In the Days of Queen Elizabeth - E. M. Tappan

The Spanish Armada

An Englishman living in Lisbon hastened home to England and demanded audience with the queen.

"Your Majesty," said he, "King Philip is making great preparations for some warlike enterprise. In the Lisbon harbor are twenty galleons and forty other vessels. Men from Italy and Germany are coming in by hundreds. What can this mean but an attack upon England?"

Two months later came a message to the queen from her spies in Spain:—

"Soldiers are coming every day, and vast quantities of wine, grain, biscuit, bacon, oil, vinegar, barley meal, and salted meats are being laid in besides powder and cannon." A ship that had recently sailed from Lisbon was captured, and both captain and men were tortured on the rack that more might be learned of the doings of Philip. All told the same story, that he was planning an invasion of England.

In those days honor between sovereigns was a thing almost unknown. No one blamed the government of one country for trying to get the better of that of another. While Philip was making ready for war, he and Elizabeth were engaged in arranging for a treaty of peace and friendship. Each knew that the other was treacherous, but each meant to get the better of the bargain.

On the arrival of this news from Spain, Elizabeth sent for Drake. "Sir Francis," said she, "how would it please you to make a voyage to Spain?"

Drake guessed in a moment what she wished of him and answered most heartily:—

"There's nothing in all the world that would do me greater good."

"Ships and stores and soldiers are assembling off Cadiz and Lisbon. It would be a goodly sight, perhaps as fine as anything you saw in your voyage around the world."

"With how many ships may I go?" asked Drake.

"I can give you four, and the merchants will add to the fleet."

They did add twenty-six vessels of all kinds and sizes, for they well knew that, though Drake would probably sail with the usual orders to "do no harm to my good friend, the king of Spain," the chances were that every vessel would come back with a valuable cargo.

Drake made a rapid voyage, and on his return he at once brought his report to the queen.

"Well, my sailor lad," was her greeting, "have you another wild tale of adventure to tell me? Have you made me queen of a new land or have you excommunicated your chaplain?"

"I've not excommunicated my chaplain," returned Drake, "but it'll take many a blessing from the Pope to make up to the Spaniards for that merry time off Cadiz. I've not discovered a new country, but your Majesty is queen of what is stowed away in my ships, and perchance that is of more worth than some of the raw lands that lie to the westward."

Elizabeth's eyes shone. "I know you've been in many a gallant fight," said she, "and now tell me just what you have done."

"The Spanish fleet was off Cadiz ready to sail for Lisbon, so there was nothing else to do but to attack it. We took eighty or more of their vessels, laden with stores to the gunwale, and we captured two galleons."

"So that's the way you do no harm to my friend Philip," said the queen. "Brave sailor laddie that you are, what did you do next?"

"My men were a bit weary of the sea," answered Drake, "and——"

"Yes, it must have been a dull and wearisome voyage," said Elizabeth with a smile. "And what did you do to amuse them?"

"There was little to do, but we took three castles and burned some fishing boats and nets. I hadn't time for much, for there was news of a carrack coming from India, and it was only courtesy to sail out and give her a greeting."

"Surely," said the queen. "My sailors are always ready to show that kind of courtesy to an enemy in loneliness on the ocean."

"That's the whole story," said Drake, "save that the carrack was full of the richest treasure that ever sailed the seas, and I brought it home."

"That is more of your courtesy," said Elizabeth. "You would save the busy king from the care of it, I suppose."

"Yes, your Majesty. He'll be busy enough for one while. We've singed his whiskers for him."

The stories were true. Philip was at last determined to attack England. Mary was dead, and he claimed the crown by virtue of his connection with the royal house of Lancaster and by the will of the Queen of Scots. There was another side to his plan, Elizabeth had torn her country from its allegiance to the Pope, and this invasion was a crusade. If he conquered England, the country would be brought back to the Roman church, and so would Holland; it was a holy war. A Spanish cardinal wrote, "Spain does not war against Englishmen, but against Elizabeth. It is not England but her wretched queen who has overthrown the Holy Church and persecuted the pious Catholics. Let the English people rise and welcome their deliverer." This letter was circulated throughout England, but it produced no effect save to increase the loyalty of the English Catholics. They were the more indignant because the author of the letter was an Englishman who had abandoned his country and become a subject of Spain. "It is only the blast of a beggarly traitor," declared Elizabeth.

The "singeing of his whiskers" kept Philip waiting for a year. To sail out into the Atlantic with the probability of meeting the autumn gales far away from any friendly harbor would have been a reckless thing to do, and it was not easy to bring together at short notice stores enough to take the place of those that had been destroyed. Philip waited. He even gave the queen a final chance to avoid the attack, for he sent her a Latin verse to the effect that she might even yet escape his conquest by agreeing to return the treasure taken by Drake, to render no more aid to the Low Countries, and to bring her kingdom back to the Church of Rome. Elizabeth replied, "My good king, I'll obey you when the Greek kalends come around," and as the Greeks had no kalends, there was little hope of peace.

While the shipbuilders of Spain were working night and day, and while men and provisions and powder and cannon were being brought together, England, too, was preparing for the encounter. There was no ally on the continent to lend aid, the King of Scots might be faithful and he might not, according to what he regarded as for his interests. The fortifications of the kingdom were weak. At Portsmouth the guns could not be fired when the queen was crowned because the tower was so old and ready to crumble, and for thirty years little had been done to put it in order. This very weakness, however, of the resources of the government was England's strength, for every Englishman saw that if his country was to be saved from becoming a province of Spain, he and every other man must do his best to defend it. The council sent a message to London:—

"What number of ships and men is it your wish to contribute to the defence of the land?"

"How many may properly be required of us?" asked the Londoners.

"Fifteen ships and five thousand men," was the answer.

Now in all London there were hardly more than seventeen thousand men, but the city straightway wrote to the council:—

"Ten thousand men and thirty ships we will gladly provide, and the ships shall be amply furnished."

So it was throughout the kingdom. Every town sent a generous number of men and generous gifts of money. Every little village on the coast hastened to refit its fishing vessels and offer boats and sailors to the government. The wildest stories were rife of what the Spaniards would do if they were once in control of the country. It was said that they had already lists of the stately castles of the realm and the homes of rich London merchants, marked with the names of the Spanish nobles to whom they were to be given. Most of the English were to be hanged, so the rumor went, but all children under seven years of age were to be branded on the face and kept as slaves.

Philip had not expected to conquer England without other aid than that of the soldiers whom he was to carry with him. He had a large band of allies, on English soil, so he thought, waiting for his coming and ready to welcome him. These were the Catholics of England. The Pope had excommunicated Elizabeth and had pronounced the curse of the church upon all Catholics that should support her.

"These are not common days," said one of her advisers, "and in such times there must often be resort to means that would be most cruel and unjust in other years."

"What do you mean?" demanded the queen.

"Your Majesty has of course not failed to consider the support that the Spanish king may find if he succeeds in landing upon our shores."

"Who will support him, you or I?"

"It would be but natural for those of his own church to welcome him."

"They'll welcome him with powder and cannon."

"Your Majesty, when your illustrious father, King Henry VIII., was about to depart for the French wars, did he not bring to the block his own cousin and others who were most devoted to the old faith, lest they should raise an insurrection while he was on the continent?"

"And you would cut off the heads of my faithful subjects? They shall attend my church, and if they will not, they shall be fined or imprisoned. My agents are zealous, and it may be that they have sometimes gone beyond my orders, but I tell you that I rule men and women, not their thoughts, and if a man obeys me, his head stays on his shoulders, mark that. I'll tell you one thing more, the lord high-admiral of my fleet is to be Howard of Effingham. What think you of that, my man?"

"But, your Majesty, he is a strong supporter of the old faith."

"So will he be of the new queen," replied Elizabeth calmly.

Howard became admiral, and Drake vice-admiral, while Frobisher and Hawkins served as captains and Raleigh sailed out in his own vessel as a volunteer. Howard knew almost nothing of naval command, but around him were officers of experience, and he was not so exalted by his new dignity that he scorned to learn of them. The sailors watched him closely, and when they saw him put his own hands to the towing rope, they shouted "Hurrah for the admiral!" Nobles and commoners were mingled, and not one among them seemed to have any thought of rank or dignity. It was for England that they were working, and the honor lay in helping to save the country.

The English vessels came together. There were all sorts of craft, ranging from a ship not much smaller than the galleons of the Spaniards to what were hardly more than mere fishing boats. They were miserably supplied with food and powder, for it was very hard for Elizabeth to make up her mind to meet the vast expenses of war. Almost every letter of the admiral's contained a request for absolute necessities that were given out most grudgingly. Beef was too dear, thought the queen, and she changed the sailors' rations to a scanty supply of fish, oil, and peas. The wages were in arrears, there was not powder enough, food was carried to the ships in small quantities, though Howard declared indignantly, "King Harry never made a less supply than six weeks." At the least rumor that the Spaniards were not coming, Elizabeth would give orders to reduce the English fleet. The Invincible Armada had left Spain, and Howard wrote, "Beseech Burleigh to hasten provisions. If the wind holds out for six days, Spain will be knocking at our doors."

One evening in July a game of bowls was going on at the Pelican Inn in Plymouth.

"Your turn, Frobisher," said Hawkins, "and then Sir Walter's."

"That's well done, Sir Walter. Yours next, Sir Francis," said Howard. Drake stooped for the ball, and was about to send it, when an old sailor rushed into the room and cried:—

"Admiral, Admiral, they're coming! I saw them off the Lizard, and there are hundreds of them."

"What do you say, Admiral," asked Drake with his hand still on the ball, "Won't there be time to finish the game and then go out and give the dons a thrashing?"

The Spanish ships slowly made their way into the Channel. They were so large and so high at stem and stern that they looked like great floating-castles, but they were so clumsy and difficult to manage that the nimble little English boats had a great advantage. The Spanish fleet formed in a wide crescent, the two points seven miles apart, and the English boats went out to meet them. The galleons were high and the English vessels so low that it was difficult to train the Spanish guns upon them, moreover, the Spaniards were not good marksmen. They would have had a better chance, however, if the English had only been willing to stand still and be fired at, but the Spanish were much surprised and disgusted when the saucy little English craft slipped up under their very bows, fired a shot or two and were away firing at the next ship before the Spanish guns could be trained upon them. Some of the little boats sailed the whole length of the crescent, firing at every vessel and coming off without a scar.

[Illustration] from Days of Queen Elizabeth by E. M. Tappan

The Spanish Armada attacked by the English Fleet.

From Pine's engraving of the tapestry, formerly in the House of Lords, but destroyed by fire in the eighteenth century.

This kind of encounter was kept up for more than a week, for the English hesitated to attempt a regular engagement. The Spanish suffered severely. Masts were shattered, the rigging was cut up, great, ragged holes were torn in the hulls, and large numbers of sailors were slain, but even worse was to follow.

The Spaniards were anchored off Calais. At two o'clock one morning a strange, shapeless object was seen floating toward them. Then came another and another until there were eight. Fire blazed up from the floating monsters. There were explosions and suffocating gases. The flames rose higher, wind and waves were bringing these malignant creatures, that seemed half alive, into the midst of the Spanish fleet.

This attack by fire-boats was a new way of fighting. The Spaniards were perplexed and horrified. Their only thought was to escape anywhere, no matter where, if only they could get free from these terrors. In their haste anchor chains fouled, some ships collided, others burned or ran aground.

The land forces were encamped at Tilbury. "I am commander in chief of my troops," declared Elizabeth, "and I shall go to pay them a visit."

"Is it safe to commit yourself to armed multitudes? Among so many there may well be treachery," suggested her councilors.

"Let tyrants fear," returned Elizabeth. "I am true to my people, and they are my faithful and loving subjects. I should rather die than live in fear and distrust of them. I shall go to visit my loyal soldiers."

It must have been a brilliant sight, the long lines of soldiers in battle array, and the queen riding in front of the lines on her great charger. Before her went Leicester and another noble bearing the sword of state. Behind her followed a page carrying her helmet with its white plumes. She was magnificently dressed, but over her dress was a corslet of polished steel. Back and forth before the lines she rode, while the soldiers shouted, "Queen Elizabeth! Queen Elizabeth! God save the queen! The Lord keep her!" She raised her hand, and there was silence to hear her words.

"I have the body of a weak, feeble woman," she said, "but I have the heart of a king, of a king of England, and I think it foul scorn that any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm. Rather than that any dishonor should come by me, I will take up arms, I will be your general myself, and the rewarder of every deed of bravery. You deserve already rewards and crowns, and they shall be paid. It will not be long before we have a famous victory over these enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people."

While Elizabeth was still at Tilbury, two messengers came with a thrilling report.

"A fierce battle has been fought off Gravelines. Drake was in command."

"My noble sailor laddie," said the queen proudly. "Tell me of it. I would know the deeds of every one of my brave captains."

"It is your Majesty who struck the fatal blow," said the messenger, "for the fire-ships were your own thought, and it was they that thrust the Spaniards from our coast and drove them out to sea. Sir Francis and his fleet led the attack. Six hours it lasted, till every shot, large and small, had been fired. Then came the Admiral, and he, too, fired every shot. There was no more powder, but he put on a bold front and gave them chase. They could not go south, and they went north."

"There's no fear in Howard," said Elizabeth. "I know my man. Where are the Spaniards now?"

"Many of them have gone to whatever place the mercy of the Lord may consign them," was the reply.

"And where are those that still depend upon the mercies of wind and wave?" asked the queen.

"Only wind and wave can tell?" answered the messenger. "The ships sailed far to the northward. The Admiral pursued until his provisions failed, but there was small need of searching for the enemy. The boisterous northern seas will do the work of many a cannon."

The words of the messenger proved to be true. The Spanish ships ran aground on the unknown coasts, they were shattered by storms, the sailors were stricken by pestilence, they were driven ashore only to be thrust back into the waves, for King James had no idea of doing aught against the sovereign whose crown he hoped would before many years rest upon his own head, and the lord lieutenant of Ireland was little inclined to show mercy to the enemies of his country. Of the great fleet that left Spain, so strong that it ventured to call itself invincible, more than half the ships were left on the rocks or at the bottom of the sea.