Photographer: Jose F. Raga/Getty Images/Photononstop RM

Britain Welcomes Spanish King, Tries Not to Mention the Armada

  • King Felipe visits Britain for first state visit in 31 years
  • Theresa May’s government seeking allies in Brexit negotiations

British diplomats are brushing over a century of conflict and one attempted invasion as they seek to bolster ties with Spain in the midst of the Brexit negotiations.

The U.K. Foreign Office is vaunting “500 years of partnership” with “some of Britain’s oldest friends” ahead of King Felipe VI’s state visit which begins on Wednesday. That reading skips over a few details along the way though, such as the time Spain sent its Armada to conquer Britain and the sporadic wars of the 18th century, not to mention the dispute over Gibraltar that’s been simmering for more than 300 years.

King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia

Source: Europa Press via Getty Images

Elizabeth II’s grand greeting for Felipe and his wife Queen Letizia, with all the pomp that Britain can muster, is more to do with the country’s current predicament than the history of its relationship with Spain, said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

Britain’s membership of the European Union expires in 21 months and as the clock ticks down on negotiations Prime Minister Theresa May is fighting to salvage her credibility while her ministers scrap publicly over what sort of exit deal they should be seeking.

“Given all the history, the stuff about 500 years of friendship does seem a rather extraordinary statement,” Bale said by phone. “But the U.K. government is facing a great degree of skepticism about Brexit and it needs all the help it can get.”

Courting Spain

May’s government has been banking on getting a more sympathetic hearing from Spain than some other EU members due to the close economic links between the countries. The Spanish have so far resisted entreaties to engage directly with their British counterparts, letting chief negotiator Michel Barnier speak for all 27 remaining EU states.

As many as 18 million Britons visited Spain last year and more than 300,000 live there permanently, with 130,000 Spaniards now calling the U.K. their home. Firms like Banco Santander SA and Iberdrola SA have helped make Britain the biggest European destination for Spanish overseas investment.

“We want the state visit to recognize the strength of the relationship that we have, so that our two great nations can have a bilateral relationship in the years ahead that is worthy of our history but also our future,” said Simon Manley, the U.K. ambassador in Madrid, on the Foreign Office twitter feed.

Spanish state visits have bookended the two countries time as EU partners. The last Spanish monarch to make an official trip was his father Juan Carlos in 1986 when Spain had just joined the bloc.

Felipe will have the chance to ponder the broader sweep of Anglo-Spanish history when he visits Westminster Abbey on July 13.

Elizabeth vs. the Armada

The great church in the heart of London contains the tomb of Mary I, the daughter of Henry VIII and his Spanish wife Catherine of Aragon. Mary married Philip II of Spain and was England’s last Roman Catholic monarch. Sharing the tomb with Mary is her half-sister Elizabeth I, who saw her navy defeat Philip’s Armada in 1588.

Sir Walter Raleigh, the Elizabethan explorer, courtier and poet, is buried in St Margaret’s church next door. While he’s portrayed as an adventurer in British accounts, in the Spanish-speaking world he’s considered a pirate for his raids on treasure ships returning from the New World. Indeed, he was executed under Elizabeth’s successor James I to appease the Spanish.

The Spanish have their own victories to hark back to including the 1741 Battle of Cartagena in modern-day Colombia when Blas de Lezo, a Basque admiral with one eye, one arm and one leg defeated a huge British invasion force.

Despite the history of imperial rivalry, the ties between Britain and Spain have indeed been close for the past few centuries. Even friction over Gibraltar -- the enclave on Spain’s southern tip that’s been in British hands since 1713 -- has been largely contained. And the two royal families have ties going back generations.

Felipe’s great grandfather Alfonso XIII, an anglophile who counted Winston Churchill among his friends, married Queen Victoria Eugenie, the granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria.

“In terms of shared friendship, 500 years looks wrong,” said Giles Tremlett, a Spain-based historian and journalist who has written biographies of Queen Catherine and Isabella of Castile. “But 300 years is about right.”

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