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From the Death of William the Silent to the Twelve Year's Truce - 1609

By John Lothrop Motley

MOTLEY'S HISTORY OF THE NETHERLANDS, Project Gutenberg Edition, Vol. 58

History of the United Netherlands, 1588

Both Fleets off Calais - A Night of Anxiety - Project of Howard and
Winter - Impatience of the Spaniards - Fire-Ships sent against the
Armada - A great Galeasse disabled - Attacked and captured by English
Boats - General Engagement of both Fleets - Loss of several Spanish
Ships - Armada flies, followed by the English - English insufficiently
provided - Are obliged to relinquish the Chase - A great Storm
disperses the Armada - Great Energy of Parma Made fruitless by
Philip's Dulness - England readier at Sea than on Shore - The
Lieutenant - General's Complaints - His Quarrels with Norris and
Williams - Harsh Statements as to the English Troops - Want of
Organization in England - Royal Parsimony and Delay - Quarrels of
English Admirals - England's narrow Escape from great Peril - Various
Rumours as to the Armada's Fate - Philip for a long Time in Doubt - He
believes himself victorious - Is tranquil when undeceived.


And in Calais roads the great fleet - sailing slowly all next day in
company with the English, without a shot being fired on either side - at
last dropped anchor on Saturday afternoon, August 6th.

Here then the Invincible Armada had arrived at its appointed resting-
place. Here the great junction - of Medina Sidonia with the Duke of Parma
was to be effected; and now at last the curtain was to rise upon the last
act of the great drama so slowly and elaborately prepared.

That Saturday afternoon, Lord Henry Seymour and his squadron of sixteen
lay between Dungeness and Folkestone; waiting the approach of the two
fleets. He spoke several-coasting vessels coming from the west; but they
could give him no information - strange to say - either of the Spaniards
or, of his own countrymen, - Seymour; having hardly three days' provision
in his fleet, thought that there might be time to take in supplies; and
so bore into the Downs. Hardly had he been there half an hour; when a
pinnace arrived from the Lord-Admiral; with orders for Lord Henry's
squadron to hold itself in readiness. There was no longer time for
victualling, and very soon afterwards the order was given to make sail
and bear for the French coast. The wind was however so light; that the
whole day was spent before Seymour with his ships could cross the
channel. At last, towards seven in the evening; he saw the great Spanish
Armada, drawn up in a half-moon, and riding at anchor - the ships very
near each other - a little to the eastward of Calais, and very near the
shore. The English, under Howard Drake, Frobisher, and Hawkins, were
slowly following, and - so soon as Lord Henry, arriving from the opposite
shore; had made his junction with them - the whole combined fleet dropped
anchor likewise very near Calais, and within one mile and a half of the
Spaniards. That invincible force had at last almost reached its
destination. It was now to receive the cooperation of the great Farnese,
at the head of an army of veterans, disciplined on a hundred battle-
fields, confident from countless victories, and arrayed, as they had been
with ostentatious splendour, to follow the most brilliant general in
Christendom on his triumphal march into the capital of England. The
long-threatened invasion was no longer an idle figment of politicians,
maliciously spread abroad to poison men's minds as to the intentions of
a long-enduring but magnanimous, and on the whole friendly sovereign.
The mask had been at last thrown down, and the mild accents of Philip's
diplomatists and their English dupes, interchanging protocols so
decorously month after month on the sands of Bourbourg, had been drowned
by the peremptory voice of English and Spanish artillery, suddenly
breaking in upon their placid conferences. It had now become
supererogatory to ask for Alexander's word of honour whether he had,
ever heard of Cardinal Allan's pamphlet, or whether his master
contemplated hostilities against Queen Elizabeth.

Never, since England was England, had such a sight been seen as now
revealed itself in those narrow straits between Dover and Calais. Along
that long, low, sandy shore, and quite within the range of the Calais
fortifications, one hundred and thirty Spanish ships - the greater number
of them the largest and most heavily armed in the world lay face to face,
and scarcely out of cannon-shot, with one hundred and fifty English
sloops and frigates, the strongest and swiftest that the island could
furnish, and commanded by men whose exploits had rung through the world.

Farther along the coast, invisible, but known to be performing a post
perilous and vital service, was a squadron of Dutch vessels of all sizes,
lining both the inner and outer edges of the sandbanks off the Flemish
coasts, and swarming in all the estuaries and inlets of that intricate
and dangerous cruising-ground between Dunkerk and Walcheren. Those
fleets of Holland and Zeeland, numbering some one hundred and fifty
galleons, sloops, and fly-boats, under Warmond, Nassau, Van der Does, de
Moor, and Rosendael, lay patiently blockading every possible egress from
Newport, or Gravelines; or Sluys, or Flushing, or Dunkerk, and longing to
grapple with the Duke of Parma, so soon as his fleet of gunboats and
hoys, packed with his Spanish and Italian veterans, should venture to set
forth upon the sea for their long-prepared exploit.

It was a pompous spectacle, that midsummer night, upon those narrow seas.
The moon, which was at the full, was rising calmly upon a scene of
anxious expectation. Would she not be looking, by the morrow's night,
upon a subjugated England, a re-enslaved Holland - upon the downfall of
civil and religious liberty? Those ships of Spain, which lay there with
their banners waving in the moonlight, discharging salvoes of anticipated
triumph and filling the air with strains of insolent music; would they
not, by daybreak, be moving straight to their purpose, bearing the
conquerors of the world to the scene of their cherished hopes?

That English fleet, too, which rode there at anchor, so anxiously on the
watch - would that swarm of, nimble, lightly-handled, but slender
vessels, - which had held their own hitherto in hurried and desultory
skirmishes - be able to cope with their great antagonist now that the
moment had arrived for the death grapple? Would not Howard, Drake,
Frobisher, Seymour, Winter, and Hawkins, be swept out of the straits at
last, yielding an open passage to Medina, Oquendo, Recalde, and Farnese?
Would those Hollanders and Zeelanders, cruising so vigilantly among their
treacherous shallows, dare to maintain their post, now that the terrible
'Holofernese,' with his invincible legions, was resolved to come forth?

So soon as he had cast anchor, Howard despatched a pinnace to the
Vanguard, with a message to Winter to come on board the flag-ship. When
Sir William reached the Ark, it was already nine in the evening. He was
anxiously consulted by the Lord-Admiral as to the course now to be taken.
Hitherto the English had been teasing and perplexing an enemy, on the
retreat, as it were, by the nature of his instructions. Although anxious
to give battle, the Spaniard was forbidden to descend upon the coast
until after his junction with Parma. So the English had played a
comparatively easy game, hanging upon their enemy's skirts, maltreating
him as they doubled about him, cannonading him from a distance, and
slipping out of his reach at their pleasure. But he was now to be met
face to face, and the fate of the two free commonwealths of the world was
upon the issue of the struggle, which could no longer be deferred.

Winter, standing side by aide with the Lord-Admiral on the deck of the
little Ark-Royal, gazed for the first time on those enormous galleons and
galleys with which his companion, was already sufficiently familiar.

"Considering their hugeness," said he, "twill not be possible to remove
them but by a device."

Then remembering, in a lucky moment, something that he had heard four
years before of the fire ships sent by the Antwerpers against Parma's
bridge - the inventor of which, the Italian Gianibelli, was at that very
moment constructing fortifications on the Thames to assist the English
against his old enemy Farnese - Winter suggested that some stratagem of
the same kind should be attempted against the Invincible Armada. There
was no time nor opportunity to prepare such submarine volcanoes as had
been employed on that memorable occasion; but burning ships at least
might be sent among the fleet. Some damage would doubtless be thus
inflicted by the fire, and perhaps a panic, suggested by the memories of
Antwerp and by the knowledge that the famous Mantuan wizard was then a
resident of England, would be still more effective. In Winter's opinion,
the Armada might at least be compelled to slip its cables, and be thrown
into some confusion if the project were fairly carried out.

Howard approved of the device, and determined to hold, next morning, a
council of war for arranging the details of its execution.

While the two sat in the cabin, conversing thus earnestly, there had well
nigh been a serious misfortune. The ship, White Bear, of 1000 tons
burthen, and three others of the English fleet, all tangled together,
came drifting with the tide against the Ark. There were many yards
carried away; much tackle spoiled, and for a time there was great danger;
in the opinion of Winter, that some of the very best ships in the fleet
would be crippled and quite destroyed on the eve of a general engagement.
By alacrity and good handling, however, the ships were separated, and the
ill-consequences of an accident - such as had already proved fatal to
several Spanish vessels - were fortunately averted.

Next day, Sunday, 7th August, the two great fleets were still lying but a
mile and a half apart, calmly gazing at each other, and rising and
falling at their anchors as idly as if some vast summer regatta were the
only purpose of that great assemblage of shipping. Nothing as yet was
heard of Farnese. Thus far, at least, the Hollanders had held him at
bay, and there was still breathing-time before the catastrophe. So
Howard hung out his signal for council early in the morning, and very
soon after Drake and Hawkins, Seymour, Winter, and the rest, were gravely
consulting in his cabin.

It was decided that Winter's suggestion should be acted upon, and Sir
Henry Palmer was immediately despatched in a pinnace to Dover, to bring
off a number of old vessels fit to be fired, together with a supply of
light wood, tar, rosin, sulphur, and other combustibles, most adapted to
the purpose.' But as time wore away, it became obviously impossible for
Palmer to return that night, and it was determined to make the most of
what could be collected in the fleet itself. Otherwise it was to be
feared that the opportunity might be for ever lost. Parma, crushing all
opposition, might suddenly appear at any moment upon the channel; and the
whole Spanish Armada, placing itself between him and his enemies, would
engage the English and Dutch fleets, and cover his passage to Dover. It
would then be too late to think of the burning ships.

On the other hand, upon the decks of the Armada, there was an impatience
that night which increased every hour. The governor of Calais; M. de
Gourdon, had sent his nephew on board the flag-ship of Medina Sidonia,
with courteous salutations, professions of friendship, and bountiful
refreshments. There was no fear - now that Mucio was for the time in the
ascendency - that the schemes of Philip would be interfered with by
France. The governor, had, however, sent serious warning of - the
dangerous position in which the Armada had placed itself. He was quite
right. Calais roads were no safe anchorage for huge vessels like those
of Spain and Portugal; for the tides and cross-currents to which they
were exposed were most treacherous. It was calm enough at the moment,
but a westerly gale might, in a few hours, drive the whole fleet
hopelessly among the sand-banks of the dangerous Flemish coast.
Moreover, the Duke, although tolerably well furnished with charts and
pilots for the English coast, was comparatively unprovided against the
dangers which might beset him off Dunkerk, Newport, and Flushing. He had
sent messengers, day after day, to Farnese, begging for assistance of
various kinds, but, above all, imploring his instant presence on the
field of action. It was the time and, place for Alexander to assume the
chief command. The Armada was ready to make front against the English
fleet on the left, while on the right, the Duke, thus protected, might
proceed across the channel and take possession of England.

And the impatience of the soldiers and sailors on board the fleet was
equal to that of their commanders. There was London almost before their
eyes - a huge mass of treasure, richer and more accessible than those
mines beyond the Atlantic which had so often rewarded Spanish chivalry
with fabulous wealth. And there were men in those galleons who
remembered the sack of Antwerp, eleven years before - men who could tell,
from personal experience, how helpless was a great commercial city, when
once in the clutch of disciplined brigands - men who, in that dread 'fury
of Antwerp,' had enriched themselves in an hour with the accumulations of
a merchant's life-time, and who had slain fathers and mothers, sons and
daughters, brides and bridegrooms, before each others' eyes, until the
number of inhabitants butchered in the blazing streets rose to many
thousands; and the plunder from palaces and warehouses was counted by
millions; before the sun had set on the 'great fury.' Those Spaniards,
and Italians, and Walloons, were now thirsting for more gold, for more
blood; and as the capital of England was even more wealthy and far more
defenceless than the commercial metropolis of the Netherlands had been,
so it was resolved that the London 'fury' should be more thorough and
more productive than the 'fury' of Antwerp, at the memory - of which the
world still shuddered. And these professional soldiers had been taught
to consider the English as a pacific, delicate, effeminate race,
dependent on good living, without experience of war, quickly fatigued and
discouraged, and even more easily to be plundered and butchered than were
the excellent burghers of Antwerp.

And so these southern conquerors looked down from their great galleons
and galeasses upon the English vessels. More than three quarters of them
were merchantmen. There was no comparison whatever between the relative
strength of the fleets. In number they were about equal being each from
one hundred and thirty to one hundred and fifty strong - but the Spaniards
had twice the tonnage of the English, four times the artillery, and
nearly three times the number of men.

Where was Farnese? Most impatiently the Golden Duke paced the deck of
the Saint Martin. Most eagerly were thousands of eyes strained towards
the eastern horizon to catch the first glimpse of Parma's flotilla. But
the day wore on to its close, and still the same inexplicable and
mysterious silence prevailed. There was utter solitude on the waters in
the direction of Gravelines and Dunkerk - not a sail upon the sea in the
quarter where bustle and activity had been most expected. The mystery
was profound, for it had never entered the head of any man in the Armada
that Alexander could not come out when he chose.

And now to impatience succeeded suspicion and indignation; and there were
curses upon sluggishness and upon treachery. For in the horrible
atmosphere of duplicity, in which all Spaniards and Italians of that
epoch lived, every man: suspected his brother, and already Medina Sidonia
suspected Farnese of playing him false. There were whispers of collusion
between the Duke and the English commissioners at Bourbourg. There were
hints that Alexander was playing his own game, that he meant to divide
the sovereignty of the Netherlands with the heretic Elizabeth, to desert
his great trust, and to effect, if possible, the destruction of his
master's Armada, and the downfall of his master's sovereignty in the
north. Men told each other, too, of a vague rumour, concerning which
Alexander might have received information, and in which many believed,
that Medina Sidonia was the bearer of secret orders to throw Farnese into
bondage, so soon as he should appear, to send him a disgraced captive
back to Spain for punishment, and to place the baton of command in the
hand of the Duke of Pastrana, Philip's bastard by the Eboli. Thus, in
the absence of Alexander, all was suspense and suspicion. It seemed
possible that disaster instead of triumph was in store for them through
the treachery of the commander-in-chief. Four and twenty hours and more,
they had been lying in that dangerous roadstead, and although the weather
had been calm and the sea tranquil, there seemed something brooding in
the atmosphere.

As the twilight deepened, the moon became totally obscured, dark cloud-
masses spread over the heavens, the sea grew black, distant thunder
rolled, and the sob of an approaching tempest became distinctly audible.
Such indications of a westerly gale, were not encouraging to those
cumbrous vessels, with the treacherous quicksands of Flanders under their

At an hour past midnight, it was so dark that it was difficult for the
most practiced eye to pierce far into the gloom. But a faint drip of
oars now struck the ears of the Spaniards as they watched from the decks.
A few moments afterwards the sea became, suddenly luminous, and six
flaming vessels appeared at a slight distance, bearing steadily down upon
them before the wind and tide.

There were men in the Armada who had been at the siege of Antwerp only
three years before. They remembered with horror the devil-ships of
Gianibelli, those floating volcanoes, which had seemed to rend earth and
ocean, whose explosion had laid so many thousands of soldiers dead at a
blow, and which had shattered the bridge and floating forts of Farnese,
as though they had been toys of glass. They knew, too, that the famous
engineer was at that moment in England.

In a moment one of those horrible panics, which spread with such
contagious rapidity among large bodies of men, seized upon the Spaniards.
There was a yell throughout the fleet - "the fire-ships of Antwerp, the
fire-ships of Antwerp!" and in an instant every cable was cut, and
frantic attempts were made by each galleon and galeasse to escape what
seemed imminent destruction. The confusion was beyond description. Four
or five of the largest ships became entangled with each other. Two
others were set on fire by the flaming - vessels, and were consumed.
Medina Sidonia, who had been warned, even, before his departure from
Spain, that some such artifice would probably be attempted, and who had
even, early that morning, sent out a party of sailors in a pinnace to
search for indications of the scheme, was not surprised or dismayed.
He gave orders - as well as might be that every ship, after the danger
should be passed, was to return to its post, and, await his further
orders. But it was useless, in that moment of unreasonable panic to
issue commands. The despised Mantuan, who had met with so many rebuffs
at Philip's court, and who - owing to official incredulity had been but
partially successful in his magnificent enterprise at Antwerp, had now;
by the mere terror of his name, inflicted more damage on Philip's Armada
than had hitherto been accomplished by Howard and Drake, Hawkins and
Frobisher, combined.

So long as night and darkness lasted, the confusion and uproar continued.
When the Monday morning dawned, several of the Spanish vessels lay
disabled, while the rest of the fleet was seen at a distance of two
leagues from Calais, driving towards the Flemish coast. The threatened
gale had not yet begun to blow, but there were fresh squalls from the
W.S.W., which, to such awkward sailers as the Spanish vessels; were
difficult to contend with. On the other hand, the English fleet were all
astir; and ready to pursue the Spaniards, now rapidly drifting into the
North Sea. In the immediate neighbourhood of Calais, the flagship of the
squadron of galeasses, commanded by Don Hugo de Moncada, was discovered
using her foresail and oars, and endeavouring to enter the harbour.
She had been damaged by collision with the St. John of Sicily and other
ships, during the night's panic, and had her rudder quite torn away. She
was the largest and most splendid vessel in the Armada - the show-ship of
the fleet, - "the very glory and stay of the Spanish navy," and during the
previous two days she had been visited and admired by great numbers of
Frenchmen from the shore.

Lord Admiral Howard bore dawn upon her at once, but as she was already in
shallow water, and was rowing steadily towards the town, he saw that the
Ark could not follow with safety. So he sent his long-boat to cut her
out, manned with fifty or sixty volunteers, most of them "as valiant in
courage as gentle in birth" - as a partaker in the adventure declared.
The Margaret and Joan of London, also following in pursuit, ran herself
aground, but the master despatched his pinnace with a body of musketeers,
to aid in the capture of the galeasse.

That huge vessel failed to enter the harbour, and stuck fast upon the
bar. There was much dismay on board, but Don Hugo prepared resolutely to
defend himself. The quays of Calais and the line of the French shore
were lined with thousands of eager spectators, as the two boats-rowing
steadily toward a galeasse, which carried forty brass pieces of
artillery, and was manned with three hundred soldiers and four hundred
and fifty slaves - seemed rushing upon their own destruction. Of these
daring Englishmen, patricians and plebeians together, in two open
pinnaces, there were not more than one hundred in number, all told.
They soon laid themselves close to the Capitana, far below her lofty
sides, and called on Don Hugo to surrender. The answer was, a smile of
derision from the haughty Spaniard, as he looked down upon them from what
seemed an inaccessible height. Then one Wilton, coxswain of the Delight;
of Winter's squadron, clambered up to the enemy's deck and fell dead
the same instant. Then the English volunteers opened a volley upon the
Spaniards; "They seemed safely ensconced in their ships," said bold Dick
Tomson, of the Margaret and Joan, "while we in our open pinnaces, and far
under them, had nothing to shroud and cover us." Moreover the numbers
were, seven hundred and fifty to one hundred. But, the Spaniards, still
quite disconcerted by the events of the preceding night, seemed under a
spell. Otherwise it would have been an easy matter for the great
galeasse to annihilate such puny antagonists in a very short space of

The English pelted the Spaniards quite cheerfully, however, with arquebus
shot, whenever they showed themselves above the bulwarks, picked off a
considerable number, and sustained a rather severe loss themselves,
Lieutenant Preston of the Ark-Royal, among others, being dangerously
wounded. "We had a pretty skirmish for half-an-hour," said Tomson.
At last Don Hugo de Moncada, furious at the inefficiency of his men, and
leading them forward in person, fell back on his deck with a bullet
through both eyes. The panic was instantaneous, for, meantime, several
other English boats - some with eight, ten; or twelve men on board - were
seen pulling - towards the galeasse; while the dismayed soldiers at once
leaped overboard on the land side, and attempted to escape by swimming
and wading to the shore. Some of them succeeded, but the greater number
were drowned. The few who remained - not more, than twenty in all -
hoisted two handkerchiefs upon two rapiers as a signal of truce. The
English, accepting it as a signal of defeat; scrambled with great
difficulty up the lofty sides of the Capitana, and, for an hour and a
half, occupied themselves most agreeably in plundering the ship and in

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