Sunday, morning, July 31, witnessed 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 ability of accepting or declining battle lay entirely with the English. Howard’s ships were stationed to the windward and the sluggish Spanish galleons could not close with them. The English vessels, however, which were light and skillfully handled, would run up to the Armada, pour a broadside into it, and then as swiftly retreat beyond the reach of the Spanish guns. Sailing right into the wind, they defied pursuit. This was a method of fighting most frustrating to the Spanish, but they were unable to change it. All day the Armada moved slowly up-channel before the westerly breeze; and the English fleet hanging upon its rear, continued to fire into it, now a single shot, and again, a whole broadside. This action was repeated over and over again. The Spanish guns, seeking to return the fire, found that their shots, fired from lofty decks, passed over the English ships, falling harmlessly into the sea beyond them. It was in vain that the Spanish admiral raised the flag of battle, for the wind and the sea would not permit him to lie to. His nimble foe would not come within reach, unless it might be for a moment to send a cannonball through the side of some of his galleons and then make off, laughing to scorn the ungainly efforts of this bulky pursuer to overtake him. As yet there had been no loss of either ship or man on the part of the English.
In addition to the damage inflicted on them by the English guns, the Armada sustained other damage. As night fell, its ships huddled together to prevent dispersion. The galleon of Pedro di Valdez, fouling with the Santa Catalina, was damaged and fell behind, becoming the booty of the English. This galleon had onboard a large amount of treasure and, what was of even greater importance to the captors, whose scanty stock of ammunition was already becoming exhausted, many tons of gunpowder. A loss of even greater significance to the Spanish than the money and the ammunition was that of her commander. Pedro di Valdez was the only navel officer of the fleet who was acquainted with the Channel.
Later the same evening a yet greater calamity befell the Armada. The captain of the rear admiral’s galleon, much out of humor for the day’s adventures and quarreling with all who approached him, accused the master gunner of careless firing. Greatly offended, the man went straight to the powder magazine, thrust a burning match into it, and threw himself out of one of the portholes into the sea. Within seconds, in a momentary burst of splendor, the explosion lit the surrounding ocean. The deck was upheaved; the turrets at stern and stem 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 supply of ammunition which had not ignited.
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, a sum equal to about 50,000 of English money. This was not a favorable start of an expedition which Spain had exhausted herself to outfit.
The following day the Armada continued its way slowly up-channel, followed by the fleet under Howard, who hovered upon its rear but did not attack it. On Tuesday the first really serious encounter took place. As the morning rose, the wind changed to the east, which exactly reversed the position of the two fleets, giving the weather advantage to the Armada. Howard attempted to sail around it and get to the windward side, 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 meet the duke of Parma and then, with his army, strike the decisive blow. The shores of the English Channel were crowded with anxious spectators, breathlessly watching their brave little fleet battling against the mighty ships of the Spanish invader. From every port of the realm, English merchant vessels were hastening to the spot where England’s very existence hung on the outcome of the battle. While the many small additions added greatly to the appearance, they did very little to the effectiveness of the queen’s navy.
On Wednesday a few shots were exchanged, but no general action took place. By the following day, the wind had once again changed to the east, giving the Armada once more the advantage. The sharpest action yet to be fought began. The ships of the two fleets engaged yardarm to yardarm, and broadside after broadside was exchanged at a distance of about 100 yards. The English admiral, Lord Howard, in his ship the Ark, and by the shock unshipped her rudder and rendered her unmanageable. Six Spanish galleons closed around her, never doubting that she was their prize. In an instant 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. When evening fell, it found the English fleet, who had all through the conflict seen the Spanish shot pass harmlessly over it, burying itself in the sea, showing no sign of battle, with scarcely a cord torn and its crews intact. The sides of the galleons, however, were pierced and riddled with the English shot, and their masts were cut or splintered.
The following day the procession up-channel was resumed in the same order as before, the mighty Armada leading the van and the nimble English fleet following. By Saturday afternoon the Spaniards were approaching the point at which they were to be joined by the Duke of Parma. As he had not arrived yet, Medina Sidonia decided to cast anchor and wait.
The critical hour had arrived 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 medieval superstition. In the skirmishes that had preceded this moment, the English ships had fared well; but now the moment had come for a death struggle between Spain and England. The Armada had arrived on the battleground comparatively intact. It had experienced rough handling from the tempests of the Atlantic and had received some heavy blows from the English fleet; several of the galleons which had glided so proudly out of the harbor at Lisbon were now at the bottom of the ocean, but these losses were hardly felt by the great Armada. It only awaited the arrival of the Duke of Parma to be perhaps the mightiest combination of navel and military power which the world had seen.
As evening drew on, low, rapidly moving clouds gave evidence of an approaching storm. The waves of the Atlantic, forcing their way up the Channel, uneasily rocked the huge Spanish galleons. The night wore away and with the return of light, Medina Sidonia could be seen scrutinizing the eastern ocean, looking for the approach of the Duke of Parma.
Meanwhile, Parma was himself as anxious to join the Armada as they were to have him. A fleet of flat-bottomed vessels was ready to carry this powerful host; but one thing was wanting, and its absence rendered all of these vast preparations fruitless. In order to join the Spanish fleet, Parma needed an open door from his harbors to the ocean, and the Dutch saw to it that he had none. 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 these circumstances had not been foreseen and provided for. In this oversight is revealed the working of a Hand powerful enough by its slightest touches to defeat the wisest schemes and crush the mightiest combinations of man when directed against a people who were leaning on Him for help.
Parma repeatedly wrote to both Philip and Medina Sidonia telling them of his predicament, but Philip either would not or could not understand.
In the meantime, anxious consultations were being held onboard the English fleet. The brave and patriotic men who led it recognized the gravity of the situation. If the Armada was joined by Parma, it would be so overwhelmingly powerful that it seemed nothing could hinder its crossing over to England. The men of the English fleet feared that before another dawn had come, Parman’s fleet would anchor alongside that of Medina Sidonia and the opportunity for striking a preemptive blow would be past.
A bold and somewhat novel idea was decided upon. Eight of the volunteer ships were selected, their masts smeared with pitch, and their hulls filled with powder, all kinds of explosives, and combustible materials. Once prepared they were set adrift in the direction of the Armada. The night favored the execution of this design. Dark clouds hid the stars while the muttering of distant thunder reverberated in the sky. The deep, heavy swell of the ocean that precedes the tempest was rocking the galleons, rendering their positions every moment more unpleasant. On the one side they found themselves close to the shallows of Calais, with the quicksand of Flanders behind them.
Suddenly, about the hour past midnight, the watch discerned dark objects emerging out of the blackness and advancing toward them. They had scarcely given the alarm when suddenly these dark shapes burst into flame, lighting up sea and sky in gloomy grandeur. Steadily these pillars of fire continued to move over the waters straight toward the Armada. The Spaniards gazed for one terrified moment upon the dreadful apparition; and then, divining its nature and mission, they instantly cut their cables, and, with the loss of some of their galleons and the damage of others, fled in confusion and panic.
With the first light, the English admiral weighed anchor and set sail in pursuit of the fleeing Spanish. At eight o’clock on Monday morning, Drake caught up with the Armada; and giving it no time to collect and form, began the most important of all the battles which had yet been fought.
The English ships drew close to the galleons, pouring broadside after broadside into them. From morning to night the rain of shot continued. The galleons, falling back before the fierce onslaught, huddled together. The English fire, pouring into the mass of hulls and masts, was doing fearful work, converting the ships into shambles. Rivulets of blood poured form their scuttles into the sea. By this time, many of the Spanish guns were dismounted; those that remained active 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 reeled away toward Ostend.
When evening fell the fighting was still going on. But with the shifting of the breeze to the northwest and the increasing rise of the sea, a new calamity threatened the disabled and helpless Armada; it was being forced upon the Flanders coast. If the English had had strength and ammunition to pursue them, the galleons would have that night found common burial on the shoals and quicksand of the Netherlands.
The power of the Armada had been broken; most of its vessels were in sinking condition. Between 4,000 and 5,000 of its soldiers had been killed and received burial in the ocean, and at least as many more lay wounded and dying onboard their shattered galleons. Of the English, not more than 100 had fallen.
Thankful was the terrified Medina Sidonia when night fell, giving him a few hours respite; but with morning his dangers and anxieties returned as he found himself between two great perils. On the windward of him was the English fleet. Behind him was that belt of muddy water of the Dutch coast, which, if he struck was lost. With every passing moment the helpless Armada was drawing nearer to those terrible shoals. Suddenly the wind shifted to the east, and the change rescued, at least for the moment, the Spanish galleons on the very brink of destruction.
The English fleet, having lost the advantage of the wind, stood off; and the Spanish admiral, relieved of their presence, assembled his officers to deliberate on the course to be taken. The question to be decided was: Should they return to their anchorage off Calais or go back to Spain by way of the Orkneys? To return to Calais involved a second battle with the English; and were this to take place, the officers were of the opinion that for the Armada, there would be no tomorrow. The alternative of returning to Spain in battered ships, passing without pilots through unknown and dangerous seas, was a solution nearly as formidable; nevertheless, it was the lesser of the two evils to which their choice was limited, and it was the one adopted.
No sooner had the change of wind rescued the Spanish from the destruction which seemed to await them than it shifted once more and, settling in the southwest, blew with ever increasing intensity. 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 without firing a gun, having spent his supply of ammunition; but just the sight of his ships was enough for the terrified Spaniards and they fled.
Spreading the sail to the rising gale, the Armada bore northward. Drake had been uneasy, fearing that the Spaniards might seek refuge in Scotland; but when he saw this danger pass and the Armada speed away toward the shore of Norway, he resolved to return 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. Suddenly a furious gale burst out, and the last the English saw of the Armada was the vanishing forms of their retreating galleons as they entered the cloud of storm and became lost in the blackness of the northern night.
Carried on the tempest’s wings around Cape Wrath, they were next launched amid the perils of the Hebrides. The rollers of the Atlantic hoisted them, dashing them against the cliffs or flinging them on the shelving shore. Their crews, too worn with toil and want to swim ashore, were drowned in the surf and littered the beaches with their corpses. The winds drove the survivors farther south until they reached the west coast of Ireland.
There came a day’s calm; hunger and thirst were raging on board the ships; their store of water was entirely spent. Seeking to relieve their desperate situation, the Spaniards sent some boats on shore to beg supplies. They prayed piteously, willing to pay any amount of money but were unable to obtain any. The natives knew that the Spaniards had lost the day and should they comfort and assist the enemies of Elizabeth, they would be held answerable.
The storm then returned in all its former violence and raged for eleven days. During that time, galleon after galleon came on shore, scattering its drowned crews by hundreds upon the beach.
The sea was not the only enemy these wretched men had to dread. The Irish, though of the same religion as the Spaniards, were more pitiless than the waves. As the Spaniards crawled through the surf up the beaches, the Irish slaughtered them for the sake of their velvets, their gold brocades, and their rich chains. In addition, prompted by the fear that the Spaniards might be joined by the Irish and lead them in revolt, the English garrisons in Ireland had received orders to execute all who fell into their hands. It was calculated that in the month of September alone, 8,000Spaniards perished between the Giant’s Causeway and Blosket Sound, 1,100 were executed by the government officers, and 3,000 were murdered by the Irish. The rest were drowned. The tragedy, witnessed of old on the shores of the Red Sea, had repeated itself, with wider horrors, on the coast of Ireland.
The few galleons that escaped the waves and rocks crept back home, one by one. The terrible tragedy was too great to be disclosed all at once. When the terrible facts became fully known, the nation was shocked. There was scarcely a noble family in all of Spain which had not lost one or more of its members. Of the 30,000 who had sailed in the Armada, scarcely 10,000 ever returned; 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. Envying the fate of those who had perished, he buried himself from the eyes of his countrymen in his countryseat.
The sorrowful Philip was deeply wounded from a quarter from which he looked for sympathy and help. Pope Sixtus had promised a contribution of a million crowns toward the expenses of the Armada; but when he saw the outcome, he refused to pay a single ducat. In vain Philip urged that the Pope had instigated him to the attempt, the expedition had been undertaken in the sacred cause of the Church, and that the loss ought to be borne mutually. To his entreaties, Sixtus was deaf.
The Armada was the mightiest effort, by force of arms, ever put forth by the Roman Catholic powers against Protestantism; and it proved the turning point in the great war between Rome and the Reformation. Spain was never after what she had been before the failure of that expedition. It said in effect to her, “Remove the diadem; put off the crown.”
Almost all of the military genius and the naval skill enrolled in the service of Spain were lost in that ill-fated expedition. The financial loss could not be reckoned at less than six million ducats, but that was nothing compared with the loss 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.
The tragedy of the Armada was a great sermon, the text of which was that the ordinary course of events had been interrupted; the heavens had been bowed, and the Great Judge had descended upon the scene, working out a marvelous deliverance for England. While dismay reined within the popish kingdoms, the Protestant states joined in a chorus of thanksgiving.