Armada: The Spanish Enterprise and England’s Deliverance in 1588 
by Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker.
Yale, 718 pp., £30, December 2022, 978 0 300 25986 5
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Streedagh Strand​ is a long curving beach in County Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. It lies in the shadow of Benbulben, a plateau formed by Ice Age glaciers that is full of the fossils of extinct marine creatures. Out to sea reefs produce mountainous waves. It’s a place where men and their machines seem small. On 21 September 1588, three ships from the Levant squadron of the Spanish Armada were anchored a few miles offshore. They were riddled with shot, having been raked by English guns the previous month. One was missing its spritsail and foretopsail. Another was sinking. They had lost contact with their fleet after rounding Scotland and had no charts to guide them along the wild Atlantic way.

‘A great gale hit us broadside on,’ Francisco de Cuéllar recalled. It shot out of the north-west ‘with the waves reaching the sky’. De Cuéllar had seen nothing like it. ‘The cables could not hold and the sails could not be set. We found ourselves driven ashore on a beach of very fine sand.’ Within an hour, ‘all three ships were smashed to pieces.’ Nearly four hundred years later, the wrecks were discovered by divers armed with depth sounders and proton magnetometers. The vagaries of Irish salvage law meant that most of the finds could not be analysed in The Spanish Armada, published in 1988 by the underwater archaeologist Colin Martin and the historian Geoffrey Parker. Of the hundred or so books marking the quatercentenary of the fleet’s defeat, theirs stood out for its fusion of archaeology and documentary evidence: a triumph of rubber and tweed underpinned by collegiate spirit and, as Patrick O’Brian wrote in the LRB, ‘that fine zeal and conviction which arises from original research’. It might have been called definitive, but, as this superb new edition reminds us, history never sleeps, and nor does the sea. Evidence from the shifting sands of Streedagh and elsewhere along the coastline more than justifies the remastering, as do catches from fresh trawls in international archives. This edition – now called simply Armada – is more than twice as long as its predecessor and includes more than 150 illustrations.

‘I do warrant you,’ the lord admiral of the English fleet, Charles Howard of Effingham, reported from his flagship, ‘all the world never saw such a force as theirs.’ When it left Lisbon harbour on 28 May 1588, the Armada comprised 150 vessels, ranging from thousand-ton merchantmen to small felucca message boats. The mission, under the command of the duke of Medina Sidonia, was to get boots on the ground for an invasion of England. The fleet carried 18,973 soldiers and planned to pick up 27,000 more from the duke of Parma’s ‘Army of Flanders’ in the Spanish Netherlands. Battle-hardened after years of fighting Dutch rebels, they were judged the best soldiers of their day. After ‘joining hands’ off the coast of Dunkirk the two forces would sail to Margate, establish a beachhead, unload their mighty siege train and march on London. Elizabeth I, who had no standing army, was to be captured or killed.

In overall charge, though remaining in Spain, was Parma’s uncle, Philip II. Short, dressed in black, with eyes ‘somewhat red’ and the jutting jaw of a Habsburg, Philip did not look like ‘the most potent monarch of Christendom’, as the 17th-century writer Owen Feltham described him. But his was the empire on which the sun never set. After the Spanish annexation of Portugal in 1580, a celebratory medal declared: ‘non sufficit orbis’ (‘the world is not enough’). Parker, whose excellent biography of Philip, Imprudent King, was published in 2014, shows how a ‘messianic’ outlook undermined his strategy. Convinced that his actions were in perfect alignment with God’s will, Philip insisted on ‘micromanaging’ the expedition from his relic-stuffed palace in the Spanish mountains. ‘Inform me in minute detail of everything you do and everything that happens,’ he charged Medina Sidonia. This was patently unworkable in an age when a letter could take several weeks to cross Europe. Especially since, while Philip insisted on controlling everything, he had not actually thought of everything. He had not considered the need for a deep-water port that could hold his large-draught ships in the English Channel or the southern North Sea (there was none between the Isle of Wight and Flushing that was friendly to Spain), nor the exact manoeuvre that would permit the fleet to ‘join hands’ with Parma’s troop transports. Medina Sidonia was told to head for the Channel and await instruction. ‘I am sailing blind,’ he complained. Philip was sanguine: ‘I am convinced that with God’s help we shall overcome all obstacles.’

Philip’s interest in England dated back to his brief time as its king – he was married to Elizabeth’s half-sister and predecessor, Mary I, between 1554 and her death in 1558. He and Mary had restored papal sovereignty over the English Church, lost Calais to the French and – to his later regret – improved the English navy. (The galleon they launched as Philip and Mary had a different name when it faced the Armada three decades later.) After Elizabeth became queen, Philip kept a weather eye on his Protestant ‘sister and cousin’, especially after her excommunication by the pope in 1570. He sponsored Catholic conspiracies against her and generally acted as though he were still Defender of the Faith, but Elizabeth might have escaped his full attention had she not allowed her ships to raid his New World treasure fleets. After one successful expedition, which captured loot worth five times England’s annual revenue, she knighted her favourite privateer, Francis Drake, on his main deck. Subsequent plans ‘to annoy the king of Spain’ involved giving aid to his Dutch and Portuguese enemies and, in December 1585, sending an expeditionary force to the Netherlands under the command of another favourite, the Earl of Leicester. An English raid on Spanish soil in October – ‘el Draque’ again – had already pushed Philip beyond his limit. Just days after hearing of the sack of Galicia and the desecration of its churches, Philip accepted the pope’s invitation (and the lure of a million-ducat reward) to undertake a holy war against England’s heretic queen. Plans for ‘the Enterprise of England’ were underway long before Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded at Fotheringhay in February 1587 and the king of Spain’s beard singed at Cadiz (the cheerful description applied to Drake’s raids that summer), though both events strengthened Philip’s resolve. On 25 April 1588, the Armada battle standard was blessed at a special service in Lisbon Cathedral. Three months later it was sighted off the coast of Cornwall. It bore the words: ‘Arise O Lord and Avenge Thy Cause.’

Martin and Parker, who first met fifty years ago at the University of St Andrews, expertly prise off the legends barnacled to the Armada story. The tale of Drake playing a leisurely game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before sailing out to meet the Spanish fleet is probably apocryphal, though not impossible: he had to wait for the tide to turn. The ‘Invincible Armada’ was only called so after the event, by Elizabeth’s lord treasurer, Burghley. The queen’s famous speech at Tilbury, which threw foul scorn on the Duke of Parma for daring to invade the borders of her realm, was delivered ten days after the Armada had been repulsed. The danger remained, however, so long as Parma malingered at Dunkirk. We underestimate Elizabeth’s courage – and the existential threat to Protestant England – if we look at these events with hindsight.

Certainly, the Spaniards were full of anticipation. As they boarded their ships, they sang a ditty:

My brother Bart
For England departs
To kill Drake
And capture the queen.

When he returns from the wars
He must bring back in chains
A little Lutheran for me
And a Lutheran girl for my granny.

Most of the soldiers were young. Of almost four hundred captured in England and later ransomed and repatriated, 48 had enlisted before they turned eighteen and most of the rest were under thirty.

The senior officers were knights of Spain’s orders of chivalry. To qualify for knighthood, they had to pass four tests of pedigree: the family tree had to be clear of illegitimacy, heresy, Jews or anyone who had worked for a living. Each candidate was investigated by a friar and a knight, and the results submitted to Philip’s Council of the Orders. The king had to obtain papal dispensations for applicants with ‘stains’, of whom there were many. Juan Gómez de Medina, who commanded a squadron of urcas (hulks), had Jewish ancestors and a grandfather who had been condemned by the Inquisition. Don Pedro de Valdés, commander of the Andalusian squadron, had two great-grandfathers who were fornicating priests – ‘the whole world knows it’ – and a father who was rumoured to have sold vegetables, ‘albeit home-grown, not the produce of others’. Even Medina Sidonia was not unspotted: one ancestor was the illegitimate daughter of an archbishop. Martin and Parker call this new section of research ‘Men Behaving Badly’.

Despite the taint of bastardy and his reluctance to take the job, Medina Sidonia, aged 39, did exceptionally well to put the fleet to sea without the loss of a single ship. His experience was in the despatch of transatlantic convoys, but he was not a natural seafarer or fighting man. When, just after entering the Channel on 30 July, the opportunity arose to attack the English at Plymouth harbour, he struck sail and waited for stragglers. Another chance off the Isle of Wight five days later was squandered as a result of his determination to keep course and rendezvous with Parma.

Admiral Howard, who commanded 105 ships at Plymouth, tried to disrupt the Spanish formation with short sallies and heavy artillery fire. It was clear, even from the first few clashes, that the English had superior ships. ‘The best I’ve seen in my life,’ a captain in the Castile squadron thought: ‘the slowest of them travelled much faster than our fastest ship.’ Thanks were due to a new ‘race-built’ design developed in the 1570s, with sleeker lines and a hydrodynamically efficient hull that combined ‘the head of a cod and the tail of a mackerel’, as the master-shipwright put it. This made the vessels not only swifter but more agile. ‘They could turn around faster than the best-trained horse,’ observed a staff officer on the flagship San Martín. What this meant, in effect, was that the contest between the fleets would be decided not as the Spanish would have preferred, by grappling, boarding and hand-to-hand combat on deck, but by a firefight.

Martin and Parker relish all the technical detail and their enthusiasm is infectious. Every weight and measure, every change of wind and tide, each torn sail and shivered timber is logged and analysed. We are given a lot of interesting information about life on board an Armada ship – a sailor only had about sixteen square feet to himself – and the story is enriched by discoveries from the seafloor. Recovered from the wreck of the Neapolitan galleass Girona off the coast of Antrim were a scent bottle, a combination toothpick and ear-scoop, and a gold ring depicting a hand holding a heart, with the inscription ‘No tengo más que darte’ (‘I have nothing more to give you’).

Despite​ Howard’s attempts to ‘pluck their feathers by little and little’, the Armada managed to drop anchor off Calais on 6 August with its plumage fairly intact. Thirty miles away in Dunkirk, Parma was preparing to embark. His 27,000 men would have to be crammed onto three hundred barges and flat-bottomed craft and would need eight to twelve hours, he reckoned, to cross the Narrow Seas under the Armada’s escort. But waiting on the water, and making it impossible for him to get out, was a large Dutch blockade. Medina Sidonia assumed Parma would somehow be able to dash over to him, but as Parma tried to explain, ‘these vessels cannot run the gauntlet of warships; they cannot even withstand large waves.’ Another potential obstacle was the shoals fringing the Flemish coastline, preventing the Armada’s deep-draught ships from approaching the shore. As it turned out, however, the shallows would not be tested.

At midnight on 7 August, with the tide running north at two knots, and a following wind, eight English fireships attacked the Armada at anchor. None of the Spanish vessels caught fire, but the alarm caused most captains to cut their anchor cables (one contemporary reckoned that around three hundred anchors were left behind) and ‘the fleet degenerated overnight from a disciplined and still formidable fighting force into a scattering gaggle of panic-stricken ships.’

The following day, they clashed with the English fleet in a twelve-hour running battle off Gravelines. The fighting was at close range, but England’s superior ships were able to avoid the Spanish grappling hooks. They fired their guns low, at the vulnerable belt ‘between wind and water’, and at a more rapid rate than the Spaniards. Sea-carriages pulled from Armada shipwrecks confirm that some Spanish guns were mounted on trucks with two large-diameter wheels and long trails. This made them unwieldy, with a significant recoil, so they tended to be deployed only once. The English, by contrast, used shorter guns on compact four-wheeled truck carriages, which made them easier to manoeuvre, as well as to reload and discharge. The gunnery officer on the San Martín recorded more than a hundred direct hits to the hull, masts and sails. They ‘fired their big guns at the same speed that we fired our muskets’, he noted. The English also had more ‘ship-smashing’ guns, more experienced gunners, better powder and more standardised shot. (The ‘Spanish’ Armada used pieces from foundries all over Europe, each with different regional pound standards.) The guns won the day. The weather did the rest.

After the battle, Medina Sidonia held a council of war on his battered, blood-stained flagship. His surviving officers agreed to turn about and fight again. But on 10 August he decided to cut and run: ‘a dreadful decision’, noted his deputy, Juan Martínez de Recalde, whose papers were discovered by the Spanish historian Fernando Jesús Bouza Álvarez in 1994 (in a box labelled ‘papeles curiosos’). Recalde believed the Armada was doomed the moment it entered the North Sea. He did not know that the English, who chased them as far as the Firth of Forth, had empty shot-lockers and were close to starvation, with some drinking their own urine. He made it back to Spain after guiding his galleon through the treacherous reefs of Blasket Sound on Ireland’s westernmost tip, but died a few days later. Medina Sidonia abandoned his flagship at Santander. One night on his journey home a group of youths surrounded his lodgings, called him ‘duke of Gallina’ (chicken duke) and chanted: ‘Drake, Drake, Drake is coming.’

Almost half the men who sailed on the Armada did not make it home. More than thirty ships were wrecked in the storms that lashed the Irish coast, the most violent being that of 21 September which took out the Levant squadron off Streedagh Strand. ‘Like many sudden Atlantic gales spawned by cyclonic conditions in mid-ocean,’ Martin and Parker write, ‘it arrived without warning out of a clear sky.’ More than a thousand men drowned, but three hundred made it onto the beach. One was Captain de Cuéllar, who couldn’t swim but held onto a loose hatch-cover with another officer. A huge wave knocked them both over. De Cuéllar surfaced. The other man, who had coins sewn into his clothes, did not. Meeting the survivors on the beach were ‘two hundred savages’, de Cuéllar remembered; they ‘went about dancing and skipping with glee at our misfortunes’. Each Spaniard was stripped of his clothes and clubbed if he put up any resistance. De Cuéllar somehow made it over to the dunes, where he collapsed. ‘Up came two men, one of them armed and the other with a great iron axe in his hands.’ Without a word, they cut some grass, laid it over the Spaniard and headed for richer pickings on the beach. When he awoke from an exhausted sleep, de Cuéllar saw English cavalrymen galloping along the beach hunting for plunder and blood. Astonishingly, he was able to get back to Spain and write a long account of his adventures. Today at Streedagh there is a De Cuéllar Trail, along with an Armada monument and an annual parade.

The defeat of the Armada is one of the great hinge events of English history, a moment of danger and deliverance for the fledgling Protestant state and a sign, for those in search of one, of God’s providence. When the borders of the realm were again threatened in 1940, Churchill invoked it. It is David and Goliath, island v. empire, a ‘weak and feeble woman’ against a king with a God complex. Philip’s failure to heed the warnings and alter his course made him the architect of his own downfall. His confident hope of a miracle left bodies on the beach. Bones are still being found among the dunes under Benbulben.

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Vol. 45 No. 10 · 18 May 2023

Jessie Childs mentions the treatment meted out to the sailors of the Spanish Armada shipwrecked off the Irish coast in 1588 (LRB, 4 May). The treatment varied according to where in the British Isles you fetched up. In most places the sailors were set upon and slaughtered, but the crew who made landfall at the Scottish port of Anstruther in East Fife were given ‘keall, pattage and fische’ and were hospitably entertained by the townsfolk, as the parish minister James Melville recorded in his (later published) Diary, adding that they were ‘for the maist part young berdles men, sillie, trauchled and houngered’. Having recovered from their ordeal they were permitted to return home. On reaching Spain, the captain, Juan Gómez de Medina, found that an Anstruther boat had been interned in the port at his home town and the crew imprisoned. He lost no time in having the men released, sending them home to Fife with messages of goodwill to the Reverend Melville and the local laird, John Anstruther.

Harry Watson

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