THE SAN MATEO AT THE BATTLE OF THE AZORES, 1582
The battle fought off the Azores in 1582 was probably the first major naval engagement in history to be fought out of sight of land. When Spain conquered Portugal in 1580, the only portion of the Portuguese overseas empire to resist the Spanish was the Azores. In 1580 the French crown sent a fleet under the command of the mercenary Admiral Filipo Strozzi to help defend the islands. This action resulted in the Spanish sending their own fleet to the Azores, under the command of the veteran Captain-General Don Alvaro de Bazan, Marquis of Santa Cruz. The two fleets met some 18 miles south of the island of Sao Miguel on 26 July (the battle is sometimes named after the island’s port, Punta Delgada). Strozzi had 40 warships at his disposal, and Bazan 21. In addition, each fleet contained a squadron of transports.
The typical galleon had a bowsprit, a foremast, a mainmast and a mizzen mast, and favoured a largely square-rigged sail plan. The largest galleons (of over 800 toneladas burden) often carried a second mizzen mast aft of the first, called a bonaventure mizzen. The bowsprit carried a square spritsail, while the foremast and mainmast both carried three square sails (main, topsail and royal). The mizzen carried a lateen sail, as did the bonaventure if one was fitted. Although styles changed, these basic characteristics continued to define the Spanish galleon until the mid-17th century.
The biggest change over time was in size. By 1570 galleons of 500 tons were commonplace, and by the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the crown was able to commandeer three ‘great’ Portuguese galleons of around 1,000 toneladas burden, as well as eight of approximately 800 toneladas.
Galleons that formed the Armada de la Guardia were usually seconded from the Spanish home fleet, which from 1580 became known as the Armada del Mar Oceano (Atlantic Fleet). Formed around the galleons of the Squadron of Portugal (the main striking force of the Spanish fleet), the Armada del Mar Oceano evolved into a permanent navy during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Apart from its Portuguese core, it usually comprised three or more squadrons, based in Seville and Cadiz, La Coruna and Santander, and in Lisbon.
Philip II significantly expanded his power when, in 1580, he annexed Portugal. As well as its overseas empire, he gained control of the major Atlantic port of Lisbon and the small but powerful Portuguese fleet. In response, England and France provided unofficial naval support to the pretender to the Portuguese throne in his attempt to hold the islands of the Azores. But in 1582 Spain demonstrated its growing strength at sea when a fleet under Philip’s most experienced naval commander, Don Alvaro de Bazan, 1st Marquis of Santa Cruz, routed the rebel fleet and its French and English auxiliaries at the Battle of Sao Miguel, and in the following year captured the rebel base at Terceira.
Although no English ships had been captured, Philip felt that the victory at São Miguel demonstrated that Elizabeth’s sailors could be defeated, and for the first time began seriously to contemplate an invasion of England. The task of devising a plan and preparing a fleet was entrusted to Santa Cruz. The latter, foreseeing the difficulties involved, reacted cautiously, demanding a massive naval force to carry out the undertaking.
The bulk of the ships comprising the Armada – even its first-line squadrons – were not purpose-built fighting ships. Only the galleons of the Portuguese Squadron and to a lesser extent those of Castile, together with the four galleasses of Naples, can really be described as such. The rest were commandeered merchant ships and grain carriers, whose effectiveness was variable. In general terms, the majority of the warships that served with the Armada, whether galleons, or armed merchantmen, were mostly of the type known as naos, which, while similar in tonnage to many of their opponents, appeared larger because of their high superstructures. This factor also made them less manoeuvrable and responsive than both the queen’s ships and many of the auxiliary craft with Howard, many of which were built as privateers.
The most effective of the English vessels were the ‘race-built’ galleons, which were either built as such from scratch or remodelled and formed the bulk of the queen’s ships. The term ‘race-built’, does not, as occasionally thought, refer to their speed and manoeuvrability, but to their lower superstructures and clean hull design, which did indeed give them advantages of speed and seaworthiness over their opponents, and equally importantly, made them highly effective floating gun platforms. For it was the firepower of the opposing fleets, and the tactics they employed, which would prove to be the decisive factor.
It is often said that Spanish tactics consisted of trying to close with their opponents, then grapple, board, and overwhelm them with the large numbers of soldiers most of the Armada ships carried. The English, on the other hand, are said to have stood off and battered their opponents with cannon from a distance. While there is an element of truth in this, the actual situation was more complex.
The Spaniards indeed hoped to employ the tactics summarised above, but as witnessed during the fighting in the Azores, they could also employ artillery as their primary weapon. Indeed, before the Spaniards set out, they were aware of the likely tactics the English would employ against them; and that they, too, might have to rely on their guns to force a decision.
But it was in gunnery, as well as manoeuvrability, that the English had the edge on the Spaniards. There have been many attempts to assess the relative merits of the guns carried by the antagonists: the table below summarises the main ordnance of the opposing fleets.
In general terms, both fleets employed the same types of ordnance. On balance, many of the English guns were of better quality, which together with superior handling techniques, gave their gunners a distinct advantage.
There is often some confusion about the exact ranges of the different guns. Measurement of this was often expressed in terms of ‘paces’, but there was some variation in exactly what this represented. The most likely definition is the equivalent of about 1 yard (slightly less than 1 metre).
The guns employed in the campaign can be divided into two broad categories: heavy muzzle-loading ship smashers, and small, breech-loading anti-personnel weapons.
A significant factor was the English numerical advantage in demi-culverins, which were the longest-ranged pieces on either side. In practice, however, as the English recognised after the initial engagements, they were only really effective as ship-smashers at a range of under 400 yards. As a result, English tactics trod a fine line between getting near enough to the enemy to inflict serious damage, while at the same time avoiding coming close enough to be grappled and boarded. In this, their manoeuvrability gave them a clear edge over most vessels of the Armada.
But the English possessed another advantage, which proved decisive. Spanish guns were mounted on old two-wheeled gun carriages, which were usually lashed to the side of the ship to absorb recoil. It was difficult to manhandle inboard for reloading, and often resulted in a gunner having to reload ‘outboard’, awkwardly straddling the barrel and exposed to enemy fire. Spanish ships carried fewer trained gunners than their English counterparts, and while the gunners loaded and sighted each piece, the actual gun-handling was carried out by soldiers. The outcome was a painfully slow rate of fire, often amounting to no more than one shot per gun per hour, once the initial, previously loaded, broadside had been fired. English guns, however, were mounted on four-wheeled carriages secured by ropes and pulleys, which allowed them to be drawn inboard for reloading. With more gunners and better-trained crews, the outcome was a much faster rate of fire than the Spaniards: perhaps three or four shots per hour.
In terms of commanders, neither Medina Sidonia nor Howard had great experience at sea, both being appointed, at least partly, from social considerations. Both, however, proved ready to listen to advice from more seasoned subordinates. And while veteran sea dogs such as Drake and Frobisher spring readily to mind, the Armada could also boast seasoned commanders, like Recalde, Bertendona, and Oquendo. The English captains, however, had the advantage of detailed knowledge of the waters in which the campaign would be fought.
Although, overall, the English ships were crewed by seamen more experienced than their opponents in the ways of the North Atlantic and the waters surrounding Britain, a high proportion of Spanish seamen had sailed the Atlantic to the Indies or the Newfoundland fisheries: in the event, only those with little experience of northern waters – and of course, raw recruits, would be at a serious disadvantage.