Your RDA of Irony

Navy Blues

May 28, 1588:  The Spanish Armada Sets Sail

Sometimes history and central casting work perfectly.  That was certainly true in the duel between Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth (she doesn’t need further introduction).  He was a grim, repressive soul; even in his choice of  somber clothes, he seemed in perpetual attendance at requiem mass.  She was a brilliant actress who ruled by craft and charm.  Their kingdoms were equally contrasting.  Spain was an empire, commanding the wealth of the New World, and leading the Catholic powers of Europe.  England was an island, an isolated Protestant bastion.  Tyrannical, dogmatic Spain would be the forerunner of totalitarianism. Independent, unfettered England would be the foundation of modern democracy.

From our perspective, this clearly was a war between good and evil.  And from a legal point, there is an equally distinct delineation between right and wrong.  The irony is that Spain was in the right.  English privateers attacked Spanish ships and colonies.  English aid and “volunteers” abetted the Dutch in their rebellion against Spain.  Of course, the British Crown plead ignorance of the privateers while taking its share of the loot and then subsidizing the Dutch rebellion.  The wonder is that Philip showed such patience with the English; he would have been justified going to war years sooner.  But did Philip use that time to carefully plan his attack?  He obviously didn’t.

On this day in 1588 the Spanish Armada set sail for…now, that turned out to be a mystery. The Spanish had built, bought, and borrowed 130 ships but they really had no idea what they were supposed to do with this fleet. Yes, the Spanish intended to conquer England, but the Armada was only a threat in theory. Its purpose was to ferry the Spanish Army of the Duke of Parma across the Channel.

Unfortunately, none of the Spanish planners had the foresight to secure either a deep water port for the fleet to load the troops, or any transports that could ferry the troops to the ships. Philip II, being such a devout Catholic, perhaps thought that his army would walk on the water. So the Armada set sail without any purpose.

On its pointless tour, the Spanish fleet took a beating in the English Channel. The Globe Theater would not be used for bull fights. Then the Armada proceeded to the North Sea, sailing past the mystified Spanish army in the Netherlands. The Duke of Parma might have had better luck using gondolas. The Spanish were not merely inferior sailors; their ships really were unsuited for water, at least the type with waves. The North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean couldn’t have been more Protestant in their reception of the Armada. Most of the Spanish fleet was destroyed in storms.

When Philip saw the meager, battered remnants of his great enterprise, the King refrained from declaring God a heretic. For a rabid bigot, Philip was surprisingly stoic and accepted the debacle with a decorous grace. Even the incompetent admiral was allowed to retire gracefully.

I only wish that Philip had broken into song…

Blue navy blue, I am blue as I can be.

For the Spanish fleet has met defeat

And won’t come back to me.

Those English acts of piracy ar-mada’ning

And instigate this war.

A punitive flotilla would be my planning

Even up the score.


The naval pride of Spain complying with my wish

For England set asail.

But all of the assailing came from the English.

So now I must bewail.


  1. Michael Gury says:

    Dear Eugene, your recap of this aquatic encounter is quite accurate, as best I remember my naval history.
    I would only add that around this time the British had started building gigantic Man O’ War ships with heavy cannons that sprouted from their sides like porcupine quills, and a few of these were dispatched to engage the Armada. A number of them (on their maiden voyages) just capsized and sank shortly after leaving their berths without any enemy contact. Something to do with putting too many cannons and their balls on the top decks I guess. If Britannia ruled the waves, it did so mostly under them. To your point, the weather was really lousy and history has writ that the British won in this skirmish, but it was only by pure accident. The Spanish were just a tad more incompetent than the Brits.

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