“God blew and they were scattered.”
The defeat of the Spanish Armada has long been regarded as a crucial part of England’s national story. In 1588, the country stood within an inch of being overwhelmed and conquered by a huge naval force that had been sent by King Philip II of Spain. Although England owed its salvation more to the inclement weather than the Royal Navy, the destruction of the armada quickly achieved legendary status.
The lighting of the coastal beacons, the fireships at Gravelines, the nimble manoeuvres of the English ships against the bulky Spanish galleons and Sir Francis Drake’s game of bowls at Plymouth, all contributed to a renewed sense of national confidence and the greatest beneficiary was Queen Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth herself had delivered one of the most famous speeches in English history during the crisis, when she proclaimed to her soldiers at Tilbury:
“I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.”
These defiant words in England’s hour of need confirmed the Virgin Queen as “Gloriana”, a fighting heroine who stood up to the most powerful country in Europe and won. England has remembered this event ever since but what has been almost completely forgotten is that in the following year the English launched their own counter-armada and suffered a shocking defeat that was just as complete as that suffered by the Spanish.
This is the grimly topsy-turvy tale of “The English Armada”.
In the aftermath of the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth and her advisors saw a rare opportunity to destroy the remnants of Philip’s fleet before it was rebuilt. To achieve this, the English would create chaos in Spain’s newly acquired backyard: Portugal. In 1580, Spain had invaded its smaller Iberian neighbour and drove out its briefly ruling king António, who fled to England.
Consequently there was a small but relatively significant exiled Portuguese community in England and with the defeat of the Armada, António and his followers dreamt of regaining their homeland. The English set to work raising funds and an armed force to sail to Iberia with a three-pronged series of aims. The main objective outlined by Elizabeth and her Privy Council was to destroy the Spanish fleet that was being refitted at Santander and San Sebastian, but there were also unofficial aims.
The English were to intercept the Spanish silver fleet entering from the Americas and also gain the Azores Islands, which were officially Portuguese but were occupied by Spain. If the treasure and islands could be captured, it would deprive Philip of the wealth and strategic base that funded his European campaigns. The third and most unrealistic aim was to restore António to his Portuguese throne (despite the fact that he was virtually a pretender) with an English army landing in Portugal to encourage a popular revolution.
These aims were almost on a par with the Spanish Armada itself in terms of its ambition, and it would require careful planning, coordination and execution for it to succeed. It would be commanded by the experienced soldier Sir John Norreys, who would take charge of the land forces and the legendary seafarer Sir Francis Drake – who had helped defeat the Armada and was known to the Spaniards as “El Draque” (“The Dragon”). However, the “expedition to Portugal” started to go wrong before it even left England.
In the spring of 1589, the English fleet gathered at Plymouth and a large force of untrained volunteer soldiers assembled to join the expedition while supplies were stored in local warehouses. However, the expedition remained in port for weeks while it waited for English, Dutch and German professional soldiers to arrive from the Low Countries, but the winds were unfavourable for a speedy crossing.
While they were impatiently waiting, the volunteers broke into the warehouses and stole food and drink. By the time the professionals finally arrived, the expedition was ready to sail, but with reduced provisions. The fleet consisted of six royal galleons, 60 English armed merchantmen, 60 Dutch flyboats and 20 pinnaces. They contained 4,000 sailors, 1,500 officers and gentlemen adventurers along with the soldiers. There were possibly over 23,000 men in the expedition as a whole and buoyed with confidence they sailed straight for Lisbon.
However, the plunder of supplies at Plymouth meant that the ships ran out of food before they even reached Portugal. So the decision was made to attack Corunna on the northern coast of Spain in order to seize provisions, even though this meant bypassing Santander where many Spanish naval vessels were being refitted.
Drake’s men sacked Corunna, killed or captured Spanish soldiers and managed to procure supplies, but they also found a large number of wine casks and promptly fell into a mass drunken stupor, which rendered them incapable of properly laying siege to the city.
Weeks passed while hundreds of English troops died with little material gain and in this time, the Spanish caught wind of the expedition, shored up Portugal’s defences and executed any supporters of António. Eventually, the expedition moved on down the coast of Portugal and was joined by Elizabeth’s hot-headed favourite Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.
Elizabeth had forbidden Essex to join the expedition but he had arrogantly slipped away in pursuit of glory. He would lead the next English blunder when the fleet landed at Peniche. In a show of bravado, Essex leapt out of his ship into deep water, causing his followers to do the same but many of them drowned in the attempt. Once on the land, the Portuguese locals initially welcomed António but they soon grew tired of having to provide for the English army and fleet. At this time Drake and Norreys fatally decided to divide their forces. Drake was to sail the fleet further down the coast to Cascais and then up the River Tagus to Lisbon while Norreys would march the army inland.
The march to Lisbon was a distance of 40 miles across a hostile landscape with no supplies and it ended up becoming a disaster. A huge number of soldiers died from starvation, heat exhaustion and thirst. Essex began to worry that he would not achieve the martial glory he craved and wrote to Elizabeth:
“I conceive an assured hope to do something that shall make me worthy of the name of your servant.”
Once the much-reduced army reached Lisbon, they discovered that Drake had reverted to his piratical ways and was looting treasure ships on the coast. No supporters of António came out to support the English and Essex was reduced to issuing a hollow threat to Spanish garrison. A contemporary described how:
“…the noble Essex, ran his spear and broke it against the gates of that city: demanding aloud, if any Spaniard mewed therein, durst adventure forth in favour of his mistress to break a staff with him. But those gallants thought it safer to court their ladies with amorous discourses, than to have their loves written on their breasts with the point of his English spear.”
Essex was also reportedly greeted with laughter from inside the walls. Dismayed, the bedraggled army made one last march of almost 20 miles to meet Drake and the fleet, where the expedition was promptly abandoned and the depleted force limped back to Plymouth in June 1589.
The English Armada had been a complete failure. At the cost of more than £100,000, the English fleet had lost around 40 ships and cost at least 15,000 men their lives. The only gains had been 150 captured cannon and £30,000 of plunder. By contrast the Spanish only lost around 900 men, held onto Portugal and rebuilt its navy. This renewed maritime strength led to a raid on Cornwall in 1595 and two more armadas against England in 1596 and 1597. As in 1588, these later armadas were repulsed by the weather.
So soon after their triumph against Spain the English were severely chastened in 1589 and it is little wonder that the whole enterprise was forgotten as a national humiliation.
- Court Politics and the Earl of Essex, 1589–1601 by Janet Dickinson