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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

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

Chapter 19 — Destruction of the armada

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The Roadstead of Calais—Vast Preparations in Flanders—The Dutch Fleet Shuts in the Army of Parma—The Duke does not Come—A Great Crisis—Danger of England—Fire-ships—Launched against the Armada—TerroręThe Spaniards Cut their Cables and Flee—Great Battle off Gravelines—Defeat of the Spaniards—Shattered State of the Galleons—Narrowly Escape Burial in the Quicksands—Retreat into the North Sea—The Armada off Norway—Driven across to Shetland— Carried round to Ireland—Dreadful Scenes on the Irish Coast— Shipwreck and Massacre—Anstruther—Interview between the Minister and a Shipwrecked Spanish Admiral—Return of a Few Ships to Spain— Grief of the Nation—The Pope Refuses to Pay his Minion of Ducats—The Effects of the Armada—The Hand of God—Medals Struck in Commemoration—Thanksgiving in England and the Protestant States

We left the two fleets watching each other in the roadstead of Calais, the evening closing in darkly, the scud of tempest drifting across the sky, and the billows of the Atlantic forcing their way up the Channel, and rocking uneasily the huge galleons of Spain at their anchorage. The night wore away: the morning broke; and with the returning light the Duke of Medina Sidonia is again seen scrutinizing the eastern ocean, and straining his eyes if haply he may descry the approach of the Duke of Parma. This is the appointed place of meeting. The hour is come, but it has not brought the man and the arrangement so eagerly desired. On his way up the Channel, Medina Sidonia had sent messenger after messenger to Parma, to urge him to be punctual. He had not concealed from him what it must have cost the proud Spaniard no little pain to confess, that he needed his help; but he urged and entreated in vain: there was no sail in the offing. Neither sight nor sound of Parma's coming could Medina Sidonia obtain.

All the while, Parma was as desirous to be on the scene of action as Medina Sidonia was to have him there. The duke had assembled a mighty force. One of his regiments was accounted the finest known in the history of war, and had excited great admiration on its march from Naples to the Netherlands, by its engraved arms and gilded corslets, as well as its martial bearing. A numerous fleet, as we have already said, of flat-bottomed vessels was ready to carry this powerful host across to England. But one thing was wanting, and its absence rendered all these vast preparations fruitless. Parma needed an open door from his harbors to the ocean, and the Dutch took care not to leave him one. They drew a line of warships along the Netherland coast, and Parma, with his sailors and soldiers, was imprisoned in his own ports. It was strange that this had not been foreseen and provided against. The oversight reveals the working of a Hand powerful enough by its slightest touches to defeat the wisest schemes and crush the mightiest combinations of man.

Parma wrote repeatedly to both Philip and Medina Sidonia to say that all was ready, that sailors, soldiers, and transports were collected, but that the Dutch had shut him in, and months of labor and minions of ducats were lost for want of the means of exit; that the Armada must come across the German Ocean, and with its guns make for him a passage through the hostile fleet, which, so long as it kept watch and ward over him, rendered one arm of the great Armada useless. And yet Philip either would not or could not understand this plain matter; and so, while one half of Spain's colossal army is being rocked in the roadstead of Calais, its commander fretting at Parma's delay, the other half lies bound in the canals and harbors of Flanders, champing the curb that keeps them from sharing with their comrades the glory and the golden spoils of the conquest of England.

In the meantime, anxious consultations were being held on board the English fleet. The brave and patriotic men who led it did not conceal from themselves the gravity of the situation. The Armada had reached its appointed rendezvous in spite of all their efforts, and if joined by Parma, it would be so overwhelmingly powerful that they did not see what should hinder its crossing over and landing in England. They were wining to shed their blood to prevent this, and so too were the brave men by whom their ships were manned; but there seemed to be a struggle in the mind of the queen between parsimony and patriotism, and that wretched penuriousness which kept the fleet supplied with neither ammunition nor provisions, threatened to counterbalance all the unrivaled seamanship, together with the bravery and devotion that were now being put forth in defense of the British crown. The hours of the Sunday were wearing away; the crown of England was hanging in the balance; before another dawn had come, Parma's fleet, for aught they could tell, might be anchored alongside of Medina Sidonia's in the roadstead of Calais, and the time would be past for striking such a blow as would drive off the Spanish ships, and put the crown and realm of England beyond danger.

A bold and somewhat novel expedient, suggested by her Majesty, as both Camden and Meteren affirm, [1] was resolved upon for accomplishing this object. Eight ships were selected from the crowd of volunteer vessels that followed the fleet; their masts were smeared with pitch, their hulls were filled with powder and all kinds of explosive and combustible materials; and so prepared they were set adrift in the direction of the Armada, leaving to the Spaniards no alternative but to cut their cables or to be burned at their anchors. The night favored the execution of this design. Heavy masses of clouds hid the stars; the muttering of distant thunder reverberated in the sky; that deep, heavy swell of ocean that precedes the tempest was rocking the galleons, and rendering their position every moment more unpleasant—so close to the shallows of

Calais on the one side, with the quicksand of Flanders on their lee. While in this feverish state of apprehension, new objects of terror presented themselves to the Spaniards. It was about an hour past midnight when the watch discerned certain dark objects emerging out of the blackness and advancing towards them. They had hardly given the alarm when suddenly these dark shapes burst into flame, lighting up sea and sky in gloomy grandeur. These pillars of fire came stalking onwards over the waters. The Spaniards gazed for a moment upon the dreadful apparition, and, divining its nature and mission, they instantly cut their cables, and, with the loss of some of their galleons and the damage of others in the confusion and panic, they bore away into the German Ocean, the winds their pilot. [2]

With the first light the English admiral weighed anchor, and set sail in pursuit of the fleeing Spaniard. At eight o'clock on Monday morning, Drake came up with the Armada off Gravelines, and giving it no time to collect and form, he began the most important of all the battles which had yet been fought. All the great ships on both sides, and all the great admirals of England, were in that action; the English ships lay-to close to the galleons, and poured broadside after broadside into them. It was a rain of shot from morning to night. The galleons falling back before the fierce onset, and huddling together, the English fire was poured into the mass of hulls and masts, and did fearful execution, converting the ships into shambles, rivulets of blood pouring from their scuttles into the sea. Of the Spanish guns many were dismounted, those that remained available fired but slowly, while the heavy rolling of the vessels threw the shot into the air. Several of the galleons were seen to go down in the action, others put hors de combat reeled away towards Ostend. [3] When the evening fell the fighting was still going on. But the breeze shifting into the northwest, and the sea continuing to rise, a new calamity threatened the disabled and helpless Armada; it was being forced upon the Flanders coast, and if the English had had strength and ammunition to pursue them, the galleons would have that night found common burial in the shoals and quicksand of the Netherlands. They narrowly escaped that fate at the time, but only, after prolonged terrors and sufferings, to be overtaken by it amid wilder seas, and on more savage coasts. The power of the Armada had been broken; most of its vessels were in a sinking condition; from 4,000 to 5,000 of its soldiers, shot down, had received burial in the ocean; and at least as many more lay wounded and dying on board their shattered galleons. Of the English not more than 100 had fallen.

Thankful was the terrified Medina Sidonia when night fell, and gave him a few hours' respite. But with morning his dangers and anxieties returned. He found himself between two great perils. To the windward of him was the English fleet. Behind him was that belt of muddy water which fringes the Dutch coast, and which indicates to the mariner's eye those fatal banks where, if he strikes, he is lost. The helpless Armada was nearing these terrible shoals that very moment. Suddenly the wind shifted into the east, and the change rescued the Spanish galleons when on the very brink of destruction. The English fleet, having lost the weather-gauge, stood off; and the Spanish admiral, relieved of their presence, assembled his officers on board his ship to deliberate on the course to be taken. Whether should they return to their anchorage off Calais, or go back to Spain by way of the Orkneys? This was the alternative on which Medina Sidonia requested his officers to give their opinion. To return to Calais involved a second battle with the English, and if this should be, the officers were of opinion that there would come no to-morrow to the Armada; to return to Spain in battered ships, without pilots, and through unknown and dangerous seas, was an attempt nearly as formidable; nevertheless, it was the lesser of the two evils to which their choice was limited, and it was the one adopted. [4]

Tempest, conflagration, and battle had laid the pride of Spain in the dust. No sooner had the change of wind rescued the Spanish ships from the destruction which, as we have seen, seemed to await them, than it shifted once more, and settling in the south-west, blew every moment with greater force. The mostly rudderless ships could do nothing but drift before the rising storm into the northern seas. Drake followed them for a day or two; he did not fire a gun, in fact his ammunition was spent, but the sight of his ships was enough, the Spaniards fled, and did not even stay to succor their leaking vessels, which went down unhelped amid the waves.

Spreading sail to the rising gale, the Armada bore away past the Frith of Forth. Drake had been uneasy about Scotland, fearing that the Spaniards might seek refuge, in the Forth and give trouble to the northern kingdom; but when he saw this danger pass, and the Armada speed away towards the shores of Norway, he resolved to retrace his course before famine should set in among his crews. No sooner did Drake turn back from the fleeing foe than the tempest took up the pursuit, for that moment a furious gale burst out, and the last the English saw of the Armada were the vanishing forms of their retreating galleons, as they entered the clouds of storm and became hid in the blackness of the northern night. In these awful solitudes, which seemed abandoned to tempests, the Spaniards, without pilots and without a chart, were environed by bristling rocks and by unknown shallows, by currents and whirlpools. They were "driven

from light into darkness;" they were "chased out of the world."

The tempest continuing, the Armada was every hour being carried farther into that unknown region which the imagination of its crews peopled with terrors, but not greater than the reality. The fleet was lessening every day, both in men and ships; the sailors died and were thrown overboard; the vessels leaked and sank in the waves. The survivors were tossed about entirely at the mercy of the winds and the water; now they were whirled along the iron-bound coast of Norway, now they were dashed on the savage rocks of the Shetlands, and now they found themselves in the intricate friths and racing currents of the Orkneys. Carried on the tempest's wings round Cape Wrath, they were next launched amid the perils of the Hebrides. The rollers of the Atlantic hoisted them up, dashed them against the black cliffs, or flung them on the shelving shore; their crews, too worn with toil and want to swim ashore, were drowned in the surf, and littered the beach with their corpses. The winds drove the survivors of that doomed fleet farther south, and now they were careering along the west coast of Ireland. The crowd of sail seen off the coast caused alarm at the first, but soon it was known how little cause there was to fear an Armada which was fleeing when no man was pursuing. There came a day's calm; hunger and thirst were raging on board the ships; their store of water was entirely spent; the Spaniards sent some boats on shore to beg a supply. They prayed piteously, they offered any amount of money, but not a drop could they have. The natives knew that the Spaniards had lost the day, and that should they succor the enemies of Elizabeth, the Government would hold them answerable. Nor was this the worst; new horrors awaited them on this fated coast. The storm had returned in all its former violence; to windward were the mighty crested billows of the Atlantic, against which both themselves and their vessels were without power to contend; to the leeward were the bristling cliffs of the Irish coast, amid which they sought, but found not, haven or place of rest. The gale raged for eleven days, still during that time galleon after galleon came on shore, scattering their drowned crews by hundreds upon the beach. An eye-witness thus describes the dreadful scene: "When I was at Sligo," wrote Sir Geoffrey Fenton, "I numbered on one strand of less than five miles in length, eleven hundred dead bodies of men, which the sea had driven upon the shore. The country people told me the like was in other places, though not to the same number. [5] On the same coast there lay, Sir William Fitzwilliam was told, "in the space of a few miles, as great store of the timber of wrecked ships, more than would have built five of the greatest ships that ever I saw, besides mighty great boats, cables, and other cordage answerable thereto, and some such masts for bigness and length as I never saw any two could make the like. [6]

The sea was not the only enemy these wretched men had to dread. The natives, though of the same religion with the Spaniards, were more pitiless than the waves. As the Spaniards crawled through the sand up the beach, the Irish slaughtered them for the sake of their velvets, their gold brocades, and their rich chains. Their sufferings were aggravated from another cause.

The Government had sent orders to the English garrisons in Ireland to execute all who fell into their hands. This order, which was prompted by the fear that the Spaniards might be joined by the Irish, and that a mutiny would ensue, was relentlessly called out. It was calculated that in the month of September alone, 8,000 Spaniards perished between the Giants' Causeway and Blosket Sound; [7] 1,100 were executed by the Government officers, and 3,000 were murdered by the Irish. The rest were drowned.

The islets, creeks, and shores were strewed with wrecks and corpses, while in the offing there tossed an ever-diminishing fleet, torn and battered, laden with toil-worn, famished, maddened, despairing, dying men. The tragedy witnessed of old on the shore of the Red Sea had repeated itself, with wider horrors, on the coast of Ireland. [8]

We turn to another part of this appalling picture. It is more pleasant than that which we have been contemplating. We are on the east coast of Scotland, in the town of Anstruther, where James Melvine, brother of the illustrious Andrew Melvine, was minister. One morning in the beginning of October, 1558, so he tells us in his autobiography, he was awakened at daybreak by one of the baillies of Anstruther coming to his bedside, and saying, "have news to tell you, sir: there is arrived in our harbor this morning a ship full of Spaniards, but not to give mercy, but to ask it." The minister got up and accompanied the baillie to the town hall, where the council was about to assemble to hear the petition of the Spaniards, who meanwhile had been ordered back to their ships. After the magistrates, burghers, and minister had deliberated, the commander of the ship was introduced, "a very reverend man, of big stature, and grave and stout countenance, gray-headed, and very humble-like, who, after many and very low courtesies, bowing down with his face near to the ground, and touching my shoe with his hand," began the story of the Armada and its mishaps. This "very reverend man," who was now doing obeisance before the minister of Anstruther, was the admiral of twenty galleons. He had been cast upon the "Fair Isle" between Shetland and Orkney, and after seven weeks' endurance of cold and hunger among the natives, he had managed to procure a ship in which to come south, and now

he was asking "relief and comfort" for himself and the captains and soldiers with him, "whose condition was for the present most pitiful and miserable:" and thereupon he again "bowed himself even to the ground." The issue was that the commander and officers were hospitably entertained at the houses of the neighboring gentry, and that the soldiers, who numbered 260, "young beardless men, weak, toiled, and famished, [9] Were permitted to come ashore, and were fed by the citizens till they were able to pursue their voyage. The name of the commander was Jan Gomes di Medina. [10]

The few galleons that escaped the waves and rocks crept back one by one to Spain, telling by their maimed and battered condition, before their crews had opened their lips, the story of their overthrow. That awful tragedy was too vast to be disclosed all at once. When at last the terrible fact was fully known, the nation was smitten down by the blow. Philip, stunned and overwhelmed, shut himself up in his closet in the Escorial, and would see no one; a cry of lamentation and woe went up from the kingdom.

Hardly was there a noble family in all Spain which had not lost one or more of its members. The young grandees, the heirs of their respective houses, who had gone forth but a few months before, confident of returning victorious, were sleeping at the bottom of the English seas, amid hulks and cannon and money-chests. Of the 30,000 who had sailed in the Armada, scarcely 10,000 saw again their native land; and these returned, in almost every instance, to pine and die. The Duke of Medina Sidonia, the commander-in-chief, was almost the only one of the nobles who outlived the catastrophe; but his head was bowed in shame, and envying the fate of those who had perished, he buried himself in his country-seat from the eyes of his countrymen. To add to the grieves of Philip II, he was deeply wounded from a quarter whence he had looked for sympathy and help.

Pope Sixtus had promised a contribution of a minion of crowns towards the expenses of the Armada, but when he saw to what end it had come, he refused to pay a single ducat. In vain Philip urged that the Pope had instigated him to the attempt, that the expedition had been undertaken in the sacred cause of the Church, and that the loss ought to be borne mutually. Sixtus was deaf; he was almost satirical. He could not be expected, he said, to give a minion of money for an Armada which had accomplished nothing, and was now at the bottom of the sea. [11]

The Armada was the mightiest effort in the shape of armed force ever put forth by the Popish Powers against Protestantism, and it proved the turning-point in the great war between Rome and the Reformation. Spain was never after what it had been before the Armada. The failure of that expedition said in effect to her, "Remove the diadem; put off the crown." Almost all the military genius and the naval skill at her service were lost in that ill-fated expedition. The flower of Philip's army, and the ablest of his admirals, were now at the bottom of the ocean. The financial loss could not be reckoned at less than six minions of ducats; but that was nothing compared with the extinction of Spain's prestige. The catastrophe stripped her naked. Her position and that of the Protestant Powers were to a large extent reversed. England and the Netherlands rose, and Spain fell.

There followed that same year, 1588, other heavy blows to the Popish interest. The two Guises were assassinated; Catherine de Medici passed from the scene of her intrigues and crimes; her son Henry III followed, stricken by the dagger of Clement; the path was opened for Henry IV to mount the throne, and the Protestant interests in France were greatly strengthened. The wavering Protestantism of James VI of Scotland was steadied; the Netherlands breathed freely; and, as we shall immediately see, there came so marvelous a blossoming of arms and arts in the Protestant world as caused the glories of the Spanish Empire to be forgotten.

The tragedy of the Armada was a great sermon preached to the Popish and Protestant nations. The text of that sermon was that England had been saved by a Divine Hand. All acknowledged the skin and daring of the English admirals, and the patriotism and bravery of the English sailors and soldiers, but all at the same time confessed that these alone could not have saved the throne of Elizabeth. The Almighty Arm had been stretched out, and a work so stupendous had been wrought, as to be worthy of a place by the side of the wonders of old time. There were a consecutiveness and a progression in the acts, a unity in the drama, and a sublimity in the terrible but righteous catastrophe in which it issued, that told the least reflective that the Armada's overthrow was not fortuitous, but the result of arrangement and plan. Even the Spaniards themselves confessed that the Divine Hand was upon them; that One looked forth at times from the storm cloud that pursued them, and troubled them. Christendom at large was solemnized: the ordinary course of events had been interrupted; the heavens had been bowed, and the Great Judge had descended upon the scene. While dismay reigned within the Popish kingdoms, the Protestant States joined in a chorus of thanksgiving. In England by the command of her Majesty, and in the United Provinces by order of the States-General, a day of festival was appointed, whereon all were commanded to repair to church, and "render thanks unto God." "The aforesaid solemnity," says the Dutch historian, "was observed on the 29th of November, which day was wholly spent in fasting, prayer, and giving of thanks." [12] On that day Queen Elizabeth,

royally attired, and followed by the estates and dignitaries of the realm, visited London, and rode through the streets of the City to the Cathedral of St. Paul's, in a triumphal chariot drawn by four white horses. The houses were hung with blue cloth; the citizens in their holiday dress lined the streets, ranged in companies, and displaying the ensigns and symbols of their various guilds and crafts. Eleven banners and flags which had been taken from the Spaniards hung displayed in front of St. Paul's. The queen with her clergy and nobles, having offered public thanks in the church, thereafter retired to Paul's Cross, where a sermon was preached from the same stone pulpit from which Ridley's and Latimer's voices had often been heard; and after the sermon the queen rose and addressed her assembled subjects, exhorting them to unite with her in extolling that merciful Power which had scattered her foes, and shielded from overthrow her throne and realm.

But the deliverance was a common one to the Protestant kingdoms. All shared in it with England, and each in turn took up this song of triumph. Zealand, in perpetual memory of the event, caused new coin of silver and brass to be struck, stamped on the one side with the arms of Zealand, and the words, "Glory to God alone," and on the other with a representation of certain great ships, and the words, "The Spanish Fleet." In the circumference round the ships was the motto, "It came, went, and was. Anno 1588." [13] Holland, too, struck a commemorative medal of the Armada's destruction; and Theodore Beza, at Geneva, celebrated the event in Latin verse.

It seemed as if the days of Miriam, with their judgments and songs of triumph, had returned, and that the Hebrew prophetess had lent her timbrel to England, that she might sing upon it the destruction of a mightier host than that of Egypt, and the overthrow of a greater tyrant than he who lay drowned in the Red Sea. England began the song, as was meet, for around her isle had the Armada been led, a spectacle of doom; but soon, from beyond the German Ocean, from the foot of the Alps, from the shores of Scotland, other voices were heard swelling the anthem, and saying, "Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. The enemy said, I win pursue, I win overtake, I win divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I win draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them. Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters."

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Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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