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Old 08-12-2011, 19:04
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Default Re: The Spanish Armada of 1588

The Spanish Armada of 1588 (Part 3)


The Duke of Parma’s Army in Flanders

When the Duke of Parma received the first message Medina Sidonia sent from Ushant, it stirred him into activity, but only half heartedly as it appeared that he had become disillusioned with the "English Enterprise", although his letters to Philip appear otherwise. Over the previous months he had sent Philip many letters concerning his difficulties. Parma had been ready with an army of 30,000 soldiers since the initial rendezvous with the Armada had been arranged for the previous October. Since then, sickness and desertion had halved his idle force, which he had difficulty feeding and paying.

He had pointed out to Philip that the waters along the rendezvous area were shallow, and the deep draught of the Armada ships would prevent them approaching the Dunkirk rendezvous "for several leagues" and thus unable to protect his troop transport barges for the first part of the crossing.

The significance of this was that the Dutch, commanded by Justin of Nassau (son of William of Orange), had about thirty flyboats (shallow draught boats up to 200 tons carrying a dozen cannon) in Flushing, which regularly patrolled the shallow coastal waters waiting for Parma to embark his troops, effectively blockading the area. In light of this, Parma had suggested to Philip that he defer the ‘Enterprise of England’ and conclude a truce, to allow him time to take Walcheren and the deep water port of Flushing. But when Philip rejected these sensible suggestions, Parma sent two emissaries to him in April who explained that a meeting between Parma’s army and the Armada was impossible. But Philip wasn’t moved and seemingly, didn’t inform Medina Sidonia of these difficulties.

Once Seymour had left his patrol of the Straits to join Howard at Calais, Justin of Nassau, unknown to the English, left Flushing with his flyboats and sailed down the coast to blockade Dunkirk.

At Calais (Saturday 6 - Sunday 7 August)

On Sunday 7 August, Medina Sidonia finally received a reply from Parma – but it was not what he wanted to hear. Parma said that it would take him another six days to be ready; but another messenger, arriving later, thought that he couldn't be ready in under a fortnight.

So Medina Sidonia sent him another message:
"I have sent you daily reports of the state of the Armada, and my secretary wrote to you last night saying where we were, and the danger of the position, in consequence of the lack of shelter and the strong currents, which will force me to get clear away at the least sign of bad weather. I therefore beg you to hasten your coming out before the spring tides end, as it will be impossible for you to get out of Dunkirk and the neighbouring ports during the neap tides."

Medina Sidonia could not wait long in his precarious anchorage, being downwind from Howard and on a lee shore. Once the tide turned, with wind and tide together, this would be the perfect time for the English to launch fire ships against him. Accordingly, he made preparations to counteract this threat. He stationed a screen of pinnaces and ship’s boats, equipped with grapples, to intercept and tow away any fireship. Ships were to avoid any fireship that got past the screen by slipping and buoying their anchor cables, returning when the danger was past.

What he feared was that they would not be ordinary fireships but the so called ‘Hell Burners of Antwerp’. These floating bombs were fireships packed with huge amounts of gunpowder and large shrapnel that detonated with a tremendous explosion when the fire reached it. One Hell Burner at Antwerp had killed over a thousand men "torn to shreds, beyond even the semblance of humanity". The inventor of these Hell Burners was an Italian engineer called Federigo Giambelli, who was known by the Spanish to be working in England for Elizabeth at this time. When several supply ships were seen to be joining the English fleet that day, Medina Sidonia feared the worst.

The use of fireships was also obvious to Howard, and eight ships of up to 200 tons were to be sacrificed in this cause. They were hurriedly stripped of anything useful, loaded with combustible material and their cannons loaded with double shot. Just before midnight on Sunday 7 August, they were launched together in two columns.

The first pair were successfully grappled and towed away, but as the pinnaces moved in to grapple the second pair, the double shotted cannons started to fire in the heat and the pinnaces withdrew temporarily. The tide and wind speeded the fireships onwards, and before the pinnaces dared return, the other six fireships had swept by with their cannons firing randomly. Medina Sidonia fired a signal cannon, slipped his mooring and stood out to sea.

Fearing that these were the dreaded Hell Burners, most ships quickly cut their cables loosing their main anchors in their haste to get away. The fireships sailed on without causing any direct damage, eventually burning out on the shore. But they had achieved what the English fleet had so far failed to do – they had broken the disciplined formation of the Armada. In the dark, the ships of the Armada were swept along by the wind and tide north-eastwards through the Straits of Dover and into the North Sea.

Battle off Gravelines (Monday 8 August)

Gravelines, on the Flanders coast, lies midway between Calais and Dunkirk. Although this is referred to as the Battle of Gravelines it was really a running battle all along the coast from Calais to Nieuport. This intense battle lasted in stages for over six hours, but unfortunately there is little detail recorded by either side.

When dawn broke, Medina Sidonia found he was in company with only four other ships and their pinnaces, which he despatched to round up the rest of fleet which was stretched out along the Flanders coast, then raised anchor and stood out to sea with his five ships. The only other ship in sight was a galleas, the flagship San Lorenzo, drifting and disabled with a rudder damaged in the rush to escape the fireships.

Howard didn’t know if the fireships had succeeded until first light. The English fleet, now 150 strong, raised their anchors and set off in pursuit of the Armada, and Seymour’s squadron was detached to finish off the damaged galleas. Francis Drake in the Revenge led the way, pursuing the five galleons until he overhauled Medina Sidonia’s flagship San Martin, which turned to present its broadside.

Having learned the lesson that only by shortening the range could the English ships hope to do serious damage to the Spanish, and accepting the risks, Drake held his fire until he was "a half musket shot" away. The Spanish ship, being almost out of ammunition and having to make every shot count, also held its fire. Revenge fired its bow guns first followed by its broadside, answered by the San Martin’s broadside. The strong northwest wind carried Drake’s squadron northeast out into the North Sea with each ship in turn firing on the Spanish flagship.

Frobisher, decided not to follow Drake into the North Sea but to continue the battle with Medina Sidonia’ ships. Soon more Spanish ships came to support Medina Sidonia, and by the time Hawkins’ squadron arrived, there were about twenty five of the largest Spanish ships involved in the battle. By the time Seymour’s squadron had arrived most of the Armada had reformed into its familiar half moon shape. That the Spanish were able to do this in the blustery conditions in the midst of battle, shows remarkable seamanship and discipline.

The English started to get the better of the Spanish whose formation was slowly disintegrating, not so much due to the English superiority in ships and guns, but because the Spanish were so short of ammunition, they were unable to reply in kind, and some were completely out and could only reply with small arms. Many of the Spanish ships were badly damaged, some severely. Two were sunk, La Maria Juan and San Antonia de Padua, and two of the best Portuguese galleons, San Felipe and San Mateo, were run aground to prevent them sinking, only to be captured by the Dutch flyboats.

The Armada had been well beaten with many of their ships leaking badly, kept afloat only by continuously manned pumps, their masts and rigging shattered, and many of their crews killed or incapacitated. Whereas the English had lost no ships and only about 100 men.

The battle had been fought from 09.00 to 18.00 and Howard, because of shortages of ammunition and the time of day, decided against renewing battle, and was content to keep the Armada in view and send urgent messages for supplies.

With a strengthening northwest wind, the two fleets continued through the night on an ENE course following the Flanders coastline. The Spanish were being driven slowly along by wind, tide and the position of the English fleet, against their will because Medina Sidonia still had hopes of rendezvousing with Parma, wanted to return to the Channel and not be driven into the North Sea.

Tuesday 9 August

Early next morning, the northwest wind had moderated, and the Spanish on an ENE course were close hauled and unable to gain more sea room. With the coast gradually curving towards the north, the Armada on its present course would in a short time be aground on the Zealand sands.

Rather than be wrecked, Medina Sidonia ordered the Armada to stop and fight, but less than half his fleet obeyed. The English, also with little ammunition left, just stood off, content to let nature do its work for them. Inexorably, the Spanish were being driven by wind and tide towards the shore, their anchors, for those which still had them, unable to hold in the loose sand. The flagship San Martin drew five fathoms, and with less than a fathom beneath her keel, the wind suddenly backed to WSW allowing them all to edge towards deeper waters, the open sea and safety – a miracle!

Disappointed as they were, the English followed them "putting on a brag countenance", more anxious than ever to obtain supplies of food and ammunition to enable them to continue the fight. At a conference that night, Howard decided that he would follow the Spanish as long as they presented a danger of a landing in England or Scotland, and Seymour, much to his displeasure, was ordered to resume his patrol of the Straits of Dover.

Meanwhile, Medina Sidonia also held a conference at which it was reported that most of the first class fighting ships had major damage. All had taken heavy casualties, and some left with barely enough crew to work the ship, and all would shortly be facing shortages of food and water. It was decided that if the wind changed in the next few days they would return to the attack and try to seize an English port to replenish, or fight their way back through the Straits. But if the wind continued to come from the same quarter for the next four days, they would have to try to get home westwards around the British Isles.

Wednesday 10 – Saturday 13 August

For the next three days the wind held from the southwest and the Armada sailed northwards, closely followed by Howard’s fleet to ensure there was no attempt at a landing. Engaging in battle was out of the question as both sides were too low on ammunition. On the afternoon of Friday 12 August, at about latitude 56 degrees north, Howard decided that Medina Sidonia wouldn’t attempt a landing and turned the fleet away making for the Firth of Forth. His actions were made necessary by having not been re-supplied since Calais and he was almost out of food, just as the Spanish were.

When daylight broke on 13 August, Medina Sidonia saw what he hadn’t seen for the past fourteen days – an empty sea without an English sail in sight. He now conducted a summary court martial of the twenty senior officers who had disobeyed his order to stand and fight at Zealand, sentencing them all to be hanged. Only one was hanged, with his hanging body paraded round the fleet, the rest were removed from command and imprisoned.

As resuming battle was no longer an option, the immediate problem was one of survival. Most of his first rate ships were shot though, barely able to keep afloat. One, the San Marcos, was so badly damaged it was held together only by cables passed under the keel and around the hull. The more severely damaged ships were slowly sinking and falling behind. One Urca sank so quickly that, although the crew were saved, all of its valuable stores were lost. And it was stores that they needed most, much of the little food and water they had left was spoiled by the leaky casks.

Medina Sidonia held a conference at which it was decided that the fleet would return to Spain round Scotland and Ireland to the north. They would continue on their present NNE course until they reached 61.5 degrees north, where they would turn WSW until 58 degrees north was reached – in the area of Rockall. Then sailing southwest to 53 degrees north where they would be about 400 miles west of Ireland, from where they would take a straight line course to Corunna.

With the conference over the Armada continued on its NNE course. In order to conserve their precious food and water, all the horses and mules were thrown overboard and every man was severely rationed to half a pound of biscuit, a pint of water and half a pint of wine per day. (One wonders why they didn’t keep the animals for food.)

Sunday 14 – Sunday 21 August

On leaving the Zealand coast the Armada had sailed NNE in its defensive formation, travelling at the speed of the slowest ship. After the English fleet departed on 13 August, the threat had gone and the defensive crescent formation was no longer necessary. Most ships were very short of water and food, and with their crews depleted through death, injury and sickness, it was desirable to return to Spain as quickly as possible. The result was that the slowest ships began to lag behind, especially those which had received battle damage to their hulls, masts, spars and rigging, of which there were many. Gradually over the next few weeks, the Armada instead of being a single unit, became to resemble a comet with the main body leading and a lengthening tail following.

On the morning of 14 August, three great ships that were seen to be wallowing turned away eastwards to reach the safety of land but were never heard of again. On 17 August, the flagship of the Urcas the Gran Grifon and several of its squadron went missing. (The Gran Grifon was later wrecked on Fair Isle.) That same day, on reaching the latitude of 61.5 degrees north, the fleet turned WSW to pass south of the Shetland Islands.

[Note: Either the maps of the day were inaccurate (most probable), or their calculation of latitude was not very good. Because turning WSW from 61.5 degrees North would take them north of the Shetlands.]

Four days later on Sunday 21 August, when the fleet had reached the area of Rockall and about 58 degrees north, they turned to the southwest and Medina Sidonia wrote a report to Philip, in which he said:

"This Armada was so completely crippled and scattered that my first duty to your Majesty seemed to save it, even at the risk which we are running in undertaking this voyage, which is so long and in such high latitudes. Ammunition and the best of our vessels were lacking, and experience had shown how little we could depend upon the ships that remained, the Queen's fleet being so superior to ours in this sort of fighting, in consequence of the strength of their artillery, and the fast sailing of their ships. On the other hand your Majesty's ships depended entirely on harquebusses and musketry which were of little service unless we could come to close quarters as experience has demonstrated.

With the concurrence, therefore, of the officers appointed by your Majesty as councillors, and the Generals, we have adopted the course we are now following. This course was rendered necessary also by the weather, the wind having continued to blow from the S. and SW. We have therefore run through the Norwegian Channel, and between the Scottish islands, and I am at present at this place, whence I have set my course for Corunna, so as to make the voyage as short as possible.

Our provisions are so scanty that, in order to make them and the water last a month, the rations of every person on the fleet, without exception, have been reduced; just enough being served out to keep them alive, namely, half a pound of biscuit, a pint of water, and half a pint of wine daily, without anything else.

Your Majesty may imagine what suffering this entails, in the midst of the discomfort of so long a voyage. We have consequently over 3,000 sick, without counting the wounded, who are numerous, on the fleet. God send us fair weather, so that we may soon reach port, for upon that depends the salvation of this army and navy."

21 August to 21 September

But God didn't send fair weather as it changed soon afterwards, with storms blowing from the southwest, the worst possible direction for the Armada. After nearly a fortnight, the main body of the Armada had hardly progressed and on Saturday 3 September found itself back at 58 degrees north and further east than when they had turned, thirteen days before. Some ships had been blown back as far as the Faroe Islands and Iceland.

Another seventeen ships had parted company with the main body, leaving only 95 in sight. Taking advantage of a now favourable northeast wind, Medina Sidonia, by now a very sick man, resumed his original course, heading for Corunna.

The favourable wind held until 18 September when, at latitude 45 N, and only a few hundred miles from Corunna, another SW storm hit them, blowing the ships hundreds of miles eastwards, forcing them to head towards Santander instead. Medina Sidonia in the company of only eleven ships, finally arrived there on 21 September, and over the next few days, a total of sixty six ships had arrived at various Spanish ports; the last arriving on 7 October. On most of them the depleted crews were starving and sick with barely enough to work the ship. In one case a ship ran aground in Laredo harbour because there weren’t enough men left to lower the sails.

On 23 September, Medina Sidonia wrote to Philip:
"The troubles and miseries we have suffered cannot be described to your Majesty. They have been greater than have ever been seen in any voyage before, and on board some of the ships that had come in there was not one drop of water to drink for a fortnight. On the flagship 180 men died of sickness, three out of the four pilots on board having succumbed, and all the rest of the people on the ship are ill, many of typhus and other contagious maladies."

The stragglers

The main body of the Armada, by following Medina Sidonia’s course, was already well to the south of Ireland when the September storm struck. But some of the stragglers were blown towards the west coast of Ireland where about 17–24 ships were wrecked or scuttled; some of the rearmost ships were blown back as far as Scotland.

Those which weren’t wrecked survived the storm and headed for the western shores of Ireland, to seek shelter, food, water and time to repair their ships. Coming in without charts, pilots, and in some cases anchors, in barely seaworthy ships with barely enough crew to work them; most came to grief on the rocks of the western coasts. Many of the survivors who managed to scramble ashore in Ireland were killed by the militia in England’s pay. Hundreds were sheltered by the Irish, their fellow Catholics, and many escaped eventually to Scotland, also Catholic at this time.

[Note: The killing of survivors is perhaps understandable in view of the fact that there had been two recent invasions by Spain, and this could have been a third.]

Of the 65 ships that didn’t return, about 35 can be accounted for, but the other 30 must have succumbed to their battle damage and/or depleted manpower in the storms, and sunk en route in unknown locations on unknown dates.

The cost

To Spain
Only an estimate of what the "English Enterprise" cost Spain in ships and men can be made as there are no definitive figures to consult, and no two sources agree. But in round figures about half the ships (65), and two thirds of the men (20,000) from the Armada didn't survive. Of those men who did return, thousands more died, as the arrival of so many at once overwhelmed the local resources, and men had to remain on their ships to die of starvation and disease as there was insufficient accommodation, food and medical assistance available.

The ships were in no better condition, one sank after dropping anchor and many others were fit only for breaking up; among them some of the finest. As far as can be ascertained, almost half the surviving fleet was unfit for further service.

To England
Although the English lost only eight ships, sacrificed as the fireships, and a few hundred casualties, many men died in port afterwards from disease. When the English fleet left the Armada on 13 August, they returned to their ports, but were not paid off until all danger had been considered past. With the result that men were kept on their ships where disease ripped through them killing about 7,000.

Those who survived were poorly treated by the government. Many were given only enough money for the journey to their home and some received only part of their pay.

Howard wrote on 30 August:
"It is a most pitiful sight to see, here at Margate, how the men, having no place to receive them into here, die in the streets. I am driven myself, of force, to come a-land, to see them bestowed in some lodging; and the best I can get is barns and outhouses. It would grieve any man's heart to see them that have served so valiantly to die so miserably...". With this, he used his own money to pay them saying "I would rather have never a penny in the world, than they should lack...".


I think it fair to say that King Philip's ‘Enterprise of England’ was doomed to failure from the moment it was conceived in just about every respect.

The Objectives
Philip's 'Enterprise' had several objectives, some more obvious than others. Firstly, he wanted the end of English military support for the Dutch. Secondly, he wanted to end ‘pirate’ attacks on his source of wealth from the Americas, mainly by English privateers. Thirdly, it is clear that Philip had designs on the throne of England, although he disguised his ambitions by purporting to restore England to Catholicism. But Pope Sixtus was already suspicious that the Armada was intended for the aggrandisement of Spain rather than the glory of God, and Philip’s advisors suggested that his claim to the throne should be kept in the background until the Enterprise had been successful.

The very idea of being able to conquer and hold onto England was clearly impracticable. Spain had been unable to control a revolt in the Netherlands for many years with an army measured in tens of thousands, which could be reinforced overland from other countries which Spain controlled. Even if the Armada had succeeded in landing Parma's army, England being a larger and more populous island nation, presented even greater problems. Philip would merely be adding far larger and more complex problems to the difficulties he already had in the Netherlands, and he wasn't in full control there. Any prospect of a Spanish conquest of England was simply wishful thinking.

The Means
For years Philip and his advisors had been told of the superiority of the English ships, in performance, gunnery and tactics, over Spanish ships. Yet he had made no attempt at improvements to match his enemy in these respects.

Philip wrote on 1 April 1588 to Medina Sidonia:
"Above all it must be borne in mind that the enemy's object will be to fight at long distance, in consequence of his advantage in artillery, and the large number of artificial fires with which he will be furnished. The aim of our men, on the contrary, must be to bring him to close quarters and grapple with him, and you will be very careful to have this carried out. For your information a statement is sent to you describing the way in which the enemy employs his artillery, in order to deliver his fire low and sink his opponent's ships; and you will take such precautions as you consider necessary in this respect."

This shows his perfect understanding of English tactics, and illustrates the neglect of Philip and his advisers. They knew the English were superior in two vital respects, yet made no attempt to rectify their shortcomings, but simply hoped to prevail by using old tactics and obsolete vessels and arms. Having neglected these factors, it was simply expecting too much of the Armada to succeed.

The Execution
The rendezvous between the Armada and the Duke of Parma’s army in the Netherlands, arguably the most complex and vital part of the whole Enterprise, was neglected and its difficulties recognised by no one except Parma. The problem was the shallows off the coast of Flanders and Dunkirk, which the Dutch controlled with their flyboats operating from Flushing, and the denial of this deep water port to Parma.

Parma wote to Philip on 18 Jan on the subject of his transport boats:
" . . obviously are not fit for anything but the passage itself, as they are too small for fighting, and so low that four of the skiffs of the fleet could send to the bottom as many as they might meet. They could hardly live through a freshet, much less a tempest, so that they can only be used in settled weather. . . . Your Majesty is perfectly well aware that, without the support of the fleet, I could not cross over to England with these boats, and you very prudently ordered me in your letter of 4th September not to attempt to do so until the Marquis (Santa Cruz) arrived."

Parma also pointed out to Philip that the deep draught of the Armada ships would prevent them approaching the Dunkirk rendezvous "for several leagues" and thus unable to protect his troop transport barges from the Dutch for the first part of the crossing. Parma suggested to Philip that he defer the ‘Enterprise’ and conclude a truce, to allow him time to take the deep water port of Flushing; but Philip rejected the idea.

Philip was told on 30 May, the day after the Armada departed Lisbon, that "Reports come in from Flushing that the ships armed by the Dutch and Zeelanders had gathered there for the purpose of impeding the Duke of Parma’s fleet from leaving port".

Even as late as 7 August, while the Armada was waiting at Calais, Parma wrote in frustration to Philip:
"To judge from what the Duke (Medina Sidonia) says, it would appear that he still expects me to come out and join him with our boats, but it must be perfectly clear that this is not feasible. Most of our boats are only built for the rivers, and they are unable to weather the least sea. It is quite as much as they can do to carry over the men in perfectly fair weather, but as for fighting as well, it is evident they cannot do it, however good the troops in them may be. This was the principal reason why your Majesty decided to risk sending the Armada, as in your great prudence you saw that the undertaking could not be carried through in any other way."

It seems that Medina Sidonia had been kept in complete ignorance of Parma's difficulties, so it is no wonder that Parma had become disillusioned with the whole 'Enterprise' knowing that it couldn't possibly succeed when Philip hadn't understood the crucial problem and had ignored his advice.

It wasn't the English fleet which defeated the 'Enterprise'; it was the presence of the Dutch fleet of flyboats in Flushing, and Philp's failure to address this problem.

It didn’t need the English fleet for the whole Enterprise to fall apart; but its presence ensured that it would, and did, completely at Gravelines.

Regards, Bill

"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.

Last edited by emason : 08-12-2011 at 19:29.
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