Richard Grenville and the Last Fight of the Revenge, 1591 - by John
Just after 5pm on August 30th 1591, off the island of Flores in
the Azores, the opening shots were fired in one of the epic “last
stands” of military history. The ferocious twelve -hour battle
between Queen Elizabeth Ist’s finest warship, Revenge, captained
by Sir Richard Grenville, and a massive Spanish fleet including
King Phillip’s latest and most powerful warships, immediately
aroused a controversy which has echoed down the centuries. Were
Sir Richard’s ship and crew victims of a gross blunder or a
suicidal and insane bid for glory by Grenville, or was the true
story of the last fight of the Revenge rather different?
The Most Arrogant Man in the World
Despite his fame, Grenville is in some respects an enigmatic
character, with large gaps in our knowledge of his life and
activities. He was born in about 1542, three years before his
father, Roger, died as captain of the ill-fated Mary Rose.
Grenville gained early military experience fighting in Hungary
against the Turks, and possibly in Ireland, but for almost twenty
years afterwards he seems to have followed the life of a West
Country gentleman. During this time, involved in enforcing
government legislation, he was noted for his severity against
His flagship, Revenge, was seen by Spanish contemporaries as “one
of the finest galleons in the world.” Built in 1577 by the leading
English shipwright Matthew Baker of Deptford, Revenge had a long
record of service in Ireland, the West Indies, and as Drake’s
flagship during the Armada campaign, when she had been in the
thick of the action. She had been one of the first of the new
“race-built” galleons to be added to the English fleet. These were
long, lean vessels, averaging around 500 tons, the high poop decks
which had been a feature of older galleons replaced by a lower
series of decks stepped down into the waist of the ship and with a
much lower forecastle than had hitherto been usual.
When Howard’s squadron set sail for the Azores early in May 1591,
the other principal ships were the flagship Defiance, a Queen’s
ship similar to Revenge, the 600 ton warship Bonaventure and two
or three smaller auxillaries. Over twenty more ships of all types
were added at Plymouth, and the squadron set off on its stormy
voyage to the Azores.
Only one prize was taken , and, whilst off Cape St Vincent, news
reached the English squadron that over £1/2 million of bullion
from the New World had already been safely conveyed to Spain
aboard a flotilla of fast frigates.
This was a serious blow to Howard and Grenville, but the main
treasure flotta had yet to arrive. It might still be expected to
carry a vast amount of booty which would more than recover the
costs of the expedition. Unknown to the English squadron, waiting
restlessly off the Azores, the flotta left Havana on July 17th,
but unloaded most of its bullion before sailing. Battered and
scattered by storms, its leading elements would not reach the
Azores before September.
Approach to Contact
Delayed by contrary winds, it was not until August 4th that the
Spaniards got to sea. Their orders were to sail to the Azores to
deal with the English squadron and then to escort the Indies
flotta home. On August 20th the Azores island of Terceria came in
There is little surviving information on the activities of the
English squadron since its arrival in the Azores in mid-May.
Although the islands were raided for provisions and any passing
merchant ships seized, by August English supplies were running low
and the crews considerably depleted by sickness. By the end of the
month perhaps half of them were out of action. Among them were 90
of the crew of Revenge. Aware that the autumnal storms were
approaching and time running short, Lord Thomas Howard decided to
shift his operations to the southern tip of Spain. He gathered off
Flores the 14-22 ships currently with the squadron, and after
landing the sick to benefit from better conditions ashore, he set
to work watering his ships and cleaning out their bilges, an
operation which rendered them dangerously vulnerable to attack.
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.
"So Full of Blood and Courage"
As darkness fell, Revenge was still holding her own, and the
English sailors, their losses so far light, sang their customary
evening psalm, their plainchant answered by repeated blasts from
the Spanish trumpeters.
A brief pause, during which Grenville’s men snatched a hasty meal,
was ended by a renewed assault, when Don Marcos de Aramburu’s San
Cristobel joined the fight, ramming the stern of Revenge. As
Spanish boarders swarmed aboard the English ship, desperate
fighting followed, with Grenville in the thick of it. The
increasing weight of Spanish numbers gradually forced the English
back towards the waist of the ship. Several of Grenville’s men
were killed and others badly wounded, including Sir Richard
himself, who received a musket ball in the body.
"Like a Logge on the Seas"
As dawn broke, an uneasy quiet had fallen. Surrounded by enemy
ships, Revenge lay "like a logge on the sees". Her masts and
superstructure largely destroyed, "and in effect, evened as she
was with the water, but the very foundation or bottom of a ship,
nothing being left overhead either for flight or defence."
As daylight grew, the survivors of Revenge’s crew, perhaps 80-100
of whom remained able to fight, surveyed their desperate
situation. Grenville, barely able to stand, remained defiant.
Calling his men together, he "persuaded them, because they had
like valiant, resolute men, repulsed so many enemies, they should
not now shorten the honour of their nation by prolonging their
lives for a few hours or a few days." Saying that the Spaniards
"should never glory to have taken one ship of Her Majesty"
Grenville ordered his Master Gunner to blow up Revenge. Many of
the crew, caught up in the heat of the moment, agreed, but Captain Langhorn and the Master argued that it was their “duty to live to
fight again and strike another blow.” The Spaniards, they said,
would agree to reasonable terms, and Revenge was too seriously
damaged to stay afloat for long.
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