Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

The Fight with the Invincible Armada


THE queen had foreseen the invasion; and finding that she must now contend for her crown with the whole force of Spain, she made preparations for resistance; nor was she dismayed with that power, by which all Europe apprehended she must of necessity be overwhelmed. Her force, indeed, seemed very unequal to resist so potent an enemy. All the sailors in England amounted at that time to about fourteen thousand men. The size of the English shipping was in general so small that except a few of the queen's ships of war, there were not four vessels belonging to the merchants which exceeded four hundred tons. The royal navy consisted of only twenty-eight sail, many of which were of small size; none of them exceeded the bulk of our largest frigates, and most of them deserved rather the name of pinnaces than ships. The only advantage of the English fleet consisted in the dexterity and courage of the seamen, who, being accustomed to sail in tempestuous seas, and expose themselves to all dangers, as much exceeded in this particular the Spanish mariners as their vessels were inferior in size and force to those of that nation. All the commercial towns of England were required to furnish ships for reinforcing this small navy; and they discovered, on the present occasion, great alacrity in defending their liberty and religion against those imminent perils with which they were menaced. The citizens of London, in order to show their zeal in the common cause, instead of fifteen vessels, which they were commanded to equip, voluntarily fitted out double the number. The gentry and nobility hired and armed and manned forty-three ships at their own charge; and all the loans of money which the queen demanded were frankly granted by the persons applied to. Lord Howard of Effingham, a man of courage and capacity, was admiral, and took on him the command of the navy: Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher, the most renowned seamen in Europe, served under him. The principal fleet was stationed at Plymouth. A smaller squadron, consisting of forty vessels, English and Flemish, was commanded by Lord Seymour, second son of Protector Somerset; and lay off Dunkirk, in order to intercept the Duke of Parma.

The land forces of England, compared to those of Spain, possessed contrary qualities to its naval, power: they were more numerous than the enemy, but much inferior in discipline, reputation, and experience. An army of twenty thousand men was disposed in different bodies along the south coast; and orders were given them, if they could not prevent the landing of the Spaniards, to retire backwards, to waste the country around, and to wait for reinforcements from the neighboring counties, before they approached the enemy. A body of twenty-two thousand foot and a thousand horse, under the command of the Earl of Leicester, was stationed at Tilbury, in order to defend the capital. The principal army consisted of thirty-four thousand foot and two thousand horse, and was commanded by Lord Hunsdon. These forces were reserved for guarding the queen's person, and were appointed to march whithersoever the enemy should appear. The fate of England, if all the Spanish armies should be able to land, seemed to depend on the issue of a single battle; and men of reflection entertained the most dismal apprehensions, when they considered the force of fifty thousand veteran Spaniards, commanded by experienced officers, under the Duke of Parma, the most consume mate general of the age; and compared this formidable armament with the military power which England, not enervated by peace, but long disused to war, could muster up against it.

The chief support of the kingdom seemed to consist in the vigor and prudence of the queen's conduct; who, undismayed by the present dangers, issued all her orders with tranquillity, animated her people to a steady resistance, and employed every resource which either her domestic situation or her foreign alliances could afford her. She sent Sir Robert Sidney into Scotland; and exhorted the king to remain attached to her, and to consider the danger which at present menaced his sovereignty no less than her own, from the ambition of the Spanish tyrant: the ambassador found James well disposed to cultivate a union with England; and that prince even kept himself prepared to march with the force of his whole kingdom to the assistance of Elizabeth. Her authority with the King of Denmark, and the tie of their common religion, engaged this monarch, upon her application, to seize a squadron of ships which Philip had bought or hired in the Danish harbors: the Hanse Towns, though not at that time on good terms with Elizabeth, were induced, by the same motives, to retard so long the equipment of some vessels in their ports, that they became useless to the purpose of invading England. All the Protestants throughout Europe regarded this enterprise as the critical event which was to decide forever the fate of their religion; and though unable, by reason of their distance, to join their forces to that of Elizabeth, they kept their eyes fixed on her conduct and fortune, and beheld with anxiety, mixed with admiration, the intrepid countenance with which she encountered that dreadful tempest which was every moment advancing toward her.

The queen also was sensible that, next to the general popularity which she enjoyed, and the confidence which her subjects reposed in her prudent government, the firmest support of her throne consisted in the general zeal of the people for the Protestant religion, and the strong prejudices which they had imbibed against Popery. She took care, on the present occasion, to revive in the nation this attachment to their own sect, and their abhorrence of the opposite. The English were reminded of their former dangers from the tyranny of Spain: all the barbarities exercised by Mary against the Protestants were ascribed to the counsels of that bigoted and imperious nation: the bloody massacres in the Indies, the unrelenting executions in the Low Countries, the horrid cruelties and iniquities of the Inquisition, were set before men's eyes: a list and description were published, and pictures dispersed, of the several instruments of torture with which, it was pretended, the Spanish Armada was loaded: and every artifice, as well as reason, was employed, to animate the people to a vigorous defense of their religion, their laws, and their liberties.

But while the queen in this critical emergency roused the animosity of the nation against Popery, she treated the partisans of that sect with moderation, and gave not way to an undistinguishing fury against them. Though she knew that Sixtus V, the present Pope, famous for his capacity and his tyranny, had fulminated a new bull of excommunication against her, had deposed her, had absolved her subjects from their oaths of allegiance, had published a crusade against England, and had granted plenary indulgences to every one engaged in the present invasion, she would not believe that all her Catholic subjects could be so blinded as to sacrifice to bigotry their duty to their sovereign, and the liberty and independence of their native country. She rejected all violent counsels, by which she was urged to seek pretenses for dispatching the leaders of that party; she would not even confine any considerable number of them; and the Catholics, sensible of this good usage, generally expressed great zeal for the public service. Some gentlemen of that sect, conscious that they could not justly expect any trust or authority, entered themselves as volunteers in the fleet or army; some equipped ships at their own charge, and gave the command of them to Protestants; others were active in animating their tenants and vassals and neighbors, to the defense of their country; and every rank of men, burying for the present all party distinctions, seemed to prepare themselves, with order as well as vigor, to resist the violence of these invaders.

The more to excite the martial spirit of the nation, the queen appeared on horseback in the camp at Tilbury; and, riding through the lines, discovered a cheerful and animated countenance, exhorted the soldiers to remember their duty to their country and their religion, and professed her intention, though a woman, to lead them herself into the field against the enemy, and rather to perish in battle than survive the ruin and slavery of her people. By this spirited behavior she revived the tenderness and admiration of the soldiery; an attachment to her person became a kind of enthusiasm among them; and they asked one another, whether it were possible that Englishmen could abandon this glorious cause, could display less fortitude than appeared in the female sex, or could ever, by any dangers, be induced to relinquish the defense of their heroic princess.

The Spanish Armada was ready in the beginning of May; but the moment it was preparing to sail, the Marquis of Santa Croce, the admiral, was seized with a fever, of which he soon after died. The vice-admiral, the Duke of Paliano, by a strange concurrence of accidents, at the very same time suffered the same fate; and the king appointed for admiral the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a nobleman of great family, but unexperienced in action, and entirely unacquainted with sea affairs. Arcarede was appointed vice-admiral. This misfortune, besides the loss of so great an officer as Santa Croce, retarded the sailing of the Armada, and gave the English more time for their preparations to oppose them. At last the Spanish fleet, full of hopes and alacrity, set sail from Lisbon; but next day met with a violent tempest, which scattered the ships, sunk some of the smallest, and forced the rest to take shelter in the Groine, where they waited till they could be refitted. When news of this event was carried to England, the queen concluded that the design of an invasion was disappointed for the summer; and being always ready to lay hold on every pretense for saving money, she made Walsingham write to the admiral, directing him to lay up some of the larger ships, and to discharge the seamen; but Lord Effingham who was not so sanguine in his hopes, used the freedom to disobey these orders; and he begged leave to retain all the ships in service, though it should be at his own expense. He took advantage of a north wind, and sailed toward the coast of Spain, with an intention of attacking the enemy in their harbors; but the wind changing to the south, he became apprehensive lest they might have set sail, and by passing him at sea, invade England, now exposed by the absence of the fleet. He returned, therefore, with the utmost expedition to Plymouth, and lay at anchor in that harbor.

Meanwhile all the damages of the Armada were repaired; and the Spaniards with fresh hopes set out again to sea, in prosecution of their enterprise. The fleet consisted of a hundred and thirty vessels, of which near a hundred were galleons, and were of greater size than any ever before used in Europe. It carried on board nineteen thousand two hundred and ninety-five soldiers, eighty-four hundred and fifty-six mariners, two thousand and eighty-eight galley slaves, and twenty-six hundred and thirty great pieces of brass ordnance. It was victualed for six months; and was attended by twenty lesser ships, called caravels,  and ten salves  with six oars apiece.

The plan formed by the King of Spain was that the Armada should sail to the coast opposite to Dunkirk and Newport; and having chased away all English or Flemish vessels which might obstruct the passage (for it was never supposed they could make opposition), should join themselves with the Duke of Parma, should thence make sail to the Thames, and having landed the whole Spanish army, thus complete at one blow the entire conquest of England. In prosecution of this scheme, Philip gave orders to the Duke of Aledina, that in passing along the Channel, he should sail as near the coast of France as he could with safety; that he should by this policy avoid meeting with the English fleet; and, keeping in view the main enterprise, should neglect all smaller successes which might prove an obstacle, or even interpose a delay, to the acquisition of a kingdom. After the Armada was under sail, they took a fisherman, who informed them that the English admiral had been lately at sea, had heard of the tempest which scattered the Armada, and retired back into Plymouth, and no longer expecting an invasion this season, had laid up his ships, and discharged most of the seamen. From this false intelligence the Duke of Medina conceived the great facility of attacking and destroying the English ships in harbor; and he was tempted, by the prospect of so decisive an advantage, to break his orders, and make sail directly for Plymouth; a resolution which proved the safety of England: The Lizard was the first land made by the Armada, about sunset; and as the Spaniards took it for the Ram Head near Plymouth, they bore out to sea with an intention of returning next day, and attacking the English navy. They were descried by Fleming, a Scottish pirate, who was roving in those seas, and who immediately set sail to inform the English admiral of their approach; another fortunate event, which contributed extremely to the safety of the fleet. Effingham had just time to get out of port when he saw the Spanish Armada coming full sail toward him, disposed in the form of a crescent, and stretching the distance of seven miles from the extremity of one division to that of the other.

The writers of that age raised their style by a pompous description of this spectacle; the most magnificent that had ever appeared upon the ocean, infusing equal terror and admiration into the minds of all beholders. The lofty masts, the swelling sails, and the towering prows of the Spanish galleons, seem impossible to be justly painted but by assuming the colors of poetry; and an eloquent historian of Italy, in imitation of Camden, has asserted, that the Armada, though the ships bore every sail, yet advanced with a slow motion; as if the ocean groaned with supporting, and the winds were tired with impelling, so enormous a weight. The truth, however, is, that the largest of the Spanish vessels would scarcely pass for third-rates in the present navy of England; yet were they so ill framed, or so ill governed, that they were quite unwieldy, and could not sail upon a wind, nor tack on occasion, nor be managed in stormy weather by the seamen. Neither the mechanics of shipbuilding, nor the experience of mariners, had attained so great perfection as could serve for the security of government of such bulky vessels; and the English, who had already had experience how unserviceable they commonly were, beheld without dismay their tremendous appearance.

Effingham gave orders not to come to close fight with the Spaniards; where the size of the ships, he suspected, and the numbers of the soldiers, would be a disadvantage to the English; but to cannonade them at a distance, and to wait the opportunity which winds, currents, or various accidents must afford him of intercepting some scattered vessels of the enemy. Nor was it long before the event answered expectation. A great ship of Biscay, on board of which was a considerable part of the Spanish money, took fire by accident; and while all hands were employed in extinguishing the flames, she fell behind the rest of the Armada; the great galleon of Andalusia was detained by the springing of her mast; and both these vessels were taken, after some resistance, by Sir Francis Drake. As the Armada advanced up the Channel, the English hung upon its rear, and still infested it with skirmishes. Each trial abated the confidence of the Spaniards, and added, courage to the English; and the latter soon found that, even in close fight, the size of the Spanish ships was no advantage to them. Their bulk exposed them the more to the fire of the enemy; while their cannon, placed too high, shot over the heads of the English. The alarm having now reached the coast of England, the nobility and gentry hastened out with their vessels from every harbor, and reinforced the admiral. The Earls of Oxford, Northumberland, and Cumberland, Sir Thomas Cecil, Sir Robert Cecil, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Thomas Vavasor, Sir Thomas Gerrard, Sir Charles Blount, with many others, distinguished themselves by this generous and disinterested service of their country. The English fleet, after the conjunction of those ships, amounted to a hundred and forty sail.

The Armada had now reached Calais, and cast anchor before that place, in expectation that the Duke of Parma, who had gotten intelligence of their approach, would put to sea and join his forces to them. The English admiral practiced here a successful stratagem upon the Spaniards. He took eight of his smaller ships, and filling them with all combustible materials, sent them, one after another, into the midst of the enemy. The Spaniards fancied that they were fireships of the same contrivance with a famous vessel which had lately done so much execution in the Schelde near Antwerp; and they immediately cut their cables, and took to flight with the greatest disorder and precipitation. The English fell upon them next morning while in confusion; and besides doing great damage to other ships, they took or destroyed about twelve of the enemy.

By this time it was become apparent that the intention for which these preparations were made by the Spaniards was entirely frustrated. The vessels provided by the Duke of Parma were made for transporting soldiers, not for fighting; and that general, when urged to leave the harbor, positively refused to expose his flourishing army to such apparent hazard; while the English not only were able to keep the sea, but seemed even to triumph over their enemy. The Spanish admiral found, in many rencounters, that while he lost so considerable a part of his own navy, he had destroyed only one small vessel of the English; and he foresaw, that by continuing so unequal a combat, he must draw inevitable destruction on all the remainder. He prepared, therefore, to return homewards; but as the wind was contrary to his passage through the Channel, he resolved to sail northwards, and making the tour of the island, reach the Spanish harbors by the ocean. The English fleet followed him during some time; and had not their ammunition fallen short, by the negligence of the officers in supplying them, they had obliged the whole Armada to surrender at discretion. The Duke of Medina had once taken that resolution, but was diverted from it by the advice of his confessor. This conclusion of the enterprise would have been more glorious to the English; but the event proved almost equally fatal to the Spaniards. A violent tempest overtook the Armada after it passed the Orkneys; the ships had already lost their anchors, and were obliged to keep to sea; the mariners, unaccustomed to such hardships, and not able to govern such unwieldy vessels, yielded to the fury of the storm, and allowed their ships to drive either on the western isles of Scotland, or on the coast of Ireland, where they were miserably wrecked. Not a half of the navy returned to Spain; and the seamen as well as soldiers who remained, were so overcome with hardships and fatigue, and so dispirited by their discomfiture, that they filled all Spain with accounts of the desperate valor of the English and of the tempestuous violence of that ocean which surrounds them.

Such was the miserable and dishonorable conclusion of an enterprise which had been preparing for three years, which had exhausted the revenue and force of Spain, and which had long filled all Europe with anxiety or expectation.

by David Hume

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