The British Empire Library

The Spanish Armada

by Robert Hutchinson

With hindsight, the failure of the Spanish Armada to bring Protestant England to heel was a decisive turning point in the fortunes of both nations. Spain continued to exhaust its gains from its own colonial successes in the Americas on fruitless wars whereas England began to realise its growing potential as it elevated itself from a small, insignificant European nation to an increasingly important maritime power. As the author of this book makes it clear, had the Spanish ever got ashore, the likelihood of the parsimonious English forces keeping the invaders from sweeping all before them would have been remote. Never had the wooden walls of England been more important. However, as this book illustrates, it was not just English ships that kept England’s liberty in 1588. The Spanish had to contend with fundamental organisational and supply problems combined with lacklustre leadership and of course the mercy of the cruel elements which time and again seemed to play on the side of the Protestants no matter how hard the Catholics prayed.

The Spanish Armada is one of the nation defining events in the history of England. Perhaps because of this, it is useful to have a well rounded account that tells the story from both sides. The author skilfully weaves the accounts from the various participants even as they are on opposing ships as the battles and campaign unfold. One quickly finds a little sympathy for the scale and ambition of King Philip II. However misguided his mission was it is clear that he felt that he was doing God’s work and was encouraged in this thinking by other Catholic leaders most notably of course the Pope who was to reveal himself a fair weather friend indeed and one who seemed to admire the Protestant Elizabeth more than the Catholic Philip who was supposedly doing God’s work on his behalf. The fact that the Pope refused to pay what he promised to pay must have been particularly gallingfor poor Philip; if you cannot trust a Pope who can you trust?

One can understand Philip’s exasperation of the English mariners who waged open warfare on the Spanish ships and treated them as business opportunities for plunder as religion provided the perfect excuse for the English merchant adventurers who were little more than pirates in the eyes of their Spanish victims. In fact, as Spain moved much of the wealth of their colonies in the Americas to Europe, they relied on the same large and lumbering ships that would be used in the Armada whilst the English pioneered the use of small but fast and nimble ships which were perfect for the hit and run attacks that they had practiced for years but would soon be used to deadly effect in the English Channel.

The Armada was one of the worst kept secrets of the 1580s. Drake’s attack on Cadiz in 1587 was to both try and frustrate the preparations for an attack whilst also attempting to gather intelligence on how many ships and how soon the fleet might be ready. His success set back the Spanish endeavour but at the same time it only served to make them even more determined to carry out their attack on this annoying island nation of which of course Philip had once been king when he was married to Elizabeth’s half sister, Mary. The more the two sides fought, the more they grew to hate one another.

You could say failure was baked in to the enterprise at an early stage as the Spanish constructed ships that were wholly inappropriate for the seas that they would be traversing and for the adversary that they would be facing. It also did not help that the quality of the provisions and indeed their storage vessels were also sub-standard. Far more would die from disease and privation than would die at the hands of the enemy. Needless to say that the weather took its own severe toll and the slow, lumbering ships would be at the mercy of gales especially when they did not have access to the charts that they would need for escaping back home around the entire British Isles. Scotland and Ireland’s harsh coastline was the most unforgiving mistress of all.

The weak point for the English was the parsimonious Queen Elizabeth whose finances were shaky at best. Mustering troops and sailors to defend England was an expensive endeavour and she was loathe to spend more than she needed to. It did not help that the inefficient Elizabethan state relied on personnel with varying degrees of expertise and of often questionable moral fibre. Corruption and middlemen creamed off much of the Queen’s resources often by the people she felt that she could trust. The cutback which hurt her cause the most was the lack of gunpowder for her Navy. Fortunately for her, the English captured enemy ships at crucial times and could replenish at least some of their meagre supplies from their hapless foes.

Leadership was another key difference between the two antagonists. It is clear that the Spanish leaders were risk averse commanders who felt that providence was the key determiner of their fate. In contrast, the English leaders like Howard, Drake, Frobisher and Hawkins were dynamic, full of flair and imagination and certainly not afraid to take risks. It certainly helped that John Hawkins had transformed the Queen’s Navy in preparation for any onslaught by ensuring that the ships were small, nimble, fast, had plenty of guns and, crucially, were kept in a good state of repair. He was a rare example of an efficient and conscientious Elizabethan administrator. Indeed, John Hawkins comes across as one of the true heroes of this enterprise as not only did he prepare the Navy more than most, participated fully in the campaign he was also one of the leaders who cared for their mariners after the campaign had finished. When the Queen’s treasury scandalously failed to pay her sailors promptly after the threat had receded and had left many to rot and die, it fell to the consciences of Howard, Hawkins and Drake to set up the Chatham Chest charity to provide help to the neediest mariners. Hawkins went one step further and set up his own hospital in Chatham which to this day is the oldest Naval Charity in existence. Alas for the Spanish, their leaders were truly lamentable. In his defence, the Duke of Medina Sidonia was only given the position after the Marquis of Santa Cruz died in 1588 and protested vigorously against the command. He was an able enough administrator and at least got the Armada in to a suitable position to set sail. It would appear that his heart was never fully engaged in the enterprise and he hid behind the literal orders of his command and showed little initiative to the unfolding battle up the English Channel. There were numerous missed opportunities. Had he put ashore at Plymouth or on the Isle of Wight, he would have found that the English land forces were in a far less state of preparation than her marine forces. Whether these would have succeeded is still a matter of debate, but their advantage was their experienced soldiers who never got to show what they were capable of achieving. Not that all the blame can be laid at the feet of Medina Sidonia. The Duke of Parma was supposed to have his own army ready to meet the Armada in order that it be ferried across the Channel to South East England under the protection of the Armada's ships. It appears that the Duke of Parma was trying to be too clever by half and did not want his Dutch adversaries to know of his plans and so was not ready when the Armada arrived in August. This was a fatal miscalculation as there was no firm anchorage for the huge Armada to wait safely in. Showing the initiative of the English commanders, fireships were quickly prepared and launched into the Spanish fleet as it waited at Gravelines for Parma’s troops. This was the tipping point for the entire campaign. Although not many ships were destroyed, it forced the fleet in to the North Sea to reorganise. Most fatally of all though, was the collapse in the morale of the Spanish who realised that the original plan was now unachievable. Many ships had been damaged and the free for all chaotic dash to escape the fireships revealed the lack of cohesion and lackadaisical leadership to the entire fleet. It did not help that the prevailing winds and tides continued to take them further away from their destination. Medina Sidonia took the fateful decision to sail around the British Isles and return to Spain. Sadly they did not know these waters at all well and the weather unleashed savage storms once they had entered the Atlantic. The large, often damaged ships were buffeted cruelly and many were blown ashore on to the rugged rocks of Western Scotland and Ireland. One could not but be sympathetic to the sad plight of these Spanish mariners and soldiers many of whom survived horrific shipwrecks only to be killed ashore either by looting locals or by local militia who felt that Ireland might be under attack and with few too soldiers to defend the island. The mighty Armada came to an ignominious end as even those ships who survived this ordeal limped in to Spanish ports with disease ridden and starving crews.

The undoubted victor of this event was Elizabeth herself whose speech at Tilbury was majestic in tone even if the threat to her crown had already passed by the time she delivered it. Nevertheless, her Navy had hounded the Spanish constantly from the very time they were spotted off the Scilly Isles until it had been safely seen sailing past the Shetland Islands. The maritime skills of England had been shown to be impressive indeed and this reflected glory upon the Queen even if they had been fighting with one hand tied behind their backs due to their shortage of gunpowder. The parsimonious Elizabethan state was scandalously slow in rewarding her defenders with their pay and many died in rags. The defeat of the 1588 Armada did not bring an end to the threat to Elizabeth’s kingdom though. An English Armada was sent to Spain and Portugal in 1589 to attempt to destroy any resurgent Spanish fleet. Plagued by yet more parsimony, Drake veered the fleet to what he believed were more profitable targets much to the displeasure of the Queen. Although it put ashore at Corunna and Lisbon, it was far from a success and missed the main Spanish fleet being reconstructed at Santander. In fact, there would be two further Spanish Armadas launched, one in 1596 and one in 1597. They were every bit as large as the 1588 one but again those ‘Protestant Winds’ came to the aid of the English and their queen and both Armadas were disrupted and damaged by storms before they were in sight of England.

This is a very impressive book which tells the story of the Spanish Armada in an engaging and approachable manner. It does not get bogged down in details and yet it reveals much about the characters, hardware and events. Had they put ashore, it really could have been an extinction event for the nascent English Protestant state. In which case, the entire history of the globe would have been very different indeed, with no British Empire, no Royal Navy and no international spread of the English language. I would say that the author puts more emphasis on the weather (and indeed climate change) for the defeat of the Armada than I would be prepared to concede. I would say that the weather only really took its toll after the mission had been prevented from succeeding due to the actions of the English fleet. Yes, they barely sunk a ship themselves, but they continuously harried the fleet and prevented it from picking up Parma’s troops on the continent. They undermined the morale of the Spanish who were effectively defeated in the North Sea even before the gales of the Atlantic put the finishing touches to the Spanish Armada. In my eyes, the weather merely escalated the scale of the defeat, but it was the inspired leaders and mariners of England who ensured that no Spanish soldier came ashore prepared to wage holy war. This maritime skill would establish a tradition that would later go on to enable the acquisition of a global Empire and for this small European island to surpass the power of its larger continental rivals. Spain overreached itself in 1588 whereas England only began to realise the potential that laid before it. One Empire was in decline as another would begin.

British Empire Book
Robert Hutchinson
Thomas Dunne Books


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