1588 Revisited

What in the present day is thought of as a ‘battle’ in fact consisted of a series of discreet actions, forced by relatively few of the best and most competently commanded fighting ships […] while the greater number of their sister vessels attempted little more than to ‘make a show’ […] This is not something that sits easily with the modern perception of England’s armada heroes…

I recently finished reading James McDermott’s England and the Spanish Armada, partly for fun (by which

Spanish Armada

I mean midnight bedside reading) and partly because I am trying to brush up as much as possible on the

context of the late sixteenth-century Atlantic milieu. This is all in preparation for a desired late summer retreat during which I hope to sit together with my peerless companion in historical research and co-author, Miguel Luque, in order to produce a long-promised manuscript regarding Early Modern Iberian overseas expansion in the Pacific (while the book is mostly going to be centred on the voyages of Mendaña and Quirós, after almost eight years of archival and bibliographic research the original project is turning out to be a tad more ambitious than just a recounting of three lonely South Seas expeditions).

To the point, however.

In the past I have tended to keep clear of the subject of 1588 and the Spanish Armada. This was not a conscious act, but rather a kind of instinctive disinterest in what I perceived was one more historical episode that has been greatly overrated on the basis of successive generations of retrospective nationalist mythology. Hence I took up this rather lengthy book with some trepidation. I quickly found McDermott’s style to be highly attractive. It is not just that he proves to be an extremely accomplished historian, but that his idiosyncratic voice sounds just the right note between subtle irreverence and a highly critical and well-researched perspective.

Armed with a plethora of nicely presented primary sources (all of them, it must be noted, of English provenance…but then the author makes no secret of the fact that he is analysing this event from an Anglo POV), McDermott sets out to explore the complex socio-political developments that led Elizabethan England to derail the age old Anglo-Spanish alliance against France while transforming the Imperial Spanish Counter-Reformation into a powerful, threatening “other” that served to lay the foundations for a singularly effective form of proto-nationalist English chauvinism and xenophobia.

Most notably, he offers a thorough and technically superlative recounting of the maritime confrontation of 1588 which convincingly demolishes several centenarian myths regarding the “victory” of Elizabeth’s naval underdogs. His argument, in sum, is that …the 1588 campaign had been an indecisive confrontation. If Englishmen could count it as a victory, it was one bestowed largely by unseasonably foul weather and Spanish masters’ inadequate understanding of the treacherous waters through which their battered ships were obliged to struggle home.

Since this (twice edited) post is almost becoming a book review, I will simply offer two more passages that nicely summarise McDermott’s principal arguments and style:

Whether of immortal memory, proud recollection or near absolute anonymity, the Englishmen who manned the fleet during the Armada campaign represented no recognizable naval tradition. Nor were they the instigators of one. […] In 1588, the likeness of a naval community was formed momentarily from a galaxy of widely dissimilar experiences and backgrounds, joined together in a vital purpose: a first manifestation of the ‘nation in arms’ egalitarianism that Englishmen since have evoked during their moments of greatest crisis. Whether that quality has ever been more real than fondly imagined is debatable…

McDermott is under no illusion as to the social background of the voices and sources who tend to provide the fodder for such nostalgia. Speaking of the gathering war effort in England’s countryside:

From Portsmouth in November [1587], the earl of Sussex complained bitterly of the near universal opposition he had encountered from the rural poor when attempting to arm his trained bands:

I have found neither armour, weapon, nor shott, nor men, according to my expectacon…Your Honors wolde thinke these speeches to be strange, if you shold heare them, the meaner and poorer sort, to saie he wold not sell horse and carte to defend his prince, countrye, famile, and children.

With the salutary choice of starving in freedom or suffering a Spanish boot upon its collective throat, the ‘meaner sort’ appears to have had a keener strategic appreciation than Sussex may have wished.

In sum, McDermott’s work is a great read and stands in stark contrast with the continuing parade of dramatised heroism and commercialised gibberish that continues to emerge from other quarters, in both bestselling print and visual media.

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