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The other Armadas: Transcript

Updated Tuesday, 24th May 2005

In this edition of BBC Radio 4's Things We Forgot To Remember, Michael Portillo takes a closer look at the myths that have obscured the real threats of Spanish invasion of Elizabethan England.

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A computer reconstruction of the Armada from the Battlefield Britain series Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC MUSIC Hombres Victoria Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) mixed to FX of sea wash at Mousehole harbour

MICHAEL voice piece on coast at Mousehole
Elizabethan England is at war with Catholic Spain, foreign galleons are gathering off England’s coastline, invasion threatens. Then, the cry goes up “armada! – the Spanish are coming!”

A story of the Spanish Armada that we think we’ve remembered. But this Armada put troops ashore on English soil, here where I’m standing on a rocky Cornish beach. There was no Drake calmly ending his game of bowls, no providential winds to blow away the invaders, and no cunning English fire ships scattered them. Here patriotic resistance crumbled into a shambles.

This was one of the Spanish Armadas that we’ve conveniently forgotten to remember – part of a war that lasted 18 years and brought the nation to the edge of ruin. Why do we remember one Armada and not the others? Was England really victorious in the Armada that we do commemorate? Myth or reality, history or propaganda – we can miss a lot in the smoke of battle and lose more in the pages of history.

MUSIC Hombres victoria Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)


READING In vain the Spanish ocean roared
Its billows swelled against our shore
Its billows sunk beneath thy word
With all the floating war thy bore

MICHAEL When the Englishman Isaac Watts wrote those words into his hymn, a hundred and twenty-one years had already passed since the defeat of the Spanish Armada that we all do know about. Beatified in our historical imagination, the events of July 1588 in the Channel still resonate with the English to this day. God was on the English side, the Protestant winds blew and the cool-headed courage of our military commanders saved the nation. It’s the stuff of legends.

LAMBERT (still over music) There are few more iconic moments in English history than the Armada. It’s about daring English pluck. It’s about the little guys beating the big guys. The Spanish Armada a massive force, a huge and overwhelming force of vast vessels manned by the crack Spanish troops of Philip the Second that was going to sail up the Channel and pick an army in what’s now Belgium and drop them on the coast, depose Queen, put in some Catholic Monarch and put us all back under the Pope. Truly dreadful fate.

MUSIC (Note ends, sack butt deflates…)

LAMBERT … pretty much none of that is true!

MICHAEL Really? Well, you certainly don’t need Andrew Lambert, Professor of Naval History at King’s College London, or me to tell you about the myth of the 1588 Armada – if you’re English, some knowledge of it is almost genetic.

In this series of programmes I’m looking again at some of the cornerstone events in history that we think we all remember so well, to ask: “Was it really as simple as that? Are we the victims of centuries of propagandists, both historians and politicians, who take charge of our history to sell us bowdlerised versions of the past, designed to puff up our patriotism?”

I was a politician long enough to know the value of a good news story. There’s nothing better than a victory. But in the case of the Spanish Armada the myth of the English win is more clear-cut than the facts would strictly allow.

FELIPE Myths are always more important than facts in history.

MICHAEL Armada historian, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto…

FELIPE …much of has been distorted by the spin, as we now call it, that the masters of propaganda put on it.

DORAN It’s become part of a national myth.

MICHAEL Dr Susan Doran is a lecturer in Elizabethan History at Christ Church, Oxford.

DORAN Then of course this myth it’s continued right the way through British history when we faced a threat from Napoleon, when we faced a threat from the Nazis, and probably now when we face the threat from the European Union, so it’s really enshrined in the way that many people in England see their country’s history.

MICHAEL For the majority of the period between the 1590s and the present, the story of the Armada has been told and re-told as the premier example of how the devout English were saved by their Protestant God.

FELIPE The myth was already in place before the battle was joined, because both sides did represent this encounter as something on which the fate of Europe would hinge. Of course that was all, you know, rhetoric and bombast, it wasn’t true at all, it’s like most of what politicians say before wars, you know you shouldn’t believe a word of it. So when the campaign was over people looked for ways in which to fulfil these um expectations.

DORAN People believed that they were taking part in something of vital importance in history, and I say that because there were all these kind of commemoration artefacts that were produced and bought, like fireguards with pictures of the Armada on them on, and pictures being produced, there were cushions, there were books, a whole range of materials that celebrated the victory of the Armada.

MICHAEL Elizabethan folk patriotically buying their commemorative Armada memorabilia, to be admired or stowed, rather as we second Elizabethans have done with so many Charles and Diana wedding mugs.

MUSIC Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home (lute solo) John Dowland (1563-1626)

MICHAEL Fairytales fit onto cushions, fireguards and mugs. Real history does not.

MUSIC Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home (lute solo) John Dowland (1563-1626)

MICHAEL The truth about the Spanish Armada is more complicated and less glorious than either the Elizabethans or generations since, have been led to believe. The reasons for the Armada, the nature of the English Navy’s “decisive” victory over it and the subsequent decade and a half of war, with its ensuing multiple-Armadas, have all been glossed over or conveniently lost in time.

Where to begin to remember the things that we have forgotten? Well, perhaps the first iconic image of the great struggle is Sir Francis Drake and his astonishing sang froid.

FX BOWLS Well done, good shot Peter, that was very good that was, another round the back next time!!

MICHAEL In their bright green blazers, Peter Marsh and his team mates at the Sir Francis Drake Bowling Club in Plymouth, carry on the traditional sport of their Elizabethan patron. As I found out, the story of Drake and the Armada is part of their received wisdom.

BOWLERS Well he was playing bowls at the time and the er Spanish Armada was coming up behind the south west wind, and someone told him that we should now set sail to deal with the Spaniards, and he said we’ve got time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards.

MICHAEL By the way how long might that have been? How long might it take to finish a game do you think?

BOWLERS It takes about two and a half hours.

MICHAEL Two and half hours…

BOWLERS Hours, yes.

MICHAEL So he really was being pretty laid back if this were true…


RODGER I think it’s very largely a myth which was established, at least made popular in the nineteenth century when it corresponded to a certain ideal of the way that English gentlemen are supposed to behave. Whether Drake was a gentleman is a distinctly dubious question. He’s really of course the most distinguished of the English pirates co-opted into the national war effort. We can be quite certain that if by any chance he was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe the moment that the English scouting ship came running in to Plymouth Sound, he didn’t stay for long because the situation was actually acutely dangerous.

MICHAEL Prof Nicolas Rodger, Naval Historian at Exeter University. Well what if Drake was a pirate and didn’t play bowls? We are still keen to ensure that our children recall his heroic achievement in defeating the Spanish.

A computer reconstruction of the Armada from the Battlefield Britain series


CAROLYN QUINN Sixteen minutes past seven, a top to bottom review of the National Curriculum has been promised by the Conservatives if they win the Election. Michael Howard told his…

MICHAEL Campaigning for Michael Howard before the recent Election the former Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, told the Today programme how worried he was about how little school students knew.

CHRIS WOODHEAD Take history where a recent survey showed that half of 16 to 20 year olds didn’t know that Drake defeated the Armada.

MICHAEL Well actually the Commander of the English Fleet was Lord Howard of Effingham, and as for Drake…

FELIPE The English do have this sort of sentimental attachment to Drake, but his fellow commanders would not have shared those sentiments. Sir Martin Frobisher thought that Drake was a coward for skulking off during the Armada fight, which he clearly did, he exchanged a few shots on the first day of the major battle, then he disappeared from action and we don’t know where he was, presumably he was looking for prizes as he always did, er but on the, on the day of the great battle Drake seemed effectively to have contributed zero, and his reputation as the defeater of the Armada is unjustified however you look at it.

MICHAEL If Drake was thought such a charlatan at the time, why do we remember him? Well, Queen Elizabeth favoured him – he brought in a lot of cash to the Royal Purse from his piracy – and to the Elizabethans he was somewhere between David Beckham and Richard Branson. Subsequent generations of historians and politicians have found other reasons to venerate him.

RODGER In the nineteenth century it seems to me there is a sort of nationalisation of the English, a patriotic naval myth, er and Drake and his friends become the private property of the Royal Navy, the epitome of manly Protestant Naval heroes, er and of course as the idea of Empire comes to be fashionable in the mid nineteenth century they are connected with it, almost entirely a bogus connection because if Queen Elizabeth had any Empire at all it certainly didn’t go further away than Ireland, but um for the mid and late Victorians at any rate it was a, an obvious and useful connection to establish, and so the Elizabethan explorers and pirates were hastily converted into manly Evangelicals and pioneers of the British Empire.

MICHAEL Even if we’ve overdone the idolatry of Drake a bit, it’s surely crucial to the English Armada tradition that the flotilla that Philip the Second sent was a vast naval force, hugely superior to the plucky English underdogs, after all out of that is borne the salvation myth of Protestant England. There is though a set of statistics that we’ve forgotten.

RODGER Well the interesting thing about Spain, which was the great military super power of the age, is that it didn’t really have a navy at all. Essentially the, the Spanish Armada was an enormous convoy under escort of a number of larger armed merchant ships with only a very few proper warships among them, mainly actually ex-Portuguese warships. On the English side Queen Elizabeth’s entire Navy was present, but that was only about twenty-five ships, and there were about the same number of very well armed privately owned ships, but if you actually look at reasonably well armed fighting ships the total was about forty-five or fifty on both sides, with the English ships considerably better armed than the Spaniards.

MICHAEL So, both sides were matched pretty much ship for ship in combat, and the English were better armed and more manoeuvrable. In which case, why did the English make such a meal of defeating this slow moving, poorly armed flotilla?

RODGER The English had specialised in heavy gun firing, which the Spaniards did not have much need to do. The English, as so often is the case when one has a wonderful new weapon system, placed the highest value on it and were convinced that it was going to win the war in an afternoon. Er when it didn’t they were rather stuck. They swooped down on the enemy and fired their heavy guns, and they carried on firing their heavy guns, they expended a prodigious quantity of powder, but they didn’t actually succeed in breaking up the solidity of the Spanish defensive formation or stopping the Armada, which continued its majestic way down the Channel.

MICHAEL For a full week, the English navy pursued the Armada – arranged in its defensive crescent formation, attacking it with its heavy cannon, to little effect, and falling away. By the 29th of July, the fleet was off the coast of Calais, waiting to embark The Duke of Parma’s veteran Army of Flanders, ready for invasion. And that seems to have been the Armada’s Achilles heel. Moored off a coast line thick with Dutch rebel forces and pursued by the entire English Navy, the Spanish were vulnerable to being set ablaze, and Professor Rodgers thinks that they had little chance of making a successful rendezvous with the Parma’s invasion force.

RODGER I don’t see how they could have succeeded. They finished up stuck in a, in a strategic situation which they can’t get out of, and if the Dutch had mysteriously disappeared and if the weather had been perfect and if the English had done nothing, perhaps they might have succeeded in ushering them across the Channel, but of course the weather wasn’t perfect, the Dutch didn’t disappear and, and the English did something very quickly. They did the obvious thing, if you have an enemy fleet anchored immediately to lured of you, er they improvise fire ships to force them out of the anchorage, and they were driven up into the North Sea, and so the Spanish Fleet disappears away into the North Sea, and the English who meanwhile have totally run out of ammunition and follow them far enough to see them safely off the premises.

FELIPE I don’t think you can call that a triumph for the English, a triumph for the English in their home waters that close to home where they had all the advantages er of the closeness, also the supply being um susceptible of easy reinforcement had they been well organised enough to deliver it, having the advantage of the, the weather, having the Armada pinned against these very dangerous coasts with the wind against it. With all those things really they should have mopped up on that day, and that’s why when the battle was over the Spaniards were exultant and actually, you know, thought that God had intervened to spare them.

MUSIC Spanish celebratory

MICHAEL Ahead of the Spanish lay the stormy waters of the North Sea and a circumnavigation of Scotland and Ireland. Nearly a third of their ships were lost to the rough seas and rocky shorelines. But can we call this a decisive victory for the English?

FELIPE To some extent the storm acted as a clearing house for a lot of vessels that were due for the scrap yard anyway and enabled the Spanish Monarchy to rebuild its fleet and over the next few years the Spanish Navy really is impregnable worldwide. What the world concluded from the Armada campaign wasn’t that England was so superior at sea as to be invulnerable, quite the reverse, it showed how vulnerable England was, and the English knew that.

MICHAEL England was very vulnerable and for the next fifteen years, the English lived the waking nightmare of Spanish invasion. The Spanish didn’t disappoint. We have the perception that the Armada was in some way the climax of the campaign against England by Spain…Nicolas Rodger

RODGER Well it was the beginning of the war, in fact you see the war had only just started, er it went on until after Queen Elizabeth died in 1603. Spain mounted two further major invasion attempts of England, both of which were defeated by bad weather, but both of which were actually serious threats, moreover in neither case were the English well informed in advance that it was coming, and if they hadn’t been wrecked by gales they might easily have managed to mount a successful surprise landing. In both cases moreover they were intending to land directly in England, they’d given up the disastrous idea of picking up the troops from Flanders, so the strategic plan was much sounder in both cases, er and it was substantially good luck that er the English got away with it.

MICHAEL These Armadas in 1596 and 1597, are almost completely written out of the history of the Elizabethan period. In 1988, hundreds of beacons were lit around the country to mark the four hundredth anniversary of one armada – nobody noticed the anniversary of the storm which scattered the 1597 invasion fleet.

These second and third Armadas were forced back by the weather, not the English Navy…but in a reccy of possible invasion sites in Cornwall in 1595, Spain had tasted what an invasion of England might be like…as did the English....

FX Sea noise

A computer reconstruction of the Armada from the Battlefield Britain series

MICHAEL Well, huddled for shelter under the harbour wall on a rocky beach at Mousehole, I’m joined by historian Margaret Perry. What numbers did they come in?

MARGARET PERRY Two hundred armed trained men, and they fired the village.

MICHAEL They set fire to all the houses?

MARGARET PERRRY All the houses. In the Spanish Captain’s account of the raid he says that they were faced with a formidable force of men, but in fact that would have been totally untrue. Richard Carew, who wrote a survey of Cornwall in1603, and he would have had a firsthand account, and he said that the, the men were cowards, they ran from the scene, and I really don’t blame them because they had very little in the way of arms.

MICHAEL So what had the defeat of the Armada in 1588 achieved if it hadn’t given us a sense of security?

MARGARET PERRY Do you know I don’t think it achieved very much at all. I’m sorry I find, find it difficult to answer that one.

MICHAEL Now whether one regards it as cowardice in the face of the enemy or just plain commonsense to withdraw in front of overwhelming forces, the reaction of most was to scarper, but there was an isolated incidence of resistance, and I think we should go and look at that which is up the hill I think.

Well this is really a magnificent house, much bigger than anything else we see in the village.

MARGARET PERRY This is the house that Jenkin Kegwin built in the middle of the sixteenth century.

MICHAEL So Jenkin Kegwin is one of the leading citizens of Mousehole in 1595. How does he react to the invasion of the Spanish?

MARGARET PERRY He was killed, probably by a musket ball. It’s believed that he was defending his home against the Spaniards, possibly also he might, as he traded with the Mediterranean ports, he might have thought that he could perhaps negotiate and try to arrive at some compromise.

MICHAEL If he thought that he was wrong, because he, he finished up dead…

MARGARET PERRY Indeed he did.

MICHAEL When you look back on this have you ever wondered to yourself in view of the very limited resistance that there was here in Mousehole, if in 1588 the Spanish had managed to land in England do you think the English would have put up a magnificent resistance or do you have your doubts about that?

MARGARET PERRY No I mean I’m English, I’d like to think that they put up a magnificent resistance, but you, you’ve nothing really much with to arm yourself. Even the men who would have had arms they would probably just have had a pike or a bow perhaps.

MICHAEL So when the chronicler Carew says that there was cowardice, you think that’s a bit harsh do you?

MARGARET PERRY He probably felt slightly ashamed, perhaps he felt we should have put up more resistance.

MICHAEL Maybe it’s one of the reasons it’s become a thing that we’ve forgotten to remember.

MARGARET PERRY We ain’t forgotten it down here mind you, but yes I think that possibly it is, it doesn’t cover us with glory like the Armada does it, no.


FELIPE I’m pretty confident that with a Spanish Army of any dimensions on the soil of England the English would have given up. The history of England does shows that although it’s a very hard country to invade by sea for reasons of geography essentially, it’s once you do invade it resistance tends to crumble. Even in the sixteenth century the English were already, you know, foreshadowing their future as a polite and commercial nation and weren’t much given to risking their prosperity by brutal and disruptive wars in their own homeland.

MICHAEL The expedition to Mousehole had shown how vulnerable to invasion England was, but the meteorological problems encountered by the Armadas that preceded and followed it convinced Phillip the Second not to stop in his attempts to invade England, but to change tactics. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto.

FELIPE The reason why England is so hard to invade is that all its ports are protected against the wind, except those on the West coast, and what they’re protected by Ireland, and if you control Ireland then you can still always have the advantage of the wind if you’ve got ships in Irish ports, and I think that’s really why the English Monarchy in the age of sail was always so anxious to have Ireland under its control. I mean had the Spaniards conquered Ireland they would certainly have been relatively easily able to coerce the English into a favourable peace.


MICHAEL Dark Rosheen, a sixteenth century folk song calling for the Spanish to come and save Ireland. And come they did.

This final invasion Armada was dispatched to Kinsale on the west coast of Ireland and landed successfully with three and half thousand men under the command of Juan d’Aguila. The strategy here was to meet up with the Irish rebels to harry Lord Charles Mountjoy’s forces in the West of Ireland, and to secure it as a base for a future invasion of the mainland. Mountjoy went on to prevent the rebels and the Spanish converging.

By December, his army was inflicting casualties on the Spanish forces and on the second of January, D’Aguila was forced to sue for terms and return to Spain as the weather cleared in March.

The defeat of this Armada is a part of the Tudor policy towards Ireland that we choose to forget.

But by 1601, Elizabethans looked back with enormous pride on the events of 1588, and it’s from that period that we get our romanticised view of the Armada and England’s valiant defenders. But if the real battle was settled as much by good fortune as by good seamanship and hadn’t proved decisive in the war, why have the Elizabethans and subsequent generations signed up for the myth? Andrew Lambert.

LAMBERT We have to remember that the Elizabethan State is a very powerful propaganda organisation, and the men running the State behind the scenes, men like Burghley and Walsingham, these are very powerful men; they’re very well connected; they’re able to put together a propaganda offensive. There’s a great mass of printed literature, cheap broadsides, cartoons, caricatures. Then there are the State functions. The Queen goes to St Paul’s to celebrate this event on three occasions. On the final occasion in November 1588, is a triumph based on Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar, the great profession, a kind of imperial procession of victory to the great church of St Paul’s to celebrate the victory and to lay up the captured enemy emblems, in a perfect demonstration of just what a great imperial State England had become..

MICHAEL Amongst the bric-a-brac of Elizabethan propaganda invented after the Armada, the most memorable item is The Queen’s speech at Tilbury on the eve of the Armada. Search your imagination and you’ll find it goes something like this…

ELIZABETH I's WORDS I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too.

MICHAEL It’s difficult to be English and not feel a certain stiffening of sinew at those well-crafted words. But as with so much of the history that makes up a national identity, it’s almost certainly a fraud. Susan Doran

DORAN We don’t know that Elizabeth actually used those words at all. We do not have a contemporary printed account of what Elizabeth said. We have a draft, early seventeenth century manuscript, which does give those words, but whether they were a draft of what Elizabeth said, whether it was what somebody had written down afterwards, we just don’t know. As the speech was not printed we also can be sure that not very many people, certainly not many Elizabethans, knew what she said.

MICHAEL It’s certainly true that in wartime, myths and legends are born – heroes venerated and leaders feted. But for a myth that is the product of so much political spin to have passed intact down the centuries is extraordinary. Why do we remember it in the way that we do? Felipe Fernandez-Armesto:

FELIPE It came to occupy a place in what historians call the Whig interpretation of English history, the notion that English history is a progressive one and, and consists of a story unfolding towards ever greater liberty, a confessional diversity, constitutional freedom, and the Armada although it had nothing to do with any of those things really, but the Armada did lend itself to being characterised in that way.

MICHAEL A view of our past that extends within, and even onto, the walls of Westminster…

LAMBERT The Armada enters the popular consciousness in 1588, but it remains central to the way the English and later British State thinks of itself, because a great series of tapestries were commissioned by Lord Howard, the Admiral commanding, and by 1660 they were in the House of Lords. The whole of the House of Lords’ debating chamber was surrounded by a mass of beautiful tapestries on a very large scale, depicting the whole conduct of the Armada campaign, and those tapestries were the backdrop to British political life until the eighteen thirties when they were destroyed with the old House of Lords. With the Armada you’re getting the reason why we can still hold our heads up and call ourselves English.

MICHAEL We may now smile about the historical inaccuracies contained within the English myth of the Spanish Armada. But national myths become powerful factors in subsequent political events. I often wonder how strong an influence Drake’s cool-headed example was on the British as alone they resisted Hitler, and whether Churchill’s speeches consciously echoed Queen Elizabeth’s address to her troops at Tilbury. If it’s true that the English weather did more to repel the Spanish than Drake did, perhaps then he played a bigger part in saving Britain in the 1940s than he really did in 1588. The creation of a national myth.

Further Reading

Felippe Fernandez-Armesto The Spanish Armada: The Experience of War in 1588 (Oxford University Press, 1988)
The clash between naval powers

Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger, (eds) The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1992)
A selection of essays on the way that historical myths are created and deployed.





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