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History Of Warfare - The Spanish Armada - Full Documentary
The Spanish Armada was an enormous 130-ship naval fleet dispatched by Spain in 1588 as part of a planned invasion of England. Following years of hostilities between Spain and England, King Philip II of Spain assembled the flotilla in the hope of removing Protestant Queen Elizabeth I from the throne and restoring the Roman Catholic faith in England. Spain’s “Invincible Armada” set sail that May, but it was outfoxed by the English, then battered by storms while limping back to Spain with at least a third of its ships sunk or damaged. The defeat of the Spanish Armada led to a surge of national pride in England and was one of the most significant chapters of the Anglo-Spanish War.
History Of Warfare - The Spanish Armada - Full Documentary - History
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Lucy Worsley visits the incredible locations where Royal history was made. More More
Lucy Worsley travels across Britain and Europe visiting the incredible locations where Royal history was made. In beautiful palaces and castles and on dramatic battlefields she investigates how Royal history is a mixture of facts, exaggeration, manipulation and mythology.
Lucy Worsley travels across Britain and Europe visiting the incredible locations where Royal history was made. In beautiful palaces and castles and on dramatic battlefields she investigates how Royal history is a mixture of facts, exaggeration, manipulation and mythology.
1. The English fleet significantly outnumbered the Spanish Armada
It might be surprising to discover that the English had a lot more ships—200 ships to the 130 of the Spanish. But the Spanish threat lay in their firepower, which was 50% greater than the English.
English ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588
The history of the Spanish Armada
The Spanish Armada of 1588 was the defining moment of Elizabeth I's reign. Spain's defeat secured Protestant rule in England, and launched Elizabeth onto the global stage.
History of the Spanish Armada
The Spanish Armada was one part of a planned invasion of England by King Philip II of Spain.
Launched in August 1588, ‘la felicissima armada’, or ‘the most fortunate fleet’, was made up of roughly 150 ships and 18,000 men. At the time, it was the largest fleet ever seen in Europe and Philip II of Spain considered it invincible.
The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I (© National Maritime Museum, London).
Why did the Spanish Armada happen?
Years of religious and political differences led up to the conflict between Catholic Spain and Protestant England.
The Spanish saw England as a competitor in trade and expansion in the ‘New World’ of the Americas.
Spain's empire was coveted by the English, leading to numerous skirmishes between English pirates and privateers and Spanish vessels. English sailors deliberately targeted Spanish shipping around Europe and the Atlantic. This included Sir Francis Drake's burning of over 20 Spanish ships in the port of Cadiz in April 1587.
Meanwhile, Walter Raleigh had twice tried - unsuccessfully - to establish an English colony in North America.
Plans for invasion accelerated however in 1587.
The turning point came following the execution of Mary Queen of Scots – Spain’s Catholic ally. The killing of Mary Queen of Scots, ordered by Elizabeth, was the final straw for Philip II in the religious tensions between the two countries.
How did the campaign begin?
In 1588, Philip II intended to sail with his navy and army, a total of around 30,000 men, up the English Channel to link up with the forces led by the Duke of Parma in the Spanish Netherlands. From there they would invade England, bring the country under Catholic rule, and secure Spain's position as the superpower of Western Europe.
Beacons were lit as soon as the Armada was sighted off the English coast, informing London and Elizabeth of the imminent invasion.
According to legend, Francis Drake was first told of the sighting of the Armada while playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe. He is said to have answered that ‘there is plenty of time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards’ - but there is no reliable evidence for this.
Drake playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe, as the Spanish Armada is sighted (PAJ2845, © NMM).
The English ships were longer, lower and faster than their Spanish rivals. The decks fore and aft had been lowered to give greater stability, and this meant more guns could be carried to fire lethal broadsides. The ships were also more manoueverable than the heavy Spanish vessels.
What happened when the Armada attacked?
The commander of the Armada was the Duke of Medina Sidonia. The Duke had set out on the enterprise with some reluctance, as he was wary of the abilities of the English ships. However, he hoped he would be able to join with the forces of the Duke of Parma in the Netherlands, and find safe, deep anchorage for his fleet before the invasion of England. To his dismay this did not happen.
The Spaniards maintained a strict crescent formation up the Channel, which the English realised would be very difficult to break.
Despite this, two great Spanish ships were accidentally put out of action during the initial battles. The Rosario collided with another ship, was disabled and captured by Drake, while the San Salvador blew up with tremendous loss of life.
The two fleets skirted round each other up the Channel with neither gaining advantage.
How did English fireships help break the Spanish Armada?
On 27 July 1588, after the Armada had anchored off Calais, the English decided to send in eight 'fireships'.
These were vessels packed with flammable material, deliberately set alight and left to drift towards enemy ships.
At midnight, the fireships approached the Spanish Armada. The Spanish cut their anchor cables ready for flight, but in the darkness many ships collided with each other. While none of the Spanish ships were set on fire, the Armada was left scattered and disorganised.
Launch of fireships against the Spanish Armada, 7 August 1588 (BHC0263, © NMM).
Next morning, there was the fiercest fighting of the whole Armada campaign during the Battle of Gravelines. By evening, the wind was strong and the Spanish expected a further attack at dawn, but as both sides were out of ammunition none came.
That afternoon the wind changed and the Spanish ships were blown off the sandbanks towards the North Sea. With no support from the Duke of Parma and their anchorage lost, Medina Sidonia's main aim was to bring the remains of the Armada back to Spain.
Why did the Spanish Armada fail?
Many ships were wrecked off the rocky coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Of the 150 ships that set out, only 65 returned to Lisbon. The following year, Philip sent another smaller fleet of about 100 ships. This too ran into stormy weather off Cornwall and was blown back to Spain.
Map of the track of the Armada around Britain and Ireland (PBD8529(2), © NMM).
It was not until the reign of James I (ruler of Scotland and England 1603–1625) that peace was finally made between the two countries.
Spanish Armada timeline: 1588
12 July: The Spanish Armada sets sail
18 July: The English fleet leaves Plymouth but the south-west wind prevents them from reaching Spain
19 July: The Spanish Armada is sighted off the Lizard in Cornwall, where they stop to get supplies
21 July: The outnumbered English navy begins bombarding the seven-mile-long line of Spanish ships from a safe distance, using the advantage of their superior long-range guns
22 July: The English fleet is forced back to port due to the wind
22 - 23 July: The Armada is pursued up the Channel by Lord Howard of Effingham’s fleet. Howard was the commander of the English forces, with Francis Drake second in command. The Spaniards reach Portland Bill, where they gain the weather advantage, meaning they are able to turn and attack the pursuing English ships
27 July: The Armada anchors off Calais to wait for their troops to arrive. The English send in fireships that night
28 July: The English attack the Spanish fleet near Gravelines
29 July: The Armada is re-joined by the rest of the missing ships
30 July: The Armada is put into battle order
31 July: The Spanish fleet tries to turn around to join up with the Spanish land forces again. However, the prevailing south-west winds prevent them from doing so
1 August: The Armada finds itself off Berry Head with the English fleet far behind. Howard is forced to wait for his ships to re-join him
2 August: The Armada is located to the north of the English, near Portland Bill. Both fleets turn east
6 August: Both fleets are once again close but avoid any conflict
9 August: After the main danger is over, Elizabeth travels to speak to the English troops at Tilbury
12 August: The fleets come close again, with the Armada in good shape. However, still no fighting takes place, and the Spanish ships are ordered to sail north. Stormy weather plagues them for the rest of the voyage
1 September: the ship Barca de Amburgo sinks in a storm near Fair Isle, Scotland
3 September: the Duke Of Medina Sidonia, commander of the Armada, sends a message Philip II that there have been four nights of storms, and 17 ships have disappeared
12 September: The ship Trinidad Valencera is caught in a bad storm, and is eventually forced to land near Kinnagoe Bay in Ireland
October: The remaining Armada ships manage to return home. safety in the north and many lives were spared.
'Superguns' of Elizabeth I's navy
Tests on cannon recovered from an Elizabethan warship suggest it carried powerful cast iron guns, of uniform size, firing standard ammunition.
"This marked the beginning of a kind of mechanisation of war," says naval historian Professor Eric Grove of Salford University.
"The ship is now a gun platform in a way that it wasn't before."
"[Her] navy made a giant leap forward in the way men fought at sea, years ahead of England's enemies, and which was still being used to devastating effect by Nelson 200 years later."
Until now, it was thought Queen Elizabeth was using the same cannon technology as her father, Henry VIII. His flagship, the Mary Rose, was ultra-modern for its day.
It is known that during Elizabeth's reign, English sailors and gunners became greatly feared. For example, at the beginning of Henry VIII's reign, the English fleet was forced to retreat from heavily armed French galleys.
By the time of Elizabeth, even Phillip of Spain was warning of the deadly English artillery. But no-one has ever been able to clearly show why this was.
The new research follows the discovery of the first wreck of an Elizabethan fighting ship off Alderney in the Channel Islands, thought to date from around 1592, just four years after the Spanish Armada.
The ship was a pinnace, a small ship carrying 12 guns, two of which have been recovered.
"There's a very good chance this ship fought against the Armada with its revolutionary guns, but there's no proof that all or even some of the others were armed similarly," says Saul David, historian and presenter of a BBC Timewatch documentary about the guns.
"But they certainly represent a huge leap forward in military technology and may have contributed to the Spanish defeat."
Spain attempted to invade England in 1588 with 200 ships. The Spanish were unable to overcome the English navy, but there were also other reasons for the defeat.
The English used fire ships in a night attack, the Spanish lacked a good deep water harbour to load their troops and they were eventually scattered by a storm.
At the time, Spain was Europe's superpower and Philip II wanted Elizabeth's throne and to return England to Catholicism.
The two cannon were recovered from the Alderney wreck last summer.
Elizabeth's "supergun", although relatively small, could hit a target a mile away. At a ship-to-ship fighting distance of about 100 yards, the ball would have sufficient punch to penetrate the oak planks of a galleon, travelling across the deck and out the other side.
Elizabeth's navy worked out that a few big guns were less effective than a lot of small guns, all the same, all firing at once.
The English navy stood up to the Spanish Armada. But, perhaps more significantly, as England's reputation for naval prowess was growing, Philip abandoned any further attempts at invasion.
"What we have shown is that the English navy and its gun founders were almost 50 years ahead of their time technologically," concludes Mensun Bound. This made Elizabeth I the mother of British naval dominance lasting three centuries.
Timewatch: Elizabeth's Lost Guns, BBC Two, 2000 GMT, Saturday 21 February. Watch more clips at the BBC Timewatch website.
10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Spanish Armada
The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 – a fleet of Spanish ships led by Spanish commander Medina Sidonia with the purpose of overthrowing Queen Elizabeth I – is considered one of England's greatest military achievements, and one that served to boost the monarch's popularity. Here, Robert Hutchinson, the author of The Spanish Armada, shares 10 lesser-known facts…
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Published: November 2, 2018 at 5:20 pm
The Spanish Armada campaign of 1588 changed the course of European history. If Medina Sidonia, the Spanish commander, had managed to escort Philip II’s 26,000-strong invasion army from Flanders, the future of Elizabeth I and her Protestant England would have looked very black indeed.
After landing near Margate in Kent, it is probable the battle-hardened Spanish troops would have been in the streets of London within a week. England would have reverted to the Catholic faith, and there may not have been a British empire to come. We might still be speaking Spanish today.
But Medina Sidonia suffered one of the most signal catastrophes in naval history. Myth, driven by Elizabethan propaganda, has shaped our view of that dramatic running fight up the English Channel.
The Spanish were not defeated by the queen’s plucky sea dogs fighting against overwhelming odds: it was destroyed by appalling weather, poor planning and flawed strategy and tactics.
Here are some surprising facts about the campaign…
Both Elizabeth’s ministers and King Philip of Spain expected that the 50 per cent of England’s population that remained Catholic would rise in support of the Spanish invaders after any landing
Jewel-hilted swords, intended as Philip’s gifts for English Catholic nobles, were found in a box on board the fatally damaged Nuestra Señora del Rosario after the English vice-admiral Sir Francis Drake boarded the ship.
The Spanish king’s spies had reported beforehand that the “greater part of Lancashire is Catholic… and the town of Liverpool”, and the counties of Westmorland and Northumberland remained “really faithful to your majesty”.
In addition, another Spanish assessment in August 1586 estimated that 2,000 men could be recruited in Lincolnshire “which was well effected to the Catholic religion”, plus 3,000 more in Norfolk, while Hampshire was “full of Catholics”.
This last report may have contained some truth. In early June 1586, Henry Radcliffe, 4th Earl of Sussex, suppressed what he described as an intended rebellion “in the country near Portsmouth” and arrested some of its leaders: Elizabeth’s government took stern measures to contain the threat posed from what they saw as potential fifth columnists.
Recusants – those who refused to attend Anglican services because they were Catholic – were disarmed and those regarded as most dangerous were imprisoned without trial in a number of fortresses, such as Wisbech Castle in Cambridgeshire. These were the world’s first internment camps.
In Bedfordshire, Henry Grey, 6th Earl of Kent, inquired how he was to deal with female recusants who were “married to husbands that are conformable in religion”. Godfrey Foljambe arrested his own grandmother and “now have her in custody”.
There were some among Elizabeth I’s faithful subjects who placed profit ahead of patriotism
Sometime in 1587, Elizabeth I’s ministers learnt that 12 English merchants – some based in Bristol – had been selling supplies and equipment to the Armada “to the hurt of her majesty and undoing of the realm, if not redressed”.
Their nine sizeable cargoes of contraband, valued at between £300 and £2,000 each, contained not merely provisions, but also quantities of ammunition, gunpowder and ordnance.
The fate of these reckless traders (perhaps they were Catholic sympathisers?) remains unknown but, in those edgy times, it’s unlikely they’d have enjoyed the queen’s mercy, which at best was rather limited.
Sir John Gilbert [who organised Devon’s defence against the Spanish Armada] also refused permission for his ships to join Drake’s western squadron and allowed them to sail on their planned trading voyage to South America in March 1588 in defiance of naval orders.
English Catholics sailed on board the Armada
At least four of its “gentlemen adventurers” were English, and there were 18 among the salaried officers.
Inevitably, some paid the heavy price of disloyalty to the crown: five Catholics slipped away by boat from the stricken Rosario before Drake’s arrival, but two Englishmen were captured on board and taken to the Tower of London as “rebels and traitors to their country”.
One, identified as the Cornishman Tristram Winslade, was handed to officers employed by Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, who were ordered to interrogate him “using torture… at their pleasure”. (Miraculously, Winslade survived the rack and Elizabeth’s justice, and died in the Catholic seminary at Douai in France in November 1605).
On board the battle-damaged San Mateo, beached between Ostend and Sluis after the battle of Gravelines, two Englishmen were killed by Dutch sailors – one named as William Browne, a brother of Viscount Montague. The local commissioner for the Protestant States of Zeeland reported that the second man killed was “very rich, who left William as his heir”.
Other Englishmen were reported to having been aboard this ship, eating with her captain, Don Diego Pimentel. “One was called Robert, another Raphael, once servant to the… mayor of London. We do not know their surnames.” They may have been among those forcibly drowned or hanged by the Dutch who were rebelling against Spanish rule.
Before the campaign began there were reports of disaffection below decks in Elizabeth’s warships. After a scare on board Lord Edmund Sheffield’s Bear, the “barber and three of four others took the oath [of allegiance to the crown] and renounced the pope’s authority”.
Pope Sixtus V, who supported the Armada, was infatuated with Elizabeth, telling an astonished Venetian ambassador: “Were she a Catholic, she would be our most beloved, for she is of great worth”
Philip was forced to ask the pope for a loan to help meet the rocketing costs of preparing the Armada. However, this pope was notorious for his miserliness – the Spanish ambassador to the Vatican complained: “When it comes to getting money out of him, it is like squeezing his life blood.”
Sixtus meanwhile had a pet project to buy the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks and rebuild it in Rome – or recover it by force of arms. He was piqued that, although the Spanish army “would be sufficient for this purpose”, it was fighting England, instead of achieving his ambitions in the Holy Land.
In the end Sixtus promised to pay 1m gold ducats (£662m in 2015 spending power), but cannily stipulated that half would be paid only after Spanish forces set foot in England. The remainder would be in equal instalments every two months thereafter.
Philip could bestow the English crown on whomever he wished, providing that the realm was immediately returned to the Catholic faith. Sixtus also demanded that the church’s property and rights, alienated since the time of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, should now be restored.
Not one penny was ever paid out.
After the Armada’s defeat, Sixtus told one of his cardinals to write to Philip to console him and to encourage him to launch a new expedition against England. He refrained from writing himself, as he feared the king “might make it a pretext for asking him for money”.
Medina Sidonia did not want to command the Armada
He was an administrator, and had never been to sea. He told the Spanish king: “I know by the small experience I have had afloat that I soon become sea-sick.”
He had been the first to reinforce Cadiz during Drake’s raid on that city in 1587, and had been appointed captain-general of Andalusia as “conspicuous proof of the king’s favour”.
After considering his appointment for two days, Medina Sidonia made clear his absolute conviction that the Armada expedition was a grave mistake and had little chance of success. Only a miracle, he added in a frank and outspoken letter, could save it.
Philip’s counsellors, horror-struck at its electrifying contents, dared not show it to the king. “Do not depress us with fears for the fate of the Armada because in such a cause, God will make sure it succeeds” they begged the new admiral.
As for his suitability for command, “nobody knows more about naval affairs than you”.
Then their tone became menacing: “Remember that the reputation and esteem you currently enjoy for courage and wisdom would entirely be forfeited if what you wrote to us became generally known (although we shall keep it secret).”
When storms scattered and damaged the Armada after it left Lisbon, Medina Sidonia’s grave doubts about his mission returned
He wrote to Philip: “I am bound to confess that I see very few, or hardly any of those in the Armada with any knowledge or ability to perform the duties entrusted to them.
“Your majesty may believe me when I assure you that we are very weak. Do not be deceived by anyone who may wish to persuade you otherwise.” The admiral added: “Well, sire, how do you think we can attack so great a country as England with such a force as ours is now.” Better, he advised, to agree “some honourable terms with the enemy” while the Armada was being repaired in Corunna.
Not surprisingly, this gloomy letter alarmed and depressed Philip, who spent all “day and night in prayer, although suffering from the gout in his hand”. His mood was not improved by a letter from Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, commander of his land forces in the Spanish Netherlands and the general in charge of the invasion army. Parma warned Philip that the flat river barges that would carry his troops across to England could not meet the Armada at sea: “If we came across any armed English or [Dutch] rebel ships they could destroy us with the greatest ease.”
Philip noted in the margin alongside this passage: “God grant that no embarrassment may come from this.” But he could not accept any more arguments from his naval commander. He wrote to Medina Sidonia: “I have dedicated this enterprise to God. Pull yourself together then and do your part!”
Sir Francis Drake was more interested in booty than fighting
After the first fight south of Cornwall, Drake was ordered to shadow the Spanish fleet with a light burning at his stern as a guide to the following English fleet.
But sometime that night, the light disappeared. Drake had left his station to loot the stricken Rosario.
At dawn, the English admiral Lord Howard of Effingham, in Ark Royal, and two other English ships found themselves hard up against the Armada’s rearguard. They hastily retreated.
Drake claimed afterwards that he had sighted strange sails to starboard at midnight and, believing them to be Spanish, doused his lantern and set off in hot pursuit. They turned out to be innocent German merchant ships.
Doubtless Howard deemed it impolitic to court-martial one of England’s naval heroes at a time of national emergency – even though through his actions, the English fleet had lost both time and distance in chasing the Spaniards.
Martin Frobisher, commanding Triumph, seethed: “Drake’s light we looked for but there was no light to be seen… Like a coward he kept by her [the Rosario] all night because he would have the spoil… We will have our shares or I will make him spend the best blood in his belly.”
Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury – “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman” – which pledged that “shortly we shall have a famous victory over the enemies of my God and of my kingdom”, was made after the Armada had entered Scottish waters on its way home
That same morning, Howard had arrived with his ships and starving crews at Harwich in Essex. In the evening, while Elizabeth was still at the English army camp at Tilbury, there were rumours that Parma and his invasion force had embarked and “would be here with as much speed as possibly he could”.
The queen refused to return, for her own safety, to London, declaring that she “would not think of deserting her army at a time of danger”. The next day her troops kept a public fast for victory.
The rumours about Parma were just Elizabethan propaganda. With the cost of her forces in the likely invasion areas of Kent and Essex amounting to £783 14s 8d per day, the queen ordered an immediate demobilisation of the army.
A long propaganda tract written at the behest of Elizabeth’s secretary of state Lord Burghley was allegedly found “in the chamber of one Richard Leigh, a seminary priest who was lately executed for high treason”. In fact, it was a forgery Leigh’s identity had been conveniently stolen
The tract claimed that the truths of English naval supremacy or the power of the Protestant God were undeniable: “The Spaniards did never take or sink any English ship or boat or break any mast or took any one prisoner.” This amazed the Spanish prisoners in London who exclaimed that “in all these fights, Christ showed himself a Lutheran”.
Medina Sidonia attracted special vilification. He had spent much of his time during the Armada campaign “lodged in the bottom of his ship for safety”. The tract concluded with this scornful and contemptuous phrase: “So ends this account of the misfortunes of the Spanish Armada which they used to call INVINCIBLE.”
The propaganda onslaught did not end there. A 10-page doggerel verse promised English readers that it was safe to eat fish, even though they had fed on corpses of Spanish sailors, infected with venereal diseases. Was this the first government health warning?
The Spanish Armada was not the last Armada sent against England
Two more were despatched in 1596 and 1597, but these fleets were also dispersed by storms.
On 23 July 1595, four Spanish galleys sailed on a reconnaissance mission from southern Brittany and landed at Mousehole in Cornwall. The fishing village was burned and three men killed.
A small force of Cornish militia fled in blind panic at their first sight of the Spanish troops and Penzance was then bombarded, destroying houses and sinking three ships in its harbour. Newlyn was also burned.
Fear of the imminent arrival of an English fleet forced the Spaniards to depart on 4 August – but not before a Catholic Mass was celebrated openly on English soil.
A larger force of 3,000 Spanish troops landed in Kinsale in south-west Ireland in 1601 to assist Irish rebels but were forced to surrender.
The 19-year Anglo-Spanish war ended in 1604 as Elizabeth’s successor, James VI and I, wanted to end the cripplingly expensive hostilities. The Treaty of London granted much of what Philip II demanded if England had been forced to sue for peace in 1588.
England ended its support of the Dutch rebellion in the Spanish Netherlands and renounced her privateers’ attacks on Spanish shipping. On Spain’s part, the treaty acknowledged that official hopes of restoring Catholicism to England were over for ever.
Robert Hutchinson is the author of The Spanish Armada (W&N, 2013).
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in April 2015.
Spanish Galleons: The Stallions of The Sea
Emerging in the mid-16 th century, the Spanish galleon quickly became hugely important both to naval warfare and to securing civilian trade from the Americas. It remains one of the most influential warships in history.
The Evolution of the Galleon
Though its exact origins are uncertain, the galleon design combined distinct features of ships from the Mediterranean and northern Europe – two regions in which the Spanish found themselves fighting.
In the Mediterranean, oared galleys were common as fighting ships, and by the early 16 th century these carried cannons at the front. They also made use of lateen-rigged sails. They were good for fighting in relatively still waters but lacked the stability for ocean voyages.
In the North Sea and North Atlantic, admirals were fielding increasingly large carracks. Like galleons, these high-sided, square-rigged sailing ships had been in use for centuries. They could survive storm-tossed seas and provide a fighting platform for both men and guns.
Carracks, galleon (center/right), square rigged caravel (below), galley and fusta (galliot) depicted by D. João de Castro on the “Suez Expedition”
The first galleon can arguably be dated to as early as 1517, but it was in the 1530s that the design and its name became common. With a mix of sails, high aftcastle, low forecastle, and ports in its sides from which cannons could fire, it could handle trans-Atlantic voyages as well as fierce sea battles. It, therefore, filled a vital role for the Spanish, protecting their growing treasure fleets as silver and gold flowed back from their colonies in the Americas.
Spanish galleons were mostly built in two distinct regions – the Basque country and southern Andalucia. As Spanish power increase in the late 16 th and early 17 th centuries, shipbuilding also took place in territories engulfed by the Spanish empire, including Portugal, Flanders, parts of Italy, and the Caribbean.
Spanish Galleon, wooden ship model from the Museo Storico Navale di Venezia (Naval History Museum) in Venice, Italy. Photo: Thyes CC BY-SA 3.0
Construction was usually carried out by private shipbuilders following tight regulations laid down by the government. Mathematical principles and practical experience let shipwrights build a large number of increasingly larger ships in line with these rules.
They were paid in installments at specific stages of the work, before handing the ships over to the crown once completed. Royal officials would then arrange for the ships to be outfitted and decorated as ready to sail.
A Spanish galleon
The production of ships’ guns and ammunition was even more tightly controlled. Guns, powder, and shot were all produced in royal foundries and workshops. Private contractors weren’t even allowed in on powder production until 1633. When guns ran short in the late 16 th century, some were imported from abroad.
The guns came in a range of different lengths and calibers, each with their own type of shot. They were generally longer than the guns used on English ships and were often the sort of field pieces also used on land. This made it harder, slower work to move the guns back and forth for loading and firing in the confines of the ships.
Over time, lessons were learned and more appropriate barrels and carriages were developed, but in times of high demand, such as the equipping of the Armada, every sort of available gun was taken to sea.
John Benson, Spanish galleon
Galleons served in two main roles.
First, there was the protection of the flotas, the fleets bringing treasure back from the Americas. Galleons on these runs would usually transport one fleet west across the Atlantic and then pick up a different fleet to escort home.
Their presence was vital to protect these heavily laden and incredibly valuable ships from attack by foreign powers and pirates – both freelance buccaneers and those supported by the English in their unofficial naval war against Spain. The trips by these galleons were funded by the averia, a tax on ship owners meant to cover the protection they received.
19th-century engraving depicts a Spanish Galleon shipwreck at Port-Na Spaniagh, 1588. Lacada Point and the Spanish Rocks are in the background.
The other use of galleons was in war fleets. The Spanish fought on a number of fronts during the 16 th and 17 th centuries, launching campaigns against Islamic powers and Barbary corsairs in the Mediterranean, against Protestant rebels in the Low Countries, and against the endlessly bothersome English and their privateer fleets. These sometimes required powerful fleets that packed a punch as well as carrying ground troops, and for this work, the galleon came into its own.
Life Onboard a Galleon
Galleons were crowded full of soldiers, sailors, gunners, officers, and other crew and passengers. Space was at a premium. Most of those onboard slept crammed in together either below or on deck. The most senior officers got private cabins, while others of rank gained some privacy by setting up curtains or wooden screens.
El Galeón, a 17th-century Spanish galleon replica in Quebec City in 2016. Photo: Cephas CC BY-SA 4.0
The crew worked in three watches, each taking two four-hour shifts a day. The changes of watches and other significant moments in the day were marked with prayers and religious chanting. Meals were generally eaten around shift changes and consisted mostly of wheat biscuits, beans, pulses, and rough red wine, with salted beef or fish depending on supplies and the day of the week.
With so many men crammed in together, conditions became smelly and unhygienic. Rats were a serious problem, attacking food supplies and any animals on board. Other vermin such as cockroaches, mice, scorpions, and fleas added to the discomfort.
The Galleon at War
For most of the 16 th century, the Spanish clung to an old-fashioned model of naval warfare in which most of the damage was done through boarding actions. Guns were used just for preliminary bombardments and few shots were fired compared with some other navies. This was still the case as late as 1588 and played a part in the disastrous failure of that year’s attempted invasion of England.
Spanish galleon firing its cannons at other ships
Engagement between a Spanish galleon and a Dutch ship, found in The Story of the Barbary Corsairs’ by Stanley Lane-Poole, published in 1890 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
The Capture of the Spanish galleon St Joseph, 23 September 1739
Following the Armada, more emphasis was put on gunnery. Galleons carried a fearsome weight of guns and could devastate enemy ships. But mismanagement led to repeated disasters against better-led fleets such as those of the Dutch.
The Spanish galleon was a deadly weapon that helped ensure Spain’s place as a leading world power. But any weapon was only as effective as the men wielding it, and the rise of British and Dutch naval power was made possible by Spanish commanders who failed to capitalize on the galleon’s potential.
History Of Warfare - The Spanish Armada - Full Documentary - History
The Mary Rose was a successful warship for Henry VIII for 34 years: almost the entire duration of his reign.
Henry VIII was an enthusiastic shipbuilder, whose pride in his “Army by Sea” would see his fleet grow from 5 at the start of his reign to 58 by the time of his death in 1547. While he may have had many ships, it is the Mary Rose that is remembered as his favourite. Notably, the life of the Mary Rose coincides almost exactly with the reign of Henry VIII.
Before the development of a standing Navy, English kings relied upon requisitioning merchant vessels in times of need. This was certainly cheaper than building, maintaining and manning ships in times of peace, but it was inefficient and difficult to mobilize. With the threat of Scotland to the north and France to the south, Henry VIII began to build his Navy as soon as he came to the throne.
The earliest reference to the Mary Rose is 29th January 1510, in a letter ordering the construction of “two new ships”. These ships were to be the Mary Rose and her sister ship, the Peter Pomegranate. The ships were built in Portsmouth, making the sinking of the Mary Rose in the Solent and her eventual resting place in Portsmouth’s Mary Rose Museum all the more poignant.
The first account that names the Mary Rose is a letter from June 1511. It is often claimed that the ship was named after Henry’s sister, Mary Tudor but no evidence supports this. Instead, it was the fashion to name ships for saints and the pairing of the Mary with the Peter supports this. The badges of the ships – the Rose and the Pomegranate – celebrate the royal couple the rose being the symbol of the king, and the pomegranate being that of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Neatly, the Virgin Mary was known at the time as the ‘Mystic Rose’ the name of the Mary Rose therefore signifies not only the power of the Tudor dynasty, but also that of the Virgin Mary.
The Mary Rose was larger than her sister ship - 600 tons to the Peter Pomegranate’s 450 - but this was not the only difference between the ships. While both were carracks designed for war, the Peter Pomegranate was not built to carry heavy guns. The Mary Rose, on the other hand, carried six or eight large guns from the beginning of her career. This required a new design feature: gunports. The Mary Rose was therefore of a state-of-the-art design. It has been suggested that Henry himself insisted on the design, which would add to the reasons why he was so proud of the Mary Rose.
Find out more about the Peter Pomegranate
Six months after the launch of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII was at war with France the nineteen year old king wanted to show his mettle against the might of France. Against the advice of his father’s old advisers, Henry VIII declared war in 1512.
While the Mary Rose was not the largest of Henry’s ships – the 1000 ton Regent held that position – it was the Mary Rose that the Admiral of the Fleet, Edward Howard, picked as his flagship. This was to be a matter of significance in the Battle of St Mathieu on the 10th August 1512.
In the weeks leading up to the battle, Howard led successful raids along the coast of Brittany, capturing 40 French ships and sacking French towns. He returned to Portsmouth in late July in order to resupply where he was visited by the king. On the 6th August, Howard received word that the French navy had mobilized and he left Portsmouth to return to Brittany.
The French did not expect the English to arrive for several more days and were celebrating the Feast of St Lawrence when the English fleet arrived. Many French officers were celebrating the saint’s day on land, while local dignitaries and their families were feasting aboard the fleet. Upon seeing the English fleet, the large majority of the French ships fled, their retreat guarded by the French flagship, the Grand Louise, and the Cordelière.
The Mary Rose drew first blood she shot out the mainmasts of the Grand Louise, killing 300 men and taking the ship out of commission. This short engagement marks the first instance of ships fitted with gunports engaging each other at range without an attempt of boarding, a watershed moment in naval history.
Despite this historic action, the most dramatic action of the day did not include the Mary Rose. While the Mary Rose was engaged with the Grand Louise, the 1000 ton English Regent grappled with the Cordelière. As with many of the French ships, the Cordelière was hosting families as the English fleet arrived and her captain, Hervé de Porzmoguer, made the hard decision to fight with civilians on board. As the ships grappled with one another, there was a suddenexplosion aboard the Cordelière. The flames spread to the Regent and both ships went down. Over 1500 people died from the two ships, including women and children aboard the Cordelière.
Teaching the Armada: an introduction to the Anglo-Spanish War, 1585-1604
As topics go, the Spanish Armada has everything: great personalities, grand strategy, warfare on land and sea, diplomatic manoeuvres and conspiracies, propaganda in abundance and religions to die for—all available in a rich range of primary sources (documentary, visual and artefactual) and in a variety of secondary literature and websites. Many of the issues involved, though specific to the period, open up general historical questions. The role of political leadership is brilliantly exemplified in the contrasting cases of Philip II and Elizabeth I. Philip was married with heirs, presiding over a world empire faced by many, many threats. Elizabeth was unmarried, heirless and attempting to survive on the throne of a small country in the face of threats first from Mary Queen of Scots and then from the might of Spain. In spite of the wealth of the Indies Philip was in huge debt, but continued to spend heavily on wars to maintain and expand his empire. Elizabeth was a notoriously stingy monarch who had stashed away money as a war chest in the event of hostilities with Spain. Though firm in their religious beliefs, they were both pragmatic in their statecraft. They played off the factions in their administrations against each other and for different reasons were slow to make decisions. Although they concentrated power in their own hands, the decisions they made were very much circumscribed by the limitations of early modern administration. The Spanish monarch is superbly treated in G. Parker, The Grand Strategy of Philip II (New Haven, 1998), and in more narrative and revisionist style by Henry Kamen in Philip of Spain (New Haven, 1998). Elizabeth is the subject of countless biographies of varying quality. The best is Wallace MacCaffery’s life’s work, Elizabeth I (London, 1993), whilst a useful recent series of essays on her reign can be found in Volume 14 of the Royal Historical Society Transactions (Oxford, 2005).
Weakness of France
The Anglo-Spanish conflict is also an exercise in geopolitics and, indeed, a matter of the counterfactual in history (what might have happened). Explaining these strategic considerations to students, coupled with the vagaries of royal marriage policies, can be great fun. The biggest factor in late sixteenth-century politics was the weakness of France. In the 1550s, under Henri II, France was populous and aggressive, compact in geography and central to European power politics. England needed Spain’s alliance against France, especially with the dauphin of France, Francis, marrying Mary Queen of Scots, and Spain needed England in the balance of power against France. But in mid-1559 the 40-year-old Henri II was killed in a jousting match and France descended into weak monarchy, dynastic strife and sporadic religious wars that lasted on and off for 40 years. As a result, England was able to remove the French forces threatening it from Scotland and to back a regime there which in turn forced Mary Queen of Scots, returning home after the death of King Francis in 1560, into two disastrous domestic marriages. The tragic twists and turns of the latter’s career are admirably dealt with in John Guy’s biographical study ‘My heart is my own’: the life of Mary Queen of Scots (London, 2004). Had France continued on its 1550s course, Scotland might have become a French province, as Brittany had done. Furthermore, Elizabeth would have been forced to marry, indeed to marry a relative of Philip II, to stave off the claims of her legitimate Catholic rival, the French-backed Mary. Also Philip’s troublesome Protestant subjects in the Netherlands would never have attracted English support because Elizabeth would have been far too fearful of France taking advantage of the situation there. Besides this, a strong France would never have permitted Philip of Spain to pursue his claim to Portugal with such consummate ease. Portugal was of amazing strategic importance. Its seizure in 1580, after King Sebastian’s madcap crusade to Morocco and the predictable disaster that followed, made possible an invasion of England for the first time because it gave Spain an extended Atlantic sea-coast, a deep-water port at Lisbon and an oceanic naval fleet.
Causes of war
By this time two issues were straining Anglo-Spanish relations to breaking point. The lesser one was the attempt by English seamen as freebooters to break the Spanish colonial trade monopoly or, more violently, their activities as privateers under licence from hostile governments or as plain pirates to loot the Spanish empire. In this regard the great example is Francis Drake. Having failed to trade legitimately on the coast of Mexico in 1568 and having narrowly escaped the fate that befell his Hawkins cousins, Drake had more success when he attempted to intercept the mule trains carrying silver across the Isthmus of Panama in 1573. But it was his daring circumnavigation (1577–80), passing through the Straits of Magellen, that caught the Spaniards unawares. Queen Elizabeth was a silent partner in this immensely profitable venture and knighted Drake on his return. This was no voyage of exploration but a belligerent act of long-distance piracy!
Despite the aggravations on the high seas, the main problem was the Netherlands, where attempts at religious centralisation had brought protests from the gentry and widespread vandalising and ransacking of churches by Protestant-led mobs. Philip, the sovereign lord of the Netherlands, based in distant Castile, over-reacted and dispatched the duke of Alva with the Spanish army to re-impose order. In fact this had largely been achieved before Alva arrived, but there nevertheless followed a reign of terror against royal opponents and Protestant reformers, many of whom took refuge in England. The arrival of a large Catholic army across the Channel naturally alarmed the newly established and still very nervy Protestant regime in England. When the queen detained Alva’s treasure ships seeking shelter in Southampton in 1568, there was a break in diplomatic relations and embargoes on trade. Relations were not officially restored until 1574, but in the interim Dutch refugees—the famous Sea-Beggars—had used England as a launch pad to mount an attack on Brill in Holland and to ignite a full-scale revolt against Spain. Overstretched, Spanish rule in the Low Countries collapsed. Alva was recalled but a more softly-softly approach was too late. Philip was forced to declare bankruptcy and his unpaid soldiery mutinied, leading to the so-called ‘Spanish Fury’ that devastated the city of Antwerp and decimated its citizenry. By 1577 the Spanish army had withdrawn and William of Orange, the leader of the revolt, was being fêted in Brussels as the liberator of his country.
By the early 1580s, however, the Spanish reconquest was well under way. The final defeat of the Incas in Peru by Viceroy Toledo and his reorganisation of the production of silver there had solved the bullion bottleneck. Truce with the Turks in the Mediterranean freed up troops and resources for redirection northwards. And finally the king had a new and very able governor in Alessandro Farnese, prince of Parma. He won over Catholics in Brabant, re-entered Brussels and moved steadily north, taking town after town. In 1584 William of Orange was assassinated by a loner hoping to collect the money put on his head when the Spaniards declared him an outlaw. On this see Lisa Jardine’s The awful end of Prince William the Silent: the first assassination of a head of state with a hand-gun (London, 2006). English Protestants were themselves fearful for the life of their queen, having earlier discovered the Throckmorton plot, which involved Catholic extremists, the Spanish ambassador and the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots. Thus when the leaderless and increasingly beleaguered Dutch turned to England for aid, their hopes were high.
A remarkable series of documents to be put before students at this point are the deliberations of the English privy council on war and peace (Historical Manuscripts Commission, Salisbury Papers, III, 67–70). Lord Burghley, with his famous pros and contras, and his fellow councillors have left documents showing arguments for intervening immediately to obstruct the progress of the Spaniards in the Netherlands in the hope of preventing them from overwhelming the Dutch and achieving absolute domination there. Such a confrontation obviously entailed war with the world’s superpower. But if England stood idly by, could she afterwards survive on her own under continuous threat from an even stronger foe? This was the same classic foreign policy dilemma that English statesmen faced with the subsequent French and German threats right into the twentieth century. The privy council favoured intervention but Elizabeth prevaricated in the vain hope that the weak French regime of Henri III might do something for the Dutch instead. After a further series of tit-for-tat maritime provocations, Elizabeth finally signed the Treaty of Nonsuch with the Dutch in August 1585, which involved loans and the dispatch of an expeditionary force under the earl of Leicester. It arrived too late to prevent the fall of Antwerp but it was a contributory factor in the survival of the Dutch Republic.
The ‘Enterprise of England’
An invasion of England to deal with its Protestant queen and her meddlesome subjects, contemplated from the end of Santa Cruz’s operations against Portuguese resistance in the Azores in 1583, now became a top priority. On this Garret Mattingley’s The defeat of the Spanish Armada (Harmondsworth, 1962) remains one of the classics of historical writing. The best material on the events of August 1588, however, emerged at the time of the 400th anniversary and in the decade that followed. In particular, reference should be made to C. Martin and G. Parker, The Spanish Armada (Harmondsworth, 1988), and Simon Adams and Mia Rodríguez-Salgado, England, Spain and the Gran Armada (Edinburgh, 1991), as well as Parker’s master-study of Philip’s strategy, cited above.
Philip authorised studies of former invasions of England and requested proposals from his successful commanders, the marquis of Santa Cruz and the prince of Parma. The former naturally proposed a seaborne invasion whilst the latter came up with the idea of a cross-channel expedition. The big mistake in planning was Philip II’s decision to combine both plans. On the face of it this seemed a masterstroke in that it intended to combine the forces sent from Iberia with the crack army of Flanders into a single massive amphibious assault force. The chances of gaining the best of both were doomed from the start, however, because communications and geography made the necessary rendezvous impossible. Furthermore, there was no ‘plan B’ to fall back on in the event of the rendezvous’s not taking place. When these difficulties were pointed out to the king, all he could do was to advert to God’s assistance in what was after all a holy enterprise.
The preparations were massive. Men, supplies and munitions began to be assembled at Lisbon from all over southern Europe. In Flanders Parma began building barges, and indeed constructing canals, to get his army safely to the coast. Diplomatically Philip was also winning. Pope Sixtus, who had encouraged Philip’s plans in the first instance, was promising a subsidy. The French Catholic League in the pay of Philip worked on emasculating their Protestant and Royalist opponents so as to prevent them from engaging in any independent or diversionary action in the north of France. Philip sought to disarm Elizabeth by mounting false peace negotiations, and even managed to ‘turn’ her ambassador in Paris into a traitor and a channel of false information. Furthermore, Elizabeth’s execution of Mary Queen of Scots in February 1587 following the Babington plot not only gave the Catholic side a massive propaganda boost but also enabled Cardinal Allen to fashion a claim for Philip to the English throne through the Lancastrian line.
All was going well for a summer departure until Drake struck at Cadiz in April 1587. His ‘singeing of the king of Spain’s beard’ involved the destruction not only of 24 ships in Cadiz harbour but also a great quantity of supplies en route to Lisbon. He caused panic all along the Iberian coast and continued on to the Azores, where he caused further damage. As a result, Santa Cruz was sent scurrying after him on a forlorn mission. Chaos reigned, the mission had to be postponed and Santa Cruz sickened and died at the start of 1588.
The Armada was now costing Philip 30,000 ducats per day. The ill-fated duke of Medina Sidonia who replaced Santa Cruz, though much criticised by history, actually proved a brilliant organiser and galvaniser of an expedition that was literally going nowhere when he took charge. Within a matter of months the Armada was back on target. One hundred and thirty ships and 19,000 soldiers had been assembled at Lisbon and a 27,000-strong army was ready to be ferried on 300 small craft through the canals of Flanders into the Channel. There was nothing to equal it in Western history in global terms only the similarly abortive second attempt at a Mongol invasion of Japan in 1281 was larger. In Rome the pope issued a special indulgence Cardinal Allen had propaganda tracts printed for distribution amongst English Catholics, and in France the Catholic League drove the king out of Paris. On the first leg of the journey, however, the Armada was battered by storms on the coast of Portugal and was forced into La Coruña. Medina Sidonia, fearful of the difficulties ahead and advised by his fellow admirals, wanted the mission cancelled but the king refused. The duke obeyed orders, and after another burst of organising energy he made the fleet seaworthy once more and was able to put back to sea.
Guns at Gravelines
There is debate about whether Medina Sidonia, intent on following Philip’s orders to the letter, missed a golden opportunity on 30 July to lead a surprise attack that would have trapped the English fleet in Plymouth Sound. But the Spanish command did not know the English navy’s location, and westerly winds were pushing the Armada steadily up the Channel. There followed a series of skirmishes, with the Armada taking up the famous winged formation to protect its diverse range of shipping against the more manoeuvrable English ships. The English, in spite of some hiccups, managed to keep between the Spaniards and the coast and critically denied them an opportunity to anchor in the Solent on 3 August. On the other hand, even though the English were using new tactics of attacking in lines firing broadsides, the Armada experienced relatively few losses and had maintained formation.
Medina Sidonia had not yet established contact with Parma, however. Although he had sent out messengers in pilot boats as the Armada progressed up the Channel, it was not until 6 August, the same day that the fleet anchored off Calais, that Parma was aware of its approach. Even then it required six days’ notice for the embarkation and departure of his forces. It was in fact ready by 10 August, but the campaign was already over. On the night of 7 August the English sent fire-ships—old hulks loaded with explosive materials—in amongst the Armada ships, which in desperation cut their anchors to escape. The following day, in a nine-hour battle at Gravelines the English closed in on the Spaniards, sinking some twelve ships and killing or wounding 1,800.
Although the Armada, badly mauled, regained formation, the so-called ‘Protestant’ wind was soon blowing it up the North Sea, and Medina Sidonia, unaware that the English had run out of ammunition, made the decision to return home by rounding Scotland and Ireland. On this journey damaged ships began to seek shelter in the Scottish islands, and more headed for the coast of Ireland and then gales like those that destroyed the Fastnet race of 1979 sent many other vessels crashing into the Irish coast. At least 23 ships were lost there, and over 6,000 men were drowned, killed or captured. About 500 Spaniards survived, however, and made it through Irish-controlled areas of Connacht and Ulster to neutral Scotland. One such was Captain Francisco de Cuellar, who was shipwrecked on Streedagh Strand, Co. Sligo. His famous, and highly coloured, memoir can now be consulted online at http:// www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T108200/index.html.
Despite the terrible loss of life in Ireland, the ships wrecked there have since the 1960s provided archaeological evidence that goes a long way towards explaining the Spanish defeat at Gravelines. Many of these ships, it turns out, still have plenty of ammunition on board, as well as unusable or exploded cannon barrels. Martin and Parker were able to draw significant conclusions. Not only did the Spaniards have substandard guns and assorted ammunition but also, more critically, they lacked the techniques for rapid fire that the English had developed and trained in. Basically the Spaniards preferred the traditional grapple-and-board tactics, and many of their weapons had only been fired once or twice. Students should be taken to see these artefacts in the Ulster Museum, Belfast. While they might be more attracted to the large quantities of gold coins and other ornaments brought up from under the sea, the real historical treasure is in fact the guns and ammunition.
War of attrition
There is, unsurprisingly, a great deal of propaganda, both printed and visual, from during and after the 1588 campaign, not least the queen’s speech at Tilbury, for students to sample and carefully sift. Indeed, there is no doubt that this echoing down the years has given the impression that the war had been won for England on the banks of Flanders. This could not be further from reality. Though the failure of the 1588 Armada had a determining effect on the course of the war, it was not decisive the conflict continued for another sixteen years, and there were many dark days ahead for the English. Indeed, the subsequent period of attrition, in which neither side was able to deliver a knockout blow, is far from glamorous and is shot through with perverse twists of fate.
Although the Spaniards were shocked at the defeat of their great fleet, they went to great lengths to aid the sick, wounded and starving who came off the returning remnant, and almost immediately set about rebuilding their navy. On the other hand, Elizabeth and her council cared little for their victorious sailors and left them languishing in port to die of disease to save money. Elizabeth’s aim remained simple: to defend her territories, to distract the enemy abroad and, when possible, to descend on him in force. Philip dissipated his efforts, particularly by diverting his naval and military resources to assist the Catholic side in the French civil war in the hope of preventing a Protestant take-over and, even more ambitiously, of putting a Spanish infanta on the French throne. For Elizabeth this was a convenient proxy war in which she subsidised the Protestant claimant, Henry of Navarre, and only intervened seriously to prevent the establishment of a Spanish base in Brittany that might have been used as a springboard to invade England. From time to time she let her war party off the leash to attack Spain itself. These large counter-armadas had only variable success because of the divergent aims of the commanders, investors (Elizabeth’s ventures were partly privatised) and Dutch allies. In 1589 Drake failed in his mission to destroy the reconstructed Armada instead, he wasted his time attempting to take La Coruña and then trying farcically to set up Dom Antonio, the Portuguese pretender, in Lisbon. Essex had more success at Cadiz in 1596, but his ‘Islands voyage’ to capture the returning American treasure fleet by hiding in the Azores proved pointless. Elizabethan foreign policy in these years has been studied by R. B. Wernham in After the Armada (Oxford, 1984) and The return of the Armadas (Oxford, 1994), but Wallace MacCaffery’s Elizabeth I: war and politics, 1588–1603 (Princeton, 1994) has more context and analysis.
Proxy war in Ireland
Philip, for his part, was also willing to encourage and finance a proxy war in Ireland in which England suffered disaster after disaster and which was to cost her as much as all her maritime and foreign ventures put together. Yet he did not intervene directly in Ireland to use it as a stepping-stone to England. The 100-strong Armada of 1596, which he prepared to support the Irish Confederates, was diverted at the last minute to Brittany and, sailing late in the year, was severely damaged by storms off Galicia. His Armada of 1597, bound for south-west England, was dispersed by bad weather in Biscay. This erratic and extremely costly strategy has been recently scrutinised by Edward Tenace, ‘A strategy of reaction: the Armadas of 1596 and 1597 and the Spanish struggle for European hegemony’, in English Historical Review (September 2003).
Although Philip made peace in 1598 with Henry of Navarre (who had been crowned king of France after becoming a Catholic four years earlier), his death in the same year brought no let-up in the war with England. Indeed, Philip III was anxious to maintain the Spanish monarchy’s imperial and Catholic mission against a heretic state now isolated and led by an aging, heirless spinster. Yet, like his father, he had many foreign commitments and mounting debts. The defeat of his intervention in Ireland at Kinsale in 1601–2 (see Hiram Morgan (ed.), The Battle of Kinsale (Bray, 2004)) and the death of Elizabeth in the following year paved the way for peace. James VI and I, Elizabeth’s successor, as king of Scotland had never been at war with Spain and he immediately called off hostilities at sea. Besides, glad to see the back of his uppity Presbyterian subjects, he was unwilling to indulge the Calvinist burghers of Holland and Zeeland.
The ensuing peace negotiations are well treated in Paul Allen’s Philip III and the Pax Hispanica, 1598–1621 (New Haven, 2000). James and his ministers were willing to receive gifts and pensions but they did not budge much, least of all on the demand for Catholic toleration that Spain was pushing hard for. The peace treaty of 1604 essentially settled for the status quo ante, with the vexed issue of Spain’s colonial monopoly fudged. The Spanish state was willing to accept this because of a belief that it could win the peace in the long run, not only diplomatically but also militarily. This proved mistaken the war had helped to shift the economic axis of the world. K. R. Andrews’s Elizabethan privateering (Cambridge, 1966) has long since explained that, whilst Spain’s treasure fleets had been kept safe by convoys, its merchant marine had been devastated by England’s highly effective privatised method of warfare. Consequently, in the following years much of Spain’s maritime trade came to be carried in English and Dutch ships!
History Of Warfare - The Spanish Armada - Full Documentary - History
One of the most powerful women who ever lived was Queen Elizabeth I of England. Elizabeth (1533-1603) was the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and was known as the Virgin Queen or Good Queen Bess. She was 25 years old when she became Queen and ruled England for 44 years until age 69. She was tall and slender with fair skin and had curly red hair.
In the 1500s there was a major rivalry on the seas between the ships of Britain and Spain over control of trade in the New World. King Philip II of Spain decided to settle the question once and for all by invading and conquering England itself. Philip assembled a huge fleet of warships known as the Spanish Armada and in 1588 sailed into the English Channel.
Below are the words Elizabeth spoke when she visited her troops in the field as they prepared for this battle. During the nine-day battle, the smaller, more maneuverable British ships met the Spanish Armada and inflicted terrible losses. Spanish ships that sailed away encountered foul weather and only a few ever returned to Spain. Following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Britain became the dominant world power and remained so for centuries.
My loving people, we have been persuaded by some, that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery but I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects. And therefore I am come amongst you at this time, not as for my recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even the dust. I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, by your forwardness, that you have deserved rewards and crowns and we do assure you, on the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble and worthy subject not doubting by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and by your valor in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over the enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.
Queen Elizabeth I - 1588
Oskar Dirlewanger: The SS Butcher of Warsaw
This description of Oskar Dirlewanger by one of his contemporaries goes some way to describing a mind rightly unfathomable. Even in the company of the manifold corrupt, twisted characters of the Waffen-SS, his record stands out as almost uniquely brutal. Even before the outbreak of WWII, where his most heinous acts were carried out, he was already widely feared within the German military for being unhinged, unpredictable and dangerous.
By the end of the war, Dirlewanger would have overseen and personally taken part in the torture, rape and murder of thousands of civilians in Germany, Belarus and Poland, all under the thin guise of eliminating ‘bandits’ behind the frontline. His was a war raged almost entirely against an unarmed enemy. While unleashing his feverous hatred against Communists and Jews, his choices of victim largely seemed unprejudiced – man, woman or child like a crazed beast set loose, he would kill indiscriminately.
Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger pictured in 1944 wearing a Close Combat Clasp and Deutsches Kreuz
A veteran of WWI and an Iron Cross recipient, Dirlewanger didn’t take long in finding a new hunting ground for his violent tendencies in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat. After the failed military coup of 1920, the Kapp Putsch, a large group of left-wing workers rose up in the Ruhr region in west Germany, forming the self-proclaimed Red Army of the Ruhr.
As a fanatical nationalist, as well as a student of Political Science at the time, Dirlewanger threw down his books to join the Freikorps and Reichswehr forces sent to put down the uprising, as well as insurrections in Saxony and Upper Silesia. The defeat of the Red Army of the Ruhr saw regular executions and atrocities on both sides. These bloody internal clashes would prove to be just a taste of the cruelty Dirlewanger would deliver to the world in the next global conflict.
Members of the German Reichswehr sent to put down the Ruhr Uprising pose next to dead resistance fighters in Möllen, near Duisburg, 1920
In 1922, Dirlewanger returned to studying and completed his degree. He then found the ideal home for his extreme right-wing and nationalist views in the shape of the Nazi Party, which he joined a year later – just two years after it was formed. By this time he had already been in trouble with the law for possessing a firearm illegally and ‘anti-Semitic incitement’, but if anything this strengthened rather than harmed his position in the party.
By 1932 Dirlewanger had gained a senior position in the Sturmabteilung (SA), but it wasn’t long before his frenzied habits were noticed once again by authorities. In 1934 he was convicted of seducing a dependent, reportedly abusing a 14-year-old girl, for which he was sentenced to two years. He walked free just in time to indulge his lust for violence once more. Partly to escape further lewd accusations levelled against him, Dirlewanger volunteered to join the German Condor Legion in Spain, fighting for Franco against the Republican government – another chapter in his personal war with the Left.
Adolf Hitler salutes troops of the Condor Legion who fought alongside Spanish Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, during a rally upon their return to Germany, 1939
After returning to Germany following the Nationalist victory in Spain, Dirlewanger found preparations for the Nazi invasion of Poland well under way. Though still under investigation for his earlier criminality, he appealed to Heinrich Himmler personally, begging to be allowed to join the Waffen SS before the invasion began. Thanks in large part to his patron and Waffen-SS Chief of Staff Gottlob Berger, Dirlewanger’s request was eventually granted. He was cleared of the charges set against him for his odious crimes and made an Obersturmfuhrer (1 st Lieutenant) of the Waffen-SS. In 1940 he was even tasked with creating his own unit.
SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger was initially formed of convicted poachers, set loose from prison and placed in a security capacity within Occupied Poland. Later, many SS officials would deny that the Dirlewanger battalion was even a part of the Waffen-SS, and that it merely served the military wing – supposedly to create distance from themselves and the sanctioned violence perpetrated. Both Hitler and Himmler saw a twisted logic to press-ganging ex-convicts into policing, bullying and terrorising the populace of their newly conquered lands – utilising the useless dregs of their jails to instil order through fear.
In 1941 the Dirlewanger unit was directly involved in the violent removal of thousands of villages from around the city of Lublin, Poland, in efforts to make room for ethnic Germans. This area would later serve as the site for a Waffen-SS concentration camp.
Soviet guerilla forces operating inside Belarus. Referred to as ‘bandits’ by the SS high command, very often these fighters only made up the minority of victims of SS ‘anti-bandit’ operations
At the beginning of 1942, still on the fringes of frontline Waffen-SS forces, the unit was moved to fight Soviet partisans in modern-day Belarus. Now designated as a ‘volunteer’ formation under the SS Fuhrungshauptamt, Dirlewanger’s men continued to brutalise partisans, those suspected of collaborating with them, or simply anyone who got in their way.
Often driven by alcohol-fuelled frenzies, the unit took part in looting, raping and extortion, all under the watchful and not unapproving eye of Dirlewanger’s protector, Gottlob Berger. A favourite method of Dirlewanger’s was to round up the population of a suspected ‘bandit’ village, shove them into a barn, before setting it on fire. Watching on, his men would shoot anything living that managed to break free from the flames.
SS soldiers executing suspected Soviet partisans during a ‘bandit’ suppression in Belarus, November, 1942
All of this ‘anti-partisan’ activity conducted by the SS was committed to paper, in the form of endless reports. After each cycle of carnage through the villages and towns of Belarus, each unit would submit its own grisly figures. After two days of one such operation, Dirlewanger reported taking “33 bunkers, killed 386 bandits, and finished off 294 bandit-suspects.”. Additionally they “harvested 3 men, 30 women, 117 horses, 248 children, 140 sheep, 14 pigs, and 120 tons of food”.
Here the chilling vocabulary of the SS, is telling the ‘harvesting’, or looting, and ‘finishing off’, or outright executions. In Operation Swamp Fever, during September 1942, the brigade reported killing 8,350 Jews, 389 bandits and 1,274 bandit suspects. During its full time in Belarus, the SS-Dirlewanger clocked up an horrific 30,000 kills.
After investigating these reports of abuse and cruelty by the unit, the Hauptamt SS-Gericht (SS Court Head Office) sought to convict Dirlewanger and take control of his men. However, with allies like Himmler and Berger still backing him, he was able to slip the net and was instead simply re-located.
This grainy photograph is one of the few surviving images of Dirlewanger, seen here with his staff
By August 1944 the Dirlewanger unit was a full battalion, made up of criminals, court-martialled SS troops, and even former political prisoners. With the Eastern front drawing closer and closer as the Red Army advanced west, many in the unit unsurprisingly defected to the Russians.
Buoyed by the approaching Soviets, resistance fighters in Warsaw saw their chance to rise up and take the fight the Nazis themselves. The Uprising would prove to be the Dirlewanger unit’s most bloody battlefield yet.
Assigned to clear out the Wola district of the city, and supported by many Ukrainian and Cossack volunteers eager to spill Polish blood, Dirlewanger’s men swept through house after house on 5 August, breaking each one open before wreaking carnage within.
Polish resistance fighters, recognisable by their armbands, stalk through Warsaw’s ruins during the Uprising. By October 1944 those fighters still alive surrendered to German forces
One of the accounts of Dirlewanger’s actions during the massacre come from Mathias Schenk, an 18-year-old Belgian assault engineer re-assigned to the SS brigade during the uprising. Using his knowledge of explosives, he was tasked with breaking, or blowing, open each building, to allow the SS men to race in. On one occasion they came across a makeshift hospital:
“The doors opened and a nurse appeared with a tiny white flag. We went inside with fixed bayonets… Wounded were everywhere. Besides Poles there were also wounded Germans. They begged the SS-men not to kill the Poles. A Polish officer, a doctor and 15 Polish Red Cross nurses surrendered the military hospital to us… The SS-men killed all the wounded. They were breaking their heads with rifle butts…”
Later, Schenk witnessed the fate of the hospital staff:
“Dirlewanger stood with his men and laughed. The nurses from the hospital were rushed through the square, naked with hands on their heads. Blood ran down their legs… When they were hanging one of the nurses, Dirlewanger kicked the bricks she was standing on. I couldn’t watch that anymore.”
Victims of the Wola Massacre during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Over 30,000 civilians were murdered in just two days of slaughter in the city’s district, which was later entirely destroyed
Each of Schenk’s accounts only adds on detail after distressing detail of the Wola massacre. Not only was the ‘bandit’ rebellion of Warsaw crushed entirely, the women, children, sick and elderly of the city were slaughtered in their thousands. Each Thursday, Dirlewanger made a habit of hanging people, either resistance fighters or even just a member of his own unit that he despised. For his work during the suppression, Dirlewanger was awarded the Ritterkreuz, the Knight’s Cross. His unit was moved on to put down resistance fighters in Slovakia and eventually to fight the advancing Red Army, which they proved utterly inadequate for.
As the scenery of the Third Reich began to crumble, Dirlewanger’s brigade began to break apart. After fighting the Soviets in Hungary, so many members of the unit defected that it ceased to be able to function. Meanwhile Dirlewanger, wounded in combat, was forced to leave the front. It was around this time the brigade received another, final, change in title: the 36 th Waffen-Grenadierdivision der SS.
Crossed stick grenades served as the final unit insignia for the 36th Waffen-Grenadierdivision der SS
Shortly after rejoining the fight, now in the defence of Berlin, many of the 36 th were captured by Soviets, but Dirlewanger himself escaped west to be picked up by the Allies. Reports are hazy, but indicate he was eventually beaten to death in his cell one night, likely by his own guards who recognized him by sight. The years following the war saw many figures in the Waffen SS disown the Dirlewanger unit and its crimes, while many of the former members of the brigade simply vanished to more-peaceful lives.
It is only within the last decade that Poland’s Institute for National Remembrance has made attempts to bring these men to justice, though their infamous leader escaped any trial. Nonetheless, their crimes under his brutal example still serve to haunt those who remember, like Mathias Schenk:
“Sometimes in the movies, there are scenes from the Uprising, but there is nothing that I’ve seen… Back then we had no idea that those killed will never die, that they will always be with us.”
For more insight into the lesser-known stories of World War II, pick up the new issue of History of War here or subscribe now and save 25% off the cover price.
- Besieged: Seven Cities Under Siege, by J. Bowyer Bell
- The Waffen SS: Hitler’s Elite Guard at War, 1939-1945, by George H. Stein
- The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies, By Guenter Lewy Professor Emeritus of Political Science University of Massachusetts
- Hitler’s Bandit Hunters: The SS and the Nazi Occupation of Europe, by Philip W. Blood
- Who’s Who in Nazi Germany, by Robert S. Wistrich
- Heinrich Himmler: A Life, by Peter Longerich
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