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Old 08-12-2011, 18:29
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Default The Spanish Armada of 1588

The Spanish Armada of 1588 (Part 1)


Although there are many books and accounts written about the Armada, they are remarkable in that no two agree entirely on just what happened. This is partly due to there being no comprehensive contemporary account. Although the Spanish records are the most complete. There are just glimpses, being mainly individual’s view on events. This is not helped by many authors, in trying to explain events, filling in the gaps with their own invention and interpretation. Typically, they differ on dates, time of day, tonnage of ships, and even ship’s names. Particularly, it is difficult to obtain accurate data about wind speeds and direction at particular times of day to explain why certain manoeuvres were made. With that caveat I hope the following account is not too inaccurate.

There is a difference in dates between the English and other accounts of this event because western Europe was using the Gregorian calendar, which was introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory, and England continuing to use the Julian calendar as they wouldn’t use the Catholic calendar for another hundred years. Consequently English dates for this period lagged ten days behind the Continent; thus the 21st July 1588 in England was 31st July 1588 on the Continent. Another peculiarity is that the legal and official year in England began on 25 March. So from 1 January to 24 March 1588, English years are written as 1587. To prevent confusion, only the Gregorian dates are used, and years begin on 1 January.

For no apparent reason, names have been changed through the centuries; for example Sir John Hawkins always signed himself "Hawkyns"; and Sir Martin Frobisher signed himself "Frobiser", and there are many other examples, but only the modern spellings are used here.


The history of the period is a bewildering mixture of wars, politics, religion, power struggles, alliances, claims to thrones and treachery, with perhaps religion being the prime mover in most cases. To understand why the Spanish sent their Armada against England in 1588, a very simplified (probably over simplified) summary of the state of affairs in Europe follows.

Spain, through conquest and marriage, had amassed a huge empire with territories throughout the world, including most of South and North America,from which it derived much wealth, and thus was the most powerful and richest country in the world. In addition, Spain controlled several territories in Europe including the Netherlands, most of Italy and parts of modern France and Germany.

This empire was further enlarged in 1580 when King Henry of Portugal died with no direct descendants. Philip II of Spain claimed the Portuguese crown and annexed Portugal with an Army under the Duke of Alba, thus gaining all of its considerable overseas possessions in South America, Africa and Asia, and a very fine fleet of warships. Philip ruthlessly imposed his Catholic religion on his provinces resulting in constant persecution, unrest and civil war, especially in the Netherlands.

Philip, while still a Prince, had married the Catholic Queen Mary of England in 1554. When he inherited the Spanish Crown in 1556, they became King and Queen of both England and Spain. She died childless in 1558, and was succeeded by her Protestant half sister Elizabeth, who became Elizabeth the First of England.

This didn’t please Philip at all, and pinned his hopes of restoring England to Catholicism on Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, who was considered by many Catholics to be the rightful heir to the English throne. But when she was executed for treason in 1587, Philip was rather ambivalent about it, because if Mary had become Queen, with her French sympathies, she would probably have formed an alliance with France so threatening Spain’s dominant role in Europe.

But Philip had claims to the English throne himself, being a descendant of Edward III; and Mary Queen of Scots had named him as her heir to the throne. What he had lost he would gain by conquest, so accelerated his plan to invade England, with its restoration to Catholicism as the overt reason.

There were other reasons too. Spain’s world wide trade and source of wealth, especially with the Americas, was frequently disrupted and looted by ‘pirates and privateers’, especially Francis Drake who, from his first attack in 1572, had become a regular thorn in Philip’s side, attacking Spanish ships as far away as the Pacific Ocean. Conquering England would have the additional benefit of removing this troublesome ‘pirate’.

The Netherlands
The Netherlands had been under Spanish control from the early 1500s, but in 1566 Dutch Protestants began to revolt against Spanish rule, causing Philip to send a large Spanish army, under the Duke of Alba to quell the uprising, driving the Protestants into exile. With the help of England and France they returned, capturing several towns in the north.

By 1577 the Dutch Protestants, under William of Orange, had regained virtually all of the Netherlands demanding freedom of worship. Philip regained the initiative by sending another large army under the Duke of Parma (his nephew) to regain control, and after capturing Antwerp in 1585, controlled most of the country in the south. The Protestants in the North were sent English troops, under Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, by Queen Elizabeth I in 1586 to prevent their collapse.

If there were a monarch more sympathetic to Spain on the throne of England then Spain’s problems in the Netherlands would be so much less.

Mary Tudor, a Catholic, was the daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon and, following the death of Edward VI in 1553, became Queen Mary the First of England. She married Prince Philip of Spain in 1544, but died childless in 1558, and was succeeded by her Protestant half sister Elizabeth Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who became Elizabeth the First of England.

In 1570 the Pope declared her illegitimate, because Henry’s second marriage to her mother was not legal in Catholic eyes as he had divorced his first wife Katherine of Aragon because she didn’t bear him a son and heir. As the divorce was considered illegal, his marriage to Anne Boleyn was bigamous and therefore illegal.

The Pope also declared Elizabeth a heretic, and excommunicated her, saying that English Catholics owed no allegiance to her and it was their duty to rise up and overthrow her. Many Catholics considered Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, to be the rightful heir to the English throne, and she became the focus of Catholic ambitions to restore England to Catholicism, including those of Philip of Spain. But their hopes were dashed in February 1587 when she was executed for treason.

Spanish preparations

From 1576 onwards Philip had often been warned of the need to build up a navy and sea power to put an end to attacks by pirates (i.e Drake). He was further goaded in 1585 when Elizabeth authorised Drake and his fleet to take reprisal action for the seizure of English ships in Spain. Drake first struck at the city of Vigo, then sailed to Santo Domingo (in the present day Dominican Republic) in the Caribbean and plundered it for a month. As a result, Philip began his preparations against England in what became known as his ‘English Enterprise’.

Philip asked Don Alvaro, Marquis of Santa Cruz, to prepare an estimate of what naval forces would be needed for his English Enterprise. Santa Cruz estimated that it would take 150 great ships, and 400 smaller ones, to transport direct from Spain to England, an army 64,000 strong enough for the purpose. Philip also asked the Duke of Parma, who was currently with a large army in the Netherlands, what he needed to do the same. The Duke replied that he could do it with 30,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, transported to England in barges, dispensing with the navy altogether, providing surprise could be achieved which Philip thought highly unlikely.

In 1586 Philip combined the two plans and decided that Parma’s army in the Netherlands would be reinforced overland from Italy, then it would assemble on the Flemish coast with their barges to await the arrival from Spain of a strong naval force under Santa Cruz. This force, transporting 6,000 more Spanish infantry, would stand off the ‘Cape of Margate’, in the Thames estuary, then secure the sea communications so Parma could put to sea with his army in barges and sail to England protected by Santa Cruz’s ships.

As a diversion to draw English ships and men away from the landing area, it was proposed that Spain would first attack southern Ireland two months before the Armada sailed, but the idea was later abandoned.

[Note: The Irish plan was not without precedent as the Pope’s forces, consisting of Italian, Spanish and Irish soldiers, with the help of Spain, had previously invaded Ireland in 1579 and 1580 to promote a rebellion which was not defeated until 1583.]

On the death of Mary Queen of Scots, Pope Sixtus V promised a million gold ducats to Philip if he restored England to Catholicism, payable when he landed his army on the mainland of England. As Philip was constantly in debt, this was welcome news, and it gave new impetus to the leisurely preparations already being made in building up the Spanish fleet, which he wanted to be ready by September 1587.

But Santa Cruz had just returned from a three month voyage protecting the Azores from Francis Drake (following his attack on Cadiz), consequently his fleet and men were in no condition to undertake the "English Enterprise" without rest and repair. Further, on 16 November a violent storm hit Lisbon damaging nearly forty ships causing further delays.

These delays had a deleterious effect on both men and provisions already assembled for the enterprise. 16,000 sailors had to be fed from the provisions which had already started to deteriorate and needed replacement. Consequently the men, who were mainly accommodated aboard ships, became ill and had to be replaced, causing yet more delays. It was a vicious circle which caused Philip to constantly press Santa Cruz to sail, but out of necessity Santa Cruz always needed more time to prepare. Finally, the strain proved too much for Santa Cruz who fell ill and died in Lisbon on 9 February 1588.

Philip appointed the Duke of Medina Sidonia to take over Santa Cruz’s command of the armada, which was a strange choice because, as Medina Sidonia himself pointed out to Philip, he had no experience of the sea or of war, and that he was always seasick and, apart from not being well, he doubted he would survive the voyage. He suggested that the Mayor of Castille was more suitable, being experienced in both military and naval matters. But the King had made his choice and was not to be disobeyed and, on 18 February, ordered him to depart at once and take charge of the Armada at Lisbon, making everything ready for sailing by the 1st March at latest.

English preparations

John Hawkins had been a slave trader from his first voyage in 1555. In 1568 on his third voyage, in company with a young Francis Drake, his fleet was damaged in a storm and took refuge in a Spanish controlled harbour in Mexico where he was attacked by Spanish ships. He lost all but two ships in which he and Drake escaped, and both men were bent on revenge. In 1578 he became Treasurer of the Navy and began sweeping reforms of both its finances and shipbuilding.

From his experience he knew that a new kind of warship was needed to defeat the galleon – the standard great warship of the day. His thinking was that his ships should be able to defeat enemy ships, forcing their surrender, with gunfire alone, without the necessity of boarding them, which was the accepted way of capturing a ship. He wanted ships that were faster, more manoeuvrable, more weatherly (able to sail closer to the wind), and much better armed.

To this end he built ships for speed that were smaller, longer and narrower than the galleon; greatly reduced the height of the fore and stern castles for manoeuvrability, and decked over the waist so that more guns could be mounted. The guns themselves would include a large number of culverins which had a longer barrel and a longer range than the cannon, but fired a shot (18 pounds) of less than a third the weight of a cannon (60 pounds). His new ships became known as race-built galleons, and older ships were suitably modified, in some cases being completely rebuilt.

To man the ships he wanted a better quality of seamen, so he instituted reforms which included better pay, food and training. Consequently, his ships needed less crew to man them, as ships of the day expected a large attrition of men through disease, so they were overmanned to compensate. Also, better trained men were more efficient so less were needed, and those, because they lived longer on better food, became more experienced.

In 1584 there had been a crop failure in Spain, and Philip offered to buy the grain surplus of foreign nations. In 1585 England responded by sending ships laden with grain to Spanish ports where they were all impounded and their crews imprisoned except for one, the Primrose with a cargo of corn, which fought off a large armed boarding party. Several prisoners were taken, amongst whom was the Governor of Bibao who had the King’s Commission still on him. In part it read "I have caused a great fleet to be put in readiness in the haven of Lisbon and the river of Seville. . . I do therefore require you . . . arresting of all the shipping that may be found on the coast . . . saving those of France." (It seems that Philip was having difficulty assembling enough ships for his ‘English Enterprise’.) The Governor and his Commission were brought back to England.

There was now no doubt that Spain was preparing for an invasion of England. As a result, Queen Elizabeth authorised Francis Drake and his fleet to take revenge for this act of treachery. Drake first struck at the Spanish city of Vigo, then sailed to Santo Domingo (in the present day Dominican Republic) in the Caribbean and plundered it for a month, returning to England in 1586. Part of the plunder was 240 cannon taken from Spanish forts and ships. Guns were in great demand and these were used to arm the new English ships.

In August 1586, John Hawkins took a force of 18 warships on a three month voyage to reconnoitre the coasts of Spain and Portugal for signs of building up a large fleet that could threaten England. He captured prisoners who confirmed that Spain was preparing for a huge invasion.

Attack on Cadiz
In order to buy time for diplomatic negotiations, and to fully prepare the English fleet, Queen Elizabeth authorised Drake to make a pre-emptive strike on Spain to delay their preparations, changing her mind at the last moment, but too late; he had already sailed. In April 1587 Drake with 14 warships and 12 others sailed to Cadiz where a large fleet of ships was known to be assembling. Without any warning he sailed straight into the harbour where he found most ships unmanned and none ready for action. Despite being attacked by galleys and fireships, at least twenty four ships were destroyed by fire and gunfire at their moorings. Drake was later to call this action, "singeing the King of Spain’s beard". Philip said of it, "The damage committed there was not great, but the daring of the attempt was so."

On leaving Cadiz, Drake continued along the coast towards Cape St. Vincent plundering and capturing ships, most of which were traders, many carrying seasoned barrel staves and hoops of which 1,700 tons were destroyed by fire (enough to make about 30,000 barrels, which was to have later repercussions). Drake then sailed to the Azores to intercept returning Spanish ships. They captured the East Indiaman San Philipe carrying a cargo of enormous value. (It was worth some £114,000, of which Drake got £17,000 and Queen Elizabeth £40,000.)

Hawkins, Drake and others urged Elizabeth to use the fleet boldly to blockade the Spanish harbours, bottling up the armada in its ports. But besides being expensive, the open Atlantic Ocean in winter took a heavy toll of both ships and men spending a long period there, requiring months of refitting before they could be made ready again. Also ships were unhealthy places to spend such long periods. Their crews, living mainly on saltfish, ships biscuit and beer would inevitably fall sick, sometimes loosing half their complement to ship’s fever (typhus) and dysentery.

Building up and running a fleet of warships was an expensive business and Elizabeth sought ways to save money where she could. So during the winter of 1587-88, instead of blockading Spanish ports, she kept most of her ships half ready at anchor, releasing half the crew at a time to live ashore. This meant that only half the crews at a time were paid and fed, but they had fresh food to eat and stayed healthy. The ships were careened one at a time and had their hulls scraped and tallowed, so by the Spring both men and ships were in as good a state of health and condition as they could be. But this fortunate state was reached a by-product of Elizabeth’s frugality, rather than by her foresight.

The Spanish fleet

The Armada was made up from a hastily gathered force of all types of ships from all over Europe, with many from the Mediterranean. It comprised of 130 ships, of which 65 were fighting ships, with Santa Ana the largest at 1,294 tons. Their average weight was 470 tons.

It was organised into ten squadrons, primarily by fighting and sailing capability, and secondly by region and language spoken. There were two squadrons of galleons; four squadrons of large merchantmen; one of galleasses (sailing galleys) from Naples; one of Urcas or supply ships; one of assorted small ships for scouting and dispatch carrying; and incongruously, one of galleys.

The Portuguese Squadronof 12 Galleons, under the Duke of Medina Sidonia, Commander of the Armada in the 48 gun flagship San Martin.
The Biscayan Squadron of 14 ships, under Vice Admiral Juan Martinez de Recalde in the 30 gun flagship Santa Ana.
The Castilian Squadron of 13 ships, under Diego Flores de Valdés in the 36 gun flagship San Cristobal.
The Andalusian Squadron of 11 ships, under Don Pedro de Valdés in the 46 gun flagship Nuestra Senora del Rosario.
The Guipúzcoan Squadron of 14 ships, under Miguel de Oquendo in the 47 gun flagship Santa Ana.
The Levantine Squadronof 10 ships, under Martin de Bertandona in the 30 gun flagship La Regazona.
The Squadron of Urcas, 23 hulks or supply ships, under Juan Gómez de Medina in the 38 gun flagship El Gran Grifon.
The Neapolitan galleases, 4 ships under Don Hugo de Moncado in the 50 gun flagship San Lorenzo. (These were the most heavily armed ships in the Armada.)
The Galleys of Portugal, four 5 gun ships under Don Diego de Medrano.
The Squadron of Xebecs and other smaller ships, 24 ships of 5 to 10 guns, under Don Antonio de Medoza.

Totals: 132 ships; 8,766 sailors; 21,556 soldiers; 2,088 convict rowers.

Spanish tactics
Spanish tactics were dictated by the main purpose of the Armada which was to cover the passage and landing area of the Duke of Parma’s army from the Netherlands to England; not to defeat the English fleet in battle on the way, although it would be inevitable that they would meet and fight at some time.

Once the Armada had left the coast of Spain there were no friendly deep water ports in the Channel in which they could re-supply or seek refuge. Consequently, once at sea, they had to be self sufficient and sail non stop to the rendezvous with Parma. It was envisaged that if Parma could not be ready in time the Armada could anchor and wait somewhere on the south coast of England, possibly the Isle of Wight sheltering in ths Solent.

It was therefore a necessity that the strength of the Armada should not be unduly weakened by battle damage en route. To this end, a defensive formation was adopted for the passage, which took the form of a crescent or half moon, with the most powerful ships at the most vulnerable points on the wings.

Spanish ships had been made obsolete by the newer English ships, a fact recognized by the Spanish, but who still built ships which represented floating castles. Should it come to a fight, the Spanish tactics were to capture enemy ships by engaging at close quarters with gunfire before coming alongside and securing with grappling hooks. Whereupon, the ship would be taken by soldiers boarding and overpowering the enemy crew whose strength, it was hoped, had been reduced by the large number of muskets and small calibre guns carried on the high fore and stern castles.

Thus the purpose of a Spanish warship was to carry soldiers to do the fighting. Overall, the ships of the Armada carried two and a half times as many soldiers as they did sailors. What the Spanish didn’t initially recognise was that the English ships were simply too fast, too manoeuvrable and too heavily armed for these tactics to work.

In summary the Spanish ships were troop carriers and the English ships were gun carriers.

The English fleet

The English fleet was a more homogenous fleet than the Armada with fewer types of fighting ship, many of which were of the new ‘race-built’ galleon design – smaller, shallower, longer, faster and more manoeuvrable than the traditional galleon. Additionally, many of the guns were of the longer range culverins with their crews better trained and able to fire at twice the rate of their Spanish counterparts. (This also meant that they expended their ammunitions twice as quickly.)

There were four main types of ship:
1. The Royal ships. These were fighting galleons, of which the largest were the Bear at 1,000 tons, and Triumph at 1,100 tons. (Ark Royal, 800 tons was originally built and owned by Walter Raleigh and called Ark Raleigh but was renamed when sold to the Queen)
2. Merchant ships. The largest of which were Galleon Leicester and Merchant Royal at 400 tons. Although classed as merchant ships they were very heavily armed for fending off pirates and indulging in privateering, (private commerce raiding authorised by the Queen).
3. The City of London ships, paid for by the City of London.
4. Merchant ships paid for by the Crown.

The main fleet consisted of about 120 ships, with Triumph the largest at 1,100 tons. Their average weight was 220 tons. In addition to these were about 70 supply ships operating from their home ports, but not sailing with the fleet.

The fleet was commanded by Lord Howard of Effingham, with Sir Francis Drake as his Vice-Admiral. It is pointless to detail the squadrons as they were reorganised by Howard halfway through the campaign, but the Squadron Commanders were:-

Lord Charles Howard (the Lord High Admiral) in the 55 gun flagship Ark Royal,
Sir Francis Drake in the 46 gun flagship Revenge,
John Hawkins in the 52 gun flagship Victory,
Martin Frobisher in the 42 gun flagship Triumph,
Lord Henry Seymour in the 40 gun flagship Rainbow.

English tactics
The Armada had 62 ships over 300 tons at an average weight of 720 tons; whereas the English fleet had only 23 ships over 300 tons at an average weight of 550 tons. As the Spanish way of taking a ship was by grappling and boarding, and carried two and a half times as many men to do this, they would have an overwhelming advantage if it came to hand to hand fighting.

As Sir Walter Raleigh put it:
"Certainly, he that will happily perform a fight at sea must believe that there is more belonging to a good man of war upon the waters than great daring, and must know that there is a great deal of difference between fighting loose or at large and grappling. To clap ships together without consideration belongs rather to a madman than to a man of war . . ."

So English tactics were to avoid being boarded by engaging the Armada at a range beyond that of the Spanish short range heavy cannon, in an attempt sink or disable the ships. With the more manoeuvrable English ships, it was easy to stay out of range. But as was to become apparent, at such a range the English culverins didn’t fire a heavy enough shot to cause serious damage to the Spanish.

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.
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Old 08-12-2011, 18:43
Dave Hutson Dave Hutson is offline
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Default Re: The Spanish Armada of 1588

GE Bill,

Having reviewed the Armada and Trafalgar involvement by the Spanish Navy with an acquaintance at the Spanish Naval Museum in Cartegena [Retired Naval Captain] and had several discussions over dinner with retired and serving Spanish Naval Officers I find that whilst they accept everything we say about Trafalgar, they refute our claim to victory over the Armada stating that it was the weather that defeated the Armada. A point on which we always agree to differ and have another tot.

Nevertheless I always read your inputs, on whatever subject, with great interest, keep them coming.

Dave H
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Old 08-12-2011, 19:17
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Default Re: The Spanish Armada of 1588

Originally Posted by Dave Hutson View Post
Having reviewed the Armada and Trafalgar involvement by the Spanish Navy with an acquaintance at the Spanish Naval Museum in Cartegena [Retired Naval Captain] and had several discussions over dinner with retired and serving Spanish Naval Officers I find that whilst they accept everything we say about Trafalgar, they refute our claim to victory over the Armada stating that it was the weather that defeated the Armada. A point on which we always agree to differ and have another tot.Dave H
Thank you Dave for your quick response. I hope that I have provided you with some ammunition for you next after dinner discussion, which is more than the Armada had at Gravelines, where they had already been well beaten, weeks before the storms came.
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.
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Old 08-12-2011, 19:51
Dave Hutson Dave Hutson is offline
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Originally Posted by emason View Post
Thank you Dave for your quick response. I hope that I have provided you with some ammunition for you next after dinner discussion, which is more than the Armada had at Gravelines, where they had already been well beaten, weeks before the storms came.
Thanks for that Bill , now perhaps , coming from a position of power , my barbill won't be quite so high.

I will erase my two posts if they interrupt the continuity of your report ??

Dave H
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Old 08-12-2011, 20:13
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emason emason is offline
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Default Re: The Spanish Armada of 1588

Originally Posted by Dave Hutson View Post
Thanks for that Bill , now perhaps , coming from a position of power , my barbill won't be quite so high.

I will erase my two posts if they interrupt the continuity of your report ??

Dave H
Don't do that Dave, all comments are very welcome wherever they are posted.
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.
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Old 09-12-2011, 02:58
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Don Boyer Don Boyer is offline
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Default Re: The Spanish Armada of 1588

Another of your outstanding productions, Bill, very well done.

I have a few books on the Armada era, although the days of sail are not my strong point or interest, as you know, and I know that you had a tremendous amount of work on your plate to come up with such a succinct overview of the politics, the battle and the tactics. My books, of course, quote extensively from the "ancient tomes" upon which all must rely for the history of the battle, and to be able to wade through the diffuse and florid writing style of those days (with their inherent biases and lack of factual reporting) must have been real work! I really enjoyed reading your version, which made sense of a very scattered and inconclusive set of actions.
Don Boyer, GMT-2,
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Old 08-12-2011, 18:45
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The Spanish Armada of 1588 (Part 2)

Preliminary movements

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.

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.
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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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