Guns of the Armada
Editor Simon Denison
Guns of the Armada
Archaeology shows the 1588 Armada failed partly because Spanish guns were no good, writes Colin Martin
Archaeology is often at its most powerful when brought to bear on periods or events for which extensive written evidence survives. Over the past three decades it has revolutionised our understanding of the Spanish Armada - a stirring episode in English history so deeply ingrained in popular tradition, and so widely investigated by generations of historians, that by the 1960s it seemed that little further research was possible.
Extensive documentation from both sides had been examined, and the story of the Armada seemed to be a historical reality unlikely to be greatly added to or questioned by further evidence.
Then the wrecks were found. In the aftermath of the Armada's failed bid to invade England in 1588, the Spanish fleet - driven by fireships and weather into the North Sea - embarked on a long haul around Scotland in an attempt to gain Atlantic sea room before heading south for Spain. Despite unexpectedly severe autumn gales, about two-thirds of the 130-strong fleet made it home, though many were beyond repair and human casualties were heavy, mainly from privation and disease. Of the rest about 35 were lost on the wild Atlantic coasts of Scotland and Ireland.
Several of their wrecks have been identified on the sea floor. The best known, the San Juan de Sicilia, blew up and sank in Tobermory Bay on the west of Scotland. Encapsulated in the soft mud of this sheltered anchorage the ship might have been preserved almost indefinitely. But for almost four centuries enterprising salvors have sought her supposed monetary treasure without success, and in the process have demolished an archaeological treasure which, had it remained undisturbed, might have rivalled the 17th century Swedish warship Vasa or Henry VIII's Mary Rose. Only a few dispersed items recovered from the San Juan can now be traced.
Since 1967 several other Armada wrecks have been found and examined by marine archaeologists. At Lacada Point in north Antrim, close to the Giant's Causeway, the Neapolitan galleass Girona, which in addition to her own crew was carrying survivors from two other wrecks, perished with the loss of almost all 1,200 on board. This shallow site is beaten by the full force of the Atlantic, and little remains except small heavy items which had worked their way into deep crevices. Many of the ship's complement were adventurers from noble families, and jewellery and coins, mainly gold, percolated to the bottom of the shingle-filled gullies. The recoveries are now in the Ulster Museum, Belfast.
Canons at sea
The wreck of one of the Armada's largest ships, the 1,100-ton Trinidad Valencera, lies 20 miles west of Lacada Point in Kinnagoe Bay, Donegal. She had grounded some way from the shore in a sandy bay to allow her crew to escape, and shortly afterwards broke up and sank. Although the site is exposed to gales, scour pits that formed while the ship was disintegrating attracted material which was subsequently sealed. In these protected anaerobic pockets organic material has been well preserved, and includes items of wood, leather, bone, fibre and textile. The excavation of this material, now in the Ulster Museum, has provided a unique sampling of Armada-related artefacts - maritime, military, and domestic.
La Trinidad Valencera produced another significant group of finds - three matching 2 1/2-tonne bronze cañones, each bearing Philip II of Spain's arms. They fired 40-pounder iron shot. The discovery seemed to confirm the widely-held belief that the Spaniards had much heavier guns than the English, concentrating on 'cannon' types with which they intended (so scholars argued) to smash enemy hulls at sea. The English, on the other hand, went for lighter and supposedly longer-range 'culverins', typically firing 18-pounder shot, their intention being to exploit their ships' superior speed and manoeuvrability to keep out of range of their enemy's cannons while bombarding him from a safe distance.
Archaeological investigation of these three Spanish monsters, coupled with a re-examination of the documentary sources, now tells a different story. Fleet orders stated that the Armada's guns were to be kept ready for action at all times, and all the guns recovered from the wrecks were in a loaded condition when found - except for the Trinidad Valencera's three cañones. Why this should have been so was revealed by related finds. Scattered around the wreck site were five massive spoked wooden wheels, heavily bound with iron. Excavation revealed others, together with a number of wooden axletrees. None of the axle ends had been drilled for a linch pin, showing that the wheels and axles had never been assembled. Whatever these items were intended for, they were not for use on board the ship.
The excavation prompted a re-examination of documents; and the Trinidad Valencera's inventory, still preserved in Spain, provided the answer. These guns were not to be used at sea at all, but had been brought to support the invasion army which was to storm ashore in Kent, and for this they were provided with land carriages, shipped for convenience in a disassembled state. These 40-pounders were indeed the heaviest guns of the two fleets, but they were not part of the ships' armament. They were cargo.
In fact the inventory of the entire Spanish fleet survives in Spain. Almost every gun on every ship is listed. Taken together, the documents demolish the Armada myth about the superiority of Spanish firepower. The largest guns in practical use by the Spanish and English fleets were broadly the same size; but the English had more of them.
Further evidence which does not square with traditional accounts of the Armada has been found on the wrecks. It was first noted among the remains of the Santa Maria de la Rosa, a 945-ton Basque-built armed troop transport which was lost with all hands save one in Blasket Sound, off the south-west tip of Ireland. All that remained of the Santa Maria was part of her lower hull, pinned down by stone ballast packed into the hold to stabilise the ship. The ship's stern and upper works, together with all her guns, had evidently been ripped away by the powerful currents which run through the Sound. But lying on the ballast, where the ship's ammunition store was located, were quantities of stone, lead, and iron shot. A wide range of calibres, from light hand guns to 40-pounder cañon shot, were identified.
Modern historians of the Armada had concluded, quite explicitly, that the Spaniards had run out of shot, and suggested that this was one of the causes for their failure. But the Santa Maria clearly proved otherwise. Indeed every wreck so far examined has contained abundant unexpended shot.
The most revealing example is El Gran Grifón, 650-ton flagship of the Armada's supply squadron of Baltic hulks. She was wrecked on Fair Isle, between Orkney and Shetland, where she broke up in a V-shaped cleft, depositing her contents in a deep gully. In this exposed environment almost everything was subsequently destroyed except, as with the Girona's treasure, the heavier items, which in the lowly Grifón's case was not gold but guns and masses of iron and lead shot. Of the larger calibres, at least 50 per cent of what had been issued to the ship was still on board when she went down.
These unexpected finds spurred fresh investigation in the archives, which confirmed the archaeological evidence. Some of the ships which returned had fired less than 25 per cent of the ammunition issued to them.
Why was this so? Why had the Spaniards apparently failed so abysmally to discharge their artillery? And what wider reassessment of the supposedly incontrovertible 'facts' about the Armada was now required? Some of the answers are to be found in the archaeology of the wrecks, coupled with a re-appraisal of primary documents which have scarcely been consulted for nearly a century.
The Armada was not a naval fleet in the modern sense - it was an invasion task-force, intended to transport an army with its supplies and supporting services to a predetermined beach-head in south-east England. Its overriding concern was not to precipitate a naval engagement but protect itself from attack without being deflected from its objective.
The Spaniards had wide experience of this type of operation, which was rooted in their strong military traditions coupled with the regimented discipline of galley warfare. They had applied this combination with devastating success in the Azores five years earlier. Its strength lay in simplicity. A military objective was first defined, and converted into a detailed logistical shopping list of the men and materials required to achieve it. All these elements were then brought together at a suitable base.
At the same time a fleet was assembled, its size and nature determined by the transport requirements of the task force and the need to protect itself while in transit. The combination of ships, men, and supplies constituted a self-contained 'Armada' which, without the need of further resources or support, would be capable of securing the objective for it had been formulated.
For the invasion of England a fleet of 130 ships and nearly 30,000 men assembled at Lisbon. But this Armada was not entirely self-contained. Original estimates had called for a much larger force, but Philip II had balked at its complexity and cost. Instead, he reasoned, a smaller fleet might rendezvous with Spanish troops already stationed in the Netherlands, and escort the combined force across the Channel to England. He brushed aside the objections of his senior commanders, who argued that splitting their forces in this way would almost certainly lead to disaster, by pointing out that the enterprise was being conducted in God's cause, and could therefore count on divine intervention to overcome any difficulties.
Once in the English Channel the Armada arrayed itself in a defensive formation, much like an army in line of battle. At its centre was the main body, led by the flagship and flanked by extended 'horns'. A screen of light craft scouted ahead, while a group of reserves brought up the rear. It was the duty of every captain to keep his station on the flagship, and failure to do so was a capital offence.
However, a select group of about 20 powerful ships, dispersed throughout the formation, was authorised to break station on their captains' initiative in response to attacks on the fleet as a whole. This created a self-operating defence mechanism, automatically triggered by any threat to the formation. Without any need for orders the troubleshooters would hasten to deal with it while the remainder of the fleet continued towards its objective, its defensive formation intact.
The Spaniards had another powerful asset. Their ships were packed with soldiers. If they could get alongside an enemy they could overwhelm him by physical assault. Conversely, an adversary without troops could never hope to capture a Spanish ship. Unless they could be sunk by gunfire alone - an almost impossible feat at the time - the Armada's ships, individually or in concert, must have seemed invincible.
There were no troops aboard the English ships. Lacking a standing army, and without the naval resources to counter the Spaniards on equal terms, England had adopted an altogether different approach. It was based on a belief that artillery could stop a seaborne foe if deployed on ships which could out-shoot and out-manoeuvre him. By 1588 the core of Elizabeth's navy consisted of about 20 vessels of this type, sleek and heavily armed. They were the equivalent of the Armada's troubleshooters. The remaining 100 or so vessels were auxiliaries which, in the event, took little part in the fighting.
Unfortunately for England, its navy was neither strong enough nor well enough supplied with ammunition for such tactics to deter, far less defeat, a force as powerful and well organised as the Armada. The week-long running fight up the Channel was little more than a sparring match, in which the tactical outcome was something of a stalemate. But strategically the Spaniards kept the upper hand because their formation remained unbroken as the Armada made its way towards the rendezvous off Flanders.
But at Calais the problems predicted by the Spanish commanders began to unfold. The army in Flanders was not ready to embark; Dutch privateers blocked the invasion ports; and the shallows off the Flemish coast made it impossible for the Armada to intervene. At this point the English sent in fireships and the Armada scattered in disarray. But it managed to regroup, and a final, fierce battle between the two sides followed.
The English drove in hard and close, pouring broadsides into the Armada, though they still could not break its formation. Eventually Elizabeth's fleet ran out of ammunition and withdrew to the narrows of the Channel. Fortunately for England the Spaniards had been driven into the North Sea, and with an opposing wind their only option was to return by the long route home. In real terms it was an inconclusive draw: neither side had won, and neither was defeated.
But what had actually gone on aboard the Spanish ships, and why had so much of their ammunition remained unspent? First, it must be emphasised that the Spaniards regarded heavy artillery not as a primary naval weapon but a supporting one. Its purpose was to deliver a concerted broadside prior to grappling with an enemy and launching a boarding assault. Just before contact close-range weapons were deployed, and some of these have been found on the wrecks: swivel guns firing scatter-shot; flame-throwers mounted on poles; and fire-pots. This combination of weaponry was intended to cripple, confuse, and frighten an enemy in the critical seconds before Spanish troops stormed aboard to settle the matter with cold steel.
Because the Spaniards had not intended to use their guns in stand-off combat they were not equipped or trained to fire them repeatedly during battle. Their carriages were designed for one-off use: heavy and clumsy to absorb recoil, with long trails to provide additional friction on the deck, they were loaded before battle was joined by soldiers who then went to their boarding stations. Only one man was needed to discharge them when the pre-boarding salvo was delivered. The English, on the other hand, had developed compact four-wheeled carriages which could be loaded and fired repeatedly during battle by trained gun-crews.
On the wreck of La Trinidad Valencera, and on another Armada site off Sligo, examples of Spanish naval gun-carriages have been found, confirming their unsuitability for stand-off fighting. A reconstruction of one of these Spanish gun-carriages was built by the BBC in 1988 for their series Armada, and was tested experimentally against a four-wheeled truck carriage of the English pattern. Using the same gun and crew, the Spanish system took twice as long to load and fire, confirming a major tactical imbalance between the two sides.
The Spaniards had other problems to contend with. Their gun-founding industry was technically weak, and documents record some of the difficulties encountered in casting bronze guns for the Armada. Many had off-centre bores, which affected not only accuracy but also greatly weakened their breech ends, rendering them liable to burst. A gun recovered from the wreck of El Gran Grifón demonstrated just this fault. Another, found off Sligo, showed evidence of an explosive blow-out close to the muzzle.
A final debilitating difficulty was an almost total lack of standardisation. Unrelated weighing and measuring systems were used in different parts of Europe, and the Armada's guns were a chaotic jumble of types and sizes obtained from many countries. The apparently simple process of matching shot to guns, and distributing the right sizes to each ship, seems to have broken down almost completely.
Evidence of this has been recovered from the wrecks of the San Juan de Sicilia in Tobermory Bay and La Trinidad Valencera in the form of gunners' rules and shot gauges. These devices were intended to gauge a gun's bore, convert this to weight of shot, and allow the correct size of projectile to be identified. But the instruments show mathematical inconsistencies and misconceptions of such proportions as to have rendered them quite useless. The devices from both ships are inaccurate in random, different ways.
These archaeological discoveries help to explain the Spaniards' poor gunnery performance, but it would be wrong to see them as a simple explanation for the Armada's failure. That was the result of the king's bad planning, exacerbated by misfortune and the weather. England's deliverance, likewise, was due to Spanish shortcomings, good luck, and the spirited performance of Elizabeth's navy. But, if nothing else, archaeology has led to a fuller understanding of the reality of these events from the perspective of those who took part.
Spaniards off Scotland
Last summer underwater archaeologists investigated another wreck possibly from the Spanish Armada off the far north-west of Scotland (writes Colin Martin).
The remains were initially found by an RAF diving team, who came upon iron cannons and anchors scattered across the seabed off Kinlochbervie. Wedged among boulders were quantities of pottery, some highly decorated. Then last summer, Channel 4's 'Time Team' joined up with the St Andrews University-based Archaeological Diving Unit and RAF Lossiemouth's Sub-Aqua Club for a fuller investigation. Samples of pottery raised for identification included Spanish olive jars - a coarse container ware made in southern Spain - and high grade Italian majolica. Both wares dated to the later 16th century.
Much of the majolica comes from the workshops of the Patanazzi families of Urbino. These top-range wares were aimed at the most wealthy customers, and are exceedingly rare. Pottery similar to the Kinlochbervie material was made as a wedding gift for Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, in 1575.
Because much of the pottery seemed to have been exposed recently, and was under threat of dispersal or erosion, a decision was taken to plot and recover surface finds. This was successfully accomplished during the 'Time Team' intervention, and the finds were brought to Edinburgh for conservation and further study.
How had these exotic finds from Italy and Iberia come to this remote northerly corner of Scotland? An obvious candidate is the Spanish Armada, and certainly several of its many losses on the homeward voyage around Britain remain unaccounted for. The majolica could, perhaps, have been intended to grace a Spanish grandee's table in a conquered England.
But the coarsewares, though Iberian, are not paralleled by types recovered from known Armada wrecks. So the jury is out. This summer the RAF team will conduct further work and perhaps more conclusive evidence of its identity will be found.
Colin Martin is a Reader in Maritime Archaeology at the University of St Andrews. He has directed excavations on three Armada shipwrecks, and with Geoffrey Parker is the author of 'The Spanish Armada' (Manchester UP 1999)
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005