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From Extracts, Describing the Ancient Manner of Placing the Kingdom in Military Array; The Various Modes of Defence Adopted for its Safety in Periods of Danger; and The Evidence of Foreigners as to the National Character and Personal Bravery of the English. Taken from Original State Papers of the Sixteenth Century Collected on the Continent, and hitherto Inedited. Anonymous [Rev. William Gunn], London: W. Bulmer and Co., 1803: pp. 19-24; 37-28.



=== VIII ===

Ex eodem Codice, p. 117.

AN Account of the Construction of the Vessels of the Spanish Armada, and of the Winds considered favorable for its passage to England.

To the most illustrious Tomaso Lospi.

Incipit “L’ armata che parti alli 29 di Maggio dal seno di Lisbona.”

THE armada49 which sailed the 29th of May,50 from the Bay of Lisbon to the northern countries, consists of two species of vessels, the one long, and the other round, thus called by the ancients. Of the long, some are provided with oars and sails, named by the Latins Actuariæ Naves, quia remis aguntur, as the Galleons, Gallies, Rabre, Patachs, and Frigates; others have sails without oars, which are called long, because they have six or more proportions in length, and are in breadth like Noah’s ark, which was 300 cubits long, and 50 broad, and which should be the model of all vessels. But the round are of heavy burden, and are thus named, because constructed with four proportions, or little more in length, and one in breadth; as the Venetian vessels, the Ragusean (which the Spaniards term Levantines), the Genoese, those of the kingdom of Barcelona and Andalusia, with others of Guipuscoa and Biscay, with the Lische of Holland, Zealand, and Osterland.

It will now be proper to give some description of all these vessels, omitting however the Galleons, which are well known to every one: they are very steady at sea, and capable of containing 60 guns and 500 soldiers: of these, the armada has four, besides four light gallies, 20 to be employed on many useful occasions, although the English sea is not much adapted to such light vessels.

The Rabre are long small vessels of one deck, with high sides, calculated to resist the waves: they are strong enough for a voyage even to the New World, very swift, and remarkably safe. These also are worked with oars, are provided with arquebuses of 8 and 10 ounce-balls, and carry 80 soldiers besides sailors.

The Patachs are nearly similar to the Rabre, but not so long; both kinds, and also the frigates, are employed for the purpose of sailing before the fleet, to reconnoitre and procure information of the enemy; they also introduce themselves where the water is too shallow to admit larger vessels, and are used for the landing of troops, and many other purposes.

The Galleons of Portugal, with one of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, are vessels admirably fitted for swift sailing, and so light that they are easily turned in every direction; they have lofty sides, and carry on the first deck 30 guns; as many perhaps on the second, and six on the smallest, with 500 sword-men, independently of sailors. The fleet has 10 of these, which, in my opinion, may be considered as its bulwark, and the basis on which is founded the hope of conquest. The round vessels, as already observed, are of very heavy burthen, and difficult to move; nor can they well bend their sails lengthways, to catch the wind; and for this reason they sail very slow. Of this description are the Ragusean and Venetian vessels; they amount to the number of ten, carry 40 or more guns, and after the Galleons, are esteemed the best ships, and the strength of the whole fleet.

The Urche are similar in point of heaviness, and are in number twenty-three. The same defect is ascribable to the Sicilian, Genoese, and those of Andalusia and Castille; the amount of these is about 32. The Biscayan and Guipuscoan, though round, and from six and seven to 1200 tons, are nevertheless of lighter construction than the former.

These, with the other Spanish vessels, are armed according to the 21 foreign51 manner; for, besides the other offensive weapons, they carry on both sides the prow, in the form of horns, certain large hooks, which cut and penetrate not only the extremities, but even almost the tops of the sail-yards, and passing to the sides of the opposite ships, cut the shrowds and tear the sails. Besides these, they have small anchors with long iron chains, with which they catch hold of the enemy’s ships: they are likewise furnished with fiery darts and instruments for burning the vessels they encounter. I saw 20 of these excellent ships sail from Lisbon to the conquest of . . . . . . . . In this armament there are so many of these vessels, that, if I mistake not, they will justly claim a great part of the victory.

I presuppose therefore, that the Spanish armada, in sailing from Lisbon, consisted of four Galleons, four Gallies, ten Portuguese and Florentine Galleons, ten Levantines, or those of Venice and Ragusa, twenty-three Urche, thirty-two other ships of Naples, Genoa, and Spain, nineteen Patachs, thirteen Rabre, and the Biscayan and Guipuscoan vessels to the number of twenty; and thus the whole armada comprises52 135 warlike ships, with 20,000 warriors, besides mercenaries, volunteers, and servants; in all, about one thousand. Of these ships, some will boldly oppose four or five English; for instance, the four Galleons will combat twenty of the enemies; the ten Portuguese Galleons fifty, and the ten Venetian and Ragusean fifty; so that the twenty-four above mentioned ships, which are the flower of the fleet, will be alone sufficient to encounter53 120 of the heretic ships; a number nearly equal to half their whole force. It is however to be observed of the Biscayan vessels, that they are not, according to the expression of Cæsar, capable of opposing singula singulis, or ship to ship.

From this statement, I have no doubt that by means of arquebuses, artillery, swords, pikes, and grappling irons, the victory will, with abundant advantage, remain on the side of the Catholics; but by employing fire54 prepared in earthen vessels thrown from tubes, arrows, darts, and other terrible missive instruments, as these 22 combustibles are of a nature to burn under water, and attach themselves to the vessels, without the possibility of being extinguished, it is to be apprehended that the enemy, abounding in ships, and disposed to conquer or die, the smaller vessels would approach the greater, and by such fires occasion irreparable damage.

With this fleet of 135 ships of war, there are twenty Caravels, and ten other large barks called Falve, with six oars each.

On the preparations of the Queen of England, I have sufficiently enlarged in my other paper: I come now to what you desire to know, respecting the distance of places, and the winds favourable for enabling the Spanish fleet to reach the shores of England. It is therefore to be observed, that the large ships, unquestionably make more progress by side than by direct winds; because all their sails being open to such winds, a greater proportion is received of those by which the ship is impelled forward; but when the wind blows at the stern, the main sail and the fore sail only are swelled, the others receiving no effect from the wind; in which case, the ship must necessarily sail proportionably more slowly.

From Lisbon to Cape Finisterre, the distance is 300 miles: here being arrived the ships sailing for England, or to that part called Cornwall, they steer to the right eastward, passing the great gulf lying between the already mentioned cape, and that of Brittany. The winds favourable to this course, are the north-west and west. Here the channel leading to the English coast, and which is called the English Channel, is formed by the southern coast of England, and the northern shores of France. In this channel, the Catholics would find the coasts of England and France equally infested, beginning from Rochelle to Calais, with persons hostile to the general cause.

From Cape Finisterre to the Land’s-end, (which is in the above mentioned county of Cornwall) are reckoned 600 miles. It is not however to be supposed, that the Catholic armada should have confined itself to that canal, both for the reasons already assigned, and because since the 5th of June, when, according to information, it was 23 sailing in the Bay of Biscay, intelligence might easily have been transmitted of its progress.

Now, agreeably to the saying of Euripides, “He who rightly conjectures, accurately foretels,” it is to be considered, that if the Spanish armament has not arrived in the English channel, it will have steered its course towards Ireland, in order to arrive at the southern coast, which is 700 miles north of Biscay, and for which are favourable, not only all the southern and western winds, but, as already observed, those of almost three fourths of the compass. Ireland is 500 miles long, from south-west to north; so that if the Catholic armada proceeded to the western coast of Scotland, it would be under the necessity of sailing the whole length of Ireland, on the outward coast, avoiding, for the already stated reasons, both the Irish and English channel; in which case being arrived at the northern coast of Ireland, it would steer to the right, entering among the Hebrides, and casting anchor in the roads of Scotland, in the Gulf of Dunbarton, which contains many excellent ports; or else ascending by the . . . . . . . it would put into the port of Dumfries. But if the fleet went beyond the whole cape of Scotland, including the breadth of Ireland, the Hebrides, and the Orcades, which would require a north-east course, it would go over a space of 350 miles, and then sailing to the eastern coast of Scotland. . . . . . . . steering south 200 miles, which is the distance from the extremity of the Orcades to the . . . . . . . or else to Dunbar 250 miles, the distance from Lisbon to Dunbar, passing beyond the exterior part of Ireland, and round the northern cape of Scotland, would be 2200 miles; a long and most tiresome voyage, but free from danger, with the advantage of the summer-months, and a sea replete with islands, which in some of their ports afford for ships an excellent retreat.

Having therefore received no news from the Catholic fleet, one of these two events is to be admitted; either that it has been driven by some brisk easterly winds into the sea of . . . . . or else of . . . . where it has not yet been able to recover itself, or having steered for 24 Scotland in a west or east direction, to the abovementioned ports, it has not yet been able to transmit intelligence. . . . . . being distant from Rome more than 1200, Dunbar 1500, and Dumfries 1200 miles. Hence it may be concluded, that if the Catholic armada should have chosen that mode of conducting the war, and have undertaken, through unfrequented seas, so long a voyage, it could scarcely convey intelligence to Rome by the month of August. But perhaps the event will be favourable to the design of conquest, from the fleet having first placed itself in a retreat of safety, and facilitated the junction of that of the Duke of Parma, without meeting with the English; for from Sluys, a port of Flanders, where the Duke is to . . . . . the distance is not more than 600 miles, which with brisk and fair weather, beginning with the west wind, and changing from all other winds of the compass to the east, which are fair for that passage, may be sailed in a week. This I hope will take place; for, as the season of westerly winds is subsiding, after the forces shall have been united, both fleets, under the happy auspices of the excellent prince Sixtus55 the Fifth, will release this most illustrious kingdom from the yoke of the false religion.



49  The Catholics entertained no doubts as to the success of this mighty armament. The reasons on which the grounded their expectations, are, among others of their writers of this period, concisely expressed by the continuator of Platina (de Vit. Pontif.), in his life of Sixtus the Fifth, (p. 712. Venetia 1676.) — This author particularly states — “the slender navy of Elizabeth, — that the safety of England was, and had been long confided to undisciplined natives, and that the Queen had no standing armies nor officers of experience — that as the island possessed scarcely any fortified places, an easy conquest would follow disembarkation, — that the people were in [38] general given to change and innovation, and that the numerous body of Papists would undoubtedly go over to the invaders.”

50  This account was written between the 5th of June following, and the first intelligence of the fleet after it had sailed.

51  “In foggia strana ”.

52  This number does not correspond with that in the detail.

53  So strong was the presumption of victory in the opinion of the Spaniards, that “with saucy and insolent brags,” they asserted — “that wherever they turned their sails, a most certain victory waited upon their course; and that the English would not have courage enough to look them in the face. — And it is certain that Don Bernardino de Mendoza was so ridiculous as to print a lying poem in France, which proclaimed the triumph before the victory was obtained.” (Camden’s Elizabeth, An. 1588.)

54  The origin of that factitious fire called the Greek, the maritime or liquid fire, and to the use of which, on several occasions, during the middle ages, the most fatal and terrific consequences are ascribed, seems lost in remote antiquity.

Though we are at present unacquainted, both with the mode of preparation, and the proportion of ingredients, it was compounded of sulphur, [naptha], pitch, gum, and bitumen. Contrary to the tendency of natural fire, it always followed the direction it was thrown; whether downwards, sideways, or otherwise, and it burnt with the greatest violence under water. As many combustibles have similar properties, we may suppose that some substitute was to have been adopted in this armament, as the existence of the original secret at the period may be doubted.


The mode of using it, as here described, resembles that practised at the siege of Damietta, under St. Louis. (Joinville, Hist. de St. Louis, p. 44.) It was then thrown from an engine of the mortar-kind, and sometimes shot from the cross-bow, or forced through metallic tubes.

On this subject, an historical deduction, down to our own time, may be found in the Preface to Grose’s Antiquities.

55  Perhaps the only Catholic who betrayed want of faith in the benediction he solemnly pronounced on the invincible armada. The wary Pontiff engaged, as soon as the Spanish forces should be landed in England, to advance a million of crowns towards defraying the expense of the expedition. (Muratori, Annali 1588.) He was, however, liberal in the distribution of medals, crosses, reliques, indulgences, and pardons. These filled several chests, with which he gratified Philip, previously to the departure of the armament. (Gregorio Leti, Vit. Di Sisto V. I. 3, p. 292.) The restoration of the Catholic religion in England, was the ostensible motive of the coalesced powers. Sixtus had for some years incessantly urged Philip to the enterprize. Yet as to the purity of his intentions, the reader is at liberty to form his own conclusion. His biographer (ut supra, p. 291) declares it to have been to drain Naples of troops and money, n order to facilitate his designs upon that kingdom. And it is remarkable, that within a year after the defeat of the armada, he solicited the heretic Elizabeth to take up arms against Spain, and the favourite son of the church; while the dire anathemas, he had lately pronounced against her, were neither removed nor suspended. (Ibid. p. 427.) Muratori (Annali 1588) pointedly observes, that this overthrow of the Spaniards — naufragò agni speranza di rintuzzar l’ orgoglio della Regina Inglese!


Extract IX.

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