The Spanish Armada 1588. Interesting Historical Events
Agincourt saw the birth of the myth that the British fight best when outnumbered and with their backs to the wall. The Hundred Years War as a whole, though, marked the emergence of another mythic theme, in that the British began to see themselves as an island nation, an altogether separate entity from Continental Europe. Before this, the people of Britain had always had a foot in both camps, so to speak. When Julius Caesar landed in 55 BC, he noted that the Celtic inhabitants of Britain had many connections with the people who lived in present-day France and Belgium; they spoke the same language, shared a common culture and were constantly travelling back and forth between one country and the other to visit relatives and friends. Later on, after the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain in the fifth century of the Common Era, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings established colonies in Britain.
Britain was at that time merely an outpost of Europe and an awful lot of people had family connections in what would one day become the countries of Germany, Sweden and Denmark. With the Norman Conquest of 1066, Britain became united with Europe in an even closer way. For the next 400 years, England and parts of France were essentially the same country. The idea of Britain as being in some sense different from the rest of Europe would have been incomprehensible during the Plantagenet dynasty. Kings of England often spent more time ruling in France than they did in Britain.
The Spanish Armada 1588
This whole idea has a very topical feel about it, in the aftermath of the referendum which was held in 2016 on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Is Britain an independent island nation or is it an integral part of Europe? This, when it came down to it, was the question being debated in the spring of 2016. Before the end of the Hundred Years War; the very question would have seemed meaningless; which is why that period was of such crucial importance in the shaping of British identity. The Spanish Armada has been evoked over the last half a millennium to symbolize British resistance to the threat from Europe. When the possibility was mooted of an invasion from France during the Napoleonic Wars, the image of Francis Drake repelling the Armada was used to hearten and encourage the British people and assure them that they could withstand a foreign seaborne assault.
In the Second World War too, the Spanish Armada was cited as an inspiring example of British pluck, when once again the threat of an invasion from the Continent was on the cards. We saw in the last chapter how the victory at Agincourt made an appearance in the public consciousness of the British in both of the twentieth century’s world wars and the Spanish Armada is part of the same theme. One of the reasons that the Spanish Armada exerts such a powerful influence upon the British is that it combines a number of the mythic motifs at which we have been looking. First, there is of course the ‘Invaders from the East’ idea, a recurring anxiety to people in the British Isles over the last 2,000 years from Julius Caesar to Adolf Hitler. Secondly, the Armada myth embodies the notion of Britain standing alone against an invincible enemy and winning against the odds. This is what we might call the ‘David and Goliath’ mythic theme.
A Map of The Spanish Armada 1588
Then too, with the involvement of the English army in the wars in the Netherlands, we see Britain sorting out Europe and lending a hand against an oppressed country. This was of course the ostensible reason for both the First and Second World Wars. Finally, there is that perennial topic of British interest, the weather. Those from other parts of the world are often baffled at the almost obsessive interest which the British seem to have in their country’s weather. It is a subject which crops up constantly when people meet in the street and is also a staple news item; ‘Britain to be hotter than Athens this week’, ‘Cold snap means that country will be colder than Siberia’ are popular newspaper headlines throughout the year.
One of the reasons that Britain has such a love hate relationship with its weather system is that wind and rain have proved crucial at various pivotal occasions in the nation’s affairs. We saw that the weather at Agincourt was instrumental in delivering a victory to Henry V’s army and so too with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which was caused more by gusts of wind than by the efforts of Sir Francis Drake and his fellow pirates. At Waterloo too, weather would be the deciding factor in a battle of world-historical importance, resulting in vastly increased British influence on European affairs for the next century and a half.
The Spanish Armada 1588
The story of the Spanish Armada, as it is generally understood, constitutes a perfect example of a myth. This is partly because of the elements which I have just mentioned, but also because it is a narrative featuring both human and divine characters. The dashing and devil-may-care hero, Sir Francis Drake, is credited with having tackled a hugely superior fleet of ships and triumphed against them; in defiance of all the odds. At the time, God too was thought to have taken a hand in the battle and helped to complete Drake’s victory. This makes the defeat of the Spanish Armada in many ways an archetypal myth of the kind which would not look out of place in the tales of battles found in the Bible, where men, aided by God, scatter their enemies before them.
The last chapter of Britain’s territorial association with Europe ended in 1558, with the siege and capture of the French port of Calais. This was the last possession of the English on continental Europe and its loss was hugely symbolic for British identity. Little wonder that on her deathbed, Mary, the queen who had overseen the loss of Calais, allegedly said that, ‘When I am dead and cut open, they will find Philip and Calais inscribed on my heart.’ From this point on, Britain was on its own and Europe was recognized to be another place, altogether separate from the British Isles. The political union of Britain and France is one alternative history which never quite came off; another was Britain becoming a part of the Spanish Empire, the original empire of which it was said that the sun never set on.
The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I of England
When Philip of Spain married England’s Queen Mary in 1554, the two became coequal rulers of England. Both Philip and Mary’s images were on coins and had there been issue from the marriage, then their son or daughter would have united the two kingdoms. This too would have resulted in Britain being indissolubly linked to a European country. Nothing came of it though, and with the accession of Elizabeth to the throne of England, it became plain that Britain and Europe were destined, for the foreseeable future to be to separate and distinct things, a situation which was to exist until the British entry to the Common Market in 1973.
Elizabeth I was a staunch Protestant and after her sister Mary’s death set about reinstituting the church which her father had established, with herself at its head. She felt a natural affinity for those countries in Europe which had also rejected Catholicism, such as parts of Germany and the Netherlands. The countries that we know today as Holland and Belgium were at that time partly occupied by the Spanish army. In this area, the so-called Spanish Netherlands, Protestantism was not tolerated, the rulers of Spain being devout, not to say fanatical in their Catholic faith. The Spanish Inquisition was of course a byword for religious intolerance. It was not to be wondered at that England offered comfort and support to the Protestants of the Netherlands who were having such a terrible time of it.
The Spanish Armada 1588
Elizabeth’s relationship with Spain, and indeed Philip, was complex. At some times, it seemed as though she might be about to marry him, at others, war looked likely. The queen did not want England to go to war with the mightiest empire in the world and preferred to use indirect means to try and reduce the power of Spain. She licensed privateers, which were private ships with a commission to carry out acts of piracy, to operate against Spanish ships carrying gold back to Europe from the mines of South America, while at the same time warning the captains that they must not start a war with Spain. This was what would become known in the twentieth century as ‘plausible deniability’. One of these privateers or pirates was Francis Drake.
Today, most people remember Francis Drake as the man who first circumnavigated the globe, travelling all the way round the world by sailing west across the Atlantic from Britain and returning by way of the Indian Ocean and Africa. Drake is often represented as being some kind of famous explorer for undertaking this three-year journey. This monumental voyage was not, though, as many suppose, undertaken in a spirit of adventurous curiosity. It was because having clashed with Spanish ships on the Pacific coast of America, Drake feared that he would be ambushed on the way back to Britain if he attempted to sail around the tip of South America and then back across the Atlantic.
Sir Francis Drake and Elizabeth I. The Spanish Armada
After seizing fabulous quantities of treasure from the Spanish and having good reason to think that the Straits of Magellan, at the tip of South America, would be held against him, Francis Drake headed north and tried to find a way back to Britain by sailing through the Arctic. When this proved impossible, he realized that he would have to go the long way round, by crossing the Pacific Ocean and then sailing past India and round Africa. Exploring did not enter into it – he just wished to get home with all his loot and could not find a quicker way.
By the beginning of 1587, it looked very likely that for one reason or another, either because of the state-licensed piracy endorsed by Queen Elizabeth or the military support being given to Dutch Protestants against the Spanish army occupying part of the Netherlands, England and Spain would probably be at war before long. With the execution in February of that year of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, who had a legitimate claim to the throne of England, war looked likely. This was really the last chance for Catholicism returning to England. When, with the approval of Queen Elizabeth, Francis Drake raided the Spanish town of Cadiz in the late Spring and burned many ships which he found there, this likelihood became a racing certainty.
Mary Queen of Scots. The Spanish Armada
Until the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, Philip II thought that it would be a good scheme if Mary were to take over the throne of England, to which she had a good claim, and then upon her death, his daughter Isabella could become Queen of England. It must be borne in mind that Philip himself had a claim to the throne of England, by virtue of his descent from John of Gaunt, whose son became Henry IV. At any rate, in 1587, he decided that the best solution to his problems with England would be to invade the country and either to set up a puppet government or actually absorb England into his own empire. He therefore made plans for a seaborne invasion fleet of barges to cross the English Channel from the territory which he controlled in what is now Holland and northern France.
Preparations for the Armada or to give it its more formal name, La felicissima armada, ‘the most fortunate fleet’, began in 1587, but its launch was delayed until the following year by Francis Drake’s raid on Cadiz in April and May 1587. This exploit became known as ‘Singeing the King of Spain’s Beard’. Originally, it had been hoped to launch the attack on England in October 1587 and this delay was to have serious implications for the Armada. The whole enterprise seemed to be dogged with misfortune, one way and another, but this did not worry King Philip in the slightest, because he believed that God was behind him and would not let his invasion fail.
Because Philip was fighting on behalf of the Catholic faith, he was convinced that his endeavours could not possibly fail. After all, how could God let such a devoted servant’s efforts fail to be ultimately crowned with success? This strange and deluded belief must be seen in the context of the Reformation, when some European countries, England among them, were rejecting the authority of the Catholic Church and establishing their own churches, separate from, and not under the authority of, Rome. Little wonder that Pope Sixtus V was an enthusiastic supporter of Philip’s plans. The Pope promised those who took part in the invasion of England remission of suffering in purgatory as a reward for their participation in the war against Elizabeth, who was an excommunicated heretic.
The Spanish Armada 1588
King Philip must have been quite sure that God favoured his military enterprise. Why else would he have appointed as its leader Don Alonso de Guzman el Bueno, Duke of Medina Sidonia and Captain-General of Andalusia? Here was a man who wrote frankly to Philip, upon hearing of the task allotted to him, saying, ‘My health is not equal to such a voyage, for I know by experience of the little I have been at sea that I am always seasick and always catch cold.’ As if this were not enough, the Duke went on to say that, ‘Since I have no experience of either the sea, or of war, I cannot feel that I ought to command so important an enterprise.’ So horrified were Philip’s advisors by this letter, that they made sure that the king never saw it. So it was that in April 1588, Medina Sidonia proceeded to Lisbon, where the great fleet was awaiting its commander. At a service in the city’s cathedral on the 25th, he received the standard which he would carry into battle: the arms of Spain, flanked by Jesus and the Madonna. The duke was also given a scroll which bore the motto of the expedition, a quotation from Psalm 74; ‘Rise up, o Lord, and vindicate your cause’.
It was plain from his subsequent letters to King Philip, which did actually reach the monarch, that the Duke of Medina Sidonia was more than a little dubious about all this talk of divine approval for the fleet which he had been ordered to command. The Armada began to sail from Lisbon on 9 May, but almost as soon as it had gone to sea freakish storms and high winds blew up; as though the weather were trying to blow them back to port. The mighty Armada, known colloquially as ‘La invencible’, ‘the Invincible’, was scattered and dispersed, unable to make headway against raging winds which were absolutely unheard of at that time of year. It was only now that they were at sea that another problem emerged. Many of the provisions, the food and water, had been stored on board since October when the fleet had originally been expected to sail. A lot of it had gone off and even the water was almost undrinkable. The Spanish Armada was forced to put in at the northern Spanish port of La Coruna on 19 June to take on fresh food and water.
A Map of The Spanish Armada 1588
During the stay in La Coruna, Medina Sidonia again took the opportunity to write to Philip, suggesting that the unseasonable storms might be God’s way of hinting that he was not favourably disposed towards the invasion of England. As might have been expected, this idea did not appeal to the king, who replied quite sharply. ‘If this were an unjust war, one could indeed take this storm as a sign from our Lord to cease offending him. But being just as it is, one cannot believe that He will disband it.’ There was more in the same vein, all to the effect that God was wholeheartedly behind the Armada and guaranteed its success. Philip ended his letter brusquely, by saying that, ‘I have dedicated this enterprise to God. Pull yourself together and do your part.’ A month after putting in to La Coruna, the Spanish Armada set sail once more for the English Channel and if all went well, Spanish troops would be landing in Kent within a few weeks and then marching on London.
Part of the myth associated with the Spanish Armada is the enormous disparity between the English and Spanish naval forces. It is perfectly true that the Armada was the greatest collection of ships ever seen in Europe, consisting of 130 vessels. The English, by way of comparison, had only 105 ships to confront this great force. This is not the whole picture, however. The majority of the Spanish ships were merchantmen, which had been adapted to carry troops. Some were merely urcas, literally ‘hulks’, which were only used to carry supplies. Of the 130 ships, only thirty-five or so were warships, designed for fighting at sea. Some of these were galleons, huge floating castles which may have had formidable firepower but were large and unwieldy to manoeuvre. The English had fewer ships, but more of them were actually warships. The English vessels were also lighter and easier to control. They could dodge about and make quick attacks on the slower moving ships of the Armada.
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