While Mary Stuart, the Roman Catholic Queen of Scots, lived, Rome’s hope of bringing England back under the control of the Catholic Church centered in her. Their death, however, effectively put an end to all of these hopes. The papal decree ordering all Christian princes to actively work for the destruction of Protestantism still remained as one of the infallible canons of the Council of Trent and was still acknowledged by the kings of the Catholic world. The plot to bring about the overthrow of Protestant England now took a new shape in the form of the invincible Armada.
It required no supernatural insight to recognize the approaching storm. Sixtus V, who even among popes was outstanding for his craft and daring, was just beginning his reign. Cold, selfish, hungry for power, and dedicated to the overthrow of Protestantism, Phillip II was on the throne of Spain. No Jesuit could be more dedicated in purpose, nor shrewd in disguising his purposes. His great ambition was that after-generations should be able to say of him that in his days and by his arms, heresy had been exterminated.
The Jesuits were operating throughout Europe, working to inflame the minds of kings and statesmen against the Reformation, seeking to organize them into armed combinations to put it down. Protestantism had been effectively purged from Spain and Italy. Worst of all, even among the friends of Protestantism there was fragmentation and disagreement. The spiritual influence, which like a mighty wave had rolled across all Christendom in the first half of the century, bearing on its swelling crest scholars, statesmen, and nations, was now on the ebb, and Catholicism was struggling to gain back that which it had lost. Luther, Calvin, Knox, Cranmer, and Coligny were all off the stage of action; and their successors, though men of faith and ability, were not of the same stature as those who had laid the foundation of the Reformation. In terms of facilities that generally determine the strength of a nation, there was little to compare between those who favored the Reformation and those who opposed it. To all human appearances, it seemed that the flame of the Reformation, which but a few years earlier had burned so brightly, must soon flicker and die.
Before her powerful enemies, England, with her little population of four million, and Holland, with even less, appeared completely vulnerable before the mighty armies of the Catholic world, enriched with their gold plundered from the New World. While the friends of the Reformation were divided, irresolute, cherishing illusions of peace, and making little or no preparations, there were omens that only too clearly betokened the coming conflict.
In 1584, two years before the execution of Mary Stuart, Phillip began preparations for building a fleet, the likes of which the world had never seen. For such an effort and for such a glorious cause, money and effort were now object. Stretching along nearly two thousand miles of coast line there was not a harbor or river’s mouth that could be utilized which was not taken advantage of for the building of ships that were to bear the Spanish soldiers of the Inquisition to the shores of heretical England.
The completed fleet had provisions for six months, as well as quantities of power, shot, all of the other materials that would be needed for an invasion. The Armada numbered 130 vessels, great and small. On board were 8,000 sailors in addition to 20,000 soldiers. This group was augmented by many noblemen and gentlemen who had volunteered to serve. The armor consisted of 2,650 pieces of ordnance; its burden was 60,000 tons. This was an immense tonnage at the time when the English navy consisted of twenty-eight ships and an aggregate weight that did not exceed the tonnage of a single, modern seagoing vessel.
The Spanish ships were of great capacity and amazing strength. Their strong ribs were lined with planks four feet in thickness, through which it was thought impossible that a cannon ball could pierce. Cables smeared with pitch were wound around the masts to enable them to withstand the fire of the enemy. Sixty-four of the total number of ships were galleons. Armed with heavy brass, they towered above the waves like castles.
During the time that the vast fleet was being built, Spain did everything that could possibly be done to conceal the knowledge of it from England. With poor, if any, postal communications, secrecy was more easily attainable than today. It was impossible however, to keep a complete secret. In order to ease the concerns of the English, Philip resorted to dissimulation. It was said at one time that the new fleet’s purpose was to sweep from the seas certain pirates that gave annoyance to Spain and had captured some of her ships. Later, it was said that Philip meant to punish certain unknown enemies on the far side of the Atlantic. All that craft and lying could do was done to allay the suspicions of the people of England. Even Walsingham, one of the most discerning and clear sighted of the queen’s ministers, expressed belief—just fifteen days before the Armada sailed—that it never would invade England and that Philip’s hands were too full at home to leave him leisure to conquer kingdoms abroad.
In reality, there were two Armadas being prepared to attack an unsuspecting England. In the Netherlands, at that time in the possession of Philip, there was a scene of activity nearly as great as that which was taking place in Spain. Philip’s governor in Belgium, the duke of Parma, was perhaps the most able general of his age. His instructions were to prepare an army and fleet to cooperate with the Spanish force as soon as it arrived in the English Channel.
The whole of the Spanish Netherlands suddenly burst into activity. Assembling 28 warships, along with several hundred smaller vessels, the duke gathered regiments of soldiers from every Catholic nation in Europe. There was scarcely a noble house of Spain that was not represented within the camp of Parma. Believing that the last hour of England had come, they assembled to witness her fall.
During this time of preparation, every imaginable deception was practiced toward Elizabeth and the statesmen who served her to hide from them their great danger until it should overtake them. She sent her commissioners to the Low Countries, but Parma protested, with tears in his eyes, that there lived not on earth anyone who more sincerely desired peace than himself. Did not his prayers morning and night ascend for its continuance? And as regarding the wise and magnanimous sovereign of England, there was not one of her servants that cherished a higher admiration for her than did he. This monumental hypocrisy was not without effect. The English commissioners returned, after three month’s absence, in the belief that Parma’s intentions were peaceful and confirmed Elizabeth and her ministers in dreams of peace. England did not fully awaken from this illusion of peace until just days before the guns of the Spanish Armada were heard in the English Channel.
To aid in the war effort, Sixtus V issued a bull against Elizabeth in which he confirmed the previous one by Pius V, absolving her subjects of their allegiance and conferring her kingdom upon Philip II, to have and to hold as tributary and feudatory of the papal chair. While the pope with one hand took away the crown from Elizabeth, he conferred with the other the red hat upon Father Allen. Already the archbishop of Canterbury, Allen was at once both the archbishop of Canterbury and, by order of the pope, papal legate. Allen now had the pope’s bull translated into English, intending that upon arrival of the Spanish fleet, it should be published in England.
Suddenly, as if from a deep sleep, England awoke to her great danger just before the Spanish ships were to arrive. How was the invasion to be met? England had but a handful of soldiers and a few ships to oppose the host that was coming against her.
The total English force was just over 150,000. This force was split into three groups with one group stationed for the defense of the capital, one for the personal defense of the queen, and the third was to guard the south and east as the place most likely to be selected by the enemy for landing. Beacons were prepared to be lighted at the first landing of the of the enemy on English soil, notifying the rest of the troops at what point to converge.
The English fleet that sailed to oppose the Armada consisted of thirty-four ships of small tonnage carrying 6,000 men. Besides these, the city of London provided thirty ships. In all the port towns, merchant vessels were converted into warships, bringing the total to possibly as many as 150 vessels, with a crew of 14,000. Though the total number of vessels nearly matched that of the Spanish, the figures on paper give a far more favorable appearance than is warranted. The English fleet was, in comparison to the Spanish fleet, but a collection of six or eight oared boats along with a few slightly larger vessels.
This force was divided into two squadrons: one, under Lord Howard, high admiral of England, consisting of seventeen ships which were to cruise the Channel and there wait for the arrival of the Armada. The second squadron, under Hawkins, consisting of fifteen ships, was stationed at Dunkirk to intercept Parma should he attempt to cross with his fleet from Flanders. Sir Francis Drake, in his ship the Revenge , had a following of about thirty privateers. After the war broke out, the fleet was further increased by ships belonging to the nobility and the merchants, hastily armed and sent to sea; though the brunt of the fight, it was foreseen, must fall on the queen’s ships.
England’s inferior army was simply militia, insufficiently drilled, poorly armed, and, except in spirit, could not compare in any way with the soldiers of Spain who had been seasoned on the field of battle. The Spanish army alone was deemed more than sufficient to conquer England; and how easy would the conquest become when that Armada should be joined by the mighty force under Parma, the flower of the Spanish army! England, with her long lone of coast, her unfortified town, and her four millions of population, including many thousands of Roman Catholics ready to rise in insurrection as soon as the invader had made good his landing, was at that hour in supreme peril. It was not England alone whose existence was in question. Its success or failure was the standing or falling of Protestantism. Should Philip succeed in his enterprise, Spain would replace England as the teacher and guide of the nations, some idea of the consequence of such an outcome may be seen by contrasting the political, religious, social, and moral conditions today of Latin America with those of Protestant North America.
For some time after the ships of the Armada had been collected in Lisbon, ready to sail, they were unable to move, waiting for favorable weather. When the wind finally shifted, the proud galleons spread their canvas and began their voyage toward England. For three days—May 28-30, 1588—galleon followed galleon, till it seemed the ocean must surely be filled with them. It was a breathtaking sight, as with sails spread to the breeze and banners and streamers gaily unfurled, it made its way along the coast of Spain. The twelve principal ships of the Armada bound on this holy enterprise had been baptized with the names of the twelve apostles. On board the St. Peter was Don Martin Allacon, administrator and vicar-general of the holy office of the Inquisition; and along with him were 200 barefooted friars and Dominicans. Though the guns of the Armada were to begin the conquest of heretical England, the spiritual arms of the Fathers were to complete it.
Just as the Armada was about to sail, the Marquis Santa Cruz, who had been appointed to the chief command, died. He had been thirty years in Philip’s service and was beyond doubt the most capable sea captian Spain had. Another had to be found to fill the place of the “Iron-Marquis,” and the duke of Medina Sidonia was selected for the job. The main recommendation of Medina Sidonia was his vast wealth. The “Golden Duke” was there simply to provide the armament; the real head of the expedition was to be the duke of Parma, Philip’s commander in the Netherlands and the ablest of his generals. As soon as the Armada should arrive off Calais, the duke was to cross from Flanders and, uniting his numerous army with the vast fleet, to descend like a cloud upon the shore of England.
The Armada was three weeks at sea. The huge ships, so disproportioned to the small sails, made windward progress wearisomely slow. They floated well enough upon a calm sea, but as they were about to open the Bay of Biscay, the sky began to be overcast, and dark clouds came rolling up from the southwest. The swell of the Atlantic grew into mountainous billows, tumbling around those towering structures whose bulk only exposed them all the more to the buffeting of the great waves and furious winds. The Armada was scattered by the gale. As the weather moderated, the ships reassembled and again began to move toward England. A second and more severe storm soon burst upon them. The waves, dashing against the lofty turrets at stem and stern, sent a spout of white water up their sides and high into midair, while the racing waves, coursing across the low bulwarks amidships, threatened every moment to engulf the galleons. One of the greatest of them went down with all on board, and another two were driven to the coast of France.
The storm subsiding, the Armada once more gathered itself together, and on July 29, it entered the Channel. The next day England had her first sight of the long expected enemy. Instantly the beacon fires were kindled, announcing that the Spanish had arrived. On the afternoon of July 30, the Armada could be seen from the high ground above Plymouth Harbor, advancing slowly from the southwest in the form of a crescent, the two horns of which were seven miles apart. As one massive hull after another came out of the blue distance, it was seen that rumor of its size had not been exaggerated in the least. On his great galleon, the St. Martin, in his shot-proof fortress stood Medina Sidonia, casting proud glances around him.
The night that followed was a night long to be remembered in England, as another and yet another hilltop lighted its fires in the darkness and the ever-extending line of light flashed the news of the Armada’s arrival from the shores of the Channel across all of England and Scotland. In this moment of destiny, the hearts of men were drawn together by the sense of a common terror. All controversies were forgotten in one absorbing interest; and the cry of the nation went up to God that He would place His protection over England and not suffer her to be destroyed.
Meanwhile, the harbor of Plymouth was in a fever of excitement. The moment the news arrived that the Armada had been sighted, Howard, Drake, and Hawkins began their preparations; and the rest of the night was spent in preparing the ships for sea. By morning, sixty ships had been towed out of the harbor. Their numbers were little more than a third of those of the Armada, and their inferiority in size was even greater; but manned by patriotic crews, they hoisted sail and went forth to meet the enemy. On the afternoon of the same day, the two fleets came in sight of each other. The wind was blowing from the southwest, bringing with it a drizzling rain and choppy seas. The waves of the Atlantic came tumbling into the Channel; and the galleons of Spain, with their heavy ordnance and their numerous squadrons, rolled uneasily and clumsily. The English ships, of smaller size and handled by expert seamen, bore finely up before the breeze, taking a close survey of the Spanish fleet, and then, standing off to windward, became invisible in the haze. The Spaniards knew that the English fleet was in the vicinity, but the darkness did not permit battle to be joined that night.