Stories from English History - Hilda Skae

Singeing the King of Spain's Beard

Queen Elizabeth was seated in her private apartment, her white forehead puckered in anxious lines.

The trouble between herself and her great rival the King of Spain had reached its height.

Throughout her reign English and Spaniards had been contending for the mastery of the new countries which had been discovered on the other side of the ocean, and for supremacy upon the seas. In South America the Spanish king possessed rich mines of silver and precious stones: and Queen Elizabeth's adventurers, half explorers, half pirates, gloried in making descents upon the coast towns, waiting there until the convoys came down from the mountains, and then seizing the treasure, burning the town, and departing.

Another frolicsome adventure of the English sailors was to hang about the rear of the Spanish "silver fleet" on its way from America to Spain, and when any vessel became separated from her fellows, to fall upon her, remove the precious cargo to their own vessel, and then set fire to the Spanish ship and send her adrift upon the high seas.

No wonder that after several years of these proceedings the Spanish king had made up his mind that the pride of the audacious islanders must be lowered, and a clean sweep made of the English pirates.

And it was no wonder that Queen Elizabeth was uneasy, for she had received tidings that even then the Spaniards had a great fleet in the harbour of Cadiz, ready for the invasion of England. At that time the Spanish navy was the greatest in the world, while the English only had a few hundred small vessels.

While the Queen was occupied with these gloomy thoughts, there was a knock at the door, and a short, pleasant-looking man stood on the threshold. The man bowed low, and the queen looked at him with an expression that was half angry and half pleased.

Sir Francis Drake


"Ha, Sir Francis Drake," she said, "what will you?

The great sailor smiled; and in spite of herself the sternness began to melt from the queen's face.

Few people could have remained looking into that sunburnt countenance and still have felt annoyed. There was such a breezy determination about the man; and his large, clear bright eyes met the eyes of every one else with a look which made them trust him. He had the appearance of one to whom danger and adventure are sport, and who is strong enough to carry out the wildest adventures with success. Through his daring exploits he had been the cause of more trouble with the Spaniards than any other man in Queen Elizabeth's dominions, and she knew it; but then the queen dearly loved a brave man.

"How now, Sir Francis," said the Queen, smiling a little in spite of herself, "are you already weary of dry land?"

The adventurer gravely bent his head. "Please your Majesty," he said, "I should be glad to have a commission."

"What do you want a commission for?" asked the queen.

The explorer's eyes twinkled.

"So please your Majesty, to singe the King of Spain's beard; it has grown somewhat too long."

The queen understood what he meant, but she felt that she must try to look forbidding.

"Ha, Sir Francis," she said, "have you not already made me enough trouble with the King of Spain? Know you not that for your plunderings in the new lands yonder he has called you 'the master thief of the unknown world'?"

"Your Majesty," said Sir Francis, "I am well aware of the King of Spain's opinion, and I think it the more reason that I should show him some good fighting nearer home."

Then, throwing off his jesting manner, he showed the queen his plans for destroying the mighty preparations which were being made against England.

By the time the audience was over, the clouds had lifted from the queen's brow, and the explorer had obtained leave to carry out his daring project.

A few weeks later, the harbour of Cadiz showed the same scene of animation which it had presented for many months past. The huge battle-ships, with their high prows and castellated turrets, rose majestically out of the water, while among them little boats and sloops flitted in and out, carrying arms and provisions for the great galleons. The clanking of armourers and hammering of ship-wrights was going on busily, and the swarthy sailors were singing at their toil as they coiled the ropes, polished brasses, and put the finishing touches to the preparations which were being made for the conquest of England.

Of a sudden, into the busy harbour there sailed some half dozen small, shabby vessels. Every head was turned to look at them, and the cry arose among the Spaniards that these ships belonged to the English pirates.

Instantly the guns of all the forts were turned upon them, but despite a perfect hail of shot the plucky little fleet made its way unharmed up to the very water-lines of the great war-vessels and set each one of them on fire; then in face of the helpless, astonished Spaniards the English ships turned and sailed away again, to repeat the adventure in every harbour into which they could obtain an entrance.

So well had the singeing of the King of Spain's beard been done that it was a year before the expedition was able to set sail for England; and when at last it came, the English people were ready for it.

By the time the "most fortunate and invincible Armada" was on its way, nearly every fighting man in England had volunteered for service. The small navy had been increased by the gifts of the nobility and gentry, who had built or hired vessels for the defence of their native land, fitted them out and manned them at their own expense; while the cities had collected money and sent it to the Treasury, to be used as the queen and her ministers should find it best. Lord Howard of Effingham had been made High Admiral of the Fleet; and with him were Sir Francis Drake and other bold seafarers.

The army was mustered at Tilbury Fort on the river Thames, and the queen herself went down to review the men.

"My loving people," she said, "I am come among you at this time, not for sport or pleasure, but in the midst and heat of battle—to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, for my Kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, if need be, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and courage of a king, and of a King of England too. And I think foul scorn that Spain, or any Prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm."

No wonder that these brave words were cheered to the echo, and that every man felt himself inspired to do his best.

The winds being light the Armada advanced only slowly. The English fleet was lying at Plymouth, and the Admirals, Lord Howard of Effingham, Sir Francis Drake and the others, were having a game of bowls upon Plymouth Hoe when the news was brought that the topmasts of the Spanish vessels had been sighted off Land's End, in Cornwall. Some of the players were about to break up the game, but Sir Francis Drake made them keep their places.

"There's plenty of time," he said, "to end the game and thrash the Spaniards too."

Then quietly, without any flurry, the English vessels were made ready.

Some hours later, the foremost ships of the great Armada came in view, and were soon followed by the rest of the fleet sailing majestically along in the form of a crescent, seven miles long from tip to tip.

The English watched her go by without interfering, then the little fleet was put to sea and followed the Armada, harassing her in the rear and cutting off a vessel here and there.

For fully a week this running fight was kept up; then the two fleets came face to face with each other off the town of Calais.

The first day's encounter was indecisive; the Spanish fired over the heads of the English, while the little vessels, low down in the water, poured their broadsides full into the huge bulk of the Spanish galleons; yet when night came it was discovered that the English were running short of powder, while comparatively little harm had been done to the enemy.

During the night an unpleasant surprise was prepared for the Spaniards.

Half a dozen of the oldest vessels in the English fleet filled with pitch, resin, tarry ropes, and anything else that "would burn well, were taken by two gallant Devonshire sailors, Young and Prowse, into tie very heart of the Armada and set on fire. Then the men who had steered the "fire ships" took to their boats and rowed quickly back to safety, while the burning vessels were left to drift about among the Spanish fleet.

In a panic the Spaniards cut their cables, hoisted sail, and made for the open sea, each vessel getting in the way of her neighbours; and by morning the entire fleet was in confusion.

Now was the opportunity of the English; the gallant little vessels darted in among the great galleons, and attacked them like little game-cocks fighting huge unwieldy cochinchinas.

From morning until sundown the battle raged; and it was the small vessels which had the advantage.

Many of the Spanish ships sank or ran aground—"the feathers of the Armada were plucked one by one"; then the remainder of the fleet made wildly for the northern seas, the little English ships in pursuit.

When the English had followed the Spaniards sufficiently far, Drake wrote from the deck of his vessel, "We have driven the Spanish admirals so far apart, that we hope they shall not shake hands these many days; and whensoever they shall meet, I believe neither of them will rejoice greatly at this day's service."

A great storm completed the destruction which the English had begun, and of the hundred and thirty-two ships that had set out for the invasion of England, only fifty-three returned to Spain. The others lay beneath the waters of the English Channel or had been wrecked upon the islands of Scotland and the coasts of Ireland and Devonshire.

When the Spanish king heard the news, he said that he had sent his fleet against men, and not against the wind and waves, and that he could easily send another armament to the shores of England.

But the King of Spain's beard had been too badly singed.

Never again did England have to fear a foreign invasion. By the destruction of the Armada she had proved herself worthy of the title which she bears to this day: that of Queen and Mistress of the Seas.