Story of Sir Francis Drake - Mrs. O. Elton

The Great Armada

Drake's raid upon the Spanish coast made it impossible for the Armada to sail in 1587. But after waiting so long Philip made his preparations with an almost feverish haste. The death of his great general, Santa Cruz, hindered his plans very much. Santa Cruz was a commander of experience and renown, and the man most fitted, both by his rank and his qualities, to undertake "the enterprise of England."

The man chosen to succeed him was the Duke of Medina Sidonia, whose exalted rank seems to have been his chief claim to the difficult place into which he was thrust by Philip. He had no desire to take the place; he wrote to Philip and told him quite simply that he was no seaman, and knew little about naval fighting and less about England. But he was ordered to take the fleet into the English Channel and take possession of Margate. He was then to send ships to bring the Duke of Parma and his army in safety to England, when Parma was to assume the command of the expedition.

But, after all, the Armada was not ready to sail till July 1588, and the months between then and January were filled by the English with preparations for defence. They had to face the difficulties, much greater then than now, of keeping both men and ships on the seas, and yet fit for action. Life on board ship tried the men very severely. We have seen how often sickness broke out among the sailors if they were kept long to their crowded, unhealthy quarters. The feeding of both navies seems to have been a task of great difficulty. This was due to the hurried demand for vast quantities of stores, such as biscuit and salt meat. The Spaniards, too, owing to Drake's foresight, had lost their water-casks, and had to depend on new ones of unseasoned wood, which leaked.

Lord Howard, a cousin of the Queen, was made Lord High Admiral of England, and Drake was his Vice Admiral and John Hawkins his Rear-Admiral. With them served many other famous men, such as Fenner, Frobisher, Wynter, and Seymour, and many younger men from noble families. All were working hard, with spirits stretched to an unusual pitch of endurance. In the letters they wrote about the business in hand to the Queen and her Ministers of State there is a note of high courage and defiance; and a distant echo comes down to us from the dim old letters of all the stir and bustle as the men gathered to the ships, and of the hum of excitement about the clamouring dockyards. The shipwrights were working day and night. Lord Howard says he has been on board every ship "where any man may creep," and thanks God for their good state, and that "never a one of them knows what a leak means." Sir William Wynter tells how badly the ships had suffered in the winter storms, but adds: "Our ships doth show themselves like gallants here. I assure you it will do a man's heart good to behold them; and would to God the Prince of Parma were upon the seas with all his forces, and we in the view of them; then I doubt not but that you should hear we would make his enterprises very unpleasant to him."

The ships are always spoken of like live creatures, and their personal histories are well known and remembered. Lord Howard says of his Ark (which was bought of Sir Walter Raleigh by the Queen): "And I pray you tell her Majesty from me that her money was well given for the Ark Raleigh, for I think her the odd (only) ship in the world for all conditions; and truly I think there can no great ship make me change and go out of her." And again: "I mean not to change out of her I am in for any ship that ever was made."

Drake had "her Majesty's very good ship the Revenge," which was so famous then and afterwards. Lord Henry Seymour writes from on board "the Elizabeth Bonaventure, the fortunate ship where Sir Francis Drake received all his good haps." Howard and Drake, with other commanders of experience, were of one mind; they wanted to go out and meet the enemy upon the coasts of Spain, and so prevent the Spanish fleet from ever reaching England.

Howard pressed this opinion as that of men whom the world judged to be the wisest in the kingdom. But the Queen was unwilling to send the fleet away, and she still talked of making peace.

Both the Spaniards and the English were persuaded that God was fighting with them. Philip told the Duke of Medina Sidona, that as the cause was the cause of God, he could not fail. In England Drake was saying that "the Lord is on our side"; and Fenner wrote to the Queen: "God mightily defend my gracious Mistress from the raging enemy; not doubting that all the world shall know and see that her Majesty's little army, guided by the finger of God, shall beat down the pride of His enemies and hers, to His great glory." Nowadays we do not look upon our enemies as necessarily the enemies of God.

Howard's letters show a very noble mind. He grudged no time or labour in the ordering of his fleet, down to the smallest matters. He is full of care for the mariners, and is anxious that they should be well paid and fed. He takes the advice of Drake and the other seamen of greater experience than himself.

The fleet did at last go out, but was driven back by the winds; and suddenly, after the fret and worry and strain of all those months, there is a pause, and Howard writes: "Sir, I will not trouble you with any long letter; we are at this present otherwise occupied than with writing. Upon Friday, at Plymouth, I received intelligence that there was a great number of ships descried off the Lizard: whereupon, 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 southwest; and about three of the clock in the afternoon, descried the Spanish fleet, and did what we could to work for the wind, which by this morning we had recovered . . . At nine of the clock we gave them fight, which continued until one . . . . Sir, the captains in her Majesty's ships have behaved themselves most bravely and like men hitherto, and I doubt not will continue, to their great commendation . . . Sir, the southerly wind that brought us back from the coast of Spain brought them out."

William Hawkins, then Mayor of Plymouth, writes that the "Spanish fleet was in view of this town yesternight, and the Lord Admiral passed to the sea and out of sight." They could see the fleets fighting, the English being to windward of the enemy. He was sending out men as fast as he could find ships to carry them.

Sir Francis Drake


There is a legend that Drake and his officers were playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe when the news that the Armada was in the Channel was brought to him by the captain of a pinnace. Drake calmly finished his game, the story says, saying there was time to do that and to beat the Spaniards too.

As the Spanish ships lay in the English Channel, blinded with the mist and rain, the Duke sent a boat to get news. Four fishermen of Falmouth were brought away who had that evening seen the English fleet go out of Plymouth, "under the charge of the English Admiral and of Drake."

The Spaniards had come out ready to fight in the old way, in which they had won so many brilliant victories. They had always fought their naval battles with great armies on great ships, much as they would fight on land. The soldiers despised big guns, and liked better the bravery of a close fight, "with hand-thrusts and push of pike." The sailors were not prepared to fight at all, but with the help of slaves they sailed the big galleys and fighting ships, and the swarm of smaller troop-ships and store-ships that swelled the numbers of the fleet which carried an army.

The numbers of the ships on both sides are now said to have been not so very unequal. If the Spaniards could have fought in their own way, they must have been easily victorious. But the English had got the wind at their back and the enemy in front of them, and being better masters of their ships, they had the choice, and they chose to fight at a distance, and never to board the big ships till they were already helpless.

Their ships were newer, and built on different lines, and could sail faster. They were smaller than our modern men-of-war, but carried more guns for their size. They were, as the Spaniards said, "very nimble and of good steerage, so that the English did with them as they desired. And our ships being very heavy compared with the lightness of those of the enemy, it was impossible to come to hand-stroke with them."

The English ships were manned with sailors and gunners who could both sail the ships and fight the enemy. The guns were fired at the hulls of the Spanish ships and not wasted on the enemy's rigging, which was harder to aim at.

The fleets met on the;1st of July, and there followed a week of fighting and of disasters to the Spaniards. Yet as the news of their coming up the Channel came to those on shore, who watched beside the beacon fires with anxious hearts, the danger must have seemed little less fearful than before. Those who viewed the "greatness and hugeness of the Spanish army" from the sea, considered that the only way to move them was by fire-ships.

Sidonia had steered his great fleet magnificently through the dangers of the Channel; he anchored outside Calais to await the answer to the urgent messages he had sent to the Duke of Parma. But, as we know, the "Narrow Seas" were well watched by the English, and they were so helped by the Dutch that Parma never reached the shores of England.

Eight fire-ships were hastily prepared and sent down upon the Spanish fleet, "all burning fiercely. These worked great mischief among the Spanish ships (though none of them took fire), for in the panic their cables and anchors were slipped."

The great fight took place off Gravelines; on the Flemish coast, where most of the scattered ships of the Armada had drifted in the general confusion. The English hastened to take advantage of this confusion, while Sidonia was forming his fleet again into battle order. They "set upon the fleet of Spain (led by Sir Francis Drake in the Revenge)  and gave them a sharp fight," while Lord Howard stopped to capture a helpless ship, the finest, they said, upon the sea. "And that day, Sir Francis' ship was riddled with every kind of shot."

The fight went on from nine in the morning till six at night, when the Spanish fleet bore away, beaten, towards the north. Howard says that "after the fight, notwithstanding that our powder and shot was well near all spent, we set on a brag-countenance and gave them chase as though we had wanted nothing (or lacked nothing) until we had cleared our own coast and some part of Scotland of them."

Drake was appointed to follow the fleet, and he writes, "We have the army of Spain before us, and mind, with the grace of God, to wrestle a pull with him. There was never anything pleased me better than the seeing the enemy flying with a southerly wind to the northwards. God grant you have a good eye to the Duke of Parma: for with the grace of God, if we live, I doubt it not but ere it be long so to handled the matter with the Duke of Sidonia as he shall wish himself at St. Mary Port among his orange trees."

At the end of this letter he says, "I crave pardon of your honour for my haste, for that I had to watch this last night upon the enemy." And in another letter to Walsingham he signs himself, "Your honour's most ready to be commanded but now half-sleeping Francis Drake."

Many of the Spanish ships, being so crippled, were wrecked in stormy weather off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, which were unknown to them, and thus the more dangerous. Not half of those who put out to sea ever reached Spain again. Many men were killed in battle or died of their wounds, and they were the most fortunate, for others were drowned, or perished miserably by the hands of the natives of the coasts. Some who escaped were put to death by the Queen's orders, and some lingered in the foul prisons of that time. The instinct of savage cruelty revives, even in highly civilized races, in time of war, and spreads, like an infection.

Sir Francis Drake


We get a glimpse, in an old list of plunder taken from the Spanish prisoners, of the brave looks of the vanished host, that included the flower of Spanish youth and chivalry. There were "breeches and jerkins of silk, and hose of velvet, all laid over with gold lace, a pair of breeches of yellow satin, drawn out with cloth of silver, a leather jerkin, perfumed with amber and laid over with a gold and silver lace, a jerkin embroidered with flowers, and a blue stitched taffety hat, with a silver band and a plume of feathers."

For some time England was haunted by fears that the Armada would return to her coasts, or that Parma would avenge himself. But the reports of the many wrecks and of the massacre of Spanish soldiers eased this present anxiety. And it was well, for fever and sickness broke out in the English ships, and the men were dying in hundreds, "sickening one day and dying the next," as the letters say. The ships had to be disinfected and many of the men dispersed.