Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Spanish Armada and the Black Legend

The Spanish Armada, bound for England's shores, set sail on July 20, 1588. Christopher Check addresses some of the historical issues, including the BLACK LEGEND, in this article from This Rock:

Written by the Victors

For four centuries, English propagandists and poets have spun their version of the Armada: The small maritime nation defeated the fleet of a mighty world empire determined to drag the modern nation back into the Dark Ages of Papist superstition. The Spanish ships, laden with the ghastly torture instruments of the Spanish Inquisition, were turned away by doughty crews of Drake and his comrades, a defeat that was reinforced by a extraordinary tempest. If that were not evidence of the will of Providence, nothing was. (Even G.K. Chesterton, in his magnificent ballad Lepanto, indulges in healthy dose of Black Legend, caricaturing King Philip as a disfigured sorcerer brewing poison in his closet.)

Modern English historians, who should know better, cannot escape bias in their portrayal of Philip. David Howarth declares unapologetically at the start of his Armada history, distinguished for its nautical detail, that he finds Philip "altogether unworthy of admiration," a remarkable comment for a solid historian to make about this great monarch of the 16th century.

Still, one aspect of the English version of events should be given its due: the claim of decisiveness. Were the events of 1588 decisive? Well, was the Alamo decisive? Was the Loire Valley campaign of St. Joan of Arc? Was Thermopylae, or Lepanto? It is true that Spain flourished as a land and sea power for a generation after the Armada, facing her real decline during the Thirty Years’ War, but the defeat of the Armada has undeniably taken on the power of myth in the formation of the British Empire’s patriotic understanding of herself. The moment heralded the rise of Britannia’s ruling of the waves, and modern historians, whether out of Spanish sympathy or out of their hatred of a kind of triumphalism in all the stories of the West, are dishonest when they downplay the event’s significance in history.

A Long Defeat

But for Catholics, even the English version of events offers enough evidence to help them choose sides. That we cannot admire Drake and his fellow puritan pirates, seeking to vanquish the Whore of Babylon, is obvious. But there is more: Spain provoked, we are told, war with England because she denied English merchants commercial access to her colonies in the New World. To be sure, Spain was guilty as charged of practicing a kind of protectionism that was hardly unknown in England. In any case, the argument reveals what was most at the heart of the English motives, trade—Mammon—and when Britannia began her own colonial adventures in the New World two decades after the Armada, the enterprise was one of state capitalism, not evangelization. Whatever faults we can find in Philip II or in any of the men who served this most Christian of empires, we cannot deny that at the origin of Spain’s policies—from the Netherlands to the new lands across the sea that Columbus claimed for Christ in 1492—was the cross, and the spread of its message of Redemption for all mankind.

The courageous men who sailed with the Spanish Armada, endured its privations, and died in the horrors it suffered are no less a part of this legacy in salvation history than are the glories of Don John of Austria or Hernan Cortez. The via dolorosa, for example, walked with such quiet patience and humility by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who, in his abundant correspondence and diaries, blamed no one but himself for the Armada’s failure, is no less an inspiration. God does not measure the progress of salvation history with political victories. Indeed, there may be no better way to contemplate the tragic tale of the Grand Armada than with the words found in the correspondence of J.R.R. Tolkien: "I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat.’"

The Black Legend, of course, is a propaganda campaign that demonized Spanish Imperialism--as though English Imperialism is somehow more virtuous. One modern author, Philip Wayne Powell, in his book Tree of Hate, refers to Hispanophobia. The Black Legend of Spain has many sources, some even from within Spain as criticism of certain policies.

6 comments:

  1. I always enjoy your site and in this case besides learning something new it has inspired me to read more on the subject.

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  2. What always struck me most was the aftermath. King Philip thanked God in spite of the defeat and paid his surviving sailors a hefty pension. In England, Spanish survivors were sold or murdered where they were found and the poor English sailors were kept shut up in their ships, dropping dead of disease and malnutrition just so that the penny-pinching government would not have to pay them off.

    Your mention of the New World contrast between England and Spain holds true for the Armada in a way as well. I recall reading that Philip's fleet carried more priests than cannoniers, which proved a problem in battle but showed the greater emphasis placed on the religious side of things on the part of Spain.

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  3. In the course of the little bit of research I have done on the Black Legend, the name Henry Kamen always appears. He has written a series of books on the Spanish Inquisition, the Counter-Reformation, Golden Age Spain, etc. So many books, so little time.

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  4. I'm not hispanic, and couldn't be considered in any way an hispanophile - but I'm happy to see (for me at least, for the first time) the subject of the "Black Legend" appear anywhere in the blogoshere. I firmly believe that this legend must be addressed before any objective study of Reformation history. Thank you, Stephanie!

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  5. You're welcome, tubbs. The Black Legend certainly gets in the way.

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