The Spanish Armada
Naval battles in the early modern period, as Hutchinson writes, carried their own brand of particular terror: the cannonades, the terrible wounds caused by wooden splinters and cannonballs, and above all the fear of fire or explosion. It was, of course, fire that ultimately swung the balance in England’s favour, and a large dose of bad/good luck (depending on point of view), namely avoidable accidents (collisions and explosions among the Spanish fleet) and climate change, in the form of unusually strong summer and autumn storms.
While starved of food and ammunition and with near-bankruptcy and panic leading to extraordinary episodes of disorganisation on shore and on board, England’s navy, as every schoolchild knows, proved superior because of their faster, nimbler ships. In an appalling aftermath, Medina Sidona’s warnings to “take great heed lest you fall upon the island of Ireland, for fear of the harm that may happen unto you upon that coast” proved “darkly prophetic”. The toll of those who drowned in at least 27 known Irish wrecks was horrific, and most of those who came ashore were massacred by the English or Irish. Crew from the two Scottish wrecks fared better, although Hutchinson refuses to concede to legends of the Tobermory treasure.
Overall, this account is well balanced, looking back to Mary’s reign and Elizabeth’s own formative years, and expertly analysing both the European context and the machinations of intelligence and propaganda on all sides. Determined to resist the urge to speculate on what he calls one of history’s greatest “what ifs”, Hutchinson has provided an excellent account of Philip’s “Great Enterprise”, about which the Spanish monarch lamented: “I sent my fleet against men, not against the wind and the waves”.