Stories From English History: II - Alfred J. Church

The Great Armada

King Philip of Spain had long been waiting to make his great attempt on England. He had an old dislike for the country, which he knew did not love him. And he had received many provocations, the plundering, for instance, of his towns and fleets described in ch. xviii., and now the help given to his rebellious subjects in the Low Countries. I have already related how Drake pounced down upon his stores of ships and other things and destroyed them. Even then Elizabeth had hopes that the peace might be kept. She was still very sparing of her money, starving both her armies and her fleet. She did not want to believe that the Spaniards would come, and she persuaded herself, as people often can, to believe what she wished to be true. Even her ministers were deceived, and her ambassadors told that there was nothing to fear.

Great Armada


As a matter of fact there was very much to fear, and it is impossible to say what might have happened if Philip, on his part, had not been as disposed to delay as she was to disbelieve. He was waiting, he thought, till everything was quite ready, so that success would be quite certain; but he really was waiting, though he did not know it, till the moment of success had gone by for good. The Armada—so the great fleet that Philip had been slowly gathering together was called—was ready to sail at the beginning of May; it did not sail till the end of that month, and it was two months more before it came in sight of the English coast. There were 130 vessels, many of them very large, carrying more than 20,000 soldiers and a number of priests. Philip's plan was that the Armada should sail up the Channel till it reached the coast of Flanders, where the Duke of Parma had collected an army of 60,000. This army, joined by the soldiers carried by the Armada itself, was to be taken across the Channel. If this could be done, there was nothing in England that could even pretend to meet it. Happily for us the plan broke down.

The English preparations were begun very late, but once begun they were made with plenty of zeal. The English navy did not number more than some thirty vessels, but the great cities furnished many more. The city of London was to have fitted out fifteen, and it sent thirty-three. There was the same zeal shown in other places. Seamen flocked in from all the coast, till at last there were nearly 200 vessels. They were much smaller than the Spanish ships, but they were well armed, well manned, and well commanded. It was no unequal match after all, though the Queen had put off making her preparations dangerously long. She had actually ordered the fleet to be dismantled at the very moment when the Armada was about to sail. Lord Howard, the chief admiral, happily refused to obey.

Drake was playing bowls with some of his fellow-captains on the Hoe at Plymouth when a small merchant vessel came into the harbour with news that the Spanish fleet had been sighted off the Lizard. The great seaman would not show any disturbance.

"There is time," he cried, "to finish the game, and to beat the Spaniards too!" Yet he knew that things were in bad plight. The English fleet was in harbour, and if the Spaniards found them still there, might easily be destroyed by fire-ships. All night the officers and seamen were hard at work getting the ships out of harbour. This done they sailed westward along the coast, and in the afternoon of the next day sighted the Armada. It was coming up the Channel in the shape of a crescent, its huge ships bright with gilding and paint. It was not wholly made up of ships intended to fight. "Truly, I think, not half of them men-of-war," Drake wrote to the ministers in London. This being so the Spanish admiral did not mean to have a great sea-battle. He would sail on straight to where the army of Flanders lay, and then fight if necessary in carrying it across the Channel. On the other hand, the English were very anxious to have the battle, and the greater the better. If the Spaniards contrived to do what they wanted, and join their allies and countrymen in Flanders, things would be looking very badly for England. So they kept as close as they could to the rear of the Spanish fleet, and tried to provoke the enemy into fighting. At last one of the great ships turned upon its pursuers. Drake, who was in front of the English, attacked it; others of the Spaniards came to its help. They suffered not a little from the English cannon, but none of them were sunk or taken. At night the Armada went on its way eastwards. Drake was for attacking; Lord Howard was for waiting till he could join the other English squadrons. Drake did his best to get his way by going against the chief commander's will, but did not succeed. Two of the great Spanish ships, however, fell into the hands of the English. This was on Monday, the first fighting having been on Sunday, July 31. On the Wednesday there was fighting again, the two fleets being now near Portland. The Spaniards were no match for their nimble enemies, and though they did not lose more than three ships, they began to feel very much out of heart. What was nearly being a great battle took place on the Thursday near the Isle of Wight, and if the weather had remained calm the English, who had much the best of the situation—in those days, before steam was used, it was everything to have the wind in one's favour—might have won a signal victory; but a strong breeze sprang up, and the Spaniards got out of their difficulties. On the Friday there was no fighting; on Saturday the Armada had reached Calais, and was within a few miles of its journey's end. The Spanish army were at Dunkirk, some thirty miles away, and the Dutch ships, which had been blockading the harbour of that town, had been obliged to go away to get fresh stores.

Something had to be done, and done at once, and it was determined to try fire-ships. Eight vessels were picked out—there were no old and worthless ones to use, so good ships had to be sacrificed, and Drake offered his own—and sent down against the enemy. As fire-ships they failed, that is, they did not set any of the Spaniards on fire. Still they did what was wanted. The enemy, terribly frightened lest the fire-ships should come among them, cut their cables in haste and tried to escape. In a short time they were scattered, and then the English attacked. In vain did the admiral try to bring them back and form them into line. Drake and his fellow-captains, Hawkins and Frobisher, and others less famous, fell on them as they were, divided and unable to help each other. After a while Lord Howard, who had been engaged with one of the biggest Spaniards, came up, and the fight went on more fiercely than ever. Such fighting had never been seen before at sea. The English ships moved far more quickly than their foes, and they were far superior, as has been said, in their cannon, but the Spaniards, over-matched as they were, fought bravely on. At the end of the battle—it lasted for some nine hours, going on until the morning of Tuesday, August 9—the Spaniards had lost twenty-four out of the forty ships which had been attacked. It seemed likely that the rest would be driven ashore, for the wind was blowing strongly from the north-west. Then at the last moment it suddenly changed to the south-west, and what remained of the Spanish ships were saved, at least for the time. They bore up to the north, and though Lord Howard and Drake and the other captains followed them for a while they never came within shot again. They had other reasons, too, for giving up the chase. The Queen had been sadly mean about furnishing the fleet with provisions, and some of the sailors actually died of want. And then the weather had broken up, and it was necessary, especially with ships which had been more or less damaged with fighting, to get into shelter.

But for the Spaniards there was no shelter, while, as they had no pilots, they knew nothing of the seas over which they were sailing. Some of the ships were driven on to the coast of Norway, and there perished. The commander of the Armada himself was wrecked on one of the Orkney Islands. Of those that managed to get through the stormy and dangerous seas of the North of Scotland many perished on the Irish coast. The people had no mercy on the strangers, though they were of the same faith, the Reformed doctrines having made no progress in Ireland, but either killed them on the shore, or sent them as prisoners to England. They did not know or care what they were, but having first plundered them, either killed or made prisoners of them, just as they thought would be most profitable. Of the 134 ships that had left Spain only fifty-three returned; of the 30,000 soldiers and sailors, only a third part.

And what, we may ask, was Queen Elizabeth doing all this time? As soon as the Spanish fleet had been sighted, signals had been sent by fire throughout England, that all the soldiers should be mustered. The chief camp in the south of England was at Tilbury Fort, on the Essex shore of the Thames nearly opposite Gravesend. The Earl of Leicester was in command, and the Queen went down herself to review the army. We can hardly call it an army, for the men for the most part were not soldiers. Since the beginning of Elizabeth's reign there had been little fighting on land, and few of the men who assembled at Tilbury could have seen any service. They were full of zeal, however, and courage. Elizabeth rode through their ranks on a white horse, wearing a steel breast-plate, and holding in her hand the truncheon of a field-marshal. She made a speech to the army, of which the last words were these, "I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King of England."

Lord Leicester died on September 14.