In the late 16th century, Spain was the world’s leading superpower. Ruling over a quarter of western Europe’s population with an empire larger then that of Rome at its peak, the forces of the Catholic kingdom had overwhelmed Dutch resistance and seized strongholds in the Lowlands.
Having amassed a colossal army and a formidable navy, Spain set its sights on Britain - a nation whose forces it vastly outnumbered and outgunned.
So how did the pride of the greatest naval force of its time drift hundred of miles off course and finally end up broken and capsized all over the coast of the north of Ireland? And how were the secrets of the sunken Armada, lost for centuries off the shores of Ulster, finally brought to light?
Ruled by the autocrat King Philip II, the Spanish Empire stretched through the entire Iberian Peninsula, most of Italy, Mexico and as far as the Philippines. Benefiting from explorers and conquistadors she was bankrolled with vast quantities of gold and produce from South America.
Under the military command of the mighty Duke of Parma, Spanish forces had ventured north and besieged the Dutch, driving the rebels into a tiny area of remote islands. Poised on the domination of western Europe, King Philip turned his attention to Britain.
For decades, British forces had been bolstering the Protestant Dutch, with state-sanctioned British pirates notorious for terrorising the High Seas, attacking Spanish trade routes and appropriating Spanish treasure.
Under the pretext of seizing Britain back for Catholicism, the Spanish planned an invasion. Across the Channel, Queen Elizabeth reigned over a weakened Britain. Her father, Henry VIII, had seized Catholic Church property and closed the monasteries resulting in his, and his daughter's, excommunication.
The Vatican would thus bless any invasion or attack on the British establishment as a holy act, a crusade to restore the faith. A year earlier Elizabeth had her half-sister Mary, Queen of Scots, beheaded after implicating her in plots to assassinate the regent and install a Catholic regime.
Threats from within were now compounded by threats from without. British defences against the amassing forces of Spain’s navy and its ‘Army of Flanders’ were old and wretched. The crumbling castles and forts of the southern coast could be easily blown away by Spain’s artillery.
The British Army, a ragged, ill-equipped gathering of amateurs, seemed destined to be annihilated by the battle-hardened Spanish troops. From landing it was estimated that within a week resistance would collapse and London would fall.
Central to the invasion plans was the Grande y Felicísima Armada – ‘the vast good-fortuned fleet’ – or, as it came to be known in English, the Spanish Armada. Its role was to protect the Duke of Parma’s barge invasion of Kent and fuel the invasion with troops, equipment and specialists.
Yet what seemed destined to be an unstoppable blitzkrieg was already being undermined. From the beginning its commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, was reluctant to pilot the venture to an almost superstitious degree.
The Armada lacked any communications to instruct the Duke of Parma to the precise timing and whereabouts of their arrival. And though it was of superior strength, once it had left Spanish coastal waters the Armada would be hundreds of miles from the sanctuary of safe harbour. There was no room for error.
The omens were bad from the beginning. Setting sail from Lisbon with over a hundred ships, nearly 20,000 soldiers and over 8000 sailors they were delayed for several months at Coruna in the Galician region of northern Spain, due to gale force winds.
The delay was compounded when beacons from the tip of Cornwall right along the southern shore of England informed London of the first sighting of the fleet within 48 hours. The element of surprise had been lost.
It appeared luck was with the English. Two Spanish ships were lost through accident or incompetence; the San Salvador’s cargo of explosives caught fire, whilst the Nuestra Senora de la Rosario was accidentally rammed by another ship.
It was decided to establish a beachhead on the Isle of Wight and force the English into a direct confrontation. But at the last minute, against all advice, a nervous Sidonia set course for Calais to meet Parma’s troops without having neutralised the English threat.
The British fleet, though outnumbered, had the benefit of being close to their home ports and possessed detailed knowledge of their coastal waters. They also had the benefit of fighting not for some ideological purpose but for their very existence. Delay or retreat was simply not an option. It was all or nothing.
Though the fleet was commanded by Lord Admiral Howard, he effectively handed power to Sir Francis Drake. A master mariner, Drake had circumnavigated the globe in the Golden Hind, claiming California for the British on the way. He was also a pirate, a thief and Spain’s Public Enemy Number One, with a history of looting Spanish vessels and launching raids on Cadiz.
Harnessing his experience, Drake devised a plan of guerilla warfare on the high seas. Aware that to attack the Spanish head-on would have been suicide, he instead concentrated on picking off Spanish ships that had broken away or lagged behind the pack, using high speed hit and run manoeuvres. Ultimately he would outwit the larger, more powerful force.
Anchored off Calais, the Spanish fleet was a sitting duck. The English seized the opportunity, sending eight burning pitch and gunpowder-filled fireships floating downwind into their midst in the middle of the night.
A state of panic erupted during which many ships cut the lines to their anchors in an attempt to escape. The San Lorenzo was grounded and keeled over, its crew finished off by English invaders. In the chaos, ships attempted to make a break for it and were duly ambushed by the amassed English forces. The Maria Juan was sunk, and the San Felipe and San Mateo forced onto sandbanks.
The following day, between Graveline and Ostend, a pitched battle broke out. Weighed down by their cargoes, the Spanish galleons were slow and cumbersome. But due to their expertise in boarding and hijacking enemy vessels, they were suited to fighting at close quarters.
Countering this by keeping out of range, the British concentrated their fire below the water line in an attempt to sink the Spanish vessels as quickly as possible. After a ferocious exchange, both sides had pounded each other into a stalemate.
Having broken away into the North Sea, Sidonia made his final miscalculation - one that would prove fatal for thousands of Spanish troops and sailors. In an extremely risky move the English pursued the Spanish -despite having no ammunition.
The bluff paid off. Little did Sidonia realise he could turn, regroup his still formidable, albeit spooked, force and rout his enemy with ease. As it happened Sidonia had lost his nerve and had already plotted course for home - not through the Channel but by circumnavigating the coasts of Scotland, the Northern Isles and Ireland - a suicidal course given the weather conditions.
At this point the Armada entered Irish history in the most disastrous way. Having rounded the Scottish coast, Sidonia seemed to be aware of the dangers of the perilous storm-wracked shores of the west coast of Ireland and duly plotted course for the open seas of the Atlantic.
Beset by fog, continual storms and the Gulf Stream drift, Sidonia was unaware that he was heading toward the Irish coast. By the time he realised, it was too late. Already deteriorating from the battles and the rough seas, the ships were on a collision course.
Hulls were held together by rope and water was being taken in as fast as it was being bailed out. Running low on food and water, they jettisoned their horses into the sea. They had little idea that they were heading straight into the belly of a hurricane, one of the most ferocious ever to hit the area.
Sailing too close to Irish shores, over two dozen ships, each with bounty and crew, ploughed into coastal rocks as north as Donegal as south as Kerry.
The Barca de Amburg, a cargo ship, began taking in water and was abandoned, capsizing somewhere off the north coast of Antrim. A few days later the Castillo Negro disappeared, with 310 souls onboard, somewhere along the same coast. Further west the Trinidad Valencera was so badly damaged it was forced to run aground on a reef at Kinnagoe Bay in Inishowen, in an effort to save its crew.
Other ships, having managed to make it further down the coast of Ireland, were now in the direct firing line of the storms sweeping in from the Atlantic.
The massive ships Santa Maria de Vision, the Lavia and the Juliana were torn apart off Co Sligo with the loss of a thousand lives. One survivor, Captain Francseco Cuellar, walked the breadth of Ulster, making it to Scotland and finally to Spain, later writing a famous account of his epic journey.
Others were not so fortunate. Seven ships sought refuge in the Shannon, but having been denied permission to land were sent back into the storm and a certain death. In Galway the entire crew of the Falco Blanco Mediano were brutally executed by British forces.
A straggle of ships made it to Blasket Sound in Co Kerry, only to witness the terrifying sight of the Santa Maria de la Rosa sailing in, firing shots, dropping her anchor and immediately and inexplicably sinking with all hands on board.
All in all 5,000 men drowned or, having survived the shipwrecks, were captured and executed by the British. Many survivors were protected by Irish Catholics who spirited them away to Spain or kept them in hiding in Ireland, some settling there. Of the mighty force that had left Galicia, over 10,000 men in varying states of illness and injury returned in under half the number of original ships. Many men would never recover.
The last of the ships to be wrecked on the Irish coast and the first to be excavated in the 20th century was the galleass La Girona. A galleon equipped with oars, the ship was suited to the placid waters of the Mediterranean, but not the tempestuous northern waters.
Maimed during the storms off Coruna, the ship played little part in the ensuing battles and managed to make it to the coast of Ireland. There, on the west coast, she picked up over 800 men including the crew of the Rata Encoronada, who had holed up in an abandoned castle after their ship had run aground.
Continually battered by storms and suffering from a broken rudder, she was forced to take refuge at Killybegs. Following hasty repairs, La Girona set off in an attempt to make it to Scotland as a waypoint to Spain.
Instead she ploughed headlong into another storm of rain and howling winds. The rudder gave out and despite the last-ditch frenzied rowing of over 200 men, the ship was thrown against the rocks of Lacada Point, Co Antrim.
Of 1,300, less than a dozen men survived. Their fates have attained mythical status. Some men, it is said, were helped by Sorley Boy MacDonnell, settling in Antrim and marrying, while some escaped to Spain.
Dunluce Castle, now a dramatic ruin perched on the edge of the coast, was partly funded from La Girona’s bounty, which had washed up on the shore during and after the storm. Only five bodies were ever recovered. The rest sank to the bottom or were washed away by currents.
For centuries, the ship corroded away with the tides and currents in the relatively shallow water. In 1967 the eminent Belgian archaeologist Robert Stenuit discovered its precise location, his first dive uncovering a bronze cannon, which certified that this was indeed the resting place of the ship.
Returning with a diving crew, he undertook extensive searches of the area and over the course of a year amassed an extravagant haul. Amongst the discoveries were gold and silver coins, gunshot, navigational apparatus and lapis lazuli portraitures of Roman Emperors.
Some spectacular finds stood out. A gold cross of a Knight of Santiago, another of a Knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, an ornamented gold-laden bowl with carvings of St Julien and a peartree, a bosun’s pipe and cutlery made of silver.
The most exciting, if bizzarre, find was a golden jewelled adornment in the shape of a Draco Volans, a flying lizard native to the Philippines that was not officially discovered until 200 years later.
Other items were haunted by the ghosts of the dead. A gold ring engraved ‘Madame de Champagney MDXXIIII’, worn by her drowned grandson, was discovered. Another ring depicted a hand clutching a heart and bore the romantic inscription ‘No tengro mas que dar te’ (‘I can give you no more’).
These moving artefacts contrast with the cruel irony of the heavy gold chains found at the site, chains which the wealthy commanders wore to parade their wealth and which hastened their deaths by dragging them into the sea. They are tragic reminders of the human stories behind the cold facts of history.
La Trinidad Valencera
A year after the Girona excavation, attempts were made to uncover the site of the Santa Maria de la Rosa, in the deep waters of Blasket Sound, Co Kerry. Eventually a haul was discovered, consisting of cannonballs, muskets and under some wreckage, a crushed human torso and leg bones.
Following these discoveries, attention shifted north once more, to Inishowen. During a dive at Kinnegoe Bay, members of the City of Derry Sub-Aqua Club discovered the last resting place of La Trinidad Valencera.
The finds were impressive - bronze cannons bearing the arms of the King Philippus Rex; weapons from skilled Venetian craftsmen; pieces of stringed instruments; wheels and navigational tools; grenades and pottery.
In naval terms, the effect of the Spanish Armada’s decimation was minimal. For many years after, Spain remained the dominant superpower, buoyed by its South American colonies.
Politically, the effect was monumental. Britain remained Protestant and by default, Ireland remained under British control. Scotland would soon fall. The myth of British Imperial invincibility had been born and would grow with time.
To this day the past has fascinating gaps in it. Several vessels that disappeared off the Antrim coast, such as the Barca de Amburg, have never been discovered. It will take explorers as gifted as Robert Stenuit or as resourceful as the City of Derry divers to find them.
Recent developments have been encouraging. The University of Ulster’s Centre of Maritime Archaeology in Coleraine has obtained hi-tech sonar equipment previously restricted to use by the navy. The technology will enable the probing of deep waters and the mapping of the sands and bedrock of the ocean floor. Somewhere on the seabed of the northern coast, the treasures and secrets of those lost ships wait to be found.