Friday, October 08, 2010

Let the Games Begin!

 Books reviewed:

Garrett Mattingly, The Armada (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959).
Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, The Spanish Armada, rev. ed. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002).

Garrett Mattingly’s The Armada thoroughly covers many aspects of the events of 1587-1588 in which Phillip II of Spain, with papal support, invaded the heretic kingdom of Elizabeth I of England.  A greater appreciation for each historical character develops through the attractive words of Mattingly.  Like a Sunday afternoon conversation with a learned scholar, Mattingly’s comfortable and patient style gives greater ambiance to the romance of early European history than the mere facts.  For him, the soldiers, sailors, and monarchs of both Spain and England were human beings with human frailties.  These human frailties showed all too well in difficult times like war.  England played the part of the insecure bully while Spain, the part of the inflexible elder who simply and confidently reacted.  This happened occasionally to their displeasure.  England’s new “toys,” ships of greater fire power and maneuverability would signal a dramatic change in naval warfare while Spain’s overconfidence and rigidity would weaken their national momentum.  The Columbia professor knew his material and he crafted a remarkable and rich tale.

Complimenting Mattingly, Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker’s The Spanish Armada utilizes recent archaeological discoveries just prior to the fourth centenary of the epic battle in 1988.  Eight sites have been discovered since 1967.  The Irish site at Streedagh Strand had only just been found in 1985 and had not been worked beyond preliminary surveys.  Still, the authors were able to borrow from the unpublished studies for the first edition of this publication.  A similar source derives from the middle-range archaeological approach of reconstructed gun mountings to understand how they were used in 1588.  Notably enriched data since the first hastily-conceived version in 1988 gives this 1999 version much more clarity.  Charts and maps give it a modern, scientific quality.  While constructed in a scholarly fashion, it appears no more erudite than Mattingly’s version.  These two books have very different styles and are both enjoyable and informative.  The introduction of The Spanish Armada regards its subject as a “good yarn” that has “provided generations of historians with an abundance of fine material from which to spin it” (Martin and Parker, 2).  Martin and Parker obviously read Mattingly.  These authors step into modern light and attempt to dispel myths, both old and new, understanding that even good historians play a game or two.

Indeed, these books support each other and The Spanish Armada simply completes the tale as told by Mattingly who spent the first two hundred and fifty pages on the prelude to July 29, 1588 (new calendar) when the Armada first reached England.  Historical background interested Martin and Parker, but only about half as much.  Presumably, as archaeologists, they were eager to discuss the events that produced the wreckage.  Moreover, as scientist/historians, they provided excellent timelines, graphs, charts, and maps that help in understanding older events from a foreign land.  Regretfully, Mattingly did not.  Still, Mattingly, Martin, and Parker equally enjoyed the games in the English Channel in 1588.

Mattingly tells that English commanders worried about the menacing Spanish Armada, the threat that so large a power as Spain could muster and the religious fervor that propelled it.  He attributes the timely readiness of Elizabeth’s navy to the building efforts of John Hawkins.  Still, to England, the combined forces of France, Spain, and the “radical fanatics of the Holy League” had the authority of civilization and Pope Sixtus V, leader of the dominant religious faith of the western world (Mattingly, 148).  England’s paranoia (or Phillip’s intrigue) had already killed Mary, Queen of Scots (a Catholic and only reasonable heir to the English throne).  From Spain’s perspective, Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary’s accession to the English throne would have redeemed the protestant country in God’s eyes.  Now, the criminal heretics, Satan’s forces, had destroyed God’s plan.  The English were not unaware of Spain’s feelings in this regard.  They played a deadly game with an experienced Old World foe.  That Elizabeth lost any sleep may have been for a genuine fear of the Pope and his power rather than love for her dead cousin, regardless of her portrayal in popular films.  Martin and Parker assert that the English worried primarily due to Spain’s reputation and previous victories at sea. 

Regardless, England’s Protestants and Protestants of other nations took full advantage of this reputation after defeating the Armada.  Protestant propaganda inflated the Armada and, with it, Phillip’s apparent greed.  No doubt Phillip’s reputed greed stemmed from the well-known Catholic penchant for gold or wealth.  Protestant’s played on this avaricious reputation.  The size of Spanish galleons became more legendary than real.  In reality, many of these vessels were not built to fight, but to function as transports. These larger converted Spanish transports once carried war materiel in bulk and suddenly became bulky, clumsy fighters.  Spanish and English formulae for tonnage also varied, with Spanish calculations being higher in value than English.

Another ludicrous suggestion involved the high mounting of cannon on towering castles that fired over their intended targets.  This view of Spanish ships, while rejected late in the nineteenth century, still persists on occasion.  Martin and Parker’s appendix list Martin Frobisher’s Triumph at 1,100 tons, while the San Martin figures at 1,000 (probably an overestimation).  Mattingly suggests that Frobisher’s had higher castles, more bulk, and was less concerned about Spanish boarding parties.

Also, documents at Simanca show that the total effective firepower of the Spanish, once overestimated at one-third greater than the English counterpart, actually was more realistically half of that.  The result being that the English had the advantage.  An analysis of English cannon shows them to be more efficient and easier to reload than Spanish cannon of comparable caliber, with shorter barrels, smaller carriage wheels, and able to be reloaded while under cover from enemy fire.  All of these factors gave the illusion that the power of the Spanish Armada was invincible.  Spanish authorities may have fooled themselves into believing in their superiority at the outset of the 1588 battle or they simply hoped for England to back down in fear.  Their gambles had worked for them until 1588, at any rate.

Games played by a weakling nation like England in 1588 can be the most serious in consequence.  In many ways, Elizabeth I plays the role of mother to a nation that functions as her family, suggesting that English subjects behaved in a fashion rather like children.  Indeed, new ideas gave rise to the technology that defeated the Armada, ideas that are often born of impetuous material, nurtured in adversity.  Whether perceived as weakness or strength depends on the point of view.  Sir Francis Drake demonstrates his impetuosity superbly in his impulsive piratical behavior, not just in the West Indies and around the world, but most especially in his defense of his family closest to home.  His pre-invasion assault on Cadiz was viewed as a terrorist raid by an angry civilized Spain, steeped in Old World traditions of honor to which Drake had not been privy as a farmer’s son.  Spanish citizens, quietly performing their daily tasks, recoiled in horror to discover that the dread pirate, El Draque had arrived to lay waste to their world.  Mattingly, even in 1959, stresses the same apprehensions that Americans felt in 2001, when Al Quada intentionally crashed planes into skyscrapers in New York City.  Drake knew well his psychological effect and used it to his advantage.

At the same time, Mattingly takes the role of psychiatrist and delves into Drake’s puritan past to explain his strong repulsion to Catholicism.  Still, his actions appeared irresponsible to anyone of modern times while the reactions of Spain’s Phillip II seem relatively understandable.  Phillip II refuses breaches of honor such as his orders to Medina Sidonia not to invade England herself, but to proceed with the plan to siege London and attack the head of the government.  Phillip II displays noteworthy civilized behavior.  Further, three long years of preparations for the 1588 attack took patient administrative ability, as compared to England’s ad hoc, ill-prepared response.  Drake and his fellow “Sea Dogs” never seem to follow such rules, nor do they have the patience.  Phillip II suggests with his orders that Elizabeth I is the leader of a rogue nation, not capable of rational decision.  Whether this resulted from gender-specific sixteenth-century perceptions of Elizabeth I or her heretic Protestant religion remains a mystery.  Mattingly asserts both in a psycho-analytical approach.

Understandably, political nuances cannot be summed up easily.  Mattingly explains the events in such detail and with such superb source material that little question remains.  Martin and Parker take this cavalier English behavior a step further and state that a close parallel came in 1940 when Britain once again demonstrated an inability to resist invasion.  Somehow, they mustered the strength.  Interestingly, none of these authors expound on a geographical contribution to this psychological behavior.  After all, England sat isolated in the North Sea and, as Mattingly stated, English patriotism depended on zenophobia.

Mattingly, Martin, and Parker all explain the historical setup well.  By the time the narrative comes to the Armada making its way to the Isle of Wight in the English Channel, with the “Sea Dogs” tenaciously pursuing, the pedantically piratical actions of Drake became expected.  Most would regard snuffing the lantern after dark to chase treasure rather than guide your flotilla on its highly important mission as irresponsible.  Still, almost three hundred pages of Mattingly’s biographical setup had long revealed Drake’s character.  It took a complete day to regroup and reorganize the fleet after that cavalier maneuver.  Furthermore, a more experienced Lord Admiral Charles Howard of Effingham plundered a helpless Spanish vessel on the French coast, after eight fireships scattered the Armada anchorless to the mercy of the wind.  Bravado carried the day.  To be fair, in a later moment of desperation, Medina Sidonia acted in kind when civilization and God failed him.  

Piratical games were mostly an English characteristic, however.  The French governor of Calais, Monsieur Gourdan, claimed the San Lorenzo as his property, allowing the English to take the loot, understanding that they shared in the spoils.  Still, the English greedily attempted to take it all.  French guns persuaded them to take what they could and rejoin their Admiral, impatient to enter the battle, growing ever distant to leeward.  Mattingly, in a fatherly way, tries unconvincingly to understand their behavior in this incident as well.  He says that the San Lorenzo, being a large class, continued to represent a danger and needed to be broken completely to ensure that it could not return to bother them.  Mattingly already stated that she was rudderless and limping along the French shore until she grounded and leaned on her side.  M. Gourdan then claimed the vessel, taking the burden off of the English.  There was little reason to assume that San Lorenzo would return to annoy them.  Interestingly, Martin and Parker describe it with deference to English material desires and surprisingly admonish the French for their interference.

Tried and true tactics of the civilized “old way” severely limited Spanish possibilities while facing what the Pope viewed as an unconventional national bully.  Don Pedro de Valdés, commander of the Andalusian squadron, took a strong interest in his guns when he prepared for this mission.  Martin and Parker show that he attempted to match English firepower, swapping larger guns for more numerous smaller ones yet, he still adhered to the “close and board” school of battle, a trait then becoming obsolete.  Mattingly described a typical Spanish maneuver in which Medina Sidonia had allowed for Admiral Howard to board and fight hand to hand.  Instead, the cautious English admiral kept his distance while pouring a broadside into the Spanish vessel.  So did the next English ship in line, as the next and the next.  To other Spanish ships, helplessly downwind, the more maneuverable English ships swarmed the San Martin, battering her little by little.  An allusion to Gulliver’s Travels may have been in order.

For the English, a semblance of honorable behavior only materialized after the Spanish threat was nearly neutralized and the battle turned in their favor.  The Duke of Medina Sidonia, not being an experienced sailor, was still an honorable gentleman.  Twice, he used the San Martin, already battered and beaten herself, to defend a helpless Spanish vessel under attack.  One gallant Englishman offered a Spanish vessel terms after witnessing their heroism, only to be shot at by a musketeer.  They then pounded the vessel into the waves.  Righteous motivations may have prompted the Spanish musketeer to behave in this manner or he simply felt honor-bound to fight until the end.

Calais and Gravelines most certainly signaled the end for the forces of Phillip II.  They drifted northward, into the stormy cold.  Martin and Parker mentioned Medina Sidonia marveling at the Northern lights, which must have seemed rather surreal in the religious atmosphere of 1588 and immediately following the beating that he had taken.  Afterthoughts on these games in the English Channel grew melancholic.  Many men still alive at this point would not be in a few hours.  Movement through the bitter cold North Sea and around the ragged coast of Ireland finished off what remained of an already starving Armada.  Few washed-up survivors made it past the rocks.  Those that had not drowned after wrecking on the Irish coast had their heads clubbed as they lay helpless.

The English, regardless of their tactics, beat the Spanish because of technology, not simply piratical actions alone.  Martin and Parker describe the details of this technology.  They diagram and chart it well.  The Spanish Armada could be used as a training manual for gunners and shipbuilders.  Shot size, type of cannon, carriage, weights, and ranges provide excellent instruction.  An appendix contains charts with known ships, class, tonnage, and number of guns.  They used the archaeology reports on Spanish vessels and, with Spanish records more complete, their interests naturally focused on them.

The books each have distinct differences that allow for the other to compliment the first.  Footnoting Armada’s text may have required another four hundred pages and so, Mattingly provides curt bibliographical references instead.  Still, the detail in the narrative appears realistic and sensible.  The lack of illustrations in this edition disappoints while The Spanish Armada fulfills this desire well.  The appendices contain numerous data and a good comparison between English and Spanish guns.  With technology being a crucial factor in the outcome of the attack, the details enhance the narrative well.  For the narrative, few authors compare to Garrett Mattingly.

The events of 1588 offer a great opportunity to observe human behavior in action.  Spain, a great and powerful Old World nation with tremendous wealth inspired the envy of all nations.  England, the weak nation-state, the underdog, grew steadily annoyed by what they believed was arrogance and superiority.  They contented themselves with piracy until Spain grew annoyed as well.  Again, this was a deadly game in which arrogance battled arrogance.   Sir Francis Drake personified England’s required prescription and played the game for his Queen.  A perfect parallel and suggestion lay for every presumptive nation in this tale.  The powerful and arrogant Spain lost in 1588, only to be continually suppressed in their political and military affairs by the underdogs.

Mattingly with his fatherly approach and Martin and Parker with their historical scientific methods, reveal the blatant puerile behavior of the English and the clumsy, self-importance of the Spanish.  In both respects, they play games with each other and with their lives.  In the end, the greatest sea power ever known upon the earth was born.  These two books, The Armada and The Spanish Armada should always be paired on the bookshelf for one alone does not tell the tale by itself.  

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