Almost half of the vessels in the fleet failed to return and untold thousands of Spanish sailors perished with them.
Following a series of damaging engagements with the English navy in the Channel and off northern France, twenty-six ships were wrecked around the western shores of Ireland, having skirted the British Isles in hazardous conditions, and with inadequate supplies. While some shipwrecked crews were given sanctuary in Ireland by the church, many hundreds of sailors were otherwise stripped, robbed and abandoned; hundreds more were massacred where they landed.
The history-book account of the Armada tells of a legendary victory for Drake, Hawkins, Frobisher and the English Navy – and it seems, at least, in seamanship, planning, tactics, shipbuilding and quality of munitions, the Spanish fleet was outclassed. But skirmishes with the English cannot account for the scale of the castrophic losses suffered by the Spanish in what was, arguably, the worst maritime disaster of all time. Scattering the Spanish fleet off Calais and driving it northward seems to have been all that was necessary for Drake and co. to forestall the invasion; for at this point, only half-a-dozen Spanish vessels had been lost. Drake’s own behaviour – both before and during the invasion – seems to have primarily involved plundering Spanish vessels, on a freelance basis, to increase his own personal wealth: a state-sanctioned pirate, no less. On the Spanish side, King Felipe, Medina Sidonia (naval commander) and the Duke of Parma (Flemish land forces) between them donated the full weight of their strategic incompetence, lack of communication and complete disregard for the provision of adequate supplies or for the sailors’ personal welfare; these coupled with an unshakeable faith that, recognising the holy righteousness of their cause, God would intervene to ensure its ultimate victory. (Possible echoes of recent and ongoing military conflicts?) The Pope, meanwhile, sent his blessings but withheld the funding that might have made a crucial difference.
For the rest of it: ‘Well, some men blame the weather…’
It is a tale with few, if any, heroes – English, Spanish or Irish – but with thousands of victims: nearly all of them Spanish. ‘The Dogs of Spain’ is my imagined (Moley says ‘channelled’ – ha-ha!) narrative of a 16th century trader recruited to man an armed merchantman – a class of Armada ship that was least well-suited to either naval warfare or northern maritime conditions.
I suggest you put the kettle on, or go to the cellar for more ale, well before the song starts – it ain’t a two-and-a-half-minute foot-tapper, if that’s what you were hoping for..