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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: The Spanish Armada

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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks
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In 1587 a small Dutch ship was smashed to pieces on the bottom of the sheer Culver Cliff. According to Sir John Oglander, the wind was so strong that the five crew on board were able to walk up the vertical 300ft cliff with ease. The small number of local militia sentries nearby heard them shouting in Dutch. They were frightened, thinking that these were sea devils cursing and casting spells. After the initial shock had worn off, the sailors were cared for in a nearby cottage before returning to Holland.

But in 1588 the treacherous waters of the Isle of Wight almost claimed the entire Spanish Armada.

The Spanish Armada

On 20 May, 1588, the Spanish force set sail. It consisted of 128 ships, of which only the 20 galleons and four galleasses (large galleys) were dedicated warships. The rest comprised four heavily armed merchant ships; another 40 armed merchantmen (most of which were larger than England's largest ships, and were thus slower and less manoeuvrable); and store ships, known as 'hulks'.

The Armada contained 8,350 sailors, 19,290 soldiers, 2,080 galley slaves and 2,630 large guns with 123,790 cannonballs. The Armada was to rendezvous with the Duke of Parma in the Netherlands, and pick up a further 19,000 soldiers to ship across the English Channel and invade England.

The English force consisted of 197 ships, most of which were smaller, faster, and more manoeuvrable than the Spanish forces. The English force was equipped with culverins (cannon with a relatively long barrel for their bore), which had a longer range than the Spanish cannon. On 19 July the Spanish force entered English waters, and on 24 July were off the coast of the Isle of Wight.

The Spanish force, under the command of Duke Medina-Sidonia, had formed itself into a crescent shape, with the unarmed hulks on the inside of the formation, surrounded by the armed ships. The English force consisted of Frobisher's squadron nearest to the shore, with Hawkins on his right. Right centre consisted of Admiral Howard's squadron, the most powerful, with a large number of merchant ships which wished to fight. Drake's squadron was the most seaward. By this time, the Spanish were low on powder and shot.

Sidonia planned to round the Isle of Wight and shelter in Spithead or even Portsmouth Harbour. There the Armada would be able to wait, fairly well sheltered from the weather, for Parma's forces to be assembled. Portsmouth Harbour would also offer protection from the English fleet, as the Spanish could deploy their heaviest guns to cover the narrow entrance. Sidonia's reports state that he intended to capture the Isle of Wight1, and use it as a base from which to plan further invasions of England.

The Battle of the Isle of Wight

On the night of 24/25 July, there was no wind. Both forces anchored to counteract the powerful tidal drift. By dawn a slight breeze blew, and the Spanish ship Duquesa Santa Ana, and the Portuguese San Luis of Portugal, had dropped astern to the west of their stations. To take advantage of this, Hawkins and his squadron were towed by their boats to attack the two ships. The Spanish Vice Admiral de Layva, in La Rata Encoronada, ordered himself towed by the three galleasses to challenge Howard. The Ark Royal and Golden Lion fought with the ships for five hours. They badly damaged the galleasses but were severely punished. By ten o'clock the wind got up from the south. Sidonia and the other galleass advanced to assist, and the six damaged Spanish ships returned to the centre of the Armada for repair. Howard's squadron returned to formation, this time between Howard and Drake. By this time the fleets had drifted near the entry to the Spithead.

Frobisher used the fast coastal current to advance on the Spanish ships in Triumph, and his squadron attacked San Martin for half an hour. Then the wind changed to the south-west, and his squadron was cut off from the rest of the English fleet. Seeing this, the Spanish Armada headed to trap Frobisher's squadron, all of which (except Frobisher in Triumph) managed to escape. Triumph dropped her boats to tow her out of danger, and other ships sent their boats to assist, until there were 11 of them trying to tow Triumph out of danger.

Before the Spanish could complete their attack, however, the wind changed again. Triumph was able to sail swiftly and surely out of danger, re-joining her squadron.

While the Spanish were still concentrating on Triumph, Drake and Hawkins, using their combined squadrons and superior knowledge of the waters off the Isle of Wight, together attacked the Spanish Armada from the south-west. The Spanish ships soon bunched together to escape the assault, driving the whole Armada north-east towards the Owers bank, a treacherous rock bank on the far east of the Spithead. The Spanish ships noticed the danger just in time, and were forced to swing away from the Spithead towards Calais.

With no more safe harbours, as Parma's troops weren't ready, the Spanish plans for invasion had failed. Hawkins, Frobisher, Howard, George Beetson, Roger Townsend and Lord Sheffield were knighted by the Lord High Admiral for their bravery during the Battle of the Isle of Wight.

1Sidonia had been ordered to capture the Isle of Wight if bad weather made an attack up the Thames to London impossible.

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