10th Grade: The Big Armada that Couldn’t

Greetings to all,

This week we continued our look at Elizabeth’s reign in England, and began our special focus on the Spanish Armada of 1588.  This crucial naval battle was the high water mark of the Hapsburg Empire.  With hindsight, we can see that Spain’s defeat here sent them spiraling into a decline for the next few centuries.  Traditionally, the conflict between England and Spain is viewed through the following lens:

1. Spain was the big dominant empire, with all the advantages that brings, led by an intolerant king bent only on increasing his power.

2. England was the ‘Little Island that Could’ — the huge underdog that through scrap and pluck defeated the big bully.

I think this analysis is flawed for a number of reasons:

  • Did Spain have a legitimate strategic reason to attack England?  The English had been raiding the Spanish coastline, as well as Spanish ships in the Atlantic, for years.  England’s support of the Dutch’s rebellion against the Spanish would have made communication and supply very difficult for the Spanish.  None of this is to say that Spain had a good plan, or that you have to root for Spain — but it is important to understand what might have motivated the Spanish in the first place.
  • England’s ‘privateering’ could in one sense be called ‘state-sponsored piracy,’ and what the Spanish might have called, ‘State-Sponsored Terrorism’ (though the Spanish, with the conditions of their mines and their treatment of the natives across the Atlantic, cannot claim moral high ground either).  The English knew they could not beat Spain in the purely conventional sense.  But they also knew they did not need to.  If they could hit them here and there unpredictably, the Spanish would be forced to expend a great deal of resources to cover themselves everywhere.  Maybe Spain could be slowly weakened not by destroying them from without, but putting too much strain on them from within.
 We can see Spain in the mirror when we look at our current situation.  In some ways, we are the Spain of today, one of the few nations with a truly global reach of power and presence.  Al Queda and other like minded groups are in some ways in the position of England.  What happened on 9/11 was devastating in the sense of shock and loss of life.  The ripple effects, both financial (new government agencies, extra security measures, wars, etc.) and psychological continue to this day.  They don’t have to hit us everywhere all the time to hurt us.  To help identify with Phillip further I  asked the students to consider the following hypothetical possibility:
  • You are president, and your Secretary of Defense comes to you with a plan.  If the U.S. acts quickly, he has an idea, that if successful, could end the War on Terror and bring peace to the Mid East for the next 50 years.  The plan is realistic and achievable
  • However, the plan requires a large commitment of our available forces
  • The plan has about a 50% chance of success
  • If the plan fails, perhaps as much as 1/3 of our forces might be wiped out.

Would you approve of the plan and take the risk?  Most students said they would.  Though if it failed, history would likely paint you as an ignorant fool who had blind faith, just as Phillip tended to get portrayed until the latter 20th century.

3. What were the strategic burdens the Spanish faced?  They had more ships, but their ship were bigger, slower, and of course, needed to carry a lot of men and supplies (for the invasion).  Spanish ships had, at best, 5% of their weight as weaponry, while the average English ship had about 14% of its weight as weapons.  Who is the real underdog?

Below is the image of the newly designed English “race” ship:

And here we have the best of the Spanish ships, the flagship of the fleet:

Of course, these differences in their respective ships are not the product of coincidence, but of the overall culture of Spain and England.  Spain and England had many similarities, with neither monarch presenting us with either the image of a saint or sinner.  Spain fought Protestants, but Elizabeth persecuted Catholics.   We must careful to find good and bad guys too quickly.

I do think we can say with confidence that England was a more ‘open’ society.  Next week we will examine the relative advantages more open societies have over their more ‘closed society’ counterparts.  England was not necessarily more tolerant than Spain.  They persecuted Catholics with the same zeal as Spain persecuted Protestants.   But England had more social mobility.  For example, in England non-nobles like Francis Drake could have enormous influence.  In Spain, Philip II appointed the Duke of Medina Sedona as the top commander of the Armada, chiefly I think because he was the highest ranking nobleman available.  He did this in spite of the fact that the Duke had rarely even been at sea, let alone commanded ships at sea.  The Duke protested to the king to no avail.  For Philip, the nature of things dictated that the highest ranking nobleman command the fleet.

Philip II may not have been tyrannical, but he did close himself off from his people.  He never communicated in person – it was all done through official letters.  While he communicated frequently with people, it was not in a manner that would generate a free flow of ideas.   He issued pronouncements, and did not invite dialogue.  Take a look at his palace in this image here, which shows his physical as well as psychological isolation:

In any contest, there are many factors at work, including what we might call luck.  But we should not be surprised to see connections between winning and losing armies, and the respective contexts from which they are born.
As a total aside, here is a painting of Philip II, not afraid to show a little leg!  Elizabethan fashion remains a mystery to me.  When I asked what fashion accessory future generations will scratch their heads at, a few students said, “Ties.”  I say, “Stiletto heels.”

Dave Mathwin