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.

Yet the battle might have taken quite a different form. When the Armada was first sighted the English ships had just returned from a long reconnaissance and most were revictualling in the Catwater, with the breeze foul for sailing. However, Medina Sidonia did not sweep past, spreading all possible sail with the west-north-west breeze on his larboard quarter, making the best of his way up the Channel; nor did he attack Plymouth; he shortened sail, waited for some stragglers, and called a council of war. In the meantime, by dint of very hard work indeed, the English warped 54 ships out on the ebb-tide – that is to say, they lowered an anchor down into a longboat, rowed it a cable’s length or so ahead, dropped it, and so heaved the ship forward by the capstan. By the afternoon of the next day, Saturday, 30 July, Effingham was off the Eddystone and just in sight of the Armada; and after nightfall he led most of his fleet across the Spaniards’ front to gain the weather-gage on the south, while Drake, beating up into the westerly breeze close inshore, did the same on the other side. They worked hard for this position to the windward of the enemy, for their ships being the most weatherly it gave them the power of attacking when they chose and of avoiding combat if they saw fit.

And at daybreak on Sunday it was clear that the English needed all the advantage they could get. ‘We have never thought they could ever have found, gathered and joined so great a force of puissant ships together and so well appointed them with their cannon, culverin, and other great pieces of brass ordnance,’ one Englishman observed. The Armada was in battle formation, a well-ordered line abreast, and it covered two miles of sea.

War had not been officially declared, so Effingham sent his pinnace the Disdain to fire at what he took to be the Spanish flagship. He was in fact mistaken, but Medina Sidonia took the point and hoisted Philip II’s royal standard at the main. Upon this Effingham attacked in line astern, leading across the Spaniards’ rear; but this was remote and largely ineffectual fighting, and no actions were really pushed home, though for a while the San Juan de Portugal and the Gran Grin were somewhat isolated.

There had been no great fleet action on this scale (the galley battle of Lepanto was not comparable) and each side was taking the other’s measure. ‘We durst not adventure to put in among them,’ wrote Effingham, ‘their fleet being so strong.’ Fighting died away in the afternoon. It was plain to Medina Sidonia that the English meant to undertake no boarding actions, and for his part he was content to carry on towards the Spanish Netherlands, where he was to meet Parma and escort his landing-craft across the Channel for the invasion of England – the prime reason for his journey.

Later in the day, however, with the wind and the sea increasing, there was a terrible explosion aboard the 958-ton San Salvador, the paymaster’s ship; eventually she had to be abandoned, though the survivors were rescued. At much the same time Valdes, in Nuestra Señora del Rosario, damaged his bowsprit in a collision; this led to more trouble, another collision, and eventually the loss of his foremast. The Rosario was left behind with some ships to support her in case of difficulty; but they were separated from her in the rising sea and the next morning found her alone in the Channel with Sir Francis Drake’s Revenge just at hand.

Drake had been ordered to keep in the Armada’s wake all night, his stern lantern showing the English fleet the way. The light had vanished at some point, the fleet had scattered; and now, on Monday, 1 August, the Armada was beyond Dartmouth, well ahead. But Drake took the Rosario, transferred the royal money-chest and its 50,000 gold ducats to the Revenge, and hurried after the Lord High Admiral with all the sail he could bear.

In the course of the morning, Medina Sidonia, in view of the English tactics, changed his battle-formation to a single body, a ‘roundel’ as the English said; and he sent a message through the fleet stating that any captain who flinched from his station, as some had done the day before, should be hanged. He also sent another pinnace to Parma, begging for information about their meeting and saying that he now meant to steer for Calais, as being nearer the army.

On Tuesday, 2 August, the breeze that had hitherto carried the fleets steadily up the Channel dwindled to variable airs, and off Portland Bill, the Armada, now having the weather-gage, tried to force an engagement. There was a good deal of fighting – quite enough to prove that although the Spaniards might not be very good gunners, they could not possibly be called faint-hearted – and a very great deal of smoke and noise. It was an inconclusive battle, in that no ship was dismasted or seriously damaged, far less sunk, yet it did show that the English rate of fire was much, much higher. A Spanish officer said that while the San Martin, Medina Sidonia’s flagship, fired 80 shots from her engaged side, she received 500.

On Wednesday the fleets were off the Isle of Wight. Some English commanders thought that this was Medina Sidonia’s aim, and it certainly appears that he meant to lie in the sheltered Solent until he should hear from Parma. Once again there was sporadic fighting in the light breezes, and the Gran Grifon, which had lagged behind, was much battered. But the English declined the general engagement the Spaniards offered: in these faint airs ships might easily fall aboard each other, and the Spaniards’ superiority in numbers might then prove decisive. The English kept their distance, sending pinnaces away for ammunition, which was running very low, while one pinnace sailed for the Downs, to warn Seymour of the Spaniards’ approach.

They had much the same weather the next day, with Hawkins having his ship towed towards some straggling Spaniards by his longboat, while the Spanish galleasses rowed to the rescue: Effingham in his turn had the Ark Royal and the Golden Lion towed into the battle, and it was his opinion that he mauled the galleasses most severely – certainly their great banks of oars, perhaps fifty a side, were terribly vulnerable to well-directed gunfire. Many ships were in danger; many escaped; but this fighting had one most important result. A manoeuvre on Drake’s part drew the Armada well to the leeward of the Solent entry, to a position where the tide might have carried them on to the Owers shoal; and from now onwards Medina Sidonia was condemned to advance – retreat was impossible.

Light airs again on Friday, 5 August: Medina Sidonia sent to Parma once more, and Effingham knighted Hawkins and Frobisher. There was no fighting.

There was none on Saturday either, though the fleets were close and a south-westerly wind was blowing, with frequent showers. Boulogne came in sight in the morning, and at seven in the evening the Armada, in excellent order, dropped anchor in Calais roads. The English anchored off Calais cliffs and Medina Sidonia sent his secretary to Parma. Effingham called in Seymour’s squadron from off Dover, bringing the English strength to about a hundred and forty ships. The danger of Parma’s joining the Armada in flyboats and smallcraft was now very great: everyone knew what the preparations for meeting an invasion in England amounted to. That evening the first answer came back from Parma: he could not be ready for six days. And Medina Sidonia’s pilots told him that the Armada could not carry on through the Banks of Flanders, the shoals on the Flemish coast from which the Dutch had removed all the seamarks and buoys. He would have to hold out of Calais as well as he could: at least the French were friendly, and they had begun sending him supplies.

On the morning of Sunday, 7 August, Effingham’s council of war decided on breaking up the Spanish formation with fireships. By midnight they were ready, eight private ships packed with inflammable materials, their guns loaded, to go off when the heat reached them. The conditions were ideal – a westerly breeze and a three-knot flood tide – and the ships ran blazing in among the close-packed Spaniards. With such a wind and such a current the Armada was lying with two or even three anchors out; and although two of the eight fireships were towed aside, the others forced the Spanish captains to cut and run, losing their irreplaceable cables and anchors rather than be burnt there and then. Medina Sidonia had ordered them to move out of danger and then return to their first position, but this was rarely possible, for not only were so many anchors gone but few of the high-built Spanish ships could beat up against tide and breeze. They did not panic, however, and there was only one collision. At dawn Medina Sidonia found himself at the head of five ships only, the rest of the Armada being far to leeward; and the whole of the English fleet was coming down on him. He signalled and sent boats away to bring up his friends, and prepared to meet the attack; but with an extraordinary levity Effingham let himself be diverted to a galleass that had grounded at the entrance to Calais, and Medina Sidonia was able to withdraw in good order and re-form his fleet.

Now, when Effingham came up at last, there began the battle of Gravelines, by far the heaviest fighting so far. In the course of the last few meetings the English had overcome whatever awe they may have had of the great Spanish array and this time they came in close, firing low at a hundred yards or less (the round-shot of the time was neither accurate nor very dangerous at over two hundred yards, but at one hundred, or as Winter of the Vanguard put it ‘most times within speech one of another’, it was deadly). Two galleons and a smaller vessel went ashore, the Maria Juan was sunk, and others were probably lost – the sea was rough, the weather thick, the battle terribly confused. It is thought that the Spaniards had some two thousand casualties and it is certain that their ships were much shattered. But in order to do this damage, the English had used up almost all their ammunition, whereas the Armada, firing so much more slowly, was still well supplied.

The Englishmen’s comfort was that the Spaniards, though still ‘wonderful great and strong’, were being driven straight onto the Flemish Banks and certain destruction; for the south-south-west wind had now veered into the north-west.

At dawn on Tuesday the wind lessened: Medina Sidonia, determined to make the junction with Parma if it was at all possible, turned to fight the pursuing English, but the English knew these waters, buoyed or not, and they did not choose to engage with shoals just under their lee. Indeed the Spaniards were very nearly aground when the wind changed, blowing from the south-west and then harder from the south-south-west, taking the Armada clear of the Flemish Banks.

Medina Sidonia held a council of war and it was decided that weather permitting they should return to Calais. Weather did not permit: the strong south-west winds, with a heavy sea, continued day after day.

Effingham also held a council, and the English, sending Seymour back to guard the Narrows against a crossing by Parma, determined to pursue the Spaniards as far as the Firth of Forth, even though they were so very short of victuals and ammunition and even though they could not tell how severely their guns had damaged the enemy. (In fact, the San Martin had been hit more than two hundred times, often between wind and water, so that divers had to go over the side to patch her with lead and oakum to keep her afloat; while other ships were in a worse state still, and all were short of food.)

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday Medina Sidonia hove to for battle, but having virtually nothing to fight with – certainly much less than the Spaniards – Efffingham could only ‘put on a brag countenance’ and decline the engagement. By this time they had reached the height of the Firth of Forth; the English could no longer keep the sea, and they were obliged to break off their pursuit, anxiously watching the still formidable Armada sailing away in good order northwards. A change of wind might bring it back, perhaps with new Swedish spars, cables, anchors and victuals, before supplies could reach the English fleet.

But the wind did not change and on 12 August Medina Sidonia gave new orders for a return to Spain north about the Shetlands, well west of Ireland, and so to Corunna.

From that point onwards the voyage was almost unmitigated tragedy. The battered ships were very ill-supplied – the horses and mules were thrown overboard to save water – and almost at once they were struck by a succession of storms, which scattered the fleet. The men suffered extremely from hunger, cold and perpetual watching, making sail and taking it in, pumping ship without a pause; and in spite of all their pains and diligence, of the 130 ships that had sailed for England it appears that only 60 came home, while the human losses were perhaps as high as twenty thousand. In the 16th century the navigator could be fairly sure of his latitude by observation, but dead reckoning in these circumstances was horribly unreliable. Many, many ships thought they were far to the west of Ireland when they struck on that iron-bound coast. The reception of those who came ashore alive makes one ashamed of humanity, for although the O’Neills and Sorley Boy Macdonnell did save some and the occasional peasant and priest did save others, many of the Irish Catholics stripped and sometimes killed the Spaniards, while the English attitude is summed up in the Lord Deputy’s order to his officers in the western provinces ‘to apprehend and execute all Spaniards found, of what quality soever. Torture may be used in prosecuting this enquiry.’ Sir Richard Bingham, Governor of Connaught, proudly claimed to have disposed of 1,100 survivors, virtually all ‘put to the sword’, and they unarmed.

It is some comfort to know that Medina Sidonia reached home, coming into Santander on 21 September, his flagship frapped about with three hawsers to hold her together. Of the 500 crew 180 were already dead and a great many were sick; of his original staff of 60 servants only two were fit to wait on him; he himself was very ill and very tired. He wrote to the King, saw that his men and invalids were paid and looked after, and then went straight home to San Lucar, which he had never wished to leave. On being offered the command in the first place he had asked to be excused ‘for I know by the small experience I have had afloat that I soon become sea-sick ... I humbly beg [His Majesty] will not entrust me to do a task of which, certainly, I shall not give a good account; for I do not understand it, know nothing about it, have no health for the sea, and have no money to spend upon it.’ However, when the King insisted, Medina Sidonia felt obliged to obey; he did all a man could well do in the circumstances; he came out of the affair with great honour, and it is pleasant to know that he recovered and lived for another 30 years in the warmth and comfort of Andalusia.

This is the story the first three of these books tell at length: The Spanish Armada by Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker is the result of a very great deal of work on four kinds of first-hand evidence: the vast mass of Spanish state papers at Simancas and Philip II’s private archives in various European collections; the remarkably complete papers of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, most at San Lucar (though Greenwich has a few), and what mice and men have left of Parma’s; Spanish administrative papers, interrogations and memoirs at Simancas and Seville; and (perhaps most important) the wrecked Armada ships themselves, one in the appalling waters of Blasket Sound. The authors write from a wealth of knowledge, with that fine zeal and conviction which arises from original research, and their book is splendidly illustrated.

Not, of course, quite as splendidly as Armada 1588-1988 by Mia Rodriguez-Salgado and the staff of the National Maritime Museum, for this is the official catalogue of the great Armada exhibition at Greenwich which, in addition to the museum’s own treasures, shows wonders lent by a great many institutions, from the Archivo General de Simancas to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, with the Bodleian, the Prado and the Vatican between. This, too, is written from a wealth of knowledge (it could hardly be otherwise), but as a book written by many hands it necessarily lacks continuity and a common voice; then again, though this can hardly be blamed on Dr Rodriguez-Salgado, the more vapid reader’s attention is continually distracted by the splendid pictures: as a catalogue, however, it is a most valuable possession.

For Peter Padfield in his Armada the context spreads wide to include not only the historical background but the designing, building, rigging and sailing of the ships on either side; and on this subject he is well-informed and interesting, since he spent much of his life at sea. The rest of the book is an agreeable voyage through the fairly well-charted waters of the secondary literature; Mr Padfield plunges neither into the tide-rip of the Blaskets nor the cedar-smelling presses of Simancas, but the reader will emerge with a full, conscientious account in his mind, though he may also have been made a little impatient at times by being told about Henry VIII – most people have after all been to school, and they know at least something about the Reformation.

In Froude’s opinion the Reformation was ‘the root and source of the expansive force which has spread the Anglo-Saxon race over the globe’; and for him it was certainly the Reformation, rather than lack of communication between Medina Sidonia and Parma and the subsequent foul weather, that beat the Armada. His lectures on English seamen in the 16th century and his two essays, on Antonio Perez and ‘The Spanish Story of the Armada’, are republished by Allan Sutton, edited and introduced by A.L. Rowse. Froude was one of the earliest English scholars to use the archives at Simancas, but he did not spend a great deal of time there and his ‘Spanish Story’ is taken from a secondary source, Cesareo Fernandez Duro’s La Armada lnvencible (Madrid, 1885), a book that has been treated much more fully by David Howarth in his excellent The Voyage of the Armada (Collins, 1981). The most interesting part of this collection is the piece on Perez, one of Philip II’s secretaries of state, who arranged an assassination for the King and who came very near to judicial murder for his pains – he escaped, however, and told a delighted Protestant Europe what had happened. Froude paraphrases his account in a somewhat dramatic style, but still it does show a rather curious side-light on His Catholic Majesty’s mind.

Ireland’s Armada Legacy by Laurence Flanagan brings us back to the horrible end of at least 14 of the Spanish ships (there are probably more wrecks still to be found). Yet the tone of this short, rather technical book is of restrained delight in diving and discovery and in the exact identification of the countless objects brought up, from old, old, very old socks to the gold, ruby-studded, winged salamander found in the Girona.

Another book filled with knowledge is N.A.M. Rodger’s The Armada in the Public Records. After a brief rehearsal of the essentials and some fine pictures, we have facsimiles of 17 documents, mercifully transcribed by experts, which include Drake’s own account of his singeing of the King of Spain’s beard, Lord Howard of Effingham’s praise of the Queen’s new ships, his dispatch to Walsingham about the first brush with the Armada, another on the Battle of Gravelines, a letter from Sir John Hawkins two days later, from which it is clear that he thought the main battle was still to come (‘Yet as I gather Certainly ther are amongest them 50 forcible and invincible ships’), and Medina Sidonia’s orders for the north-about return to Spain – the whole making a most lively and fascinating postscript to any or all of the general histories. Or indeed to The Spanish Armada: The Experience of War in 1588. The author was a boy at an English prep school and he was much wounded by the version of the campaign current there. The wound may have lasted a little long, but at least it gives his counter-statement a fine vivid zest. Briefly, the case is this: the contest was not a struggle between liberty and despotism (still less a demonstration of the superiority of Protestantism over Popery); both sides were incompetently prepared and both fleets incompetently fought; no new naval tactics were displayed; it was not an exceptional event at all, except in so far as the reported outcome both flattered and formed England’s image of itself; and it was the weather rather than the English that undid the Armada. One may not agree with quite all these points, but they are very well put, with a wealth of scholarship, and they begin with an unexpected picture of Cervantes as an inefficient requisitioner of stores for the Spanish fleet.