"Advancing with arogancia"
But if, thanks to Bazan’s slow approach, the bulk of his prey had
eluded him, Revenge was not so fortunate. Grenville, accompanied
at first by two or three smaller ships, was about two nautical
miles behind the rest of Howard’s squadron as the gap closed. He
had two choices. One was to turn tail and run to the west between
the rear of Bazan’s fleet and island of Flores. Contrary to what
is sometimes suggested, this would have reflected no dishonour
upon Grenville, but would have been seen as perfectly acceptable.
The contemporary naval authority Sir William Monson judged that a
"fortunate commander knew how in perill to escape, in place to
pursue, in necessity to stand fast, in doubt to be quickly and
prudently resolved." The Revenge’s Master, the most experienced
seaman aboard, evidently assumed that Grenville would do this, and
ordered the mainsail to be set in readiness.
It may be that the fiery Sir Richard saw his authority being
usurped, or that he was determined to remain in touch with the
remainder of the squadron. He rounded in fury on the Master,
"threatened both him, and all the rest that were in the ship that
if any man laid hand upon [the mainsail] he would cause him to be
hanged." Whilst not inevitably the suicidal action sometimes
claimed, the decision displayed both Grenville’s rashness and his
relative inexperience as a seaman. He had decided on the second,
high-risk, option which was open to him. Ordering the ship to be
cleared for action, Grenville steered directly for the Castille
Squadron, which he hoped to break through and rejoin Howard.
The Spaniards watched in amazement as Revenge, "valuing the world
as nothing", came "advancing towards our fleet with arogancia".
Grenville ordered his helmsman to steer towards the leading
Spanish vessel, whilst giving her a broadside from his main guns,
and then suddenly turned closer to the wind, forcing the nearest
enemy ships to leeward, and, closed-hauled, headed for a gap in
the enemy line and safety.
Grenville’s daring move came within an ace of success. The
disorganised Spaniards headed in pursuit, but their leading
vessels fell behind. Only two "Apostles", San Felipe, and Bertendona’s flagship,
San Barnabe, had any chance of intercepting
Revenge. Gradually San Felipe began to overhaul the English ship.
Aboard San Felipe were over 200 crack Spanish troops, including
the company of Don Francisco de Toledo and some gentleman
The opening moves of what would be a bloody and desperate fight
had all the overtones of the age of chivalry. The captain of the
San Felipe, Don Claudio Beanante, instructed his trumpeters to
sound the challenge and then, drawing his sword, called on
Grenville to surrender. Sir Richard saluted him with his own
sword, and ordered his heavy guns to open fire.
It is not entirely clear how many men aboard Revenge were fit for
action. Deducting the 90 sick from her original compliment would
have left 160 men, but it may be that some of the invalids joined
in the defence. As San Felipe closed, her towering sails took the
wind out of those of Revenge "as the shippe could neither make way
nor feel the helm."
As Revenge slowed, the beakhead of San Felipe smashed into her, at
last giving the Spaniards their keenly awaited chance to board one
of the Queen’s ships. Ten soldiers sprang from the bows of the
Spanish vessel on to Revenge’s upper deck, whilst Grenville’s
heavy guns pounded his opponent, doing serious damage above and
below the waterline. At the same time, lighter anti-personnel
pieces, and bows and firearms wielded by Revenge’s soldiers, swept
the upper works of San Felipe in an effort to prevent the original
boarders from being reinforced. "Utterly misliking her first
entertainment", San Felipe, whose crew had had no time to fix
grappling hooks to her opponent before suffering Grenville’s
devastating broadside, fell away, leaving her boarders marooned on
board the English ship.
One by one they were cut down until only three remained. Then San Barnabe came up and struck
Revenge’s port side. The surviving
Spaniards leapt to safety, later to be rewarded with the
equivalent of two months’ pay. The veteran Bertendona "threw the
grappling hooks, and ordered my galleon to be lashed to his."
After what was doubtless a desperate struggle the two ships were
firmly lashed together, lying dead in the water, and remained so
for hours, "both of us fighting hard with cannon and arquebuses".
In fact it seems unlikely that either ship actually made very much
use of their lower deck heavy guns. The usual Spanish practice of
loading their guns "outboard", that is without running them in,
would probably have been impossible in the confined space, and
evidence that Revenge had only expended 20 of her initial 90
barrels of powder by the end of the fight suggests that her heavy
cannon had only been fired perhaps seven or eight times in the
What followed was mainly man-to-man combat at close range. In 1588
Revenge’s compliment had included 150 sailors, 24 gunners and 76
soldiers, and the proportions were probably similar three years
later, although the distinction between the roles of soldiers and
sailors was more blurred than in the Spanish navy. Muskets,
generally firing a 1 ½ oz ball, and arquebuses, with a ½ oz shot,
were used by both sides, arquebuses being more suitable for
shipboard use. Ships on both sides also carried a small number of
"incendaries". These were of two main types. One, a ceramic pot
filled with a mixture of gunpowder, spirits and resin, with a
lighted fuse would be thrown, often from a ship’s "fighting tops",
and was designed to burst on a enemy deck, scattering its
contents. The second weapon was a hollow wooden tube, mounted on
the end of a long pole, containing a series of gunpowder and
shrapnel-filled charges, which, once ignited would discharge in
quick succession like a fire cracker. They were designed to be
thrust by defenders into the midst of enemy boarding parties.
This array of weapons would be supplemented by half-pikes, swords,
axes and the lighter anti-personnel swivel-mounted ordnance on the
San Barnabe was slightly larger than Revenge, and carried more
men, but Bertendona made no attempt to board the English ship,
relying on firepower to whittle down his opponent’s numbers, a
necessarily slow process, as the bulk of the crew of both ships
were under cover. On Revenge, Captain Langhorn commanded the
defenders of the forecastle, whilst Grenville was stationed on the
half deck below the poop, their men firing through loopholes. A
reserve under the Master was stationed amidships, and other men
manned the three fighting tops in the rigging.
By now the sun was setting, and although more Spaniards were
closing in, there was no sign of assistance from Howard. The
latter, after a brief exchange of fire with some of Bazan’s ships,
made off, leaving Grenville to his fate. The Spanish fleet began
to close in around Sir Richard, whom one eyewitness likened to the
quarry in a bullring: "the bellowing, fierce bull… the brave bull
that was so full of blood and courage".
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