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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 23 — Protestantism in England From the Times of Henry VIII

Chapter 18 — The armada arrives off england

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The Armada Sails—The Admiral Dies—Medina Sidonia appointed to Command—Storm off Cape Finisterre—Second Storm—Four Galleons Lost—Armada Sighted off the Lizard—Beacon-fires—Preparations in Plymouth Harbor—First Encounter between the Armada and English Fleet—The Armada Sails up the Channel, Followed and Harassed by the English Fleet—Its LossesęSecond Battle—Third Battle off the Isle of Wight—Superiority of the English Ships—The Armada Anchors off Calais—Parma and his Army Looked for—The Decisive Blow about to be Struck

The last gun and the last sailor had been taken on board, and now the Armada was ready to sail. The ships had been collected in the harbor of Lisbon, where for some time they lay weather-bound, but the wind shifting, these proud galleons spread their canvas, and began their voyage towards England. Three days the fleet continued to glide down the Tagus to the sea, galleon following galleon, till it seemed as if room would scarce be found on the ocean for so vast an armament. These three memorable days were the 28th, the 29th, and the 30th of May, 1588. The Pope, as we have seen, had pronounced his curse on Elizabeth; he now gave his blessing to the fleet, and with this double pledge of success the Armada began its voyage. It was a brave sight, as with sails spread to the breeze, and banners and streamers gaily unfurled, it held its way along the coast of Spain, the St. Peter doubtless taking the lead, for the twelve principal ships of the Armada, bound on a holy enterprise, had been baptized with the names of the twelve apostles. On board was Don Martin Allacon, Administrator and Vicar General of the "Holy Office of the Inquisition," and along with him were 200 Barefooted Friars and Dominicans. [1] The guns of the Armada were to begin the conquest of heretical England, and the spiritual arms of the Fathers were to complete it.

Just as the Armada was about to sail, the Marquis Santa Cruz, who had been appointed to the chief command, died. He had been thirty years in Philip's service, and was beyond doubt the ablest sea captain of whom Spain could boast. Another had to be sought for to fill the place of the "Iron Marquis," and the Duke of Medina Sidonia was selected for the onerous post. The main recommendation of Medina Sidonia was his vast wealth. He was the owner of large estates which lay near Cadiz, and which had been settled at the first by a colony from Sidon. [2] To counterbalance his inexperience in naval affairs, the ablest seamen whom Spain possessed were chosen as his subordinate officers. The "Golden Duke" was there simply for ornament; the real head of the expedition was to be the Duke of Parma, Philip's commander in the Netherlands, and the ablest of his generals. The duke was to cross from Flanders as soon as the Armada should have anchored off Calais, and, uniting his numerous army with the vast fleet, he was to descend like a cloud upon the shore of England.

The Armada had now been three weeks at sea. The huge hulks so disproportional to the tiny sails made its progress windward wearisomely slow. Its twenty-one days of navigation had not enabled it to double Cape Finisterre. It had floated so far upon a comparatively calm sea, but as it was about to open the Bay of Biscay, the sky began to be overcast, black clouds came rolling up from the south-west, and the swell of the Atlantic, sowing into mountainous billows, tumbled about those towering structures, whose bulk only exposed them all the more to the buffering of the great waves and the furious winds. The Armada was scattered by the gale; but the weather moderating, the ships reassembled, and pursuing their course, soon crossed the bay, and were off Ushant. A second and severer storm here burst on them. The waves, dashing against the lofty turrets at stem and stern, sent a spout of white water up their sides and high into mid-air, while the racing waves, coursing across the low bulwarks amidships, threatened every moment to engulf the galleons. One of the greatest of them went down with all on board, and other two were driven on the shore of France. In the case of a fourth this tempest brought liberty on its wing to the galley-slaves aboard of it, among whom was David Gwin, who had been taken captive by the Spaniards, and had passed eleven doleful years on board their galleys. [3] The storm subsiding, the Armada once more gathered itself together, and setting sail entered the Channel, and on the 29th of July was off the Lizard. [4] Next day England had her first sight of her long-expected enemy, coming over the blue sea, her own element, to conquer her. Instantly the beacon-fires were kindled, and blazing along the coast and away into the inland, announced alike to dweller in city and in rural parts that the Spanish fleet was in the Channel.

Long as the Armada had been waited for, its appearance took England by surprise. Its sailing from Lisbon two months before had been known in England; but next came tidings that storms had dispersed and driven it back; and orders had been sent from the Admiralty to Plymouth to lay up the ships in dock, and disband their crews. [5] Happily, before these orders could be executed the Armada hove in sight, and all doubt about its coming was at an end. There it was in the Channel. In the afternoon of Saturday, the 30th of July, it could be descried from the high ground above Plymouth harbor, advancing slowly from the south-west, in the form of a crescent, the two horns of which were seven miles apart. As one massive hulk after another came out of the blue distance, and the armament stretched itself out in portentous length on the bosom of the deep, it was seen that

rumor had not in the least exaggerated its size. On board his great galleon, the St. Martin, his shoot-proof fortress, stood Medina Sidonia, casting proud glances around him, now at the mighty fleet under his command, moving onwards as he believed to certain victory, and now on the shore under his lee, that land of which the Pope had said to Philip, "To thee will I give it." That was a night long to be remembered in England. As another and yet another hilltop lighted its fires in the darkness, and the ever-extending line of light flashed the news of the Armada's arrival from the shores of the Channel to the moors of Northumberland; and across the Tweed, all through Scotland, where, too, beacon-fires had been prepared, the hearts of men were drawn together by the sense of a common danger and a common terror. All controversies were forgotten in one absorbing interest; and the cry of the nation went up to the Throne above, that He who covered his people in Egypt on that awful night when the Angel passed through the land, would spread his wing over England, and not suffer the Destroyer to touch it.

Meanwhile in the harbor of Plymouth all was bustle and excitement. Howard, Drake, and Hawkins were not the men to sleep over the enterprise. The moment the news arrived that the Armada had been sighted off the Lizard, they began their preparations, and the whole following night was spent in getting the ships ready for sea. By Saturday morning sixty ships had been towed out of harbor. Their numbers were not more than a third of those of the Armada, and their inferiority in size was still greater; but, manned by patriotic crews, they hoisted sail, and away they went to meet the enemy. On the afternoon of the same day the two fleets came in sight of each other. The wind was blowing from the south-west, bringing with it a drizzling rain and a chopping sea. The billows of the Atlantic came tumbling into the Channel, and the galleons of Spain, with their heavy ordnance, and their numerous squadrons, rolled uneasily and worked clumsily; whereas the English ships, of smaller size, and handled by expert seamen, bore finely up before the breeze, took a close survey of the Spanish fleet, and then standing off to windward, became invisible in the haze. The Spaniard was thus informed that the English fleet was in his immediate neighborhood, but the darkness did not permit battle to be joined that night.

Sunday morning, the 31st of July, broke, and this day was to witness the first encounter between the great navy of Spain and the little fleet of England. Medina Sidonia gave the signal for an engagement; but to his surprise he found that the power of accepting or declining battle lay entirely with his opponent. Howard's ships were stationed to windward, the sluggish Spanish galleons could not close with them; whereas the English vessels, light, swift, and skillfully handled, would run up to the Armada, pour a broadside into it, and then swiftly retreat beyond the reach of the Spanish guns. Sailing right in the eye of the wind, they defied pursuit. This was a method of fighting most tantalizing to the Spaniard: but thus the battle, or rather skirmish, went on all day: the Armada moving slowly up-channel before the westerly breeze, and the English fleet hanging upon its rear, and firing into it, now a single shot, now a whole broadside, and then retreating to a safe distance, but quickly returning to torment and cripple the foe, who kept blazing away, but to no purpose, for his shot, discharged from lofty decks, passed over the ships of his antagonist, and fell into the sea. It was in vain that the Spanish admiral hoisted the flag of battle; the wind and sea would not permit him to lie-to; and his little nimble foe would not come within reach, unless it might be for a moment, to send a cannon-ball through the side of some of his galleons, or to demolish a turret or a mast, and then make off, laughing to scorn the ungainly efforts of his bulky pursuer to overtake him. As yet there had been no loss of either ship or man on the part of the English. Not quite so intact was the Armada. Their size made the ships a more than usually good mark for the English gunners, and scarcely had a shot been fired during the day that had not hit. Besides, the English fired four shots to one of the Spaniards. The Armada sustained other damage besides that which the English guns inflicted upon it. As night fell its ships huddled together to prevent dispersion, and the galleon of Pedro di Valdez, fouling with the Santa Catalina, was so much damaged that it fell behind and became the booty of the English. This galleon had on board a large amount of treasure, and what was of greater importance to the captors, whose scanty stock of ammunition was already becoming exhausted, many tons of gunpowder. Above the loss of the money and the ammunition was that of her commander to the Spaniards, for Pedro di Valdez was the only naval officer in the fleet who was acquainted with the Channel. [6]

Later in the same evening a yet greater calamity befell the Armada. The captain of the rear-admiral's galleon, much out of humor with the day's adventures, and quarreling with all who approached him, accused the master-gunner of careless firing. Affronted, the man, who was a Fleming, went straight to the powder magazine, thrust a burning match into it, and threw himself out at one of the port-holes into the sea. In a few seconds came the explosion, flashing a terrific but momentary splendor over the ocean. The deck was upheaved; the turrets at stem and stern rose into the air, carrying with them the paymaster of

the fleet and 200 soldiers. The strong hulk, though torn by the explosion, continued to float, and was seized in the morning by the English, who found in it a great amount of treasure, and a supply of ammunition which had not ignited. [7] On the very first day of conflict the Armada had lost two flagships, 450 officers and men, the paymaster of the fleet, and 100,000 ducats of Spanish gold. This was no auspicious commencement of an expedition which Spain had exhausted itself to fit out.

On the following day (Monday, 1st August) the Armada held its way slowly up-channel, followed by the fleet under Howard, who hovered upon its rear, but did not attack it. Next morning (Tuesday) the Armada was off St. Alban's Head; and here the first really serious encounter took place. As the morning rose, the wind changed into the east, which exactly reversed the position of the two fleets, giving the weather-gauge to the Armada. Howard attempted to sail round it and get to windward of it, but Medina Sidonia intercepted him by coming between him and the shore, and compelled him to accept battle at close quarters. The combat was long and confused. In the evening the Spanish ships gathered themselves up, and forming into a compact group, went on their way. It was believed that they were obeying Philip's instructions to steer for the point where the Duke of Parma was to join them with his army, and then strike the decisive blow. The shores of the English Channel were crowded with spectators; merchant vessels were hastening from every port of the realm to the spot where the very existence of the English crown hung on the wager of battle. These accessions added greatly to the appearance, but very little to the effective force, of the queen's navy. The nobles and gentry also were flocking to the fleet; the representatives of the old houses, pouring thither in the same stream with the new men whose genius and patriotism had placed them at the head of affairs, giving by their presence prestige to the cause, and communicating their own enthusiasm to the soldiers and sailors in the fleet. [8]

On Wednesday the Armada continued its course, followed by Howard and his fleet. A few shots were that day exchanged, but no general action took place. On Thursday, the 4th, the Armada was off the Isle of Wight. The wind had again changed into the east, giving to the Armada once more the weather-gauge. Accordingly it lay-to, and here the sharpest action of all was fought. The ships of the two fleets engaged, yardarm to yardarm, and broadside after broadside was exchanged at a distance of about 100 yards. The admiral, Lord Howard, in his ship the Ark, steered right into the heart of the Armada, in search of Medina Sidonia, in his ship the St. Martin, making acquaintance with each galleon as he passed, by pouring a broadside into it. Rear-Admiral Oquendo, perceiving Howard's design, ran his ship under the bows of the Ark, and by the shock unshipped her rudder, and rendered her unmanageable. Six Spanish galleons closed round her, never doubting that she was their prize. In a trice the Ark's own boats had her in tow, and passing out of the hostile circle she was off, to the amazement of the Spaniards. The fight continued several hours longer.

Ships of apostolic name found their saintly titles no protection from the round shot of the English guns. The St. Matthew, the St. Mark, the St. Philip, the St. Luke, the St. John, the St. Martin, fought with the Lion, the Bull, the Bear, the Tiger, the Dreadnought, the Revenge, the Victory, but they could gain no mastery over their unapostolical antagonists. In the carnal business of fighting the superiority seemed to lie with the heretical combatants. The sides of the orthodox galleons were pierced and riddled with the English shot, their masts cut or splintered, and their cordage torn; and when evening fell, the enemy, who had all through the conflict seen the Spanish shot pass harmlessly over him and bury itself in the sea, stood away, his hulls bearing no sign of battle, hardly a cord torn, and his crews as intact as his ships.

On the following day (Friday) the procession up-channel was resumed, at the same slow pace and in the same order as before, the mighty Armada leading the van, and the humble English fleet following. On the afternoon of Saturday the Spaniards were off Calais. It was here, or near to this, that Medina Sidonia was to be joined by the Duke of Parma, with the fleet and army which he had been preparing all the previous winter, and all that summer, in the harbors of Flanders. The duke had not arrived, but any hour might bring him, and Medina Sidonia resolved here to cast anchor and wait his approach. The Armada accordingly took up its position in the roadstead of Calais, while the English fleet cast anchor a league off to the west. [9]

The hour had now come when it was to be determined whether England should remain an independent kingdom, or become one of Philip's numerous satrapies; whether it was to retain the light of the Protestant faith, or to fall back into the darkness and serfdom of a mediaeval superstition. Battles, or rather skirmishes, there had been between the two fleets, but now the moment had come for a death-grapple between Spain and England. The Armada had arrived on the battle-ground comparatively intact. It had experienced rough handling from the tempests of the Atlantic; Howard and Drake had dealt it some heavy blows on its way up the Channel; several of those galleons which had glided so proudly out of the harbor of Lisbon, were now at the bottom of the ocean; but these losses were hardly felt by the great Armada. It waited but the junction with

the Duke of Parma to be perhaps the mightiest combination of naval and military power which the world had seen. This union might happen the next day, or the day after, and then the Armada, scattering the little fleet which lay between it and the shores to which it was looking across, would pass over, and Elizabeth's throne would fall.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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