Imperial Spain Versus the Dutch: 1621-1639

Before the Battle of the Downs by Reinier Nooms, circa 1639, depicting the Dutch blockade off the English coast, the vessel shown is the Aemilia, Tromp’s flagship.

The battle of the downs, by willem van de velde

Before the truce expired, the Spanish had to figure out a way to recover and then fight off the Dutch. Don Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares, thought he knew how. Spain was, like France, not a natural naval power and her most fearsome force was the army and not the navy. The Netherlands could be isolated by the army in Flanders, Olivares believed, its coast blockaded, its trade cut in the Channel by Spanish privateers and its economy ruined before the Spanish invaded its coastline.

Spain had to spread its limited naval forces thinly across the world to protect endless sea lanes and her sprawling empire from Dutch, French or English attack. The main Spanish fleet was the Armada del Mar Oceano, or Atlantic Fleet, created to defend the all important sea lanes across the Atlantic. Without the silver of New Spain (Mexico), Spain’s finances, and with them her ability to wage war, would collapse. By the early 1620s, following a belated construction programme begun in 1617, this fleet numbered 46 vessels. The main naval base, Cadiz, housed 23 vessels and another 18 galleons were stationed at Gibraltar.The Spanish had spent 2.6 million ducats on building some 24 galleons. By 1638, Spanish naval power had never been more impressive.

Truce or not, the Dutch had rounded the Cape of the Horn (Tierra del Fuego) in May 1615 with six warships under Admiral Joris van Speilbergen and routed, with the loss of two Spanish vessels, Admiral Rodrigo de Mendoza’s Armada del Mar Sur (Southern Pacific Fleet). Fleeing into Callao, Mendoza left the intrepid Dutch to plunder much of the Pacific coast of Spanish America.To prevent similar disasters in the Atlantic, the Spanish rebuilt their Convoy Fleet (Armada de la Guardia) specifically to protect the annual silver fleets (Flotas) that sailed from Vera Cruz via Havanna to Cadiz with Mexican silver. The Windward Fleet (Armada de Barlovento) was created under Admiral Fadrique de Toledo and stationed at Havana or Cadiz, depending on need, to clear out the pirates that infested the West Indies and threatened Spanish lines of communications. Yet demands linked to another war with France, which broke out in 1635, depleted both forces. These were still essentially defensive measures that left the Dutch free to grow ever stronger based on their near monopoly on trade with the Baltic. Without the timber from this trade, the Dutch ships would rot; without its naval stores (tar, pitch, rope and hemp), the Dutch Navy would deteriorate; and without Polish grain, its inhabitants would starve. Olivares therefore laid plans in 1626 to cooperate with Poland to build up a joint fleet, with bases either at Riga or Danzig, to prey on Dutch shipping. Plans for a naval base at Weimar or Stralsund were plotted until 1630, when Sweden’s entry into the Thirty Years’ War put paid to these plans.
Olivares was a bold global strategist who was willing to gamble for high stakes. If the Dutch western connection through the Channel could be cut, it would ruin them as much as if their Baltic lifeline were severed. In 1621, Olivares allocated 20,000 ducats to the improvement of Dunkirk and the building of 20 galleons there. The plan was to have 40 galleons at Dunkirk by January 1636. This was possible since the Spanish shipyards, despite shortages of money and skilled labour, were building 50 vessels per year during the 1620s and 1630s. Operating from Dunkirk, Spanish privateers took a heavy and steady toll on Dutch shipping and on the North Sea fisheries, hitting the Dutch in their pockets – their most vulnerable point.

The Downs 1638: Spain’s Final Gamble
By 1638, the Dutch – isolated and hopelessly divided – seemed ripe for the plucking. Olivares planned to crush the Dutch in a pincer between Cardinal Infante’s regulars in Belgium, advancing north of the Meuse-Rhine, and an amphibious landing on the Holland coast. Using Dunkirk as a base for this invasion fleet, the Spanish would send 20,000 men in specially built barges with blunt ends, shallow draughts, 12 guns and a capacity to carry 150 musketeers. Orders were issued for the already overstretched yards to begin mass producing the landing barges. Through their agents, the Dutch soon learnt what Olivares was planning and they laid siege to Dunkirk – the lynchpin of all the Count-Duke’s schemes for total victory. Olivares’ plan may have been bold but it was overly dependent on that single Channel port and it overestimated Spain’s sea power. Both errors were to prove fatal.

Battle of the Downs 1638
This most important of sea battles signalled the ascendancy of the Dutch as the world’s greatest naval power, yet it has often been overlooked. Dutch Admiral Maarten Tromp managed, despite overwhelming odds, to defeat the Spanish fleet off the French coast. Admiral de Oquendo fled with his ships for the dubious safety of Spain’s former enemy, England, at the Downs. After waiting for reinforcements, and realizing that the Spanish would not come out to give battle, Tromp attacked on 21 October. Firing quick rounds and coming in close for a kill, his crews trusted in their audacity against an inexperienced enemy. The Spanish ships were raked with shot, and Tromp then unleashed his fireships with devastating results.The Santa Theresa, flagship of Admiral de Hoces, exploded, taking both the admiral and his crew to the bottom of the sea. Oquendo managed to escape with the remains of his fleet and delivered some, though not all, of the promised troops to the Cardinal-Infante’s army in Flanders.

In July 1639, Olivares concentrated the largest Armada since 1588 under the command of Admiral Antonio de Oquendo. This was a far from ideal choice since the Dutch had worsted him back in 1631 and he was up against an old sea dog, the Lieutenant Admiral of Holland, Maarten Tromp. Tromp had crushed the Spanish at Gravelines in 1588, and he now proceeded to blockade Dunkirk.

Again Olivares’ plans were on a grand scale. Oquendo’s great Armada would sweep up the Channel, defeat the Dutch Navy, relieve Dunkirk and prepare the way for an invasion of Holland. A fleet of 24 galleons assembled at Cadiz under Oquendo, while 63 vessels gathered under Vice Admiral Lope de Hoces at Corunna. A total of 30 transports (including 7 hired English ships) were to carry 8500 troops to Flanders. This Armada was numerically smaller than the one in 1588 (in both ships and men). But the Spanish had learnt the bitter lessons of that tragic year: their galleons had proper gunports, trained crews well able to use their guns and, above all, plenty of artillery. The galleons were faster, better equipped and more heavily gunned than in any previous Spanish fleet. Oquendo set sail on 6 September.

Dutch cruisers spotted this vast Armada of 77 warships and 55 transports just off Selsey Bill in the western approaches of the Channel.The signal was given to prepare for battle.Tromp had only 17 vessels but did not hesitate to attack. The Spanish Armada held good order, waiting to fire until the Dutch were close enough. With superior numbers and a favourable wind, Oquendo was sure he would win. The Spanish fought with customary fervour and at the mouth of the Somme managed to surround the Dutch. However, a number of Spanish ships, including Oquendo’s flagship Santiago, were badly damaged by Dutch fire. Conscious that his fleet’s first priority was to protect the Spanish troops, Oquendo signalled his captains to retreat.The fleet sailed northwards and took refuge at the anchorage of the Downs on the English coast.

Though theoretically neutral, the pro-Dutch English played extremely reluctant hosts to their guests, who were charged through the nose for supplies. The hesitant and self-doubting Oquendo meanwhile agonized over whether to remain while his ships were repaired – giving the Dutch time to grow stronger – or to make a run for Dunkirk.Tromp made better use of his time. Dutch naval reinforcements, both warships and armed merchantmen, were pouring in and when he had more than 100 vessels, Tromp decided to attack. He detached 30 ships under Admiral Witte de With to keep Admiral Sir John Penington’s hovering English fleet at bay, and on 21 October gave the signal to attack.

A descending fog gave Tromp’s battle line, sailing bow to stern, good cover as it came upon the enemy, taking the Spanish by surprise. The Dutch had small, compact warships but good artillery and crews to handle the guns. Generally, the Dutch relied on aggressive close-quarter fighting, sometimes boarding, and the liberal, deadly use of fireships. Given the Spanish superiority in weight, in the height of ships’ sides, in artillery and, above all, in armed crews, Tromp decided to keep a prudent distance. He had 96 warships and 12 fireships. His own flagship, Aemelia, had a mere 46 guns. Like sheep in a pen, the Spanish vessels huddled around Oquendo’s Santiago and the Portuguese flagship Santa Theresa as the Dutch sea wolves bore down. The thick fog made it difficult to distinguish friend from foe and many a Spanish ship fired into the massed ranks of their own fleet.The Dutch moved closer, firing at close range and raking the crowded Spanish decks with deadly shot.The Santiago was so riddled with shot that it looked, the Dutch joked, like a colander.

Tromp now played his ace. Against a disorganized and unnerved enemy whose commander had lost control over his large fleet, the Dutch unleashed the dreaded fireships. These wreaked havoc within the tightly massed ranks of the enemy. Among their victims was the Santa Theresa, which caught fire and blew up with all men on board, including Admiral Hoces.

Oquendo fled with whatever ships he could muster, including the Santiago, to the Belgian coast. It was Spain’s last throw of the dice and the gamble had failed. Spain’s once mighty navy was a shadow of its former self and the Dutch, thanks to Tromp and his intrepid Dutchmen, now ruled the waves.

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