Monday, 1 March 2010

The Spanish Armada reaches the English Channel

On 29 June 1588 a small trading bark left Mousehole in Cornwall heading for France, where it was to pick up a cargo of salt and return. The craft was entering French waters when it encountered a patrolling French warship. The French craft altered course and came within hailing distance of the Cornish vessel.

“As you love your life,” bellowed the French captain, “do not go on. The Spanish fleet is up the coast.” He waved his arm to the west, then passed on.

The Cornish master held a hurried discussion with his men. They decided that the salt should be abandoned. Instead they would sail directly west to try to find the Spanish ships. In an unarmed bark this was bravery indeed, but every Englishman knew that what their fleet needed most was definite news of the Armada. Three hours later the Cornishmen saw masts and sails coming up over the horizon. They kept steadily on, veering off to make sure they stayed up wind of the ships.

As the range narrowed, it was obvious that somebody on the ships had spotted the small bark. Three of the ships turned to intercept him. The Cornish captain decided it was time to go. He had counted nine ships, the largest of about 800 tons and the smallest around 200 tons. He noticed that each of them had a red cross painted on its foresail.

When he got back to Mousehole, the Cornish captain wrote out a quick report and rode with it to the home of Sir Francis Godolphin, who sent a rider to take it to Plymouth. It was the first firm news of the Armada, but not the last. Before nightfall two other craft had come in with sightings of Spanish ships. There were 15 south of the Scillies and six north of the islands.

Howard at once put to sea. He led most of the English ships toward the Scillies, while Drake led a smaller force toward Brittany. By the time they got to their stations there were no Spanish ships to be seen. The vessels had been the storeships rounded up by Esquival in his patache and they had by this time turned south to rejoin the Armada at Corunna. Drake did, however, pick up the Scottish merchant ship that had been captured by the Paloma Blanca. The Spaniards thought that they had moved the entire crew to their own ship for questioning, and had later cast it adrift when they thought it was sinking. Yet here it was with three men and the cabin boy left aboard limping on for France. The Scots told all they knew, then passed on. Drake now knew that the mystery ships had been storeships scattered by a storm, not the great Armada itself.

Meanwhile, one of Howard’s scout ships ran into what it took to be an unarmed Spanish merchant ship. The English craft closed intending to overawe the enemy with a show of gunfire, only to receive a mass of musketry in response and a salvo of cannon fire. The scout hauled off, having orders to report back with sightings not to get involved in battle. Thus English orders to avoid a fight were mistaken by the Spanish as fear of open battle. Natural enough in the circumstances, but a mistake that later lead the Spanish into trouble.

Howard and Drake raced back to Plymouth. Wherever the Armada was, it had been dispersed by a storm and possibly damaged. Now was the time to strike.

This is an extract from The Spanish Armada, a Campaign in Context by Rupert Matthews.

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