In a world where thousands of opinions are competing for our attention, we like to think of history books speaking with one clear voice to tell us the definitive truth about the past. But it’s not like that at all.
One of the stopping-off points in the usual story of England’s journey towards becoming a global superpower with a world-class navy is the so-called defeat of the ‘invincible’ Spanish Armada in 1588. The quotation marks are used advisedly, for all is not as it seems.
The schoolgirl version of the story is that Philip II of Spain, deadly foe of Elizabeth I of England, sent his huge Armada of ships to invade England and return it to the Catholic faith, only to be defeated by the plucky little English navy, whose courageous captains included Sir Francis Drake.
Drake’s celebrated against-the-odds victory is often depicted as the moment that England took on Europe and won. For example, here’s Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain: “We must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history. It ranks with the days when the Spanish Armada was approaching the Channel, and Drake was finishing his game of bowls…”
Was Sir Francis Drake really playing bowls when the Armada approached?
Yet that game of bowls is problematic. You probably have the idea that it was while Drake was enjoying a game on the greens of Plymouth Hoe that the Spanish Armada was first sighted on the horizon. The usual story has Sir Francis turning to Lord Effingham, commander of the English
fleet, and saying that there was no need to hurry, there would be plenty of time to finish the game, and to thrash the Spaniards too. It’s deep in our national psyche as a moment of coolness in the face of fire; of the stiff upper lip.
Disappointingly, though, none of the early accounts of the Armada mention anyone playing bowls at all. It was a number of years after the event that one account finally describes sailors in Plymouth in July 1588 “dancing, bowling and making merry” on the shore as the Armada appeared. But it was an irresistibly juicy detail. In the 1730s, a biography of Sir Walter Ralegh tells us that Drake was determined to finish his game – and from then on it became ‘history’.
Painting depicting the Spanish Armada dated 16th century. (Photo by Getty Images)
Another strand of the traditional story of the Armada concentrates on the psychodrama between two bitter and personal enemies: Philip II of Spain and Queen Elizabeth I, locked in an existential struggle between their differing religious beliefs.
In 1588, Philip was 61, a devout Catholic and king of the biggest empire in the world, reaching from South America to the Philippines. Elizabeth I was in her 50s, still unmarried, still childless, and ruling over a Protestant England in which Catholic plots were a constant threat.
But in 1554, some 34 years earlier, Philip had set sail from the northern Spanish port of Corunna in order to become part of the Tudor royal family. We often forget that before he was king of Spain, Philip II – the great villain in the Armada story – spent four years as king of England, due to his marriage to Mary, Elizabeth’s older half-sister.
Mary was desperate to secure England’s future as a Catholic country, and dreaded the thought that she might die childless and leave the Protestant Elizabeth to take the throne. But Philip felt differently. The alternative to Elizabeth, in the event of his and Mary’s marriage producing no
children, was Mary, Queen of Scots. She was Catholic, which was a plus, but – due to her ancestry and powerful ties to the French court – she would have taken England firmly into the orbit of Philip’s French enemies, which was intolerable.
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So Philip rooted for his sister-in-law, persuading Mary to release Elizabeth from the house arrest under which she had been placed. When Mary lay dying, Philip realised that the only way he could persuade Elizabeth to support Catholics was to marry her, and get her to convert. And so he proposed. Elizabeth, as ever, refused to commit herself. A few months later, hearing that Philip had started new negotiations with a French princess, she said (and this is classic Elizabeth I) that he couldn’t have loved her all that much if he couldn’t wait a month or two for an answer.
Although the proposed match failed to materialise, Elizabeth and Philip remained friends. But over the next decade, as Elizabeth and her nation became decidedly Protestant, there were rumblings from Rome. In the late 1560s, Catholics in the north of England attempted an unsuccessful rebellion. To encourage them, in 1570 the pope excommunicated their queen.
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Philip was now under pressure from Rome to topple Elizabeth. But with his vast empire to run, he had plenty of other priorities. Although films – notably Elizabeth: The Golden Age, directed by Shekhar Kapur – often show Philip as some sort of God-crazed psychopath, religion alone wasn’t a strong enough reason for Philip to invade England. Two other factors tipped his hand: firstly, Drake’s raids on Spanish ships, which Philip saw as piracy. Then there was Elizabeth’s support of Philip’s rebellious Protestant subjects in the Netherlands. This finally goaded Philip into planning his Armada.
The Spanish fleet that Philip assembled is usually depicted as an ‘invincible’ Goliath to England’s little David of a navy. In reality, it was anything but. It wasn’t even the biggest fleet ever to have attacked England: the Norman invasion fleet of 1066, and the French force that crossed the Channel in 1545 and sank the Mary Rose, both boasted more vessels.
The Spanish had around 130 ships – from war galleons to messenger vessels and provision boats. Although the English navy was smaller, a host of merchant and private boats were commandeered to create a force equal to that of the Spanish.
And, anyway, the invasion fleet had sailed into trouble long before it had an opportunity to engage its English foes. Soon after departing from Lisbon, they faced disease, rotting provisions and bad weather. They had to stop at Corunna for repairs. From there, the commander of the fleet wrote to Philip, confessing that he could see “hardly any of those on the Armada with any knowledge or ability to perform the duties entrusted to them… we are very weak”.
But Philip said the attack was to go ahead anyway. So off the Armada went, planning to sail up the English Channel towards its narrowest point. There it was to meet with an army of soldiers from the Netherlands led by the Duke of Parma, who were to be ferried across on barges to invade Kent.
First, though, the Spanish had to make it up the Channel, and here they began to experience more problems. The first major casualties they experienced were self-inflicted: a crash and explosion lost them two ships.
The Armada Portrait by George Gower. (Photo by Getty Images)
Once the Spanish were sailing up the Channel, the next narrative beat in most popular retellings of the story is Elizabeth I’s rousing speech to her men at Tilbury on the northern bank of the Thames. That famous piece of oratory – in which the queen tells the assembled troops that she may “have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but the heart and stomach of a king” – has been dramatised in countless films. Elizabeth is often depicted riding a horse, dressed in white velvet, or even in armour. “I myself will be your general,” she tells her men.
But this involves a tweaking to the timing of events for dramatic effect. Elizabeth had come up with the plan to address the troops while the Spanish were still in the Channel. Yet by the time she did so, the Armada were already staring defeat in the face. Eleven days earlier, English fireships had attacked the Spanish fleet while it was waiting off France for its rendezvous with Parma’s army. These burning vessels caused the Spanish to panic, with further crashes and losses. So when Elizabeth uttered her famous words at Tilbury, what was left of the Armada was on its way home, running up around Scotland and Ireland to get back to Spain. And there, in the north, the death knell was dealt to Spanish plans: not by Drake, Elizabeth I or brave English sailors – but by bad weather.
Interestingly, the content as well as the timing of Elizabeth’s speech has also ‘evolved’ over time. The sources don’t mention the famous “heart and stomach of a king” line until more than three decades after the event. It was first introduced by a Protestant chaplain who had been at Tilbury – and it sounds like just the sort of thing Elizabeth would have said. But historians cannot be sure that she really used those very words.
Does that matter? Tilbury has become a touchstone of history, not because of the facts, but because of the emotion it inspires. Shortly before the Second World War, when the actor Flora Robson, playing Elizabeth I, delivered the speech in the 1937 film Fire Over England, she was really talking about the feared Nazi invasion. Eight decades later, Elizabeth’s words were employed again – this time to sell feminism, football and beer as part of a Budweiser advertising campaign throwing its support behind the England Lionesses in the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
As these examples prove, the idea that Elizabeth, Drake and underdog pluck defeated a practically invincible Armada is now firmly established at the heart of England’s conception of itself. The Victorians found this idea particularly appealing. They were especially drawn to a story about a nation with a brilliant navy – something that’s reflected in the fact that the Armada formed part of Prince Albert’s planned decorative scheme for the House of Lords. But, for all the veneration of Drake and co, there was no straight line from 1588 to Britain’s imperial greatness in the 18th and 19th centuries. For one thing, the defeat of the Armada didn’t bring victory in the war with Spain; in fact, that conflict dragged on into the 17th century.
For another, the Spanish themselves never really saw the Armada as a significant setback. And that’s because, in 1589, the English suffered an embarrassing naval disaster of their own. That year, Drake led a so-called ‘Counter Armada’, with the aim of destroying the remainder of Philip’s fleet while it was under repair in Santander. It was a fiasco, in which 15,000 Englishmen died, and many of the 86 ships were lost.
Drake and his fleet were forced – just like Philip II’s own fleet a year earlier – to stop at Corunna for lack of provisions. And here, a local woman, Maria Pita, led fierce resistance against the English navy. Still celebrated as a heroine in Corunna, Pita is said to have killed an English soldier herself, thereby inspiring the town to victory. In another football connection, she has become a symbol of the local women’s team.
Someone should have told Margaret Thatcher about the ‘Counter Armada’. When Spain tried, unsuccessfully, to extradite the Chilean dictator General Pinochet from Britain for human rights abuses, the British prime minister sprang to the defence of the man who’d supported her during the Falklands War. She sent him a silver plate commemorating the English victory over the Spanish Armada, with a note decrying Spanish colonialism. Thatcher herself had often been photographed among her troops during the Falklands conflict, yet always appeared hyper-feminine in her personal style. She had learned a way of being a female war leader from Elizabeth I – to be womanly, yet to deny that gender mattered.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets personnel aboard the HMS Antrim in January 1983 during her five-day visit to the Falkand Islands. (Photo by Sven Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)
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The legend of the Spanish Armada created by the Elizabethans and retold by generations after them has a powerful legacy. In times of crisis – from the Second World War to the Falklands – it’s been used to convince us that this small island can take on superpowers; that we come from a long line of cool-headed and inspirational leaders; that, small as we are, we can still play a mighty role on the world stage.
The popular version of the story of the Armada – true or not – gives us confidence to believe in that fantasy. Who knows where this impressive mingling of facts, fantasy and fibs might take us next?
Lucy Worsley is chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces. The Spanish Armada was one of the topics she covered in her three-part series History’s Biggest Fibs on BBC Four in February 2020.
This article was first published in the February 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine