Great­est bat­tles

english Chan­nel, July-au­gust 1588

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Charles Gin­ger

How Sir Fran­cis Drake chased off the Span­ish Ar­mada at Grav­e­lines

as has of­ten been the case through­out the his­tory of em­pires and con­quest, it was a com­bi­na­tion of greed, self-right­eous­ness and a de­sire to pun­ish a trou­ble­some neigh­bour that in­spired King Philip II of Spain to at­tempt to in­vade Eng­land in 1588.

As ruler of the largest empire in the world at the time, Philip’s power was un­ri­valled, but this didn’t trans­late into a reign of peace and con­tent­ment for his sub­jects, es­pe­cially those re­sid­ing in the Nether­lands. A Span­ish pos­ses­sion when its crown passed to King Philip II in 1556, since 1568 the Nether­lands had been in re­volt against its for­eign over­lords. How­ever, it was not alone in its ef­forts; a neigh­bour to the north­west was all too will­ing to pro­vide aid – Eng­land.

Such a bla­tant dis­re­gard for his rule and the sovereignty of his sprawl­ing empire was never go­ing to be ig­nored by Philip, and when Eliz­a­beth I opted to re­lieve Mary, Queen of Scots (a de­vout Catholic) of her head, King Philip’s re­straint snapped. The Protes­tant thorn in his side would have to be re­moved, and the only way to ex­tract it would be to in­vade Eng­land and re­store Catholi­cism to its peo­ple, many of whom Philip be­lieved would rise up in sup­port of their re­li­gious saviours as they landed on the English coast. He also had the ex­press sup­port of Pope Six­tus V, who viewed the en­tire en­ter­prise as a cru­sade, an elec­tric word bound to in­vig­o­rate the men set to em­bark on it.

Such an un­der­tak­ing was never go­ing to be a sim­ple one, and a vast and well-sup­plied fleet would take time to or­gan­ise. For­tu­nately for Philip, the Pope per­mit­ted him to levy ‘cru­sade taxes’, which went a long way to fund­ing the planned in­va­sion. How­ever, nei­ther di­vine favour nor con­ve­nient tax­a­tion could prevent Fran­cis Drake’s raid on Cadiz in April 1587, which saw 30 ships put out of ac­tion and vi­tal sup­plies seized, push­ing the Ar­mada’s ex­pe­di­tion back by a year.

Fur­ther prob­lems oc­curred in Feb­ru­ary of the fol­low­ing year when the man cho­sen to lead the fleet, Ál­varo de Bazán, a vastly ex­pe­ri­enced (and some say un­de­feated) ad­mi­ral, died, forc­ing Philip to elect the Duke of Med­ina Si­do­nia, Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, to the po­si­tion. Aware of his own lim­i­ta­tions, de Guzmán im­me­di­ately ap­pealed against his un­ex­pected el­e­va­tion in the form of a let­ter to the king, but his ef­forts were foiled when royal ad­vi­sors in­ter­cepted it.

De­spite its in­aus­pi­cious be­gin­ning, the Ar­mada fi­nally set sail from Lis­bon on 28 May 1588, putting 160 ships, ap­prox­i­mately 32,400 men (of which around 21,500 were sol­diers) and 2,400 can­nons to sea in the process. Such a force seemed des­tined to splin­ter all op­po­si­tion and re­store the hea­then na­tion of Eng­land to Catholi­cism, or at the very least put an end to any English sup­port of the United Prov­inces (seven states in the Nether­lands that had suc­ceeded in oust­ing the Span­ish).

Un­for­tu­nately, the plan that this vast fleet was due to fol­low was any­thing but sim­ple.

The ships were or­dered to sail for the Span­ish Nether­lands, where await­ing their ar­rival stood an

army of 30,000 men un­der the com­mand of the bril­liant Duke of Parma. Un­der the cover of the Span­ish ships Parma’s troops would be con­veyed to Eng­land (Kent specif­i­cally), where they would make land and be­gin the in­va­sion. Hav­ing suc­cess­fully stunted the Dutch re­volt and re­turned the south­ern cities (which to­day are in Bel­gium) to Span­ish con­trol, Parma, an Ital­ian by the name of Alessan­dro Far­nese, would prove a for­mi­da­ble threat to any English hopes of push­ing the in­vaders back into the sea. Then the weather in­ter­vened.

As it would through­out the Ar­mada’s ul­ti­mately doomed ex­pe­di­tion, the el­e­ments turned against it, forc­ing some of its num­ber to re­turn to port. Then, on 19 July, any hope of main­tain­ing the el­e­ment of sur­prise evap­o­rated when the fleet was spot­ted off the coast of Corn­wall. A series of bea­cons were im­me­di­ately lit, send­ing news to Lon­don of the pres­ence of the Span­ish. The stage seemed set for a de­ci­sive en­gage­ment. With the English fleet un­able to sail out of Ply­mouth har­bour due to the tide, it was sug­gested to de Guzmán that the mo­ment had come to strike. Un­for­tu­nately for King Philip

II’S am­bi­tions, de Guzmán pre­var­i­cated and then de­cided not to act, claim­ing that en­gag­ing the English had not been ap­proved by the king. It was a de­ci­sion both would come to re­gret.

As the Span­ish made for the Isle of Wight, English for­tunes rapidly shifted, the fleet un­der Lord Howard of Eff­in­g­ham and Fran­cis Drake was now able to es­cape its con­tain­ment and pur­sue the Ar­mada.

As the Sun rose on the morn­ing of 21 July the English, by now an­chored off Ply­mouth and hav­ing seized the ad­van­tage of be­ing up­wind of their foes (known as gain­ing the weather gauge), moved to en­gage the en­emy.

Con­scious of the fact that the Span­ish fleet was trained to un­leash its can­nons in one fu­ri­ous burst be­fore rush­ing up to the top deck and pre­par­ing to board their stricken vic­tim, the English wisely kept their dis­tance, fir­ing at range while be­ing sure to max­imise their speed ad­van­tage to keep out of the reach of Span­ish grap­ples. How­ever, while this meant that they didn’t lose a sin­gle ship dur­ing the en­counter, it also spared the Span­ish, who, ar­ranged in a con­vex arc for­ma­tion, with­stood the bar­rage eas­ily, only los­ing two ships (Rosario and San Sal­vador) when they col­lided.

As the smoke of the can­nons dis­si­pated Drake found him­self con­sumed by a fa­mil­iar urge to loot the ail­ing Span­ish ships that had smashed into one an­other ear­lier in the day. While do­ing so would se­cure both use­ful in­for­ma­tion and valu­able sup­plies, it very nearly cost the English fleet, and there­fore Eng­land as a whole, dearly.

In or­der to ap­proach his tar­gets Drake re­quired the cover of dark­ness, so as night fell he ex­tin­guished the lantern aboard the Re­venge. In do­ing so he in­stantly plunged the rest of the English fleet into con­fu­sion, for they were re­ly­ing on the light in or­der to fol­low his lead and main­tain for­ma­tion. As the cap­tains of the ships scram­bled to re­store or­der Drake set about board­ing and strip­ping the Span­ish ves­sels, re­liev­ing them of gun­pow­der and – no doubt his favoured prize – gold. He also gained a strate­gi­cally vi­tal in­sight into the in­te­rior de­sign of the Span­ish galleons, which had ex­tremely com­pact gun decks laden with sup­plies. As a re­sult, the sailors man­ning the guns had very lit­tle room to ma­noeu­vre, and Drake quickly de­duced that reload­ing and re-fir­ing the Span­ish can­nons must be a tricky and time-con­sum­ing en­deav­our.

The English spent the fol­low­ing day (22 July) catch­ing up to the Span­ish, who had made good use of their 24-hour ad­van­tage.

How­ever, they couldn’t mit­i­gate the speed of the English ships, who man­aged to catch up with them. The next day the men un­der Eff­in­g­ham and Drake’s com­mand formed up in prepa­ra­tion for bat­tle, and while a mi­nor skir­mish achieved noth­ing, a fullthrot­tle as­sault soon af­ter saw four sep­a­rate English squadrons rac­ing to­wards their Iberian foes, forc­ing the Span­ish back and thereby pre­vent­ing them from an­chor­ing safely in the So­lent to await news of Parma’s army.

Re­luc­tant to risk de­feat, de Guzmán in­stead opted to make for the safety of Calais. This seem­ingly pru­dent re­treat would prove to be a fa­tal er­ror.

Hav­ing reached Calais on 27 July, the Span­ish low­ered their an­chors in an­tic­i­pa­tion of col­lect­ing Parma’s force of 30,000 well-equipped troops from Dunkirk. Word soon reached them that quickly

dis­abused them of this no­tion. Parma’s army had been al­most halved by dis­ease and was in fact not ready to em­bark. The Ar­mada’s grow­ing prob­lems were com­pounded by the news that Dunkirk was be­ing block­aded by valiant Dutch fly­boats steered by men who knew all too well that the for­mi­da­ble Span­ish ships were too large to sail into the shal­low wa­ters off the coast of the Nether­lands. Parma was now stranded with no hope of res­cue, and the block­ade was the death knell for any dreams of spir­it­ing his men to Eng­land. To say that over­look­ing this po­ten­tial im­ped­i­ment was an over­sight by King Philip’s ad­vi­sors would be an un­der­state­ment.

As de Guzmán no doubt pre­var­i­cated over what to do next the English were plot­ting a blaz­ing de­noue­ment for his fleet. Un­der­stand­ably ner­vous of lone ships be­ing preyed on, de Guzmán or­dered the Ar­mada to drop an­chor off Calais in a tight for­ma­tion, hop­ing for safety in num­bers. What he hadn’t catered for was the English turn­ing this oth­er­wise rea­son­able de­ci­sion against the Span­ish by ex­ploit­ing their com­pact ranks.

With the hour ap­proach­ing mid­night, the si­lence of the port of Calais was sud­denly split by a rip­ple of panic as the Span­ish watched no less than eight fire ships bear­ing down on them, each one stripped of any un­nec­es­sary weight and then crammed to the deck with brim­stone, pitch, tar and gun­pow­der.

Fear­ing that the loom­ing fire ships were in fact ‘hell­burn­ers’ (ships filled with gun­pow­der charges), the ma­jor­ity of the Ar­mada hastily cut their lines and sailed for safety, leav­ing de Guzmán and the

main Span­ish war­ships be­hind.

While the flam­ing mis­siles failed to se­verely dam­age any of the Span­ish fleet, they did suc­ceed in shat­ter­ing the pre­vi­ously for­mi­da­ble cres­cent shape of the Ar­mada. The field had been lev­elled and the scene was set for a de­ci­sive en­counter off the Bel­gian port of Grav­e­lines.

Aware that in or­der to in­flict suf­fi­cient dam­age they would have to close on the en­emy to within

100 yards, the English sailed forth and un­leashed a tor­rent of can­non and mus­ket fire. Swathes of Span­ish gun­ners fell in the mael­strom of metal as the broad­sides of the Ar­mada’s ves­sels be­gan to splin­ter, caus­ing a num­ber of ships to list pre­car­i­ously as their sailors scram­bled to re­turn fire. Af­ter eight hours of fight­ing five Span­ish ships were drift­ing be­low the waves and the English were be­gin­ning to pull back as their guns ran empty.

The English ‘vic­tory’ at Grav­e­lines sent the fi­nal can­non­ball into the hull of King Philip II’S dreams of con­quer­ing Eng­land and re-es­tab­lish­ing Catholi­cism, but in truth any threat to the realm of Eliz­a­beth I went up in a cloud of smoke the mo­ment news of Parma’s en­trap­ment reached de Guzmán.

Eliz­a­beth’s fa­mous ad­dress at Til­bury sounds some­what less dra­matic when one con­sid­ers that by the time she gave it, in­spir­ing as it was, the dan­ger had long since passed.

Hav­ing pre­var­i­cated when de­ci­sive­ness was re­quired, hav­ing held back when a fi­nal push could have es­tab­lished a vi­tal foothold, de Guzmán was guilty of many fail­ings, but the doom of the Ar­mada does not rest squarely upon his shoul­ders. From its con­cep­tion the plan was des­tined to floun­der, sunk by poor plan­ning and the im­petu­ous whims of a ruler bent on re­mind­ing an ir­ri­tat­ing neigh­bour of his far-reach­ing pow­ers.

Hav­ing sailed for Scot­land fol­low­ing its maul­ing off Grav­e­lines, the Ar­mada was al­most com­pletely oblit­er­ated by storms as it made for home. Upon hear­ing that less than 10,000 of his men had made it home, and many of them ill or dy­ing, King Philip is said to have lam­basted the in­ter­fer­ence of “God’s winds and waves.”

In the years that fol­lowed the reign­ing naval power of Spain was grad­u­ally can­celled out by the emerg­ing seaborne prow­ess of the English, with both sides send­ing fleets to ha­rass the other be­fore the in­evitabil­ity of a peace pact fi­nally be­came clear to both, cul­mi­nat­ing in the Treaty of Lon­don in

1604. By then King Philip had been dead six years, his hopes of putting an end to Eng­land’s in­fer­nal in­ter­fer­ence in his in­ter­nal af­fairs well and truly dashed.

In the cen­turies to come Spain’s dom­i­nance on the global stage would be­gin to wane, while the in­flu­ence of Eng­land would see it es­tab­lish an empire beyond com­pare. How dif­fer­ent the his­tory of the world would have been had de Guzmán man­aged to land upon Eng­land’s shores and un­leash the full might of the Duke of Parma’s hordes.

The English sent eight fire­ships into the Span­ish fleet out­side Calais

Queen Eliz­a­beth I ad­dresses the troops mus­tered at Til­bury

Span­ish hopes of in­vad­ing Protes­tant Eng­land were scat­tered along with its ships

King Philip II was de­ter­mined to re­store Eng­land to Catholi­cism

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