Broad based upon her people’s will, And compassed by the inviolate sea… Tennyson


In the sanitized, Anglicised, whitewashed version of history that we are fed the brave queen and her tiny island nation stand against the forces of darkness that threaten to re-envelop them in a dungeon of ignorance and slavishness for all time. It wasn’t quite so nor was the outcome everything that we have been told it was. Neither side had much of a toe hold – let alone a monopoly – on the side of the angels. This was not one single decisive engagement that forever tipped the scales to England’s side nor was it the absolute end of the process of disintegration of the Spanish Empire – that had started at least one hundred years before and would not be completed until three centuries later.

So why bother with this book? The answer may be that it sheds a little more light on the English side. It is by no means objective – almost every page is a vote for Good Queen Bess – but it does help explain that rather than being the act of a long tense week the Anglo-Spanish was eighteen years in length after almost a century of prelude on the diplomatic front. Like reading a political biography you will only learn one side of the story but you will learn it in excruciating detail and using your own judgement there is nothing to say that the author’s conclusions must be yours.

England and the Spanish Armada: the necessary quarrel New Haven: Yale University Press, c 2005 James McDermott Spanish Armada, 1588 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xvi, 411 p.; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 385-396). Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Trafalgar, the Battle of Britain, and the English success against the Spanish Armada in 1588 stand among the most outstanding and decisive victories in English history – at least in legend and national memory. The whole Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1603 was seen by its contemporaries as a conflict for the soul of the nation, and it was only for later generations that it became one of the great turning points of European history. It helped to create the national myth of a small island nation, which, not for the last time, held its own against a world of enemies, thus preserving freedom and independence for itself and Europe against an ambitious and tyrannical foe.

In his book on England and the Spanish Armada, the author is determined to challenge this perception in more than one respect. McDermott starts his survey of Anglo-Spanish relations with Pope Alexander VI‘s decree Inter Caetera, which in 1493 divided the extra-European world into Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence. Against the legend of an almost indifferent England pitted against an aggressive, belligerent, and oppressive Spanish world power, the author holds that “the apparently reactive policies of Elisabeth’s government were often counter responses to Philip’s attempts to respond to increasingly bold assaults by Englishmen upon his assets, dominions and sovereign prerogatives.” Doing so, he tells the story from an almost exclusively English contemporary perspective, while the Spanish story of the approach not central and this creates some problems for the reader – as well as putting a huge hole in the objectivity question.

Starting from Inter Caetera, the long way to war is followed from the reign of the two Tudor Henrys (VII and VIII), the episode of the boy-king Edward VI, the stirring years of “Bloody” Mary and finally Elizabeth I, with the stream of the narrative growing wider towards the culmination point of 1588, and then narrowing again into a few pages covering the aftermath. Initially, both countries were allies, bound together by shared distrust toward the growing power of Valois France and mutual commercial interests. Activities of English merchants touched Hapsburg territories almost everywhere, with trade colonies being established in several Spanish harbors. The main hubs of commerce were the markets in the Spanish Netherlands. The economic welfare of many Flemish cities depended directly on the English trade. The situation of these sensitive commercial communities with their far-reaching networks had an influence on public opinion. Sanctions against Anglo-Spanish merchants influenced public opinion in England, while the termination of trade in time of war eventually forced the end of an earlier Anglo-Spanish conflict, because harbor blockades and the sequestration of ships and goods brought economic life in the Spanish Netherlands to a standstill, and with it income for influential investors on both sides.

One major reason for Spanish sanctions, against which the English side often retaliated, were attacks of English privateers against Spanish transatlantic trade routes, coastal towns in the Caribbean, and increasingly against the Spanish silver fleets. Since each armed conflict in western Europe increased the number of privateers, and English merchantmen in particular used piracy tactics to enforce access to the otherwise closed markets in the western hemisphere, their activities posed a threat to the very existence of Spanish long-distance trade. Sanctions and retaliations against them, eventually resolved by mutual agreements about countermeasures and the occasional payment of indemnifications, were part and parcel of 16th-century diplomacy. They were, however, in themselves no reason for war. War was always much more damaging to commerce and economy than living with the risk of losing a ship load here and there to freebooters.

However, the decade-long tit-for-tat of piracy and sanctions, the ascent of family based syndicates like the Drakes and the Raleighs, eroded the substance of Anglo-Spanish relations. Another factor adding to the deterioration of relations was the Anglo-Spanish War against France, which – in the English perspective – was ended by Charles V at the expense of England, which had to surrender Calais. This was only one aspect of the five-year rule of Mary Tudor, which contributed considerably to the decline of the “auld alliance” with Spain. Her marriage with the Hapsburg heir to the throne, Philip, triggered strong protests among the English elite, many of whom feared an unfriendly takeover despite several clauses in the marriage contract guaranteeing English independence from the Hapsburg Empire. According to McDermott, the presence of Philip’s entourage did much more to promote Anglo-Spanish disenchantment. The highly refined Spanish courtiers found all their prejudice confirmed. For them, their hosts were a bunch of loud, rude, and boorish barbarians. On the other side, the English complained that the foreigners are making Englishmen feel strangers in their own homes, and have taken to manage everything since they landed. Neither the Spaniards nor the Englishmen made any effort to hide their contempt and their xenophobia from each other. When the last courtiers left England after Mary’s death in 1558 – most had left with Philip a year before – they left behind a deeply embedded resentment and a fear of growing Spanish power. A rejection of what was felt as a growing dependence on the Hapsburg dominions was coupled with the emergence of an “Englishness” in nationalist terms.

According to McDermott, Mary’s anti-Reformation politics were not blamed on the Spanish presence. Nevertheless, the Catholic-Protestant rift in Europe became more and more a driving force in Anglo-Spanish relations. During the first years of Elizabeth’s reign, especially as long as Philip hoped for a marriage with the young queen, Catholic circles did not receive much support from Madrid. During the 1560s, the first cracks in the Anglo-Spanish relationship resulted from pressures upon the countries’ mutual interests. The Union of the Crowns of Portugal and Spain, the low ebb of Protestant political power in Europe, and the decline of France seemed to be stepping-stones for Hapsburg ascension to world power. England, which had always supported the anti-Spanish revolt in the Netherlands significantly geared up its assistance when the Duke of Alba appeared in the Netherlands with a major army to crush the rebellion once and for all. The low-level conflict which also involved French Huguenots became a fully fledged war, and Protestant England feared it was next in line after the rebels were disposed of.  Elizabeth geared up English assistance to the rebels and did nothing to contain the attacks of English, Huguenot, and Flemish pirates often based in English harbors and their raids into the Caribbean against Spanish and French  commerce. Here, the Guise-led St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre had a lasting impact on the overall English sentiment towards Catholicism and its Spanish champion. Eventually, the melange of a few major and many more minor elements led to the impression on the English side of an imminent threat through a conspiracy of two monarchs and a pope. Philip, on the other hand, saw Elizabeth as the head of an emerging alliance of all Protestant princes in Europe, thus adding to Philip’s sea of troubles with the rebellion in the Netherlands, unrest in Spain and the aggressive Ottoman power in the Mediterranean and North Africa. From 1567/68 on, the overall political situation in western Europe deteriorated markedly, leading to a four-year crisis and it became clear that an enduring peaceful coexistence between England and its two powerful Catholic neighbors could no longer be expected.

The forces that dragged both sides into a European struggle for the soul of Christianity were stronger than the intention of the monarchs to reach a further negotiated settlement. Thus the agreement of February 1572 provided only a lull in the coming storm. When the connection between Catholic faith, Spanish barbarism in the Netherlands, and the massacre of Protestants in France became firmly entrenched in English public opinion, every move of the Catholic powers in Ireland, Scotland, and the Netherlands was transformed from the more or less accepted Renaissance power play to a lethal threat to the very existence of English identity. The Catholic’s and their Spanish supporters were suspected of seeking to drive England into a civil war as they had done in the Netherlands. During the 1580s, England became ever more active in supporting the cornered rebels there, plotting with a Portuguese pretender, and, of course, openly fostering privateering, which did more damage to Spanish interests than ever before.

The eighteen-year Anglo-Spanish War eventually began in 1585, when Francis Drake left Portsmouth with twenty-five ships, two of them royal property, for an extended expedition into his Atlantic hunting grounds. This was proceeded by the dispatch of 7,000 English regulars to the Netherlands some weeks before. Two years later, the execution of Mary Stuart, which aroused the outrage of Catholic Europe, triggered Philip’s decision for a major military effort against this provocation. Ten days after receiving the message of Mary Stuart’s execution, he ordered the assembly of the Armada.

From here on the well-known story is retold though – since it is the well-known story rather than history – almost exclusively from an English perspective. The English fleet’s main advantage was its much more homogeneous organization on land and at sea. In just two months, they had their ships equipped, manned, provisioned, and assembled – something the clumsy Spanish bureaucracy hardly achieved in a year and a half. And as the campaign showed, English leadership and organization was much more flexible and adaptable to changing conditions.

When the Armada came in reach of the English coast, its target was by no means obvious. The options included landing troops in Ireland or Scotland to gain local support and establish a base for further operations, an independent landing – it carried enough soldiers and equipment – somewhere along the English coast or linking up with the strong army of the Marquis of Parma in the Netherlands for a joint landing, or even a pincer move by two independent amphibious assaults.

England’s defense rested firmly on its ships. In contrast to the fleet which ranked as the strongest naval establishment of its time, the army lagged behind in every way. The possible outcome of a field battle between the English levies and the Spanish tercios is pure speculation. But while the English fleet was considered the world’s leading naval force, the Spanish tercios were in turn the most formidable battle formation on land.

Contrary to the legend, at sea it was by no means the few against the many. During the battle, the number of ships was almost equal, although about only twenty-five of the English ships could dare to challenge the ninety biggest Spanish ones on equal footing. The Spanish held a numerical superiority of soldiers – not seaman – on board, which forced the English ships to avoid the boarding battles the Spanish were looking for. Since artillery was only effective at close range, the superior Spanish infantry fire did indeed have an impact, because it endangered the crews of the enemy. Lord Howard reacted by increasing the number of soldiers in the course of the battle. This was another advantage to the English side – since they were close to their bases, they were able to reinforce and re-supply easily. Several times during the campaign, particularly heavily engaged fighting ships had to have their stores replenished after shooting their gunpowder magazines empty. Lack of ammunition finally ended the campaign for the English fleet because England’s available gunpowder supply was almost exhausted. There was barely left enough to keep the important fortresses and the army provisioned.

When the Spanish host approached English waters the Armada had to pass the Channel unnoticed or to make the invasion under English guns. The first option was almost impossible in the presence of about ninety English ships in Plymouth and a smaller concentration that kept the Flemish coast under close surveillance against a sortie of Parma. When the Armada entered the Channel, it was almost defeated in its objectives, even though the upcoming running battle between 300 ships on both sides was a conflict beyond experience for the participants and the closest thing that had ever happened in European experience was the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 where the naval technology had been entirely different.

By July 20th, the three squadrons based in Plymouth lifted anchor and sailed against the approaching Armada, attacking the horns of its half-moon-shaped formation and causing two Spanish ship losses by accident and the explosion of a powder magazine. The second day brought no major action, because Drake wasted his time capturing and looting an already damaged Spanish galleon – something Martin Frobisher later called outright desertion. Danger loomed from July 23rd to 25th, when the wind kept the English from putting themselves between Armada and the coast of Dorset and Hampshire, which contained several convenient landing spots, and it was only Medina Sidonia’s strict obedience to his sovereign’s orders that prevented a landing.

Neither one single encounter nor the naval campaign as a whole can itself be described as a decisive victory from a military point of view. The best English opportunity slipped away when six fire ships that were launched against the anchoring Armada at Calais duly caused panic and disorder. The opportunity to pick up unprotected individual ships was, however, missed, and when Drake and Hawkins finally attacked they took on the strongest Spanish unit, the flagship San Martin. It was soon reinforced, and the squadron bought enough time for the remaining ships to regain their formation. This was definitely the fiercest fight of the campaign, and its last. Out of ammunition, any pursuit was impossible for the defenders. The Armada was still capable of landing troops anywhere in England or Scotland, but not of joining Parma. The wind pressed it away from the Flemish coast into the North Sea, where the Armada’s final destruction was left to the hostile elements of nature. By August 2nd, the English fleet lost all contact and so does the reader.

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