by Heather R. Darsie
It was 29 June 1588. The Spanish Armada sailing in its customary crescent shape was spotted off the coast of Cornwall. After many years of waiting, the time had finally come: Spain was invading England to reclaim the country for Catholicism.
It is possible that Philip II, former brother-in-law to Elizabeth I previous suitor, began planning the invasion as early as 1584. What is certain is that Philip was amassing a fleet of ships in June 1585. At the time, Spain was experiencing a grain shortage. Through a temporary truce, Elizabeth and Philio agreed to let English merchant ships enter the Bay of Biscay to deliver grain. One such ship, the Primrose, was laden with over 100 tons of grain. In early June 1585, the Primrose’s cargo was being discharged onto the Spanish land via smaller ships shuttling back and forth between the Primrose and the area around Portugalete, Spain.
In the afternoon of 5 June 1585, a small vessel carrying what appeared to be seven Spanish merchants approached the Primrose and asked to come aboard. The Spanish were heartily welcomed aboard the Primrose, and treated to the best nautical hospitality possible. The Spanish merchants’ discussion was predictable. They asked about prices of goods, cargo. Discussed ships. At one point, one of the Spanish merchants inquired after the Primrose’s guns and munitions, and how they could be purchased. Suddenly, three or four of the merchants quickly left the Primrose. The lingering Spaniards left in due course. The whole interaction seemed suspicious to the English, who were then on guard.
The Spanish returned around 6:00 PM that evening with multiple dozens of men. Once the Primrose was even with one of the Spanish ships, a Spanish delegation boarded the Primrose. Soon after, the rest of the Spaniards scurried up the side of the English ship, intent on seizing it. Without hesitation, the English fought back. One Spaniard shouted, “Yield yourself, for you are the King’s prisoner!” before lunging at one of the English sailors. The English fought back with whatever they could get their hands on.
One of the more devilish defenses used by the English caught the Spanish completely by surprise. The Spanish had padded their doublets, but gave no thought to their hose or anything much below the waist. As the Spanish walked over hatch gratings, musket bullets boomed up from below and right into the Spaniards. They were not prepared for that sort of musket attack, and it was devastating.
The English managed to escape, but not without four prisoners. Upon returning to London a couple weeks later, the prisoners were interrogated. One of them was the Governor of Biscay, who led the attack. Found in the pocket of his hose was an order from Philip was a commission to assault and take control over the English grain fleet. The reason? According to the commission, it was because Philip needed as many ships as he could collect for the humongous armada he was assembling in Seville and Lisbon. He would also need soldiers, armaments, galley slaves, and provisions.
Later, when the threat of the Spanish Armada became more real, Elizabeth sent Sir Francis Drake in the Elizabeth Bonaventure to impeach the purpose of the Spanish fleet and stop their meeting at Lisbon. Wasting no time, Drake and his men set sale for C’diz on 12 April 1587. Elizabeth changed her mind a couple days later and send a ship after the Elizabeth Bonaventure to order Drake not to take military action. Of course, the Elizabeth Bonaventure was not truly meant to be caught, and so Drake operated under Elizabeth’s initial instructions.
Before arriving at C’diz, Drake revealed to his officers that there was no genuine plan of attack. The time was right for the English to strike. It was the afternoon of 29 April 1587, and Drake was confident that the English could successfully take the Spanish by surprise. He was right.
The English swiftly entered the narrow C’diz harbor and charged into the Spanish galleys deployed to greet the English attackers. Drake and his ships fired first, swiftly, and without preceding ceremony. The Spanish galleys, large ships better suited to calm Mediterranean winds and hand-to-hand combat, could not be defended against the faster, smaller English galleons. It was a massacre.
Triumphant, Drake returned home to England, but not before intercepting a Spanish treasure ship and claiming its goods for Elizabeth.
Of course enraged by the incident at C’diz, Philip redoubled his efforts to create a massive armada to attack the English. By April 1588, the Spanish Armada was ready to sail. After false starts due to weather, the great fleet of warships was on its way to England.
On 29 July 1588, a portion of the Spanish Armada was spotted off the Lizard in southwestern Cornwall. Drake and Lord Admiral Howard, then stationed at Plymouth with Elizabeth I’s navy, were duly informed. The intimidating Spanish ships waited, sails and rigging set for the ships to move. They were waiting for the other part of the fleet that had been blown off course to arrive. To make matters worse, the tide was coming in and the wind blowing southwest, which left the English ships trapped in Plymouth Harbor.
Once word reached Elizabeth, she moved to St. James’s Palace for her own safety. The palace was built in the early 1530s by her father Henry VIII for her mother Anne Boleyn. Some of the fireplaces are still decorated with intertwined Hs and As. It was there, in the Chapel Royal with a ceiling decorated by Holbein, that Elizabeth prayed to God for the safety and deliverance of England.
Want to read more of Heather’s writing – check out her website at: Maidens and Manuscripts
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