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The Things We Forgot To Remember - The Armada

Updated Friday, 13th May 2005

We ask whether Francis Drake's victory over the Spanish was as definitve as we might think, as part of the BBC/OU series 'The Things We Forgot to Remember'

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The Spanish Armada - a computer reconstruction from Battlefield Britain So you think Francis Drake and his bowls ended the Spanish Armada threat...?

Actually, it’s not that simple. After the 1588 Armada there were three more. Ireland was invaded and Penzance was burned. The 1590s were the most dangerous years Britain has known until the 1940s; the 1588 victory was Elizabeth I’s "on the beaches" speech. There was more - much more - to come…

The war between England and Spain, which the English had begun (though not declared) in 1585, lasted until 1603. The English fleet – led by Lord Howard, not Drake – drove off the 1588 Armada. Both fleets were about the same size: the Spanish were halted by the Dutch and driven from the Channel but the majority of the Spanish ships made it back home after a harrying voyage home. Both sides were relieved. Both thanked God: in late 1588 there was a magnificent victory procession in London.

But by 1591 the Spanish had made good their 1588 losses, and were ready to try again. English privateers could (and did) capture Spanish merchant ships, but the Spanish fleet was far too strong for the English to threaten. The Spanish established themselves in Brittany, and in 1595, landed a force in Cornwall which burned Penzance to the ground. English opposition to this raid crumbled. The English had a stroke of luck when the 1596 and 1597 Armadas heading for Ireland - then in rebellion - were dispersed by a storm in the Channel. The 1601 Armada landed Spanish troops in Ireland, stoking up the rebellion which was draining Elizabeth's cash and troops.

The war of the 1590s was expensive and inconclusive. But since then, the myth of Armada has reined supreme: a tapestry illustrating the victory decorated the House of Lords for over 150 years. It was seen in the seventeenth century as an example of God's intervention preserving English Protestantism. Later, Drake's record as a pirate was glossed over, and the bowls legend was played up, as he was re-evaluated as an early British naval hero – his statue went up on Plymouth Hoe in 1884. The 1588 Armada was fitted into a 'Whig' history of England's inevitable rise to greatness, and the inconvenient context was played down.

First broadcast: Monday 16 May 2005 on BBC Radio 4

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