The year is 1587. Catholic Europe is aghast at the execution of MQS. Heaven cries vengeance against Elizabeth FitzHenry, the Bastard pretender to the Crown of England. His Most Catholic Majesty, Philip of Spain, is the most righteous warrior of Christianity. His soldiers have brought the Word of God unto vast benighted regions. Philip’s sailors have reached some isles in the uttermost East Indies. They have given his name to them – they are now known as ”The Philippines.” The Holy Inquisition had been given the fullest support by His Most Catholic Majesty and it had successfully crushed those who had harboured heterodox beliefs.
Philip II gathers an army and a fleet to sail across to England and once and for all to snuff out flames that burn the priests who have heroically travelled thither to minister to the cruelly persecuted Catholics of England. The English people suffer under the heavy hand of Elizabeth and her violent oppression. The English people long to cast off the shackles. They yearn to return to the one true version of Christianity – Roman Catholicism.
His Holiness, Pope Sixtus V gave his fullest blessing to this moral cause. He called it a crusade and issued indulgences to the soldiers of God who went to enact the divine will. He allowed Philip II to levy a special tax to pay for this expedition. The Pope promised that once the Armada landed he would give more money to defray the costs of the expedition.
The foregoing is how a Roman Catholic at the time might have seen the situation. Philip II was very deluded in thinking that many people in England had a burning desire to return to Roman Catholicism. Perhaps 10% of the population were practising Catholics. This may well be an overguesstimate. The Roman Catholics were concentrated in northern England where governmental control was feebler. Of course it is not that the rest of the populace was committed to Anglicanism. Some people were ardent Anglicans but many of them were floaters – they would go along with whatever the government demanded. It was said that to keep your principles and to keep your head was difficult. Few people managed to keep both.
English recusants who corresponded with Spain overestimated the strength of Catholicism for a number of reasons. As they moved in Catholic circles they believed that there were more Roman Catholics than was really the case. They tended to live on northern England where Roman Catholicism was fairly strong. It was wishful thinking. Besides this semi-conscious self-delusion there was also a conscious desire to make an invasion of England seem likely to success and therefore an attractive option. If they told him that there was a tiny recusant populace and he would meet with virtually nil in terms of domestic support then such mission to re-Catholicise England by force of arms would seem foredoomed to defeat. Therefore it would be a fool’s errand to even try to Philip II would drop the whole plan.
Philip II styled himself King of England and King of Ireland. He had been granted these titles by virtue of wedding Mary Tudor. The Pope addressed him by these titles as well as by Philip’s titles that related to Spain.
Philip II appointed the Duke of Medina Sidonia as commander of the expedition. Philip II had intended to commission a different commander to lead the expedition but Philip’s first choice died in February 1588. The Duke of Medina Sidonia seems to have been picked mainly for his connections in the Spanish Court.
The purposes of the mission were several.
1. To put knock Elizabeth II off her Throne and replace her with Philip II.
2. To take revenge for the murder of MQS.
3. To stop the English supporting the Dutch Revolt and the French Huguenots.
4. To bring back Roman Catholicism.
5. To stop English pirates raiding the Spanish Main.
The Papal Fleet joined the Spanish Fleet for this righteous mission. The whole expedition was known as the Spanish Armada. Its full name in Spanish means ”The Great and Most Fortunate Navy.”
The Duke of Medina Sidonia protested that he was a soldier and not a sailor. He had no experience of commanding ships and felt that he was not up to the task. He was right.
It was a full year and half since the heretical axe had fallen across the regal neck of unfortunate MQS. A mighty host gathered in the Spanish ports. Spain withdrew troops from Italy where she had many possessions. Many of the men of the Spanish Armada were Italian rather than Spanish. Tens of thousands of soldiers were to board the ships. They brought with them many war horses. Spanish horses were renowned as some of the best in the world. They were tall and mighty steeds, making English nags look like mere donkeys. There were hundreds of priests accompanying the Armada. Their role was partly as military chaplains – to put fire into the hearts of these Spanish soldiers of Christ. However, their plan was that these priests would be shock troops of the Counter-Reformation. They had to reconvert the English people who had fallen into a morass or heresy.
The plan was that the main fleet would sail from Spain to Gravelines in the Spanish Netherlands. The Duke of Parma was commanding Spanish troops there struggling to quell the Dutch Revolt. Parma is of course a city in Italy and the fact that the Spanish commander had a title relating to a place in Italy underlines the connections between Spain and Italy. More Spanish soldiery would board the ships there and sail on to England where they would disembark and do battle with the forces of oppression and irreligion.
Had the Spanish Armada made landfall then to take them on would have been a very serious undertaking indeed. The Spanish Army was the biggest and probably the best in Europe. All told 55,000 Spanish soldiers were due to land in England. It is doubtful that the English could muster half that number. The Spanish would doubtless be assisted by Fifth Columnists in northern England. The Spanish Army was battle hardened and well-organised. It tended to operates in ‘tercios’ or ‘thirds’. A unit of archers, a unit of musketeers and a unit of pikemen would operate in tandem.
The Spanish Armada included many heavily armed warships. However, the majority of vessels in the Armada were not warships but merchant ships that had been converted for naval service. Merchant ships normally carried cannon anyway because they may have to contend with enemy warships or pirates. A merchantman that was converted into a man o’ war was a little more heavily armed that a normal merchantman. Nonetheless it is estimated that the English and Dutch had 50% more cannon than the Armada. This was not as an unequal conflict as English nationalistic historians like to claim.
In the July of 1588 the Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon. Portugal was then united with Spain owing to Philip II’s descent from the royal houses of both Spain and Portugal.
The English were ready and waiting. Lord Howard of Effingham, Admiral John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake commanded the English Navy. Elizabeth had slightly weakened the Spanish Armada by persuading the Ottoman Empire to launch attacks on Spanish possessions in the Mediterranean. Philip II felt obliged to detach a portion of the ships from the Armada and send them east instead of north to guard against the encroachments of the Fleet of Islam.
(People do not like to be reminded that John Hawkins, this English hero, was the man who started large scale kidnappings of Africans and their shipment as slaves to the Americas.)
Elizabeth made a noted speech to her men at Tilbury Docks, ”Though I have the body of a weak and feeble woman I have the heart and stomach of a king – even a King of England.”
The English Coast had beacons along it. When the Armada was first sighted the beacons at the south-west toe of England were lit. As people saw on set of beacons lit a few miles along the littoral they lit their beacons. So the next beacon to the east would be lit and seeing that the next beacon beyond that was lit. Thus in an era centuries before the invention of the telephone a message was relayed across hundreds of miles in the course of a single night. Soldiers were gathered near presumed landing grounds to meet the Spanish on the strand.
When word reached Sir Francis Drake that the Spanish had been sighted he was playing bowls. He showed his sang-froid in insisting on finishing his game before going to take command of the Fleet.
The English Navy was more numerous in terms of ships. About 230 English ships fought to the Spanish 130. However, the English ships tended to be much smaller and more maneuverable. The Spanish ships were very large and weighed down with men and horses. The Spanish ships were generally slower and much less maneuverable. There were also Dutch rebel ships fighting against the Spanish Armada
There were clashes in the Channel which mostly went the way of the English. The Spanish Fleet put in at Gravelines. English sailors brought their ships close to the harbour. They launched fire ships. A fire-ship had canon on it and is set afire and set adrift with the wind driving it towards the enemy. The cannon would eventually fire as the temperature rose. When the fire-ship hit the enemy ship the enemy too would catch fire.
The fire ships released into Gravelines did not hit a single Spanish ship. However, the fire ships induced such a lively panic that the Spanish ships weighed anchor and sailed about in a frenzied fashion trying to avoid the fire ships and they managed to crash into each other several times causing much damage.
The weather favoured the English scattering the Spanish Armada and making it impossible for the Spanish to land. The storm-tossed Spanish Fleet was driven into the North Sea harassed by the lither and swifter English warships.
The Spanish Armada was driven and harried all through the North Sea. It seemed a wiser course to continue north and to circumnavigate the British Isles rather than to turn around and sail back through the English Channel running the gauntlet once again. Had the Spanish Armada landed in northern England it would have probably been most fortuitous to her. The Spanish Armada was not expected there and there were many who would welcome them there.
The Spanish Armada lost many ships to tempests and she continued on her unhappy voyage. At long last she passed by the west coast of Ireland. Provisions were running very low. The voyage had been supposed to last only a week or so and they had been at sea much long than that.
Some Spanish ships put in on the western coast of Ireland. The Spanish sailors and soldiers were seeking food and water. A high majority of Irishmen were Roman Catholics. In western Ireland the people were Roman Catholic almost to a man. Irish nationalists are wont to think that the Irish people always opposed her connection with England and would seek help from any quarter in order to break away from this connection. It is an education to examine this episode. The Spanish soldiers were not welcomed with open arms by the Irish people. Philip II claimed to be King of Ireland still. His men were attacked and killed in great numbers. Those who surrendered were divided into ordinary soldiers and the high-born. The high-born were kept for ransom and the low-born were killed. Why surrender? Some had been promised quarter. It is a very shameful and bloody chapter, these cold-blooded murders of honourable soldiers. At Spanish Point in Co. Clare many Spaniards were slain. At various places hundreds of Spanish and Italian soldiers in the service of Philip II were killed. The Irish people were as loyal to Elizabeth as the English. Elizabeth’s attitude to Roman Catholicism was not a persecuting zeal in England and especially not so in Ireland where her control was weaker.
People speak of the Black Irish – those Irishmen who have skin that is much duskier than the average Irishman. People speak of the blood of the Armada. They say that such people are descended from Spanish sailors who crash landed in Ireland. The Blood of the Armada is almost entirely mythical. As discussed the Spanish who landed in Ireland were taken to the grave and not to bed. This is not to say that no Spaniards were sheltered but they were very few indeed. They did not make a significant contribution to the Irish blood stock. Ireland then had a population of about one million.
In 1596 Philip II enquired to see if there were any survivors of that ill-fated expedition left alive in Ireland. The highest estimate of those who had survived 1588 in Ireland was 100. Only 8 were traced. If a Spaniard arrived in a village in the west of Ireland in the 16th century that was news. People noticed. It did not happen very often.
The Armada limped home. Some 20 000 men had perished. This was not the hands down victory that some claim it was. The English and Dutch Navies paid a very heavy price too. About 8 000 English sailors were died. They mostly perished owing to disease and illness.
The threat, at least for the moment, was over. Elizabeth discharged most of the sailors and did not pay them for months.
Philip II did not blame the Duke of Medina Sidonia. Philip II blamed himself for appointing this commander who was ill-equipped for this arduous task. People were apt to see the hand of God in events back then. Philip II believed that he had at least temporarily lost divine favour. Philip II set about providing for the wounded, the widows and orphans of this expedition.
In England and amongst the rebel Dutch there was much rejoicing. It became part of the English story of David and Goliath victories. England had been lucky with the weather, very lucky. Were it not for that despite the best efforts of the Fleet the Armada would have landed about would probably have succeeded.