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The volunteer navy which changed the course of history

Spanish Armada

Spanish Armada

Spain led the Holy League to defeat the Muslim Ottoman Turkish Navy at the Battle of Lepanto near Corinth, Greece, in 1571.

Hilaire Belloc wrote in “The Great Heresies” (1938): “This violent Mohammedan pressure on Christendom from the East made a bid for success by sea as well as by land. The last great Turkish organization working now from the conquered capital of Constantinople, proposed to cross the Adriatic, to attack Italy by sea and ultimately to recover all that had been lost in the Western Mediterranean. There was one critical moment when it looked as though the scheme would succeed. A huge Mohammedan armada fought at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth against the Christian fleet at Lepanto. The Christians won that naval action and the Western Mediterranean was saved. But it was a very close thing, and the name of Lepanto should remain in the minds of all men with a sense of history as one of the half dozen great names in the history of the Christian world.”

Funded by gold from the New World, the Spanish navy helped save Western Civilization from being overrun by Islam, but it declined to follow up on the victory of Lepanto to free the rest of the Mediterranean from Ottoman occupation.

Instead on May 19, 1588, the most powerful leader in the world, King Philip of Spain, after whom the Philippines were named, sent his invincible Spanish Armada to invade England.

Consisting of 130 ships with 1,500 brass guns and 1,000 iron guns, carrying 8,000 sailors and 18,000 soldiers, they were planning on picking up another 30,000 more soldiers from the Spanish Netherlands. Spain’s Dunkirk Privateers raided English and Dutch ships.

Queen Elizabeth put on her armor and rallied England with her most famous speech, Aug. 9, 1588: “Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself, that under God I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects. … I am come amongst you … resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all – to lay down for my God, and for my kingdoms, and for my people, my honour and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm. … By … your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.”

Queen Elizabeth relied on Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, Sir Martin Frobisher and Lord Howard of Effingham, whose smaller, faster vessels were able to elude the enormous Spanish galleons which attacked at port of Plymouth, England.

After Spain’s initial attacks, the English counter-attacked. The Spanish Armada regrouped on the other side of the English Channel near the French port of Calais. The fast flyboats of Dutch Admiral Justinus van Nassau captured two Spanish galleons, whose deep-drafts put them at a disadvantage in shallow waters. With weather getting tempestuous and with no deep water port, the Spanish Armada anchored off the coast in a tightly-packed defensive crescent formation.

At midnight, July 28, 1588, Sir Francis Drake set 8 ships on fire and drifted them downwind toward the Spanish Armada. In a panic, Spanish ships cut their anchor cables and drifted apart. The English then attacked in the Battle of Gravelines, July 29, 1588. Winds and currents carried the fight north toward Scotland. As the Armada tried sailing on the west side of Scotland and Ireland, gale force winds dashed their ships against the rocks. In all the Spanish Armada suffered 56 ships wrecked, sunk or captured, 10 ships scuttled, and over 20,000 dead from battle, storms and disease.

When King Philip II of Spain learned of the loss, he exclaimed: “I sent the Armada against men, not God’s winds and waves”.

In 1601, King Philip III sent Spain’s navy to the southern shores of Ireland and landed thousands of Spanish troops with the intention of staging an invasion of England. They were repulsed at the Battle of Kinsale.

Had Spain succeeded in invading and conquering England, there would have been no Pilgrims, no New England, and no United States of America.

A coin minted in Holland in 1588 had engraved on one side Spanish ships sinking and on the other side men kneeling under the inscription “Man Proposeth, God Disposeth.”

Woodrow Wilson wrote of the Spanish Armada in “History of the American People” (1902, Vol. 1, Ch 1): “For England the end of Spain’s power was marked by the destruction of the Armada, and the consequent dashing of all the ambitious schemes that had been put aboard the imposing fleet at Lisbon. … The great Armada came. … Spain recognized in the smartly handled craft which beat her clumsy galleons up the Channel the power that would some day drive her from the seas. Her hopes went to pieces with that proud fleet, before English skill and prowess and pitiless sea-weather.”

Describing the English ships, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge wrote in “Hero Tales From American History” (1895): “The ships … which … won glory in the War of 1812 were essentially like those with which Drake and Hawkins and Frobisher had harried the Spanish armadas two centuries and a half earlier. They were wooden sailing-vessels, carrying many guns mounted in broadside.”

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Woodrow Wilson gave background details: “Henry VIII interested himself in improved methods of ship-building; and when he had time to think of it he encouraged instruction in seamanship and navigation; but he built no navy. He even left the English coasts without adequate police, and suffered his subjects to defend themselves as best they might against the pirates who infested the seas not only, but came once and again to cut vessels out of port in England’s own waters. Many public ships, it is true, had been built before the Armada came, and fine craft they were; but they were not enough. There was no real navy in the modern sense.

“The fleet which chased the Spaniards up the Channel was a volunteer fleet. Merchants had learned to defend their own cargoes. They built fighting craft of their own to keep their coasts and harbors free of pirates, and to carry their goods over sea. They sought their fortunes as they pleased abroad, the crown annoying them with no inquiry to embarrass their search for Spanish treasure ships, or their trade in pirated linens and silks. It was this self-helping race of Englishmen. …”

Woodrow Wilson added: “Devonshire had the great harbor … where a whole race of venturesome and hardy fishermen were nurtured. All the great sea names of the Elizabethan age belong to it. Drake, Hawkins, Raleigh, and the Gilberts were all Devonshire men; and it was from Plymouth that the fleet went out which beat the great Armada on its way to shipwreck in the north.”

The sinking of the Spanish Armada broke Spain’s monopoly of the New World, held since the time of Columbus, and opened up a rush of European countries staking their claim in North America.

Adam Smith wrote in “The Wealth of Nations,” 1776: “The Spaniards, by virtue of the first discovery, claimed all America as their own, and … such was … the terror of their name, that the greater part of the other nations of Europe were afraid to establish themselves in any other part of that great continent. … But … the defeat … of their Invincible Armada … put it out of their power to obstruct any longer the settlements of the other European nations. In the course of the 17th century … English, French, Dutch, Danes, and Swedes … attempted to make some settlements in the new world.”

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