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.
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.
But the Armada's battle plan began to misfire as soon as it entered the English Channel. It had hoped to pull alongside the English ships and use grappling hooks to board and overwhelm them. But the sleeker English galleons proved too nimble to catch. And although the Armada succeeded in slipping through the English Channel to Calais, its guns did scant damage to the Queen's fleet - a failure that's always been one of the great mysteries of the Armada story.
The Armada never succeeded in linking up with the Duke of Parma. British historian Colin Martin, coauthor of a new book on the Armada, says Parma didn't know the Armada had arrived until it was actually off Calais. By then it was too late to ferry his men out to the fleet. English fireships had forced it to scatter in panic. When the Armada reformed, it was badly mauled by the English fleet and blown into the North Sea.
On the day of that last battle, Queen Elizabeth traveled down the Thames to review some 20,000 of her troops. She was wearing a white velvet gown, a breastplate, and over her red wig, a white-plumed helmet. On a 16-acre field above the Thames estuary, she delivered a speech that Shakespeare might have written. ``I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman,'' she declared, ``but I have the heart and stomach of a King and of a King of England, too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.''
Randall Bingley, the curator of nearby Thurrock Local History Museum, says the soldiers never forgot those stirring days. ``Certainly many old soldiers thought that this was the great event of their lives,'' he says.
After being driven into the North Sea, the Armada had little choice but to sail round the coast of Scotland for home. But as it headed into the Atlantic, it ran into a tropical typhoon. Some 25 ships were wrecked and about 4,000 men drowned. Those who got ashore - about 1,500 - were hunted down and killed by English soldiers. Thousands more died of exhaustion, starvation, and dehydration. Only 60 to 70 Armada ships got back to Spain.
English actress Maria Perry, who's writing a book about Queen Elizabeth I, says the English monarch saw the terrifying storms as an act of God. ``It was the vindication before Philip, the Pope, all Europe, all the sovereigns of Europe that God was on her side. After that she referred to herself as `God's Handmaiden.'''
Mr. Martin, who teaches history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, feels the whole Armada strategy was flawed. He says an earlier plan to send an armada straight to England might have succeeded. But to send the Armada to pick up Parma's Army in the open sea, he says, was immense folly.
While England certainly frustrated the Armada, Martin says, responsibility for the disaster lies squarely with the King of Spain. It's been said that Queen Elizabeth made very little comment on the defeat of the Armada. But after the danger had passed she vented her feelings about the Spanish King. ``You may assure yourself, that for my part I doubt not that this tyrannical, proud, and brain-sick attempt will be the ruin of that King.''