Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ships: Armada of Spain

For over a century the Spanish Navy with its enormous fleet of warships was the largest and most expensive part of the greatest war machine of the era. From approximately 1492 until well into the 17th century, the fleet which we now collectively refer to as the Spanish Armada, ruled the waves by transporting conquistadors to the New World, assisting in their conquests and then hauling the unimaginable wealth collected from Caribbean islands and North and South America back to Spain. The first chink in the armor of Spain’s fleet cracked open in 1588 when England bested her soundly in the English Channel. But what kinds of ships made up the Armada? More than you might imagine.

When we think of the Spanish Armada we generally imagine the 130 ships that were sent toward Britain in July of 1588 under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia. In fact, more than one Armada – which means fleet in Spanish – was on the water at any given time. The treasure armadas that were such popular targets for buccaneers and pirates usually consisted of four or five ships lead by a large galleon named for the Virgin Mary as in Nuestra Senora del Rosario built in 1587. The Armada de Barlovento was a flexible fleet that patrolled the waters of the New World routing out said pirates and buccaneers as well as putting down any unrest in Spain’s colonies. In particular, the Armada of Medina Sidonia was a specially assembled flotilla and its many ships give us a good glimpse of the kinds of sailing vessels favored by Spain.

The 130 ships that sailed north toward the enemy that summer broke down this way: first, there were 20 large galleons ranging in size from 250 to about 1,000 tons. The largest, the previously mentioned Nuestra Senora del Rosario, displaced 1,150 tons, carried 50 heavy, short-range guns and was crewed by 445 men. These galleons, which are the types of ships most people imagine when they hear “Spanish Armada”, were lumbering behemoths compared to the smaller, spritely, and easily maneuvered galleons of the British fleet. They could pound away on an enemy but they were often crewed by inexperienced men pressed into service or even enslaved. This was particularly true of Medina Sidonia’s Armada, and the lack of experience had devastating consequences.

Next, eight oared galleys attended the mighty galleons. These were shallow-draught vessels of about 150 feet long and very much modeled on the Barbary galleys of the Mediterranean. They were completely unsuited to the tribulations of northern waters, however. By the time the Armada limped home all had been wrecked or sunk.

Many merchant carracks, something in the range of between 30 and 40, were pressed into the service of the Armada. They were modified with the addition of heavy guns and high fore and after castles to make space for same. The carrack crews were merchantmen and generally had no training in engagement at sea. Most of these ships were also lost, particularly along the coasts of Scotland and Ireland.

The Armada was rounded out by three masted pataches which, though probably as maneuverable as the British light galleons, were used predominantly for carrying dispatches and scouting enemy positions. There were transports as well which carried stores but could hardly keep up with the fleet, many of them falling into the hands of the enemy as prizes.

Though their fleet was indeed formidable, Spain’s mighty Armada was undone by a combination of location, weather, and experience at sea. Not only were many of Medina Sidonia’s sailors inexperienced but he himself had never led a major naval engagement. On the other side, however, seasoned seadogs Howard of Effingham and Henry Seymour commanded 35 and 94 vessels respectively each manned by crews who had sailed with the likes of Hawkins, Drake and Cavendish. Though on paper Spain seemed to hold all the cards, fate had other plans.

In another post we will discuss the details of the Spanish galleon, that workhorse of a mighty empire. For today, though, we will leave with the memory of the great Armada of Spain sailing out of Corunna in the bright, Atlantic sunshine. It must have been something to see.

Header: Small British galleon vs a large Spanish type via WikiHistoria.com


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Like so many other military engagements, the larger force doesn't always prevail and the devil is in the details...

And like almost anything else in life, underestimating you opponent is always a mistake.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! So true, and all world "super powers" find those things out sooner or later.