“Everybody thinks they know the story of the Spanish Armada,” says historian and novelist JD Davies. Yet, as he tells Historia, this is a story that has been reinterpreted and embellished for over 400 years. Which made his own retelling of the Armada story in his new novel, Armada’s Wake, both an opportunity – and a challenge.
Sir Francis Drake saying he had time to finish his game of bowls and beat the Spaniards yet; Queen Elizabeth, in armour and on horseback, delivering one of the most famous speeches in British history; the heroic little English ships bravely attacking the Armada’s seemingly invincible leviathans; the fireship attack at Calais; the wind which finally ended the invasion attempt, producing the legend that ‘God blew and they were scattered’ and beginning the myth of the heroic island nation valiantly resisting all comers.
All in all, the Spanish Armada is right up there with the likes of Agincourt, Trafalgar, Waterloo, Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain as not just a notable event in history, but also, for good or ill, as a vital ingredient in the creation of an entire national mentality.
Surely this irresistible story has been recounted countless times in historical fiction? I assumed as much when I did my first tentative pieces of research for my new book Armada’s Wake.
As I swiftly discovered, though, surprisingly few novels, certainly of modern times, put the purely naval events of the Armada campaign front and centre. The iconic representations of the events of 1588 have invariably come from films, from Fire over England in the 1930s to Elizabeth: the Golden Age seventy years later.
The Armada does feature as a backdrop to the action in several recent novels, but these are invariably individual titles within established series featuring land-based central characters and primarily terrestrial plots. So when I decided that the concluding part of my trilogy set in the Tudor period, Jack Stannard of the Navy Royal, could only be set at the time of the Armada campaign, I knew the coast was largely, if unexpectedly, clear.
This presented both an opportunity and a tremendous challenge, because I knew that if I was going to tell the story as I wanted to tell it, I was going to have to confront several of the most cherished myths about one of the most well-known and iconic events in the history of the British Isles.
To begin with, those who look forward to an amusing account of Drake lining up the winning shot in his game of bowls will search for it in vain. The story is almost certainly apocryphal – it appears in no contemporary accounts and first emerges in print almost exactly 150 years later, quite probably the invention of the author and herald William Oldys, a man who was said to be ‘rarely sober in the afternoon, and never after supper’, his favourite tipple apparently being porter washed down with gin.
Similarly, Queen Elizabeth’s Tilbury speech (“I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too”) was not published in any form until 1654, based on a letter written in 1623, 35 years after the event, as a polemical argument against better relations with Spain at that time. Moreover, there are three entirely different versions of what she said, the two less renowned ones being far more contemporary than that containing “the heart and stomach of a king”.
Having said that, the famous version is exactly the sort of thing which Elizabeth undoubtedly did write and say on many occasions, although I’ve employed a considerable amount of dramatic licence in my version of how the speech as we know it came into being!
It is also emphatically not true that the English were the ‘underdogs’ in 1588. For one thing, and just as in the case of Fighter Command in 1940, the ‘home’ forces were very near to their own bases, so it was relatively easy for the English fleet to re-ammunition and re-victual after each engagement. Not so for the Armada and Luftwaffe alike.
The largest ship on either side was English (Martin Frobisher’s Triumph), the dozen or so of the largest true men-of-war in the English fleet were considerably larger than their equivalents in the Armada, many of those ships were ‘race built’ galleons which were much more nimble than their opponents, the English gunnery – certainly their rate of fire – was vastly superior, and when the Narrow Seas fleet, based at Dover, joined forces with that from Plymouth, their combined strength outnumbered the Armada, which contained many transport ships which were virtually useless as combatants.
None of this fitted the narrative that was constructed in very short order after the events of 1588. For example, in the 1590s a famous set of tapestries, illustrating the events of the campaign, was made for the victorious Lord High Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham. These subsequently hung in the House of Lords and were venerated by many generations until they were destroyed by fire in 1834.
So abiding was their influence, though, that new paintings, closely copying the originals, were completed in the Houses of Parliament as recently as 2010. Yet these clearly show the battle as Howard wanted it remembered – with the English ships appearing smaller and fewer than their opponents, and his own actions emphasised at the expense of those of his colleagues.
The manipulation of imagery as part of an agenda of state propaganda has a very long pedigree indeed!
As well as confronting the myths, I also wanted to tell the story in a balanced way. So one of the central characters is serving in the Armada, albeit as a slave manning the oars of the galleass Girona, which met arguably the most tragic end of all the vessels in the Spanish fleet. Another is serving in the Narrow Seas fleet, based at Dover, which gets barely a mention in many accounts but played a crucial part in the final battle.
Another is an English Catholic ashore who actually wants the Armada to succeed. There was undoubtedly a small but possibly significant number of such people in England in 1588; Elizabeth’s own court composer, William Byrd, was one of them.
Today, as in later periods of crisis like the two world wars, it’s very easy to condemn such people simply as ‘traitors’ and dismiss their attitudes out of hand. But loyalty is often much more complex than that, and the religious fanaticism of some of those on the winning side (notably Sir Francis Drake) was at least as intolerant and abhorrent to modern sensibilities as anything to be found among the ‘losers’.
I’m sorry to be saying farewell to the Stannard family, the central characters of my trilogy, and to the secondary theme running through the books, the story of the decline of Dunwich, ‘England’s Atlantis’. But having the Armada as the centrepiece of the final story allows them to go out with a bang in all sorts of ways, and perhaps also goes some way toward addressing the relative paucity of historical novels focused primarily on the naval events of 1588.
But I suspect that however well Armada’s Wake sells, it’ll be a very long time before the vast majority of people stop believing in Sir Francis Drake playing his game of bowls!
As well as the Jack Stannard series, JD Davies has written The Journals of Matthew Quinton, a naval historical fiction series set in the 17th century.
He is also the award-winning author of naval history books including Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II and the Royal Navy and Pepys’s Navy: Ships, Men and Warfare 1649-89.
Read his Historia feature looking at why there’s so little naval fiction set in the Tudor period.
Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth: via Wikimedia
Launch of English fireships against the Spanish Armada, 7 August, 1588: via Wikimedia
Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada, showing Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury and the sea battle at Gravelines (attrib Nicholas Hilliard): via Wikimedia
Detail from The Spanish Armada off the English Coast in 1588 by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen: via Wikimedia
Engraving from The Tapestry Hangings of the House of Lords Representing the Several Engagements Between the English and Spanish Fleets by John Pine, 1739: via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York