|Battle of the Armada
The defeat of the enormous and well-trained Spanish Armada fleet by the smaller English fleet in the English Channel during the summer of 1588 is probably one of the most famous naval battles in history, along with Salamis, Lepanto and Trafalgar, not least because the outcome hung in the balance until a strong southwest wind drove the Spanish ships into the North Sea.
As the English said afterwards, in thankfulness mixed with perhaps a touch of complacency, ‘God blew his winds and they were scattered’.
However, events before and after the great battle, which culminated off Gravelines, are rather less well known. Elsewhere in this blog I have written about the retaliatory expedition by
England against in 1589, known as the Counter
Armada (http://bit.ly/1DNSaAB) but other
events surrounding this iconic date are interesting. Spain
Leading the Spanish army in their north European territories was the Duke of Parma, a skilled and experienced commander, the greatest general of his day, who totally outclassed
In battle after battle, the combined English and Dutch forces were defeated or
just managed to hold back the Spanish. In one, the battle of Zutphen in 1586, Leicester’s nephew, the gifted and much-loved Sir Philip
Sidney, was fatally wounded, dying on 17 October, not quite 32 years old.
Leicester remained in the
Countries, although relations with the Dutch leaders were becoming
strained. His original principal ally, William of Orange, charismatic leader of
the United Dutch, had been assassinated by a Spaniard in 1584, and Leicester
himself may have begun to suffer from ill health. (He was to die in 1588,
shortly after the defeat of the Armada.) His position was further undermined in
late 1586 by ’s
antagonism to his planned extension of the military campaigns, and her refusal
to provide adequate finance for his dwindling army, which was short of rations,
materiel, and pay. Elizabeth
Matters came to a head at the siege of Sluys. This vital deep-water port on the Channel was in the hands of the United Provinces, but was eyed greedily by the Duke of Parma, who laid siege to it on 12 June, 1587. King Philip of
had long been planning a combined naval and land-force invasion of . The England would provide an essential piece
in the invasion plan. port of Sluys
The garrison at Sluys was provided by an English regiment, commanded by Sir Roger Williams, together with Dutch allies. Williams was a Welshman, an experienced soldier (later to write a book on military theory) and a determined Protestant. Leicester himself valued him highly. Williams and his soldiers made a courageous stand against
, but the odds were
against them. Having cut off Sluys from all supply routes by land or sea, the
Spanish began their bombardment on 24 June. The garrison was short of food, but, even more dangerously, short of gunpowder and shot. They fought valiantly until
all their supplies were exhausted, leaving them helpless. On 4 August, they
were forced to surrender. Parma
Thanks partly to poor communications between the Spanish invading navy and the Spanish army stationed in the Low Countries, Philip of Spain’s intended two-pronged attack on
and Sluys did not, after all, play a major part in the conflict the following
year. His intention, planned on paper in faraway England Spain,
was for his navy to cripple the English fleet, then convey his army across the
Channel in barges to carry out a land invasion, marching north from the south
coast to seize .
(A remarkably similar operation, in the opposite direction, to the D-Day
landings nearly four hundred years later.) London
The Spanish Armada was defeated, its ships scattered, the Spanish army still confined to the
could celebrate. And did. Church bells were rung. Services of thanksgiving were
held. Bonfires were lit on street corners throughout England and other towns. And no doubt a good
many citizens passed the night away at drunken parties. London
But that was not quite the end of the story.
The English fleet returned, bearing the heroes, the soldiers and sailors, who had saved
from invasion. But while
the civilians celebrated, the men on the ships waited. And waited. Where was
the pay they had been promised? Where, indeed, was the food to feed them?
Supplies ran out. No one seemed to have planned for this. No one was prepared
to take responsibility for them. It was not the first time, nor would it be the
last, when a returning victorious army was to prove a neglected embarrassment. England
The men remained on the ships, many of them tied up at Deptford, and they began to fall ill. And then to die. Men who seemed healthy enough one day would not rise the following morning, having died inexplicably in the night. Others would collapse suddenly and without warning. Some terrible disease was rife amongst the men, and in panic the authorities refused to allow them to land. It is now believed to have been both typhus and ‘the bloody flux’ (dysentery). This may have saved civilian lives, but it meant that the very men who had fought and saved the country were left to starve and die of disease. In their droves. This was the discreditable end to the Armada story.
Sadly, it was not unique.