This edited article about the Spanish Armada originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 628 published on 26 January 1974.
From the very beginning of her reign, Elizabeth I, had made the Royal Navy one of her first considerations. She had raised the pay of the sailors, and she had gone to great efforts to increase the power of her fleet. She had been the first to cause gunpowder to be manufactured in England, and she had imported arms from Germany at considerable cost until the country had become a bristling armoury.
She had done all these things for one obvious reason – to make England strong against Philip of Spain, who had been waiting patiently for the right time to attack. The only reason he had not done so before was because of the political situation. If he struck at Elizabeth successfully, Mary Stuart would succeed to the throne, which would inevitably lead to a close alliance with France – a prospect which Philip could only view with alarm.
When Elizabeth finally sanctioned the execution of Mary Stuart, the way was clear at last for Philip. The result was the coming of the Armada.
Now that the contest had become inevitable, the Spanish Government openly declared its intentions. It was going to put to sea “the most fortunate and invincible Armada.” The fleet was to consist of 130 ships and twenty caravels, having on board 20,000 soldiers, 8,450 marines, 2,088 galley-slaves, and 2,630 great pieces of brass artillery. Every noble house in Spain would be represented, and the ships would also carry 180 friars and Jesuits who were to convert the English to the Catholic faith as soon as they landed.
Discipline was obviously going to be high. Blasphemy and oaths were to be punished rigidly, gaming and quarrelling forbidden. No one might carry a dagger which he might use impulsively on another, and there was going to be a great deal of religious exercises and prayers against the English heretics. The historian, Southey, put it aptly when he wrote, “No man ever set forth upon a bad cause with better will.”
Meanwhile, in England, the whole realm was preparing for the forthcoming battle. Thousands volunteered their services without pay, others offered money for armour and weapons and wages for the soldiers. When the City of London was asked for 5,000 men and fifteen ships, the citizens begged the queen to accept twice that number.
A number of Elizabeth’s advisers had suggested that she placed no reliance on maritime defence, but waited to meet her enemy on her shores. But Elizabeth had not built up her navy, merely to have it blown to pieces in her harbours. The navy would meet the Armada at sea, and destroy it. Brave words, but on the surface of it, more easily said than done. Despite Elizabeth’s efforts, the whole number of ships collected for the defence of the country amounted to only 191, manned by 17,472 seamen. In all, the tonnage of the English fleet amounted to only about half that of the Armada.
The arrival of the Armada off the Lizard was first sighted by a pirate named Thomas Fleming, who hastened into Plymouth with the news. For this he was to receive a pardon for all his past offences, and a pension for life. By the evening, bonfires were blazing along the Channel coast of England, their high flames carrying the news from hill top to hill top that the “invincible” Armada had arrived.
The next morning, the English ships poured out of the Channel ports to engage the Spaniards. They were smaller than the ponderous vessels of the Spaniards, but they were faster, and for a week they hung on the rear of the foe. One Spanish ship was captured by Francis Drake, and this was taken into Weymouth and burnt on the water’s edge.
When at last the Armada anchored off Calais, to await word of the army that was to join them from the Netherlands, Lord Effingham, the Commander of the Fleet, realised that he could now solve the problem that had been plaguing him throughout the battle. The Spanish ships were almost invulnerable to the shot and ordnance of the day, and “their height was such that our bravest seamen were against any attempt at boarding them.” But now the Spanish ships had placed themselves in a position where he could use a terrible weapon on them. The Lord Admiral ordered that eight of his worst vessels should be turned into fire-ships.
The ships were unloaded and filled with explosives. Then, with their sides smeared with lighted pitch and rosin, they were sent off at midnight with the wind and tide against the Spanish Fleet. When the Duke of Medina Sidonia, admiral of the Spanish Armada, saw the approaching fire-ships, he ordered the whole fleet to stand out to sea. But when he fired a signal for the others to follow, few of his captains heard it. Driven by fear, most of them had cut their cables, and had fled blindly, so that it was not possible to rally them together again once the danger was over, as the Spanish admiral had intended.
At dawn, the little English sea hawks closed in and worked a terrible havoc amongst the clumsy galleons, killing thousands of men with their deadly cannon fire. The Spaniards now lost hope of success, and thought only of escape.
But worse was still to come. As they fled before the wind meaning to return to Spain by sailing around the north of Scotland and Ireland, terrible gales beat down on them. The mules and horses were thrown overboard to save water, but this was a futile and meaningless gesture in view of the hammer blows that fate was still to inflict on the wretched Armada.
When they reached a position some 200 miles north of the Scottish isles, the Duke ordered his captains to take the best course they could for Spain. The Duke and twenty five of his ships reached it in safety. The others made for Cape Clear, hoping to rest there, but another terrible storm arose, and more than thirty vessels perished off the coast of Ireland.
Some 200 Spaniards managed to struggle ashore, where they were captured and beheaded. Another 700 who were cast ashore in Scotland were more lucky; they were humanely treated and later sent to the Netherlands. Of the whole Armada, only fifty-three vessels in all returned to Spain. Eighty-one had been sunk, and 12,000 were lost.
Philip received the news of the calamity with surprising calmness. He saw it as a dispensation of Providence and commanded that thanks to God and the saints should be given throughout Spain that it had not been worse.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada was an event of great historical importance. But it is important to realise that as a naval operation, the English victory was less glorious than it seems on the surface. The British sailors fought well and with great skill. But for all that, the Armada was not defeated by a superior fighting force, it was defeated by the incompetence of its leaders and a great deal of ill-luck.
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