Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The English Armada

Last Friday was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, originally called Our Lady of Victory to commemorate the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Lepanto. Christoper Check's by-now classic (I almost said "iconic") telling of the story of that great naval battle includes the insight that our popular historical consciousness knows all bout the defeat of the Spanish Armada but is ignorant of the victory of Lepanto. We could also say that while everyone knows about the defeat of the Spanish Armada, few know about the defeat of the English Armada that followed. This post redresses that problem:

In the aftermath of the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth and her advisors saw a rare opportunity to destroy the remnants of Philip’s fleet before it was rebuilt. To achieve this, the English would create chaos in Spain’s newly acquired backyard: Portugal. In 1580, Spain had invaded its smaller Iberian neighbour and drove out its briefly ruling king António, who fled to England.

Consequently there was a small but relatively significant exiled Portuguese community in England and with the defeat of the Armada, António and his followers dreamt of regaining their homeland. The English set to work raising funds and an armed force to sail to Iberia with a three-pronged series of aims. The main objective outlined by Elizabeth and her Privy Council was to destroy the Spanish fleet that was being refitted at Santander and San Sebastian, but there were also unofficial aims.

The English were to intercept the Spanish silver fleet entering from the Americas and also gain the Azores Islands, which were officially Portuguese but were occupied by Spain. If the treasure and islands could be captured, it would deprive Philip of the wealth and strategic base that funded his European campaigns. The third and most unrealistic aim was to restore António to his Portuguese throne (despite the fact that he was virtually a pretender) with an English army landing in Portugal to encourage a popular revolution.

These aims were almost on a par with the Spanish Armada itself in terms of its ambition, and it would require careful planning, coordination and execution for it to succeed. It would be commanded by the experienced soldier Sir John Norreys, who would take charge of the land forces and the legendary seafarer Sir Francis Drake – who had helped defeat the Armada and was known to the Spaniards as “El Draque” (“The Dragon”). However, the “expedition to Portugal” started to go wrong before it even left England.

This English Armada, rather like the Spanish Armada, partially defeated itself, largely because of poor discipline:

While they were impatiently waiting, the volunteers broke into the warehouses and stole food and drink. By the time the professionals finally arrived, the expedition was ready to sail, but with reduced provisions. The fleet consisted of six royal galleons, 60 English armed merchantmen, 60 Dutch flyboats and 20 pinnaces. They contained 4,000 sailors, 1,500 officers and gentlemen adventurers along with the soldiers. There were possibly over 23,000 men in the expedition as a whole and buoyed with confidence they sailed straight for Lisbon.

However, the plunder of supplies at Plymouth meant that the ships ran out of food before they even reached Portugal. So the decision was made to attack Corunna on the northern coast of Spain in order to seize provisions, even though this meant bypassing Santander where many Spanish naval vessels were being refitted.

Read the rest there--it was a tremendous failure and one of Robert Devereux's steps down in Elizabeth's favoritism because he went to fight in Portugal against her explicit command and contributed to the failure of the expedition.

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