A Renaissance image of the Spanish Armada confronting English ships.
By Periklis Deligiannis
This is an historical scenario that I have written about what would have happened if in 1588 the Armada of Spain had defeated the English fleet and the Spanish had conquered England. The scenario extends to the critical impact of such a march of events to the history of Europe and the World. Although it is written in the form of an “historical narrative” (because I was asked to write it in that form for a journal) it is based on actual and – I hope – cogent historical arguments which I mention in the text.
I did not take into account some random factors which in real history favored the English, while in the present scenario I supposed that they did not, for example the weather conditions which actually favored them much (in fact the Armada was defeated by the weather and not by Lord Howard’s fleet). First I quote an introduction comprising the actual historical events until the departure of the Armada. Next follows the scenario, being an estimate of mine on how the events would have evolved if the Spanish were victorious.
During the 16th century the Reformation of the Protestants against the arbitrariness of the Papacy and the Inquisition has divided the Western Christian world. Around 1587, the supporters of Catholicism had rallied around the Habsburgs whose dynasties possessed two of the three most powerful European thrones, the ones of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire of the Germans. In addition, the Spanish throne had inherited large areas of Europe (Portugal, Flanders, half of Italy, and others) while other European regions (eg some Italian states) were its protectorates.
The third most powerful European kingdom, France, was under the control of the Catholic League. The French King Henry III was essentially a ‘hostage’ of the leader of the League, the Duke of Guise who in his turn was manipulated mostly by the Spanish king. The stubborn French Protestants (the Huguenots) despite the carnage of the night of St. Bartholomew at their expense, were still numbering almost 1,000,000 causing instability in France and giving the opportunity to the Catholic League to substitute the royal power. Spain had additionally annexed the extensive network of the Portuguese colonies. The Spanish Empire controlled the most productive parts of the Americas and the numerous Spanish and Portuguese colonial settlements and posts around the world. The abundant American gold which was transported by the Spanish convoys in Madrid’s royal treasuries, ensured the supremacy of the kingdom over any other in Europe.
According to several scholars, the Spanish Empire was the most powerful in the planet, more powerful than the empires of the Ottomans, the Mughals (“Mongols”, in fact Turks) of India or the Ming of China. On the other hand, Protestantism had officially prevailed in England, Scotland, and the Scandinavian, northern German and Baltic countries. However, a large proportion of the population of the English kingdom remained Catholic because all Irishmen and a significant proportion of the Englishmen and Welshmen remained faithful to the papal church.
The Protestant doctrine of Calvin had prevailed in Scotland, however the majority of the Scottish Highlanders and a significant proportion of the Lowlanders remained Catholic. The Germanic Protestants of the Netherlands (ancestors of the Dutch) used to revolt from time to time against the Spanish domination. Their struggle for ethno-religious freedom, in combination with other factors, led to their gradual differentiation from the rest of the Germans. Thus during the 16th-17th centuries arose the Dutch nation.
Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) was the most powerful European monarch. His punctilio and his insistence in controlling almost everything around him was proverbial and had become the subject of several negative comments about him, mainly from posterior Protestants. It is characteristic that Philip used to correct even the spelling and syntax errors in the written reports of his officials. In reality, he was a strong, robust and fully coherent personality, a tireless leader worthy of the requirements of a superpower like Spain of the 16th century. Many times he was working for fourteen or sixteen hours a day, always dealing with the governance of the Spanish Empire, the first in World history in whose territories “the sun was never setting ” (Later this ‘unofficial title’ was appropriated by the British for their own colonial empire).
From a military standpoint, the Spanish navy was the largest European, strengthened also by the Aragonese, Portuguese, Italian, Flemish and other fleets belonging directly to the kingdom. The Spanish infantry was considered by the other Europeans of the 16th century as the best in the world. Eight centuries of endless wars against the Muslim invaders in the Iberian Peninsula, the French, the Ottomans and their allies, and then against the Aztecs, the Incas and other Native Americans had strengthened the Spanish soldier or mariner (harquebusier, pikeman, cavalryman, marine) at a high level. The Dutch and the English had become the biggest problems of Philip. In 1587 the former were confronting the most skilful general of Spain, Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, who was trying to subdue them with his 35,000 combatants, Spaniards and mercenaries (Germans, Walloons, Italians and others).
The English were a more threatening opponent. Under the ‘blessings’ of their Queen Elizabeth, a strong and ruthless personality, the English privateers were conducting an undeclared but real war against Spain robbing her maritime convoys which transported gold and silver from America. In 1586 their piratical activities were so successful that not even an ounce of gold or a doubloon from Mexico or Peru found its way to Spain.
Additionally, the English were reinforcing in every possible way the Dutch revolutionists. In 1587 Elizabeth has managed to exhaust Philip’s and the Spaniards’ patience, when she ordered the execution of the Catholic Queen of Scotland Mary Stuart. Elizabeth knew that Philip was already preparing a naval expedition against England in order to overthrow her and to restore Catholicism in the country. For this reason she allowed Francis Drake, the most renowned English corsair, to attack the Spanish port of Cadiz in order to delay the preparations made for the departure of Philip’s fleet against England.
In Cadiz, Drake managed to destroy a number of the enemy ships. His successful raid secured some more months for the defensive preparations of the English. In February 1588, the experienced and skilful Spanish Admiral Alvaro de Bazan, Marquis of Santa Cruz, one of the great winners of the Battle of Lepanto (1571, the greatest sea battle in World history) and the choice of Philip for the command of his fleet, fell ill but in a few months he managed to recover (this is the only part in this historical introduction which is an hypothesis by the author of this article: in reality Santa Cruz died and thereby Duke Medina Sidonia was appointed commander of the Armada. The alleged poor personal relations between Philip and Santa Cruz were not as poor as it has been supposed, and in my point of view the king would offer the command of the Armada to his most experienced admiral regardless his recent misfortunes, mostly his inability to confront Drake’s raid).
The “invincible Armada” as it was called by the Spanish people consisted of 126 ships with around 20,000 mariners and sailors and 7,000 soldiers and marines. On July 16th 1588, the fleet finally sailed from Lisbon and a few other Atlantic ports towards England. The instructions of Philip to the Spanish admiral (actually Medina Sidonia, and so the same instructions would be given to Santa Cruz) was to avoid any unnecessary conflict with the enemy fleet quickly escaping from its custody, in order to protect the landing operation of the Duke of Parma’s army on the English coast. This was the main objective of the Armada campaign and not the destruction of the English navy as sometimes it is supposed nowadays. The Duke of Parma, based on the Flemish coast, had received orders from Madrid to have ready thousands of his soldiers in order to embark them on light vessels and make the landing on the opposite English shore. If the landing operation was successful, he would march to capture London.
The English fleet consisting of 130 ships with 13,000 mariners and sailors and 4,000 soldiers, had some faster warships of advanced design and partly more advanced artillery compared to the respective Spanish ones, but generally was not as strong as the Spanish Armada (see the Appendix). Plymouth was its main naval base, situated on the west entrance of the English Channel. Lord Charles Howard was appointed its commander and its ranks included famous seafarers and explorers such as Frobisher, Drake, Hawkins and others. These were the Elizabethan Sea Dogs or Elizabethan Pirates according to others. The queen had also established a force of 4,000 soldiers south of London under the command of her favored Earl of Leicester, in the event that Parma’s soldiers would manage to land in Kent.
(At this point, I need to make a personal comment on the fact that Elizabeth has been criticized by modern historians for choosing Howard as admiral commander instead of Drake or any other English Sea Dog, arguing that the Queen chose the Lord due to his noble origins and not his abilities. However, I believe that her choice of Howard seems correct because the command of a national fleet which would additionally be engaged in extended naval operations and proper sea battles, was a very different case than the command of raiding fleets or flotillas engaged in commando operations and piratical raids. Howard’s prudence and rigor was certainly more preferable than the risky daring of Drake or any other captain of pirate’s vein and culture. The failure of the English counter-Armada campaign in 1589 – where the English suffered almost the same heavy casualties as the Spaniards in 1588 – is a probable argument on this view.)
The initially favorable wind for the launch of the Armada suddenly turned to become North wind and pushed the fleet to the southeast in the open ocean. But the change of the wind did not last long. After the Armada was reorganized off Oporto, on July 19 entered the Bay of Biscay sailing fast towards the Channel, taking advantage of the South-Southeast wind. On July 25 the Spanish fleet passed the peninsula of Brittany and entered the Channel waters without being perceived by the English scouting vessels due to its hugging the French coasts. Shortly before the hugging of the Cap de la Hague (Normandy) the Armada was detected by the vessels of the English squadron of Bournemouth, which sounded the alarm to Howard’s fleet. The Spaniards faced an adverse fortune when an East wind arose shortly after the hugging of the Cap de la Hague, immobilizing the Armada almost at the center of the Channel, near the English coast. Launching from Plymouth, the main English fleet moved against the enemy sailing with overexertion. The queen’s ships were also facing the headwind but took advantage of the sea currents that led from the Channel to the North Sea which the English mariners knew very well. The two fleets met off the Gulf of Swanwich (modern Swanage) in southern England and clashed.
The Battle of Swanwich was long, however without causing considerable losses for both sides. The English warships were sailing around the battle line of the Armada firing their guns against it but without daring to approach its ‘floating fortresses’. The Spanish responded by firing as well, but also without any essential success. However the risk for the Armada was not coming from the Sea Dogs, but from the dangerous sea currents of the Channel. The experienced Santa Cruz knew that when the wind would turn again towards the east, its strength added to that of the currents, would not lead his fleet at its destination, the Flanders, but to the threatening for the Catholics North Sea. His only option at the point where he was “trapped” was to lead his fleet to the protection of the Solent, the strait between the Isle of Wight and the English coast. The Armada would also face great danger sailing in a narrow English channel but it would remain close to the Flanders and Parma’s army.
The strong English naval base of Portsmouth was located at the east exit of the Solent; a base that could trap the Armada in the strait, but the Spanish admiral had confidence in his warships and men. When the wind became Southwest-West, the marquis of Santa Cruz immediately led his fleet in the Solent. The English fleet attacked again with renewed vigor in order to prevent Armada’s entrance in the strait. This was Howard’s decision although some Sea Dog captains insisted that it would be better for the English to trap the Armada in the Solent and destroy it there. But Howard retorted that it was not wise to trap a bear in a cave without exit. Regardless of Howard’s choice, the English vessels did not achieve their goal because their captains avoided approaching enough the enemy galleons, fearing the dangerous attack and landing of the Spanish marines on their decks due to the narrowness of the strait. Thereby the choice of the Sea Dog captains took place, although they fought gallantly to achieve their commander’s choice.
The English managed to sink six vessels of the enemy fleet which had turned its back entering the Solent, losing themselves three warships sank or captured by the Spaniards, being trapped between the Armada vessels. The Armada was now sailing in the Solent with the enemy fleet following close behind. Lord Howard ordered a new offensive against the Spanish vessels in the narrow space of the channel which however was not helpful for the new English battle tactics which required an open space. The anxiety of the English admiral aroused the suspicions of Santa Cruz. What was the reason of those hasty choices of the prudent commander Howard?
The battle of the Solent lasted a whole day as the Armada was sailing slowly and cautiously into the waters of the channel. In the night, the Spaniards saw the port lights of Portsmouth. At the same time, Drake and some other Sea Dogs tried to burn the Armada using fire ships, as was their original plan when they tried to convince Howard that it would be better for their plans if the Armada was allowed to enter the Solent. However the winds and the currents did not help their venture. The English fire ships were grabbed and carried away by Spanish light vessels, except one which was successfully attached to the heavy galleon “San Salvador” which was burnt. However, the Spanish losses in human lives were small because almost its entire crew was rescued. All the same, the English were encouraged by this success and their cries of triumph were heard up to the ships of the Armada.
THE FALL OF PORTSMOUTH
Santa Cruz was wondering again why the enemy captains were expended in risky actions with poor results. Of course, they could not remain inactive; they had to do something against the enemy but there was clear anxiety in their choices and attempts. His eyes fell to Portsmouth and it was then that he understood why they were acting this way. The English had drawn almost all available forces in warships and men having accumulated most of them in Plymouth, because they believed that they would rapidly detect the entrance of the enemy in the Channel. The rapid sail of the Armada to the Channel via the French coasts and Cap de la Hague, and then to the Solent took them by surprise. Therefore, according to Santa Cruz’s thoughts, Portsmouth would possibly be protected by a small guard even if it was hastily reinforced with militia from the nearby country.
The Spanish admiral wasted no time. The attack against Portsmouth would surely cost many casualties but the strategic gains would be greater. Moreover, many soldiers of the Armada were “expendable” Germans, Flemish, Italian and other mercenaries. The Spanish admiral lined up his forces at sea, arraying some warships with heavier guns at the forefront while the rest of the fleet followed slowly on a mission to intercept the successive attacks of the enemy vessels at its rear. The first Spanish warships approached Portsmouth unleashing all their firepower against the port’s fortifications while the English harbor’s batteries responded with equal fervor. Simultaneously, the vessels in the middle of the Armada convoy lowered into the water boats full of Spaniard and mercenary soldiers, who started rowing towards the neighboring coast. Two galleys of the Armada, the large “San Cristobal” and a Neapolitan galleass were sunk by the guns of Portsmouth. But when the vanguard of the Armada approached enough, its fire destroyed a large part of the fortifications and the emplacements of the English port. At the same time, a fierce battle was taking place in the rear of the Spanish fleet where its main body was fighting the English navy which desperately tried to prevent the capture of Portsmouth.
Soon the guns of the Armada vanguard silenced. It was the time of the Spanish infantry, the “best in the world”, which had landed in the neighboring coast and was now unleashing a stormy attack on Portsmouth’s shattered fortifications. In the mark of dawn, the banners of Castile, Aragon and Portugal waved on the ramparts and the docks of the port. But the battle with Howard’s fleet was going on fiercely. The Armada had paid a heavy toll for the conquest of Portsmouth. Twenty-eight of her ships were sunk or scrapped (compared to the twelve vessels that the English had lost) and nine hundred men were killed during the operation. However, when the English realized that the harbor had definitively fallen to the enemy, they fell back exhausted and frustrated.
The triumphant cries of the Spaniards for their success were heard up to the neighboring small haven of Gosport where the English naval vanguard was anchored. The main body of Howard’s fleet retreated to the safety of the Solent. Elizabeth was shocked when she learned the news of the fall of Portsmouth but forbade Leicester to move for the recapture of the city, fearing a possible sudden invasion of Parma’s army in other places of the southeast coast. But at the same time she ordered the rapid mobilization of all available forces, which however proceeded with delay because of the lack of effective organization and the belief of many British officials that sooner or later their navy and the local land forces would regain Portsmouth.
July 29 passed without aggression but the night that followed witnessed the second disaster for the English. Drake managed to persuade Admiral Howard for a commando operation against the enemy fleet in the port of Portsmouth where it was anchored. Shortly after midnight, a number of English warships and fire ships approached the port. But the Spaniards were vigilant waiting for such an English raid. They already knew very well Drake’s tactics and did not find it difficult to repel his raid. The “Revenge”, Drake’s new-type galleon, had penetrated deep into the harbor of Portsmouth and soon it was surrounded by two embattled Portuguese galleons and a Castilian one. The “Revenge” was first overwhelmed by their shells and then was occupied by the Spanish marines. Drake was captured and was led at once before the Spanish admiral.
The commando operation had ended up in a fiasco and the morale of the Englishmen was irreversibly damaged. But the heartbreaking spectacle that they witnessed in the dawn was a blow from which they possibly never recovered. A fast Spanish vessel had towed a captured fishing vessel to the entrance of Gosport, where the former abandoned it. Drake’s corpse was hung in the main mast of the fishing vessel, and on his chest there was a wooden sign with the word “pirate” in Latin. The Spanish authorities wanted him for years on charges of piracy and murders of Spanish and other citizens, and during the night the Armada officers had him hanged after summarily court proceedings. The other English captains, despite their internal relief for their disposal of this reckless adventurer for whom they believed that one day he would cause harm to England with his actions, they understood that his death at this moment was a large blow for the English moral.
CONTINUE READING IN PART II
APPENDIX: NOTES ON SOME TECHNICAL, TACTICAL AND STRATEGIC ISSUES
It is obviously understandable but I have to remind that the following notes of mine relate to the historical facts.
The English galleons were superior in speed and firepower compared to the Spanish ones and the Iberian-Mediterranean in general, but not to the extent which is often presented by most of the scholars (or at least many of them). Their advanced hydrodynamic shape made them faster indeed, an advantage which however seems to had not helped them considerably against the Spanish “floating fortresses”(galleons and galleasses). Concerning the superior firepower of the English guns, this alleged advantage did not prove to be particularly ‘superior’ in the course of the events. After the sea battles between the two rival fleets and when the Armada was swept away in the North Sea by the strong currents of the Channel, it remained almost intact.
Concerning the references of the English shipyards (after the actual destruction of a part of the Armada by the weather conditions) for limited damages on the royal fleet by the enemy guns, this was due to the limited number of the Spanish gunshots (see below) and not to their inefficiency. After all such references are parts of the permanent effort of the English of that period to “persuade” the other Europeans for their ‘great victory’ on the Armada. Another argument in favor of the superiority of the English vessels concerns the rate of fire of their guns compared to the Spanish rate. But it is true that the Spanish warships fired much fewer gunshots than the English ones, although it is estimated that they had many shells. However, this is logical because the Spaniards were sailing in hostile waters and would face ammunition supply problems if they did not use their guns in a sparing mode. On the contrary, the English could be easily resupplied with lots of shells and other ammo from the neighboring ports (Plymouth, Weymouth, Bournemouth, Portsmouth, Dover and others).
Moreover, the commander of the Armada, Medina-Sidonia, had orders from Philip to avoid battle with the English fleet if it was not necessary because his core mission was to cover the landing operation of the Duke of Parma’s army from Flanders to England. The Spaniards had no reason to fully collide with Howard’s fleet because it would be easily overwhelmed if Parma’s army managed to land in England and conquer one by one by land, its bases of operation (the aforementioned ports). For example, Alexander the Great did the same confronting the formidable Persian navy (consisting not of Persian but of Cilician, Phoenician, Egyptian and other warships) during his campaign. Although Alexander’s fleet could face the Persian in battle, it used a surveillance strategy until Alexander managed to conquer by land the ports of Cilicia, Phoenicia and Egypt, conquering in this way the individual ethnic fleets of the Persian navy without sea battles. Similarly, a proper battle of the Spanish fleet against the English (as the great sea battle of Lepanto against the Turks, 17 years before the Armada campaign) would be meaningless for the former which was ordered to follow a strategy of surveillance against the English and the Dutch warships, in order to protect the landing crafts of Parma’s army.
The Spanish were generally well informed on most of the alleged ‘secrets’ on the construction of the English vessels and their artillery, or even totally informed, because Philip II had the most extensive and best organized spy network in Europe. The assassination attempts on Elizabeth are an obvious argument about its extension and organization although there was Catholic English involvement in them. Furthermore, Philip had at his disposal any kind of information which was collected by the Vatican regarding the ‘heretic’ English, Dutch, Germans and others.
The Spaniards could early follow the English innovations in shipbuilding and naval tactics, but did not do so because their vessels had to be spacious and bulky to be suitable for the main tactic of sea battle in which they remained faithful: a tactic which was an inheritance from their Roman cultural ancestors. The Mediterranean maritime peoples of this era perceived the sea battle rather as a conflict of marines who were trying to land on the enemy deck and occupy it, conquering the vessel, than an exchange of fire between the opponent battleships.
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