315 God Breathed


As the Armada sailed serenely up the Channel, the English tried desperately to make some impression before it reached Flanders. But Medina Sidonia had worries of his own…

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Ok, so we are in the middle of one of England’s great national events – Alfred and his cakes, the Norman Conquest, Agincourt, the Reformation, Trafalgar, Derby County winning the football league in 1975 – and the Great Armada. By the way, before we go back to the action; you know the way it’s called the Invincible Armada? It’s always been a bit of a thing to make the patriotic English giggle, point at the Spanish as say ‘invincible eh? I reckon you lot were a bit big for your boots weren’t you!’. Well, I learn that apparently the name Invincible Armanda was not a Spanish thing at all; it was the ever in-yet-face Burghley, who wrote a pamphlet after the event, which frankly falls into the gloating category of literature and unsporting behaviour – and uses the Invincible Armada tag specifically in the interests of national gloating. For a Baron of the realm and the Queen’s Secretary and all that, Burghley wasn’t a believer in necessarily behaving in a noticeably classy way. Up for a bit of good honest bant was the lad.

Anyway, where were we? 21st July 1588 after the first day of fighting the English have had a bit of a shock. Their pulverising strategy seems to be failing to pulverise. The Armada is sailing on beautifully organised and controlled, and thoroughly deadly; the English guns are working overtime, but all we were doing is using up all our shot. The English blamed themselves

The majesty of the enemy’s fleet, the good order they held, and the private considerations of our own wants did cause, in mine opinion, our first onset to be more coldly done than became the value of our nation and the credit of the English navy

At one stage, the Spanish flagship San Martin was engaged for example, and only managed to get off 80 shots, and received 500 English shots in return. But at the end of it well, she was, you know – absolutely fine really. A few stays blown away, that’s it to be fair. Not good, English eyes were not smiling.

Well for the next few days, light breezes blew the Armada on up the channel. Now we know what the plan was – but back then the English did not. Obviously, a link up with Parma looked likely – but was the Armada planning to land on blighty’s shores first and lay us waste while Parma then came over? So the English were not just in a bit of a panic about the fact that they appeared to be having little impact, but also it might be that when the Spanish reached the Isle of Wight, they would look to land. So when 23rd of July dawned, and both fleets were off the Isle of Wight, this looked like decision time.

Now we don’t know what Medina Sidonia was thinking. His orders were specific – don’t even think of doing anything else, until after you have linked up with Parma, or I’ll have your ears. But it seems that Medina Sidonia did consider giving up his ears; the Solent, the area in between the Isle of Wight and the Mainland, was the one area the whole fleet could rest secure, Medina Sidonia was terrified of the lack in the plan of access to a deep water port, so if opportunity presented itself, he might well go for it – after all he had an army of 18,000 on board.

Meanwhile Howard got his captains together; to try to combat the problem, and increase their effectiveness, the English fleet was organised into 4 squadrons now under Howard, Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher. In very light winds, they tried to divert the Armada, but to their horror, it had achieved a dominant position at the entrance to the Solent. For once, the English tactics that day achieved some success. Frobisher set himself apart from the rest of the fleet in an apparently vulnerable position at the east end of the Isle of Wight, potentially trapped against the lee shore. Ha ha! Thought Medina Sidonia that is a boob, or whatever Spanish is for Boob. One of his most effective weapons had been a squadron of Galeasses; a galleass is a combo of galleon, with its sails and rig and guns, and a galley, with it’s oars. In light winds they were a marvel, and had already rescued the Gran Giffon from English hands. So the galleasses were sent into action at which point they realised that they had been tricked. Frobisher knew the local conditions like the back of his hands and knew the existence of a race, an area of shoals and fast currents.  In their haste to get at their prey, the galleasses came close to getting stuck in the race as the tide ebbed, and meanwhile at close waters, the gallesasses’ main advantage turned to disadvantage – the English were able to shatter their oars with culverin fire. In the event, both sides withdrew to avoid their own personal dangers, but the Armada had been distracted, and at this point Drake launched a furious attack on the wing of the Armada opposite the Solent, focussing fire on the Flagship. The Armada manoeuvred to combat the threat, and by so doing drew them away from the Solent back up the channel – and their opportunity to land was lost. It had been a close run thing.

The next two days saw little change to the fighting – a running battle, with the English dancing around the Spanish like Mohammed Ali, but failing to make any great impact; the Spanish maintaining perfect order and progressing surely if slowly towards Flanders – so I think we are going score it 2-1 to the Spanish now. But under the bonnet of success, lay the carburettor of despair; Medina Sidonia had a problem. Where was Parma? How was he supposed to get him and his troops across the channel to give then English their richly deserved beating?

I think a bit of background might be helpful here. There’s a problem of instructions first of all; Phillip had been a little vague on this – the Armada was to gain control on the seas and help Parma cross to England with his army; no one had really thought about how Parma was actually going to get over to the fleet to get top England. Between the deep blue sea and Flanders lay 10 miles of shoal infested waters, which absolutely needed shallow drafted vessels to negotiate, and which the Armada could not. Now, although the Dutch fleet wasn’t as powerful as you might think at this stage, given their later glorious maritime history, they did have a very handy fleet designed to work in the inner waters of the inlets and bays and estuaries, and one of the main ships thy used was called the cromster. An English soldier fighting as part of the wars described them as

The best ships to fight in these waters by reason the most of them draw but little water and carry for the most part principal good artillery, some demi cannon and many whole culverins

They were 200 ton ships, with a complement of 100 men and about 14 guns. In a battle with a 1000 ton galleon they would be toast, but a 1000 ton galleon would get nowhere near them on their home ground – because a galleon drew far too much water to get to them. And could not make their way through the shoals. But meanwhile, a barge designed to carry soldiers across the channel, armed with at best a few pea shooters, would equally be toast if it met a cromster out on the lash late on a dark Friday night. Now Spain had great expertise with the perfect answer to the cromster – the galley! So they could just roll out that squadron they’d asked Philip for…oh…wait.

Now I don’t know about you, but being full of human failings, if there is a humungeous problem I am supposed to deal with, I am in danger of assigning SEP status to it which means in the parlance of Douglas Adams who first recognised the phenomenon, to ignore the issue, or more than that, the brain engages its own defense mechanism and simply does not allow the eyes or brain to see it. It marks it as Someone Else’s Problem – and SEP. Well the issue about getting the feared and terrifying Spanish tercios to England was just such a problem – because no matter how many barges Parma had, and debate appears to vary on that, even if he had enough he himself was clear they were not fighting vessels.

And anyway let’s say Parma did magically find the elder wand and magic the cromsters away somewhere, once they’d met the Armada what then? Their aim of course would be to float the 30 miles to bring peace and proper religion to England – by which I mean making mushy peas of the English army of course. But although the Armada had successfully sailed up the channel with minimal losses, it had most certainly not established local superiority and control. The English fleet had every chance of dancing around on the Narrow Seas sinking those vulnerable barges with gay abandon.

So look that’s a problem. First of all though, Medina Sidonia needed to know when Parma would embark all his men on the barges and come and meet him – he was not aware of the rather major flaw of the Cromster in the master plan. Here is the second SEP; Philip, Parma and Medina Sidonia had assumed, again gaily, that they’d just all meet up…easy peasy, squeeze the lemon. But where? When? In a search for a suitable adjective for communication between a fleet on the channel and Parma in the Netherlands in the 16th century, the words nippy, or doddle were inappropriate. To make the point, Media Sidonia sent a message by pinnace to Parma as soon as he hit the channel. Sadly the message arrived just as the Armada itself was arriving. So communication was hard and too slow.

Faced with these issues, not knowing where Parma was, Medina Sidonia decided to just stop digging; and he parked the fleet outside Calais. He was not happy with this, but sailing on seemed pointless until he knew where he was going. When the answer arrived it horrified him – 6 days, Parma would take 6 days to embark his men on his barges. So the Armada was faced with the cheery prospect of being anchored in an exposed road; with the shoals of the Flanders bank to leeward, and an enemy to windward. In that search for adjectives, oh goody! should also be excluded, and while sailing through the valley of the shadow of death, they might well have looked for that rod and Your staff, to comfort them.

Meanwhile on the Ark Royal on 28th July, Admiral Howard was confabulating with his senior commanders, debating how to discombobulate and then destroy the Spanish. The answer was pretty obvious as it happens, and so obvious in fact that Medina Sidonia knew exactly what they would do. Fireships, hellburners, they were the ticket. The Armada was in an open Roadsted, no harbour to protect it. If fireships could get in among the Spanish ships they might drive them in their panic to leeward, to be dashed to death on the Flanders banks. Or they might make a dash for open sea – and the formation would be broken and the English could get in amongst them. So. Fireships then.

As I say Medina Sidonia was no idiot; he’d arranged for a screen of pinnaces to intercept the fireships and tow them to safety – and that night as the 8 flaming fireships floated into the Roadstead, the pinnaces did indeed steer two away to safety. The fireships were in fact in one sense a complete failure – they didn’t manage to destroy a single measly Armada ship.

And yet the fireships were the Armada’s doom. In their panic to escape the fireships and the Flanders banks, most ships cut their anchor cables and fled for open sea. That had two immediate consequences – without anchors, re-assembling to wait for Parma would be much harder; but worse, that extraordinarily successful formation was gone. 5 Spanish ships including their flagships remained to face the entire English fleet outside Calais, now composed of 140 ships. Medina Sidonia sent out pinnaces to order his fleet to re-assemble, and headed out to meet them as well as he could.

The 29th July was the real crux of the whole affair, a running battle of 9 hours long as the English got among a Spanish fleet desperately trying to reform. The English had learned a vital bit of intelligence over the preceding week, they had learned the genuine weakness of the Spanish; their long range shipkilling guns  sucked, and their ability to use them sucked zweimal. Let me explain.

Firing a 16th century cannon or culverin was not like in the movies, where you fired the gun, and the recoil bounced it back into a protected deck on it’s little trolley, where you reloaded it double quick time, ran it out again and fired. First of all, the Spanish ships did not have those sort of trolleys – their guns were pretty much immobile, and if you wanted to reload them you had to climb over the edge of the ship and do it from the outside in, sitting on the barrel of said cannon. Which is frankly impossible to do in the middle of a battle when every one’s taking potshots at you. ‘ Sid, Go and re-load that cannon –‘sorry sir, I choose life’. The English didn’t yet use the recoil thing, but they could pull their guns in after firing, reload and run out again – all in the relative safety of the bulwarks of the ship. And then, the Spanish strategy anyway was to grapple opposing ships and overwhelm them with soldiers; consequently almost everyone in a Spanish ship was a soldier – the gunners were soldiers doing a bit of moonlighting as it were. Every English gunner was just that – an expert gunner, end of.

The result of all this was that the English rate of fire was one and a half rounds per hour – which sounds pretty panty I must say, but good for the time. The Spanish rate of fire was also 1 and a half rounds – but one and half rounds per DAY. Yes you heard – per day.

At Gravelines at last then the English came in close, realising their risk was far less than they thought; and at last they did some real damage. The San Mateo and San Filipe were mortally stricken; the Trinidad Valencera and Gran Grifon were so badly damaged their crews were forced to run them aground; the Maria Juan was sunk. But the Flagship fighting spirit lived on; Medina Sidonia fired the gun to reform.

But very few came this time. The trouble now was that fleet was being blown on to the Zealand banks to leeward and would almost inevitably founder; the English were very low on ammo now, but all they had to do was wait; many of the Armada ships were still floating, but damaged, falling to pieces; one ship indeed was literally coming apart, and had to be cinched together with a hawser fed round the hull and tightened. And so the Armada panicked – it was every man for himself. Medina Sidonia was furious and sent boats to the nearest ships to bring their captains to answer why they had not answered his signal. When they came into his cabin he barked

Didn’t you hear the gun?


Then why did you not rally?

We thought your flagship was sinking and that we should all hasten to safety

There was a pause, until the Duke delivered his verdict on this answer:

Hang the traitors

One of the captains was indeed hung, and paraded round the fleet to re-establish discipline in the fleet, pour encourager les autres as Voltaire would have it.

Then – a miracle. God Breathed and as the armada was about to be driven onto the banks, the wind changed, and blew from the south away from the banks. The armada took their chance and dived thankfully into the North Sea off the Eastern coast of England.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the news in England was of success but not yet victory; the Armada had reformed and was in the north sea – would it return? Parma’s army was still active and ready to board. At this point, early in August a jolly famous thing happened – Queen Elizabeth went to Tilbury Docks. In the words of 1066 and All That, the queen set to help everyone to be brave in the face of the Great Armadilo

Big bess herself put on an enormous quantity of clothing and rode to and fro on a white horse at Tilbury – a courageous act which was warmly applauded by the English sailors. In this striking and romantic manner, the English were once more victorious

We are in legend territory again with her iconic speech to the troops including the lines

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and the king would like them back…in the words of the Horrible Histories. No let’s not ruin it, here it is

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king –and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms – I myself will be your general,

Now who knows if she actually said that. But it falls again into the ‘well she really should have’ category either way. It is worth noting though, while we are at it, that the likelihood remains that if Parma had landed, Elizabeth would have been applying for jobs in the Chelsea Bun House. When the Armada became visible from the cost of Kent, so many of the trained bands deserted that the army was reduced to 4,000 men.





The English fleet followed the Armada until the firth of forth and then turned back – by then it was clear that the Spanish fleet was a busted flush. Famously they sailed all the way round Britain to get home; many were battered, most with few provisions left. Some Ships sunk, battered by the weather; over 1200 bodies were washed onto Donegal Bay. Others ran onto the cost of Ireland. The Gran Grin ran ashore off Clare island; where this happened, the Irish tended to greet them, relieve them of their valuables and send them on their way; in this case though and in some cases it seems many Spaniards were killed; when the English in Ireland got hold of them they were often slaughtered or at best imprisoned. The odd story of mercy does survive – Christopher Carleil the Governor at the time, sent his prisoners to Scotland, paying for transport out of his own pocket.

Back in Spain the news alternated wildly. On 7th August came a report of a great Spanish victory off the Isle of Wight, 15 English galleons had been sunk; Drake had been forced to flee in a small boat. In France, Mendoza used the good news to continue the process of tying Henry III to the Catholic league – and built a huge celebration bonfire outside his embassy in preparation. The next news was that the Armada was at Calais and the link up achieved with Parma. On 12th August Mendoza went to the King of France told him all about the victories and pressed him to order a celebration, Henry III heard him out, and I imagine was enjoying himself – since then he was able to tell his would be master that it fact the Armada had been chased out of Calais in bad order.

News continued to be confused; on 13th August came the news there’d been a battle off Scotland and that Drake himself, ever the Spanish obsession, had been captured. At this. Mendoza lit his celebratory bonfire and sent the report to Philip. On 28th August, William Allen heard news of victory and pressed the Spanish to allow him to go to England immediately to start the good work of bringing England back to the rightful church. But now news started to arrive from England, courtesy of the Privy Council – and it was a very different story; news started to come from Ireland too, even more grim; a pamphlet was produced called a Pack of Spanish Lies contrasting Spanish news with the news of Protestant delivery, and protestant Europe dared to hope that the expected disaster had not happened. But as late as 29th September, Mendoza was sending positive reports to Philip. But Phillip was learning the truth from other more damming reports

If God does not send us a miracle …,’ he wrote, ‘I hope to die and go to Him … which is what I pray for, so as not to see so much ill fortune and disgrace … Please God, let me be mistaken, but I do not think it is so.’

And then Medina Sidonia himself struggled into port; and Philip knew the terrible truth for sure. He scrawled on Mendoza’s latest letter for the action of an aide ‘Nothing of this is true. It will be well to tell him so’.

Ships kept dribbling in, but when the final accounting was done 60 of the 130 ships that left had been destroyed one way or another. 15,000 may have died. Philip was of course gutted. But Philip was not broken, and did his best to give positive or reassuring messages to his people, and to explain what had happened

We are bound to give praise to God for all things which he is pleased to do. Now I give thanks to him for the mercy he has shown. In the storms through which the Armada sailed, it might have suffered a worse fate, and that its ill fortune was no greater must be credited to the prayers for its good success, so devoutly and continuously offered.

Here maybe is the start of another myth about the Armada – that it was all due to crappy English weather, that storms destroyed the Armada. Not so – you have heard the story, and did I mention storms? No, I did not. And yet the legend on one of Elizabeth’s Armada medals was

God Breathed and they were scattered

It pays of course to have God on your side – and in the fight to claim God’s support, the myth of the divine Protestant wind was born.

Philip meanwhile really wasn’t crushed, and met the defeat with dignity and intelligence – and to English horror, this was not the end of the affair, Phillip simply spent his effort thinking what he needed to do to succeed next time. And there would be a next time.

But despite Philip’s fortitude, the defeat was another hideous blow to Spanish confidence. The Duke himself had this brought home to him when on his way home for surely the most well deserved rest in the history of well deserved rests, he was discovered at a hotel by a bunch of lads. As a bunch of lads will, they laid into the Duke, crying out that Drake was coming to scare him, and calling him Duke Chicken. Meanwhile one of the monks at the Escorial wrote that the defeat was ‘the greatest disaster to strike Spain in over six hundred years’. His colleague agreed that it was

Worthy to be wept over for ever…because it lost us respect and the good reputation among warlike people we used to have. The feeling it caused in all of Spain was extraordinary…almost the entire country went into mourning. People talked of nothing else.

The Dutch and English, meanwhile, were as delighted as the Spanish were depressed. The great battle pennant of the San Mateo was laid out in Leiden Cathedral in celebration; poems in latin were written and read out. The satisfaction was greater that the curse also seemed to have struck Parma; when he gave up on the Armada and went to capture the town of Bergen, the citizens resisted fiercely, and after 6 weeks the invincible Parma had to give up. Maybe something fundamental had changed, maybe momentum had swung the other way. Interestingly, the Dutch also presented Elizabeth as the champion of Protestantism in portrait, in a way the English did not – a Dutch engraving portrayed her as Europa, planted across all Europe. While in England, in things like the Ditchley portrait, it is her domination of England that is emphasised.

In England, a celebration was held on 24th November and it was designated as a national day of celebration; though to be sadly honest, the men who had really won the battle, the ordinary English seamen, were barely remembered, even though almost half of them were dead from wounds or most likely disease by Christmas of that year. Many were not properly paid or looked after – Lord Howard’s sense of responsibility was not typical. Nonetheless England celebrated. Ballards were particularly popular in Elizabethan England; they were a way not necessarily of just having a bit of a sing song down the boozer but also to spread news, and celebrate good news – many have survived celebrating the Armada’s defeat. It was accompanied by Burghley’s widely circulated pamphlet of banter, pouring scorn on the Invincible Armada

Well I must say that I had not expected to spend so long on the Armada, so once more I will have to leave other aspects of the Anglo Spanish war to future episodes. But let us reflect for the moment about the impact of this story, and its significance. The story is often interestingly told as a bit of a one off – the Armada sailed, we gave it a kicking, it slunk off home. Cry Harry and all that. But in fact, it was only the very beginning of the Anglo Spanish war, not the end – there are another 16 years to come. There are two more Armadas to come from Spain – who’s ever heard of them I might ask? And the very next year there will be an English Armada. Peace would not be signed until 1604 and yet the story is very much this one Armada which is – dare I admit it? – a bit of a damp squib. I mean it’s nothing on Poitiers or even Morlaix, and certainly not a patch on the glories of Falkirk. Also, no one at the time thought this was the end of it all – least of all Philip, or indeed Elizabeth and her captains.



And yet to some Spanish observers, the Armada was the start of the end, the start of the decline of Spain as an imperial power. It fired a genre of anti Imperial polemic in Spain – the first of which was called ‘Farewell to the ladies of the court to the gallants sailing on the Armada’, which essentially ridiculed the whole mission. The defeat, like the exploits of Drake, sapped Spanish confidence. It also damaged her reputation as the leader of catholic Europe, and the peak of her prestige had passed.

It did the opposite for England of course. The English of Elizabethan days had not very much of today’s middle class fastidiousness about and distaste for patriotism or god forbid flag waving; they lapped it up. Shakespeare knew his audience. The reign of Elizabeth gave much to the development of English national consciousness and self belief, which would of course have consequences of variable attractiveness – and the Armada was a major part of that. The English loved their ships going into the battle – and came out of it ever more convinced that they could take on the Spanish Empire and win. And yet they were to find instead that things were harder as Spain invested in proper defence – but confidence was the thing.

This confidence is frequently broadened in critiques of the Armada to link it to a general sense of optimism in Elizabethan England; shakespeare’s line in King John is used as an example

Come the three corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them

To be honest I suspect this is overstating it; in the 1590s Elizabethan England would suffer the shock of famine, plague, an expensive and very long war in Ireland, and the war against Spain would have as many defeats as successes. England was still a small damp place off the coast of Europe – it’s just that now it had a navy which gave it some security and sense of confidence.

In the Netherlands, the English victory changed little in military terms – but it did close down those in the United Provinces who looked for accommodation and negotiation with Spain, and the struggle for independence was renewed. And maybe in France, most significantly, it gave Henry III the confidence to strike back and reject the dominance of the Catholic Guise and the Catholic League.

It was interesting in this exercise to read secondary sources from as wide a range as Garret Mattingly’s 1959 classic the Defeat of the Armada – and it is a classic by the way – to more modern texts; it gives you an idea of how attitudes have changed. Spanish historians have spent a deal of time minimising the extent to which the English defeated the Armada, to one of defeat by the weather – that was the story as I understood it, and it’s fascinating to realise that while the weather and the journey would be the cause for most of the Spanish losses not English guns – the reason for their flight was not the weather but the English actions at Calais and Gravelines; and the strength of the Dutch in preventing a link up between Parma and the Armada.

In Garret Mattingly’s book, the claims are a bit more grandiose – though he rejects the link with an explosion of literary genius in England, which had apparently been a claim. But he does note that, whether true or not, the Armada came for a long period to be covered with a golden mist of heroism. Imagine the teaching of history to be as it once was in the days of Heredotus, or as song by bards in the halls of the mighty, of the stories of great events by great heroes, building a sense of belonging and of shared origins and achievement. It became a story of the defence of freedom against tyranny, of the weak over the strong. [1]You’ve heard some of the detail, so you know that’s broadly tripe, but what is true is that this is what many people believed for some time in protestant Europe; and that has its own historical significance.

[1] Mattingly, G ‘The Defeat of the Spanish Armada’ p336


2 thoughts on “315 God Breathed

  1. Many thanks for this excellent series on the Armada. Despite the light-hearted tone, it made clear how terrifying the experience must have been for the English. And one feels sorrier than before for Medina Sidonia, who tried so hard and still saw all his fears of failure justified. One can’t blame the English for not forcing Philip to give in, as nothing ever did so, even his three bankruptcies or the economic devastation of his own country. Having to fight Philip(s) for 16 years was no joke, but that pales against the approx 80 years that it took Spain to realize it couldn’t beat the Dutch. Looking across the Channel and remembering St Bartholomew, the sack of various Low Country cities, the Council of Blood, and the horrors of the French Civil war, perhaps the English thought their victory sufficient.
    Fun factoid: Cervantes was with the Armada, wounded and got off in Flanders, surviving to write another day.

    1. I did not know that! It is a most fab fact – just think if he’d been shipwrecked and killed…

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