Armada: 12 Days to Save England

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 🙂

The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels (Exhibition at the Museum of London)

Last week we went into London to visit the exhibition at the Museum of London of the Cheapside Hoard before it closes on 27th April. The first thing that struck us, before we even got into the exhibition, was just how much security there was – the entrance to the exhibition was secured with great big turnstiles, security was provided by the Ghurka Security Services (who seem from a quick google to be made up mostly of ex-Ghurka soldiers) who lurked in the shadows throughout the exhibition. And not only could you not take photos in there, you also couldn’t take in coats or bags. I guess this is all because the jewellery of the hoard is valuable not just for the historical interest, but also inherently due to being made up of gold and jewels.

The exhibition opened with a little bit about the discovery of the hoard – it was found in 1912 when workmen were demolishing some 17th Century buildings. There were cellars under these buildings from the original buildings that had been there before the Great Fire of London, and the jewellery itself was found beneath the floor of one of these cellars. So this indicates it was buried before the fire, so pre-1666. Later in the exhibition they pointed out that one of the items must date to after 1640 (due to having a coat of arms on it that didn’t exist before that). So there’s a fairly narrow range of dates for when it was buried: 1640-1666. At the end of the exhibition there was a short section on why the hoard might’ve been buried but although they try and suggest possibilities, really no-one knows. All that’s known is that at that time the houses on Cheapside were occupied by jewellers, and that period of time is a fairly turbulent time in the history of London.

The first third of the exhibition provided context for the jewellery, which occupied the remaining two thirds of the space. We were shown what London was like during the time that the jewellery was fashionable – so Elizabethan and early Stuart era. Something that particularly struck me in this section were the shop and house signs. In London at the time houses weren’t numbered, instead people hung carved wooden signs from the wall. In the exhibition they had (amongst others) a Black Boy and a leopard. These are the forerunners of pub signs, I guess – actual carvings rather than painted signs tho. Other highlights included a mockup of a jeweller’s workshop – most of the houses on Cheapside were occupied by jewellers or goldsmiths during this time period. The two terms were used fairly interchangeably at the time, but were beginning to separate (and people were beginning to specialise in a particular part of the goldsmithing trade rather than necessarily being all-rounders). I was also much taken with the chests they had on display – in particular an enamelled one that was as much a work of art as any jewellery it might once’ve contained.

The jewellery itself was very impressive. This is the first time in a hundred years that the whole lot has been on display at once, and there’s really quite a lot of it (it’s a shame I don’t have a photo at this point, it’s hard to give an impression of the scale of it in words). The first things you see as you come into that section of the exhibition were some of my favourites – a collection of long delicate chain necklaces made up of enamelled flower and leaf motifs. The exhibition provides one with a magnifying glass so you can properly look at these, and it’s astonishing to think they were made by people working with less high quality lenses for magnification and using only natural light. There are also rather fine jewelled pendants, large jewelled earrings, a selection of rings. And some rather fascinating fan holders – these are about the same size as the pendants, and covered in jewels. It took me a little while to figure out how they worked – but after peering at the objects and the picture of someone with a fan I think I worked it out. The fans were ostrich feathers (or something like that) and these stuck into an opening in the broader end of the holder. They were displayed with that opening downwards, which confused me at first!

After the cases of “all the things of type X” they had a large selection of unique items. Most of these were cameos, including some that were ancient but set in Elizabethan fashion. I must confess I didn’t spend much time looking at these (although I did look at all of them) as I don’t find them as interesting as the other things. However there were also some other unique items that stood out. In particular there was a watch set in an emerald, which is taking ostentatious display of wealth to extremes! The label for this pointed out that emeralds are particularly tricky for this sort of item, as they are prone to cracking, so this wasn’t just inherently expensive it was also hard to make. I also liked a little salamander brooch with the body made up of several oval emeralds. And J liked a small pendant carved in the shape of a squirrel. Another highlight of this section was an exquisite scent bottle. And they had had a modern perfumer make up a perfume inspired by the sorts of ingredients used at the time, and there was a little door in the exhibition wall to open so you could smell it. Rather nice, I thought, but I couldn’t begin to describe it.

As well as the jewellery in this room they also had several portraits around the walls showing people wearing the sorts of jewellery that were on display. Particularly striking was the way that ruffs and hair-dos were used to display the pieces – even rings could be worn attached to a ruff rather than on a finger. The delicate chains I’d been admiring could be worn pinned up on the bodice of a woman’s gown, so they were well displayed and not in danger of catching on things and breaking. There were also video screens around the room showing closeups of the jewellery and something of the techniques used to make them – I wasn’t particularly impressed with these, none of them caught my attention enough to make me want to stop and watch them rather than look at the items themselves.

It’s only on for another few days, but worth a visit if you can get there 🙂