Wednesday 20 May 2015

The Counter Armada and Historical Forgetfulness - by Ann Swinfen

Why do we remember certain episodes in our history and teach them in our schools, while we conveniently forget others?

When I was a graduate student, I shared a room in the university with a French girl from Poitiers, also studying for a postgraduate degree. We became good friends, and one day I asked her (tactfully!) if there was any archaeological evidence remaining of the Battle of Poitiers. She looked at me in total mystification.

It seems that schoolchildren in Poitiers are taught nothing about the Battle of Poitiers.

For those who aren’t familiar with this bit of the Hundred Years War, the Battle of Poitiers took place on 19 September, 1356, and was one of a series of victories by Edward the Black Prince over the French. An English army of approximately 6,000 inflicted a massive defeat on a French army of approximately 11,000 – in other words, nearly double their number. There were a few hundred English casualties. The French suffered around 2,500 killed and wounded and 2,000 prisoners. Poitiers schoolchildren, it seems, are not encouraged to remember the battle.

A short walk from our home stands Broughty Castle, guarding the mouth of the river Tay and thus a major ancient naval route from the North Sea to Dundee, Perth and the heart of Scotland. In the mid sixteenth century the merchant communities of Scotland’s east coast had important trading links with the Low Countries and the German states. Like them, this part of Scotland had become Protestant. The government of Scotland, however, was in the hands of the Regent, Mary of Guise (French and Catholic), during the minority of her daughter Mary Queen of Scots.

England proposed a marriage between Henry VIII’s young son Edward and the child queen Mary, and sent a mission, backed by a strong navy, which came to be known as ‘the Rough Wooing’. Such marriages were not unknown, the most recent having been that of Henry’s sister Margaret to James IV of Scotland. (English Margaret was thus the child queen’s grandmother.)

Now, at this present time of rampant Scottish nationalism, it may be dangerous to mention something which – like the Battle of Poitiers – tends to be conveniently forgotten. The fact is, the English were welcomed along this Protestant east coast with open arms. Broughty Castle was handed over to the English in the autumn of 1547 without a shot being fired. Sir Andrew Dudley, brother of the Duke of Northumberland, took charge of the English garrison, and sent for a supply of Tyndale’s Bible, eagerly sought by the locals. All the area, including the city of Dundee, joined an alliance with the English and supported the marriage.

Mary of Guise and her French Catholic party, however, had other ideas. They shipped the child queen off to be reared up in the French court (where French became her mother tongue), betrothing her to the heir to the French throne. It was part of the power game being played by the Guise family.

I doubt whether many in this eastern half of Scotland choose to remember that warm alliance with England together with the opposition to the Scottish government and the attempted French take-over of Scotland (for that is what lay behind the French marriage). Another case of selective forgetfulness.

France and Scotland are hardly alone in forgetting inconvenient past events. Few in England have heard of the Counter Armada. (Even my husband, a professor of history, though not a specialist in the Tudor period, admits to not having heard of it until I wrote about it.) Of course, every English schoolchild knows about the glorious defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the (possibly apocryphal) story of Sir Francis Drake finishing his game of bowls before embarking. What they are unlikely to know about is the misconduct of Drake during the battle, which went on for several days. During the darkness of one night, Drake was supposed to be leading the fleet with a lantern in the stern of his ship. Instead, he slipped away on a little looting expedition of his own, which might have had serious consequences.

However, the great Spanish fleet was defeated by a combination of English seamanship and fighting skills, the incompetence of the Spanish commanders, and weather which favoured the English. The winds which blew the Armada out of the Channel into the North Sea also prevented the launching of the barges which were to carry the experienced Spanish army, then fighting in the Low Countries, across the Channel to invade England by land and march on London. A tactic to be adopted in the opposite direction nearly 400 years later with the D-Day landings in Normandy.

The Armada, a glorious, resounding, never-to-be-forgotten victory!

To understand what happened in the period of euphoria afterwards, we need to remember events over the previous decade or so in Portugal. In 1580, Spain invaded Portugal and drove out the king, Dom Antonio of the House of Aviz. Dom Antonio was now living in England as a guest of Her Majesty, who was always on the lookout for useful tools in her on-going struggle with Spain. For some years many from the Portuguese Marrano community had been fleeing to England. Jews forced to convert to Christianity, they were persecuted by the Inquisition even before the Spanish invasion. It grew much worse afterwards.

With much of the Spanish fleet destroyed, a number of interests came together to propose a ‘Counter Armada’. Elizabeth and many of her advisers saw it as an opportunity to destroy the rest of the fleet before Spain could rebuild. Dom Antonio saw it as the chance to regain his throne. Leaders of the Marrano community in London – including notably the queen’s personal physician Rodrigo Lopez – dreamt of regaining their homeland and rising to positions of importance in the new government. Drake, of course, saw it as an opportunity for his favourite pastime: looting Spanish treasure ships.

Coat-of-Arms of the Aviz family

Funds were raised from the queen, from London merchants, from the Marrano community. The queen, however, tied up her support with such conditions to Dom Antonio and his future government that Portugal would have been financially crippled and effectively a colony of England.

Early in the spring of 1589 the English fleet gathered at Plymouth. A call had gone out for soldiers to join the expedition and a ragtag crowd assembled there. These men had no military training whatsoever. Supplies for the expedition were bought and stored in warehouses in the town. Then everyone waited. A contingent of trained and experienced soldiers was to be shipped over from the Low Countries, where they had been helping the Dutch fight the Spanish invaders. Once again, the winds were unfavourable. Days passed. Weeks passed. The restless recruits broke into the warehouses and stole the food and drink. Some simply went home. Eventually the experienced men arrived and the expedition set sail, with Sir Francis Drake in command of the fleet and Sir John Norreys in command of the army.

There is no room here to tell the full story, which is the subject of my third Christoval Alvarez novel, The Portuguese Affair, but here is the bare outline.

The intention was to sail straight to Lisbon and restore Dom Antonio. His supporters would flock to join the English, and by acting quickly the Spanish could be defeated before they could move more of their army into Portugal. On the way to Lisbon or afterwards, as many Spanish ships as possible would be destroyed. A third objective was to conclude the expedition by driving the Spanish out of the Azores. However, before the English ships could reach Portugal, they had run out of food, owing to the raids in Plymouth. The decision was therefore made to attack Coruña on the north coast of Spain, seize provisions and carry on.

Here was the next blunder. The undisciplined soldiers went berserk in Coruña, and the leaders decided to stay and attack the garrison there. Several fruitless weeks were wasted, while news reached Spain of the expedition and every Portuguese believed to support Dom Antonio was executed.

Eventually the expedition moved on down the coast of Portugal, where they were joined by the queen’s favourite, the Earl of Essex. He had been expressly forbidden by her to join the expedition, but slipped away, with his usual pig-headed arrogance believing he could pacify her and win glory for himself.

Next blunder: the fleet put in at Peniche, where the gallant Essex leapt out of the ship into deep water, causing many of his followers to drown. The local people welcomed Dom Antonio warmly, but soon grew tired of providing for the English army and fleet. At this point the leaders made their fatal mistake – the army and the fleet would part company. Drake would sail the fleet down the coast to Cascais, then up the river Tejo to Lisbon. Norreys would lead the army by land to Lisbon, about forty miles across unforgiving countryside with no provisions, unless they could be begged from the locals.

The English army on  more successful campaign

It was a disaster. The men died like flies, of starvation, heat exhaustion, thirst. When the ragged remnants of the army reached Lisbon, there was no sign of Drake, who was busy looting treasure ships on the coast. No supporters of Dom Antonio joined the English, even if any were still alive. Essex shouted a challenge at the gates of Lisbon – let anyone meet him in single combat for the honour of Queen Elizabeth. Laughter from within. The desperate and dying soldiers made one last march of nearly twenty miles to meet Drake and the fleet.

As for Drake’s final betrayal . . . well, you’ll need to read the full story!

It is not known just how many men died on the expedition, but estimates are that something like 15,000 to 20,000 perished, possibly more, mainly on the march from Peniche to Lisbon. The whole expedition was a shameful failure, due to appalling leadership.

Is it surprising that we remember the Armada, but the Counter Armada is conveniently forgotten?

Ann Swinfen


Sue Bursztynski said...

Goodness! What a story! I must look all this up. Thank you!

Susan Price said...

Thank you, Ann - you've taught me a lot this morning!

An English enterprise led by incompetent aristocrats and pirates into failure - who'd have thought?

I have a Scots partner, and a lot of friends up there. I shall immediately go and let them know about how Dundee welcomed The Rough Wooing. Just a little spreader of light and amity, me.

Ann Swinfen said...

Yes, I think every country has a certain selective forgetfulness!

caroline Wrarfield said...

Great stories, Ann! You are so right about amnesia. Politics and the times shape history as it is told, do they not?

Your story about the rough wooing, however, reminded me of The Game Of Kings, Dorothy Dunnett's glorious novel. Always a good memory.

Leslie Wilson said...

Very informative, and brilliant to hear about these conveniently lost bits of history...

Stephen Barker said...

Despite the Victories in the 100 Years War the teaching of English History is usually quite silent on why and how the English lost its territories in France,

If it wasn't for the fact that we were on the winning side in WWII it would be hard to accept the string of military defeats in Europe, North Africa and the Far East before El Alamein in 1942.

two in one said...

Unknown said...

Well, this is just one historical facts that just a few english (and non-english) know about it. The Cartagena de Indias defeat by the spanish (Blas de Lezo was in command) to the enormous english fleet trying to take over the spanish empire after the Portobelo victory is another one. Unfortunately english scholars (history scholars and teachers, that is) often hide the truth due to either arrogance OR conspiracy.

Unknown said...

This Cartagena de Indias episode is particularly important in "english history arrogance" due to the fact that a bronze medallion was produced commemorating a victory over the spaniards that never happened. The "in-famous" Vernon defeat was "officially" buried in shameful silence and even today a very few know about this historical fact.

Unknown said...

I can´t believe that your husband, a professor of history, admits to not having heard of the English Armada.

It´s like when British speak about slavery, they usually blame spanish, and the truth is tha the english transported 3 times the number of slaves to America than did the spanish.

Both things are a shame.

When I explain to british that In Cartagena the 6 boats of Blas the Lezo defeated 70 war ships (appart from the transports) they laugh at me; now I can understand why.

I will follow your blog with interest.

Carlos Peña

franzjosef said...

The funny thing... the counterarmada isn't taught in Spain either... it is just in the last years that a few Historians are starting the proper History and trying to defeat the Spanish Black Legend gorged by the French, the Dutch and the English

franzjosef said...

I meant "are starting to tell"... sorry my English is a bit rusted

Zagal said...

Also forgotten by UK and UK historians is another English Elisabeth I Armada hughe defeat on her renewed attack vs the Kingdom of Spain known as the Islands Voyage 1597. We only hear about the Spanish Armada failure from UK when its fate was a happy one in comparison to the fates of the convenientely forgotten English Armadas expedition disasters of English Counter Armada 1589 and the Islands Voyage 1597.