Not long ago I was asked, unexpectedly, to give a talk on the Spanish Armada. I have never claimed to be an expert on the subject, but this is what I came up with.
The Spanish Armada story must be one of the best-known episodes in English history.
Was the Spanish Armada date"
as children once recited in junior school. But the date itself raises a question. By 1588 Elizabeth had been on the English throne for thirty years. Why did Philip of Spain wait so long before launching an invasion? and why do it at all, after all this time? Not only was Elizabeth a Protestant heretic, and possibly illegitimate as the offspring of a dubious marriage; but Philip had his own claim to the English throne, both as the husband of the late Queen Mary and as a descendant of the old Plantagenet kings. So why wait so long? The answer must be twofold: the delay was partly due to Elizabeth's skillful diplomacy (particularly her exploitation of her unmarried state); and partly because England ranked fairly low down on Philip's list of priorities.
Philip II of Spain was the son of the Emperor Charles V. Since 1555 he had ruled not only Spain, but also Sardinia,Sicily and Naples, and thus dominating the Italian peninsula. From his ancestors the Dukes of Burgundy he inherited what are now the Netherlands and Belgium. He also became King of Portugal when the old Portuguese dynasty died out. In addition he also ruled a vast colonial empire in America and the Far East; the source of enormous wealth. Every year the Plate Fleet brought the profits of the East across the Pacific from the Philippines to Panama, where it joined with the gold and silver of Mexico and Peru for shipment to Spain. These massive bullion imports enabled Philip to build up the only professional army in Europe, with which to intimidate his neighbours; though his multiple commitments meant that he went bankrupt no fewer than four times during his reign. In 1494 the Pope had allotted all the newly-discovered lands to Spain and Portugal, but the wealth involved became an irresistible target for the excluded nations. Trading, privateering and outright piracy became indistinguishable for enterprising English, Dutch or French captains.
Philip's huge empire brought him many different problems.
Spanish power in the Mediterranean was threatened by the navies of the Ottoman (Turkish) empire, and by their allies, the corsairs operating out of what is now Algeria: the notorious "Barbary coast". This threat was lessened by the Turkish failure to take Malta,and by the destruction of the Turkish fleet at Lepanto, off the coast of Greece,in 1571, but for the rest of the century there was essentially a stand-off between Philip and the Turkish Sultan, with neither establishing a clear advantage.
In 1566 the Dutch Protestants rose in revolt against Spanish rule. Philip sent armies there, under his half-brother Don John of Austria (the victor at Lepanto), and latterly under Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, but never managed to crush the rebels.
France, not England, was Philip's main enemy, as it had been for his father, the Emperor Charles V. France was now in a very delicate situation. For decades, there was a spasmodic civil war between the Catholic monarchy and the Protestant Hugenots; the most notorious incident being the 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in Paris, when thousands of Hugenots were murdered. From 1574 the King of France was Henry III; the last of his line, childless, presumably homosexual (nicknamed "Le Roi Mignon": "the sweetie king"). The power behind the throne was his mother, the formidable Catherine dei' Medici, from the great Florentine family; but the heir to the throne was a cousin, Henry of Navarre; a Hugenot! The other great power in France was the Catholic League, headed by the Duc de Guise and his brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine. It seems certain that Philip was backing the League with his money. King Henry and his mother did not trust the League, and were fearful of Spanish ambitions in France. In Paris the League was all-powerful, and Henry was losing control of his own capital to the Guise faction. (The Guises weren't even properly French, coming as they did from Lorraine. Mary Queen of Scots was from the same family, her mother being a Guise, and her first husband had been Henry III's elder brother)
Until the 1570s, or even later, Philip never gave up hope of winning Elizabeth of England over. He would far rather have had her on his side against the French, and at least neutral in the Dutch war, than have to go to the trouble of overthrowing her by force. On her part, Elizabeth wanted above all to avoid war; and she used her unmarried state as a skillful negotiating gambit: would she marry a French prince or a Spanish one? or perhaps someone completely different: Eric of Denmark, or even Ivan the Terrible of Russia! Helped by her natural tendency to procrastination, she kept them all guessing, literally for decades.
Elizabeth was a religious moderate, disliking persecution or "windows into men's souls" unless actual treason was involved. But a series of events forced her into an increasingly anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish position:-
1568 Mary Queen of Scots fled to England. She was undoubtedly the heir to the English throne, and also a Catholic. Elizabeth used the excuse of the mysterious murder of Mary's husband, Lord Darnley, an English nobleman, to keep her under house arrest pending an investigation. But Mary inevitably became the focus of a series of Catholic plots against Elizabeth.
1569 "The Rising of the North". Catholicism was still strong in the north of England, where several of the old feudal lords now rose in rebellion, but were defeated
1570 A Papal Bull issued by Pope Pius V proclaimed Elizabeth a heretic and usurper: English Catholics were absolved of their oaths of obedience and commanded to overthrow her. About this time, numbers of young English Catholics were secretly trained abroad as priests and then smuggled back into England.
1571 The Ridolfi Plot sought to free Mary and marry her to the Duke of Norfolk, England's premier Catholic nobleman. Norfolk was executed, and Mary placed under tighter restrictions
1581 The learned and saintly Edmund Campion, England's most prominent Catholic priest, was arrested, tortured and executed for treason. Recusancy fines (for non-attendance at Anglican church services) were massively increased
1583 The Throckmorton Plot to kill Elizabeth
1586 The Babington Plot. A "sting" operation implicated Mary
1587 Mary Queen of Scots was executed in February.
Elizabeth was reluctant to get involved in the Dutch revolt, but the assassination of the Dutch Protestant leader William the Silent in 1584 made her realize that the situation was critical, and she sent money and an English force under her favourite, the Earl of Leicester, to support the rebels. Leicester proved distinctly incompetent as a general, and Parma took some towns from the rebels, but even so this English assistance encouraged the Dutch and angered Philip.
In Ireland the Fitzgerald Earls of Desmond (known as the Geraldines) rose in revolt in 1579. A Spanish force was sent to assist Desmond, but was caught and massacred at Smerwick in 1580.
Then there was the issue of piracy in American waters. At first, English ships did not directly attack Spanish colonies, but in 1577 came Drake's voyage round the world, raiding undefended Spanish bases on the Pacific coast. Philip was understandably furious, but Elizabeth pleaded ignorance. In 1585 Drake attacked in the West Indies, sacking Cartagena and other Spanish bases.
Finally in 1586 King Philip decided he'd had enough, and instructed his leading admiral, the Marquis of Santa Cruz, to draw up a plan for the invasion of England. It was now far too late to help Mary Queen of Scots, but it is questionable how far Philip ever really wanted Mary, with her strong French links, on the throne of England. That problem at least would shortly be solved.
Before we outline Santa Cruz's plans, we must examine the changing face of war at sea. One of the problems facing King Philip was that, with his vast empire, he needed not one navy, but two: one for the Mediterranean and another for the Atlantic; and they weren't the same!
From ancient times, the warship of the Mediterranean had been the galley: long, narrow, low in the water, having a shallow draught without a keel, propelled by banks of oars: fighting by ramming the enemy or by closing and boarding. This method suited the Spaniards because of their splendid professional army (the word "infantry" originated with Philip's soldiers). The last great galley battle in history was at Lepanto in 1571, where a composite fleet commanded by Philip's half-brother, Don John of Austria, had decisively defeated the Turks off the west coast of Greece. Most of the Spanish commanders were galley-sailors: Santa Cruz himself had been in command of the reserve at Lepanto, and his intervention at a crucial moment had been decisive.
But galleys were unsuitable for the rougher waters of the Atlantic, where ships needed higher sides and deep keels to tack with the wind. Also, advances in metallurgy enabled better guns to be cast. In the previous half-century a new kind of warship had been developed: the galleon, with 16 or more cannon each side, mounted on different gundecks, so that with proper training the sailors could fire a devastating broadside. Henry VIII's ill-fated "Mary Rose" was one of the very first galleons. Galleys by their very nature could not fire broadsides, and only carried a few cannon.
Santa Cruz outlined his invasion plan in March 1587. The figures were astonishing. He reckoned on an army of 59,000 men; which, with the sailors needed to transport them, came to a manpower total of 94,000, plus horses. To carry this gigantic force to England he envisaged a fighting force of 150 galleons, 40 hulks (large store-ships), 40 galleys and a mass of smaller ships: a total fleet of 556 vessels. The ships would be armed with 1280 cannon (which sounds a lot, but actually only averages 2 per ship). The expedition would be provisioned for six months; the supplies including 19 tons of biscuits, 23,000 barrels of salt fish, tons of cheese and bacon, tens of thousands of gallons of water and wine ....... the total cost coming to one and a half billion maravedis!
Where was all this to come from? To take a single instance: Santa Cruz asked for 150 galleons, but how many did Philip actually have? just 24! and he was already in financial difficulties! Was the admiral trying to tell his king that the expedition wasn't really feasible?
A new plan was then evolved: to invade and conquer England on the cheap. In the Netherlands, just across the narrow seas from the coast of Kent, the Duke of Parma commanded a first-rate army of 60,000 men (most of whom, incidentally, were not Spaniards). Would it not be possible to mount a much smaller expedition, which could sail from Spain, pick up Parma's troops, land them somewhere near Margate and use them to defeat Elizabeth's makeshift forces in a single rapid campaign before returning to take on the Dutch once more? But in April 1587, while this revised plan for a slim-line Armada was still being drawn up, Drake raided Cadiz harbour; and there, in the most favourable galley conditions imaginable, he destroyed twelve royal galleys while losing no ships himself in the process. Drake then landed at Sangres, further up the coast, where he captured and burnt huge quantities of supplies intended for the Armada before returning home. It was clearly shown that galleys stood no chance at all in a battle with galleons.
Version 2 of the Armada was very much smaller. Only 19,000 soldiers were taken on board, with a consequent overall reduction of manpower to 30,000: only a third of the original proposal. The fleet was also much reduced, to just 130. This included just 4 galleys (none of which managed to reach the Channel), 4 galleasses (an experimental hybrid ship, which did not prove a great success), 25 big hulks for the stores and far fewer small ships. The main fighting force was 65 galleons; still far more than King Philip possessed: instead large merchant ships were commandeered and armed as galleons. The number of cannon, however, was doubled to 2,400; half of which were heavy, firing shot of over 4 pounds weight. The new Armada was thus far more effective as a fighting force.
After endless delays, the expedition finally set sail from Corunna in north-western Spain on July 12th 1588. But Santa Cruz was not on board. He had died in February, aged 63. As his successor King Philip nominated the Duke of Medina Sidonia; a rich, pious and brave nobleman. He had no experience of the sea, and indeed had begged Philip not to give him the command, but had striven manfully to overcome the confusion he inherited in the dockyards.
What followed was to prove a turning-point not only for England, but for the entire history of western Europe. If England had fallen to the Spaniards, Protestantism would have been reduced to a handful of small, scattered enclaves: Scotland, Scandinavia, Switzerland and a few German principalities. The Dutch rebels would have been unlikely to resist for much longer. Even the future of France was at stake, for at the same time as the Armada set sail, Henry III had fled from Paris and taken refuge by the Loire, leaving his capital under the control of the Duc de Guise and his pro-Spanish Catholic League.
What would happen now?
My next essay will outline the Armada campaign.