The King of Spain had sworn a solemn oath that the English "sea-dogs" should trouble his sailors no more. No longer would he send messages to Queen Elizabeth to punish her pirate subjects. He was coming to punish them himself. The English were to be crushed once and for all. He would seize the crown from that proud maiden Queen, who had scorned his messages. He would give the fair lands of England to his greedy nobles. The gentlemen of England who dared to resist him should repent their deeds in dungeons, while the Spaniards feasted in their halls.
Stories were told in England of how the Spaniards had cut down whole forests to build great ships, larger and stronger than any ships the English had ever seen. These ships were called by the Spaniards the Armada, the Invincible Armada which could never be conquered, the Most Fortunate Armada which would always have good luck. Dark stories were told, too, of ship-loads of cruel scourges and iron fetters which the King of Spain was sending to punish his English foes.
No wonder the English people were wild with excitement. No wonder every man who could buckle on a sword was willing to fight. It was to defend their homes and wives and children they were called. No man could be a coward in a cause like that.
So the English kept a brave heart in spite of the stories of the Invincible Armada, which was to bring to their shores the strongest army in the world.
When Sir Walter Raleigh hurried to the west country to rouse and arm the Cornish and Devon miners, he found them willing and eager to fight the Spaniards. They flung down their pickaxes, and flocked to his standard shouting and singing—
"Oh, where be these gay Spaniards,
Which make so great a boast O?
Oh, they shall eat the grey-goose feather,
And we shall eat the roast O!"
In a very short time the whole kingdom was full of armed men, on horseback and on foot.
As for Queen Elizabeth, she was as brave as the bravest of her people. She rode through the ranks of the army on her beautiful white horse. She spoke to the soldiers with gallant words. "My loving people," she said, "I have come amongst you at this time to tell you that I would lay down for my God, for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England too! I do not doubt that we shall have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people!"
The soldiers answered with a ringing cheer. "God save Elizabeth!" they shouted; "long live our noble Queen!"
But the best way to beat the Spaniards was to beat them at sea before ever they could tread on English ground. This was work for the sailors, who were only too willing to fight the hated foe. It was Raleigh who advised the Queen to trust first to her ships. He knew the valiant seamen who had again and again routed the Spanish warships, and he hoped they would rout them once more.
One of the most daring of these sailors had indeed done harm already to the great Armada. This gallant man, whose name was Francis Drake, had sailed suddenly into a Spanish harbour, and had burnt and sunk all the ships he found there. This dashing deed delayed the coming of the Armada, and gave the English more time to prepare their ships.
On the coast of Devonshire, in a beautiful bay called Plymouth Sound, lay the English ships. They were not great iron-clad steamers as the English warships are now; in those days men had not discovered how to use steam to drive their ships over the sea. They trusted instead to the wind, and when their ships set sail they seemed like a flight of great sea-birds.
It was a warm summer day, and the captains of the fleet were on shore. Some of them were watching their white-sailed ships in the bay below, and talking together of the coming of the Spaniards. Some of them were playing a game of bowls on a smooth green lawn looking over the sea. There was Sir Francis Drake, the terror of the Spaniards, throwing his bowl with as light a heart as if he had never heard of the Invincible Armada.
They are not afraid, these stalwart English seamen! They have fought the Spaniards in far-away Spanish seas; how much better will they fight in defence of their home and country! "Let the proud Spaniards come," they say, "they shall see what a welcome we can give them!"
"Let them come, come never so proudly
O'er the green waves as giants ride;
Silver clarions menacing loudly,
'All the Spains' on their banners wide.
We shall sunder them, fire and plunder them,
English boats on an English sea."
Suddenly a small armed ship was seen running swiftly into the harbour under a press of sail. Her crew had great news to tell. The Armada was coming! They had seen it quite near the English coast. The ships, they said, were so many and so huge that they stretched over seven miles of sea.
At this exciting news the captains, who a minute before had been chatting lazily in the sunshine, began to hurry to and fro. They shouted for their men, and, hastening to the waterside, called for their ships' boats.
In the midst of all this excitement Drake had never moved from his place on the bowling-green; he did not even stop his game. "There is plenty of time," he said, as he aimed his bowl, "to win the game and beat the Spaniards too!"
And soon, gallant and gay as ever, these English seamen sailed out from Plymouth Bay to battle for their country and their Queen.
Meanwhile, swift horsemen rode inland to spread the news far and wide that the enemy had come at last. And when night came, a messenger swifter than any horseman was found to carry on the news.
On all the high hills throughout the length and breadth of England were lonely watchmen, waiting beside great piles of wood. They were watching for the signal to tell them the Spaniards were coming, and then they would light these great beacon fires to send on the news.
On a rock near Plymouth Bay shone the first signal flame. At once the fires blazed up on the cliffs along the Devon coast. Quickly the inland hills carried on the fiery signal—
"And swift to east, and swift to west, the ghastly war-flame spread."
The Spaniards, as they looked towards the England they had sworn to conquer, saw along the south coast—
"Cape beyond cape, in endless range, those twinkling points of fire."
And all night long the blazing fires sent on the warning that England was in danger—
"And on, and on, without a pause, untired they bounded still;
All night from tower to tower they sprang; they sprang from hill to hill."
Until, at last, all over England men knew that the enemy was near, and every village and town made ready for war, in case the fleet was beaten and the Spaniards landed on English soil.
But the English sea-dogs did not mean to be beaten. Though the Spanish ships were so great and strong, the English ships were much easier to manage; they could turn and move in every direction much more swiftly.
When the English came in sight of the Spanish ships sailing proudly along, they did not at once rush into battle; for the ships of the Armada were like floating castles, so great they were and so high. If the English ships had come to close quarters, and tried to board the Spaniards, they would have been broken to pieces. So, instead, they sailed just near enough to riddle the Spanish ships with deadly shot, and, turning swiftly, were away before the Spaniards could reply. Then they would dash in from another side.
Again and again the great Spanish galleons tried to get near enough to board the little English ships. Again and again the English sailed round them, and gave them no chance. So quickly could the English turn and sail that the Spaniards muttered that there were witches, not sailors, on board.
So the English chased the Invincible Armada away from England's shores. At last it struggled, battered and torn, but not beaten yet, into a French harbour.
Suddenly a crimson glow lit up the sea and land. The English had driven flaming fire-ships into the harbour. The Spaniards, mad with terror, struggled with each other to get out of the harbour and escape the fire.
Outside the harbour the English were waiting. Fierce and furious was the fight, but the English victory was sure. The Spaniards in their fear had lost all sense and order. Many of their greatest ships were sunk or captured.
At last all that was left of the great Armada fled northward, with the English sea-dogs behind them.
The English chased them until the English shot was all used up. Raleigh's ship was one of those which followed the longest. At last the English turned, and left the Spaniards to the stormy northern seas.
Wilder and louder grew the storm. On and on the Spaniards were driven by the wild wind, far out of sight of England, round the dangerous rocky coast of Scotland. Many of the ships were wrecked on the cruel rocks.
Some of the Spaniards managed to reach the shores of Ireland, and sought refuge there. But they were taken, and sent from village to village, coupled in halters, to be shipped into England. The Queen disdaining, as Drake tells us, to put them to death, and scorning to keep them, sent them back to Spain to tell the story of their Invincible Armada.