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Christendom’s Great Defeat

Elizabeth I of England had every reason to be grateful to the king of Spain: She owed him her life.

When Henry VIII’s daughter Mary Tudor took the throne after the death of her half-brother Edward, young Elizabeth had tearfully rejected her heretical past and pledged loyalty to the crown and to the Roman Catholic Church. She attended Mass with Mary and even set up her own chapel.

Not long after, however, the 21-year-old Elizabeth faced death for her knowledge, real or perceived, of Thomas Wyatt’s Protestant plot to overthrow the Catholic Mary, who was struggling to restore the faith to England. It was King Philip II of Spain, Mary’s husband, who twice prevailed on his bride to spare her half-sister’s neck.

Philip had ever held out hope that Elizabeth would return to Rome. After Mary died childless, he backed the dubious claim of Henry VIII’s illegitimate daughter to the throne over the rightful claim of the Queen of Scots. One by one, however, his closest allies and advisors in the fight to restore Christian unity to Europe gave up hope on Elizabeth. Pope Pius V could not have been more direct: He called her a usurper and “the servant of crime” in his famous bull Regnans in Excelsis.

But Phillip was slow to agree. As late as 1579 his ambassador in England reported that the queen had expressed her desire for peace between their nations. “To judge from this,” Philip wrote in the margin of the letter, “she cannot be so bad as they said” (William Thomas Walsh, Philip II, 595). Had Philip witnessed all of her diplomatic intrigue, however, he would have seen Elizabeth offering, through her spymaster Francis Walsingham, an alliance to the Turkish sultan and encouraging his harassment of Spanish shipping in the Mediterranean.

By 1587, however, Philip had resolved that what patience, diplomacy, vain hope, and even a proposal of marriage had failed to bring about, his mighty Armada would. The faith would be restored to England by force of arms. If Spain’s positions relative to the Netherlands and France were strengthened in the offing, so much the better.

A Catalog of Provocation

What drove the Spanish king to the brink of war? The catalysts were fourfold. First, regular reports detailed the suffering and heroism of the Catholic martyrs in England, especially of the Jesuit priests: weeks of torture, deprivation of sleep and food, before drawing and quartering at Tyburn: their entrails ripped from their abdomens as life was yet in them. “When [Edmund] Campion was executed,” wrote the ambassador, “it was noted that all his [finger]nails had been dragged out in the torture” (Walsh, Philip II, 630). He described the piety of the English faithful, at great risk to their own lives, running to collect the blood of the martyred priests and to gather their possessions as relics. The account must have fired Philip’s Catholic heart to action. Would not England’s Catholics welcome his fleet?

Second, England had broken her neutrality in Philip’s effort to suppress Calvinist heretics in the Spanish Netherlands. When five Spanish ships carrying gold for the payroll of the Spanish army made their way up the English Channel in 1568, Elizabeth seized them and their cargo. In 1585, she sent her favorite, Robert Dudley, at the head of an English army to fortify the ranks of William of Orange’s rebels in Holland. Dudley achieved nothing save the loss of one of England’s great young poets, Sir Philip Sidney. Philip’s sorrow was genuine: Sidney was his godson.

Third, the Queen encouraged her privateers to raid Spanish merchant shipping and colonies along the Spanish Main. History romantically remembers these villains as “sea dogs,” but men such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake, the slave-trading son of a heretic preacher, were really state-sponsored pirates. Santiago, Cartagena, and Santa Domingo were among the towns Drake sacked and burned. (See “Villain of the High Seas,” left.)

Drake’s raids in 1586 and 1587 were nothing less than acts of war. But in that age more tempered than our own, the response to such an affront could yet have been limited. What occurred in February 1587, however, confirmed Philip’s resolve for a full-scale invasion. He could not leave unanswered this intolerable crime, hitherto without precedent in Christian history: the execution of royalty. Whether she later regretted so public an event or not, Elizabeth’s signature is on the death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots. When the head of the Catholic queen, who had been denied a priest, hit the scaffold floor in the great hall at Fotheringhay Castle, preparations for an Armada that had long been planned took on a new vigor.

Philip’s Risky Enterprise

Never in naval history had so large a fleet been assembled for so distant an amphibious invasion. If the architect of the Armada was Philip, the builder was Spain’s greatest sea captain, Don Alvaro de Bazan, the Marquis of Santa Cruz. Don Alvaro had demonstrated more than once his unmatched skill at commanding many vessels under fire. His capacity to read a battle and deploy his ships at the critical time and place saved the squadron at Lepanto in 1571, and doubtless the entire Holy League. But he did not give sufficient attention to detail in provisioning and arming the fleet. Moreover, he lacked confidence that the plan could succeed without a fleet much larger than he had at his disposal. Santa Cruz’s career was spared the defeat he feared when he died in February of 1588. Philip replaced him with a man with a proven track record for administration, Don Alonso Pérez de Guzmán el Bueno, the Duke of Medina Sidonia.

Admired throughout Spain as a devout and humble man, Don Alonso’s integrity was beyond reproach—but he was not a sailor. He knew his limitations and wrote to Philip protesting the appointment, but the king thought him the right man for the task, and insofar as readying the fleet to sail, he was correct. Under Medina Sidonia, Lisbon sprang to life: foundries forging cannons, shipwrights repairing vessels, quartermasters loading supplies. The duke accelerated and tightened already begun preparations, breathing a new vigor into the campaign. Nonetheless, he harbored deep doubts, not only about his own merits as an admiral but also about the enterprise as a whole.

He was not the only one. Alexander Farnese, the Duke of Parma, another Lepanto veteran, was the other key leader in the grand plan, and he had little confidence that it could succeed. The difference, it seems, between Medina Sidonia and Parma is that the former, out of loyalty to his king and a Christian knight’s sense of duty even in the face of great odds, put 100 percent of his heart and strength into the duties of his command. Parma did not.

Still, Farnese’s judgment was that of an expert. At the age of 42 he commanded the finest army in Christendom: Spain’s veteran army of Flanders, which had crushed the Netherland’s Calvinist rebels. Parma’s role in the great enterprise would be to lead his army of 17,000 to rendezvous with Medina Sidonia’s fleet near Calais or Dunkirk. There, the Spanish ships would deploy 17,000 soldiers of their own, and then protect the united armies from the English fleet as they made an amphibious assault across the straits of Dover on invasion barges, landing between Dover and Margate.

The plan was bold: a rendezvous of this scale between separate units unable to communicate effectively because they were divided by so much territory had never been attempted. Philip was convinced that it would succeed, and the reason he was convinced is his tragic flaw: an understandable, but no less regrettable, spiritual pride.

Hope of a Miracle

Philip’s certainty that his devotion to the Catholic faith and his profound desire to see it restored to England and all of Protestant Europe meant that what was good for the Catholic King of Spain was good for Christendom. Pope Sixtus V had declared the cruzada against the heretics of England. Doubtless God desired Christian unity, and Philip was God’s instrument, more than willing. It was not a destiny he claimed for himself, but a responsibility. If God wanted the Armada to succeed, Philip would see to the execution of its ambitious plan. Philip behaved “as if executing the will [of God] relieved him of the need for human precautions” (Garrett Mattingly, The Armada, 203).

Medina Sidonia took every precaution he could, and when he determined that his fleet was as prepared as it ever would be, he gave the order to sail. The fleet’s crews and soldiers confessed and assisted at Mass. Medina Sedonia knelt before the high altar at the cathedral in Lisbon and received from the cardinal archbishop the Armada’s banner bearing the image of Christ crucified on one side and the Blessed Virgin on the other. ” Exurge, Domine, et vindica causam,” it read. “Arise, O Lord and vindicate thy cause.”

The papal nuncio in Lisbon looked on, thinking perhaps of a candid exchange he had had a few days prior.

“Do you expect to defeat the English fleet when you meet them in the Channel?” asked the nuncio.

“Of course we will,” the captain replied.

We fight in God’s cause, and he will arrange things, either by some freak of weather or by depriving the English of their wits, so that we can close with their galleons, grapple, and board. Then Spanish valor and Spanish steel, which are unmatched in the world, will settle the matter hand-to-hand. But without a miracle from God, the English, whose ships are handier and faster than ours, and whose culverins [cannons] have greater range, and who know their advantage, will never allow us to close, and will pound our vessels from afar. So we are sailing against England in the confident hope of a miracle. (Mattingly, The Armada, 217)

Spirits among the Spanish sailors and soldiers were high when the Armada at last sailed for England. On July 30, the Armada caught site of the Lizard at the western tip of the Cornish coast. One day later, the English and Spanish ships traded fire 20 miles off the coast of Plymouth. The skirmish left neither side harmed, but it confirmed the fears of the papal nuncio’s unnamed captain.

The warships of the English fleet were swifter and their ability to sail closer to the wind meant that soon into the battle they gained the weather gauge—the highly advantageous upwind position—which, save for one brief morning, the English held for the whole campaign.

The Winds Play Favorite

As the two fleets shadowed each other eastward up the Channel, there followed a week of inconclusive engagements during which the English kept their range, inflicting relatively little damage on the Spanish fleet, disabling a ship or two, but in no way disrupting the integrity of the Spanish formation. On August 2, Medina Sidonia had his one chance to offer battle. A light east-southeast wind gave him the weather gauge. Knowing that the prevailing winds in the Channel came from the west, he understood that this opportunity would not last long. He turned his fleet northwest to try and slip between the English ships and the coast of England south of Portland Bill to gain what he knew would soon be the windward position. But shallows off Portland Bill form a tidal rip called the Portland Race through which neither fleet could sail. The best Medina’s fleet could muster were a few broadsides before the English presented their sterns and ran. By the afternoon, the wind had shifted back, and the Spanish had no choice but to resume their course eastward down the Channel.

As Medina Sidonia headed toward the Isle of Wight, his frustration, even contempt, for the English unwillingness to fight a decisive engagement shows in his journal: “The important thing for us is to proceed on our voyage for these people do not mean fighting, but only to delay our progress.” Nonetheless, the English fleet had done nothing to arrest the Armada’s progress. What did threaten the Armada was an obstacle of Spain’s own making, for now Medina Sidonia was faced with a critical decision, and one he lacked the necessary information to make.

The fault was not his: Two forces were expected to converge without the means to communicate until just before they were to meet. Although he had sent messages to the Duke of Parma, Medina Sidonia had not heard back from him and knew little of his exact position or of his state of readiness. His last chance for safe harbor before the rendezvous would be the Isle of Wight, where he could wait for word from Parma that the army of Flanders was prepared to make the crossing to Margate.

The English admiral, Charles Howard, must have anticipated Philip’s plan, and the skirmish of August 3 and 4 effectively decided the question for the Spanish commander. Closing to small-arms range, but no closer, the English warships sufficiently harassed the Spanish flanks for the two hours during which Medina Sidonia could have turned north for the island. The duke had no choice but to continue his progress toward Calais. By the evening of 6 August, the Spanish fleet had dropped anchor in the Calais Roads to await the rendezvous with Parma. The English anchored at a safe distance some miles to the west and, critically, upwind.

A Fiery Assault

What was going though Parma’s mind meanwhile? He sent a message informing Medina Sidonia that it would be a fortnight before his army and their flotillas would be ready to cross. Had he been deliberately dilatory in his preparations because he considered the rendezvous all but impossible? We do not know. We can, however, say that the heroic effort Medina Sidonia put into his command is unusual for someone who doubts the merits of an enterprise. People drag their heels, consciously or not, when they are not in favor of a course of action. Perhaps that is the best explanation for Parma’s not being ready to cross when the Spanish ships reached Calais, or perhaps it was simply that the communications required a degree of sophistication that did not yet exist. After all, by the time Parma learned that the fleet had left La Coruña, the Armada was already in the Channel, and he learned that Armada was approaching Calais only the day before it anchored there.

The events that followed are the best known in the Armada story: At midnight on August 8, 1588, Howard launched eight fireships toward the anchored Spanish fleet. Crewed by brave English sailors who abandoned them in small boats at the last minute, the huge burning hulks packed with brush, dry timber, and explosives did not cause any direct harm to the Spanish vessels. Indeed Spanish scout ships grappled two of them and towed them off their path. The fireships did, however, force the Armada to weigh anchor, and in many cases, cut their anchor cables and put out to sea. In the confusion, the integrity of formation that the duke had maintained against swifter vessels was lost. By dawn the Spanish Armada was completely scattered, drifting toward the Flanders coast.

On the morning of August 8, Howard seized the initiative and bore down on the scattered Armada. The reaction from Medina Sidonia and the sailors aboard his flagship shows that man-for-man the Spanish were every bit the sailors that the English were. Five Portuguese galleons had kept close to Medina Sidonia throughout the night, and these ships now screened the disorganized Armada from the English assault. The ships of Drake’s squadron took turns pounding Medina Sidonia’s San Martín at close range. The San Martín answered each. Next, Martin Frobisher’s ships surrounded the duke, who did not hesitate to expose himself to danger by climbing the rigging above the smoke to survey his predicament. Now William Hawkins’ squadron attacked the San Martín, but by this point the Spanish sailors were regrouping their ships and coming to their beleaguered commander’s aid. The Spanish half-moon was forming again, but the Armada was being carried by tide and wind dangerously close to the Flanders shoals. Within an hour of certain wreck of the whole fleet, the much-prayed-for miracle came—a gale that blew the Armada back out to sea. When it was over, the Spanish fleet formed again offering the English battle, but the English did not take the bait. They were virtually out of ammunition. And the Armada was past the hope of rendezvous with Parma.

Travail and Tempest

When evening fell on August 8, the Spaniards had much cause for pride: A week prior they had entered the channel with 125 ships; they had kept their formation intact; and they had held off the English fleet in spite of every disadvantage. The English enjoyed the home court advantage, which gave them a vastly more detailed knowledge of the Channel and its coastal hazards; they had swifter vessels that could sail closer to the wind than could the Spanish warships; they had held the weather gauge throughout the fighting; they had more guns; their guns were capable of greater range; their guns were crewed by cannoneers accustomed to performing their gun drills while experiencing the pitch and yaw of a ship in heavy seas; and when the fleets first engaged, the English sailors had not already been suffering the effects of over two months at sea. With every possible advantage, the English should have been able to halt the Armada’s progress toward its rendezvous with Parma. They failed and claimed in combat only two Spanish ships.

But it was weather, and not the English fleet, that delivered to the Spanish the crippling blow.

The journey of the Armada around the north of Scotland and down the west coast of Ireland back to Spain was, as Medina Sidonia wrote, among “the greatest travails and miseries ever seen.” The English quit their pursuit of the Spanish at the Firth of Forth, and even with severely depleted rations, and unseaworthy ships, the Spanish had every reason to expect to see Spain soon enough. The worst tempests in memory, however, claimed over 30 Spanish ships, dashing them against the rocks of the Irish coast. Sailors who made it ashore alive were stripped and brutally executed (beheaded, brains bashed in) by English soldiers and the savage Irish tribesmen in their hire. Medina Sidonia reached Spain with the remaining two-thirds of his ships, guns, and crew—a remarkable achievement given his ordeal—but one forgotten in the defeat.

Written by the Victors

For four centuries, English propagandists and poets have spun their version of the Armada: The small maritime nation defeated the fleet of a mighty world empire determined to drag the modern nation back into the Dark Ages of Papist superstition. The Spanish ships, laden with the ghastly torture instruments of the Spanish Inquisition, were turned away by doughty crews of Drake and his comrades, a defeat that was reinforced by a extraordinary tempest. If that were not evidence of the will of Providence, nothing was. (Even G.K. Chesterton, in his magnificent ballad Lepanto, indulges in healthy dose of Black Legend, caricaturing King Philip as a disfigured sorcerer brewing poison in his closet.)

Modern English historians, who should know better, cannot escape bias in their portrayal of Philip. David Howarth declares unapologetically at the start of his Armada history, distinguished for its nautical detail, that he finds Philip “altogether unworthy of admiration,” a remarkable comment for a solid historian to make about this great monarch of the 16th century.

Still, one aspect of the English version of events should be given its due: the claim of decisiveness. Were the events of 1588 decisive? Well, was the Alamo decisive? Was the Loire Valley campaign of St. Joan of Arc? Was Thermopylae, or Lepanto? It is true that Spain flourished as a land and sea power for a generation after the Armada, facing her real decline during the Thirty Years’ War, but the defeat of the Armada has undeniably taken on the power of myth in the formation of the British Empire’s patriotic understanding of herself. The moment heralded the rise of Britannia’s ruling of the waves, and modern historians, whether out of Spanish sympathy or out of their hatred of a kind of triumphalism in all the stories of the West, are dishonest when they downplay the event’s significance in history.

A Long Defeat

But for Catholics, even the English version of events offers enough evidence to help them choose sides. That we cannot admire Drake and his fellow puritan pirates, seeking to vanquish the Whore of Babylon, is obvious. But there is more: Spain provoked, we are told, war with England because she denied English merchants commercial access to her colonies in the New World. To be sure, Spain was guilty as charged of practicing a kind of protectionism that was hardly unknown in England. In any case, the argument reveals what was most at the heart of the English motives, trade—Mammon—and when Britannia began her own colonial adventures in the New World two decades after the Armada, the enterprise was one of state capitalism, not evangelization. Whatever faults we can find in Philip II or in any of the men who served this most Christian of empires, we cannot deny that at the origin of Spain’s policies—from the Netherlands to the new lands across the sea that Columbus claimed for Christ in 1492—was the cross, and the spread of its message of Redemption for all mankind.

The courageous men who sailed with the Spanish Armada, endured its privations, and died in the horrors it suffered are no less a part of this legacy in salvation history than are the glories of Don John of Austria or Hernan Cortez. The via dolorosa, for example, walked with such quiet patience and humility by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who, in his abundant correspondence and diaries, blamed no one but himself for the Armada’s failure, is no less an inspiration. God does not measure the progress of salvation history with political victories. Indeed, there may be no better way to contemplate the tragic tale of the Grand Armada than with the words found in the correspondence of J.R.R. Tolkien: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat.’”


Villain of the High Seas

Queen Elizabeth affectionately called him “my pirate” and rewarded him with knighthood in the Order of the Garter. But the resume of Sir Francis Drake included murdering unarmed civilians, burning hundreds of homes, extorting jewels from Spanish ladies, burning to the ground a Franciscan monastery and a convent of Poor Clares, and the murder of two priests who “reproved [Drake and his men] for their brutality to the nuns” (Walsh, Philip II, 627).

King Philip, too, felt Drake’s sting. After dumping in England the loot obtained during his rape of the Spanish Main, Drake led a squadron of 26 sail to invade the Harbor of Cadiz, some 60 miles northwest of Gibraltar. The people of the harbor town were caught unaware. Fleeing Drake’s cannons, 25 were crushed to death in the stampede to the castle gates. A brave Genovese 700-pound merchant ship gave Drake and his pirates broadside after broadside as the English bore down on the anchorage. But 26 to 1 is no fight, and soon she was at the bottom of the bay. A few Spanish galleys darted about taking occasional potshots at the English ships, but their cannons lacked the range to inflict any damage. Drake set upon the defenseless ships anchored in the harbor, looting them of their cargo, towing them to sea, setting them afire, and sinking them to the ocean floor. Among the 30 or so ships he destroyed in this unprovoked attack was the magnificent galleon of Don Alvaro de Bazan, Spain’s captain-general of the ocean.

At the battle of the Armada, one unlucky Spanish ship, Nuestra Siñora del Rosario, suffered damage to her bowsprit and foremast in a collision with another ship of her squadron. She became separated from the Armada as she attempted repairs. When night fell, the English admiral ordered Drake to shadow the Armada at a safe distance with his stern lanterns lit to guide the rest of the English fleet. But this unreformed pirate could not let slip a chance for booty. Directly disobeying the admiral’s orders, Drake set a course for the wounded Rosario, overtaking her the following morning and claiming a prize that made him a very rich man, for the Rosario carried 50,000 ducats of the Armada’s pay chest. When he rejoined the English fleet, Drake fabricated a tale about pursuing strange sails and forgetting to light his stern lamps. To that storied resume of one of England’s naval heroes, then, add disobedience, insubordination, gross dereliction of duty, and endangering his country’s fleet.

Further Reading

  • Garrett Mattingly, The Armada
  • William Thomas Walsh, Philip II
  • David Howarth, The Voyage of the Armada: The Spanish Story
  • Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The Spanish Armada: The Experience of War in 1588
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