The English Armada: Battles at Sea I

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The English Armada Battles at Sea I

Engraving of the galley of the Adelantado of Castile,
Royal Palace (Palacio Real), Madrid.

A gentle breeze was blowing as dawn broke on Monday, 19
June, and so the Adelantado of Castile ‘set out that morning with nine ships in
pursuit of the enemy fleet, which was coming round Cape Saint Vincent’. As the
ships sailed out, ‘they encountered a French vessel that was fleeing from the
Armada with seventy Englishmen on board; the French were allowed to take
everything off them, which they did in such a way that they almost skinned them
alive’. That is how the tragic withdrawal of the English Armada began, and as
we shall see, their losses were just as great as during the Spanish Armada.
Stripped and with their bodies lacerated by their French captors, these
Englishmen were the first of what was to become an almost unmanageable number
of prisoners that soon gave the Spaniards some serious logistical problems.

Later that same day, ‘a Flemish store ship appeared out at
sea and the Adelantado sent across Don Francisco Coloma and Don Juan
Puertocarrero with their galleys. They found about fifty Englishmen who were
readily handed over by the Flemish without a struggle. Both this ship and the
French vessel were allowed to sail for Lisbon.’ Not a great deal was gleaned
from interrogating the Englishmen. ‘It was understood from the English that the
fleet was heading for Cádiz, and in view of that the Adelantado asked
permission from the Cardinal Archduke to take all his galleys to stop the
enemy. His Highness granted the request provided that he did not take more than
nine of his galleys.’ And so as night fell on Monday, 19 June 1589, the
fearless Padilla stayed on course with his nine galleys in pursuit of the
English. At the same time, in Lisbon, fifteen caravels with extra men and
munitions were being made ready in order to reinforce the strategically important
Azores. It is clear that day by day the Spanish recovery was taking shape at
the same time that the defeat of the English was being planned, although, as
will be seen, adverse winds prevented the reinforcement flotilla for the Azores
from setting sail immediately.

The oars of the galley slaves followed the unvarying rhythm
set by the overseer. Stroke after stroke the blades of the oars emerged from
the water, were turned in the air and then thrust in the water once more. For
its part, the gentle northerly breeze helped the galleys’ oarsmen along as they
blindly pursued their objective through the darkness of the night. There were
only two cannons mounted at the prow and two at the stern on these ships, as
there was no room at the sides because of the oars and the low clearance above
the level of the sea. However, these cannons had been carefully chosen from
among the reinforced culverins of the period. They were long-range cannons and,
when fired from under five hundred metres, were very accurate, effective and
had great destructive force. In addition, over short distances the power of the
muskets and harquebuses could wipe out the decks, topsails, upper decks and
embrasures of enemy ships. In this way,

with these nine galleys he [Padilla] went in pursuit of
the enemy but without any sight of him, and three hours before daybreak he
found himself in the middle of the Armada. To confirm that was where he was, he
sent an Englishman, Captain Eduardo Grecio, in a skiff to talk to the nearest
ship, where they told him that they were not following the Admiral. From this
conversation it was clear that this was the whole fleet and they had been among
them without the enemy realizing it until dawn.

So dawn on 20 June found the nine galleys in the middle of
the scattered English Armada. It was time to intercept the stragglers, and so
Padilla placed his ship like a wedge between them and the rest of the fleet.
Sure enough, ‘the Adelantado endeavoured to position himself on the right side
of the wind and once he had done so he captured all the ships that were out of
position. With his galley he attacked three large supply ships, a tender and a
barge and other galleys came to his assistance, especially that of Don Juan
Puertocarrero.’ For its part ‘La Patrona, with Don Andrés de Atienza on board,
took a supply ship together with La Peregrina, Serena, Leona, Palma, and
Florida, and these two stayed with it until it was set alight.’ And so, one by
one, the ships that had become separated from the fleet fell into Padilla’a hands.

For his part, Alonso de Bazán ‘attacked a ship from Plymouth
which had fallen behind and in the boarding of the ship that followed its
Captain Caverley was killed with most of his men. Two other straggling ships
were attacked and sunk by the galleys. In one of them Captain Minshaw and his
crew fought heroically until they disappeared engulfed in flames.’ There is a
different report concerning the fate of Captain Caverley, which gives him as a
prisoner, for ‘having abandoned his ship, he escaped in a small boat and was
then captured’. Several documents record Bazán’s attack. This is how John
Evesham describes it:

On the morning of the 20th and with the sea in a state of
calm eight galleys headed in a windward direction towards us and attacked two
of our small ships that were said not to have been able to defend themselves
due to a lack of gunpowder and munitions. However, as far as I know and thanks
to God’s assistance these two escaped. Then the galleys attacked two other
small ships head on and upwind and they were caught and set alight and the
survivors taken prisoner. In addition, I was told that the William, commanded
by Mr Hawkins of Plymouth, whose men, so I heard, sailed off in a small boat,
was set fire to two or three times, although the fire went out. Then the
Admiral arrived and with one cannon shot ensured that the galleys left him
alone. But they pursued the small boat in order to capture the men and although
they failed to do so they sank it and all the men drowned. And the (the word ‘burnt’
is struck out) boat was sunk by our own men because there were not enough men
to sail it.

Other documents and writers recorded these attacks by the
galleys. For example, the Spanish press described it thus:

And so on the morning of the nineteenth of June [the
Adelantado] sailed out with nine ships in pursuit of the enemy fleet, which was
coming round Cape St. Vincent, and before any encounter they met up with a
further six galleys that joined forces with them, and when they came across the
enemy fleet they used their cannons against them on the twentieth and the
twenty-fifth of June, for there was little wind and they were able to do a
great deal of damage. They set fire to three ships, while others said five,
they sank two others and took prisoners from them all, causing a lot of damage
to the remainder but without the galleys incurring any serious damage in

The Portuguese press referred to three sunk and two set on
fire. Cabrera de Córdoba wrote of four sunk and an unspecified number of ships
burnt. Juan de Arquellada mentions seven sunk or set ablaze, while Duro had
four sunk by the Adelantado and three set on fire by Alonso de Bazán. Hume
wrote of three sunk or captured and one burnt. More recently, Kelsey wrote of
five or six ships lost. However, apart from González-Arnao, no attention was
paid to the fate of the ships captured earlier by the English Armada in
Cascais, which had come to form part of the fleet. In summary, on 19 June, two
of the merchant vessels seized by Drake and manned by captured crewmen were
released. One of them, the French one, made its own way to join the galleys. On
20 June, another four supply ships, also with English crewmen, were captured,
and in addition most probably a tender and a barge from among the vessels
seized by Drake. Between three and five English ships of low-tonnage – the most
numerous by far in the English fleet – were also destroyed and others were
damaged, a total of between nine and eleven ships and two smaller craft. About
seven hundred Englishmen were taken out of action, of whom one hundred and
thirty survived the attacks and were taken prisoner.

On 20 June 1589, the Spanish finally achieved what had been
denied them ten months earlier: boarding English ships. The galleys, old-world
Mediterranean vessels, had as their main weapon a sharp ram which punched into
the hull of enemy ships and acted as a boarding bridge. Galleys were attack
ships driven by the strength of the galley slaves or oarsmen and the courage of
the soldiers on board. The galley slaves were prisoners of war, men sentenced
by law or volunteers called buenas bollas (‘good loaves’) because they were
better fed. Artillery was mounted on the bow and aimed by steering the whole
ship. Propelled by oar and sail, they were more mobile than the heavy galleons,
and if there was no wind they could get behind them and bombard them or board
them, as happened at Cape Espichel.

While the rearguard was under attack, the rest of the fleet,
far from coming to their aid, took advantage of the fact that the Spanish were
distracted by their prey and they made their getaway. The English and the
Spanish were unanimous in their contempt for Drake’s extremely unhappy position
at this time. In a letter on 20 July, the Adelantado explained:

Even though there was little wind, it helped them to
crowd together and take refuge, and the cowardice shown by the whole fleet was
a sight to see. And it is clear that in this and in what the prisoners say
about the hail of bullets that rained down upon them, this was the work of God
to rid these heretics of their pride.

Fenner would not have disagreed with this description by
Padilla, for he called the resistance which they met as ‘shameful’.

Padilla treated the crew of the support ships well, as
indicated in his letter: ‘Some of the officers and sailors of the Flemish and
German ships that were seized will be set free because they were taken by the
enemy by force and brought to Spain. I do so without expecting anything in
return and I will give them payment because it is desirable to have them
willingly serve Your Majesty.’ Returning to the naval operations, ‘the two largest
supply ships were set on fire within range of Drake’s cannons and the same
action was taken with the other ships, but it wasn’t as effective and one was
sunk by the artillery of the flagship’. Meanwhile,

Drake’s flagship and another large flagship carrying the
infantry general, together with some other large ships, were trying to regroup
their fleet, which they were all so eager to do that it required little effort.
All five ships mentioned took part in the fighting, and the remaining vessels
nearby assisted them with artillery, especially the flagship, which was being
towed by two well-armed barges.

Losses in the galleys were surprisingly few, for ‘in all the
galleys there were no more than two dead and up to seventy wounded, the best
known of these a son of Juan Ruiz de Velasco’. The explanation for the
satisfactory part played by the galleys is explained as follows: ‘The speed
with which our harquebuses and artillery operated was of great importance and
did not allow the enemy to get into the fight. The enemy’s artillery caused no
damage to the galleys, although some bullets did reach the flagship and other
vessels.’ That campaign of attrition against the defeated English Armada ended
in the early afternoon, for ‘the fighting lasted from dawn until two hours
after midday, when the galleys withdrew to rest a while in view of the fact
that the enemy had regrouped’.

It was fear of the galleys that led to the dispersal of the
fleet. Evesham wrote of this fear in his account: ‘So we two did bear in as
near Bayona as we durst for fear of the galleys.’ Later the wind allowed the
English to move away from the coast:

At five in the afternoon the enemy sailed so far from the
coast that scarcely a ship could be seen, and at this the Adelantado went round
Cape St. Vincent to take on water because the galleys were in need of it, and
there he waited until the enemy went past, as it would have to do if it was
heading for Cádiz.

It was impossible to discover the intentions of the English
Armada from the nine prisoners taken during that morning. In fact,

Captains, Sub-lieutenants, English gentlemen and an
engineer were taken. They were asked many questions about the destination of
the fleet and they all said different things and they all agreed that no-one knows
but they suspect that it is heading for Cádiz. Others said that the Infantry
General will be returning to England with the whole fleet, and Drake, with Dom
António on board, is going with forty of the best ships to the Islands and the
Indies. On the one hand they are on the right track to go to the Islands and
for the fleet to go to England, and on the other hand it seems that if they had
to go (to England) they should have gone from Cascais when the Dutch and
Zealand and La Rochelle ships were allowed to go.

In any event, Padilla was not far off the mark when he gave
his opinion on the matter: ‘I also believe that their lack of personnel, due to
the number they have lost and those who have died and are dying from disease,
means that it is quite likely that they have to return.’

What was learned from these prisoners was the fleet’s total
lack of provisions:

They said that if they hadn’t seized the wheat-carrying
ships that were heading for Lisbon, they would have left their men in Portugal
without letting them on board, because they had nothing to give them. Now they
have to manage with gruel made from flour and boiled wheat, and more of them
fall ill every day. But the ones who get this to eat are the soldiers; the
sailors are much better fed.

We do not know how much in these statements is accurate, but
they are symptomatic of the malaise and demoralization that had passed through
the fleet from one ship to the next. It has already been mentioned that the
little food there was, was kept for Drake’s sailors. This fact is significant.
The proportion of sailors was already low when the English set sail, but now,
after so many setbacks and so much time at sea, packed together without even
basic conditions of hygiene and with disease rife on the ships’ decks, the
scarcity of sailors began to be a determining factor, as will later become
quite clear.

Moreover the prisoners were also aware of the desperate
attempts by Drake to secure assistance from the Muslims as promised: ‘They said
that Drake sent eight ships to Barbary with an ambassador of the Sharif who
came while the fleet was in Cascais.’ This information was corroborated in
part, for ‘the three galleys that had just arrived from Cádiz brought news that
they went round Cape St. Vincent’. Padilla independently drew his own
conclusions: ‘The Sharif will deceive him, as he does with all those who have
dealings with him.’ But what really moved the Adelantado of Castile was the
sight of the state to which the monastery of Santo Antonio had been reduced
after the English had passed through: ‘Next to Cascais there is a monastery of
discalced monks called Santo Antonio and its heartless neighbours broke up the
altar and the choir and did some further minor damage, and it grieved me
greatly to see it.’ Padilla was so affected by the sight of it that in his
letter to the King, he added:

And I vowed to God and to the Saint that if I am
successful against those heretics, I would endeavour to persuade Your Majesty
to restore it to its previous state, and if not, I would pay for it myself. May
it please Your Majesty to perform this kind act, because I feel that it would
be most pleasing to Our Lord.

However, the destruction of the monastery was but a prior
warning of the state in which the Iberians would find Cascais.

The military operations on 20 June exacerbated a problem
that would get even worse days later and that was the matter of the growing
number of prisoners:

Since I have been in charge of these galleys some
prominent captains have been taken and held on board, in addition to some
important French corsairs, and amongst the English that were taken on the 20th
there are also, as I have indicated, some men of standing, so that all told
there is a significant number of them and we have to keep a constant eye on them.
I ask Your Majesty to command that we be given assurances that they will be
placed somewhere where they are no longer our concern, and to determine the
treatment that shall be given to the English. They will be given rations like
the sailors, whether they are rowers or not. In my opinion this could be
justified for those who have been captured since the war started and they can
be given these rations for as long as they remain on the galleys, and unless
Your Majesty orders otherwise, they will be given volunteer rations. They are
dying off quite quickly, thereby leaving fewer of them for us to deal with.

This terrible commentary indicates the virulence of the
disease that took hold among the English expedition.

The action on the morning of 20 June brought about the
dispersal of the English Armada with a good number of ships going off course.
Thereafter it became difficult to continue to follow the path taken by the
fleet which was now largely broken up and dispersed. This situation has been
attributed to Drake’s inexperience or ineptitude in managing large fleets, for
due to the way he acted he exacerbated the damage inflicted by the galleys on
the English Armada, even though initially it was limited because the Spanish
galleys were few in number. Drake did not give sufficient priority to ordering
the fleet to divide into five squadrons, as had been agreed in Plymouth. On the
contrary, the pirate-cum-admiral, possibly unduly influenced by the laxity of
piracy when commanding his ships, allowed the Spanish attack to create
widespread chaos among the considerable number of English vessels because of
his neglect. That is when he lost track of many of them and they were lost
forever. One of these was the Gregory from London. On 20 June, this ship was
fired on by the galleys and could no longer keep up with the fleet. Or the case
of William Fenner, with his flagship of the recently arrived reinforcement
squadron, which became detached from the fleet after the attack by the galleys
and, in desperation, had to head to Madeira where it would later meet up with
other ships.38 In any event, the first squadron of the fleet to set sail, which
included Essex, the Dutch and the sick among others, gained the open sea before
the attack by the galleys and managed to head north. They were sighted a few
days later off the coast of Galicia.

In spite of everything, following the attack by the galleys
the majority of the fleet gradually managed to reassemble and so ‘on Tuesday
the 20th, at three in the afternoon, they reappeared above Cape Espichel and
the town of Sesimbra, whereupon the Duke of Aveiro took up arms in Setúbal,
where Your Highness had ordered him, and very bravely and diligently prepared
to resist’. All that Drake could do with the calm waters and the westerly
breezes was to bring his ships together and wait for favourable winds. The
English Armada could no longer undertake any action of significance and their
situation grew worse by the day. Moreover, they could no longer land on that
coast due to the maximum alert ordered by the Duke of Aveiro, ‘with most
captains having arms at the ready for any surprise attack’.

But with the English fleet now at sea, the Iberians focused
on Peniche, where five hundred men of the garrison that Norris had assigned on
28 May to provide cover if required were still waiting, with growing unease,
for a rescue flotilla to enable them to get away. But amid the chaos and
dispersion caused by the galleys and the sea conditions, the rescue ships did
not appear. Hence, ‘so that they could attack the enemy in Peniche and take
their artillery and prevent them from doing further damage … Dom Martinho
quickly wrote to His Highness and to the Counts Fuentes and Vila de Orta’. In
this way, ‘that same day (20th) Don Pedro de Guzmán and Don Sancho Bravo set
out with their mounted harquebusiers and horsemen under Gaspar de Alarcón, and
four hundred harquebusiers with Captains Castillo and Ocampo, heading for
Peniche where the enemy had left five hundred men’. That march from Lisbon had
to proceed at the pace of the infantry, so that it inevitably took them some
time to reach Peniche.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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