Defence of the Realm: The Wars at Sea II

The Spanish Armada encounter of 1588 was undoubtedly an important and fascinating battle. However, even today it is frequently surrounded by common myths and confusions that date back to Victorian Era days. The battle itself was followed by 16 years of land and naval war between England and Spain in which the Spanish were mostly successful and renewed their control over the high seas, a basic fact that many texts and popular accounts often fail entirely to mention. Spain retooled its navy and shipped three times as much silver in the 1590s as before. The Spanish invasion force, moreover, was never referred to (by Philip or anyone else in Spain) as the “Invincible Armada”; medical resources on the Spanish coast were mobilized with surprising rapidity and effectiveness to tend to sick and wounded returning sailors in 1588, suggesting that the Spaniards very much were prepared for the potential failure of the Spanish Armada and run-ins with rough weather. These are just a few of the common myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada battle; a list of the “Top 10” myths is compiled and tackled HERE.

Philip planned to crush England with overwhelming force. An armada of transport vessels and warships, led by Medina Sidonia, would sail into the Channel and drive the Royal Navy from its home waters. At the same time the army in the Netherlands, now under the command of the Duke of Parma, would cross the North Sea on flat-bottomed barges taken from the waterways of Flanders.

Elizabeth, and her advisers, were well aware of Philip’s preparations and whilst all effort was to be concentrated upon stopping the Spaniards at sea, consideration was also given to the defence of the coast.

Firstly, a chain of fire beacons was established along the entire southern and eastern coastlines. They were formed in pairs. Lighting one beacon was to indicate a small raid which might be repelled by local men; lighting both beacons meant that a full-scale attack was imminent.

In Sussex these were located at: West Wittering, Bracklesham, Selsey, Sidlesham, The Trundle, Pagham, Felpham, Littlehampton, East Preston, Kingston, Ferring, Goring, Worthing (Heene Mill), East Worthing, Lancing, Aldrington, Brighton, Rottingdean, Seaford (Bishopstone), Wilmington, Willingdon, Beachy Head, Cross-in-Hand, Burwash, Cooden Down and Fairlight.

From the coast the alarm could be passed all the way to London with beacons on Highdown Hill, Chanctonbury Ring, Ditchling Beacon, Firle Beacon and Crowborough Beacon transmitting signals to the North Downs and from there to the capital. The maintenance of the beacons, which were pitch-filled iron baskets on top of wooden poles, was the responsibility of the community and five householders were to oversee each pair. These householders had to ensure that at least two of them were home at all times and no one living on or near the coast was allowed to move home without permission. The beacon system was supplemented by a relay of post-horses which were held in readiness along the coast.

Secondly, batteries were to be built or restored and armed with cannon, especially along the flat, open beaches between Brighton and Selsey. Brighton, a frequent target of raids from the sea, already possessed a gun garden and blockhouse. Situated on what was once a low cliff between the present-day Black Lion Street and Ship Street, the gun garden fronted the sea with the circular blockhouse standing to a height of eighteen feet placed behind it. Initially sixteen guns were housed in the garden and blockhouse but by the time of the Armada this had been reduced to just six. Trenches already existed at Whitehawk Hill and others were planned for Saltdean.

Further to the east, Newhaven, East Blatchington and Cuckmere Haven were to be provided with more substantial earthworks and Birling Gap was to be “rammed up”. Alfriston, Eastbourne and Hastings were all to receive defensive works or ordnance. A two-gun battery was formed inside the outer bailey of Pevensey Castle, and Camber Castle was kept in good condition and was well-armed. At Rye, still an important port, the Gun Garden was furnished with artillery as was the Land Gate and the Strand Gate.

At Shoreham a small defensive work for three guns was raised on the east bank estuary of the Adur. Further west, at Littlehampton (then still known as Arundel Haven) it is possible that a fort was erected on the east bank of the Arun to house four medium-calibre cannon. At Kingston (near East Preston), Goring, Worthing and Lancing defensive trenches were dug but they do not appear to have been armed with artillery.

Pagham Harbour was particularly well defended with a battery at, or near, East Beach (East Norton) to accommodate three guns, with another three pieces mounted on the eastern arm of the harbour entrance. The height of the former Norman ringwork at Church Norton overlooking the southern edge of the harbour was raised and used as a lookout post.

Responsibility for the defence of the coast from Kent to Dorset was placed in the hands of “Black” Sir John Norris with the defence of Sussex delegated to Lord Howard of Effingham – the Lord Admiral of England – who held the title of Lord Lieutenant of Sussex and Surrey. He was assisted by the Queen’s cousin Lord Buckhurst.

Lewes, situated in the middle of the county, was selected as the military headquarters and Buckhurst moved into the town. The house where he stayed still stands and is now “Shelley’s Hotel” in the High Street. The county’s reserve artillery and munitions store was also at Lewes.

It was intended that the Spanish landing would be met only by local forces with the main English armies concentrated further inland. It has been estimated that in the south and south-west the shoreline would have been held by some 21,000 local militia, armed with whatever weapons they might possess. The Elizabethan militia was intended to be a formation of all able-bodied males between the ages of sixteen to sixty. These men had to be prepared to turn out in the defence of their shire at an hour’s warning. In each district a number of men were given military training.

These “trained bands” were well-armed and were the backbone of the local defence force. In Sussex there were supposed to have been 2,000 trained men. Of these, 800 were to have carried firearms and the remainder equipped with halberds or pikes. The bow was still considered a weapon of war though its place on the battlefield was being usurped by the matchlock musket.

To protect the south-east and the Thames estuary two small armies, one of 12,000 men and the other of 6,000 men, were to be stationed at Tilbury and Sandwich respectively. Away from these coasts a force of some 27,000 to 34,000 men from the trained bands of the counties would be assembled and another army, 36,000 strong, would be held in reserve to protect the Queen.

This last body would be composed of men from the court, from the City of London and the Home Counties. Sussex was expected to find 260 horse and 4,000 foot of which 2,500 were sent to join the main army in the interior. Against these numbers Philip sent 130 ships with 30,000 men who would join forces with the Duke of Parma’s 30,000 troops waiting on the Flemish coast.

The Sussex militia were first assembled in the summer of 1586 when fifty ships were sighted off Brighton. Lord Buckhurst responded immediately by bringing together 1,600 men between Brighton and Rottingdean. They camped out on the edge of the Downs that night and they were joined by more men the next day. It proved to be a false alarm as did a similar scare the following summer when horsemen were placed along the coast after reports that an invasion fleet was approaching through the Channel.

With the prospect of invasion becoming increasingly likely Buckhurst was ordered by the Privy Council to round up all “recusants”. A recusant is someone who refuses to attend their parish church which effectively meant, and was intended to mean, all Roman Catholics. They were to be placed in the care of the clergy or other people of rank, but if this was not possible the Catholics were to be jailed.

From the outset the Armada ran into difficulties. Storms delayed its departure and further bad weather struck the great fleet before it had even left Spanish waters. Eventually, on the morning of 19 July 1588, the Armada passed the Lizard to head up the Channel. The warning beacons were lit: “Swift to East and swift to West the ghastly war-flame spread,” a contemporary poem ran. “High on St. Michael’s Mount it shone: it shone on Beachy Head.”

The English fleet put to sea and the following night slipped round the Armada to place itself windward of the Spanish vessels. Though outnumbered, the English could now control the coming battle. Amongst Lord Howard’s ships was a vessel from Rye. The 60-ton vessel William was hired from a French privateer and was manned by fifty-eight sailors captained by William Coxson. Four cannon from Rye were added to whatever armament the ship already carried.

Another ship, the Ann Bonaventure of 70 tons and a crew of forty-nine, was supplied jointly by Hastings and Winchelsea. A third ship from Sussex was provided by Lord Howard with the cost being shared by all six rapes of the county. Hundreds of other sailors were recruited from the Sussex ports to fight with the navy, leaving some parts of the coast dangerously short of defenders.

For the next five days the two fleets fought periodically. The Armada moved in a crescent, or concave, formation, covering a distance of seven miles, with the largest ships at the tips of the crescent. It is often assumed that the battle in the Channel was conducted by an overwhelmingly large number of big Spanish galleons against a weaker force of small, but more manoeuvrable, English warships. The reality was far more complicated.

The disparity in numbers was not very great, with the combined fleets of Howard and Sir Francis Drake producing a total of only twenty to thirty less vessels than the Spaniards. In general the tonnage of the ships of the two nations was also roughly the same but the English vessels were of a far more modern design and carried a heavier weight of cannon.

The success of the Spanish land armies meant that the military predominated over the navy to such an extent that their ships were manned by three soldiers to every sailor. In the English ships there were three sailors to every soldier. The English ships did not dare approach too close to the Spanish vessels packed with soldiers for fear of being boarded but their guns, which far out-distanced the Spanish cannon, could inflict little damage upon the stout hulls of the Armada from long range.

On the 25th the Armada passed Selsey Bill and Buckhurst was ordered to see that the militia was mustered and posted at the chosen places along the coast and at important points of communication throughout the county. But by the 26th, the Spaniards had reached Beachy Head and it seemed unlikely that the great fleet would attempt a landfall in Sussex.

With day after day of running battles the English fleet soon became desperately short of powder and shot. Buckhurst was ordered to furnish Lord Howard with as much ammunition and food as the ships required. Gunpowder from the Lewes arsenal was sent down the Ouse to Newhaven and then shipped out to Howard’s supply vessels. Hastings, assisted by Pevensey, Winchelsea and Seaford, also helped to keep the fleet supplied.

On the 27th, the Armada sailed past Rye and, four days later, Buckhurst allowed the militia to stand down.

In the fighting the Spaniards lost just three ships, but these were amongst their most important galleons and their loss seriously affected the morale of the fleet. By the 28th, the Armada, damaged but still largely intact, was approaching Dover where the rest of the Royal Navy, under Seymour, was guarding the Strait, waiting for this very moment.

The Armada, its numerical advantage now lost, anchored in the Calais Roads to await news from the Duke of Parma. Despite ample notice of the Armada’s approach, the Duke’s troops were not ready to embark and Parma declared that it would be two more weeks before his men could join the invasion fleet. Medina Sidonia knew that he could not remain at anchor for such a period of time with the English fleet able to attack the stationary Spanish vessels at will. With the Spanish ships packed close together under the Calais defences they presented an ideal target for fireships.

This was a common naval tactic and a highly effective one. At midnight on 7 August, eight fireships sailed into Calais. Although the Spaniards had been expecting just such an attack, they cut their anchors and put out to sea in utter confusion.

The following day the English fleet attacked the broken and disorganised Armada at the Battle of Gravelines. It was the final battle of the campaign. With little possibility of reaching Parma’s men at Dunkirk, and with his ships damaged and his men discouraged, Medina Sidonia turned for the north to round Scotland and return through the North Atlantic to Spain. Of the 130 or so ships that set sail from Corunna in July almost half were lost.

Almost 100 years after the defeat of the great Armada, the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688, which put a Dutch Protestant monarch (William of Orange) on the English throne, led to further trouble with Catholic Europe. On 30 June 1690, a powerful French fleet of seventy-eight men-of-war plus twenty-two fireships, met a combined Anglo-Dutch force off Beachy Head.

Despite the fact that the allied fleet numbered just fifty-six vessels, it was the Dutch and British ships which attacked first. The battle raged all day until the wind dropped late in the afternoon. During the night the allied fleet – commanded by Lord Torrington – decided to retire.

The French gave pursuit the next day and one English ship, Anne, was driven onto the shore at Winchelsea where it was attacked by French fire-ships. The fleet escaped eastwards but allied losses amounted to eight ships and hundreds of men. The Battle of Beachy Head was, without question, a defeat for the Royal Navy and Lord Torrington was duly sent to the Tower and court-martialled.