Queen Elizabeth in her Armada Thanksgiving robes, from a miniature executed in 1616
Queen Elizabeth in her Armada Thanksgiving robes, from a miniature executed in 1616

What would have happened if the Spaniards had crippled the English fleet without getting crippled themselves? They would have convoyed to the English shores from the Netherlands an army of invasion consisting partly of Parma's veterans,, partly of the large reinforcements which the Armada was carrying from Spain, under the command of the ablest soldier living. They would have found awaiting them the English levies gathered at Tilbury, commanded nominally by the incompetent Leicester, but probably in actual fact by the experienced captain, Sir John Norreys; an army enthusiastic but untrained, though containing a leaven of men who had seen hard fighting as volunteers in the Low Countries, in the French Huguenot wars, and in Ireland.

Parma's task would not have been an easy one, but the possibility that there would have been a Spanish conquest of England cannot be denied. After the defeat of the Armada, however, no invasion was possible, and had it been possible, the invading force would have been isolated in England, completely cut off from supplies or reinforcements. As matters stood, the dominion of the 'Seas, hitherto claimed by Spain, had passed completely out of her hands, and the destruction of the Armada secured the deliverance of the United Provinces as well as that of England herself. From that time forward, Spaniards and Englishmen met on the seas with a perfect confidence that if the Spaniards were only three to one they had no chance of victory.

The fear of Spain had passed. England was no longer on the defensive. The party of aggression would have set themselves to the annihilation of the Spanish power, the complete destruction of Spanish fleets,, the seizure of the Spanish dominion in America, the separation of Spain from Portugal, whose crown Philip had appropriated eight years before, claiming through his mother Isabella, the sister of the two last kings, both of whom died childless.

To that party belonged Drake among the seamen, Waisingham among statesmen, and Walter Raleigh, who was courtier, statesman, soldier, and seaman by turns. But Elizabeth and Burleigh were not of the party of aggression. Politically, they did not desire the destruction of Spain, fearing the aggrandisement of France thereby. Nor were they moved, like Raleigh, by great conceptions of England's expansion in America. They wanted a Spain powerless to hurt England directly, but able to serve as a counterpoise to France.

Burleigh had strong Protestant sympathies, but they were subordinated to his ideas of political expediency. Elizabeth had no Protestant sympathies, and only championed Protestantism with reluctance and for exclusively political ends. The majority of the nation at large did not look beyond making the maximum of personal profit out of the weakness of Spain. Spain was to be smitten hip and thigh, and the Egyptians were to be thoroughly spoiled; but their spoiling, not their destruction, was the end in view, though there was no desire to preserve them from destruction.

Elizabeth perceived, that she could give rein to this popular demand without detriment to her own policy. But Drake was the hero of the hour, and there must be an appearance of giving Drake his way. In the process the now inconvenient admiral should be discredited; and she would be able to carry out her own plan of continuing to humble Spain without reducing her to entire impotence.

A better title than Philip's own to Portugal was possessed by his cousins of the house of Braganza. A more useful pretender, however, was found in the person of an illegitimate cousin known as Don Antonio. The aggressive school saw the chance of dealing a heavy blow to Spain by setting Don Antonio on the throne of Portugal.

Drake's Lisbon expedition
With this end in view Drake was sent forth on his ill-starred Lisbon expedition. We need not accuse Elizabeth of deliberately planning to ruin that venture; but she did in fact so interfere with and modify Drake's own scheme of operations that the expedition entirely failed of its object.

It was indeed demonstrated that Spain was open to attack on her own soil. Corunna and Vigo were very severely handled, and a number of store ships were captured. But the attack on Lisbon failed, several ships were lost in a storm, and Drake returned home with a damaged reputation — though the blame did not really rest on his shoulders — which made it comparatively easy to displace his naval policy by that of his only less famous cousin, John Hawkins.

That great seaman was content with merely applying on a big scale the old principles of his private feud with the Spaniards. English squadrons sallied forth to lie in wait on the trade routes for Spanish ships and fleets laden with treasure or merchandise, without devoting themselves to any persistent destruction of the arsenals and warships by the construction of which Philip hoped to redress the balance.

The policy was satisfactory enough to English adventurers, who had a free, hand to raid Spanish commerce, and to it we owe that famous sea fight which stands beside the battle of Thermopylae and the charge of Balaclava in its glorious futility. Futility, that is, as concerns tangible results; for the moral effect of such deeds is not to be measured.

Sir Richard Grenville on the Revenge, Drake's ship when the Armada came, was with a small English squadron off the Azores, awaiting a Spanish treasure-fleet, when news came of the approach of fifty-three Spanish war­ships—an illustration, by the way, of the stolid determination with which Philip set about the reconstruction of the Spanish navy. Grenville deliberately allowed his own ship to be cut off by the great Spanish fleet, which he then fought single-handed for fifteen hours. The issue of such a fight could of course never have been in question. But it taught Englishmen, though they hardly needed the lesson, that to consider the odds against them when they fought the Spaniards was almost superfluous.

The policy was satisfactory enough to English adventurers, who had a free, hand to raid Spanish commerce, and to it we owe that famous sea fight which stands beside the battle of Thermopylae and the charge of Balaclava in its glorious futility. Futility, that is, as concerns tangible results; for the moral effect of such deeds is not to be measured. Sir Richard Grenville on the Revenge, Drake's ship when the Armada came, was with a small English squadron off the Azores, awaiting a Spanish treasure-fleet, when news came of the approach of fifty-three Spanish war­ships—an illustration, by the way, of the stolid determination with which Philip set about the reconstruction of the Spanish navy.

Grenville deliberately allowed his own ship to be cut off by the great Spanish fleet, which he then fought single-handed for fifteen hours. The issue of such a fight could of course never have been in question. But it taught Englishmen, though they hardly needed the lesson, that to consider the odds against them when they fought the Spaniards was almost superfluous.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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