queen elizabeth faces the spanish armada -- 8/18/20

Today's selection -- from The Armada by Garrett Mattingly. The decisive 1588 naval battle between England and Spain and its vaunted Armada showed England to be a world class power and contributed to Spain's decline from its status as Europe's greatest power:

"Englishmen who knew most about [a potential war with Spain], however, never believed that it would come to a fight by land. Slowly, over the years, the English had become conscious that they were guarded by the sea and the sea was theirs to guard. The progress of the Hundred Years' War and its end had heightened that consciousness. Henry VIII in spending more money on ships of war than any other king in Europe was building on a tradition already established. The loss of Calais and the growing enmity with Spain sharpened still further the sense of depending on the sea, and by 1588 Elizabeth I was the mistress of the most powerful navy Europe had ever seen. Its backbone was eighteen powerful galleons, the smallest of three hundred tons, built and armed in a new fashion and capable of outsailing and outfighting any possible enemies afloat. There were also seven smaller galleons of one hundred tons or more, and an adequate number of seagoing pinnaces, light, fast, handy craft, useful for scouting, carrying dispatches and inshore work.

The Swallowe listed as one of the queen's ships of
308 tons during the preparations for the Armada campaign.

"The fighting ships, the galleons, were built for war not commerce and so with a keel longer in proportion to their beam than was usual in merchant vessels. This type, wherever it was first developed (Portugal perhaps), by 1570 was the normal warship of Atlantic waters. But the queen's galleons were different, For ten years her zealous servant John Hawkins had been in charge of building and repairing her fleet and Hawkins was a man with advanced ideas about war at sea. He wanted his galleons even longer for their width and so capable of mounting more guns, and of sailing nearer the wind. He wanted the deep waist decked over. The sailors stationed there might feel naked and exposed when, instead of being sheltered behind a wooden wall which rose above their heads, they found the bulwark stopping at their middles, but the extra deck space made room for still more broadside guns. And because he believed in fighting with the big guns instead of boarding, Hawkins wanted the towering castles bow and stern reduced so drastically in size that old-fashioned captains who valued the high-built castles 'for their majesty and terror' complained that he was abolishing them altogether. If he bothered to reply, Hawkins might have answered that the upper decks of the castles could mount only light, secondary batteries, bases and slings and other such man-killing pieces, while the lofty superstructures impaired a ship's sailing qualities and caused excessive rolling. Whether he replied or not, Hawkins had his way. In the years of his administration all the queen's new ships were built on the sleek clean lines he favored, and almost all the older ships were rebuilt to match them. The result was a fighting fleet, faster and more weatherly than any that had ever been seen on the ocean before.

"At the same time Hawkins's rival, enemy and collaborator, Sir William Wynter, was working to arm the ships in a fashion as revolutionary as Hawkins's design. The man-killing guns were reduced in number, the ship-killing guns were increased. Iron guns gave way to brass, and culverins and demi-culverins, long guns throwing an eighteen- or nine-pound shot with relatively high muzzle velocity and fair accuracy at ranges upwards of a thousand yards, more and more replaced the stubby-barreled smashers like the demi-cannon, a thirty-pounder with a short, uncertain range. We cannot be quite sure how many of the queen's ships were armed according to Wynter's proportions or better by 1587, but it is safe to say that through his efforts and Hawkins's the queen possessed a fleet capable of outsailing and outmaneuvering any enemy in any weather, and at its chosen range (the point-blank range of a demi-culverin, a long nine-pounder), of outgunning him decisively.

"What Drake and Hawkins and others complained of, and what historians have complained of since, is that Elizabeth did not fling her splendid fleet boldly at the Spanish coast, to cut off trade with the Indies and hold Philip's warships helpless in port. Instead she kept most of her ships at anchor with only skeleton crews and in a secondary state of readiness, and in doing so she violated what became, in the later days, when navies had time to develop such things, one of the basic strategic doctrines of the British navy. Perhaps she should have listened to Drake and Hawkins, though one remembers that they predicted a speedy victory if the fleet took the offensive, and that when later on it did so, nothing of the sort occurred. Elizabeth might not have had a sound opinion about that, one way or the other. But she had ruled long enough over a seafaring people to know that ships and crews were never the better for a long winter in the open Atlantic. Even if none were lost to tempest or to enemy action, the ships would need fresh spars and calking, cordage and canvas and a thorough careening and rummaging before they could be useful again, while the crews, huddled together in unsanitary squalor and fed perforce mostly on salt beef and stockfish, weevily biscuit and spoiling beer, would be weakened by bad diet and depleted by illness, even if typhus, the dreaded 'jail fever' or 'ship fever,' had not, as it too often did on long voyages, killed off half of them. Whether Elizabeth consciously counted over all these dangers, or just husbanded her precious ships as instinctively as she husbanded her money, one may doubt that she would have risked them in the winter on the coast of Spain even had there been no Bourbourg conference.

"As she arranged it, her crews kept themselves healthy on land on fresh food, a fair half of them at their own expense, thus sparing both the victuals packed and stored against the spring campaign and the queen's purse. And the energies which her captains would have preferred to spend plundering Spanish merchantmen and daring the king of Spain under the guns of his forts they spent instead bringing the queen's ships to the last taut pitch of readiness."

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Garrett Mattingly


The Armada


Houghton Mifflin Company


Copyright 1959 by Garrett Mattingly


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