(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Any historical event is an impossibly complex topic; assessing the forces that “produce” a specific occurrence is largely a matter of exclusion as much as inclusion. When the scope of the event is enormously large itself, when the import of the occurrence is such that it holds a place in almost every historical survey offered to students from elementary school through college, the event tends to take on a life, and its effects a standardized assessment, of its own.

Such is the case with the defeat, in the year 1588, of the Spanish Armada. Excepting 1492 and 1776, perhaps no date is memorized as often by American students as that of this battle. The popular “facts” of the encounter between the English and Spanish naval forces have become institutionalized: An agressive queen defeated a complacent king; the stakes were control of the New World; the destiny of English-speaking peoples hinged upon the outcome of a raging sea battle; the Spanish lost what control of the world’s oceans they had; the English demonstrated an ability to control the seas through massed naval power, a control that was to last for nearly four hundred years.

Peter Padfield does an elegant and erudite job of separating those assumptions from the facts and of offering, in a very convincing argument, some ideas to replace those assumptions that he considers inaccurate. His contentions are as much a product of his approach to history—his decisions regarding what to include and what to exclude—as they result from a set of facts or a collection of evidence. This approach is evident, and clearly presented, as early as the book’s table of contents, which lists as chapter titles the components of the event: the king and queen concerned, the English rovers, the Spanish commander, the English admiral, the ships, crews and armaments, and the course of the battle itself. Early in the book, the reader realizes that in Padfield’s judgment, the defeat of the Spanish was determined by the national ambiences of the two countries, the personalities of their naval commanders, the technology available to each side, and the tactics each force employed.

The effect of Padfield’s approach is twofold. First, the opening emphasis on the people who caused this event personalizes the narrative. The author concentrates on their ability and inclination to make decisions and their reliance on subordinates, and makes some impressive observations about their individual and idiosyncratic ways of viewing the world. While contemporary historians are increasingly employing statistical methods, Padfield’s narrative endorses the conventional wisdom that history is people. If history is also the assessment of great events, then considering the people who made an event is not only an appropriate place to start but may in fact be the only beginning that allows an understanding of the event. Starting the book this way also has, as a benefit to the reader, the effect of moving from the accessible (people) to the barely comprehendible (a large sea battle).

The second aspect of Padfield’s approach is the presentation of the technology of the two fleets. Padfield ably demonstrates his experience here. He was a crew member of the Mayflower II, a sailing ship that reenacted...

(The entire section is 1337 words.)