(This follows on from my previous essay about the background to the Spanish Armada)
The future not only of England but of the whole of western Europe hung in the balance in mid-July 1588, as the Armada made its way through the Bay of Biscay to face the English fleet in the Channel. What were the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides?
The Duke of Medina Sidonia, commanding the Armada, had a fleet of 130 ships, not all of which made it to the Channel. 65 were equipped for combat, but only a minority of these were proper galleons, the rest being converted merchantmen. Elizabeth's Navy Royal consisted of just 34 ships, of which 21 were front-line galleons, but she would expect a number of privately-owned ships to add their assistance against the Spaniards. It is a myth that the Spanish ships were bigger, and is partly due to the fact that a Spanish ton was 25% less than an English ton. Certainly some of the Spanish hulks, which carried the stores, were large, but these were not fighting ships,and their slowness and clumsiness detracted from the Armada's capacity in combat. In fact the fighting ships on the two sides were very comparable in size, though the English, being lower in the water, looked smaller. Where the Spaniards were clearly superior was in soldiers. Their army was the finest in Europe. 19,000 troops were carried on board the Armada, and more were to be picked up from the Duke of Parma's forces in the Netherlands. Against these, Elizabeth had only a sketchy local militia, with no experienced generals. The English dared not face the Spaniards in a land battle.
Both sides carried about the same number of guns aboard their galleons, but here there were major differences. The Spaniards had a preponderance of short-range cannon, firing heavy shot of 25 pounds or above: the English guns were long-barrelled, long-range culverins, firing lighter shot of 10 pounds or less. Spanish tactics were therefore to close with the enemy, batter them at close range and then board: English tactics were to pick the enemy off at long range. In the event, both tactics were to prove ineffective: the Spaniards were never able to get very close to the more manoeuverable English ships; the English ships were able to hit the Spaniards from a distance, but found that their light shot seldom caused serious damage. The Armada carried 123,000 cannon balls and 57,000 pounds of gunpowder. Elizabeth's government had just 70,000 pounds of powder in the Tower of London, plus quantities scattered in coastal forts and in private hands. One of the oddities of the Armada campaign is that the English ships had to keep breaking off the fight because they ran out of powder!
There was a clear English superiority in qualities of command and of seamanship. Sir Francis Drake, now aged about 44, was the most famous sailor of the age, much feared by the Spaniards. (By a happy coincidence the Spanish version of his name, "El Draque", meant "the dragon"). The Spaniards believed he had a magic mirror which enabled him to locate their ships at sea. Alongside Drake were other famous sea-captains: John Hawkins, explorer, pirate and slave-trader, and now a government official as Treasurer of the Navy, in charge of shipbuilding and responsible for creating the new improved galleons; and Martin Frobisher, famous for his exploration of Canadian Arctic waters. They were a highly independent-spirited lot; Drake and Frobisher especially being bitter rivals.
It comes as a surprise to people today that Drake was not given command of the fleet, but was only second-in-command. But in no other country at that time would a man from such a humble background have risen so high: his father was only a farmer from Tavistock in Devon; he had been brought to London as a boy and gone to sea at an early age. He had attained wealth and eminence by sheer ability, coupled with extreme ruthlessness, for he was a strong Puritan, hating Catholics and believing he was doing God's work in fighting them. The commander of the English fleet was the Lord Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, a scion of England's premier noble family, and a relative of the Duke of Norfolk and two Queens; Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard; all of whom had been beheaded for high treason! Howard was not a great seaman, but he genuinely cared about his ships and his men. He was tactful with his strong-willed and quarrelsome subordinates, and sensible enough to listen to Drake and to take his advice. Drake was perfectly happy to work with him. Serving under Howard and co. were crews of highly experienced sailors, well used to the rough waters encountered around Britain and in the Atlantic, and practiced in the use of cannon.
By contrast, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, while brave and conscientious, was no sailor, and indeed had begged King Philip not to give him the command. His captains were similar men: nobles, often hardened in battle, but lacking experience in Atlantic conditions. Few of their crews had ever ventured into these waters, and some were mere landsmen: peasants conscripted to replace those sailors who had succumbed to illness during the long and frustrating delays the Armada encountered before setting sail. In battle the English would be able to manoeuvre their ships much better.
The strategy laid down by King Philip was that the Armada should make its way up the Channel, pick up the Duke of Parma's army from Dunkirk and ferry it across to land in England at Margate in Kent. There were several weak points to this. Even if the Armada remained intact after any combat with the English fleet, there could be no guarantee of exactly when it would reach the rendezvous. Then there was the question of whether Parma really wanted to commit his troops to what would be an extremely risky plan.
Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, was the greatest European soldier of his age. As his title implies, he was an Italian nobleman, not a Spaniard. His family owed its wealth and prominence to the shameless nepotism of an earlier Alexander Farnese, who had become Pope Paul III and was the current Duke's great-grandfather. Over the last few years Parma had achieved notable success in his war against the Dutch Protestant rebels, and he probably saw the plan for the invasion of England as a classic bit of armchair amateur strategy. His army would have been dangerously divided, and if by some mischance the invasion force had been sunk, the war would have been lost overnight. Parma also knew that he did not have control of his own coastal waters, which were the haunt of the "Sea Beggars": Dutch privateers in nippy little flyboats. If they caught Parma's troops on barges during embarkation, it would be a massacre. Ultimately, neither Sidonia or even King Philip could force Parma to obey the plan. As the campaign progressed, Sidonia had several opportunities to abandon the plan and take other opportunities which presented themselves, but never had the self-confidence to seize the chance.
(One confusing aspect of the Armada campaign is the problem of the dates. A few years before this, it had been realized that the calendar, known as the Julian calendar, was inaccurate, and a new calendar, known as the Gregorian, was devised to replace it. Most of continental Europe adopted the new calendar, and advanced the date by ten days, but England refused, on the grounds that the new calendar was "Popish" and thus suspect. In consequence of this, English dates were ten days behind continental ones. Historians deal with this problem by labelling dates "OS", Old Style, for the Julian calendar and "NS", New Style, for the Gregorian. I am using OS English dates here.)
On July 19th (or, by Spanish dates, July 29th) the Armada was sighted off the Lizard, the southern tip of Cornwall. The English fleet was not there to meet them. Elizabeth had wanted to keep her fleet in the Thames estuary, to keep an eye on Parma. Fortunately, Howard had persuaded her to move some of them to Plymouth; but even so, the English commanders had only 19 fighting ships there, with 15 others still in the Thames. Everyone knows the story of how Drake was playing bowls at Plymouth when the Armada came in sight, and how he refused to be alarmed, saying that there was plenty of time to finish the game. In fact, Drake was in no position to put to sea immediately. He had wanted to attack the Spanish fleet in harbour in Corunna, but Elizabeth had vetoed it, hoping even at this late stage that war could be avoided. Instead, Drake had only just returned to Plymouth from a "recce", and his ships needed restocking. Now Sidonia lost an opportunity of attacking Drake in harbour. Instead the Armada sailed on past Plymouth on a south-west wind, taking up a crescent-shaped defensive formation, with the galleons protecting the hulks. The English fleet came out and followed them, to windward and thus holding the initiative.
Sunday July 21st saw the first fighting. Broadside cannonades were fired by both sides, in the first naval battle of its kind in world history. Now and over the next few days, more and more privately-owned English ships, such as Walter Raleigh's "Roebuck", sailed out to join the fight. To avoid chaos, they were marshalled into squadrons under the four principal commanders: Drake took up his favourite position to windward on the right of the line, Howard and Hawkins held the centre, with Frobisher on the left, closest to the English coast. But within a couple of days the English ships had exhausted their ammunition,and desperate appeals were sent out to local castles and militia commanders for fresh supplies.
The Armada sailed on eastwards, passing up on the opportunity to attack Portland. Further on, it would have made good strategic sense to seize the Isle of Wight as a base for future operations.But this was not part of the original plan, and the tides and currents around the Solent are always confusing; and on the 25th the Armada was hustled on past the island. Not a shot was fired on the 26th, and on the 27th the Armada anchored off Calais.
A week of fighting had resulted in remarkably little damage to either side. The English had suffered hardly any casualties at all. On a couple of occasions first Drake, and then Frobisher, had appeared to be trapped and dangerously isolated, but superior seamanship had enabled them to escape unscathed. On the other hand, the Spaniards had lost two ships as a result of a collision, and one blown up in an accidental explosion, but not one had been sunk by English gunfire. It looked to be first round to the Spaniards when they reached Calais. The governor of the town, preserving a careful neutrality until he found out who was winning, sent Sidonia presents but no munitions.
It was at this point that everything started to go wrong for the Armada. In the first place, the Duke of Parma should have been at Dunkirk, further along the coast, ready to embark his forces for the invasion of England. But instead he was inland, at Bruges, and nowhere near ready. He later explained to King Philip that he would have been ready in a day or so. In reality, as has been suggested, he probably always considered the plan far too risky, and never had any commitment to it. Secondly, Queen Elizabeth at last permitted Lord Henry Seymour to lead out the squadron from the Thames estuary. Howard now had 140 ships and fresh supplies of ammunition. Thirdly,and most famously, on the night of July 28th/29th fireships were launched against the Armada as it lay at anchor.
A number of small ships were packed with inflammable materials and set alight, their guns loaded for when the heat caused them to fire, their sails set, and sent to drift on a rising tide and a prevailing north-west wind into the Armada. This should not have presented a great problem to the Spaniards: fireships were easy to avoid if one kept calm, and Sidonia's flagship duly raised her anchor and steered clear any danger. But other captains panicked. Were the burning vessels more than just fireships? At Antwerp a few years earlier the Dutch had launched a "hell-burner"; a floating time-bomb which had exploded under a bridge, killing 800 Spanish troops and wounding Parma himself. Were the English using hell-burners? Many Spanish captains did not wait to find out, but cut their anchor cables and fled in confusion into the darkness. When dawn broke, all formation had been lost, and was never to be recovered.
On July 29th came the decisive combat, known as the battle of Gravelines: a series of individual duels. Howard rather lost the plot at this point, wasting time and manpower in storming a large galleass, the "San Lorenzo", which had already run aground, but Drake, Hawkins, Frobisher and Seymour flung themselves upon the disorganised Spaniards. Many Armada ships were badly damaged, and others wrecked or grounded, with their crews murdered by the Dutch as they scrambled ashore. At least 600 Spaniards were killed, and many more must have been drowned. By contrast, throughout the entire campaign no English ships had been lost and fewer than 50 men killed, showing the ineffectiveness of Spanish gunnery.
There was no fighting the next day because, once again, the English ships had run out of ammunition and were watching the Armada from a safe distance. But the Spaniards did not know this, and made no attempt to break out. Instead they drifted helplessly on a north-west wind towards the shoals and sandbanks of the Belgian coast, whilst the Dutch "Sea Beggars" lurked in the Scheldt estuary waiting to pounce on any ship which ran aground. "Only God can save us!" was the Spanish thought.
Then suddenly, a miracle! The wind shifted round to the south, and the Spanish ships were blown into deeper water,with the English unable to stop them! In theory it would now have been possible to attempt another linkup with Parma, or to re-enter the Channel and resume the fight, but not surprisingly the Armada captains thought only of escape, and set sail northwards into the North Sea. Drake followed them as far as Tynemouth, before shortage of provisions forced him to return home. It was only at this stage that Elizabeth delivered her famous speech at Tilbury. The invasion plan was in fact completely dead by then, but nobody in England could be certain of it yet.
The Armada now had little option but to return home round Scotland and Ireland. Sidonia did his best to keep his fleet together, ordering them all to follow his flagship. He must have had an excellent navigator on board, and his men probably sighted no land until they reached Santander in northern Spain in early September, having covered 1500 miles in 30 days. Those ships which managed to follow the flagship all survived. But the Armada was now hopelessly scattered; the ships were badly battered from the fighting, and some had sprung leaks or lost their rudders or anchors. No fresh provisions or water had been taken on board since mid-July, and on long voyages epidemic diseases always broke out on the crowded conditions on board ship. Most of them lacked experienced navigators and were reduced to trying to find their way home by following the west coast of Ireland. For many this proved disastrous as the prevailing winds trapped them in the great bays they found there; Donegal Bay, Clew Bay, Galway Bay and others; from which there was no escape. At least 25 ships were wrecked, of which 17 have been located and 12 identified by name. Elizabeth's Lord Deputy in Ireland, Sir William Fitzwilliam, ordered the killing of any Spaniards who got ashore; but even without this, the Irish of the poverty-stricken west coast would have regarded wrecks as one of their traditional perks (as did their English equivalents in places like Cornwall). A handful of great nobles were spared for the ransom-money; the other pathetic survivors were simply knocked on the head. Overall losses can only be estimated. Perhaps 20,000 men died and 50 ships were lost, though only 4 of these were royal galleons.
The reactions of the Spanish and English governments made a contrast. Philip realized there was no point in blaming Sidonia for the disaster, and the hapless Duke was allowed to retire to his estates, which he should never have left. Philip was more inclined to attribute the failure to God's punishment for his own and the nation's sins. As one of nature's bureaucrats, he issued instructions for food and clothing to be provided for the survivors, and then set himself to create a new fleet.
Elizabeth's behaviour was not praiseworthy. She was prepared to spend large sums in pageantry to celebrate the victory, but soon her natural parsimony reasserted itself. She could not find the money to pay her sailors' back wages, so she refused to demobilize her fleet and kept the men on board, even though provisions were desperately short. Piteous appeals from Lord Howard for money and food for his men brought no response. Perhaps as many as a thousand English sailors died of typhus, food poisoning or sheer starvation over the next few months: many times the number killed in battle. In the end, Howard was forced to pay the men out of his own pocket, and was still trying to reclaim the money from the government twenty years later!
The war between England and Spain trickled on inconclusively for many years, with neither side achieving a clear advantage. It outlasted both the two monarchs, Elizabeth and Philip II, and it was left to their successors to sign a peace treaty. During this time, Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher all died, without adding much to their reputations. Only Lord Howard of Effingham lived on, not dying until 1624. He continued to hold the office of Lord Admiral till he was 80, but as he slipped into senility his navy declined into corruption and ineffectiveness, and did not recover for many decades.
Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, the man who had not sent his troops to linkup with the Armada in 1588, died four years later. The Dutch rebels survived unsubdued,and the 17th century became the golden age of the Dutch Republic, with vast trading wealth flooding into Amsterdam. The southern part of the Netherlands remained under Spanish control, and in the 19th century became the kingdom of Belgium.
The most dramatic events that followed the Armada campaign occurred in France, where King Henry III, perhaps emboldened by the defeat of the Armada, at last stirred himself into action. In December 1588 he summoned the Duc de Guise, the leader of the Spanish-backed Catholic League,to a meeting at the chateau of Blois on the Loire. Why Guise was so incautious as to come is not clear: perhaps, having bullied and humiliated the King in Paris, he felt he had nothing to fear from him. If so, he was wrong. Early on December 23rd, Guise, entering the main hall in the chateau, was surrounded by the King's friends and stabbed to death.
The heir to the throne was a cousin, Henry of Navarre, a Hugenot Protestant. But after four years of bitter fighting, he realised that he could never make good his claim as things stood; and so in 1593 he announced his conversion to Catholicism - "Paris is worth a mass!" as he is said to have explained it. As King he issued the Edict of Nantes, guaranteeing rights and privileges to his fellow-Hugenots. Under Henry IV and his successors came the great age of Baroque France : "the splendid century": as Spain drifted into irreversible decline and England was yet to emerge as a great power.
Note: The most readable book on the subject, which also places the Armada campaign in its European context, is still Garrett Mattingly's "Defeat of the Spanish Armada". It was written more than half a century ago, and some of its findings have been questioned by later historians, but it remains a splendid read.