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Armada: The Spanish Enterprise and England’s Deliverance

12 May 23


(Yale University Press – £30.00)

ISBN 9780300259865

768 pages

In 1988, to mark the 400th year of the Spanish Armada, Martin and Parker had published a book entitled The Spanish Armada (from £2.99 on e-bay) which I had the pleasure of reviewing. It was a short, beautifully illustrated book, and the question now for your reviewer is whether this very weighty (literally, 1850 gm.) fully revised, substantially expanded, new edition, although including much fresh research is, for the general reader, an improvement on the original.

I once had 11 books about the Spanish Armada on my book-shelf: eight on The Mary Rose and 14 on Drake and other Elizabethan privateers. These were all obtained to support my own work including the writing of books and articles. That number has reduced significantly without impeding my ability to look something up either for work or pleasure. Armadawill definitely be the ‘turn-to’ book of reference for any factual information much as is N.A.M. Roger’s A Naval History of Britain but for those who wish to read for pleasure or enlightenment might I recommend these authors’ earlier work or Duff Hart-Davis’s 1988 book of the same name (e-bay £5).

It is the focus of those many years of research that raises the question. Much time has been spent in archives, especially the wonderful Spanish one in Simancas Castle which, because Philip was obsessed with paper-work, is expansive. The papers of the Armada commander Medina Sidonia have also survived almost intact. The English records are far less plentiful so a large part of this book is a study in Spanish bureaucracy. Drake’s time within Cadiz harbour in 1587, the famous ‘singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’, is covered in two paragraphs.  The Armada battle, from Howard’s departure from Plymouth on 31 July until his abandonment of the chase on 10 August occupies just 42 pages – fewer than either in the authors’ 1988 work or Hart-Davis’s book.

What is very clearly shown is how much the Spanish relied on God rather than gunnery. Even the initial setback that caused the Medina Sidonia to enter Corunna minus many of his ships was seen as a hindrance that “Our Lord has arranged … for his own hidden reasons”, and that it would “greatly encourage our enemies and make the heretics think that God was on their side”. When the fleet scattered off Calais, as a result of the drifting down upon them of the fireships, it was felt that “God had decided on a different course of action”.

As for guns, whereas Howard had to send ashore several times for rearmament, a number of the Armada ships returned to Spain with many of their guns unfired. Just as well for those manning them for many were dangerously ill-founded and thus liable to explode on firing.  Several years later, Robert Norton, was to write of Spanish gun-founding techniques:

“It is apparent that they commit great and absurd faults therein.  Some of their pieces are bored awry… some are crooked in their chase, others of unequal bores… such guns will either break, split, or blowingly spring their metals…”

A glance at the ordnance on display in the Mary Rose Museum will show how such criticism could not be applied to guns cast for the English navy. The protestant wind might have scattered the Armada, but if it had not, English gunnery would have blasted that fleet to oblivion.

A further addition in this book is the story of several dives on the wrecks led by Colin Martin which has led to more insights on the state and condition of the ships involved.

This is a magisterial study bringing together 40 years of archival and archaeological research.  It has no rivals as a comprehensive and authoritative account of the Spanish Armada.  Whether or not readers might wish to add it to their own bookshelves, I hope this review might help them decide.