Medina Sidonia

Armada III

In addition to the damage inflicted on them by the English guns, the Armada sustained other damage. As night fell, its ships huddled together to prevent dispersion. The galleon of Pedro di Valdez, fouling with the Santa Catalina, was damaged and fell behind, becoming the booty of the English. This galleon had onboard a large amount of treasure and, what was of even greater importance to the captors, whose scanty stock of ammunition was already becoming exhausted, many tons of gunpowder. A loss of even greater significance to the Spanish than the money and the ammunition was that of her commander. Pedro di Valdez was the only navel officer of the fleet who was acquainted with the Channel.

Later the same evening a yet greater calamity befell the Armada. The captain of the rear admiral’s galleon, much out of humor for the day’s adventures and quarreling with all who approached him, accused the master gunner of careless firing. Greatly offended, the man went straight to the powder magazine, thrust a burning match into it, and threw himself out of one of the portholes into the sea. Within seconds, in a momentary burst of splendor, the explosion lit the surrounding ocean. The deck was up heaved; the turrets at stern and stem rose into the air, carrying with them the paymaster of the fleet and 200 soldiers. The strong hulk, though torn by the explosion, continued to float and was seized in the morning by the English who found in it a great amount of treasure and supply of ammunition which had not ignited.

On the very first day of conflict, the Armada had lost two flagships, 450 officers and men, the paymaster of the fleet, and 100,000 ducats of Spanish gold, a sum equal to about 50,000 of English money. This was not a favorable start of an expedition which Spain had exhausted herself to outfit.

The following day the Armada continued its way slowly up-channel, followed by the fleet under Howard, who hovered upon its rear but did not attack it. On Tuesday the first really serious encounter took place. As the morning broke, the wind changed to the east, which exactly reversed the position of the two fleets, giving the weather advantage to the Armada. Howard attempted to sail around it and get to the windward side, but Medina Sidonia intercepted him by coming between him and the shore and compelled him to accept battle at close quarters. The combat was long and confused. In the evening the Spanish ships gathered themselves up and forming into a compact group, went on their way. It was believed that they were obeying Philip’s instructions to meet the duke of Parma and then, with his army, strike the decisive blow. The shores of the English Channel were crowded with anxious spectators, breathlessly watching their brave little fleet battling against the mighty ships of the Spanish invader. From every port of the realm, English merchant vessels were hastening to the spot where England’s very existence hung on the outcome of the battle. While the many small additions added greatly to the appearance, they did very little to increase the effectiveness of the queen’s navy.

On Wednesday a few shots were exchanged, but no general action took place. By the following day, the wind had once again changed to the east, giving the Armada once more the advantage. The sharpest action yet to be fought began. The ships of the two fleets engaged yardarm to yardarm, and broadside after broadside was exchanged at a distance of about 100 yards. The English admiral, Lord Howard, in his ship the Ark, lost her rudder, rendering her unmanageable. Six Spanish galleons closed around her, never doubting that she was their prize. In an instant the Ark’s own boats had her in tow; and passing out of the hostile circle she was off, to the amazement of the Spaniards. The fight continued several hours longer. When evening fell, it found the English fleet, who had all through the conflict seen the Spanish shot pass harmlessly over it, burying itself in the sea, showing no sign of battle, with scarcely a cord torn and its crews intact. The sides of the galleons, however, were pierced and riddled with the English shot, and their masts were cut or splintered.

The following day the procession up-channel was resumed in the same order as before, the mighty Armada leading the van and the nimble English fleet following. By Saturday afternoon the Spaniards were approaching the point at which they were to be joined by the Duke of Parma. As he had not arrived yet, Medina Sidonia decided to cast anchor and wait.

The critical hour had arrived when it was to be determined whether England should remain an independent kingdom or become one of Philip’s numerous satrapies; whether it was to retain the light of the Protestant faith or to fall back into the darkness and serfdom of a medieval superstition. In the skirmishes that had preceded this moment, the English ships had fared well; but now the moment had come for a death struggle between Spain and England. The Armada had arrived on the battleground comparatively intact. It had experienced rough handling from the tempests of the Atlantic and had received some heavy blows from the English fleet; several of the galleons which had glided so proudly out of the harbor at Lisbon were now at the bottom of the ocean, but these losses were hardly felt by the great Armada. It only awaited the arrival of the Duke of Parma to be perhaps the mightiest combination of navel and military power which the world had seen.

As evening drew on, low, rapidly moving clouds gave evidence of an approaching storm. The waves of the Atlantic, forcing their way up the Channel, uneasily rocked the huge Spanish galleons. The night wore away and with the return of light, Medina Sidonia could be seen scrutinizing the eastern ocean, looking for the approach of the Duke of Parma.

Meanwhile, Parma was himself as anxious to join the Armada as they were to have him. A fleet of flat-bottomed vessels was ready to carry this powerful host; but one thing was wanting, and its absence rendered all of these vast preparations fruitless. In order to join the Spanish fleet, Parma needed an open door from his harbors to the ocean, and the Dutch saw to it that he had none. They drew a line of warships along the Netherlands coast; and Parma, with his sailors and soldiers, was imprisoned in his own ports. It was strange that these circumstances had not been foreseen and provided for. In this oversight is revealed the working of a Hand powerful enough by its slightest touches to defeat the wisest schemes and crush the mightiest combinations of man when directed against a people who were leaning on Him for help.

Parma repeatedly wrote to both Philip and Medina Sidonia telling them of his predicament, but Philip either would not or could not understand.

In the meantime, anxious consultations were being held onboard the English fleet. The brave and patriotic men who led it recognized the gravity of the situation. If the Armada was joined by Parma, it would be so overwhelmingly powerful that it seemed nothing could hinder its crossing over to England. The men of the English fleet feared that before another dawn had come, Parman’s fleet would anchor alongside that of Medina Sidonia and the opportunity for striking a preemptive blow would be past.

A bold and somewhat novel idea was decided upon. Eight of the volunteer ships were selected, their masts smeared with pitch, and their hulls filled with powder, all kinds of explosives, and combustible materials. Once prepared they were set adrift in the direction of the Armada. The night favored the execution of this design. Dark clouds hid the stars while the muttering of distant thunder reverberated in the sky. The deep, heavy swell of the ocean that precedes the tempest was rocking the galleons, rendering their positions every moment more unpleasant. On the one side they found themselves close to the shallows of Calais, with the quicksand of Flanders behind them.

Suddenly, about an hour past midnight, the watch discerned dark objects emerging out of the blackness and advancing toward them. They had scarcely given the alarm when suddenly these dark shapes burst into flame, lighting up sea and sky in gloomy grandeur. Steadily these pillars of fire continued to move over the waters straight toward the Armada. The Spaniards gazed for one terrified moment upon the dreadful apparition; and then, divining its nature and mission, they instantly cut their cables, and, with the loss of some of their galleons and the damage of others, fled in confusion and panic.

Sir Frances Drake

With the first light, the English admiral weighed anchor and set sail in pursuit of the fleeing Spanish. At eight o’clock on Monday morning, Drake caught up with the Armada; and giving it no time to collect and form, began the most important of all the battles which had yet been fought.

The English ships drew close to the galleons, pouring broadside after broadside into them. From morning to night the rain of shot continued. The galleons, falling back before the fierce onslaught, huddled together. The English fire, pouring into the mass of hulls and masts, was doing fearful work, converting the ships into shambles. Rivulets of blood poured form their scuttles into the sea. By this time, many of the Spanish guns were dismounted; those that remained active fired but slowly, while the heavy rolling of the vessels threw the shot into the air. Several of the galleons were seen to go down in the action, others reeled away toward Ostend.

When evening fell the fighting was still going on. But with the shifting of the breeze to the northwest and the increasing rise of the sea, a new calamity threatened the disabled and helpless Armada; it was being forced upon the Flanders coast. If the English had had strength and ammunition to pursue them, the galleons would have that night found common burial on the shoals and quicksand of the Netherlands.

The power of the Armada had been broken; most of its vessels were in sinking condition. Between 4,000 and 5,000 of its soldiers had been killed and received burial in the ocean, and at least as many more lay wounded and dying onboard their shattered galleons. Of the English, not more than 100 had fallen.

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