a traitor in the Netherlands. One of them does actually spend most of his time after that fighting in the Netherlands, but also helps to see off the Spanish Armada and is later amongst English troops aiding the Huguenots in France.

His brother is swept overboard during the fight against the Armada, but is picked up by a Spanish ship. He daren’t try to escape in Ireland for fear of being murdered by “Irish savages”, but he falls in with an Irishman who’s fighting with the Spaniards. They both try to leave Spain together, alongside a Spanish noblewoman who has eloped with the Irishman but, what would you know, their ship is attacked by Barbary pirates and our hero is taken as a slave. However, he duly escapes, having rescued a wealthy Spaniard and his daughter, and they all go back to Spain and our hero marries the daughter. He then happens to run into as brother during the English attack on Cadiz in 1596, and they all go home. The brother fights on in the Netherlands but, once the brave English and Dutch have fought off the dastardly Spanish, he goes home too, and everyone lives happily every after. Jolly good.

It all sounds very Boys’ Own-ish and very Victorian, but there are a few atypical touches to it. G A Henry is surprisingly critical of Elizabeth I, whom the Victorians generally admired. He accuses her of dithering and holding back funds, and contrasts her supposed stinginess with Francis Drake and Howard of Effingham’s use of their own money against the Armada. Not a mention of the Tilbury speech. Very odd for a book like this not to praise Great Gloriana! I’m rather annoyed about it – Elizabeth I is one of my heroines!! He also, in a very Elinor Brent-Dyer-ish way, had one of his heroes marrying a Catholic, and speaking about how Catholicism and Protestantism aren’t that different really and it’s fine to attend services of the “other” denomination … although the Spanish wife, the very Catholic-named Dolores, converted to Anglicanism at the end, which rather made a mockery of what had been said earlier! It all ended in rather a rush, but the war for Dutch independence did go on for rather a long time.

The tales of derring-do are rather amusing to modern eyes but, on a serious note, the book does show the rise of the Maritime Powers (well, England and the Netherlands anyway – the third, Sweden, didn’t really feature so much in international events until the Thirty Years’ War) and the decline of Habsburg Spain and Valois/early Bourbon France. I’m not sure what a Dutch person would have to say about the title of this book, LOL, but, from an English viewpoint, 1588 is one of those dates which pretty much everyone in England knows, but its wider context, the Habsburg-Valois Wars, the French Wars of Religion and the Eighty Years’ War for Dutch independence, is often forgotten, and shouldn’t be.

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