Friday 20 November 2015

Before and After the Armada - by Ann Swinfen

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 Spain in 1589, known as the Counter Armada ( but other events surrounding this iconic date are interesting.
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester
Elizabeth’s beloved Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, had strong connections with the Dutch House of Orange and with the Low Countries. He was active in persuading the English government to support the United Provinces in their struggle against their Spanish overlords in the Low Countries, who persecuted the Dutch Protestants, and he served for some years as governor-general there. Leicester’s intentions were excellent, but his dealings with the Dutch were not always tactful, although the two nations were united in their Protestant faith and their hatred of 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 Leicester. 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.
Sir Philip Sidney
Leicester remained in the Low 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 Elizabeth’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.

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 Spain had long been planning a combined naval and land-force invasion of England. The port of Sluys would provide an essential piece in the invasion plan.
Siege of Sluys 1587
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 Parma, 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.
Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma
Parma permitted the defenders an honourable withdrawal, but the soldiers had suffered terribly. Of the survivors, it is estimated that some seven hundred were seriously wounded. Conveyed back to England, the injured soldiers packed out London’s hospitals (an episode included in my novel The Enterprise of England.) The defeat at Sluys, the number of wounded, and the loss of this crucial port to the Spanish was the cause of serious demoralisation in England.
Armada signal station in Devon
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 England failed, and Sluys did not, after all, play a major part in the conflict the following year. His intention, planned on paper in faraway 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 London. (A remarkably similar operation, in the opposite direction, to the D-Day landings nearly four hundred years later.)
Seventh day of the Armada battle
The Spanish Armada was defeated, its ships scattered, the Spanish army still confined to the Low Countries. England could celebrate. And did. Church bells were rung. Services of thanksgiving were held. Bonfires were lit on street corners throughout London and other towns. And no doubt a good many citizens passed the night away at drunken parties.

But that was not quite the end of the story.

The English fleet returned, bearing the heroes, the soldiers and sailors, who had saved England 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.

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.

Ann Swinfen


michelle lovric said...

What a terrible end to the story, and how embittered their last days must have been. I always find Deptford a sad place, and perhaps its air is informed with the historic injustice. Thank you for telling us about it.

Harriet Steel said...

Most interesting article. I believe it also helped the English that the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who took over command of the Armada fleet when the Marquis of Santa Cruz died, wasn't a naval man although he was a skilled tactician on land. The Duke of Parma was obviously a remarkable commander. As you say, Robert Dudley was no match for him. How dreadful that the men who had fought so bravely were let down by their country; sadly,a common story.

Ann Swinfen said...

Yes, I was quite angry when I discovered what happened to the men. What made it worse was what happened the following year in the expedition to Portugal. Someone commenting on my novel about it said how terrible, if even some of it was true. Well, all of it was true. We think of modern instances, but it's nothing new. I agree, Harriet. The Duke of Medina Sidonia didn't want the command. He knew he wasn't fit for it.