The Voyage of the Armada

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 by the English under the leadership of those noteworthy English seamen, Lord Howard, Sir Francis Drake, and Sir John Hawkyns, has become, at least in Britain and Protestant America, the stuff of legend and allegory. As legend, the achievements of the English seamen have been exaggerated, as have the results of the Armada’s defeat in regard to English world seapower and the security of Protestantism. As allegory the defeat has often been portrayed by British historians as a David-Goliath encounter between a new, youthful, and vigorous nation on the ascendancy and an old, senile, and lethargic nation in decline. The Armada’s defeat has been ascribed to divine intervention, because the Armada was driven northward through the English Channel around Scotland and along the Irish coast, where it incurred its heaviest losses. This popular image of the event certainly was important in engendering English patriotism and in spurring the imperialist desire, and it has also helped to create the popular image of the halcyon days of “Good Queen Bess.” Historians, however, have increasingly questioned its accuracy. The late Tudor historian, Garrett Mattingly, in his superb account of the event, The Armada (1959), while recognizing the psychological importance of the defeat, questions its immediate impact in regard to Spanish seapower and the European struggle between Catholics and Protestants. He concludes that the defeat of the Armada “raised men’s hearts in dark hours, and led them to say to one another, ’What we have done once, we can do again.’ In so far as it did this the legend of the Spanish Armada became as important as the actual event—perhaps even more important.”

The main reason for the endurance of the Armada legend is that historians, as men in general are wont to do, have viewed the event from the perspective of the victors, the English. Older historians, such as J. A. Froude, Leopold Ranke, and Jules Michelet, have usually been either British, Protestant, or anticlerical and have thus been attracted to Protestant England and its victory over the Spain of the leader of the Counter-Reformation, Philip II. Spanish historians have tended to be understandably embarrassed and shamed by the poor showing of their sixteenth century countrymen. As a result the event has been traditionally viewed from the English perspective, with the Spanish leader of the Armada, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, portrayed as an incompetent fool and Howard, Drake, Hawkyns, and their aides as omniscient naval experts.

The objective of David Howarth, in his The Voyage of the Armada: The Spanish Story, is to view the event from the Spanish perspective, correcting some of the previously held misconceptions about what happened in the fall of 1588 and about the individual participants. Howarth approaches his task with impressive credentials. A British citizen, he has previously established a commendable reputation among historians through his works on historical turning points, such as the Norman Conquest and the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo. Howarth’s major area of interest is military, and especially naval, history. He is thus able to evaluate the Armada and the English fleet more objectively and thoroughly than historians with less knowledge of these subjects. Fortunately Howarth’s encyclopedic knowledge of complex naval matters and terminology does not prevent him from conveying to his readers an adequate understanding of terms and issues that, in the hands of a less expert writer, could have been incomprehensible.

Undoubtedly, the ignominious rout of the Armada was hailed at the time as a miraculous achievement because it came as such a surprise, indeed a shock, not only to England but also to all of Europe and the Europeanized world. This is a theme that Howarth fails to develop at any length, and as a result he fails to convey the significance of the English response to victory at that time. Indeed, in 1588, Spain was at its apogee as a world power. As the nineteenth century belonged to Britain so the sixteenth was that of Spain. Since the completion of the reconquista with the Spanish conquest of Granada from the Moors in 1492, Spain had speedily emerged as the greatest imperial power the world had yet seen. Through marriage, inheritance, and conquest—all under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church—the Hapsburgs had created an empire that comprised not only Spain and Portugal, the Netherlands, Milan, Naples, Sicily, and other holdings in Europe but also a world empire that stretched from North and South America eastward to the Philippines. Indeed, before the division of the Holy Roman Empire by Charles V (Charles I of Spain) in 1555, the Hapsburg Empire had included Austria, Bohemia, and what remained of Turkish-overrun Hungary, as well as titular headship of the other German states. Army commanders under the Spanish flag, including Don Juan of Austria, the Duke of Alba, and the Duke of Parma enjoyed victories on land while Spanish fleets traversed the seas from the Americas to the Philippines, establishing settlements on the coasts of Africa and Asia. For five years Philip (later Philip II) of Spain had been titular king of England because of his marriage to the Catholic queen, Mary Tudor.

Riding the crest of a resurgent Spanish Catholicism, Philip II, upon becoming king of Spain in 1556, sought to undo the Protestant gains that had driven his father, Charles V, to abdication and retirement to a monastery. Acutely aware of his position as an international figure, Philip became the self-anointed champion of the...

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The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, September 27, 1981, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXX, July 24, 1981, p. 142.

Times Literary Supplement. December 18, 1981, p. 1473.