Post-Armada English Maritime Exploits I

Battle of Cadiz Bay by Aert Anthonisz

Insula Gaditana, vulgo isla de Cádiz. Mapa de la bahía de Cádiz, perteneciente al “Blaeus Grooten Atlas” de 1664.

After Sir Francis Drake died Sir Thomas Baskerville assumed command of the 1596 Panama expedition and decided to cut his losses. Scuttling two more ships to distribute their crews among the rest, the disease-ridden fleet sailed back to England, pausing to fight Avellaneda off the Isle of Pines. Avellaneda later captured the fleet’s reconnaissance caravel Help off the north coast of Cuba, a meagre return for the largest war fleet sent to the Indies during the reign of Philip II. On the other hand the galizabras had sailed back with the bullion from Begonia as soon as Drake departed San Juan, which was the greater victory for their cash-strapped monarch. It was not enough, however, and in 1596 he had to default on his debts, mainly to Genoese bankers, leading to a drying up of credit for the last two years of his reign.

The factor that precipitated Philip’s default was assembling in England even as the ships of the Caribbean expedition limped back. The returning fleet was kept away from Plymouth, where the largest of all the Elizabethan amphibious operations was about to set out under the joint command of Lord Admiral Howard and the manic-depressive Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, the last and least worthy of Elizabeth’s favourites. He stepped into the void in her affections left by the death in September 1588 of his step-father Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The death of Sir Christopher Hatton in 1591 and the disgrace of Sir Walter Ralegh in 1592 (when his secret marriage became known) also cleared Essex’s path, to the point that for the first time Burghley found himself faced with a rival whose influence over the queen threatened his own.

The infatuation was not limited to the ageing queen. Leicester’s last service to Elizabeth had been the carefully choreographed apotheosis (‘I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too’) at Tilbury during the Armada scare. The aura did not survive her apparent indifference to her people’s welfare during the demobilization and the failure of the counter-armada. By the mid-1590s the populace was turning out to cheer Essex as a breath of fresh air. More ominously, he also gained a strong following among professional soldiers exasperated by the queen’s chronic dithering and perceived parsimony.

Hindsight supports the charge of indecisiveness, but from Hakluyt to the present day historians have given too much credence to the clamour of Elizabeth’s naval and military commanders for more of everything, without regard to her limited means. Yet honest dealing and cost-effectiveness were alien concepts to most royal officers – Christopher Carleill and Sir John Hawkins (in his capacity as Treasurer of the Royal Navy) being among the rare exceptions – and if there’s one constant in history it’s that military men invariably blame their failures on lack of resources.

Although devastating to Philip II’s prestige and precarious finances, the 1596 raid on Cadiz failed to bring home the one thing Elizabeth needed above all: the means to pay for the on-going war, which now extended to a rebellion in Ulster led by Hugh Roe O’Donnell, openly joined in 1595 by his father-in-law Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, with stronger Spanish encouragement than practical support. The Cadiz raid was mounted to disrupt the preparations for a new armada, this time aimed at Ireland, but failed to do so because the ships were concentrated in Lisbon and Vigo. However, it did succeed indirectly, because Philip’s finances could no longer stretch to opening a new front in the war. New orders were issued to sail instead to reinforce Águila in Brittany, but Jehovah flavit with a vengeance and the armada was shattered by a storm off Cape Finisterre in late October.

The 1596 armada was no small undertaking. At Lisbon there were 24 galleons and 53 hired Flemish and German merchant ships carrying nearly 11,000 men, joined by 30 shallow draft felibotes with 2,500 men from Seville. A further 41 ships with 6,000 men were assembled at Vigo. The storm sank 14 ships, including 2 pay ships carrying 30,000 ducats. Thirty more were unaccounted.

The Howard/Essex fleet, entirely paid for by the queen, was not much smaller. It consisted of her 13 most powerful galleons in four squadrons led by the Lord Admiral, Essex, Lord Thomas Howard and Sir Walter Ralegh. Distributed among them were a London contingent of 10 armed merchantmen, assorted royal and London pinnaces, and 64 store ships and troop transports carrying 14,000 men. It was joined by a Dutch contingent of three large and 15 smaller warships with six store ships.

Initially hesitant to risk the queen’s ships by sailing straight into the bay – as Drake had done in 1587 – the Lord Admiral first tried to land the troops on the western side of the peninsula. As a result he sacrificed the operational surprise he had achieved by a cloud of disinformation indicating that Lisbon was the target (he had only revealed the true objective to his captains once he was at sea). The Spanish were granted time to moor their warships in a line between the Puntal and Matagorda peninsulas, and to move the merchant ships of the outgoing Indies flota to the inner harbour.

The battle line included four of the Apostles, two large Portuguese galleons, three medium-sized galleons from the flota escort, three of the galizabras that had brought back the bullion from San Juan, and two large and heavily armed Ragusan carracks. Eighteen galleys were moored off the city with their heavy bow armament ready to hit the attackers in the flank.

The English should not have been able to break through such a line, but the crews of the Spanish warships were not the men of 1588. They let go their anchors and the biggest, the Apostles and the Ragusan carracks, promptly ran aground. Ralegh observed ‘tumbling into the sea heaps of soldiers so thick as if coals had been poured out of a sack, [from] many ports at once, some drowned, some sticking in the mud’. Some remained long enough to set fire to San Felipe, San Tomás and one of the Ragusan carracks, but San Mateo, San Andrés and the other Ragusan were captured intact by English boarding parties.

The way was clear to send the smaller ships into the inner harbour to capture the flota, but instead Essex charged ashore and the Lord Admiral, not greatly against his will, was compelled to support him. Cadiz fell surprisingly easily and the entire expedition devoted itself to looting the city. While they were thus occupied, the Duke of Medina Sidonia arrived and ordered the 42 large and uncounted smaller ships in the inner harbour burned. The loss was estimated at 12 million ducats, while Howard and Essex were demanding one percent (120,000 ducats) of that as a ransom for the hostages they had taken. When this was not forthcoming they set fire to the city and sailed away with the hostages.

Furthermore, with their auxiliaries (and not a few of the royal ships) anxious to get home with their loot, they made no effort to comply with the second part of their commission, which was to intercept the Portuguese East Indies carracks or the incoming Spanish flota that were due to arrive at the Azores. Instead of being rewarded with enough money to keep the war going indefinitely, the queen was reduced to trying to wring her share from the participants, from whom her commissioners managed to extract a mere £8,359 against her outlay of £50,000.

It almost defies belief that the queen was persuaded to give Essex another naval command, but to some extent circumstances forced her hand. In the investigation that followed the Cadiz raid it became clear that Essex, Ralegh and Lord Thomas Howard had consistently voted in favour of the more aggressive course of action in all the councils of war summoned by the Lord Admiral, and 1597 brought credible intelligence that the Spanish were assembling yet another armada at the arsenal port of Ferrol, located a few miles north-east of Coruña across a broad bay. (See Map, page 267.)

The entrance to the Ferrol estuary was through a narrow, twisting channel commanded by forts on either side, and whatever wind permitted a fleet to enter the harbour would keep it there. Even more than at Santander, the neutralization of the land defences was an absolute prerequisite for any naval attack on the port. Yet the original English plan provided only 5,000 troops, of which 1,000 were experienced soldiers drawn from the Netherlands and the rest untrained levies.

Even if supplied with siege artillery, which they were not, and if there had been a suitable place to land, which there was not, it would have required a landing force considerably larger even than the one sent to Cadiz in 1596 to take the forts and to hold both sides of the mouth of the Ferrol estuary against Spanish counter-attacks. The whole plan was based on a contemptuous under-estimation of the enemy, and magical thinking with regard to the wind and weather conditions required for the operation to have any chance at all of success.

Adverse winds delayed the departure of the expedition, and after it sortied on 10 July a violent storm drove much of it back to Plymouth with masts sprung and yards broken. It became apparent that standards in the royal shipyards had slipped since the death of Sir John Hawkins when ship after ship, including the brand new Warspite and Essex’s flagship Merhonour, developed serious leaks. As the end of the campaigning season drew nearer, the operation was scaled back to the bare core, a charge into the harbour led by the two huge captured Apostles, now known as Saint Andrew and Saint Matthew, counting on confusion among the gunners in the forts. They were to be followed by a flock of smaller vessels, some of which were to be expended as fireships while the rest would bring off the crews of the Apostles, which would also be burned.

When the expedition sailed again on 17 August, now with only a reduced number of the Netherlands veterans embarked, bad weather disabled the two Apostles and opened a dangerous leak on the newly built Due Repulse, Essex’s replacement flagship. His orders were to destroy the armada and only then to seek to pay for the expedition by trying to intercept the Indies fleets. The queen could not have been more categorical that under no circumstances should Essex leave the Channel unguarded if he could not first destroy the ships assembled in Ferrol.

So that is just what he did. The loss of the Apostles alone doomed the planned attack, and steady easterly winds – ideal for a Spanish sortie – made a blockade impractical. Instead of returning to England, Essex sailed to the Azores on the basis of the flimsiest intelligence. After dashing off madly in all directions and failing to achieve anything significant he finally set sail for England, came close to running the fleet onto the Isles of Scilly, and finally reached Plymouth on 26 October.

It would be a considerable understatement to say that he met with a frosty reception. In his absence the largest armada since 1588 – 136 ships, 60 of them warships – had sortied from Ferrol on 9 October towing 20 purpose-built landing craft with which to put ashore a well-equipped army of 8,600 troops. Their objective was to seize the great harbour at Falmouth, where the troopships would remain while the warships sailed offshore to intercept Essex’s fleet returning from the Azores. It was a realistic plan and required only for the Spanish to enjoy some long overdue good luck.

It was not forthcoming and the armada was hit by a storm out of the north when almost in sight of Falmouth. Although not as severe as in 1596, losses were disabling (all the landing craft were lost) and the ailing king had neither the will nor the means to try again. Queen Elizabeth had nothing to complain about God’s partiality, but she sensibly judged it best not to presume on divine providence any further and turned against any further grand expeditions to concentrate on matters nearer to hand.

A month before his death on 4 August 1598, Lord Burghley had the satisfaction of seeing the queen box Essex’s ears after one too many insolences. Shortly before his death on 13 September, Philip II had the slight consolation of learning that Tyrone and O’Donnell had inflicted a stinging defeat on the English at Yellow Ford a month earlier. The outcome of these events was that the queen granted Essex one more opportunity to redeem himself, in Ireland in 1599. As Tacitus once wrote of the Emperor Galba, so Wernham sums up the chasm between theory and practice in Essex’s military career: had he not held high command, everyone would have thought him well qualified for it.

After his failure in Ireland (reaching a truce with Tyrone rather than defeating him) and subsequent house arrest, there was no-one left at court to balance the influence of Burghley’s son Robert Cecil, Secretary of State since the death of Walsingham in 1590, who in alliance with Lord Admiral Howard dominated the Privy Council to a degree his father had never achieved. There remained only the tragi-comedy of Essex’s attempted coup d’état and execution in early 1601. The queen had successfully balanced factions throughout her long reign, but she was approaching 70 and in her last bravura speech to Parliament in 1601 spoke frankly: ‘To be a king and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it’.

In Spain, Philip III came to the throne determined to succeed where his father had failed. Elizabeth wanted peace but did not feel she could leave the Dutch unsupported, although she obtained a commitment that they should pay for the English forces still fighting alongside them and also begin to repay the large sums she had lent them over the preceding 13 years. They could afford to do so because throughout the war they had continued to trade very profitably with Spain.

Nobody ever accused the Spanish Hapsburgs of learning from their mistakes, thus one of Philip III’s first acts was to order all Dutch ships in Spanish ports seized and to ban trade between Spain and the Dutch Republic, a ban extended to trade with the Spanish Netherlands in January 1599. The Dutch responded with a ban of their own and, confident that they could succeed where the English had failed, sent a large fleet to raid both the Spanish ports and the Atlantic islands.

It was a complete fiasco but it did help England indirectly. Philip III had prepared an armada against England in 1599, which caused Elizabeth to order a full mobilization of the Royal Navy, but the Spanish fleet was sent instead to deal with the Dutch threat to the Atlantic islands. Oppressed by the heavy cost of maintaining 17,000 troops in Ireland, Elizabeth ordered the demobilization of the fleet as soon as she learned of this. But with attention fixed on the armada that never came, the Narrow Seas squadron left its station off Calais and failed to prevent six Spanish galleys from Santander and their attendant fragatas under 28 year-old Federico Spinola from running the Channel gauntlet past Dunkirk to Sluys, the Spanish-held port across the main channel of the Scheldt estuary from the English cautionary port of Flushing.

Federico was the younger brother of Ambrogio, who was to keep the Spanish cause in the Netherlands alive from 1602 to 1625. After the Dorias, the Spinolas were the second most powerful of the Genoese banking clans that provided the backbone of the Hapsburg Mediterranean galley fleet. They were also owed so much money by the Spanish crown, and had such extensive land holdings in Spanish Lombardy, Sicily and Spain itself, that their interests were inseparable.

Galleys had a wretched record in combat with galleons. In April 1590 a flotilla of Levant Company ships, including Alderman Boreman’s Salomon, John Watt’s Margaret and John and Thomas Cordell’s Centurion, all 1588 Armada veterans, beat off 12 large galleys under the command of Gian’Andrea Doria himself in the Straits of Gibraltar. Margaret and John had previously taken part in the July 1586 battle. In April 1591, again off Gibraltar, Centurion alone defeated five galleys even though they managed to grapple with her and board.

Federico, who had served in the Netherlands for many years under Farnese, was convinced that galleys would be able to regain control of the Flanders coast from Justin of Nassau’s cromsters, and had been petitioning Madrid since 1593 to be permitted to prove his theory. When Philip III became king he gave his assent to a complicated deal involving the Spinolas lending him 100,000 ducats interest free for a year, in return for which the king undertook to provide six galleys and a tercio of troops to man them, and to maintain the flotilla to the tune of 81,000 ducats every six months.

Upon the death of Philip II the Spanish Netherlands became a semi-autonomous principality under Cardinal Archduke Albert of Austria, previously the governor-general after the death of his older brother in 1595. Permitted to renounce the purple by Pope Clement VIII, he married Philip III’s sister in April 1599. Archduke Albert was a party to the agreement between the Spinolas and Philip III and undertook to provide quarters for Federico’s troops, also heavy guns and ammunition for the galleys. The aim was to regain the military initiative in the Netherlands and to force the Dutch and English to negotiate from a position of weakness.

Although Federico Spinola’s ambitions extended to seizing a beach-head in England, his first priority was to support Archduke’s Albert’s renewed offensive against the Dutch enclave around Ostend. In combination with the Dunkirk felibotes, and joined by two galleys built there by shipwrights sent from Genoa by his older brother, Federico did such damage to coastal traffic in 1599–1600 that Elizabeth ordered the construction of four 100-ton galleys (all given Anglo-Italian names – Advantagia, Superlativa, Gallarita and Volatillia) and even the Dutch, who had never before employed galleys, built three, including the 200-ton Black Galley of Zeeland.

Spinola’s activities suffered from lack of support from Archduke Albert, who suffered a humiliating defeat after trapping the hyper-cautious Maurice of Nassau at Nieuport in early July 1600. Further negotiations with Philip III in 1601 saw a revival of the English beach-head project with the promise of eight fully manned galleys to come from Genoa, supported on land by Ambrogio Spinola who would raise 6,000 troops in Italy at his own expense and march them to the Netherlands, where he would take over the active conduct of the war.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *