Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Ober

Repelling the Armada


Sir Walter Raleigh's share in the great victory of the English fleet over the "invincible Armada," sent by Spain to ravage England and shatter the fabric of Protestantism, was not so large as that of Howard and Drake; but he rendered important service, nevertheless. He was one of the council of war called together by the Queen to draw up a scheme of defence against the oncoming enemy, and which consisted, besides himself, of Lord Grey, Sir John Norris, Sir Richard Grenville, Sir Thomas Leighton, Sir Richard Bingham, Sir Roger Williams, and the former Governor of Virginia, Ralph Lane. He was hastily summoned from Ireland for the purpose of attending the deliberations of this council; and perhaps there was no man more active than he in putting its recommendations into effect.

Plymouth was to be strengthened immediately by defensive works; Portland was to be fortified, also all possible landing-places which might be availed of by the enemy. It was then perceived that, notwithstanding the repeated warnings the English had received, their coast was insecure, their fortifications weak, and their navy lacking in ships and equipment. Having had the Spaniards ever in his mind, as both present and prospective enemies of England, and having had many a brush with them in his privateers, Sir Walter possessed a very good knowledge of their strength and of their weaknesses. The first line of defence, he advised, should be composed of their war-ships, after the defeat of which

provided such a contingency were possible—they could fall back upon the forts and the soldiers. While holding to this belief, he yet lost no time in recruiting for an army of defence, and, with his headquarters at Portland Castle, pushed forward his preparations on a mighty scale. He was indefatigable in raising troops of horse and companies of foot in Cornwall and Devon, besides strengthening the coast defences wherever practicable.

He indirectly contributed to swelling the list of ships in the little navy by selling to the government the vessel he had built to take part in Sir Humphrey Gilbert's expedition of 1583. Ten years before, the Ark Ralegh  had returned to England, after setting out with Gilbert's fleet, under such circumstances as to greatly discredit her commander, who was roundly denounced by the gallant Admiral. She had a destiny, however, and that was to serve as flag-ship of the fleet so hastily assembled for the repulse of the Armada. Over the Ark Ralegh  Lord Howard, of Effingham, hoisted his flag, as the lord high admiral of the fleet, and when it was suggested that the price paid Raleigh for the flag-ship was excessive, he wrote to the Queen's prime-minister: "Tell her Majesty from me, I pray you, that the money was well given for her. I think her the very ship in the world for all conditions; and truly I think there can no great ship make me change and go out of her. We can see no sail, great or small, but, how far soever they be off, we can fetch and speak with them."

Ark Raleigh


This was high praise for the ship that Raleigh had constructed, and certainly he deserved well of the government which benefited by his skill and foresight. But the truth is that he was basely requited, indeed, for, though it was agreed that five thousand pounds should be paid for her, Sir Walter received not a penny, as the sum was deducted from a debt which it was claimed he owed the crown on account of another expedition.

Not alone the Ark Ralegh, but another of his ships, the Roebuck, served with great effect and took an active part in the battle; and it was one of his own scouts that first brought the news of the Armada's approach. We do not know that he was, with Drake and his comrades, engaged in that famous game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe when tidings came of the Armada's near approach, and the great "Dragon of the Seas "(as the Spaniards called him) declared he would not leave until the game was finished. The chances are that he was not at Plymouth when the Spaniards were reported advancing, but at his post in Portland Castle, watching developments that might indicate whether he should remain ashore or put to sea. It was not to the discredit of Raleigh that he did not join the fleet at the outset, for his duties detained him on shore, where he performed yeoman's service in every sense. Soldier that he was, he felt at home with his volunteers, and enjoyed hammering the raw recruits into shape; but he was more sailor than soldier, after all, and he yearned mightily to be out in the Channel and close up with the enemy.

At last he and his friends with him at Portland Castle could no longer endure inaction, could no longer stand still and wait while their comrades were engaged hand-to-hand with the Spaniards. When tidings came that the mighty squadron was well into the Channel, and its purpose, or lack of it, was manifest that is, when it became clear that the coast he was to defend seemed safe from invasion Raleigh made swift preparations for embarking on board a volunteer squadron that was held in readiness. He and his company went aboard their ships, and were among the first of the contingents, says Hakluyt, the historian, which swelled the English fleet to about one hundred sail.

If we should refer to the sailing of this "invincible Armada" to its outfitting in the ports of Spain and Portugal, and the mighty multitude of workmen for months engaged in the preparation of the "greatest fleet that ever sailed"—we might only reiterate what has been repeated a thousand times before. But in order to follow the trend of events that came so swiftly crowding one upon another in those anxious weeks of July and August, 1588, we should at least briefly recapitulate the salient features of the Spanish King's Armada. It was composed of about one hundred and thirty vessels, large and small, sixty-five of seven hundred tons and over, manned by seven thousand sailors, and carrying nineteen thousand troops, with which to invade the country after a landing had been effected. They carried two thousand cannon, and six months' provisions for forty thousand men.

There might have been more ships, with a larger complement of sailors and soldiers, had not Drake, in April of the year before, attacked those that were then assembled in the harbor of Cadiz, and sunk at least a hundred men-of-war and transports filled with supplies. During thirty-six hours, in the port of Cadiz, this most gallant and audacious of the "Sea-Kings of Devon" burned and ravaged and plundered, after which he carried destruction to the fishing fleets along the Spanish coasts upon which the enemy depended for much of their provisions. Having so daringly "singed the King of Spain's whiskers," as he gayly termed this wonderful sea-foray, Drake returned triumphantly to England, carrying with him the stirring tidings, and heartening his countrymen for the inevitable conflict before them.

There was then a great bestirring of forces in England that had hitherto lain dormant and unsuspected—activity in shipyards, which became bustling centres of labor, scarcely second to those of Portugal and Spain; a furbishing up of arms and accoutrements; a culling of vessels from the merchant marine; an assembling of war-ships, impressing of sailors, and drilling of soldiers. As one man, the country united to repel the enemy from its shores when they should be imminently threatened. Drake's attack had caused the sailing of the Armada to be postponed at least a year, during which the nation in whose name he committed his ravages, and whose honor he defended, accumulated supplies, raised an army, and made ample preparations for defence.

It was on July 23rd that Raleigh joined the fleet opposed to the Armada. A squadron of eighty sail only had at first been available, and of these but thirty were ships of the line. But they were manned by more and hardier sailors than the Spaniards had, were swifter, and more responsive to the helms than their bulky opponents, which were veritable sea-castles, impressive to behold, but slow, clumsy, and unmanageable.

Misfortune had attended the Armada almost from its inception. The experienced Admiral who was to command it had died at the time appointed for sailing, and his successor lacked skill as a seaman and force and promptitude as a commander. Drake's attack had destroyed many of the store-ships, upon which reliance had been placed for supplies; a gale in the Bay of Biscay drove the great sea-castles to shelter from the storm, and compelled a radical refitting of the fleet; but at last, still held to be "invincible," the Armada bore down upon the little squadron opposing its advance.

Then ensued the prolonged engagement which, aided by the wind and sea, and supplemented by the cowardice and inefficiency of the Spaniards themselves, ended in the destruction of the Armada. The light and easily handled ships of the Britons had the bulky galleons at their mercy almost from the first attack, for they advanced close up to their towering antagonists, delivered their broadsides, and then got safely away before the Spanish guns could be brought to bear upon them. Spanish markmanship, also, was as inferior to the English as it is to-day, and while many of the helpless galleons were shattered or sunk, their foes escaped almost unscathed. In the week's fight that followed the first encounter the Spaniards became thoroughly demoralized, and after several of their ships had been sunk, boarded, or driven ashore they sought shelter in the port of Calais, whence Lord Howard's fire-ships drove them out in a panic, to eventual destruction by the combined forces of cannon, wind, and wave.

One of the participants in this fight and flight alludes to the tantalizing attacks by the English in their nimble vessels, and the futile repulses of the clumsy galleons combined, as a "mortis dance upon the waves "; but it was a dance of death to most of those within the Spanish ships, for scarce one-third the entire number of vessels composing the fleet ever returned to Spain. Sir Walter, who, after the second day's fight, was among the foremost in pursuit and the last to quit, afterward described the "invincible Armada," and the conclusion of its disastrous career:

"This navy, consisting of a hundred and forty sail, was, by thirty of the Queen's ships of war and a few merchantmen, beaten and shuffled together, even from the Lizard Point, in Cornwall, to Portland, where they shamefully left Don Pedro de Valdez, with his mighty ship; from Portland to Calais, where they lost Hugo de Moncada, with the galleys of which he was captain; and from Calais, driven with squibs from their anchors, were chased out of the sight of England, round about Scotland and Ireland, where great part of them were crushed against the rocks. Those others who landed, being very many in number, were broken, slain, and taken, and so sent from village to village, coupled in halters, to be shipped into England, whence her Majesty, of her princely and invincible disposition, disdaining to put them to death, and scorning either to retain or entertain them, they were all sent back again to their own country, to witness and recount the worthy achievements of their 'Invincible Navy.'

"On the night of Sunday, the 28th of July, 1588, the great Armada was huddled, all demoralized and perplexed, in Calais roads. Only a week before, the proudest fleet that ever rode the seas laughed in derision at the puny vessels that alone stood between it and victory over the heretic Queen and her pirate countrymen, who for years had plundered and insulted with impunity the most powerful sovereign in Europe. Gilded prows and fluttering pennons, great towering hulls which seemed to defy destruction, the fervid approbation of all Latin Christendom, and the assurance of Divine protection, combined to produce in the men of the Armada absolute confidence in an easy conquest. But six days of desultory fighting in the Channel had opened their eyes to facts hitherto undreamed of. Handy ships, that could sail several points closer the wind than their unwieldy galleons, could harass and distress them without coming to close quarters. At first they shouted that the English were afraid of them, but as the sense of their own impotence gradually grew upon them their spirits sank. Brave they were; 'but,' said they, 'of what use is bravery against foes who will not fight with us hand to hand in the only way we wot of?'

". . . But the Armada had represented the labor, the thought, and the sacrifice of years. Every nerve had been strained to render it irresistible. Spain and the Indies had been squeezed to the last doubloon; careful Sixtus V. had been cajoled into partnership in the enterprise, and the Church throughout Christendom had emptied its coffers to crush heresy for once and forever. All along the coast of Ireland, from the Giant's Causeway to Dingle Bay, the wreckage of the splendid galleons was awash, and many of the best and bravest of Spain's hidalgos, dead and mutilated, scattered the frowning shore; or, alive, starved, naked, and plundered, were slowly done to death, with every circumstance of inhumanity, by the Irish kerns or their English conquerors."

(From The Year After the Armada, by M. A. S. Hume. London, 1896.)

There was talk in Spain, of course, of retaliation, of still another armada mightier than that which had left its bones on England's shores, but it finally came to naught. Indeed, had the Queen but allowed the foreseeing Drake to have his untrammelled way, and had left him unhampered by her orders not to harm the property or subjects of his Catholic majesty, there might have been no Armada at all, for he had contemplated destroying the ships in Lisbon harbor as well as those in Cadiz. Had her penurious policy prevailed, in fact, and had not the ships she ordered to harbor been taken out by Lord Howard, in the face of her inhibition, there might have been a different story to tell.