Drake’s map of his attack on Cádiz.


Elizabeth I of England and Philip II of Spain formally went to war in 1585, ensuring that Spain had an enemy that could only be decisively defeated at sea. Spain could deploy significant naval strength before, as in the conquest of Portugal in 1580 and then in 1582–83 off the Azores, in which an opposing French fleet was defeated at Ponta Delgada in 1582. The Spanish fleets used a combination of galleons and galleys, but the planned invasion of England was of a totally new order of magnitude for Spain and for Atlantic expeditions, and its scale and ambition helped mark a major extension in naval operations. It was postponed because of the English spoiling attack under Sir Francis Drake on the key Spanish naval base at Cadiz. The lack of reconnaissance capabilities made surprise attacks possible. Borough, the more cautious Vice-Admiral, complained that Drake had conducted his command in an autocratic fashion, which led to Drake placing him under arrest.

In February and March 1587, fresh intelligence reached Walsingham about the extent of the Armada preparations. The first report came from Hans Frederick, a merchant from Danzig, who counted three hundred ‘sail of shipping stayed in south Spain’. At Lisbon ‘they have taken up all the victuals in every ship that comes out of Holland or the [Baltic nations], both bacon and beef, butter and cheese and whatsoever else. They encourage all strangers, affirming that the Catholics will yield up [England] unto the king without bloodshed.’ The second was submitted by a Portuguese citizen in Nantes in France, who had a kinsman involved in provisioning the Spanish fleet. The report spoke of four hundred ships and fifty galleys docked in and around Lisbon, with seventy-four thousand soldiers being recruited or mustered in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Flanders. The provisions already accumulated included 184,557 quintals of biscuit, 23,000 quintals of bacon, 23,000 butts of wine, 11,000 quintals of beef and 43,000 quintals of hard cheese.

In England, nerves were becoming frayed. In January, there was a false report of Spanish forces landing in Milford Haven in Wales, and the following month there were rumours of ‘foreign preparations’ for an attack on the Isle of Wight. During the summer, a gentleman reported a fleet of one hundred and twenty ships off the Scilly Isles and the Privy Council ordered an alert in the West Country ‘with as little bruit [rumour] and trouble to the people that shall be occupied in harvest’.

The Tudor administrative machine creakily moved up a gear in preparation for war with much scurrying about by hard-pressed officials. In February and March alone, a census was taken of all available civilian ships that could be pressed into the queen’s service. She herself examined a list of almost two hundred captains regarded as ‘fit for service’. Calculations were made on how much powder, lead and match should be sent to the counties bordering the English Channel ‘at the rate of one pound (0.45 kg) each sort per man for six days’ and what artillery was available for these vulnerable areas. The stores of dusty old armour and weapons in the armouries of the Tower of London, Woolwich, Greenwich, Hampton Court and Windsor were carefully inventoried. Possible landing places on the Hampshire coast from Portsmouth to Bournemouth were surveyed and the cost estimated of arming and provisioning twenty-four of the queen’s ships, together with their 6,200 crewmen.

It was obvious that England could not afford to remain dangerously supine, waiting meekly like a sacrificial lamb for an easy slaughter by the invading Armada. John Hawkins, now Treasurer of the Navy, wrote to Walsingham on 1 February calling for a naval reconnaissance expedition of six warships to Spain which could impede progress in Spanish preparations for war by imposing a blockade.

Having of long time seen the malicious practices of the papists . . . to alter the government of this realm and bring it to papistry and consequently to servitude, poverty and slavery, I have good will . . . to do . . . something as I could have credit to impeach their purpose.

If we stand at this point in a mammering [hesitation] and at a stay, we consume [burn in a fire] and our commonwealth utterly decays . . .

Therefore, in my mind, our profit and best assurance is to seek our peace by a determined and resolute war, which in doubt would be both less charge, more assurance of safety and would best discern our friends from our foes . . . abroad and at home and satisfy the people generally throughout the whole realm.

Sir Francis Drake also argued vociferously for urgent action, maintaining that a pre-emptive strike on the Spanish fleet was vital to buy time for the defences of the realm to be strengthened both on land and sea. Walsingham, Leicester and the Lord High Admiral, Howard of Effingham, supported his plans for an immediate, decisive blow. Drake should be sent with a squadron of warships, ostensibly to support Dom Antonio, the claimant to the usurped Portuguese crown, but in reality, to destroy as much enemy shipping as he could or, at worst, disrupt the invasion plans to win England the precious commodity of time. Sir Walter Raleigh, if later reports by a Spanish spy are to be believed, was a covert but strident opponent of the plan.

After much characteristic havering, Elizabeth grudgingly agreed to Drake’s mission on 25 March, but would only allow four of her own warships – Elizabeth Bonaventure, Golden Lion, Dreadnought and Rainbow – and two fifty-ton pinnaces, Spy and Makeshift, to take part. This decision was not driven by her natural frugality alone; the queen was understandably wary of risking too many of her precious ships, her first line of defence, on such a dangerous venture.

The remainder of Drake’s fleet of twenty-five vessels would be fitted out and paid for by nineteen London merchants as a speculative venture in the fond hope of rich pickings in plunder. The eager sponsors scenting profit from this venture included grocers, drapers, fishmongers, haberdashers and skinners. Drake’s agreement with these ‘Merchant Adventurers’, signed three days later, laid down that ‘whatsoever commodity in goods, money, treasure, merchandise or other benefit . . . shall happen to be taken by all or any of the aforesaid ships or their company either by land or sea, shall be equally proportioned, man for man and ton for ton, [and will] be divided at sea . . . as soon as wind and weather will permit’. Some may define such an enterprise as an act of war. But there was no hiding behind the lawyer’s formal turn of phrase; it was legalised pillage in the queen’s name.

The striking force included three ships owned by the Levant Company of London, displacing almost 500 tons each, and seven lesser vessels of up to 200 tons. The rest were smaller ships of lighter draught, to be deployed for reconnaissance, conveying messages or undertaking shallow water operations close to shore.

Elizabeth’s government took immense pains to conceal the preparations for the naval expedition. Its purpose was kept secret from all but its most senior officers and the southern English ports were temporarily closed to prevent word of Drake’s mission leaking out. Afterwards, the Spanish claimed that:

so much cunning was employed that even Secretary Walsingham refrained from sending hither [Paris] a dispatch from his mistress [Elizabeth] so that the courier might not say anything about it.

Inevitably (and belatedly) the Spanish heard rumours of the fleet’s departure. One of their agents talked to a French merchant in Rouen, who had arrived the previous day from England. He provided somewhat inflated estimates of its order of battle to the ambassador in Paris:

Captain Drake left the Thames with forty well-armed ships, five belonging to the queen, of 800 or 900 tons each and carrying five thousand men.

The merchant saw the fleet pass before Rye [in Sussex] on the way to Falmouth where they are to join forty or fifty more . . .

The rumour was that this fleet was going to encounter the [West] Indian flotilla.

We are astonished at the great diligence and secrecy with which this fleet has been equipped, for up to the moment, not a word of it has reached us here.

Drake put into Plymouth for a week to collect the ships assembled there and to provision his fleet. Speed was of the essence, as he had justifiable fears that his assault on Spain could be halted by fresh orders from London before it had even sailed. His flag captain, Thomas Fenner in Dreadnought, told Walsingham that Drake ‘does all he can to hasten the service and sticks at no charge to further the same and lays out a great store of money to soldiers and mariners to stir up their minds’.

The admiral was signally unperturbed by the embarrassingly large-scale desertion by his sailors on the very eve of his departure, blaming subversion by those at Elizabeth’s court who opposed his operation. ‘We all think [this was caused] by some practice of some adversaries to the action by letters written. They are mostly mariners. We have soldiers in their place,’ he assured Walsingham. Stocked up with food, water and munitions, Drake departed Plymouth on 12 April, his 600-ton flagship, Elizabeth Bonaventure, leading out the fleet. He penned a typically flamboyant, swashbuckling letter to Walsingham at the very last minute:

Let me beseech your honour to hold a good opinion not only of myself but of all these servitors in this action…

The wind commands me away.

Our ships are under sail.

God grant we may so live in His fear as the enemy may have cause to say that God fights for Her Majesty as well abroad as at home. Haste!

Out in the south-west approaches to the English Channel, Drake encountered two vessels from Lyme Regis in Dorset, who readily agreed to join the expedition, making his fleet twenty-seven strong. They sighted the Spanish coast of Galicia on 15 April, but forty-eight hours later were struck by five days of violent storms off Finisterre which dispersed the fleet and sank the pinnace Martigo.

Elizabeth meanwhile was having second thoughts about the wisdom of Drake’s adventure. Reports reached her that preparations for the Spanish invasion were slowing down and Andreas de Loo, an envoy from the Duke of Parma, arrived with tempting promises of peace. Nine days after Drake had left Plymouth, she sent new and urgent instructions, dispatched by a fast pinnace. These ordered him to:

forbear to enter forcibly into any of [King Philip’s] ports or havens, or to offer violence to any of his towns or shipping within harbours or to do any act of hostility upon the land.

And yet . . . her pleasure is that . . . you should do your best endeavour to get into your possession (avoiding as much . . . effusion of Christian blood) such shipping of the said king’s . . . as you shall find at sea, either going from thence to the East or West Indies or returning from the said Indies to Spain and such as shall fall into your hands, to bring them into this realm.

No warlike activity allowed then, but privateering, or more accurately, piracy, was still perfectly acceptable to a queen always worried about the paucity of cash in her coffers.

The pinnace, delayed by the same storms that scattered Drake’s ships, never caught up with him. Perhaps the crew did not try too hard: sometime during the voyage they captured a ship which yielded£5,000 in prize money when they arrived back in Plymouth.

Walsingham wrote to Sir Edward Stafford, Elizabeth’s ambassador in Paris, informing him of the sudden change in orders issued to Drake. Stafford (whose stepmother was Mary Boleyn, the queen’s late aunt) enjoyed a spendthrift lifestyle, including accumulating substantial gambling debts through unwisely playing cards with the French king’s brother, François, Duke of Alençon. His consequent financial problems had forced him in January 1587 to traitorously approach Bernardino de Mendoza, his Spanish opposite number, offering his services to Spain for hard cash. He was willing to supply any intelligence, short of that which might jeopardise the life of his queen. Mendoza, delighted with this espionage coup, may have assigned him the codename ‘Julio’. Walsingham thoroughly mistrusted Stafford, even sending one of his agents, Thomas Rogers (alias Nicholas Berden), the previous year, to monitor the ambassador’s untoward relationship with the exiled English Catholics in France. Elizabeth’s spymaster may therefore have used him as an unwitting conduit to feed information, false or otherwise, to the Spanish. After his mistress’s mercurial change of heart, it was imperative to emphasise that England was not bent on attacking the Spanish mainland. He informed Stafford: ‘There is a new order sent unto Sir Francis Drake to take a milder course, for that he was before particularly directed to distress the ships within the havens themselves.’

From bitter experience, Drake understood very well that no fleet could operate effectively without adequate stores of food, water and ammunition. Therefore, instead of striking at heavily defended Lisbon, where the Armada ships were mobilising, he planned to attack the main supply base at Cadiz in Andalusia. Two Dutch merchantmen, which he had intercepted, had reported a large concentration of Armada provision ships there and this information confirmed his choice of target. Cadiz, reputedly the oldest inhabited city in Europe, stands on a narrow humpbacked peninsula at the mouth of the River Guadalquivir, which provides shipping with safe shelter from the Atlantic weather and tides. Because of reefs and shifting sandbanks, there was only one entrance channel for large ships and this had to pass under the guns on the city walls.

At around four in the afternoon of Wednesday 29 April, a council of war was held in Elizabeth Bonaventure as a brisk south-westerly breeze filled the fleet’s canvas sails. William Borough, Drake’s veteran vice-admiral and the commander of the queen’s ship Golden Lion, privately and forcibly argued against an immediate attack on the Spanish. Drake would have none of it – ‘Action this day’ was ever his motto. ‘That is my opinion,’ he declared to his captains, ‘though there are some would have us stay until morning. We shall not stay at all.’

Drake’s fleet arrived outside Cadiz about one hour before sunset. His ships were under strict orders to fly no flags until the very last moment to confuse the lookouts positioned on the walls and atop the masts of the ships inside the harbour. It was a typical warm spring evening and its inhabitants were taking their leisure. The central square was packed with spectators watching an athletic tumbler turn his acrobatic tricks. Nearby, others roared with laughter at a bawdy comedy performed by some itinerant actors in the open air. Then word spread slowly through the crowds that a line of ships was approaching the harbour entrance. What was the nationality of these mystery vessels? Were they friend or foe?

The first English cannon shots booming across the bay provided the definitive answer.

In Drake’s words, written soon afterwards, he sighted ‘thirty-two great ships of exceeding great burden [displacement] loaded . . . with provisions and prepared to furnish the king’s navy, intended with all speed against England’. Another account reported sixty ships, of which twenty were French, who immediately hoisted sail and fled, as did six Dutch hulks. The English ships fell upon the helpless anchored vessels like the wolf on the fold.

The first defensive shots were fired from eight oar-propelled galleys, commanded by Don Pedro de Acuña, which had providently arrived from a patrol near Gibraltar a few days before. Inside the panic-stricken city, the mayor ordered women and children to take refuge within Matagorda Castle, but its captain slammed shut the fortress gates in their faces and twenty-seven were suffocated or pressed to death in the crush.65 The galleys, although highly manoeuvrable in the calm waters in the lee of the peninsula, were no match for Drake’s heavily armed warships. Two were badly damaged66 in a failed attempt to lure the English ships on to sandbanks off the eastern shore and their commander was forced to retreat to St Mary’s Port, four miles (6.44 km) to the north, which was protected by a network of treacherous shoals that required the local knowledge of a pilot for safe entry.

At nine that night Francisco de Benito de Maiora, in St Mary Port, wrote to officials in Seville reporting that:

about four of the clock, we heard a great noise of ordnance in the bay and saw many sails of ships . . .

Within two hours, there came hither the Galliota which brought ten men very sore hurt.

The people of this town are in arms. There are in the bay two or three ships set on fire but what they are we know not. This is all that we can yet learn.

Over the next two days, Drake’s sailors set ablaze the supply vessels, while under constant fire from ‘thundering shot’ from the shore batteries and from the galleys when they sallied out in attack. Drake sank a Genoese ‘argosy’ or merchantman loaded with a cargo of logwood, hides, wool and cochineal destined for Italy, and also captured four provision ships. The vessel displaced about 1,000 tons, was armed with thirty-six brass guns, and was ‘very richly laden’.

The following morning, Drake took advantage of the flood tide to lead a flotilla of pinnaces and frigates (supported by the London ship, Merchant Royal, commanded by Robert Flick), to cut out and sink a 1,500-ton galleon owned by Santa Cruz that was moored in the inner harbour of Cadiz. The ship, valued at 18,000 ducats, was burned to the waterline.

The arrival of Don Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, Seventh Duke of Medina Sidonia, leading six-thousand hurriedly mustered local militia, deterred any English landing on the inner harbour. Artillery batteries were wheeled into position along the shoreline – but their subsequent fire only managed to damage the English vice-flagship Golden Lion. Borough warped the ship out of harm’s way and then fought off an assault from the marauding galleys. Although that manoeuvre saved the ship, he was later to face charges of desertion and cowardice levelled by Drake.

That night, the Spanish used some of the smaller vessels in the harbour as fireships to float out on the tide, but these were towed away by the English sailors and harmlessly beached in shallow waters.

One of the admiral’s volunteer ‘gentleman adventurers’ estimated that twenty-eight barques had been burned, totalling 13,000 tons:

We continually fired their ships as the flood [tide] came in . . . the sight of the terrible fires were to us very pleasant and mitigated the burden of our continual travail [from enemy fire]. We were busy for two nights and one day in discharging, firing and [un]loading of provisions.

Drake’s ships were restocked with Spanish provisions: wine, oil, biscuit and dried fruits, while around 500 tons of bread were set alight, along with 400 tons of wheat. One important coup was the destruction of a year’s supply of iron hoops and wooden staves for making barrels. This alone was later to prove a tactical disaster for the Armada; food and water had to be stored in unseasoned, leaky casks that depleted water supplies and quickly rotted the food stored within.

Official Spanish estimates of their losses totalled twenty-four ships, valued at 172,000 ducats or more than £750,000 (£137,000,000 at current prices). Philip, in Madrid, was horrified when he read the news from Cadiz. With typical understatement, he noted: ‘The loss was not very great but the daring of the attempt was very great indeed.’

All this was achieved with remarkably few casualties: the master gunner of the Golden Lion suffered a broken leg smashed by a cannon shot fired from the town’s fortifications. The volunteer soldier commented:

It may seem strange or rather miraculous that so great an exploit should be performed with so small [a] loss, the place to damage us so convenient and their force so great . . . from whom were shot at us at the least two hundred culverin and cannon shot.

But in all this . . . our actions, though dangerously attempted [were] yet happily performed. Our good God has and daily does make his power manifest to all papists and His name by us His servants continually honoured.

A brief truce offered by Don Pedro de Acuña, commander of the galley squadron, allowed the exchange of prisoners. Drake’s captives were swapped for Englishmen amongst the galley slaves and a five-man prize crew that had been captured in the course of the first night’s fighting. The courtly Spaniard sent his barge with chivalrous gifts of wine and ‘sucket’ – a type of sweetmeat – during this break in hostilities.72 Drake had interrogated one Spanish sailor who boasted that the Armada now numbered more than two hundred warships. Bravado and swagger were second nature to Drake and he easily brushed aside such Spanish bluster. Shrugging his shoulders, he replied: ‘No es mucho’ – ‘That’s not a lot’.

Then the English ships sailed off westwards, leaving behind them confusion (today we would call it ‘shock and awe’) and a welter of panic-stricken messages dispatched post haste around Spain and Portugal warning of the danger that Drake still posed. Medina Sidonia also sent a ship to the West Indies ordering the treasure fleet to stay in Havana, Cuba, until he was known to be safely back in England.