August 8, 1588—At the Battle of Gravelines, two great naval forces, each led by an inexperienced commander and swearing allegiance to an absolute monarch, clashed off the coast of England. When it was over, the English fleet watched as the Spanish Armada, under the direction of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, limped off, a threat postponed but not ended, from a diminished but still dangerous force.
Only a few minutes into this latest post of mine and you’re already reading two things that might not meet your expectations! First, there’s that line, “absolute monarch.” Sure, historians have applied it without thinking twice to King Philip II of Spain, but the idea of affixing the label to Queen Elizabeth I of England still makes some shudder. Not Good Queen Bess! Not a ruler bound, as all English monarchs have ostensibly been since 1215, by the Magna Carta. But she gets off easily by virtue of having a father (Henry VIII) for a psychopath. She was every bit as intent on having her way as the male Tudors—and, in fact, the Stuarts, down to unlucky, foolhardy James II—were. Former favorites could tell you that. So could Roman Catholics and Puritans, neither of whom were allowed to worship as they wished.
Second, there’s that phrase about a “diminished but still dangerous force.” What? Didn’t British seamanship and know-how kill the threat from Spain decisively?
To be sure, the English naval force frustrated the Spanish fleet. But in the nine-day campaign that began in Calais in late July and ended at Gravelines, the English succeeded in sinking only six ships. Allow me to place that number in better context: six ships out of nearly 130.
Even after the disaster that met the fleet after Gravelines (more on that shortly), Philip was still able to launch two more attempts to take England in the remaining 10 years of his reign. But those, too, failed.
“It was bad luck, bad tactics and bad weather that defeated the Spanish Armada - not the derring-do displayed on the high seas by Elizabeth's intrepid sea dogs,” wrote Robert Hutchinson, author of a new history of the encounter between the two navies, on “England’s Lucky Escape” in the April 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine. “But it was a near-run thing.”
Let’s start with that “bad weather” part, because it’s by far the easiest to understand. Somewhere between 50 and 64—i.e., nearly half—of the Spanish fleet foundered either on the way to England or as it rounded Scotland on the way home. After his two encounters with the English ships, Medina Sidonia set sail for the Atlantic, but was blown by treacherous winds into a force he greatly feared: the stormy shores of Ireland’s west coast. A hurricane, no less, scattered some two dozen ships as far north as Donegal and as south as Kerry. Approximately 5,000 men drowned or, if captured, were executed when caught onshore.King Philip's two attempts over the next several years to take Spain likewise failed because of bad weather.
“Bad tactics?” Yes. How else can you describe a situation in which the Armada managed to surprise the English in Plymouth Harbor—despite invasion warnings received almost daily by Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham—and still lost the battle?
The Armada’s crescent-shape formation and the unwieldy size of their ships would have made it possible to come alongside the British vessels, grapple and board them, then sweep across the English coast like a scythe, but it never got that far. The English used their galleons to fire on the Spanish from long range, picking them apart bit by bit—and then sending nighttime fireships their way, spreading terror.
“Bad luck”? Yes, that played a part, too. Had the Armada been able to land troops on British soil, they would have found a nation ripe for the taking: one with terrible coastal defenses, virtually no local militia, a population still deeply divided over Elizabeth's move toward Protestantism, and an unbelievable willingness to rely on bow and error rather than gunpowder. One of the Spanish vessels that blew up early in the fighting, taking down all 200 on board, caught fire because of the carelessness of one of its own sailors, it was discovered later. Worse than that, had the Spanish known that the English were all out of ammunition at the end of the encounter at Gravelines, they could have still borne down on the galleons and won the day.
Winners write history, and it was no different in this case. Accounts of the battle years later were written by the English. Particularly in the cases of Thomas Babington Macaulay and Edward S. Creasy’s The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo, both writing as Britain herself became an imperial power, the tone is both triumphalist and anachronistic, reading history backward from a later event—i.e., Spain’s decline in the 17th century.
Still, it’s hard to argue with Macaulay’s description of the advantages enjoyed by King Philip as the two navies prepared for their epic clash:
“In America, his dominions extended on each side of the equator into the temperate zone. There is reason to believe that his annual revenue amounted, in the in the season of his greatest power, to four millions sterling,— a sum eight times as large as that which England yielded to Elizabeth. He had a standing army of fifty thousand excellent troops, at a time when England had not a single battalion in constant pay. His ordinary naval force consisted of a hundred and forty galleys. He held, what no other prince in modern times has held, the dominion both of the land and of the sea. During the greater part of his reign he was supreme on both elements.”
Well, there is one thing on which nearly all historians can agree: Elizabeth had all kinds of reasons to dread the wrath of Philip and his “invincible Armada”:
*Her refusal to acknowledge her debt of gratitude to Philip when he persuaded her sister (and his wife), Queen Mary, to reconcile with Elizabeth—an act that paved her way to the throne upon Mary’s death in 1558;
· *Her steering of England away from Catholicism and toward Protestantism;
· *Her aid to Dutch Protestants who, for the past two decades, had been in full revolt against Philip;
· *Her decision to execute Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic co-religionist of Philip’s;
· *Her official sanctioning of privateering by Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and others, who burned and looted Spanish towns and brought the booty home for the Crown.
Back to my opening paragraph, and especially the part about each navy being led by an “inexperienced commander.” I’ve already alluded to Medina-Sidonia, but his English counterpart needs to be accounted for.
That would be Lord Howard of Effingham. He had nowhere near the amount of sea experience as the second in command of the English navy, Francis Drake, but his innate caution meant that his chief early decision—staying beyond the reach of Spanish guns—meant that the enormous advantage enjoyed by Spain (an army on board its vessels) would be effectively neutralized. He listened carefully to his council of war. Thus, he decided to send fireships at night against the Spanish at Calais when told that an attack would be better early rather than later, since his navy would have lost strength. (Both sides were losing a fifth of their forces due to sickness up to that point.)
(The image accompanying this post is of the oil-on-canvas painting Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588 (1796), by Philip James de Loutherbourg, in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich Hospital Collection)