The Spanish Armada
Armada: A celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1588–1988
Armada: 1588–1988, An International Exhibition to Commemorate the Spanish Armada: The Official Catalogue (Greenwich)
The Spanish Armada: The Experience of War in 1588
Most of the great naval events that excited the imagination of contemporaries and have retained their hold were battles named after a nearby landfall or a stretch of water: Lepanto, Quiberon Bay, Trafalgar, Jutland, Midway. “Armada” simply means battle fleet. The Spanish Armada, or, simply, Armada, refers not to an event but to a story. It has a beginning, the sailing from Lisbon (Portugal was then under Spanish rule) on May 30, 1588, of one of the largest long-distance expeditionary forces that had ever sailed; a middle, the armed encounter with the English fleet in the Channel and the North Sea from July 30 to August 9; and an end, a horrific one, as the weather took over from the adversary, until the survivors of storm and privation returned from the long swing around Scotland and out into the Atlantic during late September. The flagship reached Spain on the twenty-first, trussed with hawsers to keep her from splitting apart.
Because it was not an event but a two-months’ story, and because there was no decisive, epic battle (as opposed to skirmishes and—as we shall see—a literally enflamed major encounter), and no clearcut victory of one fleet over the other, the “Armada” episode has attracted historians of many persuasions. This is why, in an age of the compulsive marketing of anniversaries, the celebrations in England last year produced not just routine evidence of work-in-progress but a number of books of merit, as well as one of the most satisfying historical exhibitions ever to be mounted. It is sad that its catalog, which sums up much of the material independently dealt with in the books under review and illustrates far more than they were able to show, could not have found a publisher across the Atlantic.
The purposes of the Armada campaign were straightforward. It was launched by the overworked zealot Philip II, monarch of Spain, who ordered his fleet to make first for the Flemish coast. There it was to act as a convoy of an invasion fleet of troop carriers organized by the Duke of Parma, Philip’s commander in chief in the Netherlands, across the Channel. On landing in Kent the troops from both fleets would march on London. What would happen thereafter was wisely left open. Philip had already semi-ruled in England through his marriage to Elizabeth’s predecessor Mary. But that was thirty years before. His seasoned troops and the siege artillery stowed in the Armada’s holds should have guaranteed success against England’s home guards and frail or easily bypassed coastal fortifications. But which way the English would turn so far as patriotic loyalty, religious preference, or administrative control was concerned was more than could be judged from his own experience and the reports of a long succession of Spanish spies, ambassadors, and refugees from Elizabeth’s version of Protestantism. What invasion could do, even if it could not bring England into the Spanish Empire or return it to the Catholic fold, was …
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1588 and All That May 18, 1989