The Hell-Burners of Calais


Under cover of darkness, and hidden in the midst of the English fleet, the fireships were prepared. Stripped of most of their equipment, they were then filled with combustible material of all kinds, including sails, spars, timber, and sacking, all smothered in pitch, tar and oil. More pitch and oil were applied to their masts and rigging. The guns were in many cases double-shotted, so that their explosions would add to enemy alarm. Manned by skeleton crews, equipped to light the network of slow match that covered each craft, every vessel towing a boat on which the men would escape, the fireships began to slip quietly towards the Armada.

The attackers were assisted by the freshening wind and a high spring tide, but the alarm was raised at about midnight, when two of the ships were apparently fired prematurely. ‘Two fires were seen kindled in the English fleet, which increased to eight; and suddenly eight ships with all sail set and fair wind and tide, came straight toward our capitana and the rest of the fleet, all burning fiercely.’ They would reach the Spaniards in about fifteen to twenty minutes.

Medina Sidonia’s pinnaces and other small craft went into action, and managed to grapple and pull ashore two of the attackers. But, aided by the wind and tide, the remainder continued to bear down on the Armada, their doubleshotted guns exploding as they did so. Logically, they might have been expected to fail. Calais Roads were wide, giving plenty of space for manoeuvre and evasion, and it would soon have become apparent that the fireships were not in fact the dreaded ‘hell-burners’, were too few in number, and contained no explosives. However, against the odds, they succeeded.

According to one angry Spaniard:

Fortune so favoured the English, that there grew from this piece of industry just what they counted on, for they dislodged us with eight vessels, an exploit which with 130 they had not been able nor dared to attempt. When the morning came they had gained the weather-gauge of us, for we found ourselves scattered in every direction.’

It is usually claimed the spectacle of the approaching flames caused panic among the ships of the Armada, but the English seem to have exaggerated their effects. Though one Spanish eyewitness hints at the alarm that had seized some of the crews of the Armada:

The eight ships, filled with artificial fire and ordnance, advanced in line at a distance of a couple of pike’s lengths between them. But by God’s grace, before they arrived, while they were yet between the two fleets, one of them flared up with such fierceness and great noise as were frightful, and at this the ships of the Armada cut their cables at once, leaving their anchors, spreading their sails, and running out to sea; and the whole eight fireships went drifting between the fleet and the shore with the most terrible flames that may be imagined.’

Most of the Spanish crews seem to have managed, despite the darkness and confusion, the difficult feat of setting sail and cutting their cables, the only apparent casualty being the San Lorenzo, flagship of the galleasses, which in the confusion collided with another galleass, the Girona, then with de Leiva’s Rata Encoronada, damaging her rudder.

With the fireships now burning themselves out harmlessly on the shore, Medina Sidonia’s plan had been for the Armada to re-form, recover its anchors and resume its previous moorings. That this did not happen was the result of several factors. The darkness, the wind, the strong currents, and the spring tide carrying them towards the North Sea made it virtually impossible for the Armada to return as planned. It also seems highly likely that some of those commanders who had all along been opposed to the halt at Calais made little effort to obey the duke’s orders.

The outcome was a major – and perhaps unexpected – English success. Unable, owing to the strong spring tide, to return to their original anchorage and pick up what were in most cases their best anchors, the Spanish ships found that their remaining ones were unable to grip in a seabed that provided poor holding, and they drifted north-east, in the direction of Gravelines and the Banks of Flanders. The Armada had not only lost the tight formation it had maintained for most of the past week, but it had now irretrievably lost any chance of linking up with Parma and the Army of Flanders. As dawn would reveal, Medina Sidonia’s situation was increasingly desperate.

And yet Medina Sidonia was still recovering from the panic caused by the appearance of fireships. His subsequent report reveals a fear of ‘fire machines’ and exploding mines:

At midnight two fires were perceived on the English fleet, and these two gradually increased to eight. They were eight vessels with sails set, which were drifting with the current directly towards our flagship and the rest of the Armada, all of them burning with great fury. When the duke saw them approaching, and that our men had not diverted them, he, fearing that they might contain fire machines or mines, ordered the flagship to let go the cables, the rest of the Armada receiving similar orders, with an intimation that when the fires had passed they were to return to the same positions again. The leading galleass, in trying to avoid a ship, ran foul of the San Juan de Sicilia, and became so crippled that she was obliged to drift ashore. The current was so strong that although the flagship, and some of the vessels near her, came to anchor and fired off a signal gun, the other ships of the Armada did not perceive it, and were carried by the current towards Dunkirk.’

Meanwhile, from the deck of his ship, Vanguard, Vice Admiral Sir William Wynter, their original proposer, keenly watched the effects of the fireships:

about twelve of the clock that night six ships were brought and prepared with a saker shot, and going in a front, having the wind and tide with them, and their ordnance being charged, were fired; and the men that were the executers, so soon as the fire was made, they did abandon the ships, and entered into five boats that were appointed for the saving of them. This matter did put such terror among the Spanish army that they were fain to let slip their cables and anchors; and did work, as it did appear, great mischief among them by reason of the suddenness of it. We might perceive that there were two great fires more than ours, and far greater and huger than any of our vessels that we fired could make.’

But not all of the English were unreservedly delighted at the success of the fireships. Captain Henry Whyte, whose ship the Bark Talbot, was one of those employed, was rather more concerned about compensation:

There [at Calais] it was resolved to put them from their anchor, and ships were allotted to the fire to perform the enterprise; among the rest, the ship I had in charge, the Bark Talbot, was one; so that now I rest like one that had his house burnt, and one of these days I must come to your honour for permission to go a-begging.’



This history of the fireship explains how the device became increasingly sophisticated, with purpose-built fireworks becoming their weapon of choice. From the earliest days until their decline in the early nineteenth century. Illustrated. ; 256 pages

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