Back in June of this year the BBC did a three part series about the Spanish Armada and how (astonishingly) England wasn’t conquered by Spain in 1588. It was billed as “part dramatisation, part documentary” so I was a bit concerned in advance that it wouldn’t be my cup of tea. But it turned out to be on the right side of the line for my tastes – a selection of set pieces but mostly a straightforward documentary series. The main presenter was Dan Snow, who we’ve seen do a selection of history documentaries in the past, more than one with a naval theme. There were several talking heads throughout the series – the primary one was Geoffrey Parker, who is an expert on James II of Spain. He’s discovered & researched a lot of documentation kept by James II on the Armada including a report from the second in command of the fleet which gave his opinions on why the invasion failed. Another strand of the documentary segments was two naval historians discussing the tactics the Spanish & English fleets used, and showed us them by pushing ships about on a battle map. Of the two, I recognised Sam Willis who we’ve seen present other documentaries and I forget who the other chap was. The conversations between the two of them were sadly a bit stilted and at times made it feel like Willis was explaining himself and his theories to his PhD supervisor in a meeting!
The two main threads running through the series were the naval tactics of the two sides and the more human side of the personalities & foibles of the key players in the war. I’m not really interested in military history per se so I hadn’t looked into the details of the Armada before – just absorbed the narrative of “superpower of the day goes up against plucky minor country and somehow fails, mostly due to inclement weather”. God Is On Our Side, and all that sort of thing. The reality is, of course, more nuanced than that. Whilst the storms around the north & west of the British Isles are what finally finished off a lot of the Spainish fleet, they’d actually already lost before they sailed through the storms. The English had got the upper hand through better tech and new tactics to go with it (including sailing in to their own gun range to fire on the Spanish, then sailing away before getting to a range where the Spanish could reply). However supply issues (Elizabeth I was both unwilling and unable to pay for sufficient ammo, or even food for the sailors) meant that this wasn’t decisive. The Spanish also lost by their own actions, largely due to a strict adherence to the original plan by the commander despite that plan having fatal flaws from its conception let alone after they met the opposing fleet.
The two fleets had similar command structures – political appointment at the top, second in command an experienced seaman. The key difference was that Francis Drake (the English second in command) was actually listened to. The Duke of Medina Sidonia (commander of the Spanish fleet) had been Spain’s second choice and wasn’t keen on taking the job because he had no naval expertise – but sadly for the Spanish his reservations about his own abilities meant he insisted on following James II of Spain’s original plan to the letter. This plan was that the fleet would sail round to the English Channel and pick up the Spanish army in Holland, together the combined forces would invade England (from Kent, iirc). But the plan didn’t include any detail for how the navy & the army would combine and communication between the two was not established in time for the plan to be put into action. And eventually after several failures to co-ordinate with the army, and battles with the English where the Spanish were at a disadvantage to begin with and then loss, finally the Duke’s nerve broke and he took the fleet round to the north & west to get away from the English fleet and back to Spain. His second in command repeatedly suggested alternate courses of action: a pre-emptive strike on Portsmouth to bottle up the English fleet; capture a deep harbour on the English coast and settle in to figure out how to meet up with the army in relative safety; etc. But the Duke wouldn’t deviate from the plan, and so they lost.
Part of the Duke of Medina Sidonia’s problem was that James II was something of a control freak. I knew pretty much nothing about James prior to this program other than: married Mary I of England, failed to have children; tried to marry Elizabeth, was refused; tried to conquer England, failed. So the characterisation of James in this documentary was particularly interesting to me (and I should really add a biography of him to my to-read mountain). He was a deeply pious man, and this fuelled much of his desire to get England under his control – rescuing it from the taint of Protestant heresy. He was also a micro-manager. In this case he’d laid down a Plan, and left the Duke of Medina Sidonia in no doubt that if he deviated from The Plan then there would be trouble. He was also a compulsive note-taker and prefered to communicate with his underlings by the written word. Which is why we know he was a micro-manager – there are archives full of his notes.
I liked the characterisation of Elizabeth I in this programme – the Gloriana myth she and her PR team promoted was talked about, but they portrayed the woman herself as the Tudor she was. Mean (in the financial sense), paranoid and a control freak. Made me think of the biography of Henry VII that I read several years ago (and am convinced I wrote up a review for a previous incarnation of this blog, but now cannot find): “Winter King” by Thomas Penn.
Overall I enjoyed this series – made me aware how little I actually knew about the Spanish Armada (and Spanish history) and then educated me about it 🙂