Digital Renaissance Editions

About this text

  • Title: The Whore of Babylon: The 1588 Spanish Armada
  • Author: Shannon Ford
  • Editors: Frances E. Dolan, Anna Pruitt
  • Coordinating editor: Brett Greatley-Hirsch
  • Research assistants: Shannon Ford, Natalie Giannini, Natalie Grand, Tara Pederen, Vanessa Rapatz, Keri Wolfe, Barbara Zimbalit

  • Copyright Vanessa Rapatz, Shannon Ford, Natalie Giannini, Natalie Grand, Tara Pederen, Keri Wolfe, and Barbara Zimbalit. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Shannon Ford
    Editors: Frances E. Dolan, Anna Pruitt
    Not Peer Reviewed

    The Whore of Babylon: The 1588 Spanish Armada

    The 1588 Spanish Armada

    Shannon Osborne Ford

    The Conflict

    1In the summer of 1588, the Spanish Armada, under the command of Alonso Pérez de Guzmán el Bueno, 7th Duke of Medina-Sidonia, set sail to invade England. Since the Reformation (see General Introduction), the violent struggle between Catholic Spain and Protestant England was at an all time high. The assassination of the Protestant Prince of Orange, William I, in 1584 and the execution of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 outraged Protestants and Catholics respectively. Moreover, Spanish aggression in the Dutch Netherlands and the English navigator Francis Drake's pillaging of Spanish ships pushed tensions to the breaking point. Philip the II, King of Spain and son of the Emperor Charles V and Isabella of Portugal, began preparing for the invasion in 1584. However, numerous setbacks including Drake's raid in 1587 on Cadiz, which resulted in the burning of several Spanish ships, delayed Philip's enterprise.

    While trade routes were a critical prize in this conflict, it was the war over religion that took center stage. Philip had long wanted to restore Catholicism to England, a battle he and others before him had waged since the dawn of the Reformation. After King Edward's death and Mary Tudor's accession to the throne, Catholicism was restored. Philip's ensuing marriage to Mary in 1554 brought an alliance between England and Spain; however, this alliance was severed after the death of Mary in 1558 and the accession of her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth. Philip also tried to woo the young Elizabeth, but she politely rejected his proposals of marriage. Over time, what was once a friendship between Elizabeth and Philip turned decidedly hostile as the battle over trade and religion divided them and their nations irreparably.

    Deciding Blame: The Historical Paper Maze

    Scholars have long debated why the Spanish invasion failed, and the reasons sometimes differ depending on whether one is looking at the battle through an English or Spanish lens. Nevertheless, some of these reasons include bad weather, obsolete naval tactics, and the inexperience of Medina-Sidonia as a commander for the Armada. It is certainly true that the weather had been a problem from the beginning of the planned invasion of England, but the greatest losses to the Spanish ships occurred after the fleet had fled toward the North Sea. It is also true that a large portion of Spain's strategy depended upon boarding the English ships, a tactic suited for medieval warfare, and that definitely placed the Spanish at a disadvantage. The English were more skilled in modern naval tactics and managed to evade them. Furthermore, the claim that much of the fault for the Spanish defeat lies with the Duke of Medina-Sidonia fails to consider the extenuating circumstances – weather, lack of supplies, disease, and slow communications between him and the Duke of Parma – that contributed to the loss. As J.R.S. Whiting argues, while Medina-Sidonia was inexperienced as a naval commander, he had been one of Philip's maritime advisers for many years, and he had earned distinction in battle himself (44). Moreover, as Winston Graham notes, Philip also appointed the very experienced Diego Flores De Valde to accompany Medina-Sedonia, who remained with him for most of the journey (89). Peter Padfield also points out that Medina-Sidonia expressed deep concern to Philip in a letter complaining of a lack of ammunition and food and fear of disease (46). But Philip was stubborn; he did not heed the Duke's warnings and chose to rely on Providence instead. Ultimately, Philip himself exonerated Medina-Sedonia of any culpability.

    While one could easily get lost in a maze of documents when trying to decipher the exact details of the Armada defeat, it is relatively clear that the Spanish were to meet up with the Duke of Parma and his 30,000 troops in Flanders. Upon arrival they would make the rest of the journey to England together. However, Medina-Sidonia discovered that there was not a nearby port that could harbor the Armada. Instead, they diverted to Calais, but were soon fired upon by Francis Drake and the English fleet. Left vulnerable to attack, the Spanish eventually fled toward Spain to regroup, but stormy weather sent the ships to Scotland and Ireland where many more ships were destroyed, ending Spain's hope of a victory over England for the time being. Interestingly, the battle cries that began with religion ended that way as well. While the English haled their victory as a divine sign of God's grace, the Spanish saw their defeat as a punishment for sin.

    The Armada Under Fire

    5The references and allusions to the Spanish Armada of 1588 in The Whore of Babylon respond to and promote English fears of another Spanish attack. Anti-Catholic feeling increased with a renewed fervor after the Gunpowder Plot of 1604, wherein Catholic conspirators plotted to blow up Parliament (see General Introduction). The victory over the Spanish Armada was idealized to near mythic proportions in order to further English nationalism and increase fear and hatred of Catholics. Dekker's play capitalizes on this fear. To be sure, as Felipe Fernando-Armesto points out, the Armada played a huge part "in shaping English perceptions of Spain and its own identity" (vi). Just as "England's national greatness [...] is intimately connected with the image of Elizabeth addressing her troops at Tilbury, " the defeat of the Armada is the center of that representation (vi). Like the image of Elizabeth at Tilbury, the defeat of the Spanish Armada was reproduced in English propaganda long after the event; playing cards, paintings, commemorative medals, broadsides, and plays like The Whore of Babylon reminded people of Catholic deception, abroad and at home, so as to instill English Protestant pride – and vigilance (see The Legacy of Tilbury). As Catharine Gray has argued, the 1588 defeat of the Armada became "an event retold with such frequency that it becomes a kind of ideological trope, a condensation of the whole neo-Elizabethan project, rather than the description of an actual historical event" (151).

    Contrary to popular belief, the Spanish Armada was not thought of as an invincible force (Fernando-Armesto 42). The term "invincible Armada" was an English slur against the Spanish after their defeat. Dekker frequently assigns this slight to characters in the play as when, for example, the Spanish Herald announces that the "inuincible Armada [...] is ordayned to swallow up the kingdome of Faiery" (TLN 2127-28). Winston Graham notes that early historians depicted the conflict between England and Spain as a David and Goliath battle with England as the underdog, while most later historians agree that "the fleets were roughly equal in size with a greater mobility and fire-power advantage to the English" (59-60). It is understandable that earlier historians made this mistake since it was the English who presented themselves as the "underdog. " By doing so, the English magnified their victory to epic proportions and underscored the grace that God had given them. In addition to the medals and cards that were circulated, these myths were, of course, perpetuated on the stage. For example, when preparing for the ensuing battle with the Armada, Titania is given a count of their men and resources. Titania replies, "We do not raise our hopes on points of speares. / A handfull is an host, in a good fight, / Lambes may beate Lions in a warre not right" (TLN 2620-22). Here, we see the David versus Goliath myth inserted in Dekker's play with England as the "Lambes" and Spain as the "Lions." This fiction of "England as underdog" is sustained throughout the play. Indeed, when first Cardinal learns of their defeat, he incredulously asks the Third King, "Could dwarfes beate Gyants?" (TLN 2840).

    But this is not the only myth that Dekker fosters. He also takes liberties in slurring the honor of several commanders of the Armada, including Medina-Sedonia. For example, when the Empress wants an update on the state of the Armada, Como proudly describes them as "stout Medyna" (Medina-Sedonia), "brave Ricalde" (Juan Martinez de Recalde), and "the haughty Pedro de Valdes that tryed warriour" (TLN 2220, 2222, TLN 2225-26). However, after the defeat, an entirely different description is given when the three Kings take stock of their loss and inquire into the whereabouts of the commanders:

    1. King. Wher's Medyna?
    2. King. Close vnder hatches, draes [dares] not shew his head.
    3. King. Damnation of such liuerd Generals. Wher's braue
    Ricalde?2. King. Who?
    3. King. Our Admiral: the Admirall of our Navy; wise Ricalde.
    2. King. Our stowte [stout] and braue Ricalde keepes his bed.
    3. King. All poxes fire him out; Pedro de Valdes
    Hauing about him 50. Canons throates,
    Stretch wide to barke is boarded, taken.
    2. King. Taken?
    3. King. Without resistance [...]
    (TLN 2699-2708)

    Dekker has the Empress of Babylon's own henchmen condemn the leaders of the Armada. He pokes fun at the admirals and perpetuates fictions about the fitness of Medina-Sedonia and his men by presenting them as cowards. In this sense, Dekker's play shows how easily fact and fiction, myth and history, collide and, indeed, cohabit.