Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada; the Apothecaries painting, sometimes attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. A stylised depiction of key elements of the Armada story: the alarm beacons, Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury, and the sea battle at Gravelines.

Admiral Sir Francis Drake, commander of the English Armada

In our march towards Lisbon, the King and the Prince of Portugal . . . looked for the nobility and chief of the country to come . . . But none came, save only . . . poor peasants without stockings or shoes and one gentlewoman who presented the king with a basket of cherries.

William Fenner to Anthony Bacon, Plymouth, 1589.

After the Armada’s humiliating retreat, Queen Elizabeth was haunted by two worrying and pressing issues. Firstly, the Spanish fleet was far from vanquished. Her spies suggested it could return to threaten England’s shores once again, with Parma’s undefeated veterans in Flanders still available as a formidable invading army. Next time, assuming the Spanish high command could learn from their disastrous mistakes, the land and naval forces might link up successfully. Secondly, Elizabeth’s exchequer was uncommonly and uncomfortably bare. Her continuing paucity of cash threatened to jeopardise not only the defence of her realm but also her continued payments to the Dutch for the war against the Spanish in the Netherlands and to Spain’s enemies in France. Lord Treasurer Burghley had been driven to distraction to find the money to confront the Armada and was forced to borrow at exorbitant, if not punitive, interest rates, including arranging a £30,000 loan from the City of London in July 1588. There was a real danger that the sweet savour of victory could soon be transformed into the sour taste of defeat in all the queen had striven for at home and overseas.

The queen’s regular annual income amounted to £250,000 and Parliamentary subsidies had brought in £215,000 in 1585–8. Additional contingency funding totalling £245,000 had been drawn from the exchequer’s £300,000 reserves – her ‘chested treasure’ – accumulated through Burghley’s far-sighted management of her budget over the previous decade. This money had disappeared at an alarming rate. Elizabeth’s financial support to the Dutch rebels had totalled more than £400,000 over the last three years, despite cynical attempts to economise by only part-paying her seven thousand troops based in the Low Countries. After deducting the £167,000 cost of defence against the Spanish threat, by early October 1588 there was just £55,000 left in the exchequer. Even at peacetime rates of spending, this would barely last eight months.

It would take time to collect any new income voted to her by Parliament and her ministers were increasingly worried by mounting popular resistance to new taxation. Burghley had warned Walsingham in July of ‘a general murmur of the people and malcontented people will increase . . . the comfort of the enemy’. Notwithstanding these fears, the counties were instructed to impose an enforced loan on the gentry totalling about £50,000 in December, and in February 1589 the merchant adventurer William Milward was sent to Germany to arrange a huge credit of £100,000. He was ordered to disguise the identity of the debtor (lest the lenders be tempted to demand exorbitant interest rates) and, under no circumstances, to agree to anything higher than 10 per cent. But his mission proved fruitless: no one would advance him a penny, not even the Fuggers, who had lent money so willingly to the queen’s father, Henry VIII, almost five decades before. Elizabeth was therefore forced to adopt what she called the ‘vicious policy’ of selling off her properties – an anathema to a Tudor monarch, forever rapacious for wealth and always conscious of status.

Throughout those worrying days, Burghley may have reminded her how Henry had bankrupted England by his runaway expenditure on wars with France and Scotland in the 1540s, leaving himself with no option but to debase the coinage, generating rampant inflation and wreaking havoc with the economy of the realm for more than a decade afterwards. That fiscal policy could not be repeated.

Given all these bleak financial realities, it is unsurprising that Elizabeth was enthused by a new strategy that could resolve both her monetary and defence quandaries at a stroke. Sir John Hawkins and Walsingham had long been its advocates, and even the cautious Burghley was now an eager supporter. It was simple, relatively safe and, with its successful conclusion, the queen could enjoy the satisfaction of revenge on Philip of Spain.

By attacking Philip’s annual convoy carrying silver bullion from the New World colonies to Cadiz, Elizabeth stood to reap several million pounds’ worth of plundered ingots, which would fall like ripe plums into her welcoming and thankful exchequer. Moreover, this sequestering of the king’s revenues would leave him unable to meet the cost of a new Armada, fund his armies in Flanders and subsidise the Catholic League in France. Who knows? The threat, real or implied, of repeated interdiction of his treasure fleets, or the loss of even part of one shipment, might coerce Philip to sue for peace so that Elizabeth’s cripplingly expensive war could at last be ended.

There was just one snag, as there always is with any simple plan offering alluring benefits.

The queen’s ships, after being at sea on active service for up to eight months, required refurbishment, a process that would take many weeks to complete. When the time required to sail to the Azores to intercept the treasure fleet was factored into the operational planning, it became obvious the English vessels would arrive on station too late to seize the ponderous Spanish ships. Quite literally, Elizabeth had missed the boat. And her financial and defence imperatives dictated that she did not have the luxury of waiting until the 1589 bullion convoy crossed the Atlantic from Havana in Cuba.

All was not lost, though. On 19 September, Sir John Norris proposed a modified plan with three objectives. First, English ships should attack any Armada vessels under repair in the northern Spanish ports. Second, an English army, supported by the queen’s ships, should capture Lisbon and set Dom Antonio, the Portuguese pretender, on the throne. Third, the fleet and its troops should sail on to the Azores and capture the islands, which would allow plenty of time before the Spanish treasure fleet was due to arrive there.

Sir Francis Drake was a fervent supporter of Norris’s strategy and both men – these ‘warriors of the Lord’ – were comforted by the corporate opinion of a group of London Puritan ministers, who after protracted and tedious disputation, decided that there was no incongruity in restoring a Catholic pretender to the Portuguese throne if it would grievously damage God’s greater enemy, Philip II of Spain.

Elizabeth, in her fiscally embarrassed state, could not fund the expedition and was anyway distracted by the expense of having to hastily organise the defences of Ireland to round up the Spanish shipwreck survivors. So it was decided to follow the example of Drake’s financially successful raid on Cadiz and make it a private enterprise operation, with the queen providing only £20,000 towards the costs. Backers in the City of London and other ‘adventurers’ would provide funding of £43,000 and pay the operating costs of six ‘second-class’ queen’s ships (Revenge, Nonpareil, Dreadnought, Swiftsure, Foresight, Aid) and two pinnaces (Advice and Merlin), as well as providing armed merchantmen. Her commissioners would raise eight thousand troops and one thousand pioneers for the army. Half the soldiers would be volunteers and the rest would be armed only with swords and daggers to save money. Elizabeth would supply two captured Spanish prizes, ten siege cannon and six field guns, together with twenty lasts of gunpowder and tools for the pioneers. The Dutch rebels would be asked to contribute four thousand harquebusiers and to provide the weapons for the troops: a thousand halberds, three thousand muskets, four thousand calivers, two thousand breastplates, six siege guns and forty lasts of powder. Food and other provisions, enough for four months, would also be supplied from Holland. The Dutch contribution would amount to £10,000 in kind. It looked, initially at least, a cut-price invasion.

The queen did not demur even when Norris asked for £5,000 in advance, promising that they would not ask for the remainder until the full £43,000 of private cash was raised. On 11 October at Westminster, she issued a commission to Drake and Norris, granting them authority for the ‘whole charge and direction’ of the enterprise; allowing them to choose their officers and levy troops ‘to invade and destroy the powers and forces of all such persons as have this last year, with their hostile powers and armadas, sought and attempted the invasion of the realm of England’. They also obtained royal permission for any person to volunteer for the expedition.

It had taken just over three weeks for the plan to be formulated, discussed and approved – an astonishing achievement, given Elizabeth’s habitual procrastination and havering. Was she being uncharacteristically bold – or was she desperate to find some solution to her worries?

In Paris, Mendoza was quick to pick up rumours of the expedition. One of his spies in London, Manuel de Andrada, codenamed ‘David’, was a handily placed member of Dom Antonio’s household. His reports led the ambassador to believe there were plans ‘of sending forty or fifty sail’ to assist the pretender, ‘but no preparations to that effect are visible’. Two weeks later, Mendoza was convinced that the pretender would sail for Portugal, but considered this merely a diversionary tactic, as the real target was the Azores: ‘Fifty ships [are] being fitted out [and] are now being hurried forward furiously. A great number of bullocks have been slaughtered to provision them. Most of them are being fitted out by private persons in the hope of gain, as they see that the many ships that go out to pillage come back laden with booty.’ In early November, he reported Elizabeth’s tart riposte when she heard that the Spanish king was repairing and reinforcing his fleet: ‘I will give Philip plenty to do before he can repair damages or turn round [the ships].’

Parma had begun to besiege Bergen-op-Zoom on 12 September and on 20 October. Norris, who had taken across an extra 1,500 English troops to help relieve the town, laid the plans before the rebel Dutch Council of States. Two months later, they agreed to most of the English requests for the expedition. They would provide ten warships for five months, plus 1,500 infantry, and Norris would be allowed to purchase weapons, armour, ammunition and provisions free of any tax or customs duty.

The paramount need for the expedition was underlined by intelligence that around forty Armada ships remained at Santander and another twelve at San Sebastián. There were few sailors to man these warships and repairs were proceeding slowly because of a shortage of dockyard workers. The soldiers were in winter quarters 20 miles (32.19 km) inland. Walsingham warned Stafford in Paris that Elizabeth was determined ‘to use advantage of the late victory . . . by keeping the King of Spain unable to redress and set up [again] the like forces to the disquiet of his neighbours’. Therefore Stafford should urge Henri III to ban all exports of cereals and naval stores from France. The German Hansa merchants were also warned that their ships would be stopped on the high seas and if their cargoes were found to be provisions or munitions destined for Spain, these would be seized.

In February 1589, the queen issued orders to Drake and Norris, emphasising that their mission had two overriding objectives: ‘the one to distress the King of Spain’s ships, the other to win possession of the islands of Azores thereby to intercept the convoys of treasure that yearly pass that way to and from the West and East Indies’. Only after the destruction of the surviving Armada ships could they move on to restore Dom Antonio to the Portuguese throne. But this phase carried the stern proviso that ‘nothing can be attempted without very great hazard’ should local Spanish forces prove too strong. If popular support for the pretender was overwhelming, the English army should stay long enough merely to ensure that Dom Antonio’s frontiers with Spain were protected and the English army’s costs of the operation repaid by the new king. Her orders could not have been clearer or more insistent.

Elizabeth demanded that Drake and Norris swore solemn oaths, promising to obey these operational priorities. If they failed to fulfil their vows, they fully acknowledged they would be ‘reputed as traitors’. The queen must have suffered nagging doubts that Drake would resort to his old tricks and become distracted by the prospects of lucrative plunder. She decided to send a ‘trusty servant of her own’, Anthony Ashley, one of the clerks of the Privy Council, to be her ‘eyes and ears’ on the expedition. He was granted authority ‘for the observation of their actions and for writing of their common letters . . . and to assist them with good counsel and advice’. He was also told to ‘keep a true journal in writing of all public actions and proceedings’.

Many of the discharged soldiers were swept up in this new call to arms against Spain. Other recruits were found among the much-despised vagabonds, ‘the scum and dregs’ of English society, and the Privy Council noted with alarm the ‘ragged condition and debauched condition’ of many volunteers. The Spanish spy codenamed ‘David’ reported they were recruited ‘under the impression that they have only to land and load themselves with gold and silver . . . They also say that they have been promised by Dom Antonio the sack of all towns which do not submit to him and that when they enter Castile they shall sack every place and carry war with blood and fire through the country.’

War is not always such fun. Some recruits were seriously wounded during training when they fired gunpowder contaminated by ‘small hailshot’ either put in the mix by ‘the lewdness of those who sold the same [to make it heavier] or by other negligence’. In Southampton, justices and ‘other gentlemen dwelling near the sea coast’ were instructed to issue proclamations to enrol all ‘mariners and fishermen to the end there may be a good choice had of apt and sufficient men for her majesty’s service’.

Periods of national crisis often throw up the more eccentric among us. John Trew wrote to the queen in December offering his services for ‘her preservation and salvation . . . Though an old man, I desire to be employed in the wars.’ Like those unfortunates who, in later centuries, scurry between newspaper offices carrying tattered brown paper packages containing incontrovertible evidence of a world secretly governed by aliens, Trew’s fixation soon became apparent in his letter: ‘I have an invention which would do as much service as five thousand men in times of extremity and also an engine which can be driven before men to defend them from the shot of the enemy,’ he boasted. Like others of his ilk, his offer was politely declined and we shall never know whether John Trew was the earliest inventor of the main battle tank.

Predictably the expedition’s plans soon went awry and the costs began to climb, rendering the original budget set by the commanders hopelessly inadequate. Promises were not kept. There was no siege train of artillery. No Dutch warships ever hove into sight. Around half of the military stores which Norris bought in the Netherlands never arrived. No cavalry came from the Low Countries and only twelve experienced infantry companies were sent over from Flanders – 1,800 trained men rather than the 3,500 expected. The Minion of Fowey, laden with biscuit, beef and beer, sank within Dover harbour during a storm, but was later raised. There were too few ships to transport what had become a 19,000-strong army gathering there in March 1589.

Then, over the horizon, sailed a rare piece of good fortune. Sixty Dutch flyboats displacing 150–200 tons each, passed through the Straits in ballast, en route for France to collect cargoes of sea salt. Drake immediately commandeered every one, citing the passports from Parma found in some of the vessels as justification for this act of war.

The fleet sailed on to Plymouth but were delayed there by ‘unusually stormy’ weather, with the ‘wind continuing contrary’. Finding provisions for the fleet proved increasingly problematic. William Hawkins, mayor of Plymouth, could not purchase more than twelve tons of oil ‘and by reason it is now seed time, we cannot both in peas and beans furnish above four hundred quarters’ [5,080.24 kg]. No more than two thousand new landed fish could be bought from the fishermen, but beef supplies were abundant and there was plenty of butter and cheese ‘which the country yielded readily’.

The expedition was turning into a financial disaster before it had even sailed. Stuck in harbour for longer than planned, they had no option but to raid the provisions earmarked for the voyage to feed the army as well as the four thousand sailors in the fleet. Drake and Norris had already spent in excess of £96,000 – 18 per cent more than their latest budget for the entire expedition. After the fleet was forced back to Plymouth by adverse winds on 17 April, Norris told Burghley the next day:

We are utterly unable to supply ourselves and, the voyage breaking, we cannot think what to do with the army.

Upon failing of the voyage, every man will call for pay from her majesty, being levied by her highness’s commission.

And if they have it not, the country will be utterly spoiled, robberies and outrages committed in every place, the arms and furnitures lost, beside the dishonour of the matter.

Burghley saw through this piece of thinly disguised blackmail, but the project had progressed too far to pull back now. The Council authorised the mayor of Plymouth to victual the fleet for one month more. The sum of £10,000 was to be sent down in carts from London and a further £4,000 supplied by Cornwall and Somerset tax collectors. In the event, there were economies imposed by sleight of hand: fish and peas were substituted for beef, and there were no supplies of beer, saving nearly £7,000 in the cost of provisions. Moreover, the final cost to the exchequer of this latest contribution was £11,000 rather than the £14,000 promised, as not all the money left London.


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