The Seventeenth Century Iberian Navies

A Van de Velde drawing of a Spanish two-decker of 1664.


Although the ‘Decline of Spain’ in the seventeenth century has been exaggerated by many historians, the Spanish armada that served Kings Philip IV and Carlos II was plainly no longer the formidable instrument that had served their predecessors, and it suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Dutch in the Downs in 1639. Spain’s severe financial problems meant that it sometimes struggled to get an effective fleet to sea: in 1644 it planned for a fleet of thirty ships, costing over 1,150,000 ducats, and ended up with none, while in the 1660s it usually budgeted for only about twenty to forty ships in service every year. Spain had four permanent galley squadrons in the Mediterranean, one based at various ports on the Iberian Peninsula itself and the others at Naples, Sicily and Genoa. These declined in strength during the seventeenth century, and each contained about half a dozen vessels by the 1650s and 1660s. Spain also maintained a separate ‘Armada of Flanders’ in the North Sea. This was forced to move to Spain in the 1640s when its base at Dunkirk was lost, but the subsequent recapture of that port led to a revival both of the Armada and of the Dunkirk privateers that had wreaked havoc earlier in the century. These ships made serious depredations against English coastal shipping in the mid-1650s, when perhaps 500 merchant ships were captured, but the final loss of Dunkirk in 1658 effectively ended the careers of both the privateers and the ‘Armada of Flanders’. The latter survived in name alone, based at Ostend, but by the late 1660s it consisted of just one ship. Responsibility for naval administration was divided between several departments of state. The Council of War had responsibility for the Iberian Peninsula itself, and this had a sub-committee, the Junta de Armadas, which ran the Atlantic fleet, and another, the Junta de Galeras, which ran the galleys. The Junta de Guerra de Indias had responsibility for the Indies fleet.

During the first half of the seventeenth century Spanish naval administrators and shipbuilders engaged in a long debate about the relative merits of beam and bulk on the one hand, fine lines and speed on the other. By the 1650s this had effectively been resolved (as it was in Britain) into a preference for larger, beamier ships that would be more effective gun platforms. The vast Nuestra Señora de la Concepción of 1,500 tons was launched at Pasajes in 1656, and several ships of 700–1,000 tons were launched in the 1660s, most of them built by Miguel de Oquendo at Usúrbil. Other ships were built in Spanish overseas possessions, notably at Havana, where the shipbuilders could exploit local hardwoods. Because they were intended to operate on the high seas, the largest Spanish ships were more heavily built but also more lightly armed than their British equivalents. They also seem to have retained ‘catwalks’ for quarter-galleries long after the fashion died out in other European navies.

Lower naval administration, and victualling in particular, was undertaken by an elaborate hierarchy of officials known as veedors, proveedors, contadors and pagadors. The process of victualling was particularly problematic in Spain, where transport from the interior to the ports was often long and difficult, and which experienced many years of dearth during the seventeenth century. Recruitment, too, was a recurring problem. Unlike their British counterparts, Spanish seamen were almost all pressed, which ensured that desertion was endemic. Consequently, ships were rarely docked or repaired, to minimise the opportunities for desertion, but this inevitably had an adverse effect on their seaworthiness and lifespan. There were many exemptions, and independently minded provinces resisted the press ferociously. Shortfalls were common, though these were made up to some extent by the recruitment of foreigners from France, Genoa and especially Ragusa. Commissioned officers were drawn largely from the ranks of the nobility, and many were soldiers; indeed, the Spanish navy had a parallel hierarchy of officers for soldiers and seamen, and it was usually soldiers who were appointed capitán de maryguerra, the captain of the ship. The highest office of all, that of captain-general of the Armada del Mar Océano, invariably went to aristocrats, such as Francisco de la Cueva, eighth Duke of Albuquerque, a former cavalry general and colonial viceroy who commanded the armada in 1662–4. Nevertheless, a few career seamen still made it to high command.

Britain was at war with Spain from 1654 until 1660. The Restoration brought a de facto cessation of hostilities in European waters, if not in the West Indies, where intermittent fighting continued until at least 1663. British support for Portugal in its war of independence, which lasted until 1668, kept relations strained, but they improved in the 1670s and 1680s, when Cadiz and Gibraltar were often used as bases for ships operating against the Barbary corsairs. But tensions occasionally resurfaced, and there were a number of tetchy disputes over the exchange of salutes between British ships and Spanish fleets or ports. Admiral Arthur Herbert had a number of clashes with the authorities at Cadiz, and in the early 1680s Captains Matthew Aylmer and Cloudesley Shovell were both forced to salute Spanish fleets.


Portugal nominally regained her independence from Spain in 1640, when a national revolt led to the proclamation of the Duke of Braganza as King John IV. A war of independence continued until 1668, but Portugal had already re-established itself as a major naval power. In 1650 its navy consisted of thirty-three warships of some 26,000 tons, a force comparable in size to those of Sweden, Denmark and even France. Thereafter it declined in size, until by 1690 it had only 11,000 tons of shipping; a major building programme in the decades that followed rectified the situation. The administration of the navy was controlled closely by the crown, and the service operated both warships for service in the Atlantic and large transport vessels for voyages to the East Indies. Portugal’s extensive overseas commitments (Brazil was recovered from Spain in 1654) meant that its naval resources were severely stretched, though in 1662 two colonies, Tangier and Bombay, were transferred to England in return for ongoing military assistance against the Spanish. Lisbon was often used by British warships for refitting, cleaning and replenishing stores and as a port of call for ships in transit to or from the Mediterranean. At least one Englishman commanded a Portuguese warship in this period: Jacob Reynolds, a Londoner, who was captain of the St Luis in 1661.

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