Our command of the sea

Of the many historical legends still embedded in the English national consciousness one is about the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. If the Royal Navy was not founded by Alfred the Great, King Edward III or Henry VIII, then surely under Elizabeth I the English had begun to rule the seas around their shores and the destruction of Philip II's great fleet was proof of it?

Tuesday, 23rd October 2018, 10:00 am
Armada Medal. The phrase Jehovah blew with His winds, and they were scattered is said to have its origins from the Latin inscription Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt on the medal.

The myths of 1588 are multiple. Francis Drake had plenty of time to finish his game of bowls at Plymouth, not because he was sure of victory, but because westerly winds and the tide then kept his ships at anchor and the Armada sailed at only two miles an hour. Elizabeth made her famous defiant speech at Tilbury knowing by then there was little chance of a Spanish invasion.

Far from preventing the Spanish army from coming ashore somewhere along the south coast, the Armada was under strict instructions from Philip not to attempt a landing, but to sail up the Channel to link with Parma’s army assembled in Flanders. The English galleons could outmanoeuvre and outgun the Spanish ships, but they could not destroy or disperse them.

Again, contrary to a common, received view, the Spanish at Calais were not surprised by English fireships. On the contrary, they were expecting and made ready for them, but at this critical moment the captains disobeyed their orders. Instead of fending off all the fireships, the Spaniards mistook them for Dutch “hellburners” loaded with gunpowder, panicked and fled out of the Calais roads on to the Dunkirk shallows. Without charts or anchors, battered and bruised by superior English cannon, the survivors of the Armada suffered their worst losses off the western coasts of Ireland, not in the Channel, in Calais roads, or off Gravelines.

The Armada had been defeated by poor planning, lack of communication between ships and shore, bad weather, and the indiscipline of some of its captains. The English medal struck to commemorate the victory was nearer to the truth than patriotic propaganda when it ascribed when it ascribed it to “God’s winds”. In fact, Philip’s plan was fatally flawed: even if the English had not been there it would have been impossible to embark and ferry Parma’s troops across the Channel.

The aftermath of the summer of 1588 put its events into some perspective. Of the 68 Spanish warships that had entered the English Channel at the end of July, at least 44 arrived back home by the end of September. No English ship was lost, but their crews were exhausted and starving, and 5,000 of them, about half the total, died of dysentery, scurvy and typhus within weeks.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada was decisive, yet it decided very little. The war with Spain continued until 1604; attempts by Drake and Hawkins to intercept the silver fleet from Peru all ended in failure and they both died ignominiously in the Caribbean; more American treasure reached Spain after 1588 than before; Philip had rebuilt his armed fleet within ten years, and subsequent armadas were frustrated by severe storms at sea.

Nevertheless, we all live by and on legends. Magnified and distorted by myth, the story of the Spanish Armada of 1588 became inspirational for the English nation. Since then it has figured prominently and proudly as an heroic example of the small defying the big bully, of Drake, the home-grown David, outwitting and defeating the Spanish Goliath. Later, the big bully was to be Napoleon, and later still, Adolf Hitler, but we had Trafalgar and Waterloo, and the Spitfires to put an end to their wicked designs.

However, it can be said safely that until Elizabeth’s reign (and beyond it), the sea around the British Isles had been a highway to invasion, not a barrier to it. Contrary to another commonly-quoted fallacy, after the Norman conquest of 1066, and up to Dutch William’s in 1688, there were no fewer than nine successful seaborne invasions of England. The sea did not become a safe-guard for the British until they learned how to exploit it for their advantage.

Navies are hugely expensive. Warships cost heavily in construction and maintenance and their crews and armaments even more to supply, feed and service. When her country was directly threatened by a great, foreign sea power, Queen Elizabeth had the public backing to raise an effective and sufficient defensive force at sea, but only temporarily: without much more resources it was impossible for her to sustain a permanent royal navy. Most of her ships were privately owned. Her Stuart successors, James I and Charles I, never possessed the financial means to build and maintain a war fleet, and when the latter tried to do so without parliamentary consent it led him and his country into civil war.

It would be hard to exaggerate or excuse the incompetence, corruption and stupidity that characterised the misadventures and fiascos of English naval history in the first half of the 17th century. The only successful English captains were pirates, while almost every English, Scottish and Irish coastal town and village was in constant fear of attack from privateers operating out of North Africa and Dunkirk. Between 1616 and 1642 about 400 ships and more than 7,000 men, women and children were captured and enslaved. The average cost to redeem a slave was £45. In 1619, for instance, Scarborough was one of many coastal towns which contributed to “an expedition agaynst the pirates of Algiers & Tunis”.

The North Sea was a dangerous place for every kind of vessel from fishing boats and colliers to armed merchantmen. In 1627, Sir Hugh Cholmley and his wife lost of their household goods and plate, valued at four or five hundred pounds, to a “man of warre belong[ing] to Dunkirke”, which robbed the carrier between London and Whitby.

During the long war between the Dutch and Spain, the English looked on helplessly as their waters and harbours were invaded by Hollanders in pursuit of Dunkirker privateers. In 1635, Scarborough harbour was twice the scene of pitched battles. On the second occasion, the Dutch actually chased their enemies through the streets of the town. Later the same year, Whitby had a similar experience. Until the English confronted the Dutch, their claim to “the sovereignty of the seas” was an empty fantasy.

[to be continued]