Re: The Spanish Armada of 1588
The Spanish Armada of 1588 (Part 2)
On 9 May 1588, Medina Sidonia announced that everything was ready (or as ready as it ever would be) and on 11 May in a light easterly wind, the Armada started to leave the harbour of Lisbon. But before the last ship had cleared the harbour, a strong headwind blew up and they had to drop anchor again. One gale followed another for the next three weeks, and there they stayed eating into their supplies. The opportunity was taken to arrange for further supplies to meet them at Corunna, their first port of call. It was not until 28 May that the weather moderated enough to enable them finally to depart Lisbon on 29 May.
The weather continued to be contrary. With the wind from the NNW, the Armada had to beat out to sea far enough to clear the mainland to enable them to tack on their northward passage. The Armada went at the pace of the slowest ships, the Urcas (supply ships), which were making so much leeway that by 30 May they had made good only fifteen miles. Already by 1 June Medina Sidonia is complaining to Philip about the shortage of provisions and their state, "The victuals are so rotten and stinking that many have been thrown overboard to save the men from pestilence."
It took until 19 June to reach latitude 43 degrees North, the NE corner of Spain, a distance of about 400 miles, progressing only about 20 miles per day, (made much longer by having to tack). By the time they reached Corunna there was not enough daylight left to bring all ships into port, so more than half the Armada had to stand off until morning. Sometime after midnight the strongest SW storm of the season sprang up and all the ships at sea could do was to run before the wind, scattering them over hundreds of miles before it abated on 21 June.
By 24 June, all but 30 ships, carrying about 6,000 soldiers and sailors, had found their way back to Corunna. This left Medina Sidonia with a problem of what to do about them; he could go out and look for them, or he could stay put and wait longer, or sail straight to England. He decided to wait and use the time to replenish his supplies of food and water. These supplies had become a serious problem as many water casks had leaked and the water almost gone or was sour; when food casks were opened many were found to contain only rotten and putrid food. This was due to many casks not being airtight, having been made of unseasoned or ‘green’ wood, possibly as a result of Drake’s barrel stave bonfires after his Cadiz excursion.
Medina Sidonia considered the situation so serious that he wrote to King Philip suggesting that he postpone the ‘Enterprise of England’ for another year, or make peace with England, "The opportunity might be taken, and the difficulties avoided, by making some honourable terms with the enemy". Philip would have none of it telling him to remedy the defects and sail at the first opportunity. Eventually, all the missing ships returned, some having been blown as far north as the south coast of England. It was not until 22 July that the Armada was ready to put to sea again, albeit without being able to fully restock their foodstuffs.
Meanwhile in England, on 31 May, Lord Howard with the Royal ships had joined Drake with his merchant ships in Plymouth to cover the Channel, leaving Henry Seymour in Rainbow with his squadron to cover the Straits of Dover in case Parma attempted a crossing. Howard patrolled the northern entrance to the Channel, the Sleeve (Lizard to Ushant), Drake the southern part, and Hawkins from Lands End to the Scilly Isles.
For months Drake had been champing at the bit, wanting to have another go at the Armada before it sailed, and writing several letters to Queen Elizabeth pleading his case. It was not until intelligence was received that the Armada had sailed, and was now in Corunna after being scattered and damaged, that the Queen finally approved the expedition but put Lord Howard in command.
The fleet of about ninety ships put to sea from Plymouth on 17 July with a fair wind from the northeast, but when halfway across the Bay of Biscay, the wind swung around and started to blow hard from the south, driving them back to Plymouth, arriving back on 22 July, the same day as the Armada left Corunna bound for England.
The Armada sails again (22 July)
When the Armada left Corunna on 22 July, the wind was fair for four days, the one frustration for Medina Sidonia was having to shorten sail so the Urcas could keep up. On 25 July, when they reached Ushant, the northern tip of the Bay of Biscay and the entrance to the Channel known as the Sleeve, Medina Sidonia sent a message to the Duke of Parma to arrange a rendezvous. Then the wind dropped and they drifted about for several hours until it picked up again.
They bore away on a tack to the west with ships becoming spread out but managing to keep together, and by 27 July the wind had become a full gale from the north northwest and blew all day. The next morning forty ships, including the galleys, many of the Urcas and other ships had disappeared. Pinnaces were sent to locate the missing ships, one of which found the majority near the Scilly Isles. These made for the Lizard where they waited to the Armada to catch up, and the fleet was reunited on 29 July, except for the galleys and the 30 gun Santa Ana, which had retired to French ports to repair their storm damage.
[Note: The Santa Ana was the flagship of the Armada Vice-Admiral Recalde of the Bicayan Squadron. But fortunately for Medina Sidonia, he was aboard the flagship San Martin, advising Medina Sidonia at the time.]
Later that same day, the Armada was within sight of the Lizard where they were reunited with the missing ships, and halted for a conference. They decided to proceed slowly to allow time for the Duke of Parma to reply. If no reply had been received by the time they reached the Isle of Wight, they would go no further until a rendezvous had been arranged, as there were no deep water ports beyond the Straits of Dover. It was also discussed whether to attack the English fleet in Plymouth but the idea was rejected. They were too late anyway.
In the afternoon of 29 July, Captain Thomas Fleming in the Golden Hind (not Drake’s) arrived in Plymouth to report that he had seen a large number of Spanish ships near the Scilly Isles. But a flood tide and the wind from the southwest prevented the English fleet leaving harbour. It was not until after 22.00 that night when the tide ebbed, that the first ship was able to warp out, and by morning fifty four of the best ships were out, anchored in the lee of Rame Head. In the afternoon of 30 July, they put to sea and took up a position in the lee of Eddystone, from where they could just make out the topsails of the Spanish ships to the west.
That same day, fifty miles to the southwest of Plymouth, the Armada set sail from the Lizard on their careful eastward progression up the Channel. As they were sighted from the land, beacons were lit and within a short time the whole of the south of England knew that the Armada was approaching. In late afternoon the Armada anchored in the lee of Dodman Point (10 miles NE of Falmouth) from where they could just make out the topsails of the English ships twenty five miles to the east. At this time the wind was from the WSW and the Spanish, being upwind from the English, held the weather gauge.
[Note: Holding the weather gauge gave a great initial advantage, as he who held it could dictate the time of engaging and tactics to be used. It also meant that, bearing down on the enemy with full sails, one had a greater field of manoeuvre and could prevent the enemy outflanking one and regaining the weather gauge. Loosing the weather gauge severely limited one’s field of manoeuvre, giving only two options, either running before the wind hoping to outpace the attackers, or staying and fighting at a disadvantage. But once fighting commenced any advantage was lost until the weather gauge could be regained by one side or the other.]
The First Shots (Sunday 31 July)
When morning came on 31 July, the wind had shifted round to WNW. At day break the Spanish saw a squadron of a dozen English ships beating westards along the shore line, trying to get upwind of them. The Spanish ships engaged them, exchanging shots until the English squadron tacked, whereupon the Spanish saw the main body of Howard’s English fleet behind them to the west. They had lost the weather gauge and the advantage, and as the wind came mainly from the west for the next nine days, they never regained it except for a few brief periods. The small English squadron then joined up with Howard’s fleet in a manoeuvre that surprised those who saw it, when they weathered the Armada vanguard and stood off on a new tack. This was the first demonstration that they were opposed by ships more weatherly than their own.
How Howard managed to achieve his surprise position to the west of the Armada is not clear, as there is no contemporary account other than Howard’s own which stated "The next morning being Sunday all the English that were come out of Plymouth recovered the wind of the Spaniards two leagues to the west of the Eddystone". He must have started before dawn and beaten well out to sea, sailing westwards to pass out of sight far to the south of the Armada. During this time the Armada must have drifted to the east to allow Howard to turn north and come up behind Medina Sidonia’s fleet, and join up with the small squadron of ships. Perhaps this squadron of a dozen ships was a diversion?
Up to this point the Armada had been sailing in squadrons, but when he saw the English Fleet, Medina Sidonia fired a signal gun and his fleet formed up into the now famous crescent formation. It was now the turn of the English to be surprised, as they had never before seen a fleet perform such a manoeuvre, apparently smoothly and with such precision as to appear effortless.
At first both sides were greatly impressed and in awe of what they saw of each other, and neither knew quite what to do about it. This situation had no precedent, as fleets of this size with such armament had never before met, and there were no established tactics that either side could call upon to deal with the situation. This was the start of a new era in naval warfare.
As Medina Sidonia hoisted his banner as the signal to engage, Howard sent his personal pinnace Disdain bearing his challenge to the Spanish Admiral in his flagship San Martin - curious gestures (to our eyes at least) from the Middle Ages and the Age of Chivalry. With the formalities over, Howard in Ark Royal, led his fleet in line ahead against the northern tip of the crescent, turning 90 degrees to starboard bringing his broadside to bear on the stern of the rearguard ship Rata Coronada, which likewise turned on a parallel course across the rear of the crescent, edging to windward to close the range. These two were followed by others, all firing broadsides at each other but doing little damage, as the English kept the range long and the Spanish were unable to close.
Meanwhile, the crescent’s southern tip was attacked by ships led by Drake in the Revenge and Hawkins in the Victory. Medina Sidonia’s Vice-Admiral, Juan Martinez de Recalde in San Juan de Portugal, turned around to face the attack but the rest of the galleons in his squadron sailed on with the Armada, leaving him to fight alone.
Revenge, Victory and their accompanying ships closed to 300 yards and proceeded to pound the San Juan with their long range guns for the next hour. Seeing what had happened, Medina Sidonia spilled the wind from his sails and put the helm hard over to halt his fleet, and waited for the battle’s slow drift eastwards to reach him, when he could reinforce Recalde. As continuing the battle risked loosing the weather gauge to the Spanish, the English ships disengaged at about 13.00.
[Note: As a general rule, Howard and Frobisher led attacks on the northern or landward side of the Armada, while Drake and Hawkins attacked the southern or seaward side.]
But the Spanish had not yet done, going over to the attack by reforming their defensive crescent into fighting columns in line ahead by squadron. They tried to get to windward of the English fleet, but were easily out manoeuvred by the English ships keeping their distance. Medina Sidonia finally gave up after trying for over three hours and resumed the crescent formation sailing eastwards. The official Spanish log reads "The enemy having opened the range, the Duke collected the fleet, but found he could do nothing more, for they still keep the weather gauge, and their ships are so fast and nimble they can do anything they like with them".
Some time after 16.00, when the Spanish were reforming their defensive crescent, the flagship of the Andalusian squadron, the 46 gun Nuestra Senora del Rosario, lost its bowsprit in a collision. A few minutes later, there was a huge explosion from the San Salvador when its aft powder store blew up, setting her stern ablaze. In this ship was the Paymaster-general of the Armada, with a large part of Philip’s treasure.
The Armada was halted to deal with these two mishaps. The San Salvador was pulled around by small ships to face the wind to prevent the fire reaching the forward powder store. When the fire was brought under control the ship was towed in among the Urcas, where the Paymaster and most of the King's treasure were transfered to another ship. Meanwhile, the Rosario was steering badly without her head sails and, in the squally conditions, her foremast broke, but it was impossible to pass a tow line to her in the rough sea, so she was left with several small ships to do what they could, while the Armada resumed its slow progress eastwards.
By now, their position was south of Start Point and Lord Howard had many things to consider that evening, but what concerned him most were the disposition of his fleet and the intentions of Medina Sidonia. Howard was convinced that the Spanish would attempt to seize an English port on the south coast, of which there were many, and while he was following them up the Channel he was not in a position to prevent then landing thousands of soldiers. But if he got ahead of the Armada to block their passage, it meant loosing the weather gauge and with it the tactical advantage. His solution, after consulting his captains, was to continue to follow the Armada, day and night, and very closely so he could react quickly if it looked as though a landing was to be attempted. Francis Drake in the Revenge was given the honour of ‘setting the watch’ (leading the fleet) that night.
Monday 1 August
During the night, one of the smaller English ships, the Margaret and John on the starboard wing, came across the disabled Rosario. When Howard heard of this he ordered that she be ignored and the fleet keep together. Drake was leading the fleet with the Revenge’s large poop lantern guiding the following fleet in the darkness. Howard in the Ark Royal was following directly behind the Revenge when the lookout lost sight of her guiding lantern, but a light was seen some distance away and Ark Royal hurried after it, followed by the next two in line the Bear and Mary Rose.
These three ships followed the light until dawn broke on Monday 1 August, when they discovered that what they had been following was the lantern of the Spanish flagship and they were almost engulfed within the crescent. There was no sight of the Revenge, and the rest of the fleet was so far behind only the top half of their masts could be seen in the west.
The official account merely states:
"our own fleet, being disappointed of their light, by reason that Sir Francis Drake left the watch to pursue certain hulks . . . lingered behind, not knowing whom to follow; only his Lordship with the Bear and Mary Rose in his company . . . pursued the enemy all night within culverin shot; his own fleet being as far behind as, the next morning, the nearest might be scarce be seen half-mast high, and very many out of sight, which with a good sail recovered not his Lordship the next day before it was very late in the morning." Howard’s three ships escaped without incident and rejoined the English fleet later that morning.
What had happened was that Drake, forever the privateer, could not resist the prospect of an easy prize. So he extinguished his lantern, left the line and captured the Rosario with the Commander of the Andalusian Squadron, Don Pedro de Valdes, on board.
Drake’s own story was that, in the gloom, he saw several ships to seaward and, thinking they were Spanish trying to slip around in the darkness to come to windward, he put out the lantern so as not to mislead the fleet and went after them. When they proved to be harmless German merchantmen, he turned to regain his position in the fleet and just happened find the disabled Rosario in his path. Whatever the truth is, Drake had the Roebuck escort his valuable prize (55,000 gold ducats were found in the captain’s cabin) to Torbay, and now being so far behind the fleet, didn’t rejoin it until later that morning.
Around midday, the damaged San Salvador was foundering, and had become unmanageable. Orders were then given to tranship the King’s treasure, and the men on board, the ship afterwards to be sunk. In the afternoon the ship was abandoned in a sinking condition. The waterlogged ship didn't sink and was found by the English fleet and towed back to Weymouth, as Howard's prize, by the Golden Hind. For the rest of the day and night, the wind dropped almost to a flat calm and the Armada continued sailing slowly eastwards with the English fleet following closely behind.
The Battle off Portland (Tuesday 2 August)
At dawn on 2 August, both fleets were south of Portland Bill and the wind was blowing gently from the northeast, giving the Spanish the weather gauge. Howard had reacted to this by taking his fleet to the north east to regain the weather gauge by trying to get around the Armada’s left wing to windward, and to prevent the Spanish attacking Weymouth. But the Armada was too close to the land and Medina Sidonia, having seen Howard’s movement, quickly turned the Armada to intercept him thus depriving him of the sea room he needed to outflank the Spanish ships. Howard was now too near the land to complete his outflanking movement, and came about on the opposite tack, reaching SSW to pass the Spanish on the seaward side. Immediately the Spanish rear guard, led by Bertendona in the flagship La Regazona, turned onto an intercepting course to cut him off.
While Howard tried repeatedly to outflank the Spanish to seaward, so Bertendona tried repeatedly to close and board. Although both sides failed to achieve their objectives, most of the time they were within gunshot range and sometimes at close range. There began an intense, confused and prolonged battle which lasted the rest of the morning, during which the wind shifted to the southeast and the whole action slowly drifted into Lyme Bay.
Meanwhile, a smaller battle was going on in the lee of Portland Bill, with Frobisher’s Triumph and five other ships for support, being attacked by four of the Armada's most powerful ships, the Galleasses of Don Hugo de Moncada. Having failed in their initial attempt to outflank the Armada on its landward side, and being the most leeward ships, they had been unable to follow Howard’s change of direction and became separated, and were waiting for the battle to pass to leeward before rejoining with the wind advantage. From the tip of the Bill there runs a tidal race, sometimes at four knots, across which the Galleasses had to sail or row to reach them, or loose the weather gauge. Triumph was within long culverin range and was able to break up each attempt of the Galleasses.
As the wind veered to the south, Howard in the Ark Royal, seeing Frobisher’s predicament, led a squadron of Royal ships to help him. Medina Sidonia saw this and led a squadron of his own ships to intercept him. But before they made contact, the San Juan (Vice-Admiral Recalde’s new flagship) was seen to be isolated and being attacked by a dozen English ships. Because of a change of wind direction to the south, the rest of the Armada was now to leeward, leaving the squadron of Medina Sidonia the only one in a position to help, so he ordered a change of course to rescue him. For whatever reason, the San Martin (Medina Sidonia’s flagship) stayed on course and sailed on alone to meet Howard’s squadron. As the two Admirals met in their flagships, San Martin turned her broadside towards the Ark Royal and struck her topsails in the traditional invitation to grapple and board. But the Ark Royal just poured in a broadside at close range followed likewise by the rest of the squadron in line.
The wind changed again and now blew from the west which allowed those ships of the Armada which had been far to leeward of the San Martin to come to her rescue. The English ships, running short of ammunition, disengaged to the west to regain the weather gauge, and the Armada reformed itself into its familiar defensive crescent and resumed its eastward course.
From the two day’s of battles in which neither side had lost a ship to fighting, both sides had learned lessons. The Spanish learned that even when they had the weather gauge, they could not grapple and board the English ships who could easily keep their distance. The English learned that this was a bigger and tougher enemy than they had bargained for, and their tactics were not working. Their long guns were not heavy enough to pierce the hulls of the Spanish warships at long range; they would have to get in closer. If success were measured in preventing the Spanish reaching their rendezvous, the English had so far failed as the Armada was still intact and apparently untroubled.
In the two day’s of fighting, both sides had almost exhausted their ammunition, so much so that most English ships, which fired much faster, had none left, and Howard sent desperate messages for more powder and ball. Medina Sidonia couldn’t replenish, although he had plenty of powder he was short of shot, fighting with this disadvantage in subsequent engagements.
Wednesday 3 August
As dawn broke, a large Spanish ship was seen to be detached from the main fleet. This was the Gran Grifon, the flagship of the Urcas under Juan Gomez de Medina, who was trying to join Recalde’s squadron on the seaward right wing. She was attacked by English ships, which were attacked in turn by Spanish ships. There then followed a general melee lasting most of the morning in which about half of each fleet was involved. The damaged Gran Grifon was rescued and towed by the galleases back to safety in the midst of the Armada.
While that skirmish was going on in the rear, Howard leading in the Ark Royal, attacked the flagship San Martin leading the Armada vanguard. They came closer than before, firing their shorter range heavier guns from the lower deck, causing minor damage and a few casualties, before disengaging.
In the afternoon the wind dropped and both fleets drifted a few miles apart until a point southwest of the Needles, the western tip of the Isle of Wight. Howard took the opportunity to hold council to review fleet tactics as the English fleet, despite several battles, seemed to have made no impression on the Armada.
Having observed the Spanish system in action, he was both frustrated and impressed by the way the Spanish had kept their discipline of formation and precision of movement which had saved them from serious loss, whereas the English had become uncoordinated in the fighting. It was decided to reorganise the fleet into four roughly equal fighting squadrons, commanded by Howard, Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher.
Possibly this was the birthplace of English fleet tactics in practice, as hitherto, fighting had always broken up into uncoordinated individual battles, with each commander doing his own thing.
Off the Isle of Wight (Thursday 4 August)
During the night there had been a dead calm which continued at dawn, when a couple of Spanish ships were seen to be straggling. They were the royal galleon San Luis de Portugal and the Duquese Santa Ana. Because there was no wind, Hawkins ordered out the boats to tow the fighting ships of his squadron out towards the enemy.
Medina Sidonia ordered the galleases to their rescue, towing with them the Rata Coronada, an 800 ton carrack with 35 guns for extra fire power. Hawkins was reinforced by the Ark Royal and Golden Lion, and for a while both sides banged away at each other while the rest of the fleet looked on. There was no wind and the only ships able to manoeuvre were the galleases which managed to tow the two beleaguered ships to safety. Both sides disengaged towing their ships back, and only minor damage was sustained by either side.
At this time they were only a few miles off the southern tip of the Isle of Wight when the wind started to pick up. Medina Sidonia had not heard from the Duke of Parma and had wanted to wait at the island until a rendezvous was arranged. His only option now was the eastern entrance to the Solent. We don’t know if this was his intention, but this is what Howard feared he might do and made moves to prevent it.
During the morning the tidal current was set eastwards, and Frobisher’s squadron, which at dawn was between the Spanish left wing and land, had drifted further east and found themselves northeast of the Armada and in its lee, giving the Spanish the weather gauge in the light southwest wind. His squadron was attacked by the Spanish and, as the wind got up, more Spanish ships were able to join in. It was time to turn away westwards to windward, and most made it except for a few of the easternmost ships including the flagship Triumph who were cut off. The Triumph was towed away by pinnaces until they were saved by the wind veering and strengthening, enabling them to escape.
Meanwhile, the right seaward wing of the Spanish fleet was being attacked by Drake who concentrated his efforts on its outer edge. With the strengthening southwest wind, the general drift was to the northeast, towards the coast. Seeing the colour of the sea changing in the distance as far as the eye could see, Medina Sidonia realised that he was approaching shoal water. In fact he was only a short distance, in sea terms, from the Owers, a formation of underwater rocks off Selsey Bill. Immediately he fired a signal gun to turn the Armada to the SSE, making impossible any thoughts of entering the eastern Solent, if ever that was his intention.
The English fleet followed the Armada without attempting to attack as they were again almost out of powder and shot. Howard, much to his relief, could now be sure that the Armada didn’t intend a landing on the south coast, and treated the events as a victory. He knighted Hawkins, Frobisher and several of his kinsmen on the deck of the Ark Royal.
From the Isle of Wight to Calais
Having left the Isle of Wight behind him, Medina Sidonia, despite having sent many messages to the Duke of Parma, had still not received a reply and didn’t know when to rendezvous with him. On 5 August Medina Sidonia sent another message to Parma begging him to send him some cannon balls of 4, 6, and 10 lbs. He also requested Parma to send out 40 flyboats immediately to join the Armada to enable them to close with the lighter English ships. He also impressed on Parma the necessity of his being ready to come out and join the Armada the very day it appeared in sight of Dunkirk.
There were no suitable anchorages for the Armada past the Straits of Dover, so he decided to stop before Calais to replenish supplies, send yet another message and wait for a reply. Calais is about 25 miles west of Dunkirk (the rendezvous) and on 6 August the Armada dropped anchor several miles before it at the Calais Roads. Throughout the entire passage, the Armada had been plagued by food and water shortages due to spoilage in their leaky storage casks, and now they where short of the larger cannonballs. Stopping at Calais would give them an opportunity to replenish and send a further message to Parma:
"I have constantly written to your Excellency, giving you information as to my whereabouts with the Armada, and not only have I received no reply to my letters, but no acknowledgment of their receipt has reached me. I am extremely anxious at this, as your Excellency may imagine; and to free myself of the doubt as to whether any of my messengers have reached you safely, I am now despatching this flyboat, with the intelligence that I am at anchor here, two leagues from Calais, with all the Armada, the enemy's fleet being on my flank, and able to bombard me, whilst I am not in a position to do him much harm."
The English fleet had shadowed the Armada closely to Calais and, on 6 August, dropped anchor a short distance from it to windward, in an intimidating position. But the threat it posed was more apparent than real as it had expended so much of its munitions that some ships had none left. The same was true for the Spanish, but the difference was that the Spanish couldn’t replenish, whereas the English could; and were, by a constant procession of small supply vessels.
A few hours after Howard dropped anchor, Henry Seymour in the flagship Rainbow, commanding his squadron of thirty five ships which had been patrolling the Straits, joined him at Calais.
Summary of the Channel action
From 28 July to 6 August the Armada had progressed up the Channel loosing only two ships, both to accidents, in spite of being in action on five of these days. Medina Sidonia had been fortunate with the wind blowing mainly from a westerly direction enabling the Armada to sail in its defensive crescent formation for most of the way.
Both commanders had reason to be both pleased and displeased with events so far. Medina Sidonia was pleased that they had come so far without serious loss, but their inability to close and board the English ships was cause for concern, as was their shortage of ammunition.
Howard had suffered no losses and had prevented a landing on the south coast of England. Although Medina Sidonia didn’t intend a landing, he had intended to wait at anchor in the Solent until he had heard from the Duke of Parma. Howard was not to know this. But he was disappointed at his fleet’s inability to do much damage to the Spanish warships.
"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?" - Cicero.