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
, 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. Poitiers
It seems that schoolchildren in
nothing about the Battle of Poitiers. 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.
schoolchildren, it seems, are not
encouraged to remember the battle. Poitiers
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
east coast had important trading links with the Low
Countries and the German states. Like them, this part of 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. Scotland
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
(English Margaret was thus the child queen’s grandmother.) Scotland
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.
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 Broughty Castle ,
joined an alliance with the English and supported the marriage. Dundee
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.
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 . A tactic to be adopted in the
opposite direction nearly 400 years later with the D-Day landings in London . 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
In 1580, Portugal Spain invaded and
drove out the king, Dom Antonio of the House of Aviz. Dom Antonio was now
living in Portugal England as a guest
of Her Majesty, who was always on the lookout for useful tools in her on-going
struggle with .
For some years many from the Portuguese Marrano community had been fleeing to Spain . Jews
forced to convert to Christianity, they were persecuted by the Inquisition even
before the Spanish invasion. It grew much worse afterwards. England
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
could rebuild. Dom Antonio saw it as the chance to regain his throne. Leaders
of the Marrano community in Spain
– 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. London
|Coat-of-Arms of the Aviz family
Funds were raised from the queen, from
the Marrano community. The queen, however, tied up her support with such
conditions to Dom Antonio and his future government that London Portugal would have been financially crippled
and effectively a colony of . England
Early in the spring of 1589 the English fleet gathered at
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 Plymouth 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
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 Lisbon . On
the way to Portugal
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 Lisbon Azores. However, before the English ships could reach Portugal, they had run out of food, owing to the
raids in .
The decision was therefore made to attack Coruña on the north coast of Plymouth , seize
provisions and carry on. Spain
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
of the expedition and every Portuguese believed to support Dom Antonio was
Eventually the expedition moved on down the coast of
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
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 .
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. Lisbon
|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
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. Lisbon
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
. The whole expedition was a shameful
failure, due to appalling leadership. Lisbon
Is it surprising that we remember the Armada, but the Counter Armada is conveniently forgotten?