Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

Spain and the Sea-Rovers

The imprisonment of Mary was not merely an unfriendly act between two queens. There was conflict between Catholics and Protestants in several European countries at the time. Elizabeth on the throne of England represented the Protestants. The Catholics hoped, if Mary came to the throne, the old religion and the Pope's authority would be brought back to England.

All Europe was looking on. Abroad the struggle was still fiercer. Spain, under Elizabeth's brother-in-law Philip, had managed to kill or exile most of the Protestants of that country. It was a harder task to banish them from the Netherlands, which was at this time subject to the King of Spain. The Dutch fought hard for their Reformed religion, and numbers of Englishmen crossed over to help them, secretly encouraged by Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and Drake


In France the conflict took a yet more deadly turn. Here the Protestants were known under the name of Huguenots, and these too had been secretly encouraged by Elizabeth.

On the night of August 24, 1572, a terrible massacre of Huguenots occurred in Paris. For long the Huguenots and Catholics had been at war, and when the Huguenots seemed to be gaining political supremacy, the French king's mother took this cruel means to prevent it. Elizabeth, on receiving the news, plunged into mourning, but she could not afford to quarrel with France, when Spain, as we shall, soon see, was none too friendly.

As the great Spanish invasion and the defeat of the Armada rank among the most famous events of Elizabeth's glorious reign, we must see what circumstances led up to them.

Charles Kingsley wrote a well-known story called "Westward Ho!" These two words contain the secret of the strained relations between Spain and England.

Up to this time Spain was, without doubt, mistress of the sea. She had built the best ships and sent off the best sailors to discover new worlds. She ruled over Portugal, over part of Italy, Sicily, the Netherlands and those parts of North and South America that she had conquered. Her ships were in every part of the known world, and she was growing rich with trade and treasure, This sunny land of Spain, "washed by the waters of the great Atlantic on one side and the blue Mediterranean on the other, was yet looking round for new worlds to conquer, when as yet the other nations of Europe had scarce ventured beyond their own fishing-grounds."

But for some time past England had been waking up; the blood of the old Vikings was stirring in her people, The desire for gold was urging on her merchants, and stories of adventure were firing her young men. All eyes were gazing out to sea "Westward Ho!" was the cry. "Whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade of the new world, commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself," said Raleigh, whose half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, five years before the Armada, founded the first British colony in Newfoundland.

At Elizabeth's accession, the new spirit of adventure showed itself in acts of piracy and plundering in the "Narrow Seas," as the English Channel was called those days. Here hardy mariners would sail forth from the southern ports of England, to harry and plunder Spanish ships plying between Lisbon and Antwerp or London. Their only care was to worry the Spaniard and fill their own pockets.

Plymouth harbor


Elizabeth could not recognize these sea-rovers, who swept the Channel, and yet she liked the courage of the sailors who had the pluck to attack great Spanish galleons, five times the size of the little English ships. She admired the reckless daring that drove them forth to their life of plunder. If they failed, they got their deserts—torture, dungeon, and death at the stake. But soon the Narrow Seas were too small for their ambitious spirits, and they roused the fury of the Spaniards by crossing the Atlantic to trade and plunder in the West Indies.

Francis Drake is a name familiar to every child. Who does not know that this was the Drake who sailed right round the world in an English ship, and brought the Spanish treasure to his country and his queen? Here he is, a young man of twenty-two, sailing out of Plymouth harbour on this October day, about three hundred and fifty years ago, on as daring a venture as any young sailor could find. Brought up in his Devonshire home, Drake had early acquired hostile feelings for the Spaniards. Queen Mary's marriage to Philip of Spain was unpopular in the West.

As a lad, he had seen the pirates sail out from Plymouth on their perilous ventures. He had sailed himself in a trading vessel to the Netherlands, and he had been in West Indian waters. Now he was sailing with Hawkins out into the West to the "Treasure House of the World," hoarded by the Spanish. After filling their ships with negroes from the West Coast of Africa, the little fleet under Hawkins and Drake reached the West Indies and the slaves were secretly sold to the Spaniards.

On they went to the coast of Mexico with a hundred negroes still left for sale. Here they found twelve large Spanish ships laden with gold and silver. They were at the mercy of Hawkins, but he did not touch them. He only got leave from the Spaniards to repair his battered ships before returning to England.

Suddenly the Englishmen were attacked by the Spaniards, five hundred of the crews were slain, and it was with the greatest difficulty that Hawkins and Drake with three of their ships managed to escape and get out to sea. But a great storm arose and scattered their ships. Drake in his little fifty-ton Judith  ploughed his way across the broad Atlantic Ocean, and sailed alone into Plymouth harbour one day early in the New Year of 1569. Hawkins followed some days later. From this time onwards, Hawkins and Drake were sworn enemies of the treacherous Spaniards and thirsting for revenge.

Meanwhile England and Spain were getting every day nearer to war, but Elizabeth was still trying to keep on good terms with France. Drake did not improve matters by his voyage in 1572. He now left Plymouth with a little fleet and a crew of seventy-three men and boys on a desperate venture. They went to the place where the Spaniards collected the treasure from their mines, and Drake meant to fill his ships with gold and silver or die in the attempt. He very nearly lost his life, for as he and his lads from Devon stood at last on Spanish ground, gazing at piles of gold and silver, such as the world had never dreamt of before, he suddenly grew faint from loss of blood from a wounded leg. His lads carried him to the ship and they sailed away from the dangerous spot.

But before he left Central America, he was guided by a native to the highest ridge in the Isthmus of Panama. Here he found a tree of giant growth having steps hewn in it for ascent, and from the top Drake gazed on the Pacific Ocean. It was the first time that any Englishman had looked on the boundless waters of that vast ocean.

"Almighty God of His goodness give me life and leave to sail once in an English ship on that sea," he cried, falling on his knees. And some years later his prayer was fulfilled.