Battle of Britain

Patrick O’Brian

  • The Spanish Armada by Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker
    Hamish Hamilton, 296 pp, £15.00, April 1988, ISBN 0 241 12125 6
  • Armada 1588-1988 by M.J. Rodriguez-Salgado and
    Penguin and the National Maritime Museum, 295 pp, £12.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 14 010301 5
  • Armada: A Celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the Defeat of the Spanish Armada 1588-1988 by Peter Padfield
    Gollancz, 208 pp, £14.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 575 03729 6
  • Froude’s ‘Spanish Story of the Armada’, and Other Essays edited by A.L. Rowse
    Sutton, 262 pp, £5.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 86299 500 0
  • Ireland’s Armada Legacy by Laurence Flanagan
    Sutton, 210 pp, £9.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 86299 473 X
  • The Armada in the Public Records by N.A.M. Rodger
    HMSO, 76 pp, £5.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 11 440215 9
  • The Spanish Armada: The Experience of War in 1588 by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
    Oxford, 300 pp, £14.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 19 822926 7

All these books are concerned with what the Spaniards once called the Felicissima Armada and what the English still, with a quiet smile, call the Invincible Armada (apparently it was Burleigh who first thought of the word, shortly after the event). They differ very much in approach, in emphasis, and even in conclusion – Mia Rodrigues-Salgado, for example, feels that the enterprise increased Philip II’s reputation, particularly in the north – but they all of course agree in trying to place the disastrous voyage in its context.

Yet it is exceedingly difficult to know just where the borders of the context lie, and indeed where any historical account should start. Gibbon began with a detailed description of a Roman legion, which is fair enough and interesting for its own sake, but some of our authors go so far back that one looks for Niall of the Nine Hostages on the next page.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to plunge into the middle or just beyond and then work back and forth as Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker do in The Spanish Armada. The first page shows Sir John Hawkins writing a dispatch to Walsingham dated from on board the Victory in the North Sea on 10 August 1588. Somewhere to leeward, in spite of the fierce running battle of Gravelines two days before, there were still great bodies of disciplined Spanish ships; and Hawkins had not a shot left in his locker to oppose them. ‘There should be an infinite quantity of powder and shot provided, and continually sent abroad; for this is the greatest and strongest combination, to my understanding, that ever was gathered in Christendom; therefore I wish it, of all hands, to be mightily and diligently looked into and cared for.’

On 18 August the Lord High Admiral, Howard of Effingham, wrote from his flagship, ‘Some made little account of Spanish force by sea, but I do warrant you, all this world never saw such a force as theirs was’; and even later Sir Francis Drake in the Revenge was by no means sure that the danger had passed. Parma, with a powerful army, was still there in the Spanish Netherlands, and with a change of wind the Armada might still come back and carry him over to Kent – a battered, diminished, but still well-supplied Armada against a fleet devoid of ammunition. These men knew what they were talking about: they had heard of the Armada all through its long preparation (to which Drake had given a temporary check by his raid on Cadiz in 1587, where he burnt ten thousand tons of shipping) and they had seen it in all its glory when it first appeared in the chops of the Channel on 30 July 1588.

It was a truly enormous fleet of 125 vessels, ranging from the 1,249-ton Regazona to dispatch-boats. Sixty-six of them were of five hundred tons or more: there were 7,688 seamen, 1,200 rowers (for the galleasses), and 19,297 soldiers, 28,185 souls in all. They were armed with 2,431 guns of a great variety of sizes, from the full cannon firing a ball of about forty pounds to little murdering-pieces, together with 123,790 rounds of ammunition. And they were under the command of the unwilling but remarkably able and courageous Duke of Medina Sidonia.

Drake had persuaded the Lord High Admiral that Plymouth was the best station, so that the Armada could be harried all the way up the Channel, and the bulk of the English fleet was there, though a squadron under Lord Henry Seymour remained in the Downs. The whole fleet, that is to say the Queen’s ships (the Royal Navy), together with merchantmen and coasters hired by the Queen or by different towns or sailing as volunteers, came to 197 vessels carrying 15,925 men, of whom only 1,540 were soldiers, stationed in the Queen’s ships: the rest were all seamen or gunners. As for size, the English had 13 ships of five hundred tons or more, the largest being Martin Frobisher’s Triumph of 1,100 tons.

As for the guns carried by the English ships, it used to be thought that they threw lighter shot for a greater distance than the Spaniards’, but now that contemporary Spanish records at Simancas and the more recent Armada wrecks have been worked over, gunnery experts are agreed that in fact the English fire-power was one-third greater than the Spanish. Furthermore it was delivered in a much more efficient way. The English guns were mounted on a small low carriage with four little wheels or trucks: the gun could be loaded inboard, run out through the port, aimed, discharged and heaved in again, to be swabbed, reloaded and run out once more. It was handled by a crew of seamen accustomed to its ways, and it was fired by a gunner. The Spanish gun, on the other hand, was mounted on a high carriage with two broad wheels and a long tail like a field-piece; before battle it was loaded, primed, run out and lashed to the ship’s side by a band of soldiers, who then left for their boarding stations or for the tops from which they would fire their arquebuses. The Spanish tactics consisted of running alongside the opponent, firing, and then boarding him in the smoke: that was why the Armada had such quantities of soldiers.

If this did not answer – if the opponent sheered off – the reloading of these two-wheeled guns was an awkward business. They would be unfastened and run in, once the soldiers had been gathered again, but it was a confused, time-consuming affair, only slightly better than creeping out along the barrel and reloading from the far end, which, in a brisk action, was not unlike suicide for the loader.

In August 1588 it often did not answer. The English not only had the truck-carriage: they also had ‘race-built’ men-of-war. John Hawkins, Treasurer of the Navy in 1578, had brought in these long, low, fast, fine-lined, eminently manoeuvrable ships – ships that had no intention of being boarded by mere brute force, that could carry their guns low, and that were sailed by crews in which it was taken for granted that ‘the gentlemen should haul and draw’ with the mariners.

In short, the Royal Navy and its auxiliaries were equipped for fighting one of the first modern naval battles, with the war-ship being conceived as a highly mobile gun-platform with efficient artillery as opposed to the Medieval notion of a conveyance whose prime function was to carry boarders onto the enemy’s deck: this is a point stressed by Martin and Parker.

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