"Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain."
Though Sir Richard Grenville had not succeeded with the first colony in Virginia, yet he was a very able sailor, and Raleigh now sent him on an important expedition, to lie in wait for Spanish ships returning laden from the West Indies.
Midway between Spain and the West Indies, in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean, is a little group of islands called the Azores. Thither sailed the English fleet, consisting of six battleships only, to obey orders. The ships were lying at anchor under one of the islands, called Flores, one summer day, when a Spanish fleet of fifty sail bore down upon them. It was certain death to fight so large a number, and there was no choice but to sail away as fast as possible and escape. The English ships were soon ready, all save one, the Revenge. She was under the command of Sir Richard Grenville.
"I have ninety sick men ashore," he said; "I cannot and will not leave them to fall into the hands of Spain."
With his own hands he helped to carry the sick men on board as fast as possible, so that he might sail away with the rest. But it took time, and the little Revenge had not sailed far when the Spanish fleet bore down. By this time the rest of the English fleet had gone and the Revenge was alone.
"We will fight our way through the Spanish fleet or we will die," cried Sir Richard; his men caught the brave enthusiasm, and steered their ship on into almost certain death.
The Spanish ships came on, sometimes five at a time, and the Spaniards boarded the little English ship, and fought her sailors hand to hand, but each time they were driven back disabled.
All through the long August night the fight continued. But each great Spanish galleon was defeated in turn, until by dawn fifteen had attacked her in vain. Some had been sunk at her side, and others were ashamed to attempt further fighting.
"And the night went down, and the sun smiled out,
far over the summer sea."
"Fight on! fight on!" cried Sir Richard, though badly wounded himself and his vessel all but a wreck. "Fight on, men of Devon! fight on!"
"But as the day increased, so our men decreased," said Raleigh when he told the story afterwards.
At last forty men out of the hundred were slain, the masts of the Revenge were broken, the powder spent, and the decks strewn with wounded and dying. The Spanish ships lay round in a broken ring, watching to see what would happen next. They knew she could fight no more. Still Grenville would not surrender.
"No," he cried. "Rather will we sink the ship, that nothing of glory or victory may remain to the Spaniards. Let us fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain."
The gunner was a resolute man, he was ready to do his master's bidding, but it was too much to ask of all. They had wives and children waiting for them at home.
Sir Richard now lay dying, and his seamen yielded to the Spaniards. They carried Sir Richard Grenville to the largest of the Spanish ships. If unequal to the English in fighting, the Spaniards were at least their equal in courtesy. They bore Sir Richard to the flagship and laid him by the mast, while admiral and men alike praised his valour and resolution. A few hours later, when the end was fast approaching, Sir Richard cried: "Here die I, Richard Grenville, with a joyful and quiet mind, for that I have ended my life as a true soldier ought to do, that hath fought for his country, Queen, religion, and honour."
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 herself.
"Hardly," says a modern historian, "if the most glorious actions, which are set like jewels, in the history of mankind, are weighed one against the other in the balance, hardly will those 300 Spartans, who in the summer morning sat 'combing their long hair for death' in the passes of Thermopylæ, have earned a more lofty estimate for themselves than this one crew of modern Englishmen."