The English Armada

The second part, with the title English Armada, constitutes the heart of the book and is the most extensive section. It begins when the exhausted English interception fleet ended its pursuit of the Spanish Armada at a distance and headed for the coast. From this point on the facts are truly astonishing. On the advice of her naval officers, Queen Elizabeth decided to keep her fleet mobilized in case the Spanish Armada, which was still virtually intact, attacked England from the North. The mobilization, which would last for over a month, was to have disastrous consequences for the ships’ crew. For a virulent epidemic, which had begun to wreak havoc during the operations in the Channel, spread throughout the men who had spent a long time on board ships that were already infected. At least half of the men, that is over 8,000 of them, died in terrible circumstances, while their captains begged for them to be demobilized. All this was happening while 28 ships of the Spanish Armada were shipwrecked on their return journey. But Elizabeth would not order the demobilization until she received definite news that the Spanish Armada was on its way back to Spain.

The following chapters deal in detail with the preparations in Corunna to fend off the imminent English counter-attack, which Philip II was aware of, and also the general mobilization that was taking place in England in order to prepare for the attack. Under the command of Sir Francis Drake and John Norris, the fleet set sail from Plymouth on 28 April 1589. It consisted of over 180 ships and 27,667 men and was larger than the Spanish Armada (137 ships and 25,696 men). Its objective was to take advantage of the temporary but extreme weakness of the Spanish navy, owing to the fact that the ships that returned from the Spanish Armada require major repairs and a full refit and there was insufficient time to do so in such a short period. There were three objectives to this mission. The first and foremost was to destroy the bulk of the Spanish Armada which was being repaired in Santander. The second was to take Lisbon and place on the throne the Prior of Crato, the illegitimate pretender to the Portuguese crown inherited by Philip II some years earlier. In exchange for assistance Crato had offered to turn Portugal into an English satellite and permission to acquire a stake in the Portuguese empire. The third mission involved taking the Azores and intercepting the fleet from the West Indies, thereby opening the way for the seizure of the Spanish ocean routes and the collapse of the Spanish empire.

The succeeding chapters describe the military operatons in detail through the extensive use of unpublished documents. Drake and Norris disregarded the Queen’s orders and allowed themselves to be driven by the interests of the private shipowners – responsible for the majority of the ships in the English Armada – into attacking Corunna. Theoretically it was a weaker garrison than Santander and they expected to acquire some easy, quick and substantial booty. But Corunna was defended by its inhabitants who had taken up arms and by the infantry from the ships of the Spanish Armada that had returned to Galicia, and the town succeeded in driving back the bloody and tenacious attack, subjecting the invaders to heavy losses. This was when María Pita became famous. It is interesting to note that this Galician garrison town had only 4,000 inhabitants, making it clear how superior the Spanish infantry was – something that was recognised by the English writers of the period.

Having suffered serious losses and a considerable delay in Corunna, Drake set sail for Lisbon. But following the unexpected defeat in Corunna the fleet did not risk keeping to the initial plan to attack Lisbon head on. This indecision was seized upon and following various military operations – which are related here for the first time – the expedition was roundly defeated. The defence of Lisbon was headed by 5,000 veteran soldiers of the Spanish infantry. Their strategy was to interfere with the supply of provisions, isolate and harass the English army on land and on 3 June 1589 attack them directly. The English army then fled back to the ships, where hunger and disease took hold once more. Once the English Armada had been defeated and then set sail, the Spanish galleys took the opportunity of a dead calm sea to attack them, sinking or capturing several ships and dispersing the fleet. On the difficult return voyage sickness and hunger reached crisis point and literally left the ships without any men to sail them, with many vessels lost at sea as a consequence. Of the 180 plus ships that set sail only 102 made it back to England, coincidentally the same number of ships that returned from the Spanish Armada. Of the 27,667 men who took part, 3,722 claimed their pay. If the gentlemen volunteers are included, less than 5,000 survived, as Martin Hume acknowledged in 1896 in The Year after the Armada, a brief but valuable article about this expedition. Later R.B. Wernham published The Expedition of Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake to Spain and Portugal in 1988.

It contains an important collection of documents on the expedition. However, neither Hume nor Wernham, nor any other writer thus far, has examined the extensive and unpublished Spanish documentation on which the present volume is based. The fact is that, based on the number of men and ships lost, the English expedition became the greatest catastrophe in English naval history. In total, it is likely that over 20,000 men and 80 ships were lost, whereas the Spanish Armada lost a maximum of 11,000 men and 35 ships. The second part of the book also recounts how this major disaster was concealed from the outset, thanks to the publication of pamphlets and Elizabeth’s skilful propaganda strategy.