The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book Reviews

The Spanish Armada: The Experience of War in 1588

  • by Felipe Fernandez-Artnesto. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, hardbound, 300 pages, index, illustrations, $22.95. ISBN: 0-19-822926-7.

Reviewed by James Hawkins

For over four hundred years, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 has been celebrated by the English as a glorious God-sent victory in which the Protestant David vanquished His Most Catholic Goliath. In the “Epistle Dedicatore” to the first edition of his Voyages, published in 1589, Richard Hakluyt voiced what would emerge as the traditional view of these events:

So in this most famous and peerless government of her most excellent Majesty, her subjects through the special assistance and blessing of God, in searching the most opposite corners and quarters of the world…have excelled all the nations and people of the earth

This portrayal has at long last been subjected to review by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, a Fellow of St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, and author of The Canary Islands After the Conquest, among other works. As he writes in his preface, “I challenge the notion of a Spanish defeat at English hands.” He also disputes the long-held notion that this struggle represented a turning point in the technical development of war at sea.

The author briefly considers the events leading up to the despatch of the Armada. It is true that Philip II saw this enterprise as a Crusade to re-establish Catholicism in England and as a means to relieve pressure on the Low Countries. Philip prayed two to three hours daily in the weeks preceding the departure of his fleet. Though God did not grant him a famous victory, his prayers may have limited the scope of the defeat. As Fernandez-Armesto observes, “Like most wars, the Armada campaign was fought for peace.”

As much as anything else, the makeup of the Armada limited the likelihood of its success from the outset. The Armada was largely composed of ships built for use in the quiescent waters of the Mediterranean. They proved to be too flimsy for the heavier seas of the Atlantic. The effective fighting strength of the Armada was thus limited to the 34 vessels fit for action in the Atlantic — about the size of the opposing English fleet.

Furthermore, in strategic terms, failure to secure a northern port of safety proved, in the end, to be a catastrophic oversight. For after the fighting on August 8th, 1588, the Armada had no safe harbor. It was forced to proceed home by the circuitous route round the British Isles, thus exposing itself to the ravages of the unexpected hurricane which eventually doomed the expedition.

The author draws extensively on personal accounts to give his readers a vivid portrayal of this particular “experience of war.” He cautions that, “No atmosphere more surely breeds exaggeration than that of horrors retold.” Yet there is no question that Spanish sailors who had the misfortune of being shipwrecked off Ireland, where two-thirds of the Armada came to grief, met a cruel fate (if they weren’t executed immediately upon capture, they died of disease or starvation in prison).

To support his case that the English did not defeat the Armada, Fernandez-Armesto points out that only one Spanish ship was actually reduced to sinking condition by English gunfire. After the fighting in July and early August, the Armada remained largely intact. Had not the unseasonably bad weather brewed up, the fleet should have made it back to Spain with few additional losses.

After the weather crippled the Armada, Philip II prayed even more earnestly and began to raise another fleet. Indeed, according to the author, “The Armada marked the rebirth, not the extinction, of Spanish sea power as the lost ships were replaced with better ones and the Spanish Main refortified against attack… The menace [to England] of Spanish sea power was stronger after the Armada than before.”

Professor Fernandez-Armesto believes that:

… the enduring influence of the Armada has been felt in the realm of myths … slowly accumulated from the accretions of a long historical and literary tradition the myths of a great English victory, of English superiority over Spain; of the outcome of the Armada as a symbol of an age of English national greatness in the reign of Elizabeth I; of the Armada fight as part of a war of religion. These myths are the last stragglers of the Armada, and have still to come into port.

Perhaps he is right. But given that over a third of the Armada’s ships and equipment and one-half of her men were lost and that virtually all of the senior commanders died or were disgraced, I do not think it is an act of gross exaggeration to conclude that this was no mere imperial setback. It would seem to be a very major defeat.

However we may judge this episode in light of Fernandez-Armesto’s new appraisal, those interested in the progress of Revisionism may wish to take note that it has taken over four centuries for an honest reexamination of these events to be written by a professor at a major university and published by an internationally renowned scholarly press. As this is being written, we can report that the author of this volume, which challenges the accepted version at every point, has not been assaulted by the defenders of the memory of Sir Francis Drake; that he has not lost his tenured professorship; and that his doctorate has not been revoked. A center of controversy, Fernandez-Armesto remains safely at large. But most will agree that four hundred years is a long time for Revisionism of a sort to win a respectful hearing.

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 363-366.