Story of Sir Francis Drake - Mrs. O. Elton

Expedition to Lisbon

The great Armada was scattered, and yet the English did not feel secure from their enemy. The sight of that fleet so near their shores in "its terror and majesty," and the memory of its vast army of well-drilled soldiers, left a feeling of deep uneasiness in the minds of wise men. "Sir," writes Howard to Walsingham, "safe bind, safe find. A kingdom is a great wager. Sir, you know security is dangerous: and had God not been our best friend, we should have found it so. Some made little account of the Spanish force by sea: but I do warrant you, all the world never saw such a force as theirs was . . . ."

Fortune had favoured England this time, but what if Philip built newer and lighter ships, and really succeeded in landing his army? They did not as yet know that Philip had no money to build his ships with, and rumours of a second invasion were plentiful.

The Spaniards, it is true, had suffered great loss and a crushing defeat to their pride, but they had not, after all, lost anything that they already had, but only failed to get something they wanted very badly to have, and the second kind of loss matters far less than the first.

But, on the other hand, if the English had been defeated, it is difficult to think how darkly their history might have been changed. It was this thought that made the wise men sober in the midst of the national joy and exultation. They saw how much England, as an island, must depend for strength and defence upon her navy, and they saw this much more clearly than before. But Drake had seen it for a long time. And he had seen something more. He had seen that the English navy must be ready and able to protect her merchant ships by distressing and attacking her enemies abroad, and that this was a means of keeping the enemy so busy abroad that he could not invade the peace of England at home.

Elizabeth was eager to complete the destruction of Philip's navy, now so much crippled. In the spring of 1589 she consented to a new expedition being fitted out, and appointed Sir John Norreys and Sir Francis Drake as commanders-in-chief. The two men had fought together in Ireland. "Black John Norreys," as he was called, came of a famous fighting family, and had served in the Lowlands and in France with high courage and skill. During the Spanish invasion he had been made chief of the land forces. It is said that in one battle he went on fighting after three horses had been killed under him. With him went his brother Edward, and a famous Welsh captain, Sir Roger Williams, was his second is command.

The objects of the expedition were: first, to distress the King of Spain's ships; second, to get possession of some of the islands of the Azores in order to waylay the treasure ships; and, lastly, to try to recover for Don Antonio his lost kingdom of Portugal.

Money for this expedition was raised from every possible source. The Queen gave six royal ships and two pinnaces, money, food, and arms. The forces were made up of soldiers, gentlemen who wished to make their fortunes in war, and English and Dutch sailors and recruits, most of whom were pressed. With this large but mixed army the generals prepared to face the best-trained soldiers in Europe.

As usual, there were many delays. The Ships were not ready to go out, and much of the food was consumed before they started. More was not to be had, though Drake and Norreys wrote letter after letter begging for supplies. The Queen had already begun to regard the expedition with disfavour. Some days before the fleet sailed, the young Earl of Essex, her latest Court favourite, had slipped away to sea with Sir Roger Williams on the Swiftsure. He was tired of a courtier's life, and wanted to breathe freer air, and to help to fight the Spaniards. The Queen was very angry, and sent orders for his arrest, accusing Drake and Norreys of aiding his escape. But they declared they knew nothing of his plans.

About this time some Flemish ships appeared in Plymouth harbour laden with barley and wine, and Drake seized their cargoes in the Queen's name to victual his fleet, and sailed early in April. The weather was so rough that several of the ships containing troops were unable to get beyond the Channel, but even with lesser numbers the crews were short of food before they reached Spain.

Philip was very ill at this time, and in grave anxiety. He knew that Drake and, the English ships might land on his coasts, that the French might cross the mountains with an invading force, and that the Portuguese might arise in rebellion to win back the crown for Don Antonio. This last danger seemed to Philip the most urgent, and Drake guessed this, and landed his men on the north-west coast at Corunna.

In doing this he tried to obey the Queen's orders to distress the King's ships, and also, no doubt, to satisfy the craving of his hungry crews for food and plunder. The lower town of Corunna was taken, and much wine and food consumed and much wasted. The townsfolk were routed and put to the sword, and their houses burned. An attempt to take the upper town failed, but the English were the victors in a sharp battle which took place some miles from the town, and they thus secured their retreat to the ships and sailed away.

The presence of Drake on the coasts caused great panic, for his name and luck had become a terror to the people. Philip felt deeply insulted that such an attack should be made "by a woman, mistress of half an island, with the help of a pirate and a common soldier." In Spain, as we have seen, the command was always given to gentlemen of high birth and breeding and title.

Four days after leaving Corunna, the fleet first sighted some of the missing ships, and also the Swiftsure  with the missing Earl, who had "put himself into the journey against the opinion of the world, and, as it seemed, to the hazard of his great fortune." The Swiftsure  had taken six prizes off Cape St. Vincent.

The two generals had from the first wished to go straight to Lisbon, and it is thought that if they had done so, and thus given the Spaniards no warning of their coming, they might have had success. But they were hindered by the Queen's orders to destroy the shipping now collected in the northern ports, and chiefly in Santander. After leaving Corunna, however, they decided in council not to attempt that port, both soldiers and sailors reasoning that the conditions did not favour an attack.

They landed next at the Portuguese town of Peniche, which lies about fifty miles north of Lisbon. It was difficult to land on the surf-bound coast, and some of the boats were upset and battered. At last, Essex sprang into the waves and waded ashore with his soldiers and climbed the steep cliffs, The commandant, thus surprised, willingly surrendered to Antonio as his lawful king. "The king" soon had a following of peasants and friars, but neither nobles nor soldiers came to help him. He was eager to march to Lisbon, where he thought he was sure of a welcome. Norreys resolved to march there overland. Drake, it is said, would have liked better to attack the town from the sea in his usual daring but successful fashion. But the soldiers' plan carried the day; and leaving some ships at Peniche, Drake promised, if he could, to bring the fleet to meet them at Cascaes, at the mouth of the river Tagus, south of Lisbon.

There, when he arrived, he waited, not liking to venture up the river without knowing where the soldiers were, and not liking to quit the sea, where he could give them the means of retreat if necessary. For this he was very much blamed by the soldiers at the time, and afterwards when he got home. The point is still disputed.

Meanwhile the army was encamped outside the walls of Lisbon, but they never got inside. The Portuguese refused to join Don Antonio's party, and the Spanish governor kept the gates shut in a grim and heroic defence. The English sailors were sick and hungry; they had had no exercise on board ship to keep them healthy, and were exhausted with the heat. The stores and guns were on the ships with Drake. So, reluctantly, they left the suburbs of Lisbon and marched to Cascaes, where they embarked, not without some loss, and sailed away.

While they were still disputing in the councils, a fleet of German ships were sighted, and most of them secured. They were carrying corn and stores to Spain, against the rules of war, which bind countries not concerned in the quarrel to help neither foe. So the English seized sixty ships and the stores, both of which had been destined to furnish the new Armada of Spain.

Next came into view some English ships with supplies, but also with angry letters from the Queen; in answer to which Essex was sent home bearing the news that the expedition, though diminished by sickness and death, still meant to sail to the Azores.

On June the 8th a wind had scattered the fleet, and suddenly left it becalmed. The Lisbon galleys came out and cut off four English ships.

The winds continued to prevent the fleet from going towards the Azores, and all this time hundreds of sick and wounded men were dying. After seventeen days at sea, they landed at the town of Vigo and burned it, and laid waste the country round. At length storms and sickness and ill-fortune drove them home, and the expedition, woefully shrunken, straggled miserably back. Don Antonio died, poor and forsaken, some years later. The English had done a considerable amount of damage, but at great cost to themselves; for the loss of life was terrible, and that of money very considerable. Both Norreys and Drake were called upon to account for their failure, and at the time Drake got the most of the blame. Perhaps he was more hardly judged because failure had never come near him before, and his successes had always been so brilliant. His best friends at Court were dead, and for five years he was not asked to act in the Queen's service. So five years of his life which should have been the most active were spent in retirement, if not actually in "disgrace with fortune and men's eyes."

The war was carried on upon the old lines of distressing the King's ships, but with very poor success. After Drake's voyage round the world, which encouraged other adventurers and treasure-seekers, the Spanish treasure-fleet had been carefully guarded. This was done by strongly fortifying the coast stations, by providing an armed escort, and a service of light ships, which went frequently to and fro with letters of advice and warning from the Indies to Spain.

Drake had ruined this defence in 1585, and in 1588 again many of the guard-ships had to be used in the service of the Armada. A really strong English fleet might at this time have stayed the treasure, but Philip continued to gather in his gold, and also began, with splendid patience, to rebuild his navy. In 1591 a royal squadron was sent out under Lord Thomas Howard, and the great battle of Sir Richard Grenville on the Revenge  was fought, "the fight of the one and the fifty-three," with the loss of that ship and the victory of the Spanish fleet. The Queen made a fighting alliance with Henry the Fourth of France, who was the enemy of Philip, and this she felt would help to keep him out of England. Philip was now trying to establish a fortified station on the north coast of Brittany, from which his new Armada might be despatched.