© 1959 Garrett Mattingly
In the late summer of 1588, all of Europe held its breath as an enormous Spanish fleet, consisting of a hundred and fifty vessels of varying sizes, set sail for the English channel. Their mission: to rendezvous with the elite troops of General Parma in the defeated Netherlands, and to transport them to England, there to revenge the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and depose Anne Boleyn’s daughter . That invasion never happened. As is famously known, the Armada met English fire and northern winds, and a third of its number was lost utterly on the shores of Britain and Ireland. It was for Elizabeth, constantly confronting intrigue from Catholics and Puritans alike, a glorious moment: here, before all of Europe, the wind and waves declared that she was the Dread Sovereign of all England. The Armada is a storied history not just of the Spanish fleet’s doomed voyage into the channel, but how Spain came to launch such an expensive and unwieldy endeavor.
Much of the weight of The Armada gives the background information for the “English Enterprise”. Europe is in the throes of the reformation, and rebellions against princes carry with them the fervor of holy wars. France, who might oppose the sudden envelopment of England into the Spanish empire, is struggling with its own civil war, and every one of the three contenders is a Henry. The Netherlands have risen against their Spanish lords, with the military and fiscal support of Elizabeth – who is presumably more interested in having enemies of Spain at her doorstep rather than Spain itself, given the two powers’ mutual hostility. There is a very good chance that Phillip could get away with styling himself the English king: he’d already enjoyed the title as Queen Mary’s husband, and Elizabeth reigns over a divided nation. Many of her subjects maintain faith with the Catholic church, secretly or openly, and several rebellions and conspiracies intending to restore a Catholic monarch to the throne have already erupted. If their former king landed and called them to rise against a woman already declared illegitimate by the Church, how easy would it be for them to bury their fears about civil war and declare for Phillip?
Fortunately for England’s men in arms, and their mothers, it never came to that. The English engaged in a running battle with the Armada as it made its way towards the Channel; there was no epic showdown, but a series of smaller skirmishes, two of which – when combined with the storms of the Channel – did serious damage to the fleet. By the time they neared the rendezvous, in fact ,the admirals in command had to view their stores of rotten food, ailing men, and badly leaking ships in the cold light of reality. The Armada was no longer capable of breaking the Dutch blockade that would allow the Spanish to take on their army and transport it to Spain. It might not even make it home, if it continued to be harassed. Part of the problem was that the Armada was so enormous and unwieldy. Its ships were gathered together from across Spain’s domain, and many were Mediterranean galleys built for ramming that were out of place in a battle that involved more artillery than swashbuckling shipboard raids. Even in the age of standardized equipment and radio communications, the Allies required months of planning and stockpiling to prepare for D-Day. Spain had a similar challenge, but its every piece of equipment might vary from casting to casting, and its barrels of food spoiled as quickly as they could be found. The Spanish sailed in the hopes of a miracle, but they found none. When news reached Phillip II, he wrote to the his bishops and could express only thanks that — in the light of the storms — more men were not lost.
I knew virtually nothing of the Armada except that it sailed, met a storm, and failed. Although in retrospect a brief review of the history of the period would have served me well as a reader (particularly in regards to France, whom I seem to ignore utterly between 1453 and 1789) , the author’s delivery is indeed novel-like. The personalities of the period, like the swaggering Drake, add to the tale’s liveliness. Although the wars of the day seem far removed from us now, the author’s epilogue couldn’t be more current: he cautions the reader that wars of ideologies are always the hardest to win.