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The reluctant English spy in the shipyards of San Sebastian

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, Invasions, Ships on Wednesday, 4 September 2013

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This edited article about the Spanish Armada originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 396 published on 16 August 1969.

Building the Spanish Armada, picture, image, illustration

In 1588, Thomas Richardson stood before the new Spanish Armada with little interest whilst, in England, Sir William Waad waited in vain for news from his spies, by Ron Embleton

Only seven years after Drake had defeated the Armada in 1588, rumours of another Spanish invasion were rife – and Sir William Waad, one of England’s chief spy-masters, was a worried man.

He had to know where the offensive would come . . . and how . . . and when!

But nobody, it seemed, could tell him. England was in a state of anxiety.

* * *

One man could have told Sir William Waad what he wanted to know. For, while the English spy-master vainly waited for news from his usual agents, a Scotsman by the name of Thomas Richardson stood before the new Armada and saw everything there was to see.

All the ships which King Philip of Spain was building lay before his eyes. Vessels of three to four hundred tons stood high in the yards, and the streets which led to the port of San Sebastian were full of warlike preparations.

But Richardson watched the scene without interest. The vital information that England craved was within his grasp, yet his eyes surveyed the scene without enthusiasm.

Richardson had no taste for politics. All he wanted was to settle a debt with a man. All he knew was that this same man might be in San Sebastian. And Richardson had travelled across Europe to catch him.

Born in Leith, Richardson had made his way south as a young man and had eventually settled in Gloucester. There he had married and lived a peaceful enough life for 16 years.

For 14 of those years, he had been a chorister in the cathedral, and there was nothing about him to suggest that he was in any way an adventurer. But, then, in the very cathedral where he had sung, his troubles began.

A newly-appointed dean had dismissed the choristers, and when Richardson had protested, the dean had driven him out of the town.

Moving to Waterford in Ireland, Richardson had lived there for four years – again peacefully. But again misfortune had dogged him. Just as he and his family had built a new life, a thief had robbed them of a hundred pounds. It was all they had. They were in deep poverty again.

But this time, Richardson’s Scottish determination showed through. He knew a little about the thief. His name was John Hughes and he had a blemish on his face. As far as Richardson was concerned, this was sufficient information to set him on the track of the man, for he was determined to get his money back.

Almost immediately he was rewarded with an amazing stroke of good luck.

A Flemish ship had put into Waterford, and among its crew was a Scotsman to whom Richardson told his troubles. To his delight, the man recognised Hughes from the description and said he was known to spend a lot of time at the house of a Flemish painter in La Rochelle.

Richardson took passage on a merchant ship to La Rochelle. For a dismal week he searched for Hughes in vain and had almost decided to travel to Bordeaux, when again luck favoured him. He met Hughes’s painter friend!

The painter was helpful. He said that Hughes had certainly been in La Rochelle but had then moved farther south. As he often stayed in the Spanish port of San Sebastian, it might be a good idea to look for him there.

So it was that Richardson arrived in San Sebastian aboard a small coaster. Immediately he was taken before the controller of coastal traffic and questioned. But his story satisfied the official who allowed him to enter the town, provided one of the controller’s servants acted as an escort.

It was then that Richardson saw all the preparations for the new Spanish Armada.

The servant turned out to be a renegade Englishman called Burghley who was convinced that Richardson had also deserted to the cause of Spain. Proudly he showed him the assembling Spanish might, which Sir William Waad would have given almost anything to see.

But Richardson’s eyes sought only the man he had come to find, who was indeed there. Unobserved, Hughes saw Richardson and recognised him and at once hurried to Madrid.

It was five days before Richardson picked up his trail again.

The journey to Madrid gave Richardson time to think. He needed help if he was to track down Hughes in this great city; so on arrival, his first act was to find an English-speaking Spaniard.

The man he got to know was Se√±or Daman, a servant of the Master of the King’s Jewels. Daman, who had sailed with the Armada, had learned his English in an English prison.

Together the two men scoured the city day after day – and at last they came face to face with Hughes!

In a busy street, a recruiting party was noisily at work, and there Richardson finally accosted the thief he had pursued so diligently.

At first, Hughes tried to brazen the matter out, saying that he did not recognise his pursuer. But finally he did confess to the theft, only to say that the money had already been spent.

Refusing to believe him, Daman left Richardson to guard his prisoner and went to fetch the watch. Within a few moments, Hughes had made a move for liberty.

Taking advantage of the Scotsman’s ignorance of Spanish, he caught the attention of the nearby recruiting party. Before Richardson knew what was happening, his prisoner had become a Spanish soldier and immune from arrest.

The watch were powerless when Daman returned with them. But after considerable argument a compromise was arranged. Hughes reluctantly parted with £34 and marched away to fight for Spain.

Richardson now returned to Daman’s house, bitterly disappointed. How was he to get back his position in Waterford as a respectable man of substance? He thought hard.

Returning to England with £34 would be a sign of failure. But to return with a mass of information about Spain would be a triumph. And his fortunes would be restored!

So it was that he set to work on Daman whom he believed was unfavourably disposed towards the Spanish throne. By persuading him to bring back what news and gossip he could from the court, the city and the army, Richardson gradually began to amass facts.

The Spaniards, he learned, anticipated a raid on Lisbon by Drake and were strengthening their defences. When Daman “borrowed” a map of the port, showing its fortifications and troop-dispositions, Richardson made a copy.

He also heard that though the Spanish army was huge, it consisted of the “sweepings of the gutter” and had no spirit. King Philip was also badly in need of money and was desperately awaiting a huge treasure fleet from the Indies. Richardson discovered its date of sailing.

But the most significant information concerned Scotland and Ireland. These countries were the levers with which Spain hoped to overturn the English throne. “I assure you, brother,” said Daman, “the King and council think there is no way but to enter by Scotland while the English are decoyed to Ireland by uprisings engineered by handfuls of men now and then.”

Richardson learned the names of the men who had invited Philip to Scotland to lead his armies from there into England. He also took note of the Irishmen who thronged the Spanish court seeking an uprising against the English.

When he finally felt that he could ask no more without overstraining Daman’s friendship, Richardson returned to England and was soon talking to Sir William Waad. The information which the government needed so desperately was at last in its hands!

If Spain attacked, England would be ready, thanks to Thomas Richardson – the spy who had never even thought of becoming a spy and probably never wanted to be one again.

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