by Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023. Pp. x, 758+.
Illus., maps, gloss., chron., online appends, notes, biblio., index. $40.00. ISBN: 0300259867
The Armada and the Fate of England
Readers who want a fast-paced account of how Elizabeth’s navy, led by such captains as Drake, Howard, and Frobisher, managed to defeat the Spanish Armada in battles fought in the English Channel, should look elsewhere. This massive tome—728 pages, of which 545 are the text itself—provides a wealth of information, including the historical background needed to understand why King Philip II of Spain sent his fleet toward England, what happened to each ship and its men, and the contributions of nautical archeology to our current knowledge of their fates. But, for better or for worse, Geoffrey Parker, an historian at Ohio State, and Colin Martin, a Scottish archeologist, devote only about forty pages to the fighting that took place between July 31 and August 9, 1588.
What readers get, instead of much combat narrative, is the larger picture of what was happening in Western Europe in the decades before the Armada sailed, the impact of the battles, and then how these events affected European history for the next century. Most of the detailed history of the situation in Spain, the Netherlands, France, and England in this era is traced through the massive collection of documents that Parker has used to give us background and then track both ships and men through the Channel and beyond. Philip II of Spain was a micromanager who preferred to rule his realm from a desk in El Escorial. He was in constant contact, by letter, with officials in Cuba, Antwerp, Rome and everywhere in between. As the Armada actually sets sail, leaving Lisbon to sail north, the letters continue. The Duke of Medina Sidonia, its commander, sends off messages by small, fast ships, as the fleet makes its way toward the Channel. His plan is to defeat the ships of Queen Elizabeth I, and thereby enable Spanish forces in Holland to cross the Channel, land, march on London, and depose the queen. But many things go wrong once the Armada sails from Lisbon on May 28. Contrary winds force it back for days, and on June 19, most of the ships stop at Corunna, in northern Spain, to replenish their stores. The fleet sails again in July, and the first battle with the English comes on July 31, with more fighting on August 2 and August 4. None of these battles is decisive, but the duke loses some ships, and expends much of his ammunition. Meanwhile, the Duke of Parma is waiting with barges full of soldiers and horses on the Netherlands coast, hoping for a message from Medina Sidonia that the English have been defeated, and he may launch his invasion. This message never arrives: Medina Sidonia gives up on August 10, and decides to lead the Armada up the east coast of England, round Scotland and Ireland, and sail home. The duke, and several of his ships, actually succeed in reaching Spain by September 20. But most of the second half of Armada describes the grim fate of the vessels that are wrecked in Scotland and Ireland. Many of their crews perish at sea, while most of those who reach land are executed by vengeful English officials.
Though the book has a strong diplomatic-history bias, there is much here of interest to military history readers. One striking example is the harsh gamble for the crews of warships in simply going to sea: “Of the 500 men aboard Elizabeth Bonaventure when she left Plymouth in July some 200 were dead of disease a month later.”
Parker also has an excellent discussion of some counter-factual histories. The most interesting of these is a comparison of a possible Spanish landing in England in 1588—had the Armada succeeded—with the successful Dutch invasion a century later, in 1688. William of Orange landed at Torbey in November of 1688, and marched on London with his army as King James’ forces collapsed. How different would events have been in 1588? Elizabeth did not command the loyalty of all her subjects—certainly not most Catholics—nor did she command a substantial standing army. Armada has several problems: it is much too long, and there is too much space devoted to Philip’s correspondence. The section on the archeology of the wrecks along the Scottish and Irish coasts, while providing some interesting insights, really should be in another book. The same could be said of the discussion of commemorations of the Armada, and the books and films that have celebrated it.
But the history is all there, Armada is well written, with impeccable notes, bibliography and index, and the book is beautifully illustrated with many black and white and color plates.
Our Reviewer: Jonathan Beard is a retired freelance journalist who has devoted most of his life to reading military history. When he worked, he wrote and did research for British, American and Danish science magazines, and translated for an American news magazine. The first book the owned was Fletcher Pratt’s The Monitor and the Merrimac. Jonathan reviews regularly for the Michigan War Studies Review. His previous reviews for StrategyPage and NYMAS include Down the Warpath to the Cedars: Indians' First Battles in the Revolution, The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1944, Prevail Until the Bitter End: Germans in the Waning Days of World War II, Enemies Among Us, Battle of the Bulge, Then and Now, Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy From Triumph to Collapse, Engineering in the Confederate Heartland, and The Bletchley Park Codebreakers.
Note: Armada is also available in e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium