Neil Hanson. The Confident Hope of a Miracle: The True Story of the Spanish Armada. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. xxviii + 498 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4000-4294-4.
James McDermott. England and the Spanish Armada: The Necessary Quarrel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. xvi + 411 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-10698-5.
Reviewed by Edward Tenace (Department of History, Lyon College)
Published on H-Albion (May, 2006)
The Spanish Armada Revisited
As one of the iconic events in English history, the Spanish Armada has produced its share of books that range from popular works to scholarly monographs. Neil Hanson's The Confident Hope of a Miracle and James McDermott's England and the Spanish Armada are largely representative of both genres. While Hanson examines the conflict from the perspective of both sides, McDermott focuses on the English side and explains why the conflict was unavoidable and how it shaped the identity of its people. Of the two works, McDermott's is clearly the more original, the more balanced, and the better researched. But Hanson's work, despite its popular emphasis, is still a useful source.
Hanson's Confident Hope is a detailed narrative of the Spanish Armada campaign. Yet like other works of popular history, he has a tendency to gloss over complexities; to rely too much on a single source; to prefer published sources over archival research; and, perhaps worst of all, to employ an inadequate system of citations. Although he employs endnotes, too often there are long gaps between each reference, leaving it impossible to determine the specific source for a quotation. Similarly Hanson's handling of the diplomatic context shows a lack of familiarity with the subject matter and it leads him to make several factual errors. He writes, for instance, that the Duke of Guise demanded to be named as Henri III's "rightful heir" (p. 140) when, in fact, it was the Cardinal of Bourbon, the elderly uncle of Henry of Navarre, that the Duke sought to make as heir-presumptive. Another error occurs in his description of the Duke of Parma's departure to take up the governorship of the Spanish Netherlands. Hanson states incorrectly that Parma never saw his wife and two sons again, when, in fact, Ranuccio Farnese, the Duke's eldest son, and heir-presumptive to the duchy of Parma, served at his father's side in the campaigns of France in the 1590s. In addition, there are places in the narrative that simply contradict one another. At one point he reports (incorrectly) that the Dutch city of Ostend fell to Parma (p. 148), but later states that Ostend was "garrisoned by English troops" and that it was a potential target of Parma's attack (p. 153).
Also Hanson has a tendency to make generalizations. For instance, in discussing the state of military preparedness in England, he readily acknowledges that "the English militias were woefully under-trained and under-armed" but argues that the people "will fight to the death rather than surrender" (p. 175). Yet Hanson's evidence is largely anecdotal: "the English went about armed at all times" or they displayed a proclivity for "rowdy and often ritualized conflict" in their sports (p. 175). Nor does he offer much evidence to support his point that invading Spanish forces would have faced the same degree of resistance in England as they encountered in the Netherlands. Dutch resistance, in fact, was made possible only by the widespread adoption of the new bastion-style fortifications which prevented the easy capture of their cities. By contrast, the old medieval walls of English towns would not have stood up to Spanish artillery, however spirited the resistance. Hanson is on firmer ground when he discusses naval affairs, particularly in his analysis of English shipbuilding (the "raze-built" galleons), gunnery, and the weaknesses of the supply system, particularly the shortage of gunpowder, which nearly proved fatal in the campaign.
One of the more controversial aspects of the narrative, however, is to restore the reputation of Sir Francis Drake, who has recently come under criticism by revisionist historians for his conduct of the campaign (see especially Harry Kelsey's recent biography). Hanson perpetuates the "myth" of Drake as the primary architect of offensive warfare and the real instrument behind the English success. But in making his case, he relies too heavily on a single source, the highly suspect account of Petruccio Ulbadini, who was commissioned by Drake himself to relate his role. Hanson argues, for instance, that it was probably Drake's ship, the Revenge that attacked the Gran Grifon, which "demonstrated the effective range for the English guns" to penetrate the hulls of Spanish ships (p. 280). But if it was indeed Drake's ship, it presents problems for Hanson's subsequent interpretation of the battle off the Isle of Wight. For in the encounter, the Revenge suffered extensive damage to its main yard that would have kept it out of action. Hanson, however, cannot resist giving Drake credit for driving the Spanish away from the Isle of Wight, even though no contemporary source mentions his presence. Although Hanson is careful to add that it is possible that he did not take part in the battle, he clearly sides with those who see Drake as the major force in driving the Spanish away from the Isle of Wight.
Hanson also provides a rather unsympathetic portrait of Queen Elizabeth, who, in the aftermath of the victory, displayed great annoyance that so few Spanish prizes had been taken. But such a criticism is unfair since Hanson largely excuses Drake for the same pecuniary instincts. In addition, he vilifies the Queen for her seemingly callous neglect of the English veterans. But was this really the fault of the Queen, or did it merely reflect a larger institutional weakness? If one reads the state papers of France and Spain one can find similar horror stories of neglect.
As for the victory, Hanson cannot make up his mind whether it was due to superior technology, "poor strategy or tactics," or the "hubris of Philip II" (p. 384). At first he comes down heavily in favor of the first. The English ships, he writes, "were faster, more manoeuvrable, and armed with weapons that were, by the standards of the day precision engineered, delivering projectiles with greater frequency, velocity and accuracy, over a greater range" (p. 384). But such a view can be easily dismissed by using Hanson's own detailed narrative. The Armada remained intact up to the fireship attack and even after this only one ship was actually sunk by artillery fire. Moreover, Hanson makes frequent reference to possible strategic and tactical alternatives that might have altered the course of the campaign. What would have happened, for instance, if Medina-Sidonia had taken the advice of Recalde and attacked the English fleet when it was still lying helpless in Plymouth or if he had allowed Don Hugo de Moncada and his galleasses to grapple with the Ark Royal after the English fleet had became disordered due to Drake's desertion? That these decisions were not undertaken, points to human failure rather than technological disadvantage. Later Hanson completely contradicts his earlier view and proceeds to attribute the Spanish defeat to Philip II "for his frenzied haste" and his "obsessive belief that God would produce the necessary miracles to guarantee the victory no matter how flawed the strategy that his principal lieutenant, Philip of Spain had laid down" (p. 426).
In contrast to Hanson's retelling of the Armada saga, James McDermott has offered a new interpretation for the causes of the conflict--one which the English people played a significant role in bringing about. In The Necessary Quarrel, McDermott argues that the underlying causes for the conflict between England and Spain derived from the actions of ordinary Englishmen and not the aspirations of the Tudor monarchy. One of the central themes is how Spain, a long-time ally, became steadily demonized in the popular imagination. McDermott argues that the seeds for future conflict were sown as far back as 1493, when Pope Alexander VI issued his famous Bull dividing up the New World. It was the establishment of this Iberian monopoly and the subsequent attempts of ordinary Englishmen to break it, which helped to undermine the old "Anglo-Burgundian" alliance, which was based on a mutual fear of France and strong commercial ties via Flanders (p. xii). To underscore this point, McDermott opens his account with the "Tale of the Two Barbara's," an episode in 1541, in which the English ship, Barbara, embarked on a voyage of plunder that culminated in the seizure of the Spanish ship, Santa Barbara, in the Caribbean. This incident ironically came at a time of political rapprochement between England and Spain. Hence the author's point that such actions "derived mainly from English--not Tudor--ambitions" (p. xii). By the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the volume of English piracy against Spanish shipping had undergone a dramatic increase, while government actions to curtail such illicit activities proved to be largely ineffectual. Directly fueling the increase was a growing view that the Spanish monopoly in the New World was unjust, an attitude that gained impetus when reports spread of the harassment of English merchants in Spain by the Inquisition. McDermott believes that this marked a psychological shift in English attitudes from a policy of amity to one of enmity that would defy the best attempts of the two monarchs to reverse. Xenophobic attitudes, as much as religious differences, also played a role in this transformation, but at root was a fundamental belief among ordinary Englishmen, and many government officials, that acts of piracy were justified responses to an illegal monopoly.
Such acts increased at the same time as the original motives for the Anglo-Spanish alliance--the fear of France and the commercial trade with Flanders--diminished. To curtail the growing attacks on their shipping, the Spanish government resorted to periodic embargoes. Such moves led to what McDermott refers to as "a counterfeit sense of outrage" on the part of the Queen and her councilors, who failed to see that these measures had been taken in reaction to the activities of their countrymen. Had the attacks on Spanish interests in the New World been the only problem, some confrontation would have still been inevitable, but the emerging religious conflicts in France and the Netherlands, and the flight of Mary Stuart from Scotland, left the two monarchs with little room for any pragmatic maneuvers. Many of Elizabeth's chief councilors were imbued with the idea of a "Catholic world conspiracy" led by Philip of Spain (p. 83). McDermott argues that this while this was largely a "wraith," a product of their own aggressive designs, such fears increased with Philip's acquisition of Portugal in 1580 (pp.130-131). Similarly Philip II's "misapprehension" was to confuse the depredations of English privateers with royal policy. The two were not identical. In fact, Elizabeth often exercised a restraining hand on those who sought to embark on more aggressive policies against Spain. Finally McDermott rejects the view (articulated by Geoffrey Parker) that a "messianic vision" guided the policies of Philip II towards England. In fact, he argues that Philip showed little appetite for any religious rationale for invading England until other factors intervened to justify a crusading enterprise. McDermott states that one might more accurately refer to any "messianic vision" as a momentary "hallucination" brought on largely by English belligerence that overrode "his habitual circumspection" (p. 82). Instead it was the need to react to English incursions on the High Seas and their attempt to establish colonies in the New World, as well as the need to respond to English interference in the Netherlands, that finally prompted a reluctant Philip II to undertake the invasion of England.
After establishing the inevitability of the conflict, and the role that ordinary Englishmen played in fomenting it, McDermott provides a rather comprehensive narrative of the Armada campaign. Here he provides a good antidote to Hanson's tendency to overemphasize the revolutionary nature of the English naval achievement. Although he concedes that the "race" or "raze-built" galleons were the best fighting ships of the era, there was no standard design and their construction constituted "an evolutionary as opposed to a revolutionary process" (pp. 176-177). He argues that the margin of English superiority is also too often overstated. Proponents of the "revolutionary" school simply gloss over the inexperience of all English captains and crews in fighting in mass formations (pp. 218-219). Moreover, the fighting itself was largely ineffectual. English artillery was "hardly ship-smashing" (p. 231). To compensate the English increased their rate of fire, but this had the negative effect of exhausting their stocks of powder and shot without doing much damage to the Armada.
In addition, McDermott goes to considerable lengths to dispel the myth surrounding Drake's role in the campaign, particularly by those (for instance, Hanson), who see him as the key to English success. It became embellished in the nineteenth century by the English naval historian Julian Corbett, who saw Drake as the architect of "offensive warfare" (cited, p. 209). But McDermott points out that Drake was not the only one at the time advocating such tactics and his conduct during the Armada campaign hardly lives up to the myth. Although Drake avoided official censure for leaving the fleet to plunder the Rosario, McDermott argues that his desertion nearly brought disaster on the whole fleet. He also downplays the significance of Drake's attack on the Gran Grifon. Far from being a defining moment in the campaign, "the broadsides it inflicted achieved no more results than in previous encounters" (p. 256). Moreover McDermott, in contrast to Hanson, credits Lord Admiral Howard, and not Drake, for making the maneuver off the Isle of Wight that turned the battle in England's favor.
As for the "fireship" attack and the battle that followed, it, too, was less than the total victory that many have argued. Howard failed to follow up the fire ship success by pursuing the fleeing Spanish ships, which gave Medina Sidonia enough time to reassemble a hasty defensive screen of several key vessels. What followed was less an example of superior English tactics than a testament to the courage of the crews of the outnumbered Spanish ships, who deliberately sacrificed themselves to shield the rest of the Armada. Worst of all, in the fight the English had exhausted their supplies of powder to the point that they could no longer engage the enemy in another major fight. McDermott speculates that if the Armada had not been forced northwards by contrary winds, it might have presented some grave problems for the English fleet. The real disaster for the Armada came only on its return voyage. Thus he concludes that bad weather and an inadequate understanding of the treacherous waters off the British Isles were as much responsible for the defeat as were the actions of the English fleet.
McDermott diminishes the significance of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which he views as a largely indecisive encounter, given that the Anglo-Spanish war continued for another sixteen years. This seems a bit overstated especially coming from an author who has devoted nearly a third of his book to describing its progress in careful detail. Although the Armada did not end the war, it was "decisive" in the sense that it prevented a major Spanish invasion that would have likely succeeded in toppling the Elizabethan regime. Moreover, McDermott ignores the costs of this failure on Spain, particularly in the loss of sailors, who were not so easy to replace as ships, and the enormous financial debt that the enterprise produced. It can be argued that the money spent on the Armada campaign doomed the subsequent Spanish military intervention in France and prevented them from reconquering the rebellious Dutch provinces. But the significance for McDermott lies less in a particular military aspect than in the conflict taken as a whole, which he believes played the pivotal role in shaping the self-identity of the English people and English nationalism. Moreover, he is even willing to go further and state that fears of Spanish hegemony provided the English with "ample moral justifications for (their own) expansionist impulses" (p. 323). In other words, the struggle helped to lay the foundations for the establishment of the British Empire. Whether this was due primarily to an English "inferiority-complex" vis-à-vis Spain or simply an innate fear of Habsburg universalism is debatable. But McDermott sees both attitudes at work well into the early Stuart period. Clearly the power of Spain exercised an enduring grip on the imagination of Englishmen. Hence his last point that the "Spaniard had exposed the degree to which self-identity may be more about aversion than commonality" (p. 328).
. See Harry Kelsey, Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Pirate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); J. David Davies, "Review of Harry Kelsey, Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Pirate," H-Albion, H-Net Reviews, May, 2001, http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=22019998329021.
. See Geoffrey Parker, The Grand Strategy of Philip II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
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Edward Tenace. Review of Hanson, Neil, The Confident Hope of a Miracle: The True Story of the Spanish Armada and
McDermott, James, England and the Spanish Armada: The Necessary Quarrel.
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