The English Armada: Battles at Sea II

Map: 25 May–20 June, Lisbon.

1.25 May. A council of war held off Peniche where it is decided to undertake an expedition on land, ruling out a naval attack on Lisbon on 26 May. Difficult disembarkation on Consolaçao beach; of the thirty-two landing craft, fourteen went under with over eighty men drowned. First skirmish on the beach: two hours and three charges with 250 Spanish and 150 Portuguese under Captain Alarcón and Juan González de Ateide. Death of Captains Robert Piew and Jackson plus other men. Death of a standard-bearer and fifteen Spaniards. 12,000 soldiers are landed.

2.27 May. Contact with the Portuguese at Peniche and Atouguia. Preparations for the march. Attack by the cavalry of Captain Gaspar de Alarcón: five dead plus one French prisoner who speaks Spanish: he reports that the English Armada is bringing 20,000 men. Surrender of the fortress to Dom António.

3.28 May. The English army reaches Lourinha, where it has proved impossible to raise a Spanish–Portuguese army. Start of the Spanish tactics to cut off supplies and communications. The army begins to starve.

4.28 May. Drake sets sail from Peniche to Cascais with the whole fleet and 3,200 men. A further five hundred, left as a garrison in Peniche, will be killed or captured.

5.28 May. Movement of Spanish troops transported in galleys from Lisbon to São Julião and Oeiras to strengthen the naval front.

6.29 May. The English army reaches Torres Vedras. Nobles in the area take flight. Fear in Lisbon. Locals who live outside the walls take refuge in the city.

7.30 May. Iberian military parade in Queluz, where the new headquarters has been set up.

8.30 May. Drake drops anchor between Cascais and São Julião, adopting a crescent shape.

9.30–31 May. The English enter Loures. Dom António announces that he will enter Lisbon on 1 June, the feast of Corpus Christi, but on the night of 31 May there is a surprise Spanish attack with more than two hundred dead.

10.1 June. The English reach Alvalade. Arms are distributed to the Portuguese infantry.

11.2–4 June. The English army reaches Lisbon. They are bombarded from the Saint George castle. Billeting in Lisbon. On 3 June there is a great attack of the besieged against the English barracks.

12.5 June. Night-time withdrawal by the army to Cascais, pursued by Spanish detachments. More than five hundred dead.

13.15 June. Arrival of the Adelantado of Castile with fifteen galleys and six fireships.

14.19–20 June. The English Armada sails on a westerly wind, the galleys set off in pursuit and sink or capture nine ships, a tender and a barge. The fleet is dispersed.

As dawn broke on Wednesday, 21 June 1589, it was clear that the English Armada was still in sight of land. While the first detachment of the fleet continued its slow voyage northwards, Drake was to spend that day sailing into the light onshore wind and tacking off the coast before reaching Cascais. For its part, the damaged Gregory, which was lost out at sea, struggled to sail northwards, while Fenner, who was even more lost and who had to endure a storm in the night, headed off to the islands of Madeira, which were relatively close by. These names make up for the anonymity of many other lost ships of which we know nothing further. Meanwhile, the fifteen caravels that had been made ready in Lisbon to come to the aid of the Azores were unable to set sail due to the calm seas and westerly winds. While all this was happening at sea, with the Duke of Aveiro remaining on full alert on land, the detachment of Guzmán and Bravo reached Torres Vedras, where they learned of the situation at Peniche from Martinho Soares.

Westerly winds continued to blow on 22 June, and nothing of significance changed at sea, although it did at Peniche. In fact, as Guzmán and Bravo’s detachment reached Lourinhã on their way there, they received

a report from a spy at Peniche that the enemy were trying to embark and take the artillery from the Tower. They all set off in haste towards Peniche, where they discovered some of the enemy already embarked on a small ship and a barge which were already in the water (and) about 40 of them got on board, while of those still on land they killed or captured almost 300.

Although English sources do not appear to confirm that there were any survivors apart from Captain Barton, there must have been some, for ‘although they were making haste, before they arrived they received news of the embarkation, and so spurring on their horses as much as they could they arrived with some two hundred yet to board and killed them or took them prisoner’. About two hundred, therefore, remained on land, and they were killed or captured together with others who were already on board. It is not known how many others managed to escape, but if disease had not taken too great a toll in the English garrison at Peniche, it could have been a sizeable number. What is clear is that, given the great urgency to prevent the men from getting on board, the only ones to arrive in time to prevent it were the cavalry. In any event, the haste to embark was such that ‘a chest full of papers belonging to Dom António was found, and amongst some important ones there was one written in his own hand that described everything that had happened to him from the time he had declared himself king to the day he arrived in this kingdom’. These papers would help to thwart Dom António’s plans once and for all.

Following this bloody encounter, the Iberians reclaimed the castle and its artillery. ‘In case any ships arrived, Pedro García’s company of Maestre de Campo Francisco de Toledo’s regiment, remained in the castle.’ With this new victory, ‘Don Pedro de Guzmán and Don Sancho Bravo, with their infantry and cavalry, returned to Lisbon with about 60 prisoners.’ The failure of the English expedition and the subsequent feeling of relief on the Iberian side loomed larger by the day.

As he had on previous days, Drake continued to sail close to the Portuguese coast during the morning of Friday, 23 June in order to make progress northwards and that is how the English Armada found itself off the coast at Peniche. He then sent in the rescue boats but, as fate would have it, the men who had been looking for such a sign of deliverance from the battlements of Peniche were no longer there. The ships – there were nine or ten of them – were kept at bay from Peniche by cannon fire and they returned to the fleet. Meanwhile, the English Armada was stretched out along the coast like the net of a fishing trawler or the Santa Compaña that by night seizes anyone that looks at it. Yet another merchant ship – a Hanseatic supply ship from Lübeck – fell into their clutches that day. But the extraordinary thing was that its captain was held on Drake’s Revenge until they reached Plymouth – perhaps because it was a ship captured at sea and to prevent any attempt to escape. Once he was back on the Peninsula, the captain, whose name was Juan Antonio Bigbaque, wrote a very interesting account of what happened.

That day a north-east wind got up after all the calms and westerlies and Drake set off for the open sea. That is when the fleet appeared to head for the Azores; as Hume put it: ‘After sailing ostensibly for the Azores, Drake turned back.’ But given the state of the fleet and the diverse nature of its composition, to attempt such a voyage of conquest seemed like an act of recklessness. Bigbaque, who witnessed the events, reported: ‘(Drake’s) principal objective was to end up in the Cíes Islands, but because the weather was so changeable from one day to the next, he decided to head for the island of Madeira. He sent barges to inform all the ships of the fleet, but later when the wind turned, he set course for Bayona and the Cíes Islands.’ With adverse winds for the return to England, with the coast on a war footing and swarming with galleys, with the great prize of merchant ships, and above all with the state of the fleet worsening rapidly and making it increasingly necessary to stop in order to recuperate, the Madeira Islands could be seen as an appropriate place for a stopover after six perilous and pointless days at sea. In any event, 23 June was the last day that the fleet was sighted from the vicinity of Lisbon and Peniche.

With the English Armada out to sea, the Spanish were suffering the same degree of uncertainty on Saturday, 24 June, as they had at the beginning of May: not knowing where a new landing by the English might take place. However, the situation was not the same, both on account of the drastic reduction in the power of the English fleet and the arrival of Philip’s troops in Portugal, including Juan del Águila’s infantry and Luis de Toledo’s cavalry. Hence Fuentes ordered that

as an attempt could be made between the Douro and Minho or in Galicia, it seemed advisable that the infantry and cavalry under Don Juan del Águila and Don Luis de Toledo should be accommodated in Coimbra and the surrounding area, for it is situated at the centre of the region and should the need arise they can reach any part of the area.

The Count also ordered that ‘in order for the billeting to be acceptable and convenient for the locals,’ everything should be done under the supervision of the Count of Portoalegre, and ‘they should be given excellent treatment there’.

On the same day, Fuentes sent two more caravels with men and supplies to reinforce the two that were tailing the English Armada. In addition, he began the recruitment of sailors for the new Armada that was being prepared for the following year. For his part, Alonso de Bazán, who had been called upon by the King for this new Armada, wrote to him on that day to say that with the invaders now definitely gone from Lisbon, he would travel to the Court immediately.

As for the English, it was on the Saturday that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, more or less unwittingly rendered one last service to the expedition by providing Cerralbo with the same major headaches as he had suffered in May and in the process making the Vigo estuary more vulnerable. In fact, the first sighting of the first squadron of the English Armada occurred on that day in the Rías Altas, off the Costa de la Muerte. It included the favourite Devereux with many other nobles, a good number of English ships carrying the sick and the discharged Dutch vessels. This sighting created a counterproductive movement of Galician troops, for when Cerralbo thought that the English Armada was going to attack Corunna again, he ordered the three companies that were stationed in Pontevedra as reinforcements for Vigo and the Rías Bajas to return at once to Corunna. It would have been far better in this game of cat and mouse for these veteran soldiers to have remained in Pontevedra, for this would have spared them gruelling and futile marches across the Galician countryside that took them away from the place where the final attack by the English Armada would be unleashed shortly afterwards.

On Sunday, 25 June, the northerly winds and rough weather intensified. As night fell, Drake, who had sailed out to sea on 23 June, was sighted off Oporto. These facts suggest that Drake took advantage of the north-easterly wind on 23 June, sailed west-northwest at the start of what was to be a long tacking movement (that led some to think that he was heading for the Azores). At some point on 24 June, now at some distance from the coast and with the wind from the north, the tacking took them several miles out to sea. Following the change in direction and sailing into the wind as much as possible in order to get as far north as he could, he started a new tack, this time back towards the Portuguese coast. Finally, on 25 June, with the ships leaning hard to starboard, he completed the tack which took him to within five miles of Oporto. As far as the first squadron of the English Armada was concerned, it tacked using the northerly wind to reach Finisterre, while trying not to lose too much of the northern advance already made.

The northerly wind was still blowing on Monday, 26 June, and Drake was tacking gently off the north coast of Portugal between Vila do Conde and Esposende under the watchful eye of Pedro Bermúdez, commander of the military garrison in that sector. The first squadron of the fleet was doing the same off the Galician coast and was seen again that day from Finisterre. On the Spanish side, that was the day that the fifteen caravels at last set sail to reinforce the Azores. Meanwhile, the Gregory from London which, as mentioned earlier, had been hit by the guns from the galleys days before, ‘was not sailing as well as the rest’ and had got detached from the fleet, managed to join up with them again. According to Evesham’s account that was also the night when, in addition to the gradual dispersal of individual ships, the second squadron of the English Armada was in turn split in two. Evesham described how during the night Drake lit a beacon on the Revenge, which by daybreak had disappeared along with sixty ships.

On Tuesday, 27 June, the wind continued to blow, resulting in the virtual standstill of the English ships, which were becoming more and more spread out as they tried to sail into the wind off the Portuguese and Galician coasts. Tragically, they were being held back, with the vessels beginning to look more like mortuaries owing to the relentless increase in hunger, thirst, sickness and death.

By 28 June, most of the second squadron of the English Armada was close to the Portuguese–Galician border between Viana and Caminha. In fact, a number of ships showed signs of attempting to land on Ancora beach next to the river. But the same day the wind veered to the south, and so they were able to sail towards the estuaries which offered unparalleled respite for any ship exhausted from being at sea. However, they did not all anchor in Vigo as a number of them headed straight off to England. One of these was the Gregory, which headed north after abandoning a lost supply ship that it had come across and which decided to stay. Shortly afterwards, the Gregory came across another ship on its own, the Bark Bonner from Plymouth, and they decided to keep each other company on the tough voyage that awaited them on their homeward journey.

But on 29 June Drake finally managed to drop anchor off Vigo and, throughout that day, a large number of ships came to join him there. In conclusion, Drake had the wind in his favour to head for the Azores and against him to return to England. But what he wanted was to go home and, from setting sail from Cascais on 18 June until a southerly wind got up on 28 June, he had tacked against the wind in order to make some headway north. And during that time, disease and hunger began to seriously ravage the fleet.

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