The summons to surrender: an incident in the attack on the Spanish Armada, 1588

In England his name described a male waterfowl that might be seen bobbing placidly on the village pond — but in Spanish the drake became a dragon. El Draque was a name with which to frighten naughty children, a fire-breathing monster whose steely, glittering scales ‘remained impregnable’, wrote the sixteenth-century dramatist Lope de Vega, ‘to all the spears and all the darts of Spain’.

By the 1580s, Francis Drake’s reputation provoked panic in the seaports of Spain and in its New World colonies. In a series of daring raids, the rotund Devon-born pirate had pillaged Spanish harbours, looted Catholic churches and hijacked King Philip’s silver bullion as it travelled from the mines of the Andes to the Spanish treasury in Seville. In his most famous exploit, during 1577-80, Drake had sailed round the world claiming California for Queen Elizabeth and arriving home laden with treasure. No wonder she knighted him — and that his ship the Golden Hind, moored at Deptford near London, became the tourist attraction of the day.

Now, on 20 July 1588, Sir Francis was taking his ease at Plymouth with the other commanders of the English navy, preparing to confront the great war fleet — armada in Spanish — that Philip II had marshalled to punish the English for their piracy and Protestantism. According to the chronicler John Stow, writing a dozen years after the event, the English officers were dancing and revelling on the shore as the Spanish Armada hove into sight.

It was not until 1736, 148 years later, that the famous tale was published of how Drake insisted on finishing his game of bowls before he went to join his ship. But the story could well be true. The tide conditions were such on that day in 1588 that it was not possible to sail out of Plymouth Sound until the evening, and the Spanish ships were scarcely moving fast. Indeed, their speed has been calculated at a stately walking pace —just two miles an hour — as they moved eastwards in a vast crescent, heading for the Straits of Dover, then for the Low Countries, where they were planning to link up with the Duke of Parma and his army of invasion.

According to folklore, the Spanish galleons were massive and lumbering castles of the sea that towered over the vessels of the English fleet. In fact, the records show the chief fighting ships on both sides to have been of roughly similar size — about a thousand tons. The difference lay in the ships’ designs, for while the English galleons were sleek and nippy, custom-made for piracy and for manoeuvring in coastal waters, the Spanish ships were full-bellied, built for steadiness as they transported their cargo on the long transatlantic run.

More significantly, the English ships carried twice the cannon power of their enemies’, thanks, in no small part, to the zeal of Henry VIII. Elizabeth’s polymath father had taken an interest in artillery, encouraging a new gun-building technology developed from bell-founding techniques: in 1588 some of the older English cannon that blasted out at the Spanish galleons had been recast from the copper and tin alloy melted down from the bells of the dissolved monasteries.

Popular history has assigned Francis Drake the credit for defeating the Spanish Armada. In fact, Drake almost scuppered the enterprise on the very first night: he broke formation to go off and seize a disabled Spanish vessel for himself. The overall commander of the fleet was Lord Howard of Effingham, and it was his steady strategy to keep pushing the Spanish up the Channel, harrying them as they went. ‘Their force is wonderful great and strong,’ wrote Howard to Elizabeth on the evening of 29 July, and yet we pluck their feathers by little and little.’

Ashore in England, meanwhile, the beacons had been lit. A chain of hilltop bonfires had spread the news of the Armada’s sighting, and the militia rallied for the defence of the shires. Lit today to celebrate coronations and royal jubilees, this network of ‘fires over England’ dated back to medieval times. Seventeen thousand men rapidly mustered in the south-east, and early in August Queen Elizabeth travelled to inspect them at Tilbury as they drilled in preparation for confronting Parma’s invasion force. According to one account, the fifty-four-year-old Queen strapped on a breastplate herself to deliver the most famous of the well-worded speeches that have gilded her reputation:

I am come amongst you, as you see… in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all… I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and the stomach of a king, and a king of England too, and think it foul scorn that Parma, or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm… We shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, my kingdom and my people.

By the time Elizabeth delivered this speech, on 9 August 1588, the famous victory had already been won. Several nights previously, Howard had dispatched fire ships into the Spanish fleet as it lay at anchor off the Flanders coast, and in the resulting confusion the Spanish had headed north, abandoning their rendezvous with Parma. Fleeing in front of their English pursuers, they took the long way home, heading round the top of Scotland and Ireland. Almost half the Armada, including many of the best warships, managed to make it back to Spain. But over eleven thousand Spaniards perished, and the great crusade to which the Pope and several Catholic nations had contributed ended in humiliation.

Drake himself died eight years later on a raiding expedition in the Caribbean that went disastrously wrong. He was buried at sea, and great was the celebration when the news of his death reached Spain. In England, however, he became an instant hero, inspiring implausible tales of wizardry. According to one, he increased the size of his fleet by cutting a piece of wood into chips, each of which became — hey-presto! — a man-o’-war.

His legend has been revived particularly at times of national danger. In the early 1800s, when Napoleon’s troops were poised to cross the Channel, an ancient drum was discovered which was said to have travelled everywhere with Drake, and the Victorian poet Sir Henry Newbolt imagined the old sea dog dying in the tropics on his final voyage, promising to heed the summons whenever England had need of him:

Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,

Strike et when your powder’s runnin low-,

If the Dons sight Devon, I’ll quit the port o’ Heaven,

An, drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago.