So, when the Armada was seen off the coast, the signal-fires were kindled, and the whole kingdom was soon ablaze leading to the spread of the news, the alarm, the anxiety, and the grand uprising of the whole people.
It was on Saturday, July 20th, a dull, misty day, that the two great fleets, which represented the cause of freedom on the one side and the longing after universal empire on the other, came in sight of each other. The great Armada, with its huge galleons in battle array extending over a space of many miles, was suffered to sail up the Channel, past Plymouth Harbor, without molestation. This was in accordance with the general plan of attack which bad been agreed upon.
The superior force of the Spaniards caused no fear, but rather a grim determination to overwhelm and destroy. The universal sentiment that seemed to prevail among all classes of Englishmen concerning their country finds fitting expression in the words which Shakespeare puts into the mouth of John of Gaunt:
"This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise; This fortress, built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war; This happy breed of men, this little world; This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands; This blessed spot, this earth, this realm, this England, Dear for her reputation through the world."
To guard this favored spot, and to protect its soil from the polluting footstep of the hated Spaniard, mariners went forth to do or die. It was now, in the moment of supreme peril, that the courage, hardihood, and skill of England's great navigators gained in battle with the elements in the unknown seas of the North and West, and in many a strife against fearful odds with their Spanish foes, were found to be equal to the occasion and sufficient to insure the safety of their country.
On Sunday morning, July 21st, the English ships commenced their attacks upon their unwieldy antagonists.
"The Spanish ships," says Motley, "
seemed arrayed for a pageant in honor of a victory won. Arranged in the form of a crescent whose horns were seven miles asunder, those gilded towers and floating castles, with their brilliant standards and martial music, bore slowly up the Channel. The admiral, the 'Golden Duke,' stood in his private shot-proof tower, on the deck of his great galleon, the Saint Martin, surrounded by guards of infantry and captains of cavalry, no better acquainted than himself with naval tactics.
"And just as the gaddy hovers about and stings the horse, which is all unable to escape from its tiny enemy; so round the heavy galleons and unwieldy ships of Spain the light English vessels, commanded by able and experienced seamen, hovered with the utmost freedom."
Their superior tactics soon obtained the advantage of the wind, enabling them at intervals to cannonade their enemies with great effect, while they themselves escaped out of range at pleasure, and easily avoided the tremendous discharge of the Spanish ordnance.
"In vain the Golden Duke attempted to bring on a general engagement. Howard and Drake were well aware that in a ship-to-ship fight the strongest would necessarily conquer, and that their only hope of success lay in keeping close upon the enemy's flanks, or following at his heels, cutting off a stray galleon, making a dash into his ill-managed squadrons, and so gradually but surely reducing his strength, until they could venture to give him battle on more equal terms."
"The Armada," Mr. Fronde says, "made sail and attempted to close. To Medina Sidonia's extreme astonishment, it seemed at the pleasure of the English to leave him or allow him to approach them as they chose. The high-towered, broad-bowed galleons moved like Thames barges piled with hay, while the sharp, low English ships sailed at near two feet to the Spaniards' one and shot away, as if by magic, in the eye of the wind. It was as if a modern steam fleet was engaged with a squadron of the old-fashioned sailing vessels, choosing their own distance, and fighting or not fighting, as suited their convenience.
"Astonished and confounded, as well by the manoeuvring as by the rapidity of the English fire, the Spanish officers could not refuse their admiration. They knew they were inferior at sea, but had not fully realized their inferiority, notwithstanding the lessons Drake, Hawkins, Cavendish, and others had already taught them. But here were the English firing four shots to their one, while their ships were so nimble that, with a fresh breeze, even the swiftest of the Spanish ships could not touch there. Such splendid gunners and skillful seamen the Spaniards had never seen before, and were hardly able to believe in their existence."
The wind was from the west, so that the English fleet were able to keep to the windward, giving them an increased advantage over their antagonists. The Spanish gunners, drafted from the army, could not manage the naval ordnance, and their shots flew high and scarcely touched the English ships. On the other hand, the Spanish vessels were riddled with shot, and men fell killed and wounded on every side. But the ships were too strongly built to be easily destroyed, and so the monsters continued to receive fearful blows, and sailed wearily and helplessly on. Toward night, Medina Sidonia, finding it impossible to bring on a general engagement, signaled to make sail up the Channel, the rear to be covered by the squadron under his second in command, Don Martinez de Recaldi.
"The wind was now rising and promised a squally evening. The English ships withdrew for want of powder. An express was sent up to London for a fresh supply. A fast boat was dispatched to Lord Harry Seymour, who commanded a fleet of coasters farther up the Channel, with a letter reporting progress so far, and bidding him be on the alert. But the misfortunes of the Spaniards were not yet over. The Capitana, one of their largest galleons, fouled with another vessel and broke her bow-sprit. She fell behind, and was left to her fate.In the morning Drake took possession of her, and found many casks of reals, and, what was of more importance, some tons of gunpowder, with which the Roebuck, the swiftest traveler of the fleet, flew to the lord admiral.
"Shortly after dark another serious accident occurred. The officers of one of the great galleons, impatient and irritated at the results of the action, were quarreling with one another. The captain struck the master-gunner with a stick. The gunner, who was from Holland, went below in a rage, thrust a burning linstock, or long match, into a powder-barrel, and sprang through a port-hole into the sea. The deck was blown off from stem to stern. Two hundred seamen and soldiers were sent into the air: some fell into the water and were drowned; some, scorched or mutilated, dropped back into the wreck. The ship, which was one of the largest in the fleet, was built so strongly that she survived the shock, and at day-light the English took possession of her. At the bottom of the hold were many barrels of powder, which Lord Howard so sorely needed."
Interesting Facts and Information about the Elizabethan Age and The Spanish Armada