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A parade with men in full armour on armoured horses and a thick cluster of pikes in the background

A good Protestant Englishman’s worst nightmare: Ermanni and Jacopo Ligozzi, fresco with a Cavalcade of Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII into Bologna, 1570s, from the Casa Fumanelli a Santa Maria in Organo, Verona, now in the Museo degli Affreschi, Verona, no. 1466

As it became clear in 1587 and 1588 that the Spanish were really going to send a fleet to collect the Army of Flanders and carry it across the channel to Kent or Essex, the English alternated between panic and self-delusion. No town in England had modern fortifications so the English put their trust in garrisons in temporary earthworks or “sconces” along threatened sections of coast. The Dutch had great success with sconces, and the militia was replacing its old bills and longbows with modern pikes, arquebuses, and muskets and surely that would be enough? Sir John Smythe of Little Badow, a crusty old veteran who had served in the wars on the continent, tells us what he thought of the English plan after spending the summer in Elizabeth’s camp at Tilbury:

I say, that if anie such as doo hold that won∣derfull opinion of the effects of Mosquettiers (how good soldiers soeuer they thinke themselues) were at anie Hauen in England with fiue or sixe thousand of the best Mosquettiers that they euer saw of our Eng∣lish nation, without 〈…〉 of horsemen and foot∣men of other weapons to backe them, I thinke they would worke verie small effect against the Enemie landing, although they had ensconsed themselues (as they terme it) in such Sconses as they and their Engi∣ners formed this last sommer 1588. vppon the Sea coasts of Suffolke, and in Essex and Kent, on both sides of the riuer of Thames. For if they should see a Nauie with an Armie of thirtie or fortie thousand men (be∣sides seamen, and such as should be left for the gard of the shipps) vnder some notable and sufficient General enter into anie capable Hauen of England, with wind and weather fit for their purpose, with intention to inuade (which God forbid) they should finde them∣selues in their opinions wonderfullie deceiued.

And Smythe is having a good rant, so he tells us exactly what would happen:

For this they are to knowe, that such a Generall being with his whole Nauie entred into such a Hauen, doth take order before, that proclamatiō be made through∣out all his shipps and vessells, that no man vpon paine of death being landed, shall straggle or stray abroad, but all soldiers to reduce themselues with all celeritie vnder their Ensignes; which done, a Cannon is dis∣charged out of the Generalls ship, which is a warning for all Captaines, Officers and Soldiers to arme them∣selues and to take their weapons. And vppon the se∣cond Cannon discharged, the Captaines, and Ensign∣bearers with their Ensignes in their hands, with such cōuenient numbers of Mosquettiers, Harquebuziers, Piquers, and Halbarders, as the long boates, Shallops, Fregatts, Azabres, and other such vessells of oares ly∣ing readie at the shipps sides are capable of, doo enter into them, euerie long boate hauing two Bases afore∣ship readie charged, and gunners readie to discharge them.

I don’t know what a ‘base’ is, but presumably one of the smaller kinds of ‘great ordinance’ like a swivel gun or murdering piece.

Then vpon the third Cannon discharged, all the long boates and vessells of oares for the landing of men, do rowe with all furie towards the land with a wonderfull terrible noise of trompets & drommes. Now, if our such men of warre with their Mosquet∣tiers would giue their volees of Mosquet shot vppon these shipboates full of men, with intent to destroye great numbers of them being so thicke and so manie, they shall finde that discharging their Mosquet shot from higher grounds downwards into the sea, which by the Italians are called Botti di ficco, accompted of all other dischargings most vncertaine, as also by the o∣uermuch distance, and continuall motion of the ship∣boates rowing, and with the swelling of the salt wa∣ter (how calme soeuer it bee) made more vncertaine, they shall shoote verie vncertainlie, & therefore work verie little or no effect to the destroying of their ene∣mies, or anie waies to keepe thē from landing. Besides that, the Enemies out of such their shipps as are neerest vnto them, will discharge Cannon, Culuerin and Sa∣ker shot to the terrifying of them; so as their ship∣boates in despight of their Mosquets comming to land, …

Smythe knew well that boards don’t hit back, and that in war everything is simple but the simplest things are difficult. Muskets in 1588 were very accurate in theory, but in practice the gunners often knew just enough to load their piece without setting themselves on fire and point it at the enemy, and enemies move around and kick up dust and shout and beat drums and just don’t let you take careful aim like at the butts behind your parish church.

and they presentlie sending certen troupes of Harquebuziers, with some Halbarders vnder their conductors, to skirmish and entertaine the Mosquet∣tiers, whilest the Piquers and other weapons doo re∣duce themselues into forme vnder their Ensignes, they shall finde in the space of three or foure houres aboue twelue or fifteene thousand men landed; who then taking some ground of aduantage to fortifie, and to place their victuall, powder, and all sorts of muni∣tions, they with all speede possible do proceed to the landing of their Artillerie and Munitions, with all the rest of their Armie both of horsemen and footmen.

Smythe knew it would take some time to get the whole army to land let alone haul supplies out of the holds of the ships by hand, lower it into boats, and row it ashore. But what about the English garrison sitting tight in their sconce? Everyone knows that an early modern siege took months of painstaking digging and bombardment, don’t they?

Which being by them performed, they presentlie make their approach vpon their indented Sconce, not with anie crooked or crosse trenches, gabions, nor mounts, according to the order of approaching, and battering of places in forme fortified, but with other inuentions gardable against Mosquet shot (that perad∣uenture our such men of warre are ignorant of) as al∣so with Mosquet and Harquebuze shot, with piques, and halfe piques, swords and targets, and with ladders if it be needful, in such terrible sort, as that great num∣ber of our vnskilfull Mosquettiers and Caliuerers within their Sconce, would be found scarse able to a∣bide the first charge and assault, seeing so puissant an Enemie landed. And I doubt rather when they should see with what terrour the Enemies doo approach the land, and the small annoyance that they with their Mosquet shot should worke vppon them, that they would scarse abide the landing of the first boates full of soldiers, without abandoning both Sconce and shore to the Enemie.

– Sir John Smythe, Certain Discourses … (1590) pp. 11-12 http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A12567.0001.001

These “inventions guardable against musket shot” sound like the portable siege shields which had been used in Mesopotamia since the Bronze Age. Babylonians made them out of bundles of reeds, and I would be interested to know how Castillians made them. But Smythe’s point was that you only need to take your time against serious fortifications defended by serious soldiers. And after training the Queen’s soldiers at Tilbury, “serious” was not a word he was prepared to use. Making farmers buy muskets and pikes and calivers did not turn them into expert soldiers.

A figuring of a beareded man drinking from a large beaker. He wears boots, pluffy trunk-hose, a white leather jerkin over a doublet, and a felt hat with a brim and has a pistol and a powder horn at his belt.

If Sir John Smythe had had a bit more time for companionship and cheer than writing angry pamphlets, his career might have gone better. A painted clay figurine in Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck.

In the end, what saved England was not race-built galleys or bold sea-rovers but communication problems. The Duke of Parma in Flanders had the army and the small boats to ferry them to the fleet, while the Duke of Medina-Sidonia set out from Lisbon in the Armada which could drive away the Dutch fleet and carry the army across the channel. And with the Dutch watching the coast, and the English fleet in the channel, and France in chaos, it just was not possible for a fast ship to sail back and forth and keep the two in contact with one another. And so the Armada came to Gravelines while the army and the boats were still waiting to know when they would arrive, and while they tried to figure out what do to next the English attacked them at anchor with fireships and the Armada finally broke up and scattered north. But I have never found anyone who doubts that if the Army of Flanders had landed in Kent in August with its siege train, London would have fallen by Christmas.

(Harry Turtledove, Ruled Brittania (2002; Bookfinder) examines such a scenario ten years later).

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Further Reading: Geoffrey Parker, “Why the Armada Failed,” MHQ The Quarterly Journal of Military History 1.1 (May 1988) pp. 26-33 and Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, The Spanish Armada (Hamish Hamilton, 1988, revised edition 1992)

A parade of men in sixteenth-century clothing, with two horsemen in cloth-of-gold clothing under a canopy held aloft on poles

The pope and emperor with a guard of billmen and halberdiers. Ermanni and Jacopo Ligozzi, fresco with a Cavalcade of Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII into Bologna, 1570s, from the Casa Fumanelli a Santa Maria in Organo, Verona, now in the Museo degli Affreschi, Verona, no. 1466