Battlefield Britain - Follow the Trail Of The Spanish Armada

By Corinne Field | 24 September 2004
BBC Battlefield Britain

The BBC series Battlefield Britain spanned 2000 years and told the story of eight key battles fought on and over British soil. See the spoils of war and discover the story behind these violent clashes at a museum or historic site with Culture24's Battlefield Britain trails.

Shows a photograph of a painting of lots of Spanish and English ships.

English Ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588: unidentified artist, English school, about 1590 © National Maritime Museum

The Spanish Armada

Britain’s defeat of the Spanish Armada was an unexpected victory against one of the greatest superpowers the world has ever seen, the Spanish Empire.

Hostilities between the two nations had been brewing for 20 years. Fuelled by a desire to convert protestant England to Catholicism and annoyed by the constant looting and raiding of his ships at the hands of British ‘pirates’, Phillip II of Spain decided to invade and conquer Britain.

Shows a photograph of a painting of Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I (1533-1603), English school, formerly attributed to John Bettes the Younger (fl 1570 – d 1616), about 1590 © National Maritime Museum

In 1588, 130 Spanish ships set sail from Lisbon on a religious crusade. Carrying 30,000 men, the Spanish Armada (Spanish for fleet) was a massive naval force intent on conquering Britain. But despite being outnumbered almost three to one the British saw off their Spanish invaders in one of the greatest sea battles ever fought.

Out of 30,000 men only 10,000 made it back to Spain alive. In contrast the British lost only 100 men. In its defeat of the Spanish Armada England had defended its faith and remains a largely protestant nation today thanks in part to the Royal Navy.

Shows a photograph of several artefacts found on board the wrecked Spanish ship, the Girona which were discovered by marine archaeologists.

Esmeril with breech blocks and cannon balls from the Girona.© Ulster Museum, 2004

"When Phillip II was in power the Spanish Empire was the biggest and wealthiest it had ever been," said Winifred Glover, Curator of Ethnography at Ulster Museum where artefacts from three of the Spanish Armada’s ships are on show.

"For the Spanish it was a great defeat and it signalled the end of the splendour of the Spanish Empire," she says. "For Britain it meant a great victory and kudos."

The Spanish fleet was led by Don Alonso Perez de Guzman, Duke of Medina Sidonia, one of the richest noblemen in Europe - but an unusual choice because he had never fought at sea and suffered from sea sickness.

Shows a photograph of a painting of Sir Francis Drake. He is wearing a black coat with a belted waist and a ruff collar.

Portrait of Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-96), by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561 – 1635), 1591 © National Maritime Museum

In contrast the British were led by the Lord High Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin and a seasoned professional. His second in command was the notorious Sir Francis Drake.

Drake’s old home, Buckland Abbey is open to the public. It is widely believed that Drake and Howard planned their defence against the Spanish invaders at Buckland.

On show are exhibits about the Armada and the life of Drake, including a commission from Elizabeth I, dated March 5, 1587, giving Drake command of the English naval fleet and The Surrender, a Victorian painting of the Spanish Captain of the Rosario surrendering to Drake. There are also three Simon Whistler engravings including two Armada scenes, produced to mark the gallery’s reopening in 1988.

Shows a photograph of the imposing Buckland Abbey.

An oblique view of the North front of Buckland Abbey, with the tower rising up in the middle © Andrew Butler/National Trust Photo Library

So why did Elizabeth pick Drake? Education and Support Services Manager at Buckland Abbey, Hannah Jones, thinks there were several reasons: "Firstly, perhaps, because he orchestrated the raid on Cadiz the previous year," she says.

Not only had he proved himself at Cadiz in 1587, delivering a damaging blow to Phillip II’s fleet and successfully delaying a Spanish invasion, but Drake was also considered an excellent navigator, sailor and tactician.

"He didn’t have the aristocratic background of the other commander but certainly seemed to command the respect of his men," adds Hannah.

A replica of Drake’s most famous ship, the Golden Hinde in which he circumnavigated the world between 1577 and 1580, was made in 1973. It is docked at St Mary Overie Dock, accessed via Cathedral Street, Southwark, London.

An accurate reconstruction of the Tudor galleon, the Golden Hinde operates a living history museum and puts on educational events for school parties who can overnight on board and find out what life was like for a Tudor sailor.

Shows a photograph of the replica of the Golden Hinde on the sea with all its sails billowing in the wind.

Replica of the Golden Hinde where visitors can climb aboard to experience what life would have been like for a 16th century sailor.

Education Officer of the Golden Hinde, Michael Coghlan, says: "The Golden Hinde replica is the closest people will come to seeing a ship that looked like the ones which took part in the Armada."

A table in the Middle Temple in London and three chairs, one of which is in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, made from its timbers are all that remains of Drakes’ original 18-gun ship Carrick.

The table is believed to have been made in part from the main hatch cover of the Golden Hinde, when the ship was broken up in 1600. Middle Temple is open to the public on weekdays between 10am and 12pm but it is best if visitors call the porters lodge on 020 7427 4814 in advance.

shows a photo of an ornately carved table

Known as 'the cupboard' this table is reputedly made from the hatch of Drake's Golden Hinde. By kind permission of the Masters of the Bench of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple

The Queen’s ships were prepared for battle by shipwrights at Chatham Dockyard. They were galleons which sat low in the water. Faster than the Spanish ships, it is their design that helped the British out-manoeuvre the invaders.

Now based at a new site in Chatham, the Historic Dockyard houses a museum with information panels accompanied by illustrations and photographs of artefacts which tell the story of the battle.

Shows a photograph of a painting. Roseberry Topping hill is clearly visible in the background.

Harvested fields at Little Ayton under gentle evening sunlight with Roseberry Topping on the horizon © Joe Cornish/National Trust Photo Library

The British were ready for the Spanish on sea and on land. They knew the Spanish planned to invade and had secured the coast, which included setting up a nationwide beacon chain to warn of an attack.

Roseberry Topping, a 320m hill in Yorkshire was used as a beacon station and Pevensey Castle in Sussex was re-manned as part of the defence against the Armada. Two cannon, the famous Pevensey Guns, were deployed and one of them is still on show today.

Shows an engraving of a painting of Drake and his commanders playing bowls.

The Armada is in Sight! engraved by Paul Girardet (1821-1893) after a painting by Seymour Lucas © Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

Legend has it Drake was first told about the approaching Spanish Armada whilst playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. It is said he replied, 'there is plenty of time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards' - but there is no reliable evidence for this.

Luckily for the British the Spanish force passed by Plymouth sticking to their orders to rendezvous with the rest of their fleet at Calais. Sitting ducks stuck in Plymouth Harbour waiting for the tide to turn, this gave the British a chance at least.

On July 31 the tide turned and the British pursued the Spanish. In their first confrontation the English escaped unscathed. They had not been boarded but they had failed to sink any Spanish ships although two had collided mid-battle - one exploded and the other was captured by Drake, so the mighty Armada were two ships down.

Shows a photograph of a painting of the captain of a Spanish ship surrendering.

The Surrender (of De Valdes aboard the Revenge during the Armada) by John Seymour Lucas RA (1849-1923), oil on canvas © Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery © Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

Over the August bank holiday weekend English Heritage are organizing an Elizabethan Festival at Tilbury Fort. It will include sword fighting of the period as well as exploring the life of an Elizabethan sailor and of sailors on board the Armada along with a recreation of Elizabeth’s famous Armada speech at Tilbury.

London’s National Army Museum are providing supplementary activities at the festival all about what it would have been like to be a soldier in the field.

They are also developing a series-specific gallery trail on August 28, 29 and 30. Chronologically their collections begin in the same period as the Armada and include weapons of the period including the Brown Bill.

Shows a photograph of a dramatic reconstruction of English sailors firing muskets from the side of a ship.

English sailors shoot muskets at Spanish ships during the battle of Gravelines © BBC

The flagship of the Andalusian Squadron, the 1000-ton Nuestra Señora del Rosario commanded by Don Pedro Valdez, was captured by Sir Francis Drake on board the Revenge. The crippled Rosario was immediately towed into Torbay where the majority of sailors and soldiers aboard were taken ashore and held prisoner in the old tithe barn.

For two weeks in 1588 397 Spanish prisoners were held in what has come to be known as the Spanish Barn at Torre Abbey. It is one of the most complete medieval tithe barns still standing in England today.

The Abbey is said to be haunted by a ghost known as the Spanish Lady. Many of those who sailed with the Armada were unaware their expedition might be hazardous, as they had been told by their commanders that when the English saw their fleet they would immediately rise in revolt against Queen Elizabeth I and replace her with a Catholic monarch.

Shows a photograph of a medieval tithe barn at Torre Abbey called The Spanish Barn.

Medieval barn known as The Spanish Barn at Torre Abbey. Courtesy of Torre Abbey

As a result of this fiction several Spaniards took their wives or girlfriends with them. The story is told that one such couple, a young lieutenant and his fiancé, were on board the Rosario.

When it was captured she disguised herself as a sailor so she would not be parted from her lieutenant. The disguise worked and the two were imprisoned together in the barn. Here tragedy befell as the young woman caught a chill and died. Her ghost is said to haunt the barn and the parkland around it, where she can be heard quietly sobbing for her lost love.

After a second action off Portland Bill with no decisive outcome the British hatched a plan to attack with fire. On the night of August 7 they prepared eight ships for sacrifice.

Loaded with tar, and each cannon with two shot ready to explode at random when the flames reached them, the ships were set alight and sent on their way at midnight with the wind and the tide to carry them.

The final confrontation took place at Gravelines and, after eight hours intense and desperate fighting where the English had to resort to firing chains and what ever else they could find because they had run out of ammunition, victory was finally theirs. At 4pm the Spanish pulled back.

Shows a computer-generated image of three ships in a row at sea. The one in the forground is firing a cannon.

A 'broadside' fires into the Spanish fleet. English firepower was to prove decisive in the battle against the Armada © BBC

In tatters, the Armada narrowly escaped being run aground on the sandbanks off Flanders by a change in the wind. The retreating Spanish fleet thought they were saved and headed for home.

However it was the weather that dealt the Spanish Armada a final blow. Forced to return via Ireland and Scotland as the British were blocking the Channel, they encountered some of the worst storms in living memory off the coast of Ireland.

Their broken ships and weakened men, many of whom could not swim, were no match for the elements. They lost over 40 ships in their bid to conquer Britain, over 20 of which were wrecked off the north and west coasts of Ireland. Sailors who survived the cold waters of the Irish Sea and made it ashore were butchered by English soldiers.

Shows a photograph of an engraving of the Spanish ships, in crescent formation, being pursued by the English off the south coast of England.

The Armada (off Plymouth with the English Fleet pursuing the SpanishArmada), 1739 from a series of engravings by John Pine (1690-1756), of tapestries, formerly in the House of Lords, but destroyed by fire in the 18th century © Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

Ulster Museum houses a treasure trove of artefacts from three Spanish wrecks recovered by archaeologists in the 1960s and 1970s. Marine archaeologists discovered the remains of the galleass Girona, La Trinidad Valencera, a refurbished Venetian merchant ship, and the Santa Maria de la Rosa.

On display in their Treasures of the Armada Gallery are weapons, navigation and ship’s equipment, religious artefacts and an especially large hoard from the Girona including some spectacular Renaissance jewellery and coins.

The Girona, carrying some 1300 men, made up of its own crew and the survivors of two other shipwrecks, in a boat designed for 500, sank leaving only five survivors. You can find out more about The Gold of the Girona in Ulster Museum's essay all about it on their website.

Shows a photograph of a gold salamander. It has rubies encrusted along its back - only three of which survive.

Gold and ruby salamander from the Girona © Ulster Museum, 2004

Despite massive Spanish casualties and even though the British fought off an invasion, it was not all good news for Britain. The great tragedy about this battle from the British point of view was the treatment of the navy after the battle was won. There was not enough in the coffers to pay them so despite fighting for their country many died of poverty and disease.

As a result the Chatham Chest was set up. In 1590 Sir John Hawkyns and Sir Francis Drake founded a national fund for the relief and support of injured and disabled soldiers.

From 1623 the funds were kept in a large iron strapped chest with five locks, each key held by a different person. The chest is on show at Chatham Historic Dockyard, on loan from the National Maritime Museum.

Shows a photograph of the Chatham Chest in a display case at Chatham Historic Dockyard.

The Chatham Chest fund continued until its amalgamation with the Greenwich Hospital in 1802. From 1623 the funds were kept in a large iron strapped chest with five locks, each key held by a different person. Courtesy of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust

If you want to learn more about the Spanish Armada then Tower Museum in Derry is due to open a permanent Armada Gallery in Spring 2005. The exhibition will be housed in the copy of a medieval tower, built in the 1980s.

Back in the 1970s the City of Derry Sub-Aqua Club discovered the remains of La Trinidad Valencera. Museum curator Harriet Purkis told 24 Hour Museum that there was nowhere suitable to house and conserve the finds in the Republic so Ulster has been looking after them.

Shows a photograph of two handles in the shape of dolphins on top of a cannon.

Lifting dolphins on a siege gun found at the wreck of La Trinidad Valencera © Ulster Museum, 2004

She believes the new gallery will be Europe’s largest Armada exhibition. It will include a chance to look at the archaeology as well as some "quite unique" water interactives. Highlights include bronze siege cannons decorated with crests, pewter plates and textiles.

If you can’t wait until Spring 2005 then go to Derry’s where there is a computerized walk through including a mock up of the Tower Museum plans on screen - a chance to imagine yourself in the new gallery.

To find out more about the Spanish Armada why not visit the National Maritime Museum’s learning resource and put 'Spanish Armada' into the search box. Or check out Public Record Office’s virtual museum where you can read about The Defeat of the Spanish Armada and look at artefacts like a letter penned by Drake just weeks before the battle.

On August 18, at Pendennis Castle, there will be a lecture by Alison Weir about Elizabeth I, organized by English Heritage.

To find out more about the BBC television series visit the Battlefield Britain website.