The fire-ships at night defeated the Armada.
Continuing Defeat of the Spanish Armada,
our selection from The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo by Edward Creasy published in 1851. The selection is presented in nine easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Place: English Channel
It was on Saturday, July 20th, that Lord Effingham came in sight of his formidable adversaries. The armada was drawn up in form of a crescent, which from horn to horn measured some seven miles. There was a southwest wind, and before it the vast vessels sailed slowly on. The English let them pass by, and then, following in the rear, commenced an attack on them. A running fight now took place, in which some of the best ships of the Spaniards were captured; many more received heavy damage, while the English vessels, which took care not to close with their huge antagonists, but availed themselves of their superior celerity in tacking and maneuvering, suffered little comparative loss.
Each day added not only to the spirit, but to the number, of Effingham’s force. Raleigh, Oxford, Cumberland, and Sheffield joined him; and “the gentlemen of England hired ships from all parts at their own charge, and with one accord came flocking thither as to a set field where glory was to be attained and faithful service performed unto their Prince and their country.”
Raleigh justly praises the English admiral for his skilful tactics:
Certainly he that will happily perform a fight at sea must be skilful in making choice of vessels to fight in: he must believe that there is more belonging to a good man of war upon the waters than great daring, and must know that there is a great deal of difference between fighting loose or at large and grappling. The guns of a slow ship pierce as well and make as great holes as those in a swift. To clap ships together, without consideration, belongs rather to a madman than to a man of war; for by such an ignorant bravery was Peter Strossie lost at the Azores when he fought against the Marquis of Santa Cruza.
“In like sort had the Lord Charles Howard, admiral of England, been lost in the year 1588, if he had not been better advised than a great many malignant fools were that found fault with his demeanor. The Spaniards had an army aboard them, and he had none; they had more ships than he had, and of higher building and charging; so that, had he entangled himself with those great and powerful vessels, he had greatly endangered this kingdom of England; for twenty men upon the defenses are equal to a hundred that board and enter; whereas, then, contrariwise, the Spaniards had a hundred for twenty of ours, to defend themselves withal. But our admiral knew his advantage, and held it; which had he not done, he had not been worthy to have held his head up.”
The Spanish admiral also showed great judgment and firmness in following the line of conduct that had been traced out for him; and on July 27th he brought his fleet unbroken, though sorely distressed, to anchor in Calais roads. But the King of Spain had calculated ill the number and the activity of the English and Dutch fleets. As the old historian expresses it*:
[*] Hakluyt: Voyages.
It seemeth that the Duke of Parma and the Spaniards grounded upon a vain and presumptuous expectation that all the ships of England and of the Low Countreys would at the first sight of the Spanish and Dunkerk navie have betaken themselves to flight, yeelding them sea-room, and endeavoring only to defend themselues, their havens, and sea-coasts from invasion.
“Wherefore their intent and purpose was, that the Duke of Parma, in his small and flat-bottomed ships, should, as it were under the shadow and wings of the Spanish fleet, convey ouer all his troupes, armor, and war-like provisions, and with their forces so united, should invade England; or while the English fleet were busied in fight against the Spanish, should enter upon any part of the coast, which he thought to be most convenient. Which invasion — as the captives afterward confessed — the Duke of Parma thought first to have attempted by the river of Thames; upon the bankes whereof having at the first arrivall landed twenty or thirty thousand of his principall souldiers, he supposed that he might easily have wonne the citie of London; both because his small shippes should have followed and assisted his land forces and also for that the citie it-selfe was but meanely fortified and easie to ouercome, by reason of the citizens’ delicacie and discontinuance from the warres, who, with continuall and constant labor, might be vanquished, if they yielded not at the first assault.”
But the English and Dutch found ships and mariners enough to keep the armada itself in check, and at the same time to block up Parma’s flotilla. The greater part of Seymour’s squadron left its cruising-ground off Dunkirk to join the English admiral off Calais; but the Dutch manned about five-and-thirty sail of good ships, with a strong force of soldiers on board, all well seasoned to the sea-service, and with these they blockaded the Flemish ports that were in Parma’s power. Still it was resolved by the Spanish admiral and the Prince to endeavor to effect a junction, which the English seamen were equally resolute to prevent; and bolder measures on our side now became necessary.
The armada lay off Calais, with its largest ships ranged outside, “like strong castles fearing no assault, the lesser placed in the middle ward.” The English admiral could not attack them in their position without great disadvantage, but on the night of the 29th he sent eight fire-ships among them, with almost equal effect to that of the fire-ships which the Greeks so often employed against the Turkish fleets in their war of independence.
The Spaniards cut their cables and put to sea in confusion. One of the largest galeases ran foul of another vessel and was stranded. The rest of the fleet was scattered about on the Flemish coast, and when the morning broke it was with difficulty and delay that they obeyed their admiral’s signal to range themselves round him near Gravelines. Now was the golden opportunity for the English to assail them, and prevent them from ever letting loose Palma’s flotilla against England, and nobly was that opportunity used.
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