by  Winston  Churchill

The Spanish Armada

WAR was now certain. The chances were heavily weighted in favour of Spain. From the mines of Mexico and Peru there came a stream of silver and gold which so fortified the material power of the Spanish Empire that King Philip could equip his forces beyond all known scales. The position was well understood in the ruljng circles of England. So long as Spain controlled the wealjfeof the New World she could launch and equip a multitude of Armadas; the treasure must therefore be arrested at its source or captured from the ships which conveyed it across the oceans. In the hope of strengthening her own finances and harassing the enemy's preparations against the Netherlands and ultimately against herself, Elizabeth had accordingly sanctioned a number of unofficial expeditions against the Spanish coasts and colonies in South America. These had continued for some time, and as yet without open declaration of war, but she had come to realise that scattered raids of which she professed no prior knowledge could do no lasting harm to the Spanish Empire beyond the seas or the Spanish power in Northern Europe. Gradually therefore these expeditions had assumed an official character, and the Royal Navy surviving from the days of Henry VIII was rebuilt and reorganised by John Hawkins, son of a Plymouth merchant, who had formerly traded with the Portuguese possessions in Brazil. Hawkins had learnt his seamanship in slave-running on the West African coast and in shipping Negroes to the Spanish colonies. In 1573 he was appointed Treasurer and Controller of the Navy. He had moreover educated an apt pupil, a young adventurer from Devon, Francis Drake.


This "Master Thief of the unknown world," as his Spanish contemporaries called Drake, became the terror of their ports and crews. His avowed object was to force England into open conflict with Spain, and his attacks on the Spanish treasure ships, his plundering of Spanish possessions on the western coast of the South American continent on his voyage round the world in 1577, and raids on Spanish harbours in Europe, all played their part in driving Spain to war. From their experiences on the Spanish Main the English seamen knew they could meet the challenge so long as reasonable equality was maintained. With the ships that Hawkins had built they could fight and sink anything the Spaniards might send against them.

Meanwhile Elizabeth's seamen had been gaining experience in unexplored waters. Spain was deliberately blocking the commercial enterprise of other nations in the New World so far as it was then known. A Devon gentleman, Humphrey Gilbert, began to look elsewhere, and was the first to interest the Queen in finding a route to China, or Cathay as it was called, by the North-West. He was a well-read man who had studied the achievements of contemporary explorers. He knew there were ptefly of adventurers schooled in the straggling fighting in FraHce and in the Ne&erlands on whose services he could call. In 1576 he wrote A Discourse to prove a Passage by the North-West to Cathaia and the East Indies. His book closed with a notable challenge: "He is not worthy to live at all, that for fear or danger of death shunneth bis country's service and his own honour; seeing death is inevitable and the fame of virtue is immortal." His ideas inspired the voyages of Martin Frobisher, to whom the Queen granted a licence to explore. The Court and the City financed the expedition, and two small ships of twenty-five tons sailed in search of gold. Having charted the bleak coasts round Hudson Straits Frobisher came back. High hopes were entertained that the samples of black ore he brought with him might contain gold. There was disappointment when the ore was assayed and proved worthless. No quick riches were to be gained from adventures in the North-West.

Gilbert however was undaunted. He was the first Englishman who realised that the value of these voyages did not lie only in finding precious metals. There were too many people in England. Perhaps they could settle in the new lands. The idea of planting colonies in America now began to take hold of men's imaginations. A few bolctspirits were already dreaming of New Englands that would arise across the ocean. At first they had strictly practical aims in mind. In the hope of transporting the needy unemployed to the New World, and of finding new markets among the natives for English cloth, Gilbert himself obtained a charter from Elizabeth in 1578, "to inhabit and possess at his choice all armed and heathen lands not in the actual possession of any Christian peoples." With eleven ships manned by many gentlemen adventurers, including his own stepbrother, Walter Raleigh, of whom more hereafter, he made several hopeful voyages, but none met with success.

In 1583 Gilbert took possession of Newfoundland in the! Queen's name, but no permanent settlement was made. Resolved to try again in the following year, he set out for home. The little convoy encountered terrible seas, "breaking short and high pyramid-wise." A narrative written by one Edward Hays survives. "Monday the 9th September in the afternoon, the frigate was near cast away, oppressed by waves, yet at that time recovered: and giving forth signs of joy, the General, sitting abaft with a book in his hand, cried out to us in the Hind so oft as we approached within hearing, 'We are as near to heaven by sea as by land.'" That night at twelve o'clock the lights of Gilbert's ship, the Squirrel, suddenly disappeared. The first great English pioneer of the West had gone to his death. Walter Raleigh fried to continue Gilbert's work. In 1585 a small colony was established on Roanoke Island, off the American continent, and christened Virginia in honour of the Queen. It was a vague term which came to include both the modern state and North Carolina. This venture also foundered, as did a second attempt two years later. But by now the threat from Spain was looming large, and to meet it all endeavour was concentrated at home. Colonial efforts were postponed for another twenty years by the Spanish War. In national resources the struggle that broke out was desperately unequal, but the Queen's seamen had received an unrivalled training which was to prove England's salvation.

The Spaniards had long contemplated an enterprise against England. They realised that English intervention threatened their attempts to reconquer the Netherlands and that unless England was overwhelmed the turmoil might continue indefinitely. Since the year 1585 they had been gathering information from many sources. English exiles sent lengthy reports to Madrid. Numerous agents supplied Philip with maps and statistics. The Spanish archives contain'several draft plans for the invasion of England.

Troops were not the difficulty. If order were maintained for a while in the Netherlands an expeditionary force could be detached from the Spanish army. A corps was deemed sufficient. The building and assembly of a fleet was a more formidable undertaking. Most of the King of Spain's ships came from his Italian possessions and were built for use in the Mediterranean. They were unsuited to a voyage round the western coasts of Europe and up the Channel. The galleons constructed for the trade routes to the Spanish colonies in South America were too unwieldy. But in the year 1580 Philip II had annexed Portugal, and the Portuguese naval constructors had not been dominated by the Mediterranean. They had experimented with classes of ships for action in the South Atlantic, and Portuguese galleons therefore formed the basis of the fleet which was now concentrated in the harbour of Lisbon. Every available vessel was summoned into Western Spanish waters, including even the privately owned galleons of the convoying force; named the Indian Guard. Preparations were delayed for a year by Drake's famous raid on Cadiz in 1587. In this "singeing of the King of Spain's beard" a large quantity of stores and ships was destroyed. Nevertheless in May 1588 the Armada was ready. A hundred and thirty ships were assembled, carrying 2,500 guns and more than 30,000 men, two thirds of them soldiers. Twenty were galleons, forty-four were armed merchantmen, and eight were Mediterranean galleys. The rest were either small craft or unarmed transports. Their aim was to sail up the Channel, embark the expeditionary corps of 16,000 veterans from the Netherlands under Alexander of Parma, and land it on the south coast of England.

The renowned Spanish Admiral Santa Cruz was now dead, and the command was entrusted to the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, who had many misgivings about the enterprise. His tactics followed the Mediterranean model of grappling with the enemy ships and gaining victory by boarding. His fleet was admirably equipped for carrying large numbers of men; it was strong in heavy short-range cannon, but weak in longdistance culverins—this was why the English kept out of range until the last battle. The seamen were few in proportion to the soldiers. These were reqruited from the dregs of the Spanish population and comritended by army officers of noble families who had no experience of naval warfare. Many of the vessels were in bad repair; the provisions supplied under a corrupt system of private contract were insufficient and rotten; the drinking water leaked from butts of unseasoned wood. Their commander had no experience of war at sea, and had begged the King to excuse him from so novel an adventure.

The English plan was to gather a fleet in one of the southwestern ports, intercept the enemy at the western entrance to the Channel, and concentrate troops in the south-east to meet Parma's army from the Flemish shore. It was uncertain where the attack would fall, but the prevailing westerly winds mad it likely that the Armada would sail up the Channel, join Parma, and force a landing on the Essex coast.

The nation was united in the face of the Spanish preparations. Leading Catholics were interned in the Isle of Ely, but as a body their loyalty to the Crown was unshaken. An army was assembled at Tilbury which reached twenty thousand men, under the command of Lord Leicester. This, with the muster in the adjacent counties, constituted a force which should not be underrated. While the Armada was still off the coasts of England Queen Elizabeth reviewed the army at Tilbury and addressed them in these stirring words:

My loving people, who have been persuaded by some that are careful for our safety to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery. But I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which, rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and we do assure you, in the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you.

Hawkins's work for the Navy was now to be tested. He had begun over the years to revise the design of English ships from his experience" of buccaneering raids in colonial waters. The castles which towered above the gafleon decks had been cut down; keels were deepened, and design was concentrated on seaworthiness and speed. Most notable of all, heavier long-range guns were mounted. Cannon were traditionally deemed "an ignoble arm," fit only for an opening salvo to a grappling fight, but Hawkins, with ships built to weather any seas, opposed hand-to-hand fighting and advocated battering the enemy from a distance with the new guns. The English sea-captains were eager to try these novel tactics against the huge overmasted enemy galleons, with their flat bottoms and a tendency to drift in a high wind. In spite of Hawkins's efforts only thirty-four of the Queen's ships, carrying six thousand men, could put to sea in 1588. As was the custom however all available privately owned vessels were hastily collected and armed for the service of the Government, and a total of a hundred and ninety-seven ships was mustered; but at least half of them were too small to be of much service.

The Queen had urged her seamen to "keep an eye upon Parma," and she was nervous of sending the main fleet as far west as Plymouth. Dlake was for bolder" measures. In a dispatch of March 30, 1588, he proposed sending the main body to attack a port on the Spanish coast—not Lisbon, which was well fortified, but somewhere near by, so as to force the Armada to sea in defence of the coastline. Thus, it was argued, the English would be certain of engaging the Spanish fleet and there would be no danger of its slipping past them on a favourable wind into the Channel.

The Government preferred the much more perilous idea of stationing isolated squadrons at intervals along the south coast to meet all possible lines of attack. They insisted on concentrating a small squadron of the Queen's ships at the eastern end of the Channel to keep watch on Parma. Drake and his superior, Lord Howard of Effingham, the commander of the English fleet, were alarmed and impatient, and with the greatest difficulty prevented a further dispersion of their forces. A southerly gale stopped their attacking the Spanish coast, and they were driven into Plymouth with their supplies exhausted and scurvy raging through the ships.

In the event they had plenty of time to consider their strategy. The Armada left the Tagus on May 20, but was smitten by the same storms whicji'nad repulsed Howard and Drake. Two of their 1,000-ton-ships were dismasted. They put in to refit at Corunna, and did not set sail again until July 12. News of their approach off the Lizard was brought into Plymouth harbour on the evening of July 19. The English fleet had to put out of the Sound the same night against light adverse winds which freshened the following day. A sober nauti-cal account of the operation is preserved in Howard's letter to Walsingham of July 21.

Although the wind was very scant we first warped out of harbour that night, and upon Saturday turned out very hardly, the wind being at south-west; and about three o'clock of the afternoon descried the Spanish fleet, and did what we could to work for the wind, which [by this] morning we had recovered, descrying their fleet to consist of 120 sail, whereof there are four galleases [galleys] 1 and many ships of great burden. At nine of the clock we gave j them fight, which continued until one.1

If. Medina-Sidonia had attacked the English vessels to leeward of his ships as they struggled to clear the land on the Saturday there would have been a disaster for the English. But his instructions bound him to sail up the Channel, unite with Parma, and help transport to England the veteran troops assembled near Dunkirk. His report to Madrid shows how tittle he realised his opportunity. By difficult, patient, precarious tacking the English fleet got to windward of him, and for nine days hung upon the Armada as it ran before the westerly wind up the Channel, pounding away with their long-range guns at the lumbering galleons. They had gained the weather gauge. On July 23 the wind sank and both fleets lay becalmed off Portland Bill. The Spaniards attempted a counter-attack with Neapolitan galleys, rowed by hundreds of slaves, but Drake, followed by Howard, swept in upon the main body, and, as Howard reported, "the Spaniards were forced to give way and flocked together like sheep."

A further engagement followed on the 25th off the Isle of Wight. It looked as if the Spaniards planned to seize the island as a base. But as the westerly breeze blew stronger the English still lay to windward and drove them once more to sea in the direction of Calais, where Medina, ignorant of Parma's movements, hoped to collect news. The Channel passage was a torment to the Spaniards. The guns of the English ships raked the decks of the galleons, killing the crews and demoralising the soldiers. The English suffered hardly any loss.

Medina then made a fatal mistake. He anchored in Calais Roads. The Queen's ships which had befti stationed in the eastern end of the Channel joined the mairi fleet in the straits, and the whole sea-power of England was now combined. A council of war held in the English flagship during the evening of July 28 resolved to attack. The decisive engagement opened. After darkness had fallen eight ships from the eastern squadron which had been filled with explosives and prepared as fire-ships—the torpedoes of those days—were sent against the crowded Spanish fleet at anchor in the roads. Lying on their

1 Laughton, Defeat of the Spanish 

Armada (Navy Records Society, 1894), 

vol. i, p. 273.

decks, the Spanish crews must have seen unusual lights creep ing along the decks of strange vessels moving towards them. Suddenly a series of explosions shook the air, and flaming hulks drifted towards the anchored Armada. The Spanish captains cut their cables and made for the open sea. Collisions without number followed. One of the largest galleys, the San Lorenzo, lost its rudder and drifted aground in Calais harbour, where the Governor interned the crew. The rest of the fleet, with a south-south-west wind behind it, made eastwards to Gravelines.

Medina now sent messengers to Parma announcing his arrival, and by dawn on July 29 he was off the sandbanks of Gravelines expecting to find Parma's troops ready shipped in their transports. But there was no sail to be seen. The tides in Dunkirk harbour were at the neap. It was only possible to sail out with a favourable wind upon a spring tide. Neither condition was present. The army and the transports were not at their rendezvous. The Spaniards turned to face their pursuers. A desperate fight raged for eight hours, a confused conflict of ships engaging at close quarters. The official report sent to the English Government was brief: "Howard in fight spoiled a great number of the Spaniards, sank three and drove four or five on the banks." The English had completely exhausted their ammunition, and but for this hardly a Spanish ship would have got away. Yet Howard himself scarcely realised the magnitude of his victory. "Their force is wonderful great and strong," he wrote on the evening after the battle, "yet we pluck their feathers by little and little."

The tormented Armada now sailed northwards out of the fight. Their one aim was to make for home. The horrors of the long voyage round the north of Scotland began. Not once did they turn upon the small ships which followed them in their course. Neither side had enough ammunition.

The homeward voyage of the Armada proved the qualities of the Spanish seamen. Facing mountainous seas and racing tides, they escaped from their pursuers. The English ships, short of food and shot, their crews grumbling at their wretched outfits, were compelled to turn southwards to the Channel ports. The weather helped the Spaniards. The westerly wind drove two of the galleons as wrecks upon the coast of Norway; but then it shifted. As Medina recorded, "We passed the isles at the north of Scotland, and we are now sailing towards Spain with the wind at north-east." Sailing southwards, they were forced to make for the western coast of Ireland to replenish their supplies of water. They had already cast their horses and mules into the sea. The decision to put in on the Irish coast was disastrous. Their ships had been shattered by the English cannonades and now were struck by the autumn gales. Seventeen went ashore. The search for water cost more than five thousand Spanish lives. Nevertheless over sixty-five ships, about half of the fleet that had put to sea, reached Spanish ports during the month of October.

The English had not lost a single ship, and scarcely a hundred men. But their captains were disappointed. For the last thirty years they had believed themselves superior to their opponents. They had now foifnd themselves fighting a much bigger fleet than they had imagined the Spaniards could put to sea. Their own ships had been sparingly equipped. Their ammunition had run short at a crucial moment. The gunnery of the merchant vessels had proved poor and half the enemy's fleet .had got away. There were no boastings; they recorded their dissatisfactions.

But to the English people as a whole the defeat of the Armada came as a miracle. For thirty years the shadow of Spanish power had darkened the political scene. A wave of religious emotion filled men's minds. One of the medals struck to commemorate the victory bears the inscription "Afflavit Deus et dissipantur"—"God blew and they were scattered."

Elizabeth and her seamen knew how true this was. The Armada had indeed been bruised in battle, but it was demoralised and set on the run by the weather. Yet the event was decisive. The English seamen might well have triumphed. Though limited in supplies and ships the new tactics of Hawkins had brought success. The nation was transported with relief and pride. Shakespeare was writing King John a few years later. His words struck into the hearts of his audiences:

Come the three corners of the world in

 arms, And we shall shock them.

 Nought shall make us rue

If England to itself do rest but true.