Gateway to the Classics: The Boy's Book of Battles by Eric Wood
The Boy's Book of Battles by  Eric Wood

The Spanish Armada

Philip of Spain's proposed Invasion of England was a deep and well-laid scheme; but it failed

Apart from his political reasons, Philip considered that he had a mission to wipe Protestantism off the face of the earth, but what made him determine to tackle England was undoubtedly the fact that, unlike her sister of black fame, Good Queen Bess had refused to marry him; moreover, he felt that the crowns of England and Scotland were his by right of the bequest of Mary Queen of Scots. So, to cloak his revenge and greed, he proclaimed a Holy War, received the spiritual and financial aid of the Pope, and prepared a huge Armada to carry his army over to England. Once on shore, he had not the slightest doubt that the Catholics in England would make the task of conquest easy. In this, as in many other things, he was deceived. For Catholic vied with Protestant to furnish the means wherewith to repel the invader.

There was much delay. For one thing the valiant Drake dashed into Cadiz Harbour, where ships and stores were being collected for the great day, destroyed some dozen ships, captured others and a large quantity of provisions and treasures, and then sailed off along the coast to continue his "singeing of the king's beard."

There were also many subterfuges, and, to hide his design, Philip professed peaceful desires. But England was not deceived, and prepared against the invasion. At last subterfuges and delays were done with. The Armada sailed. In very truth it was a gallant enough and formidable enough looking array. One hundred and thirty ships of fifty-nine thousand tonnage, some seventy of them great galleons, eight thousand sailors, two thousand galley slaves to work the sweeps, over three thousand great guns, and twenty thousand soldiers from every part of Christendom—such was the force that Philip sent against England; While in Flemish ports was a large army under the Duke of Parma waiting to invade England.

The fleet was divided into ten squadrons, all pretty equal in strength, under supreme command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia.

But for all its impressiveness and apparent greatness, the Armada was weak—weak, that is, compared with the fleet which it was to meet, for although the English ships were nothing like so large, nor their guns so numerous, yet the former were more seaworthy and better handled, while the latter were manned by superior gunners whose aim was sure.

Meanwhile in England active preparations were being made. For some years the English had expected this invasion, and had been arming ready for it. The coast had been surveyed and its weak spots defended; the militia had been called up for training; beacons were looked to, to see that they were ready to flash their warning light through the country; a camp was formed at Tilbury, and the Queen herself rode through the ranks, encouraging her loyal soldiers, and, with eloquent speeches, keeping alive the fire of enthusiasm that burned in the breast of every man. Thus was England's second line of defence ready in case the invaders set foot on English soil.

Some there were who advised that the enemy should be allowed to land, and the battle be fought in England but others, the wiser spirits of the time, insisted that the only way to frustrate Philip was to tackle him on the high seas, those seas which the English sea-dogs had learned to love, and on which they had fought so many noble fights and won so many gallant victories. As can be imagined, Francis Drake was of this view; so also was Raleigh. They prevailed, and at last, after much vacillation on the part of the strong-minded Queen, England's first line of defence was called together.

It was a force not to be despised. The Royal Navy consisted of thirty-four ships, with tonnage varying from thirty to eleven hundred, and carrying some eight hundred guns and six thousand men.

Elizabeth asked London to supply her with fifteen ships and five thousand sailors; London sent her twice that number. All the great seaports gave their quota, as did also men of means and adventurers from the Spanish Main. Altogether England's fleet totaled some one hundred and ninety ships, with a tonnage of thirty-one thousand, against the Spanish fleet of one hundred and thirty, with a tonnage of fifty-nine thousand.

While the Spaniards waited to make their final arrangements, the English kept guard. But Spain was long in coming, and Elizabeth was short of patience and money; so, when she found that Philip dallied, she dispersed the fleet (January, 1588), at the same time accusing Drake of wasting precious money on useless firing practice! Of course, the sea-dogs grumbled, but the Queen was Queen—she never would be a mere figurehead.

Eventually, however, the Armada sailed. At the end of May the mighty fleet left Lisbon, only to be driven back by the winds of heaven. The English fleet had been got together again, and Lord High Admiral Howard sailed forth to come to grips with the foe. The same storm that dispersed the Spaniards sent Howard back towards Plymouth. Still hoping to meet the Armada well away from the English coast, he sailed out again, sending scouts to find out what had happened to the foe. The scouts returned newsless, and Howard once more put in at Plymouth.

Elizabeth's patience was again strained to the breaking point, and, on Howard asking for more money, she proposed paying off some of the ships. Howard bluntly refused to do anything of the kind, vowing that he would rather pay expenses himself. He meant to be ready.

It was as well, for on July 12th Medina Sidonia made his second attempt to reach England. It may be as well to say here that the Spanish Admiral was the man least fitted for so great an undertaking as had been entrusted to him. He had taken the place of Admiral Santa Cruz, into whose hands the task had been put, but who died ere the Armada was ready to sail. As a matter of fact, Sidonia realised the difficulty of the work before him, and after the fleet had been driven back by the storm he proposed sending to Philip to ask him to abandon the expedition. His lieutenants refused to be parties to such a confession of weakness, and Sidonia perforce had to keep on his way—the way to disaster.

Sidonia's object was to join forces with Parma, so that the latter might be able to transport his men to England under the convoy of the Armada; but, as events proved, they were not of the slightest use.

The Spaniards sailed up into the Channel, and by July 20th were off the Lizard, sailing in front of the south-westerly wind.

On the Hoe at Plymouth, so the story goes, Howard, Drake, Raleigh, and many another were engaged in a game of bowls. Looking out across the Channel, one of them espied a little pinnace racing towards them. "Who is it?" they asked of one another.

They soon knew. In a few minutes the pinnace made the shore, her captain leapt on land, and, hurrying on to the Hoe, burst in upon the players with his cry:

"The Spaniards are here!"

"What say ye?" queried a thick-set, bullet-headed man. "The Spaniards are come? Ah! well, there's plenty of time to finish the game, and beat the Spaniards too!" It was Drake who spoke thus.

The game was finished, and the greater game began. Along the cliffs and through the land the beacons flared, sending the tidings through the country that the Spaniards at last had come.

The Admirals quickly hurried aboard their ships, and in the morning found that the Spaniards had passed Plymouth and were rolling up the Channel towards Calais. Sidonia had been advised to enter Plymouth Sound and attack the English ere they were fully prepared, but, like a weak commander, he had scorned the advice, and so missed his opportunity.

Howard, sailing on the Royal Ark, had under him but some eighty ships—the remainder of his fleet being at different places on the coast, chiefly in the Downs, where Lord Henry Seymour was in command—and sailing before him, in an enormous crescent formation, with horns seven miles apart, was Spain's Armada. Howard meant to frustrate Sidonia's attempt to join forces with Parma, and in this he was ably assisted by Seymour and by the Dutch ships which were blockading Parma's army in Flemish ports.

Howard began the fight by sending out the Defiance  to fire a gun at the Spaniards. The nimble English ships followed this up by attacking both horns of the crescent, snapping at them as a dog snaps at an offending master. Howard made no attempt to break up the formation, because he realised that while Sidonia held on in that way the Spanish ships were comparatively useless.

All that day the English hung on to their foes relentlessly, cutting off stragglers, sailing up close to Spanish ships, firing in heavy broadsides, and then tacking off before they could be fired upon. Such tactics had a very disconcerting effect on the Dons, who quickly saw that what they gained in size they lost in seamanship.

Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher attacked the flagship of de Recaldez. They worried him; they worried his whole squadron, and although de Recaldez did all that he could to keep his ships together, they were at last driven into the main body of the fleet.

It caused dire confusion amongst the Spaniards, who found their ships far too unwieldy, and during this excitement Drake poured in a terrific fire. The Nuestra Senora del Rosario, on which sailed Pedro de Valdez, suffered much from this, fell foul of another vessel, and, with foremast shot away and bowsprit gone, was at last so disabled that she could not keep up with the fleet. Valdez at once signaled to Sidonia for help, but that gentleman, with all sails set, was making for Calais, and paid no heed. The Rosario, therefore, fell astern just as night came on, but was passed by the English Admiral. At break of day, however, she was espied by Drake, who during the night had been ordered to show a light on his ship, the Revenge, in order to guide the others. For a reason known to himself, Drake disobeyed, set off after some stragglers, and eventually fell in with the Rosario. He at once ordered her to surrender. Valdez, bold man that he was, refused to do so except under certain conditions.

Drake did not like conditions. He immediately sent word, saying:

"Tell him Francis Drake has no time to parley. Let him yield and he shall find me friendly and tractable. Howbeit, if he wants to fight, I am ready!"

The name of Drake, whom the Spaniards had nick-named The Dragon, had the desired effect. Valdez surrendered, came aboard the Revenge, gave his sword to Drake, kissed his hand—and then was put back on his ship and sent into Weymouth.

Drake's little game had misled Howard, who, mistaking the light on a Spanish ship for that which he had instructed Drake to show, followed the Spaniards up the Channel, the rest of his fleet laying to. In the morning, therefore, Howard found himself in a tight corner; his ship was almost on the Armada, while his friends were a good way behind. Fortunately, Howard managed to escape and rejoin his squadron, having succeeded in capturing one of the best and largest of the Spanish ships.

That day little was done, but on the next the wind changed to the north-east, and the Spaniards, now off the Isle of Wight, determined to get to grips with their foes and put a stop to the baiting to which they had been subjected long enough. Swinging round, the great galleons managed to get a section of the English fleet between themselves and the land, and could not resist the temptation. Both sides immediately prepared for battle, but fickle Fate played Sidonia a nasty trick, for, just when it seemed that he would be able to pay back his enemy in kind, the wind shifted, the English tacked—and the Spaniards found themselves in a worse plight than ever. Instead of attacking, they found themselves attacked. Turning eastward once more, they were followed in the same old way, stragglers were cut of and great galleons were riddled by shot.

Howard's star was in the ascendant, for he succeeded in capturing a number of the Spanish ships, but before the day had ended he found himself running short of ammunition. Sidonia also was suffering a similar shortage, but, while he was unable to get stores from Parma, Howard received supplies from various places along the south coast, and, what is more, was reinforced by a number of vessels from various ports. Feeling stronger, the English Admiral determined to risk an attack. Gathering his forces, he sailed bang into the midst of the Armada, sending broadside after broadside through the unwieldy galleons. Howard, on the Royal Ark, engaged Sidonia himself, and, backed up by several other ships, simply riddled the San Martin. Then, thanks to their nimbleness, the English emerged from the tangle before the Spaniards could reload their guns.

The rest of the day was passed in comparative tranquility, and Howard amused himself by knighting several of his lieutenants, including his brother, Lord Thomas Howard, Hawkins, and Frobisher.

Meanwhile Hawkins and Frobisher had been busy. The latter, sailing in the Triumph, engaged a number of galleons and did good work for England. Hawkins tackled de Recaldez, who flew his flag on the St. Anna. Bringing his ship to close quarters, Hawkins's big guns hurled their iron messages of death into the St. Anna, riddled her, brought her masts down with a crash, and so badly mauled her that de Recaldez had to abandon her and hoist his flag on another ship. Seeing the plight of his second in command, Sidonia, treating him better than he had treated Valdez, bore down on the St. Anna, and endeavoured to secure her before the English could take possession. He also reckoned on being able to inflict a crushing blow on the English; he had fallen into temptation again—and retribution followed quickly.

Tacking about, Hawkins, Howard and Drake swooped down upon the oncoming Spaniards from three different points, gave them a volley, tacked, and gave them another, and put poor Sidonia into such a fright that he signaled to his fleet to sail off before the wind toward France.

The next day passed quietly enough, Howard reserving his fire until he could be sure of using it to good advantage. The 27th brought the opportunity. Sidonia was anchored off Calais, and Howard sailed up within gunshot, and as joined by Seymour and Sir William Winter. The attacking English fleet now numbered some hundred and forty sail.

Sidonia was in a hole. He realised that to invade England was not the easy task it had been thought, even when the mission was proclaimed a Holy War. But he did not give up hope. He dispatched messengers to Parma telling him to join forces with him at Gravelines next day, and, under cover of the galleons, to slip over and land his army in England.

It was all very well for Sidonia to tell Parma what to do; Parma could not do it. His transports were not ready, and, moreover, he was blockaded by the Dutch. So, instead of going to England, he went on to Bruges.

Howard decided to strike the great blow at once. A council was held on the Royal Ark. The question of ways and means was discussed. The best way? Drake had it. Francis had been at San Juan de Ulloa, when the Spaniards had played him and Hawkins a double game, and sent out a fireship against them. He suggested taking a second revenge—he had had the first when he ravaged the Spanish Main, diverting into good English coffers the treasures destined for Philip. What he now proposed was that some of the oldest vessels should be turned into fireships and sent in among the Spanish galleons.

The suggestion was hailed with delight. Seven ships were tarred and pitched, and loaded with combustibles. Then, when night had fallen, they were ignited, their sails were set, and, sailing before the wind, they bore down upon the hapless Spaniards—blazing masses that struck terror into the hearts of the Dons.

It must be left to imagination to conjure up the confusion that ensued. Those great galleons, at the best but unwieldy tubs, slipped their anchors, or cut their cables, hoisted all sail, and set out off hither and thither—anywhere so long as they escaped those terrible engines of war, those fiery monsters that threatened them with destruction.

If the fireships failed to ignite any Spanish vessels, they succeeded in dispersing them, succeeded too, in doing incalculable damage. In the panic that raged, ships collided with ships, unshipping rudders, battering sides, and generally knocking each other about in a highly satisfactory way—to the English.

Don Hugo de Moncada had the mortification of having his ship rendered useless. Her rudder was unshipped, and she was tossed about by the merciless waves, until, drifting helplessly, she was stranded on the sands of Calais. As soon as the ship's bottom touched land, most of her crew scrambled overboard and took to their heels, but Moncada and the few men who bravely remained with him determined to hold the ship to the last. After him went a crowd of English boats, containing some hundred men commanded by Sir Amyas Preston. One of the best fights during the epoch-marking episode now took place. Time and time again were the English hurled off by the devoted little band of Spaniards; but each time they renewed the attack until at last the Spaniards were overcome, the Spanish flag was hauled down and the English hoisted in its place, and the ship was captured. But not before the gallant de Moncada had fallen on the deck he had so bravely defended.

All night the greatest consternation reigned amongst Sidonia's fleet. Notwithstanding the fact that he had given orders that, when the immediate danger of the fireships had passed, his vessels were to rejoin each other, when morning broke he found that they were scattered far and wide. He frantically signaled to his fleet to reform round the few ships that remained with him, but his signals were unheeded by the vessels flying northward.


"The crisis had come . . . all day the battle raged."

At last Sidonia decided to follow them, and off Gravelines he managed to get about forty ships together and array them in some semblance of fighting order.

Drake was nothing averse to a proper stand-up fight; he had been hankering after it, and, with a small squadron of ships, bore down on Sidonia, emptying broadside after broadside into the foe, and working great havoc among them. The crisis had come, and the Spaniards, realising that the end was in sight, fought like brave men and true, determined to make a last great stand. Death-bearing cannon-balls hurtled aboard the doomed vessels, bringing masts down with a crash, and laying brave men low. But still the Spaniards fought on, refusing to strike even when to keep on fighting meant death and the foundering of their ships. All day the battle raged, and only ceased when powder and shot had given out. Three of the Spaniards were sunk, in honour be it said, for not one would strike his colours. Indeed, one captain ran his sword through the body of a man whom he caught about to haul down the flag, and another resolutely gave battle to four or five English vessels when riddled with shots and at the point of sinking. Besides these, some ten or twelve others had been driven ashore."

It was the defeat of the "Invincible" Armada. Sidonia was beaten—and he knew it. But one course was now left open to him, and that was to return to Spain. But how? By what way? Behind him lay the victorious English fleet. Before him stretched the North Sea, and, farther north, the rock-bound coasts of Scotland. To the north he went, intending to pass round Scotland and the west of Ireland, and so to carry his news to his royal master.

While his fleet raced northward, Sidonia sat in his cabin, his face buried in his hands, mourning his defeat and humiliation. Through the North Sea the remnants of Spain's mighty Armada ploughed their way, the English sea-dogs hanging on and cutting off where they could. Pressing on all sail, Sidonia tried to shake them off, but it is doubtful whether he would have succeeded had not a great storm broken out, and had not Howard's powder become exhausted. As it was, Howard reluctantly had to give up the chase, but what he failed to do the winds of heaven did for him. Arrived off the north coast of Scotland, the Spaniards were tossed about by terrible storms that flung them headlong on to the rocks.

Here we leave them. To follow them through their long journey home would be to tell a tale of woe; suffice it to say that of the hundred and thirty ships that sailed so proudly out of Lisbon, but fifty-three reached Spain.

Chased by the sea-kings of Britain, worried by fireships, scattered by the winds of heaven, wrecked on Scotland's iron-bound coast, Philip's great Armada had abandoned the invasion of England.

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