Friday, 28 May 2010

The blame game begins for the failure of the Spanish Armada

It was on the dockside at Dunkirk that the Duke of Parma - commander of the Spanish land forces in the Netherlands - was found by Don Jorge Manrique, the Inspector General of the Armada who had been sent by Medina Sidonia from Calais on the Sunday evening with the blistering message for Parma to hurry up and get his troops into invasion barges to cross over to England. Manrique had ridden hard for Bruges, where Parma had been on the Sunday morning, arriving there on Monday afternoon to be told that the duke had gone to Dunkirk. After a short rest and change of horses, Manrique had headed to the port. He was tired, worried and distraught when he arrived at 10.30 that morning.

Manrique pushed through the crowds of soldiers and stalked up to Parma. He handed over Medina Sidonia’s note and began to deliver himself of his commander’s angry demands for instant action and assistance. When he demanded to know where Parma’s fleet was hiding and why it was not at sea, Parma waved his hand at the barges loaded with troops or waiting their turn to pick up the men. Manrique was aghast.

The craft before him were flat-bottomed river craft quite unsuited to a sea voyage except in the calmest of weathers. And none of them were armed. Parma had told King Philip this often enough, and Parma assumed that Medina Sidonia knew. But he did not, and neither did Manrique. In a fit of temper, Manrique accused Parma of making excuses for not going to the aid of the Armada, of hiding his armed flyboats in another port and of other things not recorded.

Parma saw he was getting nowhere, so he called in his senior officers and got them to explain to Manrique what was going on and why. Manrique was having none of it. The discussion was getting angry and heated. That was when the youthful Prince of Ascoli arrived. He had seen for himself something of the condition of the Armada after the battle fought the previous afternoon, though not all of it. His report made it clear that the Armada would not be arriving for a rendezvous any time that day, nor probably for the next few days, but it was still unclear how much damage the Spanish fleet had sustained.

Then Captain Marolin de Juan arrived. De Juan was the chief navigator of the Armada and had been out in a patache on a similar mission to that of Ascoli. He had much the same story to tell: The Armada was scattered but there was no evidence that it was defeated. It would probably be back soon.

The dispute fizzled out quickly. Everyone knew that they would have to await news of events at sea. Meanwhile, Ascoli had no eyes for the barges, but wanted only to rejoin Medina Sidonia on the San Martin. He begged Parma to lend him some armed men for his pinnace and enough food and drink to keep his men working. Parma may have been making a show of getting ready to leave port, but he knew well enough that the Dutch flyboats were out at sea and, probably, that the Armada was scattered across the sea. He refused, and told Ascoli to go and have a hot meal instead. Ascoli was frustrated and furious, but he could do little other than follow orders. Parma almost certainly saved his life.

Meanwhile, Parma ordered the embarkation to halt. The men were put into camps near Dunkirk and Nieuport, while the barges were kept tied up to await events. He then retired to a desk to dictate to his secretary a letter designed to ensure that he did not get blamed. The letter rehearsed the difficulties that he had been writing about for months, then gave a brief account of events over the previous two weeks as the messengers had arrived in succession from Medina Sidonia. It is a long letter, and clearly Parma was emphasising that he had done all he could, while attempting to blame Medina Sidonia for what had gone wrong.

This is an extract from The Spanish Armada by Rupert Matthews

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