Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

The Spanish Armada (1588)

Philip of Spain continued his preparations for invading England. He felt that the conquest of Elizabeth's kingdom would enable him to complete his triumph over the obstinate people of the Netherlands. His warlike plans were known to all.

Plots for murdering Elizabeth and placing Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne were discovered. This brings us to the last chapter in the life of the unfortunate Queen of Scots, who never lived to see the disastrous end of Philip's ambition.

Mary had been moved from castle to castle. The cold bleak air of one of these, Sheffield Castle, told on her health and she suffered great pain from acute rheumatism. To the end of her life she remained stiff and lame from rheumatic pains. She had been continually begging Elizabeth to grant her freedom, yet all the time she was corresponding somehow with her Catholic friend the Duke of Norfolk, in order to effect her escape from her long imprisonment.

The Duke of Norfolk was now executed. Mary was accused of plotting against Elizabeth.

The rest of the story is soon told. Mary was tried in the great hall of Fotheringay Castle, declared guilty, and executed. A very outburst of horror at the deed arose over Europe.

Preparations for the Invasion

Spanish soliders


Philip of Spain pushed on his preparations for the conquest of England. Not only did he wish to overthrow Elizabeth and suppress the Protestant religion in England, but also to put an end to English smuggling and interference in Spanish America and to stay the hands of Englishmen in the Netherlands. This England seemed to him to be "going ahead" too fast. A new energy was arising, and Englishmen were exploring outside their island-home for the first time in history. On this new energy Spain looked with a jealous eye. Spain was supreme by land and sea—the greatest force in Europe at this time. Philip was anxious to keep up his unequalled position and maintain the Catholic religion throughout the world.

The news of coming invasion started off Drake on a new enterprise. With some twenty-five ships supplied by merchant adventurers, and four supplied by the queen herself, he went off in 1587 to divide the gathering fleet of Spain and if possible to stop the supply of food. Elizabeth had given her consent. But hardly had Drake passed out of Plymouth harbour than she repented having allowed such a vigorous pirate as Drake to make war on Philip in his own waters. It was too late—Drake was already hurrying to Cadiz—where he found Spanish preparation already well-advanced.

"The like preparation was never heard of, nor known, as the King of Spain hath to invade England. His provisions of bread and wines are so great as will suffice forty thousand men a whole year," he wrote home.

The English sea-rover was soon at his old work, and his exploits in Cadiz harbour made the world ring with admiration of his daring. He sank great Spanish galleons; he burnt large vessels laden with biscuits, wheat, and wine; he created terror among the Spanish seamen and discovered for his country the strength of the foe.

"I have singed the King of Spain's beard," he said on his return home. He had done more than this. He had stimulated the Spanish to still greater effort for the overthrow of England. Philip was now irritated beyond endurance, and he put out all his strength to accomplish his life's desire and defeat England. While his ships were getting ready to sail, let us see how England was preparing for this great ordeal.

English soldiers


The hundred "beef-eaters" and Yeomen of the Guard at court formed the only standing army in England paid by the crown at this time. The very year before Elizabeth's accession, Philip and Mary had created a lord-lieutenant in every county in England. It was the duty of this magnate to choose officers for his county, to decide on the number of able-bodied men to be supplied by each parish, and to take command of the militia, as it was called, in case of war. To-day, the Territorials are under the lord-lieutenant of each county. The men as a rule volunteered when danger was at hand, but the full number had to be made up by compulsion.

When formed, the troops were divided into "bands" of about two hundred men under a captain. Later on, these were formed into, "regiments." The men had no regular uniform—the only feature common to all was the red St. George's Cross worn on their jackets.

For the past eight years the regular militia had been trained in the use of fire-arms—bows and arrows were fast disappearing, though pikes and halberds were still carried.

The English volunteers had learnt the art of was in France, Flanders, and Ireland, where military schools had been formed, and the volunteers had drilled the, sons of knights and squires at home. Thus it was, when the long-talked-of peril was near, a hundred thousand armed men sprang into being at a few days' notice.

"How many men and ships must we provide? asked the City of London. "Five thousand men and fifteen ships" was the answer.

At the end of two days double this number, ten thousand men, and thirty ships, were placed at the queen's disposal. Such was the loyal feeling of Elizabeth's people in the face of danger.

Queen Elizabeth I


The queen herself reviewed her land forces. The troops assembled at Tilbury in great spirits, longing to fight the Spaniards. Mounted on a war-horse, in a breast-plate of glittering steel, with a general's truncheon in her hand, "Elizabeth rode bare-headed through the ranks. She was greeted with thunders of applause—a just reward for her courage, for those in authority had begged her not to appear in public at this critical hour.

"My loving people," she cried, let tyrants' fear! I have always so behaved myself, that under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects. Therefore; I am come amongst you at this time, . . . for I am resolved, in the midst of heat and battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down for my God and for my kingdom and for my people, my honour and my blood even in the dust. I know that I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart of a king and a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Spain . . . should dare to invade the borders of my realm. Rather than any dishonour to the kingdom should come by me, I myself will take up arms. I myself will be your general, the judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. . . . I do not doubt but by your obedience to my general and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over the enemies of my God, of my kingdom and of my people."

But the land forces had nothing to do, for already the ships of England had dispersed the "Invincible Armada." Elizabeth's "sea-dogs" had done the work and driven the Spanish ships to destruction. They were men trained in the rough school of Hawkins and Drake, such as Frobisher, Raleigh, Grenville, men with reckless daring and genuine seaman's skill.

England had no proper navy at this time. Elizabeth owned thirty-four ships of varying sizes and shapes, but these were in bad repair and she always grudged spending money on them. Indeed, she was so mean and indifferent over her sailors, that she was actually trying to reduce her naval expenses by giving her seamen fish, oil, and peas, instead of meat, when, her very country was in danger!

At last delay was no longer possible.

Every ship fit for service was hastily manned. Merchants came forward with their little craft ready to bear all expenses themselves in a very outburst of patriotism. Supplies were hastily issued, and a very mixed little English fleet of some two hundred ships got ready to meet the greatest fleet in the world that had ever put to sea. But the English ships were manned by men of grit and power—men trained on the sea, schooled in storm and tempest, hardened by want and endurance. As a builder of ships, Hawkins had no equal; for skill in seamanship none could touch Sir Francis Drake. The whole fleet was under the command of Lord Howard; Sir John Hawkins commanded the Victory, Sir Martin Frobisher the Triumph—Drake as vice-admiral was on the Revenge. In the hands of these men lay the safety of England.

How the Armada was Defeated

Meanwhile the great Spanish Armada had sailed at last from the harbour with a light wind, the sun shining on the numerous sails and lighting up the red crosses. Every seaman, officer and soldier had been through a solemn service before joining the fleet. But Philip's hopes that the English Catholics would help his cause were doomed to disappointment, for Catholics and Protestants alike came forward to resist the invader.

The whole of the great Spanish fleet was under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia. He had in vain assured his king that he knew nothing about the sea and nothing of war.

Duke and Duchess of Sidonia


Bad weather and the clumsiness of the great ships delayed the fleet. Three weeks were spent in passing from Lisbon to Cape Finisterre, and it was not till, Friday evening, July 19th, that they sighted Lizard Point in Cornwall. They intended to take possession of England on the morrow.

But they had already been sighted by a Cornish fishing-boat, and report of the enemy's approach soon reached Plymouth. It is said when the news arrived the English admiral was playing bowls at Plymouth Hoe with his captains. Lord Howard would have started off at once, for he knew the English ships were all riding at anchor in ports along the English Channel at the mercy of the foe. But Drake refused to be hurried.

"There is time to finish the game first and beat the Spaniards afterwards," said Drake.

So the famous game was finished and then the old sea captains got to their work in good earnest. There was no sleep in England that Friday night. Bonfires were lit all round the coast, ports and harbours filled rapidly with armed men, bells rang out, horsemen gathered in the villages, swift messengers flew from point to point.

By daybreak on Saturday everything was ready. But the Spanish fleet did not come into sight till three o'clock that afternoon. To English eyes it looked like a vast array of floating castles arranged in the form of a crescent or half-moon, the horns of which were some seven miles apart. It approached "very slowly, though with full sails, the winds being, as it were, weary with wafting them and the ocean groaning under their weight."

Spanish fleet


The Spaniards soon found that they had been seen and there was no chance of surprising Plymouth, as they had intended. So they resolved to make their way to the Isle of Wight and effect a landing there.

Howard allowed them to get within sight of Plymouth. Then on Sunday morning he hoisted sail and led his sixty or seventy ships to the rear of the great Armada. The first shot was fired, and soon Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher were sailing round the outskirts of the unwieldy Spanish galleons, firing into them and inflicting injury, while the Spanish guns from high decks fired over their heads. For six hours that Sunday afternoon fighting continued and by three o'clock the invaders were in great confusion. On Monday the high-towered galleons moved onward, "like Thames barges piled with hay." The low English ships, sailing double the pace, again harried them and shot away, as if by magic, before the wind.

On Tuesday the Armada had reached St. Alban's Head (Dorsetshire). A famous crowd of Elizabeth's courtiers, including Sir Walter Raleigh, had hurried to the coast. They sailed out, into the Channel to help the English fleet in their work of skirmishing and harrying the rear of the Spanish fleet.

By Thursday the Armada was off the Isle of Wight and there was some sharp fighting, which forced the Spanish flagship to retreat. Thence the two fleets passed onwards quietly along the coast of Sussex to Boulogne. To the Prince of Parma, who was waiting with troops on the coast of the Netherlands to join him, the poor Duke of Medina Sidonia wrote: "The enemy pursue me. They fire upon me most days from morning till nightfall. They have men and ammunition in abundance. I must request your excellency to send me two shiploads of shot and powder immediately. I am in urgent need of it."

On Saturday the 27th the wind rose the Spanish admiral knew nothing of our dangerous coast and decided to anchor in the Calais Roads. Amid squalls and driving showers from the west, the Armada ran across to the French coast. The English followed, but they were not yet strong enough to attack. The captains held a council of war—the fate of England depended on their verdict. "Considering their hugeness," said one, "'twill not be possible to remove them but by a device."

This device was to drive the Spanish Armada out to sea by means of fireships. Some said it was Queen Elizabeth's own idea. Anyhow, some old ships were filled with gunpowder, pitch, and brimstone, and their masts were smeared with pitch. They were then conducted near to Calais and at a given signal they were set on fire. The wind was rising, rain pelted down, and in black darkness the fierce south-wester blew the blazing fireships into the centre of the crescent fleet of Spain.

"Cut your cables! Get up your anchors!" shouted the captains of the Spanish ships in an agony of fear.

With sails set, amid confusion and panic, the Spanish ships were driven out by wind and tide into the angry sea of Ostend. "God hath given us so good a day in forcing the enemy so far to leeward," wrote Drake hurriedly. "God bless her Majesty, our gracious sovereign. This day's service hath much appalled the enemy."

This was Sunday night. The Spaniards had suffered a severe loss in the Capitana, "the very glory and stay of the Spanish navy." Then on Monday, July 29th, they were attacked off Gravelines by the English fleet led by Drake in the Revenge. The fighting of this day decided the fate of the Armada. The battle began at nine in the morning, while the enemy were struggling to regain their crescent form in a strong north-west wind and a heavy tide.

Spanish Armada


All through that summer day firing went on. Spanish guns, which were worked on high rolling platforms by soldiers unused to the sea, sent their shot into the air or into the water, while the little English ships poured into the great galleons a continuous rain of shot. For six long hours they fought, until the English reported that "the last cartridge was spent and every man was weary with labour." Every Spanish ship received its share of injury; three great vessels were hopelessly wrecked. Drake thought that five thousand at least must have perished by gunshot or drowning.

Still "their force is wonderful great and strong," wrote the admiral, "but we pluck their feathers by little and little."

The Spaniards themselves were now hopeless. With sails torn and masts shot away, the once crowded ships were helpless. The Duke of Medina Sidonia was in despair.

"We are lost," he cried to one of the bravest captains. "What are we to do?"

"Let others talk of being lost," was the courageous answer. "Your Excellency has only to order up fresh cartridges."

But a council of war decided to hurry the Armada back to Spain by the north of Scotland, for the wind was against their return by the Channel, neither did they care to encounter the English again. So the Armada sped northward in full sail. "Notwithstanding that powder and shot was well near all spent," said Howard, "we set on a brave countenance and gave them chase."

The chase lasted from Monday to Friday.

"We have the army of Spain before us," wrote Drake on the Wednesday. "There was never anything pleased me better than seeing the enemy flying with a southerly wind to the northwards."

Driven onwards by a strong wind, the English ships sped on after the Spaniards, right up through the wild North Sea, till they reached the Firth of Forth. But the work of destruction was reserved for a mightier foe than Drake. No sooner had he given up the chase owing to want of food and powder, than a violent storm arose, "more violent than was ever seen before at that time of the year." Among the lonely Orkneys, the storms of the northern seas broke on the flying Armada like a fury. Amid driving squalls of wind and rain, the Spaniards at last guided their shattered ships to the great rollers of the Atlantic, only to meet greater perils on the Irish coast.

They had no pilot to warn them of the dangers of the way and the wind blew them hither and thither. Some eight thousand men perished off the Giant's Causeway in the north of Ireland, and many a stout galleon was dashed to pieces.

At last some fifty battered ships reached Spain out of the hundred and thirty-two that had started. They had ten thousand sick and stricken men out of the thirty thousand that had left her shores for the conquest of England some months before. And it is not surprising to hear that Philip of Spain shut himself up in his royal palace near Madrid, and "no one dared to speak to him."

Coins and medals were now struck to commemorate the victory. In November a great thanksgiving service was held at St. Paul's, which was attended by the queen in full state. She was taken through the streets seated in a triumphal car with a canopy over it in the shape of a crown on four pillars, in front of which stood a lion and dragon supporting the arms of England. The chariot was drawn by two milk-white horses.

"Thou didst blow with Thy winds and they were scattered," preached the Bishop of Salisbury at St. Paul's. A more suitable text could hardly have been chosen, and it was inscribed on many of the medals issued after the Armada.

Though the Armada had failed, the spirit of Philip was unbroken. After the first outburst of grief, he was making fresh preparations for action. "It is not honourable for her Majesty to seem to be in any fear of the King of Spain," said the people, and expedition after expedition left England to seize treasure, and pillage the Spaniards, wherever they might be. Some were successful and some failed, but Elizabeth's "sea-dogs "were not to be daunted.