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Sir Richard Grenville and the Last Fight of the Revenge, 1591
by John Barratt


Background

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?

England’s defeat of the Armada in the summer of 1588 did not end the war. Nor did it permanently turn the course of the fighting in England’s favour. The “Counter-Armada” of 1589, aimed at the capture of Spanish-held Lisbon, proved a costly failure which further discredited the already somewhat tarnished reputation of Sir Francis Drake. And, by later in the same year, Spanish naval strength had largely recovered from the losses suffered in the Armada expedition.

Already stretched by the demands of continuing war at sea, English resources were further drained by support sent to the French Protestant forces under Henry of Navarre. This left little to spare to mount further large-scale offensive operations. Instead growing attention was focussed on a strategy put forward by the architect of Elizabeth’s new navy, Sir John Hawkins. Sir John proposed that the approaches to the Spanish coast be dominated by a squadron consisting of roughly six of the Queen’s warships and a similar number of privately-financed vessels, with support ships. This squadron would do as much damage as possible to Spanish merchant trade, but its main objective would be to strike at the great treasure fleets, vital to the Spanish economy, which each year brought home the bullion from the mines of America. The loss of even one of these flottas would strike a devastating blow at King Philip’s ability to continue the war, and enrich the Queen and her financial backers.

Hawkins intended that squadrons should be relieved every four months, so maintaining a permanent blockade, but there were never in practice sufficient resources available to make this possible. There were often gaps of several months between squadrons, of which the Spaniards took full advantage.

In a refinement of the original strategy, in addition to the squadron based off the Azores, a second force would operate nearer to the Spanish coast, both to provide another opportunity of intercepting any flotta which escaped the Azores detachment, and also to give warning of any activity by the increasingly formidable fleet based in Spanish ports. One result of this expansion of effort was a tendency to employ more large armed merchant ships in the English squadrons.

The operations planned for the summer of 1591 were intended to follow this pattern. Previous squadrons, whilst doing some damage to Spanish seaborne trade, had failed in their main objective of intercepting a treasure flotta. Nevertheless, Spanish movements had been severely disrupted. The 1590 flotta had taken refuge for the winter in the Cuban port of Havana, so the summer of 1591 offered the dazzling prospect of a treasure fleet double its normal size.

The squadron intended to operate off the coast of Spain consisted mainly of privateers, commanded by George, Earl of Cumberland. But the main responsibility for intercepting the flotta would rest with the Azores Squadron. Details of its composition in 1591 vary, but the core of the squadron consisted of six of the Queen’s warships, backed by a fluctuating number of privateers, pinnaces (scouting vessels), and victuallers. The squadron was financed by Queen Elizabeth herself, and other backers included Sir Walter Raleigh, and the naval commander-in-chief, Lord Howard of Effingham.

Command of the squadron was given to a kinsman of Effingham, Lord Thomas Howard, 30-year-old son of the Duke of Norfolk. Howard has been heavily criticised for his role in ensuing events, to the point of suggestions of cowardice. But, although he had relatively little sea-going experience, Howard had been knighted for his gallantry during the Armada campaign, and there is nothing to suggest that he lacked at least adequate competence.

It had originally been planned that Raleigh should sail as second-in-command, or “Vice-Admiral” of the squadron, but at the last minute he was replaced by a kinsman, Sir Richard Grenville.
Copyright 2001 by John Barratt.
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