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Books: The Seasick Admiral

4 minute read

THE ARMADA (443 pp.)—Garreft Mattingly—Houghton, Miffin ($6).

Before the 130-odd ships that were the core of the Spanish Armada had been provisioned, searched for contraband women, and set creaking out of Lisbon harbor in May of 1588, one of the captains assessed the expedition’s chances; unless a miracle occurred, the English could be expected to knock the Spanish to pieces. “So,” he finished with heavy irony, “we are sailing against England in the hope of a miracle.”

The Armada’s plan for the assault was to sail from Lisbon to Dunkirk, pick up the Duke of Parma’s powerful army, toughened by the Low Country wars, and invade England. But, astoundingly, no provision had been made for getting the army aboard the Armada’s vessels. The Duke of Parma had no deep-water port, and Spain’s fighting ships could not get within miles of Dunkirk’s beach. Parma had only a few rotting barges to bridge the distance. But as things turned out, the Duke never had his chance to drown because the Armada, intercepted by the British, never got near Dunkirk. This monumental snafu is typical of one of history’s most inept naval campaigns.

Fresh & Incalculable. Author Mattingly, professor of European history at Columbia University, begins his account with the execution of Mary Stuart, Roman Catholic Queen of Scotland, in February 1587. Partly as a result, Spain’s King Philip II, known as “the Prudent,” abandoned prudence long enough to let himself be talked into a campaign designed to cut Protestant Elizabeth down to size. The project, tersely referred to as The Enterprise, was hastily begun. From the start, nothing went right with armaments, provisions, recruiting, and 3½ months be fore the Armada was to sail, its aged admiral died. King Philip unaccountably replaced him with the Duke of Medina Sidonia who objected miserably that “I know by experience of the little I have been at sea that I am always seasick and always catch cold.”

On July 29 the Armada was reported off Plymouth,* and Sir Francis Drake cockily went on with his game of bowls, supposedly boasted that he had time to finish and beat the Spaniards too. Of the running sea fight that began next day, Historian Mattingly observes: “No naval campaign in previous history, and none afterward until the advent of the aircraft carrier, involved so many fresh and incalculable factors.”

Out of Luck & Ammunition. The Spaniards and British had about 200 vessels between them, and no one really knew how to maneuver such numbers of warships, nor had anyone foreseen the length of the running battle (nine days) and the amount of ammunition needed. Another unpredictable-factor was the newly designed British ships, smaller and faster than the traditional men-of-war; with them, the British hoped to abandon the old tactics of close fighting and grappling, instead intended to stand off and demolish the Spanish ships with long guns. This plan did not work; gunnery was so imprecise that no captain knew whether a given culverin would dismast his enemy, drop its ball a quarter-mile short, or explode and wreck his own ship.

Finally, at Calais, and later off Gravelines to the north, the Spaniards ran out of luck, and more precisely, out of cannon balls. Beaten, although for the most part still seaworthy, Medina Sidonia’s fleet had no choice but to make the long run home, around Scotland and Ireland. Many ships broke up in violent squalls or split open on rocks along the Irish coast, and the natives grimly knocked out some Spaniards’ brains as the men lay exhausted on the beaches. Few lived, despite legend, says Mattingly, to seed the Celts with dark skins and black eyes. Weeks later Medina Sidonia brought the remaining two-thirds of his fighting strength home. It was an impressive achievement, but history has given him little praise.

Writes Historian Mattingly at the end of his clear and perceptive account: “Historians agree that the defeat of the Spanish Armada was one of the Decisive Battles of the World, but there is much less agreement as to what it decided.” Certainly not the war between Spain and England; that dragged on for nearly 14 years and ended in a draw. Nor did it cut down the Spanish colonial empire. What the defeat did accomplish, Mattingly argues, was to halt the spread of the Counter Reformation and provide the English with a handy legend of victory. “It raised men’s hearts in dark hours, and led them to say to one another, ‘What we have done once, we can do again.’ ”

* July 19 by the Old Style calendar still used by the English at the time. Mattingly gives all dates according to the Gregorian calendar.

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