The story of the defeat of the Spanish Armada is a familiar one. It was marked by a revolution in tactics and gunnery, a revolution which burst about the ears of the baffled, inept, and unfortunate Duke of Medina Sidonia, commander of the great fleet which Philip II sent on the holy mission of conquering apostate England. During the ten crucial days from July 31 to August 9, 1588, a series of actions occurred in the English Channel between the Elizabethans and the Spanish. In nearly every one of these the English outsailed and out- maneuvered their opponents. The ships of Howard, Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher were so fast and handy that their commanders were able at all times to engage or break off action at will. They habitually kept the weather gauge, a most important consideration in the period of the sailing warship, and with only their courses set they easily outsailed the Spanish ships. Consequently the latter were helpless against their tormentors, who came in with the wind, poured their broadsides into the crowded hulls of the Armada, and then veered away to repeat the maneuver.
The progress of the Armada up the English Channel was a nightmare of frustration for the Spaniards, for they were never able to come to grips with the elusive enemy. The Venetian ambassador in France reported that, without receiving damage to himself, Drake for four days continuously was able to keep to windward, because of the better sailing qualities of his ships, and that he “pursued and bombarded them without ceasing.” The ambassador goes on to say of Drake that “he can repeat this manoeuvre as often as he pleases, for the Spanish ships are heavy and difficult to handle.” Under such conditions it was almost inevitable that the Duke of Medina Sidonia would be forced to abandon his plan of forming a junction with the army of the Duke of Parma in the Low Countries and transporting this force across the Channel for a landing on the east coast of England. On August 9th, after the bloody losses of the battle of Gravelines, Sidonia wrote off the entire operation as a failure and shortly thereafter made the decision to return to Spain. Superior mobility and superior gunnery had ushered in a new era of naval warfare.
Why were the English able to hold the initiative at all times after the first contact with the Armada? There are several reasons for this. One was that the Spanish force was not free to take the offensive. Instead of being a fleet designed to gain control of the sea, the Armada was essentially a convoy of unwieldy storeships and loaded transports escorted by a number of warships. The fastest vessels in the force were nearly always chained to the slowest, both in speed and in position. Another reason for the tactical superiority of the English was, of course, the better seamanship of the sons of Albion. But there is a third reason, the improved design of the Elizabethan ships, which is to be considered here.
Despite numerous statements to the contrary, the vessels engaged on both sides were, in point of individual tonnage, about the same. The Regazona, largest of the Spanish ships, was listed at 1,249 toneladas. The largest English ship, the Triumph, was of 1,100 tons, and, according to the lists, the smaller vessels of the opposing fleets were fairly even in tonnage ratings. The Spanish vessels were much higher-charged, thus appearing larger than the English ships, a fact which no doubt accounts for the myth concerning the tremendous dimensions of the “galleons” in the Armada. Definitely neither side had an appreciable advantage in the size of individual units; the significant difference lay rather in the better design of the English ships.
In order to account fully for the superior design of the Elizabethan ships, it is necessary to begin with the reign of Henry VII. Unlike most of his predecessors, the first of the Tudors saw the need of building some vessels specially for war instead of depending entirely on hired merchant ships, which were hastily and usually imperfectly adapted for fighting purposes. One reason for the shift to specially designed ships for war use was that the introduction of heavy artillery mounted on the broadside and firing through gunports had made the effective conversion of merchantmen to warships more difficult. It appears that gunports were first used in English ships during the time of Henry VII, for both the Sovereign and the Regent of that period had guns projecting through openings in their poops and forecastles. However, it seems that the first English ships which had their hulls proper pierced for broadside guns were constructed under Henry VIII.
The policy of Henry VII of building and maintaining ships for the sole purpose of war resulted in the creation under Henry VIII of a standing navy. Cromwell and Wolsey, chancellors in the second Tudor’s government, directed most of the affairs of state, but the king’s interest in marine matters led him to reserve for himself the task of looking after the navy. He directed his admirals to report directly to him concerning the qualities and material conditions of the ships under their command. In order to improve the quality of his vessels and to train English workers in ship construction, he brought shipwrights from Spain, Genoa, Venice, and the Hansa towns. That much of this earlier construction consisted of galleys is indicated by the report of the French ambassador to his government in 1541 that Henry himself designed the new galleys which he was building; but five years later the same official wrote that Henry was building galleons of a new type.* This latter type was the forerunner of the ships which were to outclass those of the Armada in speed, weatherliness, and handling qualities. Apparently both the rigging and hull structure were improved during this period, for at Rye the Sussex shipwrights, under the famous naval constructor, Fletcher, were revolutionizing the art of sailing on a wind, and finer lines were a marked characteristic of the new type. Length was three times the beam, whereas ordinary merchantmen of the time were only twice as long as their maximum breadth. How many ships of the new design were built under Henry VIII is not clear. Much more important, however, than the number of ships constructed during his reign is the fact that the ships built for Elizabeth’s navy followed substantially the same pattern.
Henry VIII also enlarged and improved the facilities for the construction and repair of English royal ships. His father had built the first dry dock in England at Portsmouth in 1495-96, and during his own reign the second Tudor increased the number of dockyards to four. The introduction of dry docks made it much easier and faster to repair large vessels than had been the case under the old system of careening, and these structures were used regularly during Elizabethan times.
Thus as a result of the interest of Henry VIII in the navy, most of the groundwork was laid for the construction of the fighting machine which hammered and harassed the fleet of Philip II out of the Channel in the summer of 1588. His energy, progressiveness, and experimentation in ships bore fruit long after his death. From his time until well into the next century, English shipping was held in high esteem throughout Europe. In fact, the reputation of Elizabethan shipbuilders was such that Philip II employed an Englishman as his chief shipwright. This was a far cry from the days when Henry VIII had been obliged to import shipbuilding skills from the continent.
Under Elizabeth additional advances were made in English ship construction, both in hull design and in rigging. Sir Walter Raleigh, born five years after the death of Henry VIII, wrote that in his time the shape of English ships had been greatly bettered; that the striking of the topmast, “a wonderful ease to great ships, both at sea and in harbour,” was recently devised; that the chain pump had been introduced, as also were bonnets and drablers for the courses; and that it had been discovered that a longer span on anchor cables increased the holding power of ground tackle. The improvements in structural design mentioned by Raleigh include the strengthening of ships by transverse and longitudinal timbers and the reinforcing and raising of the lower decks, which allowed more guns to be brought into action in heavy weather. He also makes reference to an important change in hull proportions, which gave longer floors, that is, greater underwater length and, consequently, greatly lessened the tendency of vessels to pitch so violently that there was great danger of “the breaking loose of . . . ordnance.” Moreover, by adding to the draft, the Elizabethans made their ships more weatherly and further reduced the inclination to roll in a seaway. Among other things, these advances in design improved the gunnery of the English, allowing stronger and more stable platforms for the working of the guns, as well as improving the handling qualities of the ships.
The type of ship during this period varied with the purpose for which it was intended. Three main hull designs were used. These were described by William Borough as follows:
1. The shortest, broadest, order.
Length at the keel double the beam amidships; depth of hold half the beam.
This type was used in merchant ships designed for maximum profit.
2. The mean and best proportions for shipping for merchandise, and very serviceable for all purposes.
Length of keel two or two and one-fourth that of beam. Depth of hold eleven twenty-fourths of the beam.
3. The largest order for galleons or ships for the wars, made for the most advantage of sailing.
Length of keel three times the beam. Depth of hold two-fifths of the beam.
Regarding the exact proportions of the types used in the Armada campaign, it is certain that the English royal ships fell into the third of Borough’s classifications and it is probable that most, if not all, the English armed merchant vessels were in the second order. This will be made clear by the following table:
Primary Proportions of English and Spanish Ships*
Maximum Beam of Ship = 1.
Numerals Refer to Length in Proportion to Beam.
As the design and construction of Spanish merchantmen and Spanish men-of-war were the same until some time after 1588, the proportions of the Spanish merchant ship of 1587 may be taken as representative of the dominant type in the Armada. Comparison of these proportions with those of the English warships of 1633, which were adopted in the time of Henry VIII, makes it at once apparent that the Elizabethan ships were much longer in relation to beam than were the Armada vessels. Even the English merchant vessels had finer lines than the Spanish warships, and so practically all the combatant ships arrayed against the Armada were of smarter design and had better handling qualities than the unwieldy hulls which lumbered out of Lisbon and into the English Channel to confusion and defeat.
Probably the best statement of the relative fighting characteristics of the English and the Spanish types was made by a contemporary. Sir William Monson, writing near the end of the sixteenth century, considers the new type of warship, “sunk and low by water,” if she be a fast sailer to prevent boarding, good to fight in, roomy for the crew, and “yare to run to and again in.” Contrasting these qualities with those of the older type of ship, he sees good as well as bad in the latter. He considers the lofty, high-charged ship good because of its “majesty and terror to the enemy.” He goes on to say that these vessels are more commodious for the crews, can carry more artillery of greater power, and that they are able to “overtop a lower and snug ship.” On the debit side, he finds that these three-deckers are dangerous because the weight of the large number of guns carried strains and weakened the vessels. Another disadvantage, he writes, is that the weather is seldom calm enough for the lower tiers of guns to be used, and that when the weather makes it necessary to haul these guns in, it causes great labor for the gunners, who should be fighting instead. Finally, he lists as another fault the fact that the older type “casts so great a smoak within board that people must use their arms like blind men.”
The improvements in shipbuilding which took place during Elizabeth’s reign were mainly the results of the work of three naval constructors: Peter Pett, Mathew Baker, and Richard Chapman. All were reputedly excellent shipbuilders. John Davis said of Baker that no other nation had his equal in the building of ships for any purpose. Apparently the work of these three men was facilitated by the co-operation of John Hawkins, who was for years the Treasurer and Comptroller of the Navy under Elizabeth. Hawkins had the contracts for the maintenance and repair of the royal vessels, and he undoubtedly had much to do with the improvements in construction and rigging referred to by Raleigh. Although accused of fraud by some of his disgruntled competitors, according to Lord Howard, commander of the English fleet in 1588, he had the Queen’s vessels in excellent condition to meet the Armada.
How well-constructed and maintained the Elizabethan ships were is indicated by the remarkable fact that from the Queen’s accession until her death only two English men-of-war were captured, and then only after desperate fighting against overwhelming odds, which, also was a tribute to the courage of English seamen.* Furthermore, the excellence of English seamanship combined with the skill and good workmanship of the English shipwrights accounts for the fact that not one royal ship was lost by stress of weather, by fire, or by grounding. The staunch ships of the Royal Navy weathered many of the gales which sent dozens, even scores, of Spanish ships to the bottom.
Turning now to Spanish shipbuilding, we find that Spain constructed large ships at least as early as some two hundred years before the Armada and that the shipbuilding industry was important on the pensinula from the latter Middle Ages. A century and a half before Columbus sailed to the New World, an edict by Pedro IV (1354) mentions merchant ships with two and three decks and of as much as 12,000 quintals burden, or roughly the equivalent of 500 long tons. In 1419 Alphonso of Aragon employed several merchant ships to transport horses and artillery from Barcelona to Italy, two of which carried 120 horses each. Before the end of the fifteenth century the maritime commerce of Spain and Portugal had risen to a position second only to that of Venice, and in the decades immediately after the great geographical discoveries these two countries forged into the lead. This expansion gave a great impetus to Iberian shipbuilding, especially that of large vessels. In the latter part of the fifteenth century the Portuguese were building many four-decker caracks of 1,500 to 2,000 tons, but all their construction was by rule of thumb, which prevented them from attaining the perfection in design reached in England, where scientific principles were being employed in ship construction from the reign of Henry VIII.
In Spain proper, the Biscayan coast was an important shipbuilding region from late medieval times, and the vessels built there dominated the trade between Spain and Flanders throughout the fifteenth century. One probable reason for the Biscayan leadership in this industry was the excellent quality of the local timber, for in regions such as Andalusia, where the timber was not suitable for the construction of large vessels, shipbuilding was much less developed. In eastern Spain, also, the lack of good timber hampered the building of large ships in Catalonia, where the industry accomplished little in the sixteenth century. In fact, as the century progressed, the timber problem became increasingly acute in the Mediterranean countries. From about 1500 Venice practiced rigid forest control, with the object of conserving shipbuilding timber, and in Spain the timber problem became serious. Although Ferdinand and Isabella took steps to perpetuate the growth of forests, succeeding rulers failed to continue this policy, forests being sacrificed to provide pasture land for sheep and goats, while the government remained passive. More and more the country was forced to turn abroad for its timber, and by the fourth quarter of the sixteenth century a large portion of this vital material was being purchased from northern merchants. During Drake’s 1585 campaign of pillage, many vessels laden with timber for Spanish use were captured and burnt. Of these ships, at least one belonged to the Netherlands, which were supplying the Spanish with timber from the Baltic. Mendoza, a Spanish pilot, wrote in 1575 of the great number of Flemish ships which were carrying timber, masts, sail cloth, and other merchandise from the north to Spain.
The New World also provided some shipbuilding timber, for the Caribbean area, especially, contained valuable wood. On one of his voyages Raleigh repaired his ships there with mahogany, and the durability of the old mahogany-built Gibraltar, captured from the Spanish, was proof of the excellence of this wood. Vessels constructed from New World timber were more often built on the spot than in Spain. How many ships were built in the American area is not known, but it is evident that a number were fabricated there. Drake reports seeing a caravel “a building on the stocks” during his sack of San Domingo in 1585. But Spain depended chiefly upon the Baltic region for her timber and many other items required for building her ships in the time of Philip II. This dependence upon overseas supplies for the Spanish marine was a weakness not lost upon England, which stood athwart the route from the Baltic. The seizures and destruction of Spanish merchantmen during the Spanish War grew to such proportions that foreign shipping was relied upon more and more to transport war materials to Spain. Burghley, or Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief minister, took steps in 1585 to reduce the amount of traffic from the north. He warned the King of Denmark that the Hanseatic ships from the Baltic were supplying Spain with “all things belonging to shipping,” and at the same time measures were considered to prevent the passage of these vessels, which took a route north of Scotland and west of Ireland.
Sixteenth century Spanish dependence upon foreign sources for shipbuilding materials, which were transported for the most part in foreign bottoms, was important in relation to the trend of shipbuilding on the Iberian peninsula. It resulted in a further decline in Spanish construction, which had been hampered both by the competition of the more efficient builders in the north and the lack of demand by domestic shippers, who could hire foreign vessels more cheaply than they could maintain and operate their own. This increase in the use of foreign shipping was an indication of the increasing scarcity of suitable timber at home, of the declining state of Spanish industry, and of the relatively static condition of Spanish shipbuilding technology. A year before the sailing of the Armada, Drake commented upon the effects of the English raids and the results of the cheaper rates of the foreign shippers. He wrote that “the Spaniards think it most safe and cheap to send their goods in French or Breton bottoms.” Regarding the competition of northern builders, the places in which Venice purchased ships between 1590 and 1616 provide a clue. Although Spain constructed larger numbers of vessels for sale abroad during the latter fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Venetian purchases indicate the predominance of Holland shortly after 1588. Of twenty-five vessels obtained by Venice during the period mentioned, eleven were from Holland, one from Gibraltar, one from the Basque country, and the remaining ones from various other sources outside Spain. It must be noted, however, that one possible reason for the small number of ships sold during this period by Spain may have stemmed from the fact that she was replacing her losses of the Armada campaign and the hundred or more vessels which were sunk in a great storm in the Azores in 1591.
But, despite the serious decline of her shipbuilding industry during the sixteenth century, Spain still possessed considerable resources in that field, especially after the facilities of Portugal came under her domination in 1580. Monson lists the places of construction of fifty-three Spanish vessels for the years of 1590-1600, and of the twenty- one of these which were of over 1,000 tons, six were built at Bilbao, six at Santander, seven in the Rantaria, and the two largest, of 1,500 tons, in Portugal. In 1589 the Venetian ambassador reported that Philip II had ordered ten galleons of 600 tons each to be constructed in Catalonia, and six months later he wrote that eleven galleons were being built in Biscay and nine in Portugal. A subsequent report by the same official reveals to some extent the scarcity of shipbuilding materials in Spain. He states that the construction of ships was to be undertaken in the Indies, where the quantity of iron and the abundance and goodness of the wood rendered shipbuilding easy. However, despite her deficiencies, Spain remained capable of turning out much tonnage.
It was upon this capacity for building a large volume of tonnage rather than upon the ability to create significant modifications of primary types that the importance of shipbuilding in Spain and Portugal rested. Hence the peninsula made few major contributions to naval architecture. The Biscayans, because of their location, were eclectic and, as a consequence, their vessels were fairly well designed. But over Spain as a whole, the conditions of commerce required numerous types of merchantmen, and so a great variety of sizes and designs were used in the Spanish marine. Mendoza commented in 1575 upon this characteristic of Spanish naval architecture. He writes:
The English . . . build very small vessels suited to their small ports. . . .
The Portuguese build their vessels very strong, very large, and very powerful, although they build no great number. They sail to the remote East Indies .... On these coasts they are powerful and capable of meeting the enemies with whom they contend in these waters. . . .
The Castilians endeavor to build both large and small vessels of every type and model to navigate every sea in the world. . . .
. . . the best ships were, in the past, commonly made in . . . Bilbao . . . although . . . the business is now decayed, because they have made it a matter of profits and built ships ... to be sold for use in the western ocean. They sometimes build weak ships not having regard for the qualities they should possess.
Mendoza reveals many interesting things here, but the one most pertinent to our subject is the fact that profits were stressed at the expense of good construction. The Spanish guild monopoly, from medieval times, had the major part of the responsibility for protecting merchant shipping, and the administrative and financial interdependence of trade and naval affairs prevented the growth of a sovereign naval force. Shipping in general was handicapped by the monopolistic system which was characterized by the greed of merchants and conniving shipmasters. Ships were sent out greatly undermanned, poorly equipped, and frequently under incompetent commanders. Consequently, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many Spanish ships were disabled or lost by reason of the weather, often being dismasted or springing serious leaks, and lacking sufficient spare gear to effect repairs. In 1595 only the skillful seamanship of Quiros, a Spanish pilot, saved four rotten vessels on the Manila run. An illustration of about 1600 shows ships in the harbor of Lisbon with heavy cables around their hulls just below the upper rail for the purpose of reducing the amount of opening in the seams as the vessels worked. The fact that many vessels were sent to sea with rotten timbers is an indication that Spanish inspection procedure was faulty, and the poor quality of Spanish-built ships has been given as the reason for the heavy losses at sea during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Another possible reason for the heavy losses of Spanish ships in storms during the period under consideration was that their underwater hulls were often fatally weakened by teredos, the destructive submarine borer commonly found in tropical waters where the majority of the larger Spanish vessels operated at times. This danger was recognized as early as 1515, when the king ordered ships sheathed with lead to prevent damage from this source. Apparently, though, this precaution was not observed during the latter sixteenth century or else the sheathing was improperly installed. David Hannay states that many Spanish vessels sank on the American route around 1590 as a result of damage sustained from teredos, and he suggests that a great percentage of the 100 Spanish ships lost in the storm of 1591 may have gone down for the same reason. It thus appears probable that the avarice of Spanish merchants may have prevented the proper sheathing of many of the ships which were employed in the Armada, and it is, therefore, a distinct possibility that an appreciable number of Medina Sidonia’s vessels were wrecked on the return down the Scottish and Irish coasts because they had been so weakened by teredos that they were forced to steer for land in an attempt to prevent sinking in the heavy storms which they encountered.
The fundamentals of design and type which were significant in the Armada campaign have been noted already, but one point bears repetition here. This is the fact that Spanish vessels intended for war and those required for the merchant service were constructed exactly alike. In fact, the royal ships were often mistaken for merchantmen. In 1584 Admiral Martin de Recalde petitioned to be allowed to fly the royal standard in order that his ships might be identified as vessels of war. Under sixteenth century Spanish policy, the government granted bounties for the building of merchant ships and made substantial advances to shipbuilders. In return, the vessels were arbitrarily seized and used for purposes which in England would have been assigned to royal ships! The obvious result of this practice was that mercantile considerations came first in matters connected with ship design. Consequently, ships were not designed in Spain for war purposes, if we except the galleys and galleasses, which played no significant role in the Armada.
It is a curious fact that the Spanish Navy Department was not established until one hundred and twenty-nine years after the Armada fiasco proved that an effective navy requires a separate administrative structure. During the sixteenth century there were no royal dockyards, except the galley establishments at Barcelona and Seville, and these were of no use in the repair of larger sailing vessels. Apparently these latter were careened for repair of the underwater body instead of being placed in dry dock as was done in Elizabethan England. Lippomano, the Venetian ambassador in Spain, reported that in October, 1587, Santa Cruz, the admiral whose death resulted in Sidonia’s appointment, had to land his men and caulk his ships, which was one reason for the failure of the Armada to sail against England that year. Careening, or “heaving down,” is a very complicated and critical operation which requires extensive and difficult rigging preparations. If directed by incompetent seamen, careening may result in serious damage to masting and hull structure, and the examples of sixteenth century mismanagement and inefficiency already noted indicate the possibility that such damage may have affected the seaworthiness of many of the Armada ships.
In view of the heterogeneous types of vessels in the Armada and the differences in shipbuilding practices which prevailed in the numerous places where Spanish ships were constructed, it was inevitable that Medina Sidonia’s vessels should vary widely in sailing qualities. Hence, even though the Armada had some good sailers, this advantage was nullified by the clumsiness and leewardness of the poorer ships, to which the former were tied from the time they left Lisbon until they withdrew from the Channel. Even the Spanish king was aware of this weakness, for he agreed with Sidonia that “the Levant ships are less free and staunch than the vessels built here, and that the hulks cannot sail to windward.” Philip, however, had utterly failed to grasp the importance of gaining control of the Channel before invading England, and so he apparently considered poorly designed ships merely as irritations which would delay the progress of the operations instead of deadweights which would drag his entire fleet down to disaster.
Many writers have asserted that the Spanish failed to adopt the bowline,* and that this deficiency was an important factor in rendering their ships inferior to those of the English in sailing qualities. William Laird Clowes, commenting on the Spanish neglect of recent improvements in rig, states that the bowline was a late innovation at the time of the Armada. But it was neither of recent origin nor, in the opinion of this writer, did the Spanish fail to use it prior to the time of the Armada. A nautical ballad of the time of Henry VI has a reference to the hauling of the bowline. Medana’s pilot on a voyage from Callao in 1567, writing of the action taken to prevent grounding, says that he “sent a man to the fore-top and another to the bowsprit telling them to notice when the water whitened . . . and standing by all the bowlines. ...” Sarmiento, a noted Spanish seaman, writes in 1580 that in order to reach a certain island it was necessary to brace up and haul out the bowlines. A print from the British Museum, of circa 1560, shows bowlines on two Spanish ships.
Monson was the only contemporary who seems to have left a statement regarding the lack of bowlines in the Armada, and later writers use his assertion as their authority when the bowline question comes up. Monson attached great importance to the absence of bowlines in the Spanish ships and, as he was a competent seaman, some respect must be granted to his opinions. However, the evidence shows that the Spanish used the bowline at least twenty years before the Armada. Hence it is difficult to understand why the device was abandoned in 1588. At any rate, it may be that Monson exaggerated the importance of the bowline in relation to the poor sailing qualities of the ships in the Armada.
It is much more likely that the chief reason for the inability of Medina Sidonia’s ships to beat to windward as well as the English was that their hull designs and superstructures would not admit of sailing close- hauled, regardless of the type of rig that they employed. Likewise it is to be doubted if the ships of the Armada could have sailed any better with different rigs. It has already been noted that the prevailing Spanish types had a length of only twice their beam, and that they towered high above the water, especially in their after superstructures. The first of these features, the 2:1 ratio between length and beam, gave the Spanish ships rounder bottoms and less draft than the newer types of English vessels of corresponding tonnage. Shallow draft increases the tendency of a free-floating body to drift to leeward, and, as this was a characteristic of the Armada ships, they probably could not sail closer to the wind than seven points, whereas the English were able to come as close as six points. The second unfavorable feature still retained in the Spanish vessels was their high superstructures, which presented a much greater area of wind resistance and, consequently, caused more leewardness. Therefore, faulty structural design, rather than features of rig, was almost certainly the primary reason for the poor sailing qualities displayed by the vessels in the Armada.
Three more weaknesses in Spanish ship design contributed to their inferiority. The first of these was the shortness of their underwater body in relation to abovewater length. Raleigh’s statement that the new type English ship pitched less violently than the older designs has already been noted. This improvement was achieved by bringing keel length more nearly in correspondence with abovewater hull length. But the Spanish vessels, lacking this underwater length, as well as having lighter draft and greater beam, were much more inclined to pitch and roll, thus multiplying the gunnery difficulties of Philip’s crews. The second deficiency, probably the most serious of all, was the smallness of the Spanish gunports, which prevented the Armada gunners from elevating or depressing their ordnance properly. This feature, plus the fact that the Spanish were nearly always to leeward, and hence heeled away from the enemy, no doubt accounts for the fact that the Spanish fire was consistently high. Finally, the Spanish practice of placing guns on the broadside at three or four different heights seriously affected their gunnery. The larger number of tiers in which their guns were mounted reflects their failure to raise and lengthen their decks. The English were able to mount as many guns in two tiers as the Spanish could in four. The lowest tier in a typical Armada ship was useless in all except the calmest weather, whereas the lower tier in the English royal vessels could be used in moderately choppy weather. Furthermore, the upper tier in the larger Spanish ships was so high that, in view of the smallness of their gunports and the fact that they were nearly always to leeward, it is doubtful if they could ever be brought to bear upon the hulls of the English ships, which were designed to lie much lower.
The Duke of Medina Sidonia, in his letter to the king informing him of the decision to give up the campaign, stated that he had been unable to come to close quarters where the Spanish superiority in small- arms and hand-to-hand fighting could be exploited effectively. The better seamanship of the English, which allowed them to remain at a distance and employ with good effect their long-range guns, was exercised effectively only because the Tudors had developed a new and better type of sailing vessel. The sixteenth century improvements in English ships were mainly the results of deliberate planning and action, beginning with Henry VIII and culminating in the defeat of the Armada. On the part of the Spanish, the failure to recognize the significance of the ship-artillery combination in naval warfare contributed in no small degree to their humiliating defeat. The Spanish attitude was caused in part by the dominance of the military complex which had been created and nurtured by a superiority in infantry which had been renowned throughout Europe, and partly by the dazzling effects of the Lepanto victory on Spanish naval commanders. There were many other causes, of course, but it was the military and naval attitudes that point up a lesson for today; namely, that future victory can never be predicated solely on methods and instruments which have been successfully employed in the past.
* “Galleon,” as used here, denotes a sailing vessel built specially for war.
* Frederic Chapin Lane, Venetian Ships and Shipbuilders of the Renaissance, Baltimore, 1934, p. 235.
* The two ships captured were the Jesus of Lubeck and the Revenge, the latter being the ship made famous by Raleigh’s account of her last fight.
* The bowline was a line leading forward from the leech of a square sail to which it was connected by means of a bridle. It was used to keep the weather edge of the sail steady when the ship was close-hauled, and enabled the vessel to sail nearer to the wind.