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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Spanish Armada Approaches England
By John Lothrop Motley (1814–1877)
From the ‘History of the United Netherlands’

THE BLAZE and smoke of ten thousand beacon-fires, from the Land’s End to Margate, and from the Isle of Wight to Cumberland, gave warning to every Englishman that the enemy was at last upon them. Almost at that very instant, intelligence had been brought from the court to the Lord Admiral at Plymouth that the Armada, dispersed and shattered by the gales of June, was not likely to make its appearance that year; and orders had consequently been given to disarm the four largest ships and send them into dock. Even Walsingham, as already stated, had participated in this strange delusion.  1
  Before Howard had time to act upon this ill-timed suggestion,—even had he been disposed to do so,—he received authentic intelligence that the great fleet was off the Lizard. Neither he nor Francis Drake were the men to lose time in such an emergency; and before that Friday night was spent, sixty of the best English ships had been warped out of Plymouth harbor.  2
  On Saturday, 30th July, the wind was very light at southwest, with a mist and drizzling rain; but by three in the afternoon the two fleets could descry and count each other through the haze.  3
  By nine o’clock, 31st July, about two miles from Looe on the Cornish coast, the fleets had their first meeting. There were one hundred and thirty-six sail of the Spaniards, of which ninety were large ships; and sixty-seven of the English. It was a solemn moment. The long-expected Armada presented a pompous, almost a theatrical appearance. The ships seemed arranged for a pageant, in honor of a victory already won. Disposed in form of a crescent, the horns of which were seven miles asunder, those gilded, towered, floating castles, with their gaudy standards and their martial music, moved slowly along the channel, with an air of indolent pomp. Their captain-general, the golden duke, stood in his private shot-proof fortress, on the deck of his great galleon the St. Martin, surrounded by generals of infantry and colonels of cavalry, who knew as little as he did himself of naval matters. The English vessels, on the other hand,—with a few exceptions light, swift, and easily handled,—could sail round and round those unwieldy galleons, hulks, and galleys rowed by fettered slave gangs. The superior seamanship of free Englishmen, commanded by such experienced captains as Drake, Frobisher, and Hawkins,—from infancy at home on blue water,—was manifest in the very first encounter. They obtained the weather-gage at once, and cannonaded the enemy at intervals with considerable effect; easily escaping at will out of range of the sluggish Armada, which was incapable of bearing sail in pursuit, although provided with an armament which could sink all its enemies at close quarters. “We had some small fight with them that Sunday afternoon,” said Hawkins.  4
  Medina Sidonia hoisted the royal standard at the fore; and the whole fleet did its utmost, which was little, to offer general battle. It was in vain. The English, following at the heels of the enemy, refused all such invitations, and attacked only the rear-guard of the Armada, where Recalde commanded. That admiral, steadily maintaining his post, faced his nimble antagonists, who continued to tease, to maltreat, and to elude him, while the rest of the fleet proceeded slowly up the Channel closely followed by the enemy. And thus the running fight continued along the coast, in full view of Plymouth, whence boats with reinforcements and volunteers were perpetually arriving to the English ships, until the battle had drifted quite out of reach of the town.  5
  Already in this first “small fight” the Spaniards had learned a lesson, and might even entertain a doubt of their invincibility. But before the sun set there were more serious disasters. Much powder and shot had been expended by the Spaniard to very little purpose, and so a master-gunner on board Admiral Oquendo’s flag-ship was reprimanded for careless ball-practice. The gunner, who was a Fleming, enraged with his captain, laid a train to the powder-magazine, fired it, and threw himself into the sea. Two decks blew up. The great castle at the stern rose into clouds, carrying with it the paymaster-general of the fleet, a large portion of treasure, and nearly two hundred men. The ship was a wreck, but it was possible to save the rest of the crew. So Medina Sidonia sent light vessels to remove them, and wore with his flag-ship to defend Oquendo, who had already been fastened upon by his English pursuers. But the Spaniards, not being so light in hand as their enemies, involved themselves in much embarrassment by this manœuvre; and there was much falling foul of each other, entanglement of rigging, and carrying away of yards. Oquendo’s men, however, were ultimately saved and taken to other ships.  6
  Meantime Don Pedro de Valdez, commander of the Andalusian squadron, having got his galleon into collision with two or three Spanish ships successively, had at last carried away his fore-mast close to the deck, and the wreck had fallen against his mainmast. He lay crippled and helpless, the Armada was slowly deserting him, night was coming on, the sea was running high, and the English, ever hovering near, were ready to grapple with him. In vain did Don Pedro fire signals of distress. The captain-general—even as though the unlucky galleon had not been connected with the Catholic fleet—calmly fired a gun to collect his scattered ships, and abandoned Valdez to his fate. “He left me comfortless in sight of the whole fleet,” said poor Pedro; “and greater inhumanity and unthankfulness I think was never heard of among men.”  7
  Yet the Spaniard comported himself most gallantly. Frobisher, in the largest ship of the English fleet, the Triumph of eleven hundred tons, and Hawkins in the Victory of eight hundred, cannonaded him at a distance, but night coming on, he was able to resist; and it was not till the following morning that he surrendered to the Revenge.  8
  Drake then received the gallant prisoner on board his flag-ship,—much to the disgust and indignation of Frobisher and Hawkins, thus disappointed of their prize and ransom money,—treated him with much courtesy, and gave his word of honor that he and his men should be treated fairly like good prisoners of war. This pledge was redeemed; for it was not the English, as it was the Spanish custom, to convert captives into slaves, but only to hold them for ransom. Valdez responded to Drake’s politeness by kissing his hand, embracing him, and overpowering him with magnificent compliments. He was then sent on board the Lord Admiral, who received him with similar urbanity, and expressed his regret that so distinguished a personage should have been so coolly deserted by the Duke of Medina. Don Pedro then returned to the Revenge, where, as the guest of Drake, he was a witness to all subsequent events up to the 10th of August; on which day he was sent to London with some other officers, Sir Francis claiming his ransom as his lawful due.  9
  Here certainly was no very triumphant beginning for the Invincible Armada. On the very first day of their being in presence of the English fleet—then but sixty-seven in number, and vastly their inferior in size and weight of metal—they had lost the flag-ships of the Guipuzcoan and of the Andalusian squadrons, with a general-admiral, four hundred and fifty officers and men, and some one hundred thousand ducats of treasure. They had been outmanœuvred, outsailed, and thoroughly maltreated by their antagonists, and they had been unable to inflict a single blow in return. Thus the “small fight” had been a cheerful one for the opponents of the Inquisition, and the English were proportionally encouraged….  10
  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.  11
  Farther along the coast, invisible, but known to be performing a most 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 Dunkirk 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 Dunkirk; 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.  12
  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 salvos 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?  13
  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 “Holofernes,” with his invincible legions, was resolved to come forth?…  14
  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 lifetime, and who had slain fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brides and bridegrooms, before each other’s 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 defenseless 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.  15
  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….  16
  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 lee.  17
  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.  18
  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.  19
  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.  20
  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 sailors 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.  21

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