Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

The Invincible Armada

During almost the whole reign of Philip II. the army of Spain was kept busily engaged, now with the Turks and the Barbary states, now with the revolted Moriscos, or descendants of the Moors of Granada, now in the conquest of Portugal, now with the heretics of the Netherlands. All this was not enough for the ambition of the Spanish king. Elizabeth of England had aided the Netherland rebels and had insulted him in America by sending fleets to plunder his colonies; England, besides, was a nest of enemies of the church of which Philip was one of the most zealous supporters; he determined to attempt the conquest of that heretical and hostile island and the conversion of its people.

For months all the shipwrights of Spain were kept busy in building vessels of an extraordinary size. Throughout the kingdom stores were actively collected for their equipment. Levies of soldiers were made in Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, to augment the armies of Spain. What was in view was the secret of the king, but through most of 1587 all Europe resounded with the noise of his preparations.

Philip broached his project to his council of state, but did not gain much support for his enterprise. "England," said one of them, "is surrounded with a tempestuous ocean and has few harbors. Its navy is equal to that of any other nation, and if a landing is made we shall find its coasts defended by a powerful army. It would be better first to subdue the Netherlands; that done we shall be better able to chastise the English queen." The Duke of Parma, Philip's general in chief, was of the same opinion. Before any success could be hoped for, he said, Spain should get possession of some large seaport in Zealand, for the accommodation of its fleet.

These prudent counsels were thrown away on the self-willed king. His armies had lately conquered Portugal; England could not stand before their valor; one battle at sea and another on shore would decide the contest; the fleet he was building would overwhelm all the ships that England possessed; the land forces of Elizabeth, undisciplined and unused to war, could not resist his veteran troops, the heroes of a hundred battles, and led by the greatest general of the age. All this he insisted on. Europe should see what he could do. England should be punished for its heresy and Elizabeth pay dearly for her discourtesy.

Philip was confirmed in his purpose by the approbation of the Pope. Elizabeth of England was the greatest enemy of the Catholic faith. She had abolished it throughout her dominions and executed as a traitor the Catholic Queen Mary of Scotland. For nearly thirty years she had been the chief support of the Protestants in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. Pope Pius V. had already issued a bull deposing Elizabeth, on the ground of acts of perfidy.

Sixtus VI., who succeeded, renewed this bull and encouraged Philip who, ambitious to be considered the guardian of the Church, hastened his preparations for the conquest of the island kingdom.

Elizabeth was not deceived by the stories set afloat by Spain. She did not believe that this great fleet was intended partly for the reduction of Holland, partly for use in America, as Philip declared. Scenting danger afar, she sent Sir Francis Drake with a fleet to the coast of Spain to interrupt these stupendous preparations.

Drake was the man for the work. Dispersing the Spanish fleet sent to oppose him, he entered the harbor of Cadiz, where he destroyed two large galleons and a handsome vessel filled with provisions and naval stores. Then he sailed for the Azores, captured a rich carrack on the way home from the East Indies, and returned to England laden with spoils. He had effectually put an end to Philip's enterprise for that year.

Philip now took steps towards a treaty of peace with England, for the purpose of quieting the suspicions of the queen. She appeared to fall into the snare, pretended to believe that his fleet was intended for Holland and America, and entered into a conference with Spain for the settlement of all disturbing questions. But at the same time she raised an army of eighty thousand men, fortified all exposed ports, and went vigorously to work to equip her fleet. She had then less than thirty ships in her navy, and these much smaller than those of Spain, but the English sailors were the best and boldest in the world, new ships were rapidly built, and pains was taken to increase the abhorrence which the people felt for the tyranny of Spain. Accounts were spread abroad of the barbarities practised in America and in the Netherlands, vivid pictures were drawn of the cruelties of the Inquisition, and the Catholic as well as the Protestant people of England became active in preparing for defence. The whole island was of one mind; loyalty seemed universal; the citizens of London provided thirty ships, and the nobility and gentry of England forty or fifty more. But these were of small size as compared with those of their antagonist, and throughout the island apprehension prevailed.

In the beginning of May, 1588, Philip's strenuous labors were concluded and the great fleet was ready. It was immense as compared with that with which William the Conqueror had invaded and conquered England five centuries before. The Invincible Armada, as the Spaniards called it, consisted of one hundred and fifty ships, many of them of enormous size. They were armed with more than two thousand six hundred great guns, were provisioned for half a year, and contained military stores in a profusion which only the wealth of America and the Indies could have supplied. On them were nearly twenty thousand of the famous troops of Spain, with two thousand volunteers of the most distinguished families, and eight thousand sailors. In addition there was assembled in the coast districts of the Netherlands an army of thirty-four thousand men, for whose transportation to England a great number of flat-bottomed vessels had been procured. These were to venture upon the sea as soon as the Armada was in position for their support.

And now, indeed, "perfidious Albion" had reason to tremble. Never had that nation of islanders been so seriously threatened, not even when the ships of William of Normandy were setting sail for its shores. The great fleet, which lay at Lisbon, then a city of Spain, was to set sail in the early days of May, and no small degree of fear affected the hearts of all Protestant Europe, for the conquest of England by Philip the fanatic would have been a frightful blow to the cause of religious and political liberty.

All had so far gone well with Spain; now all began to go ill. At the very time fixed for sailing the Marquis of Santa Cruz, the admiral of the fleet, was taken violently ill and died, and with him died the Duke of Paliano, the vice-admiral. Santa Cruz's place was not easy to fill. Philip chose to succeed him the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a nobleman totally ignorant of sea affairs, giving him for vice-admiral Martinez de Recaldo, a seaman of much experience. All this caused so much delay that the fleet did not sail till May 29.

Storm succeeded sickness to interfere with Philip's plans. A tempest fell on the fleet on its way to Corunna, where it was to take on some troops and stores. All but four of the ships reached Corunna, but they had been so battered and disheveled by the winds that several weeks passed before they could again be got ready for sea,—much to the discomfiture of the king, who was eager to become the lord and master of England. He had dwelt there in former years as the husband of Queen Mary; now he was ambitious to set foot there as absolute king.

England, meanwhile, was in an ebullition of joy. Word had reached there that the Spanish fleet was rendered unseaworthy by the storm, and the queen's secretary, in undue haste, ordered Lord Howard, the admiral, to lay up four of his largest ships and discharge their crews, as they would not be needed. But Howard was not so ready to believe a vague report, and begged the queen to let him keep the ships, even if at his own expense, till the truth could be learned. To satisfy himself, he set sail for Corunna, intending to try and destroy the Armada if as much injured as reported. Learning the truth, and finding that a favorable wind for Spain had begun to blow, he returned to Plymouth in all haste, in some dread lest the Armada might precede him to the English coast.

He had not long been back when stirring tidings came. The Armada had been seen upon the seas. Lord Howard at once left harbor with his fleet. The terrible moment of conflict, so long and nervously awaited, was at hand. On the next day—July 30—he came in view of the great Spanish fleet, drawn up in the form of a crescent, with a space of seven miles between its wings. Before this giant fleet his own seemed but a dwarf. Paying no attention to Lord Howard's ships, the Armada moved on with dignity up the Channel, its purpose being to disperse the Dutch and English ships off the Netherland coast and escort to England the Duke of Parma's army, then ready to sail.

Lord Howard deemed it wisest to pursue a guerilla mode of warfare, harassing the Spaniards and taking any advantage that offered. He first attacked the flag-ship of the vice-admiral Recaldo, and with such vigor and dexterity as to excite great alarm in the Spanish fleet. From that time it kept closer order, yet on the same day Howard attacked one of its largest ships. Others hurried to the aid; but in their haste two of them ran afoul, one, a large galleon, having her mast broken. She fell behind and was captured by Sir Francis Drake, who discovered, to his delight, that she had on board a chief part of the Spanish treasure.

Other combats took place, in all of which the English were victorious. The Spaniards proved ignorant of marine evolutions, and the English sailed around them with a velocity which none of their ships could equal, and proved so much better marksmen that nearly every shot told, while the Spanish gunners fired high and wasted their balls in the air. The fight with the Armada seemed a prototype of the much later sea-battles at Manila and Santiago de Cuba.

Finally, after a halt before Calais, the Armada came within sight of Dunkirk, where Parma's army, with its flat-bottomed transports, was waiting to embark. Here a calm fell upon the fleets, and they remained motionless for a whole day. But about midnight a breeze sprang up and Lord Howard put into effect a scheme he had devised the previous day. He had made a number of fire-ships by filling eight vessels with pitch, sulphur, and other combustibles, and these were now set on fire and sent down the wind against the Spanish fleet.

It was with terror that the Spaniards beheld the coming of these flaming ships. They remembered vividly the havoc occasioned by fire-ships at the siege of Antwerp. The darkness of the night added to their fears, and panic spread from end to end of the fleet. All discipline vanished; self-preservation was the sole thought of each crew. Some took time to weigh their anchors, but others, in wild haste, cut their cables, and soon the ships were driving blindly before the wind, some running afoul of each other and being completely disabled by the shock.

When day dawned Lord Howard saw with the highest satisfaction the results of his stratagem. The Spanish fleet was in the utmost disorder, its ships widely dispersed. His own fleet had just been strengthened, and he at once made an impetuous attack upon the scattered Armada. The battle began at four in the morning and lasted till six in the evening, the Spaniards fighting with great bravery but doing little execution. Many of their ships were greatly damaged, and ten of the largest were sunk, run aground, or captured. The principal galeas, or large galley, manned with three hundred galley slaves and having on board four hundred soldiers, was driven ashore near Calais, and nearly all the Spaniards were killed or drowned in attempting to reach land. The rowers were set at liberty.

The Spanish admiral was greatly dejected by this series of misfortunes. As yet the English had lost but one small ship and about one hundred men, while his losses had been so severe that he began to dread the destruction of the entire fleet. He could not without great danger remain where he was. His ships were too large to approach nearer to the coast of Flanders. Philip had declined to secure a suitable harbor in Zealand, as advised. The Armada was a great and clumsy giant, from which Lord Howard's much smaller fleet had not fled in terror, as had been expected, and which now was in such a condition that there was nothing left for it but to try and return to Spain.

But the getting there was not easy. A return through the Channel was hindered by the wind, which blew strongly from the south. Nor was it a wise movement in the face of the English fleet. The admiral, therefore, determined to sail northward and make the circuit of the British islands.

Unfortunately for Lord Howard, he was in no condition to pursue. By the neglect of the authorities he had been ill-supplied with gunpowder, and was forced to return to England for a fresh supply. But for this deficiency he possibly might, in the distressed condition of the Spanish fleet, have forced a surrender of the entire Armada. As it was, his return proved fortunate, for the fleets had not far separated when a frightful tempest began, which did considerable harm to the English ships, but fell with all its rage on the exposed Armada.

The ships, drawn up in close ranks, were hurled fiercely together, many being sunk. Driven helplessly before the wind, some were dashed to pieces on the rocks of Norway, others on the Scottish coast or the shores of the western islands. Some went down in the open sea. A subsequent storm, which came from the west, drove more than thirty of them on the Irish coast. Of these, some got off in a shattered state, others were utterly wrecked and their crews murdered on reaching the shore. The admiral's ship, which had kept in the open sea, reached the Spanish coast about the close of September.

Even after reaching harbor in Spain troubles pursued them, two of the galleons taking fire and burning to ashes. Of the delicately reared noble volunteers, great numbers had died from the hardships of the voyage, and many more died from diseases contracted at sea. The total loss is not known; some say that thirty-two, some that more than eighty, ships were lost, while the loss of life is estimated at from ten thousand to fifteen thousand. Spain felt the calamity severely. There was hardly a family of rank that had not some one of its members to mourn, and so universal was the grief that Philip, to whose ambition the disaster was due, felt obliged to issue an edict to abridge the time of public mourning.

In England and Holland, on the contrary, the event was hailed with universal joy. Days of solemn thanksgiving were appointed, and Elizabeth, seated in a triumphal chariot and surrounded by her ministers and nobles, went for this purpose to St. Paul's Cathedral, the concourse bearing a great number of flags that had been taken from the enemy.

The joy at the destruction of the Armada was not confined to England and Holland. All Northern Europe joined in it. Philip's ambition, in the event of victory over England, might have led him to attempt the subjection of every Protestant state in Europe, while Catholic France, which he afterwards attempted to conquer, had the greatest reason to dread his success.

Thus ended the most threatening enterprise in the religious wars of the sixteenth century, and to Lord Howard and his gallant captains England and Europe owe the deepest debt of gratitude, for the success of the Armada and the conquest of England by Spain might have proved a calamity whose effects would have been felt to the present day.