Keep calm and carry on trading: how English merchants reacted to the Spanish Armada
When King Phillip II's invasion fleet menaced the south coast of England in 1588, what did the merchants and mariners who depended on the Narrow Seas to the continent do? As Robert Blackmore reveals, they filled the holds of their ships and kept on making their voyages anyway
On 21 July 1588, the English navy first engaged the Spanish Armada in battle off Devon. The very next day, as the Armada sailed east along the channel to rendezvous with the army of the Duke of Parma in the Spanish Netherlands and invade England, a tiny ship named the Wren left its home port of Sandwich, in Kent, carrying cloth bound for French Calais. On 23 July, the two fleets clashed again off Portland Bill in Dorset. The day after that, another small vessel, the Penny Pot, carried beer to Vlissingen in the Dutch province of Zeeland.
Queen Elizabeth I’s England is often presented as isolated from Europe by the Reformation and war. The story goes that the Tudor kingdom ‘went global’, projecting new maritime military and commercial power far beyond its shores and setting the stage for the British empire. Yet this simple formula ignores the lived experience of coastal communities where the so-called ‘Narrow Seas’, which divided Britain from Europe, drew narrowest.
The shipmaster of the Wren, Anthony Hickson, may have lacked the swagger of the queen’s ‘sea dogs’, like John Hawkins, Francis Drake or Walter Ralegh. But he, and many others, showed startling resilience in maintaining strong ties with the continent, even while under threat from the Spanish ‘Grande y Felicísima Armada’ (‘Great and Most Fortunate Navy’).
Shipping in late Tudor times
I have been working on a project investigating Kent’s maritime links with its European neighbours from the mid-15th to the mid-17th centuries. Our new research uses Kent’s surviving port books, the records of shipping and cargoes that passed through its harbours. These reveal, in detail, the realities of life for late Tudor and early Stuart mariners and merchants where multiple key land and sea routes converged. England’s capital, London, was close by, growing rapidly thanks to the county’s sizable surplus cereal production. The adjacent Strait of Dover connected the North Sea and the Baltic with the North Atlantic and ultimately, the Mediterranean.
But despite being the great ‘Age of Discovery’, fewer galleons arrived direct from distant lands ‒ stuffed with spices, silks, jewels and precious metals ‒ than we imagine. Here, most business remained with France and the Low Countries, as it had for centuries. After all, the nearest foreign markets lay just 21 miles across the channel.
A vast array of trade goods passed back and forth via this route. Some exotic commodities like indigo, pepper or tobacco were bought from middlemen, while increasingly elaborate lightweight textiles and manufactured goods were also exchanged. However, most products traded in bulk were humble: grain regularly moved in all directions; imports often included onions and cheese alongside barrels of wine, as well as fish and the salt needed to preserve them. Imported hops were used to make the Kentish beer which would then be exported back. Timber, pitch and tar were likewise brought in, even bricks; and holds full of locally produced lime would leave.
Little ships in the Narrow Seas
Such supply chains often relied on remarkably small ships. Their tonnage, once based on the capacity to carry wine barrels from Gascony, indicates that while the largest vessels of the age might top 1,000 tons, most operating across the Narrow Seas were less than 20. Many were minuscule. The Wren of Sandwich, for instance, was just 5 tons. There was even a 3-ton vessel called the Baker’s Basket of Faversham which imported wine from Calais. Ambitions were customarily limited and enterprises modest. They were nonetheless integral to a web of highly lucrative commercial interests.
William Cecil, Lord Burghley, treasurer to Queen Elizabeth, himself noted that one small craft “will bring as much in one year as 10 merchant ships are wont to bring from other places in two years”. This intricate trade system was also highly adaptable, as was revealed after the Dutch revolted against their Spanish Habsburg overlords in the 1560s. The resultant Eighty Years’ War created the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, a new Protestant power and – for England – a particularly close trading partner.
While the largest vessels of the age might top 1,000 tons, most operating across the Narrow Seas were less than 20... There was even a 3-ton vessel called the Baker’s Basket of Faversham which imported wine from Calais
This also became a military alliance once Elizabeth unleashed privateers to seize the riches of the Spanish empire and provoked war with Philip II of Spain in 1585. That year, while negotiating the Treaty of Nonsuch, the Dutch demanded English commerce with Spanish territories be restricted but ceded Elizabeth control over three ‘Cautionary Towns’ in the Netherlands: Brielle, Fort Rammekens and Vlissingen. These ports offered easy access into European markets. They also added to growing socio-economic links between the continent and south-eastern England which had developed as Flemish and Dutch Protestants fled persecution over the previous generation.
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By 1604, William Browne, the lieutenant-governor of Vlissingen, reported to the Privy Council how the city’s inhabitants’ “chief wealth depends on trade through our narrow seas to our havens and port towns, and most especially on their fishing on our coasts”. Examples of this abound in our sources. Jacob Skellworth, for example, master of the 6-ton Pelican of Vlissingen, sailed back and forth between there and Faversham for some three decades, primarily exchanging fish, salt, Dutch cheese and hops, for Kent’s beer.
But we shouldn’t underestimate the autonomy of contemporary mariners and merchants, who would often sail contrary to the political wind. Neither the treaty nor conflict halted mercantile contact with the enemy entirely. For instance, barrels of Spanish sack, notoriously Falstaff’s favourite wine in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (c1597), were frequently imported via neutral countries. Smuggling was likewise rife.
Invasion looms, business as usual
This takes us to July 1588 once more. For, even as the threat of a Spanish invasion grew, two Dover merchants reported to Francis Walsingham, the queen’s principal secretary and spymaster, that many “ill-disposed persons” continued to export grain to their adversaries. That November, after the emergency had passed, the government even alleged that some English merchants had supplied the Armada itself.
Being official records, Kent’s port books largely exclude such illicit trade, but they do suggest that local mariners and merchants were remarkably untroubled by the events of that year. Little changed with domestic coastal trade. During July and August 1588, there were 74 voyages into or out of the harbours of Sandwich and Faversham, travelling to or from other English ports. This was four more than the previous year. The impact on overseas trade was similarly light. On 3 July the departure of the “Worst-Kept Secret in Europe”, as one modern historian characterised the Spanish invasion, was imminent, but the Diamond of Rye left Faversham regardless, bound for La Rochelle in western France.
With the enemy closing in, many vessels, like the Wren of Sandwich, continued about their business. This was possible because, while militias were mustered, only a handful of Kent’s merchant ships were actually requisitioned for the English navy. In most places any hiatus in shipping abroad was only a few days at most.
The inconsequential Armada
One outlier was Dover. After a local ship called the Greyhound departed on 18 July no vessel is recorded to have left for the continent for a month. Calais was their main destination, and so the Spanish were often directly in their path. Giraud de Mauleon, the French governor there, was also on friendly terms with the Spanish, so this was best avoided. Yet, some persisted even while the Armada was actually in the Strait of Dover. On 30 July, the Pelican arrived at Faversham with another Dutch ship, the Lion of Veere.
With the enemy closing in, many vessels, like the Wren of Sandwich, continued about their business. This was possible because, while militias were mustered, only a handful of Kent’s merchant ships were actually requisitioned for the English navy
Only the day before, the English and Spanish fleets had clashed at the battle of Gravelines and were, by then, around 25 miles north east of Calais, very near the sea route across from Zeeland. But why was the Spanish Armada so apparently inconsequential? Well for one, Spanish tactics demanded they keep their ships in a tight defensive disposition, so there was little advantage to be had in breaking formation simply to seize a cargo of cheese.
However, such an explanation may undervalue the agency of the mariners and merchants themselves. Subject to the vagaries of wind and tide, while always under threat from storms or pirates, their livelihoods depended on well-integrated information networks. As such, they perhaps knew that the Armada’s campaign was poorly conceived and ill-prepared, then made an informed bet that it was at best a momentary challenge, with little chance of long-term success. And they were proven correct. Harried by the English fleet and tormented by fireships, the Spanish were forced by poor weather to abandon the invasion then circumnavigate Britain and Ireland to return home.
The number of tonnes of quicklime (calcium oxide) and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) dispatched each year from Dover to the Netherlands in the mid-1590s. Made by heating limestone – like chalk, without oxygen – this was used in mortar and cement as well as to deacidify soil.
Tonnes of cast-iron cannons called demi-culverins, sakers, minions and falcons were shipped from Rochester harbour in just 12 months from September 1598. Most were taken by the Dutch to Amsterdam for the war effort against the Spanish.
Pints of beer shipped in 1605 to Europe from Kent alone – mostly through the port of Sandwich. Some ships specialising in this trade had appropriate names, like the Drunkard of Dieppe.
That same year, enough wheat to bake around 18,370,000 modern loaves of bread was exported from Kent. Most was bound for destinations in France, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Some even reached Larache and Agadir in Morocco and Zakynthos in Greece.
The importance of the Narrow Seas
The war with Spain dragged on for a further 16 years until King James VI & I negotiated the 1604 Treaty of London, having united the thrones of Scotland and England in a personal union the previous year. Throughout, commercial connections across the Narrow Seas continued largely uninterrupted. As in 1588, only when conflict came too close for comfort was there a brief pause or diversion, such as when the Spanish occupied Calais from 1596–98. The treaty was not welcomed everywhere. Its terms required England cease support for the Dutch, who remained at war.
William Browne wrote from Vlissingen that this bred “grudgings” there, such that English ships were seized and their crews drowned. Violence quickly spread to Kent. He reported that a captain from Vlissingen was murdered in Sandwich, while two crewmen on a Dutch vessel were killed in Dover. Yet, despite these flashpoints, Dutch ships had already become indispensable to English trade. Indeed, they handled much of the overseas commerce of the kingdom’s ports, even after the Cautionary Towns were sold back in 1616. This provoked a commercial rivalry that would, decades later, initiate the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–54).
Even before the Treaty of London had been signed, most people had already moved on. By 1605, when a Catholic conspiracy formed to take over the English state – the ‘gunpowder plot’ – direct legal trade with the Spanish empire had dramatically expanded. Our records show that Kent itself redirected its large grain surplus abroad, much of it to Catholic southern Europe. The county’s own larger ships were joined by those from London and the east coast of England, as well as Scotland, which converged on its ports to be loaded with wheat. Thence they sailed to regions of Portugal, Spain and Italy that had suffered persistent shortages of food and periodic famines for a number of years.
With peace then, England – now fast becoming Britain – indeed ‘went global’ to some degree. The East India Company was founded in c1600. In 1607, a small fort was built in the Americas that would become Jamestown, Virginia. It was the first successful English settlement in the New World. Yet these were small beginnings. Relationships across the Narrow Seas remained crucial: whether via treaties with European powers or the resolute actions of maritime communities and their small ships.
Dr Robert Blackmore is a research fellow at the University of Southampton, currently working on the Janus Foundation-funded project: Kent’s Maritime Communities and their European Neighbours, c1450-c1650, together with Canterbury Christ Church University
This article was first published in the September 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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