While the Spanish were trafficking in bullion and the Portuguese trying to keep their spice trade routes secret, the English, under a Tudor monarchy, were evolving a policy that was to serve as the germ of their later commercial success. According to his first biographer, Sir Francis Bacon, Henry VII ( 1485-1509) "could not endure to see trade sick." English trade at the time was indeed sick, for England had few seamen and fewer ships, her tiny craft were inferior to the galleys and carracks of Genoa and Venice, and most of her waterborne trade was carried in the hulks of the Hanseatic trading cities. Henry displayed "a grasp of commerce, finance, and the principles of economic power such as no European sovereign had evinced before" and few for centuries thereafter. He passed navigation laws favoring English vessels; strengthened the Royal Navy by building the Regent and Sovereign, two of the most powerful ships afloat, and by establishing a naval dock at Portsmouth; and promulgated commercial treaties with the Hanseatic cities, the Dutch, and the Spanish. Under Henry, and backed more by his ubiquitous diplomacy than his navy, English ships began trade over their first long route -- through "Juberaltar" to Cyprus and Alexandria.
After the early explorations, all overseas trade was to be controlled, so the Spanish and Portuguese thought, by various papal edicts of the 1490's, which had divided all heathen lands discovered and still to be discovered between Spain and Portugal. In other words, the whole nonEuropean world was prescribed as Spanish and Portuguese property with no consideration of the rights and claims of other nations.
Although he was a religious man and friendly to Spain, Henry VII never accepted this; and he laid down the doctrine of effective occupation, which has since become a part of international law. In accord with his principle that he would respect the rights of others only to lands actually in their possession, he stayed out of Spanish territory and sent John Cabot over the western ocean to open up a new and northern route for the spice trade. Cabot found "New Found Land" instead.
Under Henry's successors, who were not bound by ties of religion and alliances, English adventurer-mariners such as Sir John Hawkins attempted to engage in legitimate trade with the West Indies. When their efforts led to accusations of smuggling and piracy and at times to capture and imprisonment, English navigators turned to plundering. Sir Francis Drake's round-the-world voyage of 1577 to 1580 was probably undertaken at Elizabeth's behest to search for a new route to the Far East, and the plundering was his own unauthorized contribution to the plan. By the 1570's, relations between England and Spain had deteriorated, and in 1585, the war broke out that is remembered mainly for the English defeat of the Spanish Armada.
The reign of Elizabeth ( 1558-1603) was characterized by commercial activity and explorations. In 1553, Sir Hugh Willoughby had lost his life searching for a northeast passage to India via the cold Murman Coast, but his second in command arrived in Moscow, where he made the treaty with Czar Ivan the Terrible that led to the valuable trade of the British Muscovy Company. The best known of the many trading companies formed under Elizabeth was the British East India Company, and its first expedition was on the way home when she died in 1603. This company brought in larger profits on greater amounts of capital than any other trade in which the English had previously engaged. In America, English ships were prying into every coast on the Atlantic seeking in all its quarters for a northwest passage. Men had some time earlier become convinced that America was a barrier that must be sailed around to get to Asia. They wanted to break the Portuguese-Spanish monopoly of the Cape of Good Hope route and to find a shorter way to India and Cathay -- unknown places that took unto themselves the whole mystery of Shangri-La with great cities, emperors, and rare wealth added. This was the driving force that sent out dozens of English expeditions, headed by such famous names as Sebastian Cabot, Frobisher, Davis, Baffin, Gilbert, and Hudson.
England was not really a commercially independent country until 1598, when Elizabeth canceled the special privileges of the Hanseatic traders and closed up their great London warehouses of the Steelyard.
The commercial power of Europe, however, was not England, but Holland, a tiny nation whose people generations earlier had wrested their country from the sea.