The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 – a fleet of Spanish ships led by Medina Sidonia with the purpose of overthrowing Queen Elizabeth I – is considered one of England’s greatest military achievements, and one that served to boost the monarch’s popularity. But how much do you know about the campaign?
Here, Robert Hutchinson, the author of The Spanish Armada, shares 10 lesser-known facts…
The Spanish Armada campaign of 1588 changed the course of European history. If Medina Sidonia, the Spanish commander, had managed to escort Philip II’s 26,000-strong invasion army from Flanders, the future of Elizabeth I and her Protestant England would have looked very black indeed.
But Medina Sidonia suffered one of the most signal catastrophes in naval history. Myth, driven by Elizabethan propaganda, has shaped our view of that dramatic running fight up the English Channel.
The Spanish were not defeated by the queen’s plucky sea dogs fighting against overwhelming odds: it was destroyed by appalling weather, poor planning and flawed strategy and tactics.
Here are some surprising facts about the campaign…
1) Both Elizabeth’s ministers and King Philip of Spain expected that the 50 per cent of England’s population that remained Catholic would rise in support of the Spanish invaders after any landing
Jewel-hilted swords, intended as Philip’s gifts for English Catholic nobles, were found in a box on board the fatally damaged Nuestra Señora del Rosario after the English vice-admiral Sir Francis Drake boarded the ship.
The Spanish king’s spies had reported beforehand that the “greater part of Lancashire is Catholic… and the town of Liverpool”, and the counties of Westmorland and Northumberland remained “really faithful to your majesty”.
In addition, another Spanish assessment in August 1586 estimated that 2,000 men could be recruited in Lincolnshire “which was well effected to the Catholic religion”, plus 3,000 more in Norfolk, while Hampshire was “full of Catholics”.
Recusants – those who refused to attend Anglican services because they were Catholic – were disarmed and those regarded as most dangerous were imprisoned without trial in a number of fortresses, such as Wisbech Castle in Cambridgeshire. These were the world’s first internment camps.
In Bedfordshire, Henry Grey, 6th Earl of Kent, inquired how he was to deal with female recusants who were “married to husbands that are conformable in religion”. Godfrey Foljambe arrested his own grandmother and “now have her in custody”.
2) There were some among Elizabeth’s faithful subjects who placed profit ahead of patriotism. Sometime in 1587, her ministers learnt that 12 English merchants – some based in Bristol – had been selling supplies and equipment to the Armada “to the hurt of her majesty and undoing of the realm, if not redressed”
Their nine sizeable cargoes of contraband, valued at between £300 and £2,000 each, contained not merely provisions, but also quantities of ammunition, gunpowder and ordnance.
The fate of these reckless traders (perhaps they were Catholic sympathisers?) remains unknown but, in those edgy times, it’s unlikely they’d have enjoyed the queen’s mercy, which at best was rather limited.
Sir John Gilbert [who organised Devon’s defence against the Spanish Armada] also refused permission for his ships to join Drake’s western squadron and allowed them to sail on their planned trading voyage to South America in March 1588 in defiance of naval orders.
3) English Catholics sailed on board the Armada
At least four of its “gentlemen adventurers” were English, and there were 18 among the salaried officers.
Inevitably, some paid the heavy price of disloyalty to the crown: five Catholics slipped away by boat from the stricken Rosariobefore Drake’s arrival, but two Englishmen were captured on board and taken to the Tower of London as “rebels and traitors to their country”.
On board the battle-damaged San Mateo, beached between Ostend and Sluis after the battle of Gravelines, two Englishmen were killed by Dutch sailors – one named as William Browne, a brother of Viscount Montague. The local commissioner for the Protestant States of Zeeland reported that the second man killed was “very rich, who left William as his heir”.
Other Englishmen were reported to having been aboard this ship, eating with her captain, Don Diego Pimentel. “One was called Robert, another Raphael, once servant to the… mayor of London. We do not know their surnames.” They may have been among those forcibly drowned or hanged by the Dutch who were rebelling against Spanish rule.
Before the campaign began there were reports of disaffection below decks in Elizabeth’s warships. After a scare on board Lord Edmund Sheffield’s Bear, the “barber and three of four others took the oath [of allegiance to the crown] and renounced the pope’s authority”.
4) Pope Sixtus V, who supported the Armada, was infatuated with Elizabeth, telling an astonished Venetian ambassador: “Were she a Catholic, she would be our most beloved, for she is of great worth”
Philip was forced to ask the pope for a loan to help meet the rocketing costs of preparing the Armada. However, this pope was notorious for his miserliness – the Spanish ambassador to the Vatican complained: “When it comes to getting money out of him, it is like squeezing his life blood.”
Sixtus meanwhile had a pet project to buy the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks and rebuild it in Rome – or recover it by force of arms. He was piqued that, although the Spanish army “would be sufficient for this purpose”, it was fighting England, instead of achieving his ambitions in the Holy Land.
In the end Sixtus promised to pay one million gold ducats (£662m in 2015 spending power), but cannily stipulated that half would be paid only after Spanish forces set foot in England. The remainder would be in equal instalments every two months thereafter.
Philip could bestow the English crown on whomever he wished, providing that the realm was immediately returned to the Catholic faith. Sixtus also demanded that the church’s property and rights, alienated since the time of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, should now be restored.
Not one penny was ever paid out.
After the Armada’s defeat, Sixtus told one of his cardinals to write to Philip to console him and to encourage him to launch a new expedition against England. He refrained from writing himself, as he feared the king “might make it a pretext for asking him for money”.
5) Medina Sidonia did not want to command the Armada
He was an administrator, and had never been to sea. He told the Spanish king: “I know by the small experience I have had afloat that I soon become sea-sick.”
He had been the first to reinforce Cadiz during Drake’s raid on that city in 1587, and had been appointed captain-general of Andalusia as “conspicuous proof of the king’s favour”.
Philip’s counsellors, horror-struck at its electrifying contents, dared not show it to the king. “Do not depress us with fears for the fate of the Armada because in such a cause, God will make sure it succeeds” they begged the new admiral.
As for his suitability for command, “nobody knows more about naval affairs than you”.
Then their tone became menacing: “Remember that the reputation and esteem you currently enjoy for courage and wisdom would entirely be forfeited if what you wrote to us became generally known (although we shall keep it secret).”
6) When storms scattered and damaged the Armada after it left Lisbon, Medina Sidonia’s grave doubts about his mission returned
He wrote to Philip: “I am bound to confess that I see very few, or hardly any of those in the Armada with any knowledge or ability to perform the duties entrusted to them.
“Your majesty may believe me when I assure you that we are very weak. Do not be deceived by anyone who may wish to persuade you otherwise.” The admiral added: “Well, sire, how do you think we can attack so great a country as England with such a force as ours is now.” Better, he advised, to agree “some honourable terms with the enemy” while the Armada was being repaired in Corunna.
Philip noted in the margin alongside this passage: “God grant that no embarrassment may come from this.” But he could not accept any more arguments from his naval commander. He wrote to Medina Sidonia: “I have dedicated this enterprise to God. Pull yourself together then and do your part!”
7) Sir Francis Drake was more interested in booty than fighting
After the first fight south of Cornwall, Drake was ordered to shadow the Spanish fleet with a light burning at his stern as a guide to the following English fleet.
But sometime that night, the light disappeared. Drake had left his station to loot the stricken Rosario.
At dawn, the English admiral Lord Howard of Effingham, in Ark Royal, and two other English ships found themselves hard up against the Armada’s rearguard. They hastily retreated.
Drake claimed afterwards that he had sighted strange sails to starboard at midnight and, believing them to be Spanish, doused his lantern and set off in hot pursuit. They turned out to be innocent German merchant ships.
Doubtless Howard deemed it impolitic to court-martial one of England’s naval heroes at a time of national emergency – even though through his actions, the English fleet had lost both time and distance in chasing the Spaniards.
Martin Frobisher, commanding Triumph, seethed: “Drake’s light we looked for but there was no light to be seen… Like a coward he kept by her [the Rosario] all night because he would have the spoil… We will have our shares or I will make him spend the best blood in his belly.”
Culled from Flipboard.