Saturday, July 21, 2012

Battles Long Ago: Armada 1588

First let me tell you straight up front; this is NOT your typical "decisive battles" post, and if you're still interested in reading, I'll explain why.

I wanted to talk about an engagement that began 424 years ago this month; the high water mark of the Philip II's "Enterprise of England", better known as the "Spanish Armada".

But not the way I have been discussing these battles and affrays in the past, by focusing principally on what the participants did, and why, and what came of their actions.

Perhaps the single biggest reason is that this engagement (or campaign - the "Enterprise of England" lasted all of several years and change - and the actual series of battles that make up what we think of when we think of "The Spanish Armada" extended over roughly two weeks; Eddystone Rocks (or Plymouth) on 31 JUL 1588, Portland Bill on 3 AUG, the Isle of Wight on 4 AUG, Calais (or Brulotes) on 7 AUG, and Gravelines on 8/9 AUG.)
has been analyzed, dissected, recounted, and celebrated practically since the last Spaniard rounded the Dogger Bank on his way north.

There's not much I can add to the already-mountainous pile of scholarship that has been built on the events of the summer of 1588.

After that - and you can call this contradictory if you please - in my opinion the battles of August 1588 weren't truly "decisive".

Yes, yes, I know; the "Armada" has been on the list of "decisive battles" since Creasy. Almost every military historian treats it as such. The defeat of the Spanish expedition saved Protestant England and everything that proceeded from that...

But I think if you look hard at the larger history surrounding it you'd agree with me.

It's only in the popular imagination that the Armada sails off to destruction, Liz tells the yobs at Tilbury that she has the heart and stomach of a king and a king of England, too (or maybe not - that wonderful line doesn't show up until 36 years later in a letter written by one Leonel Sharp who claims to have been the man who re-read that speech to the troops - since it is nowhere to be found in the first account of the speech published some 12 years earlier...), and freedom reigns, full stop.

The Armada didn't end the undeclared war between England and Spain - in fact, the very next year the so-called English Armada or "counter-armada" that went to Spain ostensibly to finish the job started in the Channel was roundly and thoroughly spanked, losing about a third of its ships and over 10,000 lives.

The sporadic fighting then went on for another five years, irritating the populations of both countries, impoverishing their exchequers, and eventually resulting in a negotiated peace that did nothing but return things to the status quo ante.

And the 1588 Armada was - as I hope I'll show - such a really hopeless forlorn-hope that the Enterprise of England was never really at chance to succeed. The Spanish might have "won" - in the sense of managing to force passage of the Channel - but to do so given their preexisting technical and tactical limitations would have taken such a preposterous concatenation of circumstance as to be impossible in the real world.

Mind you, the English could have "lost" through weapons-grade incompetence, but that's another story entirely.

So if the engagements that constitute the Armada are "decisive" they are only in one sense, in the sense that they put paid to any chance of an English regime change through Spanish invasion of England in the summer of 1588. And that's a pretty limited definition of "decisive"...


The Armada episode is interesting - at least in my opinion - for what it shows about the limitations of military strategy (and the failure to adjust strategy to techniques and tactics) to solve problems that a more thorough analysis of the political problem at issue would have made stunningly obvious.

That said, let's look at what happened in England and Spain starting in February of 1587.

Armada Dates: 31 JUL - 9 AUG 1588

Forces Engaged: Imperial Spanish Grande y Felicísima Armada (Naval Forces): roughly 130 warships and 25,000 troops.
We'll talk about this in a bit, but it is entirely correct to call most of the people who manned and crewed these ships as "troops" because their function in combat was much less like what we think of as "seamen" or "sailors" and more like what we would think of as marines.
Naval Forces - The ships themselves were divided by their place of origin, and speak large of the multinational character of the Hapsburg dominions.

For the purposes of the list below a "heavy galleon" is one of 40 guns or more, a "medium galleon" is 20 to 40 guns, and a "ship" is 20 guns or less.

Portugal (then a province of Spain by conquest) - 4 heavy galleons*, 6 medium galleons, 2 ships, 4 galleys**

Spanish vessels of Biscay: 6 medium galleons, 8 ships

Spanish vessels of Castile: 12 medium galleons, 1 ship

Spanish vessels of Andalusia: 1 heavy galleon, 7 medium galleons, 2 to 3 ships (no cannon armament is listed for the vessel Espiritu Santo.)

Spanish ships of Guipúzco: 2 heavy galleons, 4 medium galleons, 6 ships, 2 light vessels of 1 gun

Naples and Ragusa: 1 heavy galleon, 8 medium galleons, 1 ship, 4 galeasses***

Spanish "hulks" (shallow draft Baltic trading vessels) 1 of 38 guns (El Gran Grifon), 6 of 20 to 30 guns, 10 of 10 to 20 guns, 6 of less than 10 guns.

Light xebecs and pinnaces: 24 vessels

(A full ship list of the Armada can be found here)


*Galleons: in the terminology of the 16th Century a "galleon" was an oceangoing square-rigged ship of multiple decks armed with cannon. Galleons were typically dedicated warships. The "carrack" was a bigger vessel with high towers fore and aft - the galleon was longer, smaller, and lower but still (especially in the case of the Spanish) taller and less streamlined than the ships the English were building, the so-called "race-built" galleons that were the direct ancestor of the multidecked European warship-of-the-line that appears at the end of the next century.
**Galleys: The oar-powered warship of classical antiquity, and, more recently, of the Battle of Lepanto. These vessels were really not suited for sailing outside the calmer waters of the Mediterranean. But the Hapsburgs - having a long coast along the Med and lots of possessions on it - had pantsloads of these things and brought them along both for makeweight and in case of a calm day. It was a mistake and a death sentence for the crews but that's the Hapsburgs for you.

***Galeasses A sort of naval hermaphrodite, a broadside-cannon-armed oared warship. The galeass was an attempt to upgrade the galley with cannon and square-sail technology. Not a spectacular success, as such evolutionary dead-ends often are, but had its day at Lepanto. In the Atlantic, however, the relatively long and narrow galeasses were at a severe disadvantage in seakeeping while they probably had little success using their oars in the big Atlantic swells.

Ground Forces - Again, we'll talk more about this later, but the real strength of the Hapsburg Spanish military was its ground troops. The tercio - an early version of the pike-and-musket infantry that would be refined in the 17th Century - was still boss in Europe due to a combination of good solid tactical superiority over the older pike-square-and-arquebus/crossbow infantry tactics with long service professional soldiery.

The real business behind the Armada was to get these guys ashore in south England.

The plan was to embark about 20,000 to 25,000 ground troops in the Armada vessels, link up with another 30,000-or-so troops of the Army of Flanders along the French Channel coast, and land the whole menage somewhere on the southeast shore of England.

The actual strength of the Spanish ground forces was much lower (for reasons we'll discuss); probably 15,000 to 17,000 for the embarked units and about 15,000 to 17,000 for Parma's Army of Flanders.

So; 8 heavy galleons, 43 medium galleons, 21 ships, 4 galleys, 4 galeasses, 23 "hulks" (heavy cargo ships), 26 light scouting vessels, about 8-10,000 true sailors, 2,000 slave oarsmen, and about 35,000 ground troops all arms.

The overall commander of this force was notionally Alonso Pérez de Guzmán y de Zúñiga-Sotomayor, 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia. But, as you will see, in fact the good Duke commanded nothing but his naval force; the Army of Flanders was commanded by Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza, and this division of command contributed immensely to the failure of the enterprise of England.

Kingdom of England - Naval Forces - the English force, on the other hand, was almost entirely composed of true fighting sailors of the sort we'll see a lot more of in the coming centuries.

The English Navy proper of 1588 consisted of about 30-40 "fast galleons", the race-built square-riggers mentioned in the notes above. The remainder of the roughly 200-ships in the fleet that met the Armada off Land's End the last day of July consisted of "private" vessels, ships owned by individuals or "corporations" of individuals that fitted out what amounted to heavily armed merchantmen. These critters tended to make excellent privateers or, if failing official letters of marque, out-and-out pirates.

So far as I can tell the English force was set up as follows:

Western Squadron (105 ships total) - 16 heavy galleons (RN), 4 ships (pinnaces RN), 85 medium galleons and ships (private)

Seymour's Squadron (35 ships total) - 5 heavy galleons (RN), 31 medium galleons and ships (private)

The fleet auxiliaries included 27 light units, similar to the Spanish xebecs;

City of London (13 ships total)
Royal Auxiliaries (14 ships total)

The Wiki entry for the Armada claims that this force totaled
"...34 ships of the royal fleet (21 of which were galleons of 200 to 400 tons), and 163 other ships, 30 of which were of 200 to 400 tons and carried up to 42 guns each; 12 of these were privateers owned by Lord Howard of Effingham, Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake."
which, comparing it to the list above, looks about right.

There's a complete fleet list here.
The Dutch Protestant forces contributed some 30 light, shallow-draft "flyboats" as well, which proved quite useful in harrying the Spanish along the Flanders coastline.

So, about 200 ships of all types and probably some 20,000 to 30,000 sailors under Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, Sir Francis Drake, and Sir John Hawkins.

We'll talk in a bit about the English Ground Forces. They had no part in the engagement and that's a damn good thing.

The Sources: Sources for the Armada, and the larger Anglo-Spanish War, are unusual in that in this case the contemporary secondary sources should be treated with more caution than later materials.

The accounts of the episode that emerged within ten years of the summer of 1588 were typically part of the propaganda war of both sides. There were simply no "neutrals" on hand to record unbiased opinions or observations; the spin simply depended on whether the author was Protestant or Catholic.

Both Tudor England and Hapsburg Spain had extensive - if to modern manners somewhat irregular and quirky - bureaucracies and, as all bureaucracies do, both monarchies piled up reams of paperwork concerning every aspect of the campaign, from details of armaments and troops to diplomatic and strategic assessments. The state papers of the opponents have become the source of considerable scholarship about the events of July and August 1588 now that both the contenders have passed on.

The primary source I used for researching this post was Neil Hanson's The Confident Hope of a Miracle. The True History of the Spanish Armada. An accessible popular history, my only real complaint other than the vaunting subtitle is Hanson's evident dislike for - or at least impatience with - Elizabeth Tudor. He seldom misses a chance to castigate her indecision and vacillation and while his strictures may be correct it seems unlikely that she was in fact as unreliable and difficult a monarch as he insists. Still - worth a read.

Another popular narrative history worth a look is David Howarth's 1981 The Voyage of the Armada: The Spanish Story

Other worthwhile books in print about the events we're discussing are Garrett Mattingly's 1960 work The Armada, typically considered the earliest comprehensive modern study, and the 2002 work edited by Martin and Parker, The Spanish Armada, a collection of scholarly writing on the subject.

What appears to be a truly revelatory work is Paul Hammer's 2002 Elizabeth's Wars. I was not able to review this prior to writing the post, but I have ordered it on the strength of the linked review; this looks like one of the better of the recent secondary sources that have benefited from the recent interest in and scholarly attention to this campaign.

On-line the Wiki entry is fairly decent, although it contains the bizarre date mixup (see below). Several other sites contain a mixture of information and obvious gaps. Among the more interesting is the digital edition of Julian Corbett's 1898 Drake and the Tudor Navy: With a History of the Rise of England as a Maritime Power
A Note On Dates: One thing I noticed during my on-line wandering is a peculiar set of variable dates for the Armada's Channel engagements.

So far as I can figure the contemporary dates - that is, the dates used by the participants in 1588 - are the ones cited above; 31 JUL through 9 AUG. But several - more than just a handful - websites place the engagements in July; Eddystone/Plymouth on 21 JUL through to Gravelines on 28 JUL.

I thought that the confusion might have had something to do with the Julian calendar, which was still in use in England in 1588, but in at least one section the Wiki entry notes the difference between the "Old Style" and "New Style" dates (for the speech at Tilbury). And in any case, moving the dates of the engagements up to Gregorian dates should have moved them ten days further into August rather than ten days back into July. So this does not seem to have been the case, at least universally.

I am still clueless about this bizarre mixup on the dates. Help from anyone with any insight on why this lack of uniformity is so prevalent would be more than welcome.
Among the other worthwhile on-line resources are:

The "British Battles" page for the Armada. Very comprehensive, though obviously told from an English POV. Well-researched, especially for the ship lists.

Nice, breezy little summary of the Battle of Gravelines here.

Brief observations on the state of military medicine in 1588 and it's likely impact on Gravelines.

Nice little article here from The Tudor Group on the English trained bands.

And for the treasure-hunter, archeologists, and budding Steve Zizzous among you, a lovely little site detailing the excavation of an English wreck of 1592 off the island of Alderney. Much worthwhile details of the state of English naval warfare, and English life, in the late 16th Century.
Before - Root Causes and National Capabilities: To sum up the Anglo-Spanish war of 1856-1604 is really beyond the scope of this essay, but let me at least try and give you some idea of why a huge mob of oceangoing Spaniards turned up outside Plymouth in July of 1588...

The quarrel really began in the fifteen-thirties, when Elizabeth's father Henry broke with the Roman church. I suspect that Hal himself would have been horrified to be considered a Protestant; he seemed to see his little problem as a personal quarrel with the Bishop of Rome. But through the course of events by Elizabeth's time England was firmly Protestant. And that wasn't OK with Philip II.

Philip was in interesting guy; a sort of Renaissance Bob MacNamara. In an era when a monarch's power was absolute and most absolute monarchs behaved just like you'd expect a hairless monkey with no limits would Philip was a cold, calculating, bureaucratic sonofabitch. He probably would have preferred to look over an actuarial table than to make love to a beautiful woman. Come to think of it, that's what he DID do.

But of all his other peculiarities he had one that ruled everything else;

He hated Protestants.

England and Spain, as two of the three European Great Powers (France was the third) probably would have collided regardless once France fell apart in the 1500s. It had always been England's policy to play Spain against France to offset the Auld Alliance of France and Scotland, but a weak France and a strong Spain meant that Elizabeth's England was inevitably going to come to smash with the Dons.

But with England on one side of the great religious schism and Spain on the other the collision came sooner, and more violently.

The English remembered with loathing the burnings and persecutions of "Bloody Mary" Tudor's reign. Much as English divines often moaned about the general irreligiousness and devotional sloth of their laymen, the English in general had no interest in the returning to the bosom of Mother Church. They'd seen that before and hadn't enjoyed it.

And from his side Philip wanted - more than he wanted to remove the English threat to his New World dominions, more than he wanted to cut off English aid from his rebellious subjects in the Low Countries - to bring England back into the Catholic world. And he was prepared to take extreme measures to make that happen.

We could go over all the various grievances Philip piled up to launch the Armada; English piracy in the Caribbean and against Spain itself, the execution of Mary Stuart, the "Queen of Scots", English interference in the Spanish wars in the Netherlands...but the bottom line is that the English were Protestant, and dangerous, and there was nothing Philip liked less than a dangerous Protestant.

So you get the Armada.

The overall plan of campaign was pretty simple; get a big-ass fleet into the Channel, control the "Narrow Sea" long enough to get an army ashore in southern England, march to London, tea and tapas at the Tower, game over.

As always, the devil was in the execution.

The thing I get from looking at this as a campaign is how utterly lopsided the strengths and weaknesses of the two opposing forces were.

The English were boss at sea but a joke on land

England in 1588 had utterly revolutionized naval warfare. She had an actual government fleet, a royal navy, which none of the other European nations had; the only real "naval vessels" in the Armada were the galleons that Philip's guys had stolen from Portugal. Everything else from the keel up was a private vessel of some sort nationalized For The Duration. It had always worked that way, even in England, but in Henry VIII's time some smart guys got the idea that it would be a good idea to have actual dedicated warships in case somebody got grabby.

And what warships! The English had "got" the incredible leap that technological change wrought by the combination of improved artillery and improved rigging and ship design had made in military sailing.
Sea battle since Roman times had always been basically land battle over water. You got as close to the enemy as you could - give or take a little ramming, which was an odd and specialized maneuver and not really a grand tactic - shoot your arrows and as much of the catapult/ballista-type heavy weapons as you had shipped, and then you went screaming over the side and killed everyone on the other guy's ship.

Call it "boarding" if you want, but it was fundamentally just what you did on land translated into sea-fighting.

When gunpowder cannon came along in the 15th Century the things were either too small (and used pretty much the same as the old bows/ballistas were, as antipersonnel weapons pre-boarding) or too huge to be worth much as antiship weapons.

But improvements in gun-casting, powder, and most importantly the gun-handling techniques in the mid-sixteenth century had suddenly made the heavy cannon (often called "culverins" or the slightly smaller "demi-culverin" in 1588) into a real ship-smasher.

Couple that with the English improvements in ship design - which cut down the ginormous "castles" fore and aft (the term "race" in "race-built" should actually be "raze" - it referred to the razing, or tearing down, those big fighting platforms) - and suddenly you had a vessel with firepower enough to really hurt and enemy, and enough maneuverability to sail around and find the best way to do that.

The Spanish, though, were still fighting the old way. Big, topheavy, poor-handling tubs packed with troops, with the old, clumsy, badly-designed cannon, that had to lay alongside their enemies and board them.

The picture to left is one of the Spanish armada cannon salvaged with its carriage. Notice something about the latter?

It's a field gun carriage.

The English had figured out that those old-school two-wheeled field carriages were a hazard at sea; clumsy, slow to move and load, and prone to bucking wildly across the gundeck when fired. The English cannon were mounted on the classic pirate-movie four-wheeled gun-trucks and "breeched" - tied to the hull with ropes and blocks that were, in effect, recoil buffers that allowed for a controlled recoil and a quick run-out.

The effect was to make the English cannon several times more effective; they could be trained more accurately, fired more quickly, and more could be mounted in the same size space.

The Spanish would have to try and sail through this barrage to board, but the English ships were handier and more sailable than the Spanish, so they could pick and choose their distance pretty much at will.

So you see the problem for Spain?

The only way that their naval tactics could work is if the fought an enemy as inept as they were. And the English had already figured out how to beat the old tactics - or, at least, they had figured out how NOT to get beat by the old tactics.

So the English had the cannon to stand off and pound the Spaniards, and the ships that could outsail the Spaniards and keep that stand-off distance as they pleased.

Basically it was the U.S. Army versus Iraq in 1991; the Spaniards were farkling around the ocean like the Iraqis hoping that the English would use the same-old tactics and techniques that were all they had. And the English - with their better guns, better ships, and better sailors - had the 16th Century equivalent of thermal sights and GPS.

There was really only one way it was gonna end, unless the English were all struck by a massive case of Stupid.

But on land?

Talk about night and day.

We talked about the Spanish infantry back when we discussed the Battle of Pavia back in February of 2009. The Spanish tercios had pioneered what eventually became the pike-and-shot techniques of the 17th Century in the early 1500s. And they were among the first to realize that infantry soldiering combined with the new mobile artillery had made the old chivalrous cavalry as dead as the dodo and about as intelligent.
Plus they added the advantage of long-service professional soldiers. The new tactics were great, but you had to practice the damn things; you couldn't just show up and mill about smartly, as most European "troops" had for centuries outside the armsmen retained by the feudal lords.

The tough core of the Spanish army were the troopers recruited from the peasants in places like Extremadura and Castile, trained to handle pike or musket, marched up the Spanish Road to Flanders or Italy, and fought there for years.

Field engagement, siege, skirmish, pursuit - the Spanish armies had done it all and could do it, efficiently and well. The had encountered English troops in the Netherlands in the 1580s and had bitchslapped them handily.

Because although reforms were happening in England (that would eventually produce one of Europe's best infantries) they were happening slowly, and poorly. Outside about 10,000 professional guardsmen around the sovereign in London, English land forces in 1588 consisted of the "trained bands" - militiamen raised and armed haphazardly by the local and county officials - and a larger group of untrained levies. Contemporary records tell a sorry tale of poor-quality and often absent weapons and equipment, and "troops" often less than excited about soldiering. Most contemporary observes, including English ones, felt that the Spanish would go through these guys like a dose of salts.
Notionally there were supposed to be something like 30-40,000 of these gomers in place along the south coast of England to repel a Spanish invasion. But in fact nobody even at the time seems to have had any idea how many troops were really there. Hanson (2003) says flat out that "there were probably no more than a few thousand men under arms at any point of the Armada campaign".

So you can see how the two combatants had almost exactly-opposite strengths and weaknesses, and the key to success would figuring out a way to get the matchup right-way-round.

During - The Campaign: The sorry tale of the Spanish part of the Enterprise is well-told elsewhere. But I'll give you the Clif's Notes version here.

Earlier in the 1580's Spain's most experienced hand at all this messing around with boats gave Phillip his best guess on what it would take to invade England.

"It will be necessary to mobilize and to concentrate..." wrote Alvaro de Bazan, first Marquis of Santa Cruz, " the English Channel, the whole naval power of Your Majesty's dominions, together with land forces."

Santa Cruz' plan required five hundred ships, including 150 large galleons, 40 galleys, 6 galeasses, 40 cargo ships and 80 light ships. Carried on deck of these ships would be 250-some lighters of landing craft to put the 60,000 soldiers ashore. Add in 30,000 sailors and all the provisions and supplies needed to support this horde and the Marquis estimated the cost at something like four million ducats, which translates into about a gazillion dollars in today's money.

Our boy Parma had an alternate plan that involved a nighttime surprise attack. He thought that with about 25 galleons he could ferry 30,000 troopers across in a single night and that would be enough to win through to London. But he cautioned that he'd need something like 700 lighters to ferry the boys, and that if the English caught on there'd be slaughter on the water; 25 capital ships wouldn't be enough to defend the invasion forces.

As it was, Philip went the way of bureaucrats everywhere; he pared here and nipped there trying to find a way to do the Enterprise of England on the cheap. He put Santa Cruz in charge of the entire farrago, stood aside while Spanish corruption, inefficiency, and general schlaemperi made the process of outfitting and assembling the Armada a shambles, and then proceeded to badger and lambaste poor Santa Cruz until the old man escaped by dying early in 1588.

The new guy, Medina-Sidonia, did a little better, finally getting the floating circus to sea in May, 1588. But problems began to surface almost immediately.

Many of the vessels were about as seaworthy as a cask; the combined force was capable of little more than 1 nautical mile a day. And the supply problems continued at sea; many of the storage barrels were poorly made and had leaked, or rotted inside, and the stored rations and water had spoiled. The crews and soldiers began to sicken, and the operations of the fleet - never particularly good - began to degrade even before the Spanish coast dropped below the horizon.

So the fleet that showed up off of Land's End at the end of July was already in trouble, and the folks there to greet them had both the capabilities and intent to make things worse.

While this floating congeries was bumbling its way northeast, Parma's guys were...well, sitting around on their ass might be a little harsh.

But not much.

The problem, though, didn't originate with Parma but with his boss.
Philip had ordered Medina Sidonia to sail up the north side of the Channel - close to the English shore - to Margate Point, where Parma's landing craft would link up with him at sea and be escorted into the landing beaches.

Philip had told Parma - or, at least, Parma had interpreted Philip's orders to mean - that first the Spanish naval force would clear the Channel of both the English deep-water AND the Dutch "flyboats" and then link up with his outfit near his embarkation port at Dunkirk.

The best little appreciation I've read of how utterly fucked-up these offsetting Spanish orders were comes from the "British Battles" website, where the author observes:
"Philip did not appear to appreciate the inconsistency in his plans as to where and how the two commanders were to meet. A staff with a working knowledge of the conditions in the Netherlands would have known of the powerful threat posed by the Dutch navy, making it out of the question to sail transport vessels unescorted from any of the ports available to Parma. At the same time the Armada had not been equipped with pilots familiar with the Netherlands coast so that it was incapable of safely approaching any of Parma’s harbours, situated as they were behind long and dangerous coastal sand banks."
And that was pretty much it; a plan that seemed perfectly reasonable in an office deep in the Escurial was practically unworkable in the field.

Any experienced troop will recognize the feeling.

But whatever the reasons, Parma did fail massively in one critical area: he did not do anything to assemble transports for his troops.

The accounts I've read make a variety of suggestions for why this essential element of the operation didn't happen. Some historians suggest that Parma was, in effect, sabotaging his master's plan. He didn't want to risk his army, didn't trust the Armada to do what it was supposed to, and knew that trying to leave Dunkirk in a bunch of "flat-bottomed boats" with the Dutch coastal force waiting for him was suicide.

Other authors believe that it wasn't that Parma's forces didn't want to pull together an invasion flotilla but that operational overstretch meant that they couldn't; remember, they were still fighting a hell of a hot war on the ground in Flanders (and there were even some worries that some of the Protestant princelings in the western part of the Germanies might move against them - a force was detached to keep a wacht am Rhein that summer).

But whatever the reason, the cold fact was that the Army of Flanders had no means to leave the coast of northern Europe without physical assistance from their floating forest now moving slowly into the entrance to the Channel.

The actual engagements were a fairly messy succession of meeting engagements up until Gravelines, and I'll try to dispatch them briefly.
Plymouth to Portland Bill (31 JUL to 3 AUG): Really just a series of harassing attacks by the English, typically in independent squadrons, as the Armada continued to sail northeast. The wind at this point was generally easterly, that is, blowing from the northwest to southwest, and the English had the advantage of what was called in the age of fighting sail the "weather gauge"; they were upwind of the Spanish and could sail downwind towards them whenever they wished and then, being more maneuverable and able to tack closer into the wind, escape back upwind when they wished, as well.

However, the English were still feeling out the relative capabilities of the respective fleets. They knew one thing from the jump, though; they sure as hell didn't want to let one of those big Spanish bastards close enough to board! When a dog fights a bear the dog had best keep enough distance to avoid getting mauled and that's what the English did.

But this also voided their best ship-to-ship weapons, their cannons. The English seem to have expended a hell of a lot of powder and shot over the first four days and managed to knock over a total of two Spanish vessels, both through blue-on-blue accidents.

Round One - no result; slight advantage to the local champ
Portland Bill and Isle of Wight (3 and 4 AUG): On the night of 2/3 AUG the wind veered around westerly, and the Spanish now had the "weather gauge". Off Portland Bill the Armada tried to close with and board the English squadrons, but the more handy English kept sheering off, firing as they did so. The English, on their part, still stood off beyond the effective range of their guns.

But they were getting the idea; at one point Admiral Lord Howard tried an actual 18th-Century-style "line ahead"/line-of-battle attack. He ordered a small group of RN vessels (said to have been Victory, Elizabeth, Golden Lion, Mary Rose, Dreadnought and Swallow) to form up, sail into close cannon shot and unload their broadsides into the nearest unlucky Spanishers. This attack is said to have fallen apart before it had any effect, but you can see - the thought was there.

The next day Medina-Sidonia tried to slip around the east side of the Isle of Wight and get into the protected waters of the Solent. Not a bad idea, but the wind proceeded to swing back around and pushed him on down the channel. The day seems to have included some more of the same sort of catch-me-if-you-can skirmishing with the same effect.

Calais and Gravelines (7 to 9 AUG): Four days after their unsuccessful try at the Solent the Armada dropped anchor off the port of Calais. The French Channel coast, by the way, is apparently a mess of nasty shallows, sandbanks, rocks, and other booby-traps for unwary sailors and the Dutch had inhospitably removed all the buoys and channel marks. So Medina-Sidonia & Co. weren't very happy about trying to enter the harbor, the only friendly French port along the coast outside Dunkirk (which was actually occupied).

So the big fleet took a break in place and its commander sent yet another message to his counterpart Parma asking for a link-up (he'd been doing this since the Armada arrived off the English coast and had yet received no reply) and finally heard from the elusive Duke.

Who informed his partner that the Army of Flanders had no way to get out to the Armada.

I cannot imagine what the hell poor Duke Alonzo must have thought when he read the message from Parma. "What the fuck..?" must have been the dominant theme.

After all here he was, finally, after all that, probably feeling like he'd dragged all 130 of these garbage scows from Lisbon to Calais hisownself, and now this fucking idiot didn't have so much as a goddamn rowboat to get his guys into the game?

In retrospect, it's probably just as well that the English turned up to give Medina-Sidonia something else to worry about.

Because the Brits had finally figured it out.

The dance started the night of 8/9 AUG, when the English turned loose eight fireships on the anchored Armada. Other than storm the biggest terror of a wooden-ship sailor was fire, since for all that the vessels were surrounded by water the ships themselves were like tinder; all sorts of flammable wood, cordage, gunpowder - when a wooden ship burned there was almost no stopping it.
The Spanish managed to avoid or two away the fireships, but most of the Armada in its panic either slipped or cut their anchor cables, leaving the anchors themselves on the bottom. This turned out to be death for them later, but better than burning up at the time, they must have thought.

The Armada scattered into the night, and when it reformed the following day it found that the English were now willing to get stuck right in; the Brits closed to within their effective cannon range and proceeded to blast hell out of the Spanish.
Two Spaniards were sunk outright, most of the rest were pretty badly knocked about, and all that without a single English ship more than slightly damaged and the loss of about a hundred Englishmen.

The Armada retreated out of the Channel northeast into the lower arm of the North Sea. The winds were still from the west, the English fleet, its tail up, blocked the eastern end of the Channel, and the Army of Flanders was going nowhere. The Enterprise of England was over.
After - Storms and Lessons Learned: Unable to fight back through the Channel - and, probably to a large part, mentally defeating and unwilling even to try - Medina-Sidonia chose to lead his command all the way around the British Isles home to Spain.

As you probably know, this was a disaster.

The slow movement of the Armada meant that it rounded the north of Scotland late in September, and the gales of October caught the damaged vessels and their sick and injured crews off an Irish coast they were utterly ignorant of.
Half the Armada were wrecked, and thousands of Spaniards died. Perhaps the ugliest part of that story is that most of the crews that survived the storms and rocks were rounded up by the English occupation forces in Ireland and executed out of hand. You can kind of understand the problem; here was a vastly outnumbered occupation force in a violently hostile country handed a group of potential military trainers and leaders of a local rebellion. They English had no secure prisons or way to transfer their POWs safely to England.

Still; the image of a bunch of miserable, sick, shell-shocked survivors being hung in bunches or hacked apart like downer's pretty sickening.

About half the ships made it back to Spain. But probably something like 2/3rds or more of the men who had sailed ended up dying, many of them after that got home "safe", from the diseases that ran wild in the Armada. The Enterprise of England was a human disaster on a force-of-nature scale.

But, curiously, as a military catastrophe the Armada was pretty minor.

The following year the English tried to exploit the destruction of the Spanish naval force by launching an "armada" of their own; Francis Drake led a force of 6 royal galleons, 60 English armed merchantmen, 60 Dutch flyboats, 20 pinnaces, and about 25,000 assorted troops to strike the western Spanish coast. This force did take Corunna and messed about in the Tagus estuary but lost about a third of their vessels and thousands of troops to a combination of the Spanish, storms, and disease.

The Spanish actually learned from the disaster.

The Escurial took advantage of the loss of the old medieval fleet to build a new "royal navy" led by twelve big, race-built galleons. These "Twelve Apostles" combined with much improved intelligence and a convoy system to break the English privateers in the 1590s.

The Spanish proceeded to whip the ass off of naval expeditions led by the Armada victors; Martin Frobisher, John Hawkins, and Howard of Effingham himself were beaten, the last in 1591 trying to ambush the Spanish annual silver fleet near the Azores.

The Spanish ginned up a revolt in Ireland that lasted from 1594-1603 and sent three more smaller Armadas in 1596, 1597, and 1601.

Both sides pretty much exhausted their treasuries. By the time Elizabeth died in 1603 the popularity she'd gained from her being there during the Armada summer had been destroyed by all the miseries of a long war; loss of trade, loss of jobs, heavy taxes to support the troops, and a long series of defeats and half-successes.

Philip had died five years earlier and the new monarchs James and Philip III were quick to bury the hatchet and demobilize the forces.

England had managed to keep the Inquisition out of both Flanders and England itself, and had helped their French faction beat back the "Catholic League". The Dutch had been supported as English allies and trading partners, and the Irish crushed (again).

Spain, on the other hand, had pushed back the English meddling in the New World. The English would have to concentrate on North America, then thought to be an inhospitable howling wilderness of savage natives and no gold. The new Spanish navy now effectively protected the treasure fleets. But the Spanish merchant marine had been raped, and Spanish trade increasingly had to move in others' ships, a factor that contributed both to a weakened Spanish economy and a rivalry with the northern European powers, especially France, that played a big part in starting the Thirty Years' War.
What can we today take away from this whole mess as a lesson or lessons learned?

There's all the usual stuff, of course. The Anglo-Spanish War is a classic in the "nobody benefits from prolonged war" library. It's also in heavy rotation on the "there's nothing so pointlessly destructive as a war about religion" playlist, and there's the "make sure you have an objective before starting a war, and make sure the objective is both worthwhile and achievable given your resources."

But what about specific lessons from this one?

Let's start with this one; Hope is not a plan; neither is a "plan" based on hope.
When you read the Spanish documents surrounding the Armada, all the way from the earliest planning stages to the final reports you come away kind of astounded by how much the entire business actually depended on everything happening the way Philip and his people wanted and expected it to.

At one point Parma actually got pissed off enough to snark his royal master; "God is going to get tired of doing miracles for us." he writes Philip. Unfortunately for the thousands of Spaniards who died Philip never believed that. In his opinion God's job was to do what Philip wanted.

That sounds theologically shaky to me, but, then, I'm just a fucking heathen.

Politically, militarily, and on a human scale, it was an utter disaster, too, so there's that as well.

Which probably leads us to the next lesson:

If your leaders are really, truly, absolutely determined to slam your dick in the door, there isn't much you can do about it.

Santa Cruz laid out the reality in cold hard numbers for Philip years before the Armada disaster. Parma had some good ideas, as well - particularly the notion of seizing a Channel port FIRST, then sailing the fleet to the link-up point. Medina-Sidonia wrote to Philip again and again pointing out the problems and weaknesses of the Armada.

But as in the case of a certain more recent, American, entitled fathead these guys were talking to the hand. The leaders didn't want to hear anything that suggested that the wonderful plan wasn't going to go slicker than water off a cat's ass.
There's this: Quantity does have a quality all its own, but it sure hurts to be the guy who has to make that shit work.

There's another way to put this, which is, simply, that for all that it's expensive to keep current with military technology, tactics, and techniques, it can be expensive in human lives if you don't. The Spanish had missed out on the revolution on naval technology that produced the race-built galleon, and they paid in blood and treasure.

Well. That's nice, but not really special to the Armada. What about something unique about this one, something that doesn't often get emphasized?

Well, there's this; When planning a military operation, you need to keep focused on the part of the operation that's critical to success, not the parts that just look big, shiny, and cool.

I think that's really the biggest lesson from the Armada, and I'm going to suggest that we STILL don't think of the Enterprise of England the right way.

We think of it as a "naval battle", and, in history, all the fighting was at sea. But I'm going to put to you that the sea fight should have been just a part of an amphibious operation, and that the amphibious operation - the transport of Parma's Army across the channel - should have been the main focus of the entire operation.

In my opinion the real cause of the disaster was that Philip - and, to an extent, all his officers and his staff - was too focused on the fleets.

Because, when you think about it, the Armada didn't really have to beat the English fleet.

All it had to do was keep from being beaten but keep the English occupied while the Army of Flanders did a D-Day at Pevensey.

Once ashore the Spanish infantry should have been able to live off the land long enough to make it to London and make things difficult for the last of the Tudors. The Spanish fleet could then pick and choose it's time and place to engage, or not, rather than hang about exposed off a lee shore waiting for some frigging fireships to float down and make their lives a little more miserable.

Parma should have been in overall charge of the operation in the same way that it was Ike the overall boss of D-day and not Bert Ramsey. The entire business should never have been allowed to proceed unless the Army of Flanders was ready to cross at a moment's notice; that Parma and his boys were able to sit around on their collective anos is a massive indictment of the military incompetence of Philip and his staff and his (and their) inability to discern and then focus on the militarily critical task of his
Enterprise of England.

The other thing that comes to mind is that people live on land, not on the sea. Without a grand strategy that puts naval warfare in a larger geopolitical context winning a sea-fight can be a strategic dead-end. Neither Philip nor Elizabeth had an actual strategic or geopolitical idea what to do with the results of the Armada campaign.

In the short-term the English "won" the Armada battles in 1588. But the victory was purely defensive, and when they attempted to follow-up their success they made much the same mistakes the Spaniards did; the "counter-Armada" was militarily worthless.

Anything else you can think of?

Touchline Tattles: The schoolbook stories of the Armada are so many; Drake and the game of bowls, Elizabeth and the "heart and stomach" speech at Tilbury, the winds blowing and their scattering... Time and distance have made the Armada more of a picture-book tale than a reality.
But here's one Armada story that seems to me a little more personal and a lot more poignant, and I like to think serves to remind us that caught up in the great acts of history are just ordinary people like us.

Apparently the only survivor of the 297 men aboard the galleon Santa Maria de la Rosa of the Guipuzcoa squadron was a young man named Giovanni, the son of the Italian pilot.

This vessel turned up off the Blasket Islands in County Kerry in terrible shape, drifted into Blasket Sound and sank, possibly after striking something called Stromboli Rock.
Giovanni swam, or drifted, to the shore and was captured by a party from the local English garrison. Supposedly he was interrogated through another Armada survivor, a galley slave. Giovanni said - or the interpreter claimed he said - that the Santa Maria had sank with Philip's son the Prince of Ascoli on board.

This was not true, by the way, but the English claimed it anyway for their wartime propaganda.

The young man also reported that the Spanish captain of the Santa Maria had killed his father just before the ship sank, claiming the Italian pilot had betrayed them to their deaths.

Giovanni was reported to be sixteen, so he must have had something of the lanky unshaped look that late-teenagers often do. He would have probably been suffering from malnutrition and the effects of the long voyage, so he was likely even more rawboned and angular, his hands and feet looking awkward at the ends of his limbs.

And, remember, he'd just seen his father murdered and his ship wrecked, after a hell-voyage of many weeks. I suspect that he looked back at his captors with the glazed thousand-yard-stare that you see in pictures of exhausted prisoners-of-war; without animation, without hope, just the haunting edge of fear in his hollow eyes.

I wonder what he was thinking as he watched them prepare the end of his life. Did they hang him? Did he get to watch as some English sergeant went competently about whipping a rope over the nearest tree limb and knotting the loop in the end? Was he simply marched shambling to a patch of bare ground and hacked to death with a sword, or axe?

Did he weep? Did he plead? Did he cry out to his captors in the language of the sunny lands of his birth, begging to be spared?

We know he was not. But the rest; what he really said, what he thought, what he saw, how he died, and where, and every other bright, fleeting moment of his last day on Earth, we will never know.
But I wonder; did Giovanni have time to curse the malicious Fate that had brought him to that lonely beach in Ireland to end his life because of the fever-dreams of Philip of Spain, and the miracles that never came?


Don Francisco said...

There was an interesting historical impact of the Armada on where I grew up, on the East coast of Scotland. Some Spanish ships didn't even make it as far as the north of Scotland, putting into Scottish ports in the Firth of Forth. Rather than make their way back to Spain, many sailors just chose to stay.

Though no Spanish names have passed down, there are a few people who live in the local area who basically look Spanish - it's interesting as it skips generations.

Leon said...

Another good post chief, many people (myself included) just assume this was a 'decisive' battle.

I would submit a more historical Elizabeth quote, this one was recorded by Lord Blackadder: "I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a concrete elephant". Stirring stuff that.

Pluto said...

I did a similar report in college in the early 1980's based on an excellent history (whose name I cannot recall at this time).

The only things I can add are that the Spanish sailed in a mutually protecting formation up until the fireships that frustrated the British no end. Which, of course, led to the fireships.

The other thing is the history of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia. The poor sod had never sailed in his life before the Armada but was selected solely because he was the only surviving nephew of Santa Cruz (who had submitted some very pleasing but not particularly accurate reports to Phillip before dying of old age).

Medina-Sidonia proved to be a horrible sailor and was seasick every day of the voyage, which no doubt reduced his limited command of the sea even further. The man survived both the voyage and Phillips wrath but had been completely broken by the experience and died a couple of years later.

FDChief said...

DF: I think the Irish have similar stories. Not surprised - if I'd been shipped on one of the Spanish ships I'd have been heartily sick of the game of soldiers by the time we passed north of the Tyne, frankly.

Leon: It's always been treated as such, but it was a very limited sort of "decisive" - it DID stop the Enterprise of England - for that year. It definitely did NOT either stop, or even really give the English and advantage in, the Anglo-Spanish conflict of the last decade of the 16th Century.

Pluto: I think that, had Parma had his shit together, the Armada could have used that same sort of defensive formation to keep the English ships off of the invasion barges long enough to get the Army of Flanders across the Channel. And then - as I discussed in the post - it might have gone very differently.

And nobody comes out of the Spanish side of the Armada expedition looking very good. But to me Philip was the problem, pure and simple. It was his monomania that got people like Medina-Sidonia in trouble and people like young Giovanni dead. But he was the 1% - the 0.1%, really - and so he died peacefully in his bed, the worthless fucker.

Podunk Paul said...

Back in the day our history professor claimed that, when at sea, Spanish Armada troops were kept busy polishing cannon balls. The resulting finish increased the aerodynamic drag and gave the English a ballistic advantage. He defended this thesis with reference to the mottled surface of golf balls.

Does that sound reasonable?

FDChief said...

Paul: Well, the Spanish soldiers may well have been detailed to meaningless makework tasks - soldiers since Caesar's day have, to occupy them and keep them out of mischief - but their polished cannonballs weren't a real factor.

Almost every source I read talked about the huge difference in cannon and gunnery between the two sides.

The English had technically better cannon; better cast, better carriages, shorter and lighter. They had better gunners and guncrews - the Spanish crew drill consisted of loading and running out the gun, lashing it to the side, and then running up to the deck to fight as infantry while the gunner waited below to apply the match and fire. IF - and I say if because the Spanish theory was that the cannon would only fire once and then it would be boarders away! - the cannon had to be reloaded the gunner had to run on deck, round up his crew, and take them back belowdecks and go through the long process over...

The English powder and shot were pretty much the same as the Spanish - in fact, my guy Hanson talks constantly about how stingy Elizabeth was about providing powder to her fleet, and how two Spanish prizes provided something like a third of the powder expended between Plymouth and Gravelines.

So I don't think there is anything to the whole "golf-cannonball" theory. The Spanish were just trying to fight a 16th Century fleet with a 15th Century armada, and, not surprisingly, lost tactically. And they had no real amphibious invasion plan and lost the grand tactical fight, too.

Ael said...

I think you are too harsh on Philip.
Once he climbed aboard the tiger's back where the king makes all the decisions, he *had* to make all the decisions.

Imagine being in charge of the greatest kingdom in Christendom and then realizing that all sorts of horribly bad decisions get made unless you make them yourself. Imagine the crushing workload and being too responsible to just go off and dance the night away with your beautiful wife.

He really was a slave to his job.

Expecting him to spot a subtle technological shift before a lot of people got killed is really too much. As you point out, he *did* quickly catch on about the technological issues after the fact.

FDChief said...

Ael: Actually, he didn't. His naval people did; Philip never really bothered with technical or tactical details. He just figured that God would provide.

No, where he was culpable was in the overall planning, the big picture. Santa Cruz told him the force he needed; he ignored that. Parma and Medina-Sidonia kept badgering him to make critical strategic decisions, he either refused, prevaricated, or made the wrong decisions.

And the critical error he made was not realizing that Parma's army, not the Armada, was the primary effort and should have been given logistical priority and overall command authority.

I think the answer was that he was worried that Parma wasn't committed to the Enterprise of England (and he wasn't) - then Philip should have relieved him and appointed a new commander.

So it's not that he was a slave to his job and made some unavoidable bad decisions that I slag off in him; it's because he was offered better options and refused to take them because he really believed that God would make things happen the way he wanted them too.

Bad politics and bad theology, IMO.

mike said...

Bad politics and bad religion indeed, may God save us from religion I say!

Interesting that English propaganda hardly mentions or glosses over the losses of the counter-Armada and the later defeats of Frobisher, Hawkins and Howard.

Have you read any of the accounts of Francisco de Cuellar? He was stripped, beaten and robbed by Irish locals after his shipwreck, not English occupation troops. And hundreds of his shipmates were murdered.

I will put your references on my reading list.

Albert Parker said...

The shift of dates 10 days in the wrong direction in some accounts could be from correcting dates that had already been corrected. Take an event reliably documented to have occurred on July 16 (o.s., English documents)/July 26 (n.s., Spanish documents). An English writer who found the July 16 date but assumed that it was from the Spanish and therefore n.s. would correct it AGAIN to July 6.

Anonymous said...

what the fuck is weird, is no one poruguese ship sunk, and lookinmg for their galleons, no one can find them anywhere.

thye did everything in secret and they were v good seammen..almost ghosts..

TheQ47 said...


I discovered today that your website is using a photograph of mine without proper attribution to me. The photo appears on this page and is of a lightly snow-capped Benbulben with the wreck of a boat on the beach at Streedagh in the foreground. My original copy of the photo is here:

I have no problem with you using this photograph, in fact I’m happy for you to use it, but the photograph is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence, known as CC BY-SA 4.0, or Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (for more details of this licence please see

In short, this licence allows you to use the photo provided you “give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.”

The proper wording of attribution you should give is as follows:

By theq47 - Dermot McGlone from Ballymote, Co. Sligo, Ireland (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I would hope to see this attribution posted to accompany my photo on your site as soon as possible.


Dermot McGlone