Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sir Francis Drake, the Hellburners of Holland, and the Sea of Horses

What defeated the Spanish Armada? Well, the English navy, of course, and Lord Howard, Francis Drake, John Hawkins. They sailed out of Plymouth in their gallant little ships and harried the Spanish galleons all along the Channel from the Lizard to Calais until the Spaniards had had enough. It was a great naval victory.
Well, yes, up to a point. The English ships – many of which were as big or even bigger than the Spanish – did all of that. It was a continuous naval battle lasting – with intervals – over a week. There was lots of cannon fire – particularly from the English, who probably fired about three times as many cannon balls as the Spanish. It was a major naval battle – 150 ships in the Spanish fleet, about the same in the English.
But – here’s a strange thing. Despite all those guns, and all those cannon balls, not a single ship was sunk by enemy fire on either side. Not one. Because naval gunnery simply wasn’t good enough.  And anyway, wooden ships were notoriously difficult to sink. Even in the battle of Trafalgar, when naval cannons were much more powerful, most ships were dismasted and battered into hulks, rather than being actually sunk.
So in 1588, the Armada made it all the way along the English Channel to Calais, battered, but unbeaten. The English ships were a nuisance, but the mighty Spanish fleet was still as much of a threat as it had been a week earlier. More so, in fact, because it was very close to achieving its first objective.
It’s important to understand that the Armada itself wasn’t an invasion fleet. Even though it had lots of soldiers and horses on board (more about those later) the Armada’s job was to act as an escort for another Spanish army, led by the duke of Parma, which was in Holland. Parma’s men (and horses) were supposed to cross the Channel on flat-bottomed barges, while the galleons of the Spanish Armada protected them from the English navy. The same plan that Napoleon and Hitler tried to use later.
So why did it fail?   Well, that’s where the secret weapon comes in - the terrible Hellburners of Holland. These were really scarey – the nuclear weapons of the sixteenth century. They had first appeared in 1585, at the siege of Antwerp. The Spanish army had blocked access to the city with an 800 metre long bridge made of ships tied together across the river. The Dutch needed to break this blockade, or they would starve. So on the night of 4th-5th April 1585 they sent a fleet of 32 fireships floating downstream towards the bridge. The Spanish soldiers laughed. They didn’t think it would work.
But two of these fireships, the Fortuyn and the Hoop, were different. An Italian engineer, Federigo Giambelli, had made them into bombs. Inside each ship he had built an oblong chamber with a brick floor, walls five feet thick, and a roof made of lead with tombstones piled on top. He filled each chamber with 7000 pounds of high quality gunpowder. Then he fitted a delayed action clockwork fuse, and covered the chamber with a wooden deck so the ship looked normal.
The first ship, Fortuyn, ran aground before it reached the bridge, but the Hoop crunched straight into it. Then it exploded. All that gunpowder confined in a chamber produced a COLOSSAL explosion. According to the historian John Lothrop
            ‘The Hoop disappeared, together with the men (Spanish soldiers) who had boarded her, and the blockhouse, against which she had struck, with all its garrison, while a large portion of the bridge, with all the troops stationed on it, had vanished into air. It was the work of a single instant. The Scheldt yawned to its lowest depth, and then cast its waters across the dykes … and far across the land. The earth shook as with the throb of a volcano … Houses were toppled down miles away and not a living thing … could keep its feet. The air was filled with a rain of ploughshares, grave-stones, and marble balls, intermixed with the heads, limbs and bodies of what had been human beings. Slabs of granite, vomited by the flaming ship, were found afterwards at league’s distance, buried deep in the earth. A thousand soldiers were destroyed in a second of time; many of them were torn to shreds, beyond even the semblance of humanity.’

What has this got to do with the Armada? Well, three years later, when the Spanish Armada was anchored off Calais, waiting for the Duke of Parma’s army, the English admiral, Lord Howard, sent a fleet of 8 fireships floating towards them. This was a fairly desperate measure, after a week of inconclusive bombardment. Probably he hoped to set some Spanish ships on fire. But if he did, he was about to be disappointed.
Disappointed, because not a single Spanish ship was set on fire. The English fireships drifted harmlessly through the Spanish fleet, and burnt themselves out on the shore. All of them. So Howard had just wasted 8 of his own ships.
But he probably didn’t care – in fact he must have been delighted with the result. Because what the fireships did cause was chaos, and total, utter panic. The Spanish captains cut their cables, sailed into each other, crashed their ships on the shore, or fled out to sea. The next day there was a major battle off Gravelines, which scattered them further. Despite all the Spanish admiral’s appeals, the Armada never assembled as a disciplined force again. They gave up the idea of waiting for the Duke of Parma’s invasion force, and fled into the North Sea, losing touch with each other, and each surviving ship began its long desperate journey north, around Scotland and Ireland to their Spanish home. Lord Howard had finally won the victory which had eluded him for so long.
But what caused it? Why did the Spanish captains – all experienced seamen – panic like that? Why not just dodge the fireships and laugh at the English for wasting their own ships? Well, the answer lies in the Hellburners. Everyone had heard the horror story of the Siege of Antwerp, and the Italian engineer, Giambelli, was known to be working for Queen Elizabeth. So when the Spanish sailors saw those fireships bearing down on them, they thought they were looking at weapons of mass destruction. They were about to be vaporized.
It was a mistake, because none of the fireships were hellburners. The English navy had almost run out of gunpowder; they couldn’t have made one even if they’d wanted. But the Spanish didn’t know that. So they panicked and fled.
And the sea of horses? That’s a really sad story. Many of the Spanish ships didn’t just have men on board, they had horses too, for their officers to ride when they landed in England. But on the long journey home, they didn’t need the horses. Everyone on board was starving, and short of water. So …
A week or two after this battle, the skipper of a Hansa merchant vessel reported a strange, terrible sight. He’d sailed through an empty sea, he said, but everywhere he looked, it was alive with horses and mules, swimming desperately for their lives.
Tim Vicary writes historical novels and legal thrillers. You can read about them on his website and blog.
All images from Wikimedia commons


  1. Excellent blog, storytelling. But wow. OMG. Tragic.

  2. Great about the hellburners, but you've missed out a major repercussion of the fireships.... no anchors.

    This led to the armada's destruction when they set off on the long way home. Sailing around the British isles in unknown waters with the fog and gales was dangerous enough - to do it without anchors was lethal. It meant that the ships couldn't heave to in bad weather, and were much more easily wrecked.

    1. Good point, Doug, thanks. There was the issue of the Dutch flyboats too, but I ran out of space!