A Waiting Game
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.
Meanwhile the English government was growing increasingly
concerned by reports of a massive naval build-up in the Spanish
port of Ferrol. One obvious possibility was that it might be
despatched to deal with Howard. Warning was sent to the Azores
Squadron, though attempts to raise more volunteer ships to
reinforce it proved largely unsuccessful.
The attention of Spanish naval commanders was indeed increasingly
focussed on Howard’s squadron. Through their intelligence network
and information from captured English merchant vessels, they had
gained a fairly accurate picture of the Squadron’s strength, and
by August were preparing to strike.
The Spanish Navy of 1591 was a considerably more formidable
fighting force than the Armada of 1588. Many of the latter’s
regular fighting ships had survived intact, and formed an
important part of the fleet mustering in Ferrol. Among them was
the 1,000 ton San Martin, flagship in 1588. But King Phillip had
profited from the lessons of defeat to order the construction of a
class of warships intended as his answer to the English
"race-built" galleons. Built in the northern Spanish ports of Santander and Bilbao, the "12 Apostles", as they were popularly
known, were built along English lines, though at an average 1,000
tons, were considerably larger than Revenge. They were to be ready
for sea by the summer of 1591. By the end of April all had been
launched though shortages of supplies and equipment were delaying
their fitting out. However orders were given that three "Apostles"
from each port be sent to Ferrol as quickly as possible.
At the centre of Spanish preparations was the Captain-General of
the royal fleet, Don Alonso de Bazan. A brother of Spain’s
greatest naval commander, the Marquess of Santa Cruz, Bazan was
more of an administrator than a sailor, the former being the
quality most required as the struggle to get the Spanish fleet
ready for sea went on. At the end of May three "Apostles" from
Santander, including the new fleet flagship, the 1,500 (Spanish)
ton San Pablo, reached Ferrol, and were described by observers as
"amongst the finest ships that they have ever seen, powerful, fast
and making very little water." But it was mid-July before they
were joined by the Bilbao "Apostles" San Barnabe and San Felipe.
By now a force of 59 ships, 30 of them warships, including 17
galleons and 13 armed merchantmen, had been gathered in Ferrol.
They were organised in seven squadrons, with a number of Spain’s
most experienced seamen as their commanders. Among them was Martin
de Bertendona, a Basque who had served at sea for 45 years.
Bertendona had been one of the few Spanish commanders to emerge
with some credit from the debacle of 1588, but in the following
year had been forced to burn his own flagship when Drake, in
Revenge, attacked survivors from the Armada sheltering in the
port. Information that his old adversary’s former flagship was
among the English squadron in the Azores must have sharpened Bertendona’s appetite for battle.
Of the 7,000 men in the fleet, 4,000 were soldiers. About 1,000 of
these were armed with pikes, the remainder with muskets and
arquebuses. Nearly all of the soldiers were aboard the warships,
each on average carrying 100 of them though the "Apostle" San
Pablo had 350.
Although the troops were adequately armed and equipped, the fleet
was desperately short of cannon and trained gunners. Even after
other ships were stripped of their armaments, the "Apostles"
remained badly under-gunned.
Copyright 2001 by