The first place that the Spanish Armada was sighted on mainland Britain was supposedly at Lizard Point in July 1588. From there, in a pre-arranged signal, a great chain of beacons was lit. The glow of fires jumped from one hilltop to the next up across the country to warn of the enemy’s arrival to our coast. Unfortunately however, there was a small fishing boat out of Falmouth that was still oblivious to the danger. Whether they saw the beacons alight or not we can never know because the crew of this little ship would never return home.
The Cornish & the Spanish Armada
From the moment that the protestant Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1559 England’s relationship with Catholic Spain began to deteriorate. Phillip II, who had once been a close ally to Elizabeth’s predecessor Mary, turned his mind towards invasion and began building his great fleet of ships.
Cornwall was well aware of its vulnerability and the south-west as a whole had been improving its coastal defences in anticipation of invasion. In 1584 Francis Godolphin and Sir William Mohun were appointed deputy lieutenants by Elizabeth I and ordered to make the necessary preparations. As well as the line of beacons, extra ordnance were sent to St Michael’s Mount and a rag-tag force of 5000 men was assembled through musters in many of the parishes.
Many of the south coast towns also seem to have contributed to the English fleet. There are stories of both Fowey and Looe sending ships and men, and others places would almost certainly have added to those numbers. John Rashleigh, the man who built much of Menabilly House, is said to have ‘fought with distinction’ on his ship the Frances of Foy. In the final conflict some 7760 Cornishmen were said to have been part of the victorious English fleet.
“We may be certain that the ‘Gallants of Fowey’ and our study Cornish fishermen were not idle in such stirring times. It is on record that at least one of the ships which distinguished themselves was commanded by a Cornishman . . .”The Cornish Telegraph, 7 June 1888
But before that final outcome, the Armada continued to make progress up the coast of Cornwall.
At Sea . . .
Alonso Perez de Guzman, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, had been appointed by Phillip II of Spain as the commander of the Armada. Guzman was from a noble family and was considered competent, modest and tactful but he may not, by his own admission, have been entirely suited to his new role. He had very little military experience on land or at sea, admitted he knew very little about his enemy or Spanish war tactics and suffered from bouts of severe sea-sickness.
On board Spain’s fleet of 130 ships, as they sailed along the Cornish coast, tensions were high. The weather was poor and, not knowing whether the British navy had any ships waiting at Plymouth, all were nervous about where a possible attack could come from. According to R. J Lander, in his report for the 1974 Old Cornwall magazine, original Spanish documents discovered amongst the papers of the Duke of Medina Sidonia record what action was decided upon.
“On the 30th at dawn, the Armada was very near the shore. We were seen by the people on the land, who made signal fires and in the afternoon the Duke sent Ensign Juan Gil in a rowing boat to obtain intelligence.”
It would certainly have been a proud moment for the young Ensign Gil to be given such an important mission. So it must have seemed like an amazing stroke of luck when he and his crew managed to ambush a small boat that was trying to return to Falmouth harbour after a night’s fishing. Overpowered the poor Cornish men were brought on board the Spanish ship ‘San Martin’. The documents record what happened:
“Ensign Gil returned at night with four Englishmen in a boat, hailing as they said from Falmouth. They reported that they had seen the English fleet leave Plymouth that afternoon under the Lord Admiral of England and Drake.”
Whether the Spanish believed this information isn’t clear, almost certainly not as records seem to show that they knew that the English fleet was trapped in Plymouth harbour by an incoming tide.
The Fate of the Fishermen
The fate of our four Falmouth men after this isn’t clear. The Spanish documents suggest that they were interrogated on the ‘San Martin’ until the early hours of the morning. After that we can only guess. Their release seems unlikely, they would have been free to return to Falmouth with any intelligence they had gleaned about the Armada. And besides, where was their boat? The unlucky men may simply have been dispatched and thrown overboard but it is also possible that they were pressganged into working as oarsmen in the belly of the ship.
The fighting ships of the Armada were propelled either by sail or by two teams of oarsmen working in shifts. Each ship had fifteen oars per side with five men for each oar. Therefore just one galley needed around 300 fit men, often slaves, and it is possible that after they were interrogated our Cornishmen were taken below and chained to one of the oar benches. If this is the case then their chances of survival were also very slim considering the terrible conditions and the fact that in the Armada’s subsequent defeat much of the fleet was destroyed.
“. . . it is recorded that Frobisher in the ‘Triumph’ directed his fire mainly at the rowing decks . . . The flagship ‘San Lorenzo’ was driven ashore at Calais, boarded and pillaged. The ‘Girona’, ‘Zuniga’ and ‘Napolitana’ made the long haul around Scotland, the scarred backs of the galley slaves would not heal on such a passage. The ‘Girona’ packed with some 1300 men from three wreaked ships was lost near the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland, there were only nine survivors. The ‘Zuniga’ limped into Havre in such dire distress that it was six months before she could be made sea worthy.”R. j. Lander, Old Cornwall, Spring 1974
Of the 130 ships of the Spanish Armada only 64 managed to make it back to Spain.
The fishermen’s sad fate, however, may explain why Cornwall knows so little of this story. Our lost Falmouth men never returned home to tell their tale.