Book review: Brags and Boasts: Propaganda in the Year of the Armada

Bertrand T. Whitehead’s Brags and Boasts: Propaganda in the Year of the Armada is one of the most intriguing and delightful history books I’ve ever read. If you want an varied, insightful, and lively view of how the world worked in the sixteenth century, you could read only this and be satisfied. In the introduction, he says he used “most of the media available, including rumors, assemblies, processions, plays, bells, beacons and bonfires, sermons and homilies, prayers, petitions, letters and forms of address, proclamations, demonstrations, books, pamphlets, and ballads…”

One of Whitehead’s central themes is how the English government struggled to control the news during the years and months preceding the arrival of the mighty Spanish armada off the southern coast of England in the summer of 1588. This was the greatest fleet ever assembled, sent by the most powerful nation in the world to bring the intransigent upstart English under the Spanish heel. Spain was also fighting Protestants in the Low Countries at that time, its fearsome tercios led by the Duke of Parma.

Remember that King Philip’s motto was Non sufficit orbis: The world is not enough. The threat was real. But the Privy Council over-reacted, typically, rounding up all Catholic nobles known to have friends on the Continent and imprisoning them in a castle. They banned all sorts of publications, including prognostications about impending comets. The people were frightened enough!

The rumors

What I love best about this book is the detailed revelation of just how impossible it was for anyone anywhere to know anything with any certainty in the sixteenth century. News travelled at the speed of a horse and was only as reliable as the messenger. Rewards were great for being the first with good news — or bad, if news was necessary for defense — so men would leap on their horses and gallop off with the merest scrap. Some would believe that messenger; others would not. Fragments of rumors told by unreliable narrators.

“The Spanish are coming! The Spanish are coming!” As early as August, 1587, the English government heard rumors that a Spanish fleet had been sighted off the southwest coast. People fled inland from the coasts, crowding into London, paying exorbitant rents. London printers produced works like Niccolo Tartaglia’s Art of Shooting and Franciscus Arcaeus’ Most excellent method of curing wounds. Citizens took up arms drills, practicing in the fields north of the city wall.

In March, 1588, a Spanish informant of Lord Admiral Howard told him that the armada would most certainly set sail on the 20th: 210 ships bearing 36,000 troops. That rumor turned out to be unfounded. Then in late May, Lord Howard and Sir Francis Drake sailed towards Spain to see what they could see. They got as far as the Scillies and spotted 14 Spanish ships, but the wind changed and they were driven back. 14 ships is not an armada, but what were they doing?

By the end of May, everyone in Europe knew that King Philip had assembled an enormous fleet, most likely directed at England, although some thought it would be sent against the Turk and others thought it was intended for the New World.

Then June rolled around. Where was it? The French didn’t know, the English didn’t know. The Pope didn’t know. Spain knew, but wasn’t telling.

The realities

The armada had been forced by bad weather to put in at Corunna — still in Spain! Its commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, wrote to King Philip to suggest they postpone the invasion for another year. The ships needed repair and already the supplies were low. But Philip didn’t want to seem weak, not after all the build-up, so he insisted on going forward. And the Pope had promised him 500,000 ducats if he succeeded in deposing Queen Elizabeth.

England prepared as best it could, but there wasn’t much of a standing army or navy. Every able-bodied Englishman between 16 & 60 was obliged to turn up at his weekly local muster with his weapons and armor, to show that they were in working order and that he knew how to use them. Failure on any count resulted in a fine. They were trained at these musters by officers recruited from the local gentry. This was something, but they couldn’t keep it up for long.

Apart from musters, the trained bands went about their lives. This was still a subsistence agricultural economy, mostly. They couldn’t just let things go. At the end of July, 1588, when the Spanish fleet sailed past the English coast on its way to collect troops from the Low Countries for the invasion, beacons were lit to summon the trained bands to defensive points. Then,  “as soon as the Armada passed by, they returned to their farms and workshops and hung up their pikes, bows, muskets and armor. On paper, they made up 27,500 foot and 2,300 horse, but probably never more than a few thousand were under arms at one time.”

The results

Who won? Who won? People on the coast near Calais could watch smoke rising from the Battle of Gravelines on 8 August. The Armada was driven north into the German Sea (the North Sea), chased for a while by English ships, which soon returned, being out of food, water, gunpowder, and shot.

How far would the Spanish fleet run? Would they stop in Denmark, regroup and return? That was Drake’s fear. Would they sail up to Scotland and find allies among the Catholic nobility there? They could send their troops marching down from the north. That was Sir Francis Walsingham’s fear. No one knew, but they couldn’t afford to keep their sailors and soldiers on alert any longer.

By 5 August, the English ambassador in Paris was begging for news. The French got bits and pieces from fishermen, but they tended to contradict one another. Finally news from England arrived with a full accounting of the defense up to 1 August. England had repelled the Spanish, sinking many ships. The ambassador had copies printed up to pass around. Combined with other reports from the Netherlands, French opinion began to swing toward an English victory.

But the Spanish ambassador, Don Mendoza de Bernardin, didn’t believe it. He wrote on 10 August to King Philip that it was a pack of English lies, and that in fact Drake had been captured along with many other English nobles. In Venice, 17 August, the Doge congratulated the King of Spain on his victory. (That message took 6 weeks to arrive; by then, the news had changed.) In Prague, on 20 August, the Spanish ambassador ordered prayers of thanks for the great victory. The Pope wisely waited for confirmation before sending Philip the 500,000 ducats.

Then on 26 August, a despatch arrived at the Spanish court from a captain of the Armada who had gone ashore at Calais. It gave a report of the fighting and confirmed that the Armada had been victorious in the North Sea. This was published as a broadside and ordered to be read out loud and posted in churches all over Spain.

This is the story I want to read (so maybe I’ll have to write it): for the better part of a month, most of the Spanish people believed they had won a great victory over the impudent English heretics. Church bells rang out throughout the land. Prayers of thanks were offered, processions proceded through the streets. I can imagine women eagerly waiting the return of their men and merchants wondering if they’ll bring plunder to repay their debts. Some men would be thinking, “Now my fortunes will rise.” Breaths that had been held could be expelled.

For almost a month, Spain remained the mightiest nation. Then at the end of September, the rag-tag remnants of La Felicissima Armada (the most happy fleet) began straggling into ports in France and Spain. Reality sank in.

“On 3 October King Philip informed the Spanish bishops that prayers for the Armada need no longer be said in churches.”

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