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 to bully the English so they would no longer support Philip’s political and religious enemies in Europe and to stop the fraying of his financial lifeline to the silver mines of America by privateers such as Francis Drake. England, troubled by sectarian, social, and financial straits and its longstanding Irish Problem, could surely be bent if not subdued.

Just how high the stakes were to contemporaries it has become difficult to apprehend. “Empire,” in its old sense of far-flung and cowed if respectful dependencies, has become blurred in the mists of postimperial apologetics. But Philip’s study in the Escorial was the active power center of inheritances and conquests embracing not only huge chunks of the Americas, but Portugal, western Lombardy, southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, and Burgundy, that vital zone on the “Spanish Road” between Milan and Antwerp. Uppermost in Philip’s mind, however, and the great abscess on the imperial body politic, was what is now Belgium and Holland, then the site of a war for self-determination that had drained Philip’s resources of money and men for twenty years. Apart from the Americas and perhaps Sardinia, these were all regions either capable of going it alone or wanting to. From 1585 the English had been supporting the mainly Protestant northern Netherlands in their insurgency. If the Netherlands went, where would the next amputation take place? If the concept “empire” has now lost its full implications of global landlordism, we can take the domino theory as it was applied in Vietnam as suggestive of Philip’s state of mind.

With empire went ideology. Philip had learned from his father, Charles V, that the members of his Habsburg family were God’s champions. To their way of thinking, God was a Catholic. So Philip had a visceral feeling that his mission was not only to combat God’s enemies—the Ottoman Turks as they swelled across the Mediterranean—but to punish His traitors: Protestant minorities in his own domains and Protestant rulers elsewhere. High on his hit list came Elizabeth.


In 1870 when J.A. Froude reached the twelfth and last volume of his still highly readable History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada, he presented the story of the Armada as a conflict of beliefs between two great powers, surely not a dead subject. “My object, as I defined it at the outset,” he wrote, was to “describe the transition from the Catholic England with which the century opened, the England of a dominant Church and monasteries and pilgrimage, into the England of progressive intelligence.” Thus the final naval encounter that wedged the Armada away from its hoped-for linkup with Parma’s invasion force, Froude writes, “decided the largest problems ever submitted in the history of mankind to the arbitrement of force.”

Not even a publisher’s jacket copy would today ascribe such significance to the action off Gravelines, between Calais and Dunkirk. But its outcome was seen in England as a deliverance from Spanish and Catholic dominance, and in Spain, cumulatively, as evidence that some national rot was setting in. Pope Pius V had excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570 and declared her deposed, giving her subjects a license to revel and her enemies a license to invade. His current successor, Sixtus V, promised Philip a million ducats if he effected a landing. “Merrie” England, the “decline” of Spain: within these wobbly formulas are some steadying ingredients. The Armada is common to both. That the Spanish fleet was maimed by the English attack, that it missed its rendezvous to pick up troops and then scattered, cannot be omitted from an account of one of the really startling events of early modern history: the emergence from Spanish domination of a new, independent national entity, Holland, poised to enter its “Golden Age.” To England, and to a sorely perplexed Philip, “Protestant winds” prevented the Armada’s regrouping for another attempt to break through the English fleet (which had run out of ammunition) and ferry Parma’s veterans across to Kent. While using a lighter touch than Froude, the American historian Garrett Mattingly still decided in 1959 * that the combination of circumstances that added up to

the defeat of the Spanish Armada really was decisive. It decided that religious unity was not to be reimposed by force on the heirs of medieval Christendom, and if, in doing so, it only validated what was already by far the most probable outcome, why, perhaps that is all that any of the battles we call decisive have ever done.

For its historians the history of the Armada is not only part of a geopolitical and ideological conflict, but a yarn. As such it becomes the biography of the two opposing fleets, and we get to know individual ships and their fortunes as well as to admire the bravery, skill, and fates of their men. Froude left behind his intense partisanship when his imagination came down to sea level and he honored the bravery and resourcefulness of both sides evenhandedly. Indeed, sympathy for the losers and the long aftermath of the voyage home makes the story, in human and nautical terms, more a Spanish than an English one; and Spanish, too, is the silent underwater evidence from wrecks.

Leaving the campaign’s historical setting largely in the reliable hands of Mattingly, the other writers under review are mainly concerned with more informed and richer explanations of the phases and the outcome of the sea story. The central parts are those known to Froude and archivally elaborated in time for the tricentennial of 1888 by Cesareo Fernández Duro in La Armada Invencible. The Armada of 125 vessels containing some 30,000 sailors and soldiers (for boarding other ships and to swell the invasion force) arrived in the Channel at a time when the winds that brought them bottled up the English main fleet of 105 ships in Plymouth Sound. However, the English admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, in one of the most notable noncombat operations of the entire campaign, managed to tow out some of his ships and warp out others (by having anchors dropped ahead from oared craft and heaving the vessels forward by manpower applied to the capstans, and repeating the operation) just in time to maneuver across the Armada’s front and get the advantage of the southerly winds.

The short engagement that followed was for the English more in the nature of an investigative sortie than a head-on plunge against a powerful adversary in firm formation, spread over two miles, and of incalculable firepower. There were two Spanish casualties. The San Salvador blew up as a result of some mischance in its powder magazine and the Rosario was crippled in a collision. Both fell, but by accident, into English hands.


Meanwhile the Armada, bunched now into the crescent formation that became the instantly recognizable symbol of the campaign, sailed on. Off Portland Bill two further, closer, and more violent engagements were again inconclusive but taught both sides much about each other. The Spanish instinct to grapple with enemy ships and board them, on the model of Mediterranean galley warfare (Spain’s major participation at Lepanto was only seventeen years in the past), could be thwarted by the greater nimbleness of the English ships. But, in turn, the English tactic of sinking from a distance was not knocking out its adversaries. The Armada sailed on.

When coming abreast of the Solent, the west part of the Channel between the Isle of Wight and the mainland, the Armada’s admiral, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, having no confirmation of the Duke of Parma’s readiness, in spite of the fast dispatch boats he had sent ahead, could have turned in toward Portsmouth and waited for news in a strong defensive position. With hindsight this would have been wise. The troops from Parma were not ready, and it was on the dilemma of what to do at the rendezvous that the Armada was to be broken.

In two further attacks, more notable for tactical skill and seamanship than the damage they caused, the English harried the Duke past the moment for decision. So, still largely intact but forced to move, the Armada sailed on. It was as splendid and colorful, and its crescent as firmly ordered and led, as ever. But it is from this moment, as it was pushed past the Isle of Wight, that the old schoolroom jingle rings true:

In fifteen hundred and eighty-eight
The Spanish Armada met its fate.

On August 6 the Armada anchored off Calais, a port then sympathetic to the Catholic cause. Here came the bad news. The Duke of Parma needed more time to complete the embarkation of his troops. Then he would need support to beat off the Dutch vessels that were blockading the coast at Dunkirk, where his vulnerable barges were massing. Offshore were the notorious Flemish shoals that would hamper the tactical deployment of Medina Sidonia’s deep-draft battle and support ships. Meanwhile the English fleet was reinforced to numerical superiority by the arrival off Calais of the force under Lord Henry Seymour which had been stationed as a reserve at Dover. The problem for the English now was to dislodge the Spanish from the protection of the guns of Calais. They did it through the use of an old expedient: sending in fire ships. The anchored wooden vessels of the Armada were vulnerable to blazing tar barrels that drifted against them, and the preset guns went off when triggered by intense heat. The Spanish then made the standard responses—they sent out oared pinnaces, small vessels usually used as messenger ships, to sling a grapple into the fire ships and tow them clear. This dealt with two of the eight English incendiaries. Their other response, instinctive as well as sensible, was to cut anchor cables and run. The Spaniards left on the sea bed off Calais the anchors that would have saved many of them from the jagged Irish fangs on which they were later to be impaled.

The engagement that followed was the first all-out one at close range. There were serious casualties on the Spanish side: only one ship was actually sunk at sea; but perhaps one thousand men were killed, and the damage inflicted on rigging, masts, and hulls led to many more deaths in the retreat than in the battle.

Even so, when the Armada pulled away and re-formed, it was, in numbers, much as it had been when its appearance off Cornwall had sent the coastal warning beacons afire across southern England. Tactically shaken and damaged, it was not strategically defeated. That aspect of its fate was added by the weather, the southern winds from the Spaniards’ own clime that left Parma’s force without an escort and drove the Armada, fraying out according to the patched-up sailing abilities of its ships, into the rigors of the long voyage home.

There is no place for xenophobia in this narrative. One of the writers under review, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, introduces just that when he recounts in his preface that, as a Spanish student at an English school, it had pained him to read patriotic British verse about the battle. He states that the purpose of his “essay” of three hundred dense pages (shouldn’t his Oxford editors have grown impatient with this affectation?) is to argue against “the English tradition” of Armada history, which “has been typified by some fairly loathsome chauvinism and by a pride in achievement unjustified…by the facts.” But this counterbias only further dims the interest of his juiceless excavation of the published literature and sources, although the book does redeem itself fitfully by posing some sharp questions to recent opinions about the respective fighting capacities of the vessels on either side, to one of which I shall refer. Interestingly, his name appears on the list of those whose assistance is acknowledged in the Greenwich catalog, which illustrates many liberally offered Spanish loans and was edited by a Spanish historian, Mía Rodríguez-Salgado. The director of the Maritime Museum emphasizes that it was she who did “most to shape the form of the exhibition and define its main themes.” National animus has no place save in the home of lost causes.

Where the better of the remaining books score is not so much in changing that nature of the narrative as in bringing us far closer than hitherto to the experience of shipboard life and combat, and to an understanding of the calculations involved in the different phases of the campaign. They have benefited much from recent shifts in historiography. Studies influenced by the Annales School in Paris, for example, have analyzed meteorological records for 1588 and subjects like the diet of seamen. Thus to the older picturesque details of rats in the flour, weevils in the biscuit, and bums over gunwales, these historians have added descriptions of wind shifts and calorific energy levels. More importantly, the books include new information on shipbuilding, hiring and commandeering, crewing, and provision and armament, reflecting the recent emphasis on logistics in the social history of war. In a manner Froude never imagined, readers can feel themselves in the Armada. The books also make much of both “dry” and “wet” marine archaeology, the former working largely from contemporary plans and inventories, the latter from wrecks, with their evidence ranging from cannon to articles of clothing and Chinese porcelains to grace the conquerors’ tables in England.

The outstanding example of the use to which the fresh approaches can be put is the crisply and economically written The Spanish Armada. There was much to expect from this book. Geoffrey Parker is the author of a brief, tactfully revisionist biography of Philip II, which cast doubt on Philip’s political judgment. The extensive documentation that went into his The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road: 1567–1659 (1972) gave him a head start when turning from army to naval records at Simancas and elsewhere. Colin Martin is a professional historian and marine archaeologist whose Full Fathom Five: The Wrecks of the Spanish Armada (1975) has been followed by further work on archives and at underwater sites. Their book reconsiders the tactics of the fleets in conjunction with new information about the design, manning, and armament of their ships in a way that makes it a lasting contribution to naval history. Certainly with this book on your shelf, ideally complemented by the Greenwich exhibition catalog (with its admirable introductory texts to each section and with the fullest bibliography) and the new edition of Garrett Mattingly’s book, you will know, and know enjoyably, nearly enough about the Armada campaign to see you through until 2088.

“Nearly enough,” because one important doubt remains. It concerns a technical point challenged by Peter Padfield, in his well-mapped and well-illustrated book, which is strongest on ship design and gunnery. For many years, there has been continuing controversy about the relative hitting power, at hull-damaging range, of the guns in the two fleets. This question has at last been satisfactorily settled from inventories and wreck recoveries and from ballistic studies and tests with replicas as well as—less convincingly, but convincingly enough—contemporary formulas for the composition of different grades of gunpowder. The advantage was on the English side. The real advantage was, though, not just in muzzle velocity and projectile weight, but in superior rate of fire. Eyewitness reports of engagements, English commanders’ clamor for more ball, the unfired heavy shot recovered from Spanish wrecks, all show—indicate, rather, for none of these categories of evidence constitutes proof, even taken together—that the hull-damaging guns of the English were fired, reloaded, and fired again at a rate not matched by the Spanish ones.

For this Parker and Martin suggest two reasons. One is the Spanish attachment to the medieval “close and board” method of fighting. So they could board enemy ships, the Spanish preloaded their guns to fire only a single salvo, after which the gunners, most of whom were hired as soldiers and not as artillery men anyway, ran to battle stations on deck and prepared to form a boarding party. English gunners had no such distractions and worked their guns continuously. The Spanish could have changed their tactics, Parker and Martin grant, but they also had an important technical disadvantage. The English used short four-wheeled gun carriages that eased the handling and adjusting of the guns, while also making it easier to “run” the guns back into the ship to be reloaded inboard. Most Spanish guns, by contrast, were mounted on the large two-wheeled carriages with long trails that were used for land artillery, and were thus too cumbersome and long to “run” so that the gunners could reload inside the ship. It was possible to swab the barrels and reload the guns by perching on the gun barrels themselves, or leaning out perilously through the gun ports, but in combat conditions this did not attract volunteers.

So a piece of carpentry determined the rate of fire that gave the English repeated broadsides so great an advantage in combat and thus contributed to the subsequent foundering of enemy vessels in punishing seas. When the English realized how poor was the response rate of Spanish heavy guns, moreover, they were emboldened to come in close with their own barrages at Gravelines. Thus “the sturdy four-wheeled truck carriage might well be regarded as England’s decisive secret weapon in 1588.” On this reckoning, Gravelines determined English tactics up to the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. A large claim. On what evidence is it based?

Martin and Parker cite a comment of around 1618 that Spanish naval guns had carriages patterned on land ones. Remains of a land-type carriage were found in the wreck of La Trinidad Valencera. But this, as they acknowledge, was Venetian (the Armada was a composite of ships from many sources), and it is not made clear that they could not have been from a siege gun stored for use on land; the vessel, they note, “was not a true frontline warship. She was an armed invasion transport.” Iron fittings from carriages of this type survived in the Atocha, wrecked in 1623 off the Florida Keys (not an Armada vessel). In the exhibition catalog Martin adds that “in Simancas a set of drawings shows late-sixteenth-century sea-carriages as utilitarian versions of the trailed land-carriage.” These are the fragments supporting the rate-of-fire evidence already mentioned.

Padfield comments on the difficulty of interpreting the evidence, and suggests that “there might not have been very much difference between the Spanish and English gun mountings so far as the more modern effective pieces were concerned.” In one of the rare moments when, to this reader, his “essay” comes alive, Fernández-Armesto makes a sharp objection to Martin’s theses. Even if we accept that Spanish mountings may have been inferior, “the suggestion that many Spanish guns may have been mounted on land carriages seems absurd.” Roger Whiting, in his workmanlike account of the Armada, sensibly stays out of the crossfire, though he hazards the desperate conjecture that the Spanish may have used land carriages “because they lacked the elm-wood needed for the trucks.” He is, however, the sole author to give credit to Commander John Grattan of the Royal Navy for inventing the underwater swim-line technique for detecting offshore wreck sites. This method uses a linked line of divers provided with marker floats to make a systematic search of plotted sections of the ocean floor. Such techniques are of great importance, because it is probably only the finding of more wrecks in conditions that have preserved gun-carriage timber that will settle the main uncertainty that prevents the Armada dossier assembled here from presenting an open-and-shut case.

This Issue

February 16, 1989