Challenges to the Spanish monopoly in America until 1585 (II)


The Anglo-Spanish struggle 1585–1603

In May 1585 the Spanish government seized northern shipping, including English merchantmen, in Spanish ports. The intention was almost certainly not to start a war with England, but the event came as an unusually convenient pretext for an English government which had already decided to take fateful steps towards war with Spain. England sent a small army to the Netherlands to stem Parma’s offensive. At sea an English fleet of privateers and two of the Queen’s ships sailed to the West Indies under Francis Drake. It carried 2,300 soldiers and early in 1586 took and ransomed Santo Domingo and Cartagena, two of the most important Spanish cities in the region. Spanish vulnerability was demonstrated and the threat against the supply of silver damaged Spanish credit in Europe.

During 1586, Philip II decided to make a decisive strike against his enemies in north-western Europe. A successful invasion of England would destroy the base of attacks against his empire and stop foreign support to the Dutch. As Philip also became involved in the renewed French civil war, it began to look like a gigantic effort to create Spanish hegemony in Western Europe. The old man in the Escorial might have believed that he only defended his inheritance and the traditional religion, but, for his enemies, he looked like a contender for a universal Christian empire.

This was the background to the drama that unfolded at sea during 1587/88. Philip II and his admiral Santa Cruz began to concentrate a great fleet in Lisbon, his new Atlantic naval base. During the spring and early summer of 1587 an English fleet under Drake made a cruise to the Iberian coast, attacked Cadiz and destroyed or captured 24 ships, some of them large. It later captured a large and richly-laden Portuguese ship from the East Indies. At Cadiz, the English fleet was attacked by galleys which were repulsed with greater ease than in earlier actions during the sixteenth century. The attack delayed the Spanish preparations as they had to search for Drake’s fleet and protect the Atlantic convoys with their own. Plans to send it to the Channel during 1587 had finally to be cancelled. In early 1588 Santa Cruz died and the Duke of Medina Sidonia was appointed as his successor. Like many other events connected with 1588 this appointment, perfectly natural in its own time, has raised much controversy. Medina Sidonia was an able administrator who coordinated the final preparations of the fleet in an efficient way and his hesitation to sail may have been based on good judgement rather than lack of self-confidence. For good reasons he doubted if he had the right instrument for the planned operation in the Channel.

The Portuguese navy was the nucleus of the great Armada, but most of it was mobilised in the traditional Spanish way, with armed merchantmen hired from Castile’s Biscay provinces and from Andalucia, Italy, Ragusa and Venice. From Philip’s kingdom of Naples came four large galleasses and a late decision to cancel the westbound Tierra Firme convoy in 1588 made the Castilian galleons available. The total force included 20 sailing warships (galeones) with a total displacement of around 12,000 tonnes, 47 armed merchantmen (naos) of around 32,000 tonnes, four galleasses (possibly around 1,000 tonnes each), four galleys, 21 transports (urcas) and 31 small vessels for scouting and dispatch-carrying, nearly all smaller than 100 tonnes. The fighting ships in the Armada had a total displacement of around 50,000 tonnes. The three largest of the galeones were of around 1,000 tonnes, but, among the armed merchantmen, there were no less than 11 with a displacement of around 1,000–1,200 tonnes. There were about 8,000 seamen, 19,000 soldiers and 2,000 oarsmen on the fleet when it left Lisbon in May 1588.

This huge fleet, known to posterity as the Invincible Armada, is usually regarded as the greatest sailing fleet ever assembled in Europe up to then. This is possible, although we know too little about the French Channel fleet of 1545 to be certain. The English had commissioned 23 major royal warships of about 250 to 1,500 tonnes displacement, a total of about 18,000 tonnes, ten minor royal warships, one galley and no less than 192 private vessels. However, most of the latter were small and far from all took part in the fighting. Thirty private ships had a displacement of (probably) around 300 to 600 tonnes (total around 11,000 tonnes) and may be regarded as front-line warships. About 30 others were of around 200 to 250 tonnes displacement (total around 7,000 tonnes) while the majority of the private ships were of little importance. The fleet may have had around 16,000 men, of which only 1,500 were soldiers, although these figures are uncertain.

The purpose-built royal warships represented a much larger part of the English fighting power than on the Spanish side and some of the private English ships were real warships, built for privateering. The gun armament of the two contending fleets gave the English a marked quantitative advantage and this seems to have been increased by a qualitative advantage in gun-handling and in the ability of the ships to manoeuvre into a favourable position for a gun-fight.  The Spanish fleet could only win a battle if it came to close combat and boarding and, with inferior armament and a fleet of slow and unweatherly merchantmen, it could not force the English to such a battle. Medina Sidonia did not act as if he intended to defeat the English fleet in a major battle to gain command of the sea. His strategy was based on the idea that the Armada should sail through the Channel to its narrowest part. There it would protect the transport of an invasion army of elite solders from the Army of Flanders. The plan made sense if it was based on the assumption that English gunnery was not numerous and efficient enough to sink or disable a substantial number of his huge fleet where the sheer size of the ships enabled them to survive a number of hits. Losses might be expected, but, if they could be kept within acceptable bounds the Armada might be successful.

Such an assumption was not unrealistic. The effect of English gunnery in 1588 was indeed not devastating although we will never know if the Armada really would have been able to protect an invasion flotilla in the open sea where the more manoeuvrable English ships probably would have concentrated their attacks on the transport vessels. But the problem was how these vessels should come out to the open sea. The Duke of Parma had created a large invasion flotilla in the Flanders ports, but the coast outside these ports was shallow and inaccessible for the large ships of the Armada . Light Spanish naval forces available in July 1588 were inferior to the light forces of the Dutch and English fleets which would have sunk or captured much of the invasion flotilla before it could reach the deep water where the Armada would have a chance to protect it. The enigma with the Spanish planning is why they brought with them only four galleys when they actually had at least 80 galleys available in the Mediterranean. The French had shown that it was possible to transfer a Mediterranean galley fleet to the Channel in 1512 and 1545, and galleys with heavy guns were the obvious answer to English and Dutch shallow-water forces.

The summer of 1588 seems to have been unusually stormy and the Armada was seriously delayed by heavy weather. The four galleys actually never reached the Channel. The fleet finally entered the Channel on 20/30 July (Julian/Gregorian calendars). The English fleet was divided. Most of it was in Plymouth, guarding the entrance of the Channel, while a smaller force was in the Narrows, guarding Parma’s invasion flotilla in company with the Dutch. The English, under the command of the Lord Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, with the privateering veterans Francis Drake, John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher as sub-commanders, easily gained the wind from the Spanish and followed the Armada when it proceeded east along the English coast. From a distance they attacked the Spanish fleet with gunfire but, with the exception of two ships which suffered accidents, Spanish losses were small. The main effect of the English shadowing of the Spanish fleet was that it made it impossible for it to make a landing on the English coast or anchor in the protected water inside the Isle of Wight.

On 27 July/6 August, the Spanish fleet anchored on the open roadstead off Calais and the English western fleet joined the squadron in the Narrows. Nothing had happened to solve the problem of how Parma’s invasion army would pass the sand-banks guarded by light Dutch ships. The alternative, that the Armada might land its own army, could not be executed in the presence of an undefeated English fleet which effectively might interfere with such a landing or defeat the Spanish ships if the soldiers were landed. Both lack of light forces and inferiority in gunpower had doomed the enterprise to failure. No explanation for this failure other than Philip II’s wishful thinking has ever been found – no Spanish admiral or general had assured him that the plan was feasible.

Failure did not in itself mean catastrophe. That phase began on the night of 29 July/8 August when the English made a fireship attack on the Armada. The Spanish ships cut their cables and escaped (except one galleass which ran aground), but in that process many ships sailed far to leeward and the fleet lost its earlier cohesion. Medina Sidonia was able to form a defensive line with several of the best ships but, with many of the troop-carrying Spanish ships in a leeward position, the English felt free to close for a fight with guns at decisive ranges. English gunnery proved superior. During the battle off Gravelines one Spanish merchantman sank, two galleons ran ashore and were lost and other Spanish ships suffered considerable damage.
The Spanish fleet was now in a critical situation. Ammunition and supplies were running out, ships were damaged and there was no friendly deep-water harbour in the North Sea or the Channel. To sail back through the Channel meant fighting both the English and the prevailing westerly winds, and the Spanish fleet had to make the long return journey to Spain northward around Scotland and Ireland. Many ships were damaged and 28 ships sank at sea or were wrecked on the coasts, often when trying to take on fresh water. The large Mediterranean merchantmen were particularly unsuited to Atlantic weather and suffered badly, eight of ten being lost. The losses of men were very high, although, in that respect, the English also suffered large losses in the months after the battle. Epidemic disease and bad logistics caused the death of thousands of seamen in a fleet where the losses in action were minimal.

The Armada campaign of 1588 has perhaps more than any other naval event become part of mainstream historiography. Maybe the battle of Salamis 480 BC is comparable and for the same reason: it was a decisive battle between a huge empire (Persia) and an upstart sea power (Athens). Fifteen eighty-eight has often been seen as a watershed – the year when Spanish expansion was changed into English and Dutch expansion. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this interpretation, although Spain did remain the strongest power in Europe for several decades. Spain was never more so close to hegemony in Europe and the Atlantic as in 1588 and a different outcome might have had far-reaching consequences in England, the Netherlands and France. After 1588 Philip II ordered the Army of Flanders to support the Catholic League in France with the predictable result that the Dutch in the 1590s were able to recover much lost territory. The support of the League proved to be without lasting result as Henry IV was able to gain control over France and end the civil wars.

The events in the Channel undoubtedly had a psychological effect as a blow to the Spanish reputation for invincibility, a reputation which seems to have misled Philip when he drew up the strategy before 1588. From a naval perspective the outcome was not sensational as it confirmed a century of technical, tactical and strategic change in warfare at sea, demonstrated in the Indian Ocean, in the Baltic and already in 1545 in the Channel. It revealed growing north-western technical superiority at sea and made it clear that modern technology had made it more difficult to invade a power which defended itself at sea. A century earlier an invading army required only sufficient transport capacity. Now it required a superior gun-armed fleet as well. For an island state like England this meant that national defence could be organised more cheaply around a fleet which could also be used for offensive operations at long distance.

The first English post-1588 attempt to carry out a seaborne offensive was not a success. A fleet under Drake with a strong army was sent to the Iberian peninsula. It had orders to attack the remaining Armada ships at Santander, to support Dom Antonio in his attempt to raise the Portuguese against Spain and if possible intercept the silver fleet at the Azores. Drake did not even sail to Santander and the Portuguese showed no interest in supporting the pretender. By 1590 it was clear that no side could win a decisive victory and that it had become a war of attrition between two coalitions, Philip II’s empire and the French Catholic League against the French king, England and the Dutch Republic. From a maritime point of view it was primarily an Anglo-Spanish war where the Channel, the Atlantic triangle and the Caribbean were the main theatres of operations. The English as before operated with a royal navy in co-operation with private investors in privateering and with small-scale privateers who acted independently. After the failure in 1589 the government did, however, take firmer control over the joint venture operations. Spain radically changed her naval policy after 1588 and built a large state-controlled navy, the largest battle fleet which had existed in Europe up to then. This fleet has received little attention from historians.

The Channel was controlled by the English fleet which could support limited English army interventions in northern France. These were of urgent importance for England as the Catholic League and Spain periodically were close to achieving full control over the French Channel coast. Neither of the two French sides in their civil war had a real navy, only small and improvised forces which supported military operations along the coast. 35 By 1595 the Spanish threat in the Channel was reduced although Brittany remained under pro-Spanish control until France and Spain concluded peace in 1598. The Dutch navy was as before mainly occupied in home waters.

In the Caribbean intense but usually small-scale trade warfare continued throughout the war. Primarily it was a war of attrition where Spain was forced to increase expenditure on convoys, fortifications and garrisons, while the English seldom gained the fabulous wealth they hoped for. The English privateers were normally operating with small ships and attacked only local trade, not the great convoys. An exception was the large squadron of royal warships and privateers which Drake and Hawkins led in 1595/96 – their last voyage as both died in the Caribbean. The fleet failed in its main purpose, attacks on San Juan on Puerto Rico and Panama. In 1598 a private fleet led by the Earl of Cumberland, one of the most important English investors in privateering, was able to take San Juan, but there was no possibility of keeping it permanently.

In the Atlantic triangle between the Azores, the Canary Islands and the Iberian peninsula the English began to implement a more systematic strategy where the Spanish silver fleets and the Portuguese East Indiamen were the main objective. Squadrons of English ships patrolled the Portuguese-Spanish coast or the waters around the Azores. An early attempt with a three-month cruise had already been made in 1586. Another attempt was made in the autumn of 1589 and during 1590 one squadron was sent to the Iberian coast and another to the Azores. In 1591 another squadron sent to the Azores was surprised by a superior Spanish force and one ship, Revenge, was taken in a famous fight. These English fleets took few prizes, but they delayed enemy shipping and silver shipments and forced them to sail during seasons with bad weather. The Caribbean convoys had to be protected by large fleets of warships, a system which proved efficient but expensive for Spain. The huge and richly laden Portuguese East India carracks were more vulnerable targets and a few were captured.

In June 1596 a considerable part of the English fleet, joined by a Dutch squadron of armed merchantmen launched a surprise attack on Cadiz. The fleet attacked and defeated a Spanish squadron in a battle where English gunnery seems to have been more destructive than in 1588. San Felipe, one of the largest warships in the world, and another large Spanish warship were destroyed and two large warships were taken. Later two Portuguese warships and 40 merchantmen, including a westbound Caribbean convoy with its rich cargo, were burnt to avoid capture. An army was landed and took Cadiz which was partly destroyed. The raid was executed with skill and must be seen as the apogee of English efficiency in maritime warfare in the pre-1650 period. It cast doubt on Spain’s ability to protect her trans-Atlantic trade and contributed to the financial crisis of 1596, but Queen Elizabeth was upset by the lack of booty for the royal treasury. Spain quickly organised a counterstroke with a large fleet which sailed to the Channel in the autumn. It was dispersed by gales and no fewer than 25 ships, mainly transports, were wrecked on the Spanish coast close to Ferrol.

In 1597, the English fleet attempted to take Ferrol where much of the Spanish fleet was based. When that failed owing to severe weather a large part of the English fleet went to the Azores where it again failed to take a silver fleet. In its absence, the Spanish fleet in Ferrol made a new autumn attack in the Channel. One hundred and thirty-six ships, most of them rather small, with crews of 4,000 seamen and 8,600 soldiers (less than half of the Armada of 1588) set sail for a surprise attack on Falmouth. This port, close to the tip of the Cornwall peninsula and close to Spanish-controlled Brittany, was to be made into a bridgehead to which further reinforcements would be sent in the following spring in order to establish Spanish power on both sides of the western entrance of the Channel. This time the Spanish reached the Channel undetected, only to be dispersed by another autumn gale. Twenty-eight ships were lost. The Spanish armadas of 1596/97 were attempted in defiance of the Atlantic climate. Not even in the twentieth century have invasions in the Channel been attempted in the autumn when the equinoctial gales are a normal phenomenon. Spain was, however, forced into this gamble as surprise offered the only chance of invading England successfully. The last attack was made only because the old and dying Philip II insisted on it.

The new king Philip III (r. 1598–1621), or his advisers, began to try new ideas. One was an embargo on Dutch shipping to Spanish ports. Up to then the Dutch had traded with their enemies, but Spain now began to wage a trade war on the Republic in the belief that the trade had been more profitable to the Dutch than to them. In retaliation, the Dutch sent a fleet to the Spanish and Portuguese coast in 1599. They searched for suitable forms of attack and finally divided their forces for attacks against Guinea and Brazil. It was the largest Dutch naval expedition up to then, but it ended in a failure due to disease. The Spanish fleet which was sent out to find the Dutch was again struck by a gale and suffered severe losses. The English, by now deeply committed against rebels in Ireland, feared that Spain planned a new invasion and mobilised the fleet. Actually, their intelligence reports had magnified a minor Spanish plan into a new Armada (The ‘Invisible’ Armada). Spain only intended to transfer six galleys to the Netherlands. It succeeded and for some years they showed that galleys had value as special forces in coastal waters. Spain also had plans against Ireland, although it took them a long time to assemble a force. When it sailed in September 1601 the English were on their way to defeating the rebels. Some of the Spanish ships were again forced back by heavy weather and the 3,400 Spanish soldiers that landed at Kinsale could not achieve anything. In early 1602 they surrendered on condition they were allowed to return to Spain.

In 1602 the English, assisted by the Dutch, decided to try to maintain a blockading fleet continuously on Portugal’s and Spain’s western coast in order to damage trade and check further offensive movements by the Spanish fleet. The blockade started in March and the fleet did not finally return until November, but there had been a break in the summer when a captured Portuguese East Indiaman was escorted to England. Only a limited number of ships could be on station at the same time and when they once sighted a convoy from the Caribbean they found that its escort was too strong for an attack. Nevertheless, the operation showed that the English had made progress in their ability to maintain a fleet in distant waters and early in 1603 they were preparing to repeat the operation. The death of Queen Elizabeth and the truce concluded by her successor James I made it unnecessary. England had, however, repeatedly shown that her fleet might cruise unhindered for long periods in the Atlantic triangle, a strategic area for Spain’s Atlantic policy and communications. Technically and logistically they had begun to master the problems inherent in long-distance deployments of battle fleets, but their fleet was too small to achieve supremacy outside home waters.

Unfortunately we know little about Spanish sea power in the period 1589–1603. There were great ambitions, but also great problems. There seems to have been technical difficulties with the ships, lack of seamen and logistical obstacles against the concentration of the large number of ships into an efficient battle fleet which could have defeated the English in the Atlantic triangle. The interaction of logistics, administration and strategy is unknown on the Spanish side. The failure to create a concentrated and mature battle fleet which could project Spanish power to north-western Europe and support Spanish policy in the Netherlands, northern France, England and Ireland is obvious. Spain could not protect her sea lines of communication to Northern Europe, nor seriously disturb the lines of communication of her northern enemies. As Spain had gained experience from the same war as England and the Netherlands, we must suspect that the Spanish institutional framework for learning, adaptation and change was deficient. But Spain had shown that she was able to defend her trade and the very important transfer of silver from America with such efficiency that English attacks against them became unprofitable. By 1603 both sides were ready to conclude peace. The first war in the Atlantic was at an end but another was soon to follow. It was a part of the first global war at sea.