During those few days, the ultimate fate of England would be sealed. If the Armada of King Phillip II of Spain prevailed over the fleet of Queen Elizabeth I of England, then the future primacy of Spain as a world super power would be indisputable. Apart from Elizabeth’s head & England’s independence but also at stake was the future America as a Spanish colony as would South Africa.
Why were the British able to prevail against a superior force?
Main picture: An engraving of the route of the Armada
Apart from their gender, Phillip of Spain and Elizabeth of England were opposites in every conceivable way possible. Phillip was extremely pious & hard-working but exceptionally anti-social. Unlike his fellow monarchs, he personally reviewed all decisions even the minutest. His staff would hand him all the correspondence which he would annotate with his views. Instead of making verbal requests to his subordinates, they would be in the form of a letter. The locus of all decisions, however mundane, would be Phillip.
By 1588, Elizabeth was in her mid-fifties. Notwithstanding all the romantic notions of Elizabeth still being the alluring seductress, age had not been kind to her. If it were not for the layers of creams smeared on her face and the most lavish attire that she wore – the most flamboyant ruffs, her voluminous pearl necklaces, her copious rubies – she would be mistaken for decrepit 70 year old woman. Unlike Phillip, she was constantly surrounded by her gaggle of ladies-in-waiting. Amongst them was Blanche Parry her erstwhile nursemaid and now confidant.
Ironically Phillip had been betrothed to Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary for four years until her death. As a religious duty, he had then wooed a young Elizabeth in order to protect the Catholics in England. It was to no avail. Elizabeth prevaricated and then declined the offer of her suitor.
After 30 years, Phillip’s duty to negate Elizabeth’s Protestantism had morphed into a deeply personal animosity. For Phillip, the destruction of non-Catholic England was akin to a religious crusade. The fiendish plan that Phillip unveiled comprised two prongs which would coalesce at Calais in France and then invade England.
The first prong of this plan comprised 125 galleons, galleys, carracks and hulks of the Spanish Armada with 23 000 men. The second prong was the Spanish Army in Flanders under the Duke of Parma with barges. They would rendezvous with the fleet under the Duke of Medina Sedonia at Calais. The combined force would then sail up the Thames and overthrow Elizabeth.
Neither Phillip nor Sedonia were cognisant of the fatal flaw in that plan as neither possessed any practical experience in naval matters.
Like the pre WW2 period, the English were completely unprepared for war. Their Army comprised an unprofessional militia whilst their fleet was without adequate ammunition. Elizabeth’s parsimonious expenditure was encouraged by her faithful Lord High Treasurer, Lord Burghley.
The Armada was sighted off the Lizard in Cornwall on the 19th July 1588. This news was conveyed to Elizabeth by a series of beacons that had been constructed all along the south coast. As the Spanish Armada – Spanish for fleet – sailed towards Devon, the English fleet was trapped in Plymouth Harbour due to the incoming tide that evening.
With Sir Francis Drake’s fleet immobile in Plymouth Harbour, they were starring destruction in the face. At the Council of War convened by the Spanish, it was proposed that they perform a coup de main by storming the harbour, then incapacitating the defending ships which were at anchor and from there attacking England.
Given the imperatives of his orders, the Duke of Medina Sidonia declined to act as he had been explicitly forbidden by Phillip. Instead they sailed eastwards towards the Isle of Wight. Recalde, the Spanish Admiral was incensed but as Margaret Thatcher would declare centuries later, “I am not for turning”, he sailed onward.
Recalde fumed as a golden opportunity slipped through their fingers.
The differing character of the two regents would have a dramatic impact on the actions taken by each fleet and this was the first.
Phillip was a control freak. He had appointed the Duke of Sidonia, a non-naval administrator, as the leader of the fleet. His explicit instructions were to ensure the strict adherence to the plan. Admiral Recalde, on the other hand, was a highly experienced sailor.
Elizabeth was the opposite of Phillip in many ways, and this was one of them. Responsibility for the fleet was devolved to Lord Howard of Effingham, a highly regarded administrator but with no experience in naval warfare. Aware of his lack of maritime knowledge, he frequently deferred to his subordinate, Vice Admiral Sir Francis Drake.
That night the English sailed upwind to the west in order to attack downwind in the morning. They commenced their attack with a bifurcated attack on the horns on the crescent. Neither side lost ships due to gunfire but the Spanish lost two – Rosario and San Salvador – due to a collision.
Needles to say, with a paucity of ammunition and Drake’s marauding instincts, Drake plundered the Rosario that night.
That decision was fortuitous.
Drake discovered that the mountings and carriage of the cannons on the Spanish ships precluded a high rate of fire. In fact the English cannons were able to achieve a rate of fire, five times that of the Spanish. Above all else what the English now required was more ammunition. The first of many missives in this regard were sent to Elizabeth urging her to resupply them. None was forthcoming.
That was not the only advantage that the English had over the Spanish. Unlike the Spanish vessels which were heavy and ponderous, the English ones were nimble and agile allowing them much greater manoeuvrability.
While Elizabeth fretted endlessly as the news sporadically trickled in to Richmond Palace which is upriver from London, Phillip staying at El Escorial Palace was in the dark as to the progress of his fleet. His instructions to the 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia were explicit: meet the Duke of Parma, land at Margate and overthrow Elizabeth.
The greatest concern of the English was that the Spanish fleet would seize a port at which they could land their troops. Having being scattered after Drake’s foray with the Rosario, Drake’s fleet had to regroup and travel at full speed to catch up with the Armada. This took one day.
Their first concern was Weymouth. A skirmish occurred with Martin Frobisher’s ships in the Battle of Portland Bill. Then the Spanish set sail for the Solent, the strait between the Isle of Wight and England, an ideal anchorage for their ships.
What Drake learns from this encounter is that despite their superior rate of fire, their cannon balls were no penetrating the oak hulls of the Spanish ships except at close quarters. This change in strategy presented its own potential problem as the standard Spanish tactic was to board the enemy ships using grappling irons.
As the tide turned, the English nudged the Spanish into shallow water. Again the Duke of Sidonia adhered to Phillip’s plans by proceeding to Calais and disregarded Recalde’s pleas to land their troops here. Sidonia was still unaware where Parma’s ships were located. In spite of many messages between sent by small craft, Parma had received none. This highlighted the absurdity of fixed plans when action requires flexibility by the commander on the spot. Contemporary technology and techniques were inappropriate for detailed immutable plans.
With the Spanish en route to Calais, Elizabeth intervened. She relocated herself and her courtiers downstream by barge to St James’ Palace in London. Her advisers Walsingham, the Spymaster, and the Lord High Treasurer, Lord Burghley were summonsed. What she conceded was to supply the fleet with additional musketeers which they did not require instead of the cannon balls and gunpowder that they did.
Drake’s riposte was to steer eight fire ships – old ships with skeleton crews which had been covered with bitumen and packed with explosives – into the centre of Sidonia’s fleet. In spite of these ships being easy to outmanoeuvre, panic ensued amongst the Spanish crews, many cutting their anchors. This hasty measure would preclude them from being able to re-anchor at a later stage.
The ensuing battle was further along the French littoral at Gravelines where the English were joined by 35 ships from Kent with fresh ammunition. Here the disparity in their respective rates of fire and the closer combat ensured that it was a one-sided battle. Oak splinters hurtled around the gun decks, incapacitating many Spanish gun crews.
The English had outfought the Spanish. But by 5pm Drake had to call off the attack. Elizabeth’s lack of concern for the importance of plentiful ammunition had now come to pass. Elizabeth had gambled with England’s future and potentially lost.
During the night, the luck of the English turned. The wind, which had sprung up, started blowing the Armada into the North Sea. Sidonia held a conference with his senior naval offices. Recalde loudly proclaimed that the Spanish should persevere and make a second attempt to invade England. Sidonia demurred. His courage had failed him. He ordered that the Armada would set sail for Spain via Scotland and Ireland.
Ten days later Elizabeth resolved to be strongly identified with this victory and claim the title as the Warrior Queen. Elizabeth’s piece de resistance was her entry into Tilbury Fort astride a white horse wearing an armoured breastplate.
It was here at Tilbury Fort that Elizabeth uttered her most unrivalled speech which included the legendary words:
“I have the body of weak and feeble woman
But I have the heart and stomach of a King
And a King of England to”
With these famed words, Elizabeth had created the Gloriana Myth.
Ironically Elizabeth had worn a pretty pink bow with an impregnable pearl pendant where a male King would have worn a codpiece.
In victory Elizabeth was ungracious. In spite of not losing one ship to the Armada, Elizabeth bemoaned the fact that they had not garnered any loot for the realm. A further stain on her character was the lack of empathy displayed to those sailors who contracted typhoid fever. Without the assistance of fellow sailors many more would have perished.
Recalde wrote a scathing letter to Phillip, deploring Sidonia’s actions. He died 3 days after his return to Spain.
But for Sidonia’s recalcitrance in strictly adhering to his King’s dictums, the Armada might well have decapitated not only Elizabeth’s head but also the glorious future will lay ahead for England. Like Von Paulus at Stalingrad, by his strict adherence to an inflexible plan, Sidonia not only forsook all opportunities to destroy the English but was guilty of the loss of most of his ships on the return journey.