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Sir Richard Grenville’s ‘Revenge’ took on the entire Spanish fleet

Posted in Famous battles, Famous Last Words, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Ships on Thursday, 20 February 2014

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This edited article about the ‘Revenge’ first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 559 published on 30 September 1972.

Grenville on the Revenge,  picture, image, illustration

Sir Richard Grenville, a famous British sailor, tried to sail the Revenge single-handed through a fleet of 53 Spanish ships off the Azores in 1591; fifteen of them surrounded him, and battle was joined

Six fine ships of sail riding at anchor in the island bay, warmed by the August sun reflected off a calm and dappled ocean; it was a scene which must have looked as pretty as a painting.

But to Lord Thomas Howard and Sir Richard Grenville, the ships’ admirals, that scene at Flores, one of the westerly islands of the Azores in the Atlantic, was anything but pretty.

It had, they agreed disconsolately, been a bad trip. They had set off from England with fine hopes of cutting off a rich Spanish treasure-fleet going home from the New World.

Instead of the treasure trove they had met only with sickness and steadily reducing morale. At Flores, with half their men ill and “utterly unserviceable” they had dropped anchor to provision the ships and do what they could for the sick.

It was three years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada and England, still at war with Spain, still ruled the waves. Only it didn’t much seem like it to the dispirited Howard and the downcast Grenville that warm August afternoon.

The messenger who broke into their deliberations aboard Grenville’s ship the Revenge stuttered out his news anxiously.

“Spanish warships have been sighted, sir. Fifty-three galleons, no less.”

Howard raced on deck and raised his eyeglass. He could see them already – the biggest enemy fleet since Drake destroyed the Armada coming round the island.

“Weigh anchor!” he roared and then it was a case of every ship for herself.

Five of them were soon clean away; the sixth lingered and in those lost moments was the genesis of one of the most daring stories in the annals of the Royal Navy. The sixth ship was Sir Richard Grenville’s Revenge and by the time she put to sea the wind had dropped, catching her in the Spanish trap.

Exactly why Grenville was the last to get away has never been discovered. It may have been because nearly half his 190 men were ill and ashore at the time and doubtless moving them back to the Revenge took precious time.

Or it may have been because Grenville utterly refused to flee and determined to stand and fight. If this was the case it was an act of recklessness, for all 53 of the galleons towered over the Revenge and any two of them “could have crushed her into shivers.” But it would have been an act in keeping with the man.

At 50, Grenville had spent his whole life building up a reputation for fanatical courage. On land he had fought with distinction fighting for the Austrians against the Turks in Hungary. At sea, he had well served the English fleet in the battle with the Spanish Armada.

None of his fights had won him any popularity. He treated his men like a tyrant until they hated him and his severe brand of discipline. As for his Spanish prisoners, he treated them as a breed of lower animals.

Noisy and headstrong, this was Grenville. But he had courage.

“We will pass through them,” ordered Grenville now as the 53 galleons split into two squadrons, bore down on the Revenge There was hardly wind to move the little ship, for one squadron was on her weather bow, but the foremost Spaniards were so astonished at Grenville’s audaciousness as his ship moved between them that they fell back.

Like a great fortress rising out of the ocean then, came the San Philip Her vast bulk utterly becalmed the Revenge as her three decks of cannon, each deck containing eleven pieces, were pushed out.

The thirty-three balls of fire ripped into the tiny sitting duck, splintering it like matchwood. But to the astonishment of the Spanish, the Revenge hit back with a single row of cannon. Stunned, the San Philip called up reinforcements.

Fourteen more of the armada closed in on the crippled Revenge smashing her with stinging shot. And still Grenville’s men answered back, bringing down a sail here, a mast there, killing scores of the multitudes of soldiers crowding the decks of the galleons.

As twilight came the Spanish resolved on a new tactic. They would board this crazy ship and kill her crew. Accordingly, two great galleons closed in on each side of the Revenge.

Aboard the galleons was an army of 5,000 trained soldiers. Aboard the Revenge now were only 60 sailors still able to fight – 80 were sick below decks and 40 had been killed.

It should have been a short and blood-strewn end, but the amazing 60, fighting like possessed demons, drove off the boarding parties from both sides, flinging them back upon each other or toppling them into the reddened sea.

On the upper deck, firing his musket into the fray, Grenville directed the fight that he knew he could never win. A musket shot ripped into his body; as he wiped away the blood another hit him in the head. The ship’s surgeon was killed as he bandaged Grenville’s wounds.

Time and again the Spanish attempted to board the smoking hulk of the Revenge and each time they were thrown back. As twilight turned to night they resorted again to pumping lead into the battered wreck.

Grenville, bleeding and weak, refused to give up. All through that night he continued to stab the darkness with answering fire. On the deck of the Revenge, level with the water, there was now nothing left to give cover: “the upper work was altogether razed she being but the very foundation of a ship, filled with blood and bodies of dead and wounded men like a slaughterhouse.”

When dawn came only 20 of the gallant ship’s crew remained alive. They had fought for 15 matchless hours; their powder was all gone and their pikes were broken.

Even Grenville accepted that nothing more could be done to hurt the Spanish. Bent with loss of blood, he ordered the master-gunner “to split and sink the ship, that thereby nothing might remain of glory or victory to the Spaniards.”

The master-gunner jumped to obey, but two of the surviving officers stopped him.

“We have six feet of water in the hold and we’ve been holed three times under the water line,” they told Grenville. “The ship will sink as soon as a wave touches her. What is the point in our dying with her when we could now be saved?”

“No!” shouted the firebrand admiral. But while the argument raged, the captain of the Revenge slipped aboard one of the galleons and threw the fate of the survivors on to the mercy of the Spanish commander.

Don Alphonso Bassan readily accepted the surrender. He wanted nothing more now than to set eyes on this astonishing Richard Grenville, who in the last 15 hours had killed nearly 2,000 of his men.

“All your lives will be spared,” he said.

Aboard the Revenge Grenville was still insisting on no surrender. But he was dying on his feet, and the few weary men left could see it. When the captain returned with Don Bassan’s terms of mercy, they turned sorrowfully away from their commander and surrendered to the Spanish victors.

Only the arrogant Grenville refused to move. Gently the Spanish came to get him, to take him off the smouldering, sinking hulk.

He was in no fit state to resist. As they lifted him, he passed out. “Pray for me,” he whispered as his eyes flickered and closed.

While a Spanish surgeon bathed and dressed his wounds, Grenville regained consciousness. At his bedside stood the Spanish Commander, anxious to praise his enemy’s bravery, the like of which, Don Bassan declared, he had never seen before.

Grenville, weak and pale, forced a thin smile. He had, he said, only done his duty, which he was bound to do. And he added:

“Here die I, Richard Grenville, with a joyful and quiet mind, for that I have ended my life as a true soldier ought to do, that hath fought for his country, Queen, religion and honour, whereby my soul willingly departeth from this body.”

The Spanish took what remained of the Revenge in tow and headed towards home. They had not gone very far before a furious storm blew up and scattered the galleons.

The Revenge and 28 of the Spanish ships were pounded on to a rocky island and reduced to driftwood. If Grenville had lived, it might have seemed fitting to him that so great a Spanish disaster should have occurred to honour the Revenge in the hour of her burial.

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