Is there anything new to say about the Armada?

In the last 400 years or so, many people have produced books, articles, films, TV programmes and talks about the Armada. I could hardly believe that anyone could now find anything to add to our knowledge of that campaign. That is why I had misgivings when I decided last month to watch the documentary  by Dan Snow, Twelve Days to Save England. I got a pleasant surprise. Not only did Dan present the story in an interesting way, yet without too much dumbing down, but he also really did give some new information.

Where did the latest ‘news’ about the Armada come from?

Dan and his colleagues had drawn on research by some British academics who had had access to letters and diaries the Spanish Admiral and some of his captains wrote at the time. These had been in archives in Spain and nobody, even Spanish historians, had studied them until now. They gave new insights into the campaign.

A quill pen. The documents written by those involved in the Armada give new insights


Did these documents contradict previous accounts of the Armada?

No!  What they provided was an insight into the thinking on the Spanish side and this helped us see where the Armada campaign went wrong (for them). In particular, they revealed the personalities of the key players and the decision-making process. I could see how different it was from the English equivalent, as well as significant similarities.

How did the Spanish manage the Armada campaign? And the English?

King Philip was a micro-manager. He gave detailed written instructions covering all sorts of aspects of the project. Amazingly, there were significant gaps. In particular, he gave no instructions as to how the Armada was to link up with the Army waiting in what is now Belgium, although that was a key element in the plan. The English had plans, but Elizabeth left a lot up to the initiative of her Admiral Howard and his captains. They, of course, being defenders, had to be flexible, as they had to react to whatever the Spanish did.

How did personalities affect the conduct of the Armada campaign by the Spanish?

The Spanish Admiral, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, was a politician and administrator who had no experience of the sea. He relied on following the King’s instructions to the letter. Some of his captains, especially his second-in-command, Ricalde, were experienced and believed in the need to take the initiative where they saw an opportunity. They knew you can never plan for every eventuality in war. They had several heated arguments. It is possible that the Spanish could have won if they had not stuck so rigidly to the plan. The bad relations between the Admiral and his captains can have done nothing to help.

How differently did personalities affect the way the English fought the Armada?

Admiral Howard was another nobleman with no experience of the sea, but he listened to his captains and learnt – quickly. He did not abrogate his responsibilities, however. Howard made the big decisions, but in the light of advice. He also knew when to let individual captains exercise their initiative. He gained the respect of his subordinates.

Why did both sides have leaders who had no experience of the sea?

In 1588 people were even more obsessed with class than today. Captains, and even ordinary seamen, would have resented someone they considered their social inferior giving them orders. Had Drake been made Admiral, many of the other captains would have resented it, considering themselves at least as good as him. Howard was the Queen’s cousin. His Spanish counterpart was not royal, but was a personal friend of King Philip and a man who had held high political office. Both monarchs probably expected their admirals to get their practical knowledge from their subordinates. In Elizabeth’s case, she was right.

What relevance has the Armada to us today?

This episode of our history says a lot about management, planning and leadership. I wonder how Donald Trump would have got on? Would he have listened to his subordinates? If he had a plan, would he have stuck to it?

And you? What lessons can you take from this, if you are in charge of anything?