Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

The Doings of Elizabeth's Sailors after the Armada

It would take too long to tell of all the Spanish treasure that found its way into English harbours, and of all the adventures that befell the Elizabethan explorers. But one story must be told, as it has come to us from the pen of Sir Walter Raleigh. It has been made the subject of a poem by Lord Tennyson, called the "The Revenge—a Ballad of the Fleet," and this tells us in beautiful verse of the daring seamanship of Englishmen under the Tudors.

It was three years after the defeat of the Armada when Sir Thomas Howard and Sir Richard Grenville started off on a private enterprise to seize the West Indian fleet returning to Spain with its treasure. The queen had encouraged the enterprise by finding seven ships, and Sir Walter Raleigh had fitted out one; so the little fleet left Plymouth in the spring of 1591 bound for the West Indies.

Hearing of the plan, King Philip sent out a large fleet of fifty sail to conduct the treasure ship safely home and defeat the English pirates. And so it fell out one day that when Howard was cruising about among the West India Islands, a Spanish fleet bore down on the little English ships. Being totally unprepared for battle, Howard sailed away. But somehow Grenville did not set off in time and the fifty great ships sailed towards him. It was too late to escape and soon the Spanish ships were close, and they were about three times as large as the Revenge.

Sir Richard refused to turn from the enemy, for he felt that he would rather die than dishonour himself, his country and her Majesty's ship. He thought he could fight his way through the fleet, and—

"The little Revenge  ran on sheer into the heart of the foe,

With her hundred fighters on deck and her ninety sick below."

(noindent) But the Spanish ships closed round the Revenge. Sir Richard with his handful of men fought hand-to-hand for their lives, as even Englishmen had rarely fought before. The fight, which had begun at three in the afternoon, did not end till daybreak.

"And the sun went down, and the stars came out far over the summer sea,

But never a moment ceased the fight of the one and the fifty-three.

Ship after ship, the whole night long, their high-built galleons came;

Ship after ship, the whole night long, with her battle-thunder and flame;

Ship after ship, the whole night long, drew back with her dead and her shame,

For some were sunk and many were shatter'd, and so could fight us no more

God of battles, was ever a battle like this in the world before?"

"Fight on! Fight on!" cried Sir Richard, though he had been badly wounded and was in great pain. "All the powder to the lash barrel was now spent, all the pikes broken, forty of the best men slain and most of the rest hurt," says Sir Walter Raleigh. They had fought for fifteen hours and could fight no more. And—

"Sir Richard cried in his English pride,

'We have fought such a fight for a day and a night

As may never be fought again!

We have won great glory, my men!

And a day less or more

At sea or ashore,

We die—does it matter when?

Sink me the ship, master gunner—sink her, split her in twain!

Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!'"

But the men had wives and children at home, and they would not let the gunner sink the ship. Sir Richard lay dying, and they carried him on board one of the Spanish galleons. The Spanish Admiral treated him with every care and courtesy, and did all that was possible to soothe his sufferings.

"And they praised him to his face with their courtly foreign grace;

But he rose upon their decks, and he cried:

'I have fought for queen and faith like a valiant man and true;

I have only done my duty as a man is bound to do:

With a joyful spirit I, Sir Richard Grenville, die!

And he fell upon their decks and he died."

"All England was soon ringing with this story. Sir Richard Grenville was dead—he had lost the fight, lost his men, lost his ship, lost his very life. But he had gained such glory for England, for England's ships, for England's seamen, as the world had never seen before. It is said that the action of this one little English ship struck a deeper terror into the hearts of the Spaniards than even the destruction of the Armada itself."

The Revenge  had gone down in a terrific storm that broke over the Western Isles before she could be taken into port, and as the Revenge  sank "she seemed to summon Drake to his doom." She was the most famous ship in all England's navy, and on her model all new ships had been based. She had been given and commanded by Drake, who was now longing to punish the Spaniards for her loss. It was known that Philip was preparing a new Armada, and the queen did not like to allow Drake to go far away from England. But at last she gave leave: so Drake and Hawkins started off on a joint venture to capture a disabled Spanish treasure ship of enormous value lying at Puerto Rico.

It was to be their last voyage. The enemy was again prepared. The expedition failed and Hawkins, now an old man of seventy-five, died of "combined disease and grief." Drake only lived eleven weeks longer. Failure had come to him who had never failed before. Sickness broke out on board, and at last, broken in spirit as he was at the death of his old friend, it took hold of him. Delirium seized him. He rose from the bed where they had laid him, and called like a "dying Viking for his arms." But they laid him down, and one January day in 1596, "as quiet as a sleeping child, the sea-king died."

Elizabeth's three leading mariners, Frobisher, Drake, and Hawkins, were now all dead But Sir Walter Raleigh lived. He had loved the sea and was ready for adventure, but he had higher aims than these daring sea-rovers who dreamt of revenge and gold. Throughout his life Raleigh sought to plant English colonies in America. He had failed in Virginia, but he had himself since reached the Isthmus of Darien in Central American and only returned when summoned by the queen. He had fallen into disgrace by marrying secretly one of Elizabeth's maids-of-honour, for which offence he was thrown into the Tower of London.

After his release, he left England to search for a city supposed to exist in South America and called El Dorado, or the golden city. This city was said to be richer than Peru, and the Spaniards had so far failed to find it. Raleigh failed too, but he discovered lands up the great Orinoco.

English attack Cadiz


The last expedition for his queen, in 1596, was successful. A league between England, France, and the Netherlands had been planned to withstand the power of Spain. Suddenly news ran through England that Philip had captured Calais from the French. This must be revenged and at once. An expedition was fitted out by Howard, Raleigh, and Essex to repeat Drake's exploit of "singeing the King of Spain's beard." It was the largest fleet ever prepared by England against Spain. Elizabeth contributed seventeen ships, and seventy-six were hired and volunteered. On a Sunday in June, Lord Admiral Howard, who was in command of one hundred and fifty ships, reached Cadiz and anchored quietly in the harbour, to the utter amazement of the Spaniards. Next day a great battle was fought, beginning at five in the morning. By one o'clock all was over and the Spaniards were defeated by sea. Then Essex, in command of three thousand soldiers, leapt on shore, Cadiz was taken and sacked and the English returned home victorious.

"You have made me famous, dreadful, and renowned," wrote the queen to her victors, "not more for your victory than for your courage. Never was there heard in so few days so great a gain obtained. I charge you let the army know, both on sea and land, that I care not so much for being queen, as that I am queen of such subjects."

With the death of Philip of Spain in 1598, all danger from that quarter was over. "I die like a good Catholic," he murmured as he lay dying, "in faith and obedience to the Holy Roman Church." He had failed either to convert or to conquer England, and his death affected but little the country over which he had once ruled as king.

May Day celebration