ELIZABETH’S SEA DOGS AND THEIR WAR AGAINST SPAIN

Reviewed by: D J CHILDS

With her signing of the Treaty of Nonsuch in August 1585, Elizabeth declared a de facto war against Spain that would end shortly after James I came to the throne. The period before was one of sea-robbery on which the state cast either a benign or a blind-eye, loaning ships to ensure a share of the spoils; what it was not was war. One might therefore expect that a book with this title would mainly cover the period after August 1585. It does not. A strange book, the first 10 chapters comprise a section of biographies of the sea rovers and their military colleagues. The war, well the Armada campaign and the two descents on Cadiz of 1587 and 1596, occupy just four chapters. The loss of Revenge is covered in less than two pages while there is no mention of Ralegh and Essex’s Island Voyage of 1597. Nor does that most worthy successor to Drake, Richard Leveson, get more than a passing reference; his brilliant destruction of Zubiaur’s squadron at Castlehaven is not recorded while the capture of the carrack, St. Valentine, in the Cezimbra Roads merits just a line. One wonders at these omissions. Perhaps the very limited and often outdated listed bibliography offers a clue.

It is not the reviewer’s task to go through a text with a fine tooth-comb to discover nits, that surely is what an informed sub-editor is paid to do, but here there is obvious evidence of an undiagnosed infelicitous infection.  For example, Best states that “in 1560 [Elizabeth] formed a small discreet maritime group named the ‘Sea Dogs’”. The evidence for this and the membership would have been useful, seeing that the date precedes Hawkins’s first voyage to the West Indies by two years and Drake’s seizure of Spanish ships at sea during his circumnavigation by 17 years.  Indeed, in 1560 Elizabeth’s maritime focus was on the threat from France and Scotland while, in 1563, she issued proclamations against French pirates who were attacking Spanish shipping. Even, after Hawkins’s voyages, she made sure that, while not actively preventing such illicit voyages, she was not seen to be supporting them.  No other author of a book with ‘Sea Dogs’ or a similar phrase in its title makes such a claim as to Elizabeth’s early complicity in piracy. A little later the author states that “a typical English ship of that period was three-masted”, but fails to mention that, as his illustration of a ‘typical Elizabethan warship’ shows, the all-important galleons, Ark Royal, Triumph, Revenge and the rest, had four masts.  Then there is the infamous old chestnut claim that in 1586 “Sir Walter Raleigh brought tobacco leaves back from America” when he never sailed to North America and his first voyage to Guyana was not until 1595.

There are many excellent books on the subject of:  the ‘Sea Dogs’, Elizabethan privateers, the Queen’s corsairs, Elizabeth’s Sea Rovers and even more on the subject of the Spanish Armada, while there are also well-researched and most readable biographies of Hawkins, Drake, Grenville, Ralegh, Frobisher et.al. The kindest thing to say about this contribution to the genre is that, while it tries to combine most of these topics between one set of covers, it does not supersede any of them.