With the inappropriate name of “contrarmada”, reproduced from English historiography – “Counter-Armada” – and difficult to fit into the Spanish lexicon, it is known today among the general Spanish population the English counteroffensive of 1589. This is one of the facets – major and minor – of the episodic polyhedron of confrontation between Spain and England lasting twenty years, and which would lead after exhaustion to the peace of 1604: “The Somerset House Conference”. Despite what has been affirmed, the most qualified British historiography – Corbett, Hume, Elliott, Wernham … – has analyzed this event objectively and in its true dimension, already dismissing the Victorian chauvinism and the first reports destined to obtain forgiveness for the defeat.
When the Spanish Armada disappeared between storms the previous year, the surviving Spanish ships, very damaged, would need to careen firmly at their bases. The English Private Council convinced that Felipe II was not going to give up in his attempt based on his superior power, showed his queen the need to take advantage of the opportunity to respond, attacking using his squadron and some crews and garrisons already in place without the need for new levies. The Dutch United Provinces offered to collaborate with their “long and low ships” – their fluyts -, their hardened soldiers and their “gulden” or gold florins, and even the Moroccan sharif promised a significant reward if the army organized for this purpose cleared the Strait of Gibraltar, dominated by the Spanish galleys.
If these arguments were not enough to convince the cautious Elizabeth, Dom Antonio de Avis, the former prior of Crato in the Order of Saint John and perpetual candidate for the Portuguese throne that Phillip II had held since 1580, guaranteed that the Portuguese would rise en masse when they verified his presence on board. Once in power, he would turn the kingdom and its overseas riches into a true English dominion, also granting a base in the Azores.
There were enough state reasons to pursue the project, but neither the treasury nor the royal ships were sufficient for such an undertaking. Therefore, its captains, the famous Francis Drake and John Norris were commissioned to attract funds and shipowners with the promise that, in addition to accomplishing strategic objectives, lucrative looting would take place. The wealthy Chidley and Powell were the first in a long list of investors lead, once again, by the very queen, the court, and the submissive guilds.
The naval command was reserved for Drake and the landing force for Norris. This dual command had some inconveniences, being the decisions also influenced by the opinion of the shipowners, the Portuguese opposition, and the bankers and other associates.
In spring, when there was less to fear from storms, a division of 150 vessels with about 24,000 men on board set sail from Plymouth in the direction of the Spanish coast without a detailed and rigorous plan, as the failure of the Spanish Armada had been attributed to a rigid plan. Among those embarked were a thousand “knights of fortune” and adventurers, and to her great indignation, the Earl of Essex, Elizabeth’s favorite. Disobedience of the Earl’s orders was to be a constant in the campaign.
Most of the best Spanish ships: the galleys of Portugal – the fearsome “cagafogos” – with the flagship “San Martín” and a good part of the squadrons of Valdés, Flores, Oquendo, and Recalde, were still under repair in Santander, which had a good port infrastructure, and in other ports. Nonetheless, the idea of taking La Coruña and, with this re-embarkation dock seized, going as far as Santiago to capture the greatest votive treasure in Christendom, seduced most of the expedition members but not all since, before the landings, twenty ships had deserted and returned to England.
Meanwhile, the Spanish espionage service – through Alejandro Farnesio’s informants in Flanders and Ambassador Bernardino de Mendoza in Paris – had already reported on the preparations, which were mistakenly interpreted as an attempt against the territories in America.
When the fleet appeared off cabo Prior, alarms were raised and reinforcements and supplies were organized everywhere to be sent to the fortified city. During the entire first two weeks of May and under the accurate command of the Marquis of Cerralbo, the wall resisted against all odds the successive attacks, defended with great tenacity by its militias and volunteers – María Pita would go to the pantheon of heroes on this occasion – until Drake, fearful of the royal wrath, ordered to weigh anchor when the Spanish reinforcements, coming from everywhere and once grouped together, threatened to besiege the besiegers. Góngora sang in his “Dragontea” the hope of the whole kingdom to go and defend the city: “Then from the Court to La Coruña / for the occasion that like bald time / usually offers the strands of the forehead, / the youthful illustrious people would go”. The English colonel Anthony Wingfield, chronicler of the feat, although on other occasions partial, would recognize the exemplary resistance.
Discouraged and their strength diminished, the time lost in La Coruña would be essential to prepare the defense of Lisbon, where the surprise factor had disappeared, and the compliance with Don Felipe – Felipe I for them – was generalized, and little consistency and timeliness would be shown in the biased reports of Dom Antonio.
On May 26, the English landed in Peniche at great risk but also with great expectations, since their strength doubled that of the defenders of the Portuguese capital. The Simancas archive and the Portuguese National Library and the Lisbon Academy of Sciences, which still have more details to add, speak of this remarkable defense by the Portuguese. After an unsuccessful attempt to force the defenders to fight in the open field, on June 18 the expedition began to re-embark with serious losses and the beginning of a terrible plague that would take as many lives as the campaign of Medina Sidonia.
“Plenty of damage on land”
Felipe II would boast, with good reason, of having infringed to the enemy “plenty of damage on land and also at sea, brimming with disease”. The terrible situation of having to throw overboard day after day the deceased, ended up undermining the will to fight. Having lost the opportunity to surprise the American fleet, already reinforced by the repaired galleys of Santander, and rejecting a naval division in Porto Santo, an attack on Bayonne was dismissed, as it was known to be alerted and defended by veteran troops. It is surprising to realize how all possible targets were well defended.
Before their return, Drake, Norris and Essex, had to mobilize their most influential friends to save their own necks. England would change its strategy, focusing its aggression on the Caribbean ports and the Isthmus of Panama, since an attack on peninsular soil proved unfeasible. Spain, which had learned its lesson a year earlier, would do the same on the weak point of its rival: Ireland.