The news of England's uncompromising attitude came from Alvarez de la Quadra, the Spanish Ambassador in England. He was profoundly disturbed. Nothing he could say or threaten seemed to have the least effect upon Elizabeth of England or her counsellors. The English against both God and reason, were claiming ‘the right to go to all lands and provinces belonging to friendly states without exception.
The ambassadors word went to the core of the forthcoming struggle between the two kingdoms. Spain saw her empire as a closed mercantile preserve, sanctified by the Pope, and delivered into Spanish hands by God himself for the purpose of bringing Catholic light to the heathen multitudes, and striking down the enemies of the true faith wherever they may be found.
King Philip II of Spain held that a foreign trader was a brigand and any country which transgressed his imperial laws was an enemy. Elizabeth, who, as a half-sister of his dead wife, Mary Tudor, would have been expected to show more deference, pointed out that those laws were Spanish, not English, and that control of a few strategic ports did not necessarily constitute an empire or full maritime control. Only if the two monarchs were at open war would her brother-in-law treat legitimate merchant men as pirates.
Throughout the 1560’s imperial Spain stood at the pinnacle of her political, military, and spiritual power. Philip II of Spain’s crowns were world wide and his resources seemingly endless. He was Lord of Burgundy, Archduke of Milan, King of Naples and monarch of an empire stretching from the Philippines to the Caribbean, from the Straits of Magellan to the coast of California. The annual profits of world conquest at the opening of the 16th century, a trickle of £213,400 had swelled in 70 years to a golden torrent of £16.89 million. Spanish soldiers were the finest on the continent and Philip himself the acknowledged leader of a resurgent Catholicism bent on destroying the monster of heresy.
Power, however overwhelming, has its limitations, and for all his royal titles and treasure fleets, Philip was more of a paper titan than a solid political and economic giant. Though diplomatically Spanish prestige was unrivalled her economic strength was a facade. Technologically the world was passing Spain by. The shipwrights of Cadiz and Seville continued to build clumsy galleons, floating fortresses garrisoned by soldiers, instead of swift manoeuvrable ship-destroying vessels manned by sailors. The navy continued to rely on giant galleasses, with banks of oars and manacled slaves, which worked well in the Mediterranean but were ill suited to defend the sea-lanes of world empire.
In the 1560’s a trading fleet (piracy and slave trading) lead by Sir John Hawkins sought shelter for repairs in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua. On a written promise from the Viceroy that the English would not be molested, Hawkins reluctantly made room in the crowded port for Enriques Spanish fleet.
What ensued was, depending on your perspective, either foul treachery or sensible opportunism designed to teach the English brigands a lesson. Seizing his chance, when Hawkins was at the dinner table, and utilising his overwhelming manpower, Enriques lead a surprise attack against the English squadron. For the first time Spanish and English ships fought it out and only Captain Hawkins in the Minion and a young Francis Drake in the Judith escaped. Spain’s commercial monopoly had been dramatically defended and the English interlopers repelled, but the the results of the battle of San Juan de Ulua were more than Philip II had bargained for, two men were now bent on revenge. If John Hawkins was to be treated as a pirate, he would act like a pirate. As for Francis Drake, before San Juan de Ulua he had been a sea captain of no importance, now he became ‘El Draque’ the Dragon, a fanatic bent on punishing Philip for the perfidy of of his viceroy.
In 1583, Philip committed one of the few heedless deeds, in his otherwise prudent life. Faced with the disastrous failure of the Spanish wheat crop, the Spanish king asked London merchants to send relief supplies, then he confiscated every last English ship. Spanish treachery, however, was greater than Spanish efficiency, one vessel did escape, and through one of those extraordinary accidents of history the Governor of Bilbao who had arranged the seizure was captured and carried off to England. In his boot, was discovered Philip’s personal order to confiscate the grain ships, and evidence that he intended to use those same ships to fulfil ‘Gods obvious design’ - the punishment of Elizabeth of England.
From left Philip II, Mary Tudor, Henry VIII, Elizabeth
When the Spanish Armada sailed in 1588, it was the most massive naval force the world had ever seen, but its stately vessels were no more than cumbersome floating castles from which, soldiers, who outnumbered sailors 2:1, were expected to board enemy vessels, to crush the highly manoeuvrable, well-sailored British fleet, negotiate the treacherous shoals of the Dutch coast, and then pick up additional troops with which to invade England. This would indeed have demanded the divine support on which King Philip II counted. None was granted, despite the flags inscribed “arise Lord and vindicate your cause” . Within ten days the gale battered Spaniards were staggering homeward.
The threat of Spanish invasion terrified the British nation. Though the English fleet was strong, everyone was aware of the rottenness of home defences - English cites were un-walled and un-garrisoned, and English yeomen had grown soft and fat during the decades of peace. Worst of all there was the fear that a Catholic fifth column might aid the Spaniards.
In the event the English Catholics were more patriotic than Popish. Along with their Protestant countrymen, they barricaded the ports, placed guns at strategic points and set up a chain of warning beacons and bonfires along the coastline.
On 30th July 1588, the Spanish Armada neatly assembled off Lizard Point in Cornwall, was sighted by some of Drake’s vessels scouting out of Plymouth. According to legend, Drake himself was playing bowls with Charles Howard, The Lord Admiral, when he heard the news. “There is plenty of time to finish the game “ he remarked “And to thrash the Spaniards too”. This story may or may not be true, but it exemplified the English confidence. The English fleet put out of port the same evening and the first skirmish the next morning achieved little. The wary English stayed out of range of the Spanish cannon, but themselves inflicted little damage. It was a pattern often repeated within the next few days as the Armada continued its stately progress in unbroken formation up the channel.
“Their force was wonderful, great and strong, yet we plucked their feathers little by little”, so wrote Lord Admiral Howard of Effingham, of the armada’s floating fortresses as they moved up past the Isle of Wight. Luck more than good tactics came to the aid of the British in the early stages of the battle. The Spanish vessel Rosario broke it’s bowsprit and a mast and fell prey to Drake’s awaiting ships and the San Salvador, suddenly and inexplicably exploded in full sight of the armada pitching hundreds of men into the sea.
After a week of running battle, the Spaniards moral sapped by days of inconclusive fighting, was dangerously low. On the night of August 7th as the Spaniards lay anchored off Calais, Lord Admiral Howard, sent in fire ships and the Spanish, terror-stricken at the onslaught of of the pitch encrusted flaming hulks slipped their cables and scattered in panic. The next days battle ended the threat of invasion and the remaining Spaniards fled into the mists of the North Sea towards the treacherous crags of Scotland and Ireland.
The Armada was beaten but for a long time no one knew it. When the English ships reached the Thames, Elizabeth was inspecting her troops at Tilbury. The camp, after a fortnight of chaos, now made a brave show, with its troops of plumed horsemen, neatly dug ditches , and colourful pavilions. The Queen, wearing white velvet, mounted on a white horse told her troops in words that were soon legendary “”I come to live or die amongst you all. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King and a King of England too, rather than any dishonour shall grow in me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder”.
Meanwhile wildfire rumours of the battle raced through Europe, Madrid and Rome rejoiced at a reported fight off Newcastle in which the English lost 40 ships, Drake was believed to be captured, and that 8000 Spaniards and 30 guns had landed at Plymouth.
But by the end of September, the world knew the truth and Protestant Europe rejoiced with England. The Dutch struck a medal showing the globe slipping from the Spanish grasp.
The inhabitants of Anstruther in Fife, Scotland, are hosts today to some 260 Spanish sailors from the Armada flagship El Gran Griffon, which ran aground on Fair isle in September. The sailors described as, ‘for the most part young beardless men’ are being given food and shelter while their repatriation is being negotiated. Their experience, although grim, could have been worse. Of the 132 proud ships that set only 60 have returned to Spain, their crews dying of thirst and hunger. More than 11,000 men have perished. Stragglers are being generously treated on the orders of Philip II, in marked contrast to the treatment of the sick and wounded English seamen left to rot by Elizabeth’s celebrating courtiers.