english Channel, July-august 1588
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