Gateway to the Classics: Queen Elizabeth by Jacob Abbott
Queen Elizabeth by  Jacob Abbott

The Invincible Armada

Thirty years of Queen Elizabeth's reign passed away. During all this time the murderous contests between the Catholic governments of France and Spain and their Protestant subjects went on with terrible energy. Philip of Spain was the great leader and head of the Catholic powers, and he prosecuted his work of exterminating heresy with the sternest and most merciless determination. Obstinate and protracted wars, cruel tortures, and imprisonments and executions without number, marked his reign.

Notwithstanding all this, however, strange as it may seem, the country increased in population, wealth, and prosperity. It is, after all, but a very small proportion of fifty millions of people which the most cruel monster of a tyrant can kill, even if he devotes himself fully to the work. The natural deaths among the vast population within the reach of Philip's power amounted, probably, to two millions every year; and if he destroyed ten thousand every year, it was only adding one  death by violence to two hundred  produced by accidents, disasters, or age. Dreadful as are the atrocities of persecution and war, and vast and incalculable as are the encroachments on human happiness which they produce, we are often led to over-rate their relative importance, compared with the aggregate value of the interests and pursuits which are left unharmed by them, by not sufficiently appreciating the enormous extent and magnitude of these interests and pursuits in such communities as England, France, and Spain.

Sometimes, it is true, the operations of military heroes have been on such a prodigious scale as to make very serious inroads on the population of the greatest states. Napoleon for instance, on one occasion took five hundred thousand men out of France for his expedition to Russia. The campaign destroyed nearly all; of them. It was only a very insignificant fraction of the vast army that ever returned. By this transaction, Napoleon thus just about doubled the annual mortality in France at a single blow. Xerxes enjoys the glory of having destroyed about a million of men—and these, not enemies, but countrymen, followers, and friends—in the same way, on a single expedition. Such vast results, however, were not attained in the conflicts which marked the reigns of Elizabeth and Philip of Spain. Notwithstanding the long-protracted international wars, and dreadful civil commotions of the period, the world went on increasing in wealth and population, and all the arts and improvements of life made very rapid progress. America had been discovered, and the way to the East Indies had been opened to European ships, and the Spaniards, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English, and the French, had fleets of merchant vessels and ships of war in every sea. The Spaniards, particularly, had acquired great possessions in America, which contained very rich mines of gold and silver, and there was a particular kind of vessels called galleons, which went regularly once a year, under a strong convoy, to bring home the treasure. They used to call these fleets armada, which is the Spanish word denoting an armed squadron. Nations at war with Spain always made great efforts to intercept and seize these ships on their homeward voyages, when, being laden with gold and silver, they became prizes of the highest value.

Things were in this state about the year 1585, when Queen Elizabeth received a proposition from the Continent of Europe which threw her into great perplexity. Among the other dominions of Philip of Spain, there were certain states situated in the broad tract of low, level land which lies northeast of France, and which constitutes, at the present day, the countries of Holland and Belgium. This territory was then divided into several provinces, which were called, usually, the Low Countries, on account of the low and level situation of the land. In fact, there are vast tracts of land bordering the shore, which lie so low that dikes have to be built to keep out the sea. In these cases, there are lines of windmills, of great size and power, all along the coast, whose vast wings are always slowly revolving, to pump out the water which percolates through the dikes, or which flows from the water-courses after showers of rain.

The Low Countries were very unwilling to submit to the tyrannical government which Philip exercised over them. The inhabitants were generally Protestants, and Philip persecuted them cruelly. They were, in consequence of this, continually rebelling against his authority, and Elizabeth secretly aided them in their struggles, though she would not openly assist them, as she did not wish to provoke Philip to open war. She wished them success, however for she knew very well that if Philip could once subdue his Protestant subjects at home, he would immediately turn his attention to England, and perhaps undertake to depose Elizabeth, and place some Catholic prince or princess upon the throne in her stead.

Things were in this state in 1585, when the confederate provinces of the Low Countries sent an embassage to Elizabeth, offering her the government of the country as sovereign queen, if she would openly espouse their cause and protect them from Philip's power. This proposition called for very serious and anxious consideration. Elizabeth felt very desirous to make this addition to her dominions on its own account, and besides, she saw at once that such an acquisition would give her a great advantage in her future contests with Philip, if actual war must come. But then, on the other hand, by accepting the proposition, war must necessarily be brought on at once. Philip would, in fact, consider her espousing the cause of his rebellious subjects as an actual declaration of war on her part, so that making such a league with these countries would plunge her at once into hostilities with the greatest and most extended power on the globe. Elizabeth was very unwilling thus to precipitate the contest; but then, on the other hand, she wished very much to avoid the danger that threatened, of Philip's first subduing his own dominions, and then advancing to the invasion of England with his undivided strength. She finally concluded not to accept the sovereignty of the countries, but to make a league, offensive and defensive, with the governments, and to send out a fleet and an army to aid them. This, as she had expected, brought on a general war.

The queen commissioned Leicester to take command of the forces which were to proceed to Holland and the Netherlands; she also equipped a fleet, and placed it under the command of Sir Francis Drake, a very celebrated naval captain, to proceed across the Atlantic and attack the Spanish possessions on the American shores. Leicester was extremely elated with his appointment, and set off on his expedition with great pomp and parade. He had not generally, during his life, held stations of any great trust or responsibility. The queen had conferred upon him high titles and vast estates, but she had confided all real power to far more capable and trustworthy hands. She thought however, perhaps, that Leicester would answer for her allies; so she gave him his commission and sent him forth, charging him, with many injunctions, as he went away, to be discreet and faithful, and to do nothing which should compromise, in any way, her interests or honor.

It will, perhaps, be recollected that Leicester's wife had been, before her marriage with him, the wife of a nobleman named the Earl of Essex. She had a son, who, at his father's death, succeeded to the title. This young Essex accompanied Leicester on this occasion. His subsequent adventures, which were romantic and extraordinary, will be narrated in the next chapter.

The people of the Netherlands, being extremely desirous to please Elizabeth, their new ally, thought that they could not honor the great general she had sent them too highly. They received him with most magnificent military parades, and passed a vote in their assembly in vesting him with absolute authority as head of the government, thus putting him, in fact, in the very position which Elizabeth had herself declined receiving. Leicester was extremely pleased and elated with these honors. He was king all but in name. He provided himself with a noble life-guard, in imitation of royalty, and assumed all the state and airs of a monarch. Things went on so very prosperously with him for a short time, until he was one day thunder-struck by the appearance at his palace of a nobleman from the queen's court, named Heneage, who brought him a letter from Elizabeth which was in substance as follows:

"How foolishly, and with what contempt of my authority, I think you have acted, the messenger I now send to you will explain. I little imagined that a man whom I had raised from the dust, and treated with so much favor, would have forgotten all his obligations, and acted in such a manner. I command you now to put yourself entirely under the direction of this messenger, to do in all things precisely as he requires, upon pain of further peril."

Leicester humbled himself immediately under this rebuke, sent home most ample apologies and prayers for forgiveness, and, after a time, gradually recovered the favor of the queen. He soon, however, became very unpopular in the Netherlands. Grievous complaints were made against him, and he was at length recalled.

Drake was more successful. He was a bold, undaunted, and energetic seaman, but unprincipled and merciless. He manned and equipped his fleet, and set sail toward the Spanish possessions in America. He attacked the colonies, sacked the towns, plundered the inhabitants, intercepted the ships, and searched them for silver and gold. In a word, he did exactly what pirates are hung for doing, and execrated afterward by all mankind. But, as Queen Elizabeth gave him permission to perform these exploits, he has always been applauded by mankind as a hero. We would not be understood as denying that there is any difference between burning and plundering innocent towns and robbing ships, whether there is or is not a governmental permission to commit these crimes. There certainly is a difference. It only seems to us surprising that there should be so great a difference as is made by the general estimation of mankind.

Drake, in fact, had acquired a great and honorable celebrity for such deeds before this time, by a similar expedition, several years before, in which he had been driven to make the circumnavigation of the globe. England and Spain were then nominally at peace, and the expedition was really in pursuit of prizes and plunder.

Drake took five vessels with him on this his first expedition, but they were all very small. The largest was only a vessel of one hundred tons, while the ships which are now built are often of three thousand. With this little fleet Drake set sail boldly, and crossed the Atlantic, being fifty-five days out of sight of land. He arrived at last on the coast of South America, and then turned his course southward, toward the Straits of Magellan. Two of his vessels, he found, were so small as to be of very little service; so he shipped the men on board the others, and turned the two adrift. When he got well into the southern seas, he charged his chief mate, whose name was Doughty, with some offense against the discipline of his little fleet, and had him condemned to death. He was executed at the Straits of Magellan—beheaded. Before he died, the unhappy convict had the sacrament administered to him, Drake himself partaking of it with him. It was said, and believed at the time, that the charge against Doughty was only a pretense, and that the real cause of his death was, that Leicester had agreed with Drake to kill him when far away, on account of his having assisted, with others, in spreading the reports that Leicester had murdered the Earl of Essex, the former husband of his wife.

The little squadron passed through the Straits of Magellan, and then encountered a dreadful storm, which separated the ships, and drove them several hundred miles to the westward, over the then boundless and trackless waters of the Pacific Ocean. Drake himself afterward recovered the shore with his own ship alone, and moved northward. He found Spanish ships and Spanish merchants every where, who, not dreaming of the presence of an English enemy in those distant seas, were entirely secure; and they fell, one after another, a very easy prey. The very extraordinary story is told of his finding, in one place, a Spaniard asleep upon the shore, waiting, perhaps, for a boat, with thirty bars of silver by his side, of great weight and value, which Drake and his men seized and carried off, without so much as waking the owner. In one harbor which he entered he found three ships, from which the seamen had all gone ashore, leaving the vessels completely unguarded, so entirely unconscious were they of any danger near. Drake broke into the cabins of these ships, and found fifty or sixty wedges of pure silver there, of twenty pounds each. In this way, as he passed along the coast, he collected an immense treasure in silver and gold, both coin and bullion, without having to strike a blow for it. At last he heard of a very rich ship, called the Cacofogo, which had recently sailed for Panama, to which place they were taking the treasure, in order that it might be transported across the isthmus, and so taken home to Spain; for, before Drake's voyage, scarcely a single vessel had ever passed round Cape Horn. The ships which he had plundered had been all built upon the coast, by Spaniards who had come across the country at the Isthmus of Darien, and were to be used only to transport the treasure northward, where it could be taken across to the Gulf of Mexico.

Drake gave chase to the Cacofogo. At last he came near enough to fire into her, and one of his first shots cut away her foremast and disabled her. He soon captured the ship, and he found immense riches on board. Besides pearls and precious stones of great value, there were eighty pounds of gold, thirteen chests of silver coin, and silver enough in bars "to ballast a ship."

Drake's vessel was now richly laden with treasures, but in the mean time the news of his plunderings had gone across the Continent, and some Spanish ships of war had gone south to intercept him at the Straits of Magellan on his return. In this dilemma, the adventurous sailor conceived of the sublime idea of avoiding them by going round the world  to get home. He pushed boldly forward, therefore, across the Pacific Ocean to the East Indies, thence through the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope, and, after three years from the time he left England, he returned to it safely again, his ship loaded with the plundered silver and gold.

As soon as he arrived in the Thames, the whole world flocked to see the little ship that had performed all these wonders. The vessel was drawn up alongside the land, and a bridge made to it, and, after the treasure was taken out, it was given up, for some time, to banquetings and celebrations of every kind. The queen took possession of all the treasure, saying that Philip might demand it, and she be forced to make restitution, for it must be remembered that all this took place several years before the war. She, however, treated the successful sailor with every mark of consideration and honor; she went herself on board his ship, and partook of an entertainment there, conferring the honor of knighthood, at the same time, on the admiral, so that "Sir Francis Drake" was thenceforth his proper title.

If the facts already stated do not give sufficient indications of the kind of character which in those days made a naval hero, one other circumstance may be added. At one time during this voyage, a Spaniard, whose ship Drake had spared, made him a present of a beautiful negro girl. Drake kept her on board his ship for a time, and then sent her ashore on some island that he was passing, and inhumanly abandoned her there, to become a mother among strangers, utterly friendless and alone. It must be added, however, in justice to the rude men among whom this wild buccaneer lived, that, though they praised all his other deeds of violence and wrong, this atrocious cruelty was condemned. It had the effect, even in those days, of tarnishing his fame.

Philip did claim the money, but Elizabeth found plenty of good excuses for not paying it over to him.

This celebrated expedition occupied more than three years. Going round the world is a long journey. The arrival of the ship in London took place in 1581, four years before the war actually broke out between England and Spain, which was in 1585; and it was in consequence of the great celebrity which Drake had acquired in this and similar excursions, that when at last hostilities commenced, he was put in command of the naval preparations. It was not long before it was found that his services were likely to be required near home, for rumors began to find their way to England that Philip was preparing a great fleet for the actual invasion of England. The news put the whole country into a state of great alarm.

The reader, in order to understand fully the grounds for this alarm, must remember that in those days Spain was the mistress of the ocean, and not England herself. Spain possessed the distant colonies and the foreign commerce, and built and armed the great ships, while England had comparatively few ships, and those which she had were small. To meet the formidable preparations which the Spaniards were making, Elizabeth equipped only four ships. To these, however, the merchants of London added twenty or thirty more, of various sizes, which they furnished on condition of having a share in the plunder which they hoped would be secured. The whole fleet was put under Drake's command.

Robbers and murderers, whether those that operate upon the sea or on the land, are generally courageous, and Drake's former success had made him feel doubly confident and strong. Philip had collected a considerable fleet of ships in Cadiz, which is a strong sea-port in the southeastern part of Spain, on the Mediterranean Sea, and others were assembling in all the ports and bays along the shore, wherever they could be built or purchased. They were to rendezvous finally at Cadiz. Drake pushed boldly forward, and, to the astonishment of the world, forced his way into the harbor, through a squadron of galleys stationed there to protect the entrance, and burned, sunk, and destroyed more than a hundred ships which had been collected there. The whole work was done, and the little English fleet was off again, before the Spaniards could recover from their astonishment. Drake then sailed along the coast, seizing and destroying all the ships he could find. He next pushed to sea a little way, and had the good fortune to intercept and capture a richly-laden ship of very large size, called a carrack, which was coming home from the East Indies. He then went back to England in triumph. He said he had been "singeing the whiskers" of the King of Spain.

The booty was divided among the London merchants, as had been agreed upon. Philip was exasperated and enraged beyond expression at this unexpected destruction of armaments which had cost him so much time and money to prepare. His spirit was irritated and aroused by the disaster, not quelled; and he immediately began to renew his preparations, making them now on a still vaster scale than before. The amount of damage which Drake effected was, therefore, after all, of no greater benefit to England than putting back the invasion for about a year.

At length, in the summer of 1588, the preparations for the sailing of the great armada, which was to dethrone Elizabeth and bring back the English nation again under the dominion of some papal prince, and put down, finally, the cause of Protestantism in Europe, were complete. Elizabeth herself, and the English people, in the mean time, had not been idle. The whole kingdom had been for months filled with enthusiasm to prepare for meeting the foe. Armies were levied and fleets raised. Every maritime town furnished ships; and rich noblemen, in many cases, built or purchased vessels with their own funds, and sent them forward ready for the battle, as their contribution toward the means of defense. A large part of the force thus raised was stationed at Plymouth, which is the first great sea-port which presents itself on the English coast in sailing up the Channel. The remainder of it was stationed at the other end of 'the Channel, near the Straits of Dover, for it was feared that, in addition to the vast armament which Philip was to bring from Spain, he would raise another fleet in the Netherlands, which would, of course, approach the shores of England from the German Ocean.

Besides the fleets, a large army was raised. Twenty thousand men were distributed along the southern shores of England in such positions as to be most easily concentrated at any pint where the armada might attempt to land and about as many more were marched down the Thames, and encamped near the mouth of the river, to guard that access. This encampment was at a place on the northern bank of the river, just above its mouth. Leicester, strange as it may seem, was put in command of this army. The queen, however, herself, went to visit this encampment, and reviewed the troops in person. She rode to and fro on horseback along the lines, armed like a warrior. At least she had a corslet of polished steel over her magnificent dress, and bore a general's truncheon, a richly-ornamented staff used as a badge of command. She had a helmet, too, with a white plume. This, however she did not wear A page bore it, following her, while she rode, attended by Leicester and the other generals, all mounted on horses and splendidly caparisoned, from rank to rank, animating the men to the highest enthusiasm by her courageous bearing, her look of confidence, and her smiles.

She made an address to the soldiers. She said that she had been warned by some of her ministers of the danger of trusting herself to the power of such an armed multitude, for these forces were not regularly enlisted troops, but volunteers from among the citizens, who had suddenly left the ordinary avocations and pursuits of life to defend their country in this emergency. She had, however, she said, no such apprehensions of danger. She could trust herself without fear to the courage and fidelity of her subjects, as she had always, during all her reign, considered her greatest strength and safeguard as consisting in their loyalty and good will. For herself, she had come to the camp, she assured them, not for the sake of empty pageantry and parade, but to take her share with them in the dangers, and toils, and terrors of the actual battle. If Philip should land, they would find their queen in the hottest of the conflict, fighting by their sides. "I have," said she, "I know, only the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart of a king; and I am ready for my God, my kingdom, and my people, to have that body laid down, even in the dust. If the battle comes, therefore, I shall myself be in the midst and front of it, to live or die with you."

These were, thus far, but words, it is true, and how far Elizabeth would have vindicated their sincerity, if the entrance of the armada into the Thames had put her to the test, we can not now know. Sir Francis Drake saved her from the trial. One morning a small vessel came into the harbor at Plymouth, where the English fleet was lying, with the news that the armada was coming up the Channel under full sail. The anchors of the fleet were immediately raised, and great exertions made to get it out of the harbor, which was difficult, as the wind at the time was blowing directly in. The squadron got out at last, as night was coming on. The next morning the armada hove in sight, advancing from the westward up the Channel, in a vast crescent, which extended for seven miles from north to south, and seemed to sweep the whole sea.


The Invincible Armada.

It was a magnificent spectacle, and it was the ushering in of that far grander spectacle still, of which the English Channel was the scene for the ten days which followed, during which the enormous naval structures, of the armada, as they slowly made their way along, were followed, and fired upon, and harassed by the smaller, and lighter, and more active vessels of their English foes. The unwieldy monsters pressed on, surrounded and worried by their nimbler enemies like hawks driven by kingfishers through the sky. Day after day this most extraordinary contest, half flight and half battle, continued, every promontory on the shores covered all the time with spectators, who listened to the distant booming of the guns, and watched the smokes which arose from the cannonading and the conflagrations. One great galleon after another fell a prey. Some were burned, some taken as prizes, some driven ashore; and finally, one dark night, the English sent a fleet of fire-ships, all in flames, into the midst of the anchorage to which the Spaniards had retired, which scattered them in terror and dismay, and completed the discomfiture of the squadron.

The result was, that by the time the invincible armada had made its way through the Channel, and had passed the Straits of Dover, it was so dispersed, and shattered, and broken, that its commanders, far from feeling any disposition to sail up the Thames, were only anxious to make good their escape from their indefatigable and tormenting foes. They did not dare, in attempting to make this escape, to return through the Channel, so they pushed northward into the German Ocean. Their only course for getting back to Spain again was to pass round the northern side of England, among the cold and stormy seas that are rolling in continually among the ragged rocks and gloomy islands which darken the ocean there. At last a miserable remnant of the fleet—less than half— made their way back to Spain again.

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