Britain fetes Armada defeat ... minus a myth
ALL this summer Britain has been commemorating the destruction of the Spanish Armada, that splendid, fearsome, and ponderous fleet dispatched 400 years ago by Philip II of Roman Catholic Spain to invade the Protestant realm of England's Queen Elizabeth I. Special stamps have been issued to mark the anniversary, publishers have loosed a broadside of books on the subject, and the National Maritime Museum is staging a major Armada exhibition.Skip to next paragraph
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On July 19, flickering fires on hundreds of headlands and hilltops marked the 400th anniversary of the sighting of the great fleet. The sky first erupted in flame at precisely 10:10 p.m. in Kynance Cove in Cornwall and for the next 18 minutes fires crackled like a trail of gunpowder north to Berwick-upon-Tweed on the Scottish border. Altogether 461 beacons and bonfires were lighted across England and Wales.
No one is certain how many beacons were actually lighted when the Armada lumbered into sight off the tip of Cornwall on July 19, 1588, but one thing is certain: The loss of the Armada was the greatest naval disaster in Spanish history. Between 11,000 and 15,000 soldiers and sailors died in the ill-fated venture, almost all of them on the horrific journey back to Spain. The disaster plunged the country into mourning, and from that point on Spain began to decline as an imperial power.
But the Spanish seem to be taking the British Armada festivities in stride. The Spanish ambassador to London, Don Jos'e de la Bellacasa, graciously lighted the first beacon in Cornwall last month. A Spanish Embassy spokesman noted that the Armada was ``a very long time ago'' and that Britain and Spain are now ``friendly fellow members of the EC [European Community] and NATO.''
Stephen Deuchar, who organized the National Maritime Museum's Armada exhibition, says it's far from an embarrassment for Spain. ``There's been a lot of media coverage there. Indeed, some people in Madrid have complained that it isn't going on in Spain, which would have been wonderful,'' Mr. Deuchar says.
One reason the Spanish ambassador can join in the Armada jollifications is that the 400th anniversary of the fleet's destruction is being commemorated here without the strident jingoism that marked the 300th anniversary. For instance, the popular notion that Elizabethan sea dog Sir Francis Drake calmly finished a game of bowls before setting off to humble the Armada gets short shrift in the Greenwich exhibition.
``Drake was one of the vice-admirals,'' says Deuchar. ``He wasn't in charge of the fleet. What we don't do is present him as the hero of the campaign, because really he was not. That's really a Victorian myth we've had to explode.''
Philip II launched the Armada against England after Queen Elizabeth began supporting Dutch rebels in the Spanish Netherlands. The Armada consisted of 130 vessels and carried almost 19,000 soldiers. Its orders were to link up with the Spanish Army in the Netherlands under the Duke of Parma. The finest army in the world would then be ferried out to the greatest fleet in the world, and together they would descend on Elizabethan England.