I wrote this story, published in By the Dart magazine, to flip over the usual English view of the Armada to how things were shaping up for someone on a Spanish galleon.
Copyright Peter Sissons © 2023
The year is 1588. My rebellious insides have the desire to resume ridding themselves of a rushed meal of weevil-infested porridge and hard biscuits. My stomach broadcasts its discomfort mixed, in equal proportions, with a gnawing apprehension and growing fear of my probable date with death; I know that forthwith we will be engaging the English fleet and beginning the invasion of England!
Standing on the upper deck of my ship, which boasts 46 bronze cannon, my innards seem to appreciate me being outside as I take in the fresh salty air and feel the early-morning sun on my face.
I survey our vast Grande y Felicisima Armada1 – an awe-inspiring sight of magnificent galleons that issue incessant flapping sounds from hundreds of billowing sails. Add to this symphony of war the sound of the ships’ decks, awash with a cacophony of shouted orders to thousands of sailors readying themselves for engagement with the enemy.
The scene is a wondrous and unforgettable spectacle!
Our disciplined crescent-shaped formation manoeuvres in brisk winds, approaching the Scilly Isles after nearly a month away from Spain. From A Coruña, a port on the north coast of Spain, the vast Armada departed on 26 May 1588 with 130 ships and 30,000 men commanded by the 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia.
Battling vicious storms as we traversed the treacherous Bay of Biscay, we lost many ships, including Mediterranean galleys and galleasses2 unsuitable for long ocean voyages. The Duke, chosen by our King Philip II to lead the Armada, is not a sailor – or so the rumour says – and knows nothing of naval warfare. He condemned too many men to the deep with his ill choice of ships.
I look up and see that my ship’s sails are full of fresh southwest winds, causing good progress into what the English call the ‘Narrow Sea’3. It is now 30 July 1588. The bright sunlight makes me shield my eyes as I observe the lush green hills of the Cornish coast and the newly lit signal beacons4 that I assume will continue to London – they will announce our arrival to the hated Protestant English Queen Elizabeth.
On Sunday, 31 July, our ships – with over 8,000 sailors and 19,000 soldiers onboard – continue past Cornwall and enter Devon’s waters, five-and-a-half leagues off the English coast.
My name is Juan Azarola, and I am the senior clerk of the administrative staff onboard the fourth largest Armada nao5. My galleon, christened the Nuestra Señora del Rosario, is a flagship Don Pedro de Valdés commanded. My job is to record and tabulate every detail of Rosario’s manifest and crew. I can inform you that Señor de Valdés is in charge of 37 officers, 49 sailors, 31 boys and a contingent of 300 soldiers; we have souls onboard. It may surprise you that I include eight Englishmen in the ship’s company – I have no idea why the enemy is on a Spanish warship!
Unfortunately, even with my scant knowledge of sailing, I fear many of our Armada crewmen are not professional sailors and not proficient at traversing vast expanses of ocean nor manoeuvring at close quarters with other ships.
It is the middle of the afternoon, and, dear Lord, I am proved correct! Two disasters befall my Rosario! First, the smaller San Juan de Portugal collides with us, shattering our spritsail and cross-yard; another galleon wrecks our main mast with its broken foremast. The collisions render my beloved ship unable to sail. Thank the Lord, we are not sinking, but we are adrift and are now prey to any English ship!
The wind is growing in strength, generating white crests to form atop formidable waves within a heavy sea; these are causing havoc with the ineffectual tow for my disabled Rosario, which has been arranged by the Duke using four pinnaces6, two ships and a galleass. After several failed attempts to move us, the craft withdrew and joined the squadron.
At the latter end of the day, immense shock set into all onboard the Rosario. Our isolation on the tossing sea made us realise that the Duke had left the ship to fend for itself. I have lately discovered our fears were well-founded: with disbelief, the Armada has carried on without us towards Calais.
What a bizarre and cruel decision for the Duke to make – not only to abandon us to our own devices and the Protestant English but also to leave behind the enormous wealth of gold, silver and valuable plate within our manifest – a king’s ransom to help pay for the waiting invasion army in Flanders, commanded by the Duke of Parma. Our Duke – Medina – whom we would dearly enjoy throwing in the sea, has abandoned a great ship, a loyal crew, eager soldiers for battle, and our precious 46 bronze cannon, black powder and shot. A criminal act!
It is early morning, and I wake to many sounds from saws, hammers, and chisels in the hands of shouting carpenters furiously working timbers, desperately trying to repair our Rosario. These sounds change in an instant to cries from gunnery sergeants. They bellow orders to their gunners to prepare our cannon to fire on a much smaller English ship approaching us from the cover of low-lying, early-morning mist. Someone identifies the warship’s name – the Revenge7 – and everyone onboard prepares for armed confrontation with the fast-moving and considerably more agile craft.
Before a single shot echoes across the decks, a second shock hits us with profound amazement. Our commander – Don Pedro de Valdés – has begun parley surrender negotiations with the English captain, whom we soon discover is the infamous El Draque8. This disheartening news soon filters throughout the decks, creating total anger and despair. We cannot believe we are capitulating to the Englishman – a pirate – without a fight!
Our commander seems to be yielding our ship in exchange for our safety. When I imagine the picture our stranded and immobile Rosario would make, should it be pounded and pummelled by English cannon and shot, we realise that this decision – though uncomfortable and causing more nausea to erupt in my stomach – is the best that Valdés can make. This yielding to the English is a pitiful end to our glorious hope of being part of the invasion of England.
We all look forward to our rescue by our fellow countrymen when Queen Elizabeth fall,s and England becomes part of the glorious empire of Spain!
My God! If the English queen knew what El Draque had done! Being onboard the Rosario as the chief administrative clerk, I know he has acted in his usual way as a pirate and relieved the ship of a good proportion of its gold, silver, valuables, and money. The rumour is that the rogue has left enough for his queen to satisfy her pecuniary needs in London.
However, I must admit that El Draque treats the officers and myself well, having taken 40 of us onboard the Revenge.
I have reported in my log that after this blatant theft of Spanish gold and silver by El Draque, the Rosario was towed into the bay of Torbay by the Roebuck, which Jacob Whiddon captained. There, a thorough examination of the ship’s construction took place, and our remaining manifest was listed and described for use by someone called Walsingham9; I have discovered, of late, that he is head of the English queen’s infamous spy network.
The weather has worsened in the exposed bay; a decision is made to tow the Rosario to the shelter of the River Dart.
We pass Dartmouth Castle and Saint Petrox church and soon arrive at the small town called Dartmouth. To add to my ship’s considerable insult and injury, she is tied up next to a Protestant church – I believe it is called Saint Saviour’s.
It is Monday 7 August. I feel dejected – I have an order to stay on board. Why? To organise the remaining sailors – 160 in total – who are being kept prisoner on our ship to work as slaves for Sir John Gilbert, who owns Greenway Court mansion, which is upriver. Our men’s status as proud Spanish sailors is reduced to that of garden labourers as they carry out a plan to clear and level the enemy’s estate from his house down to the riverbank.
Most of our men – of all ranks – were chained and taken away to Torquay and have been incarcerated for the last fourteen days within what the English call a tithe barn10, next to Torre Abbey. Tomorrow they are being moved. Where to? I have no idea.
It is 23 days since my removal from the ship and subsequent transport to Esher in Surrey, where I arrived at a pleasant place called Wayneflette Tower11. My treatment by the English is fair, and now, to my surprise, my charge is to manage the administrative duties and affairs of my commander, Don Pedro de Valdés, who is here under house arrest.
What fate has in store for me – and the beautiful Nuestra Señora del Rosario – I do not know. I hope and pray to return to my beloved Spain. There are talks of our exchange for ransom money.
My release – my fate – is in God’s hands.
• 1 Grande y Felicisima Armada: ‘Great and Most Fortunate Navy’. The English called the invasion fleet the Spanish Armada.
• 2 galleasses: These military ships had three masts, a forecastle and an aftcastle. The extra power was delivered via thirty-two oars, each manned by five chained men.
• 3 ‘Narrow Sea’: The name of the English Channel in the 16th century.
• 4 signal beacons: Many hills in England and Wales have the word ‘beacon’ in their names, e.g., the Brecon Beacons. Beacons were large fire constructions, constantly cared for and lit to warn the population of invading raiders. Hundreds were lit along the whole of the English south coast to warn everyone from Cornwall to London that the Spanish Armada had arrived to invade England.
• 5Armada nao: The Nuestra Señora del Rosario was a four-mast carrack, or nao, designed for ocean voyages. In 1589, after being docked at Dartmouth, the Rosario was towed over 350 miles to London’s Chatham docks; there, she was dry-docked. Her eventual ignominious fate was to be sunk, reinforcing a wharf on the River Medway.
• 6 pinnaces: These were small boats or tenders carried on bigger ships, usually rowed or rigged for sailing.
• 7 The Revenge: An English galleon of 46 cannon, constructed at the Royal Dockyard at Deptford for £4,000 in 1577. She heralded a new type of race-built ship, weighing only 400 tons. Compared with the lumbering fleet of the Spanish Armada, she was fast and very manoeuvrable.
• 8 El Draque: The Dragon – the name given by the Spanish to the English sailor, Sir Francis Drake.
• 9 Walsingham: Sir Francis Walsingham was the principal secretary of Queen Elizabeth I; he oversaw England’s foreign, religious, and domestic policies and is remembered as the ‘spymaster’ of Tudor times.
• 10 tithe barn: This was a large mediaeval barn used to store rents and tithes (a tithe was a tenth of all farmers’ produce given to the church). This particular barn belonged to Torre Abbey until the monastery was dissolved in 1539 by Henry VIII. Several hundred Spanish sailors from the Armada’s Rosario were imprisoned in the barn for 14 days – as a result, it became known as the Spanish Barn.
• 11 Wayneflette Tower: This tower still exists in Esher, and it was initially the gatehouse and entrance to the long-gone Tudor Palace of Esher. From 16th-century accounts, Drake had a friendly relationship with Don Pedro de Valdés, imprisoned at the Tower. Drake ensured that Valdés and two of his fellow officers from the Rosario were not imprisoned in the Tower of London by Queen Elizabeth I, but instead in the pleasant quarters at Wayneflette. Drake ensured a steady supply of wine, oils, and provisions and extra money was sent to Valdés.
While at Esher, Valdés helped Richard Percyvall to compile the first Spanish–English dictionary.
Don Pedro de Valdés was imprisoned – or, more accurately, allowed open prison – for five years at Wayneflette Tower. He was released in exchange for a substantial ransom in 1593.
A FINAL NOTE
The last surviving object from the Rosario – a carved-wood-and-gilt bedstead taken from Don Pedro de Valdés’ cabin – can be seen in Buckland Abbey, the Devonshire home of Sir Francis Drake. The building, originally a Cistercian abbey, was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540; the north and south transepts, once removed, had new floors added into the nave, central tower, and presbytery.
It seems that the conversion of old properties is not a new thing!
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