The Greatest Naval Disaster in English History
“A profound and detailed study of enormous merit and scope about an historic event that has given rise to much controversy. As the author states in his illuminating epilogue, the success of the English expedition would have made it possible for the English and the Dutch to gain access to the Spanish crown’s territories in the Americas, but its failure enabled Spain to retain them. That is why it was an event of such importance. This engaging and easy-to-read work describes very compellingly a decisive episode of the period.” – José Cervera Pery, Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of History, Spain
“Essential reading for those who love history or who are professionally engaged in it. Using primary sources Gorrochategui Santos constructs and describes the operations, the rifts and the battles with accuracy in a format which is engaging and coherent. It will certainly make some people feel embarrassed as it returns to historical memory events that should not be concealed.” – Antonio Luis Gómez Beltrán, author of La Invencible y su leyenda negra (2013)
Elizabeth’s new court favourite was the red-haired Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, Leicester’s twenty-two-year-old stepson. This tall, handsome, vain and quarrelsome young man had first come to court four years earlier, burdened with the huge debts inherited from his imprudent father’s abortive attempts to subdue the Irish province of Ulster. The son’s wilful and extravagant lifestyle soon augmented his army of creditors. Faced with massive debts amounting to £23,000 (£70,000,000 at 2013 spending power), Essex became disenchanted with the fripperies of court life and decided to seek military glory (and profitable plunder) from the expedition to Spain and Portugal, both to brighten his aimless life and appease his twitchy creditors. Without the queen’s permission, he recklessly left St James’ Palace late on the afternoon of 13 April and headed off to the West Country.
He wrote to the Privy Council from Plymouth, itching to fight but seeking pardon ‘of her majesty’. He appealed to ‘your lordships to mediate . . . for me, [as] I was carried with this zeal so fast that I forgot those reverend forms which I should have used. Yet I had rather have had my heart cut out of my body than this zeal out of my heart.’ In another letter, he was frank about his need to earn some cash:
My debts [are] at the least two or three and twenty thousand pounds. Her majesty’s goodness has been so great as I could not ask more of her. [There is] no way left to repair myself but my own adventure which I had much rather undertake than offend her majesty with suits [requests for money] as I have done heretofore. If I speed well, I will adventure to be rich. If not, I will not see the end of my poverty.
Elizabeth was incensed at his unauthorised absence and concerned that his life would be endangered by this foreign military adventure. The next day she sent off his uncle, Sir Francis Knollys, to find Essex and bring him back to court like a naughty schoolboy truant.
It was too late. Essex sneaked on board Henry Noel’s Swiftsure and hid there until that evening, when she departed Plymouth. A panting and dishevelled Knollys was given use of a pinnace by Drake and Norris to pursue the errant favourite, but the vessel could not clear nearby Rame Head before the wind veered southerly and he was forced back into harbour.
The actions triggered by the queen’s infatuation with the unruly earl were fast assuming the comedy, chaos and confusion of a Keystone Cops’ chase. The Earl of Huntingdon was dispatched to Plymouth hard on Knollys’s heels with fresh commands from Elizabeth, so the expedition commanders sent Knollys off again in another pinnace. Unknown to all, the change in wind direction had forced Swiftsure back into port – at Falmouth, 60 miles (96.56 km) west of Plymouth – and there Essex remained for more than ten days, spending his time carousing with army officers, particularly ‘my faithful friend’ Sir Roger Williams, colonel general of the infantry. Drake told Burghley: ‘The matter of the Earl of Essex has been a great trouble to us but we have as yet been unable to discover him.’ Despite his blandishment, there seems little doubt that Drake colluded in his escapade.
The expedition finally sailed on 28 April 1589. It numbered around one hundred ships, formed into five squadrons, including eleven hired armed merchantmen, some of them veterans of the Armada campaign – Merchant Royal, Edward Bonaventure, Toby, Centurion, Golden Noble, Tiger and Vineyard. Essex was in Swiftsure when she departed Falmouth the same day.
Instead of making for Santander and the damaged Armada ships, Drake steered for Corunna, blaming contrary winds. Besides, in a strange echo of those phantom Hansa ships that unwittingly led him to the plunder of the Rosario, he and Norris claimed to have received reports of two hundred ships ‘of diverse nations at The Groyne [Corunna] and other ports of Galicia and Portugal with a store of munition, masts, cables and other provisions for the enemy’. As the queen rightly feared, the lure of plunder aplenty had distracted Drake from his agreed tactical objectives before a shot had even been fired.
The English fleet anchored a mile (1.61 km) off Corunna at three o’clock on the afternoon of 4 May. Their arrival took the Spanish completely by surprise. The new Venetian ambassador to Madrid, Tomaso Contarini, reported:
The [marqués of Seralva] governor of Galicia was attending to private matters. The courts were sitting. The soldiers had left their quarters and their arms and were scattered all over the country.
Everyone was so far from expecting an attack that they had no time to turn the useless out of the town or put their dearest possessions in safety.
[The governor’s] wife and daughter fled in their terror six miles [9.66 km] on foot.
The marqués did all that he was able and the troops performed their duty but the forces of the enemy, their sudden arrival, the weakness of the fortress and the want of proper munitions, place the city in danger of falling.
There was no sign of Drake’s two hundred ships. The only vessels within the quiet harbour were the battered San Juan, a 600-ton Flemish hulk, another ship loaded with pikes and firearms, and two oared galleys.
Despite the wet and stormy weather, seven thousand soldiers were landed within three hours on the narrow isthmus that connects Corunna to the mainland and their fire drove back the few enemy forces to shelter behind the walls of the lower or ‘base town’. Norris landed two demi-culverins on 5 May and opened fire on the two galleys (which promptly rowed off to the safety of Ferrol) and the San Juan, silencing her few remaining operational guns.
Another two thousand English soldiers landed before dawn on 6 May and attacked the lower suburbs of Corunna, swiftly winning control of the streets. The San Juan was set ablaze by the defenders and the two hulks abandoned to the English who set about looting the town. Many soldiers were soon lying insensible from drinking the copious supplies of wine they had ‘liberated’. The alcohol certainly did not help, but epidemics further decimated the troops, possibly caused by typhus picked up from ‘the old clothes and baggage of those which returned with the Duke of Medina Sidonia’, as Sir Roger Williams suggested. During the subsequent interrogation of prisoners, Norris and Drake heard there was a ‘good store of munitions and victuals’ within the upper part of Corunna. Rather than consuming their own stores, they decided on its capture. After a four-day siege of the upper city, they reported:
With great difficulty a little breach was made [in the walls] and at another, a mine which threw [down] a round tower near adjoining.
An assault was attempted but the gentlemen and leaders, very suddenly and valiantly mounting on top of the breach, some walls . . . overthrew those that went upon it and [the] fall buried such as were at the foot of it.
[This] unfortunate and unlooked for accident was the cause the town has not been entered and taken.
Conveniently forgetting the target of Santander, they determined to sail onwards to Lisbon, but this decision may have been influenced by their inability to stop the galleys re-supplying the garrison and the news that twelve more were on their way with substantial enemy reinforcements.
Although they failed to capture the citadel of Corunna, English raiding parties had been able to roam with impunity in the surrounding countryside, happily pillaging and looting. ‘Black Jack’ Norris defeated a hastily gathered 8,500-strong Spanish force of raw levies at Puente de Burgos, killing up to 1,500 of them before they fled. Returning in triumph with a captured Spanish royal standard as a trophy, he urged Burghley to persuade Elizabeth to send out more artillery, powder and munitions and thirty companies of trained soldiers from the Low Countries, ‘which would serve to continue this war here all this year which was a more safe and profitable course than to attend an enemy at home’.
Drake may have committed a cardinal tactical error in quitting Corunna so soon. The Spanish feared that, if he held the port, he could be reinforced and provisioned from England, enabling much more damaging punitive operations both inland and along the coast. The Venetian envoy observed:
The naval forces of Spain are not such as to allow them to face the enemy on the open sea.
Owing to the want of ships and men, they are extremely weak . . . From want of soldiers they have adopted a plan which may prove more hurtful than helpful. They have enrolled Portuguese and have so armed the very people whom they have cause to fear.
In London, the queen was greatly angered by the disobedience of the expedition commanders. After receiving news of the inconclusive action at Corunna – ‘a place of no importance and very hazardous in the attempt’ – she insisted they ‘had not performed that which they promised . . . They had two places where they should have done greater service in taking and burning the ships.’ When Thomas Windebank, one of the clerks of the signet, suggested that Drake and Norris would never do anything but ‘the best service for her majesty and her realm’, Elizabeth observed acerbically that ‘they went to places more for profit than for service’. She ordered them to attack the Armada shipping at Santander, which should be accomplished ‘before your return . . . you have [not] given us cause to be satisfied with you’.
It would be many days before Drake and Norris could taste the queen’s indignation, so the fleet sailed on for Lisbon, apparently in the mistaken, if not disingenuous, belief that the ‘better part of the king’s fleet’ was within that city’s harbour. The fleet, now joined by Essex in Swiftsure, landed a vanguard of two thousand troops at Peniche, 45 miles (74.4 km) north of Lisbon, on 26 May, beneath the walls of the castle.35 True to form, the earl was the first ashore, splashing through the surf, before he killed a Spaniard in hand-to-hand fighting – one of a force of five thousand stationed to oppose the landing on the cliffs above. An English soldier, Ralph Lane, described the skirmish that followed on a sandy plateau overlooking the beach:
The Earl of Essex and the colonel general [Sir Roger Williams] took their first landing . . . and made fight with the enemy almost two hours before the general could make land by reason of the huge billows and most dangerous rocks that split diverse of our boats and [cast] many of our men away in landing.
Very brave charges the enemy made and made two retreats and in the third were clean repulsed and quitted the field . . .
The earl lost a brave captain, a man of his own, Captain Pew, was slain by a push of the pike and some others of meaner account.
But the Spaniard did abide it even to the very pike.
Two days later Norris, with Essex in tow, marched off towards Lisbon at the head of six thousand men (the force heavily depleted by disease), arriving in the city’s western suburbs on 2 June. The siege was ineffectual. Norris had no artillery, little gunpowder and only small quantities of match, used for firing the infantry’s shoulder arms. Dom Antonio’s promises of a popular uprising in his support came to nothing. After desultory skirmishing and more casualties, the English broke away on 4 June, but only after Essex vented his frustration by sticking his pike into the city’s wooden gates and challenging all comers to personal combat to defend the honour of Elizabeth’s name. None of the defenders, observing this martial tantrum from the city walls above, decided to take up his kind offer.
Dom Antonio was scathing about the attempted invasion:
We disembarked at Peniche where the strong wines of the country increased the sickness of the men. When we arrived before Lisbon, there were not enough fit men to attack a boat and our host [army] was far more fit to die than to fight.
But he had nothing but praise for Drake and Norris or the fighting qualities of the English soldier – when he was not drunk or sick: ‘This I can assure you, that four thousand Englishmen are equal to eight thousand Spaniards and whenever I can embark with them I shall gladly do so, especially if Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake be amongst them for, by my faith, they are gallant gentlemen.’
Meanwhile, instead of supporting the English army by sailing up the River Tagus, Drake was amusing himself capturing sixty Hansa merchantmen which were heading into Lisbon with supplies for Spain.
Norris was forced to retreat along the estuary to Cascaes, troubled by intermittent cannon fire from Spanish galleys that ‘struck off a gentleman’s leg and killed the sergeant-major’s mule’ from under him as they passed the town of St Julian. In spite of the reverse at Lisbon, Sir Roger Williams still believed that Spain and Portugal were soft targets, bragging to Walsingham that with ‘12,000 footmen and 1,000 lancers, her majesty might march’ through the two countries ‘and dictate terms of peace’. He added contemptuously: ‘The Portuguese are the greatest cowards ever seen.’
A friar then reported that the enemy had followed them as far as St Julian and were boasting they had driven the English from the gates of Lisbon. Affronted by this slight on his honour, Norris immediately formally offered battle, under flag of truce and trumpet. Essex, not to be outdone in the chivalry stakes, offered to fight the best man the Spanish could offer, or, he could test their mettle, six against six, or ten to ten, or any other number they cared to name. The earl declared that he would be in the front rank of the English vanguard and could be easily identified, wearing a large plume of feathers in his morion and a red scarf on his left arm.
The next morning, there was only a deserted camp: the Spanish had gone.
It was the end of any military adventure for Essex. A few days later, a letter arrived from Elizabeth which left Drake and Norris in no doubt about what would happen if the earl was not returned to the safety of England immediately:
If Essex be now come into [your company], you will cause him to be safely sent hither forthwith. If you do not, you shall look to answer for the same to your smart, for these be no childish actions, nor matters wherein you are to deal by cunning devices to seek evasions as the custom of lawyers is. Therefore, consider well your doings.
Ashley, in his report home, adroitly observed that the landing at Corunna was ‘judged to have been the special hindrance of good success here, the enemy upon knowledge thereof having in the meanwhile assembled great strength for the city and defeated Dom Antonio by all possible means of any favour or aid in these parts’.
The English troops re-embarked and the fleet sailed out, intending at least to fulfil the expedition’s final objective: the occupation of the Azores. This now looked impossible, given the poor condition of the troops and their reduced numbers. Perhaps Drake hoped to snatch glory out of ignominy by repeating the success of his Cadiz raid and capture a face-saving Spanish ship or two. But after burning the city of Vigo on 29 June, his plans were stymied by a fierce storm. Revenge sprang a serious leak so he was forced to sail home, arriving on 10 July with ‘twenty or thirty ships’.
The expedition was a disaster. By 1 September, one hundred and two ships had returned, but of the 23,000 who had sailed with the fleet, only 3,722 were fit and well. The rest had been cut down by disease, and between 8,000 and 11,000 had died. In one ship, only 114 were left out of a crew of 300, and just eight were in a fit state to work the ship as she approached Plymouth.
After spending at least £100,000, none of the three objectives of the expedition was achieved. Parallels with the Armada’s fate were both ironic and mortifying. Beyond private loot, the plunder was limited to one hundred and fifty brass cannon captured at Corunna and £30,000 prize money for the cargoes in the Hansa ships captured by Drake. The German vessels had to be returned to their owners.
The Spanish spy codenamed ‘David’ reported that ‘Dom Antonio and his people arrived in Plymouth in a wretched state’ and that the Portuguese were now more unpopular in England than the Spaniards. ‘The English hold Dom Antonio in no respect whatever and the only name they can find for him and his people is “dog”. They openly insult [him] to his face without being punished.’
On 4 or 5 July, Essex arrived at Plymouth with seven ships and cravenly sent his brother Walter ahead to the queen to abjectly seek her pardon for his absconding.
Once again, an English army was discharged, largely without pay.
At the end of the month, ‘certain mariners and other lewd fellows’ gathered ‘in mutinous sort’ outside the Royal Exchange in the City of London, trying to sell illegally their weapons and armour. The lord mayor was ordered to apprehend them and ‘lay by the heels’ any that ‘persisted in any such tumultuous sort’. In this he failed signally, and ‘all the mariners and soldiers remained about the city in contemptuous behaviour’. On 16 August the Privy Council wrote to Lord Cobham about the ‘great disorders’ committed by soldiers from Sir Edward Norris’s and Anthony Wingfield’s companies in Maidstone, Kent, demanding that the miscreants be captured and gaoled. Night watches were set up to prevent soldiers from gathering because ‘some of late have offered violence to persons they met on the highway and have taken money by force’. In the end, these hard-done-by heroes were treated like vagrants and posted back to their home counties.
It was not only ordinary soldiers who suffered. In October, twenty-five army captains ‘having acquainted the [Privy Council] with their great charges in raising their companies and maintaining their offices before the voyage and since coming home, without any consideration [recompense], pray their lordships they may be employed in her majesty’s service’.
Elizabeth was also fearful about the diseases the unemployed rude soldiery might be spreading on their return to England. A proclamation of 22 July banned anyone who had served with the fleet to come ‘within the Court’s gates’ on pain of arrest by the queen’s knight marshal and committal to the Marshalsea prison without bail.
The private backers were also out of pocket. Thomas Cordell, one of the London merchants who invested in the enterprise, found, like his colleagues, ‘upon the sudden return of the generals and the army’ with a surfeit of provisions on their hands ‘to their great loss’. A sympathetic Privy Council wrote to Burghley seeking a licence for him and his partners to export 1,200 quarters (15,240.71 kg) of corn and 50 fothers of lead to Greece without customs charges as a reward for the ‘good disposition and forwardness they did show in making them provision at their own charges which, if the voyage had gone forward, might have served to good purpose’.
Despite the queen’s public admiration for Drake’s and Norris’s ‘valour and good conduct’, once the scale of the losses in men and money became apparent, the two men faced a court of inquiry into the expedition in October 1589. The queen declared that if Drake had ‘gone to Santander as he went to The Groyne, he [would have] done such service as never subject had done’.
With twelve sail of his ships he might have destroyed all the forces which the Spaniards had there, which was the whole strength of the country by sea.
There they did ride all unrigged and their ordnance on the shore and some twenty men only in a ship to keep them.
It was far overseen that he had not gone thither first.
Both commanders fell from Elizabeth’s good grace. Norris was not granted another military command for two years, while Drake remained out of favour until 1595. Greed had undone him. England’s naval talisman had lost some of his magic.
Philip pressed ahead with rebuilding his Armada, with twelve million in gold to spend. The Spanish boasted that, a year hence, they would have a ‘fleet and an army to sack England and take a just and accumulated vengeance on their enemies’.