In every one of the Armada's hundred and twenty-eight vessels, says an officer of the Spanish flagship, 'our people kneeled down and offered a prayer, beseeching our Lord to give us victory against the enemies of His holy faith.' The crews of the hundred and ninety-seven English vessels which, at one time or another, were present in some capacity on the scene of action also prayed for victory to the Lord of Hosts, but took the proper naval means to win it. 'Trust in the Lord — and keep your powder dry.' said Oliver Cromwell when about to ford a river in the presence of the enemy. And so, in other words, said Drake.
All day long, on that fateful 20th of July, the visible Armada with its swinging canvas was lying-to fifteen miles west of the invisible, bare-masted English fleet. Sidonia held a council of war, which, landsman-like, believed that the English were divided, one-half watching Parma, the other the Armada. The trained soldiers and sailors were for the sound plan of attacking Plymouth first. Some admirals even proposed the only perfect plan of crushing Drake in detail as he issued from the Sound. All were in blissful ignorance of the astounding feat of English seamanship which had already robbed them of the only chance they ever had. But Philip, also landsman-like, had done his best to thwart his own Armada; for Sidonia produced the royal orders forbidding any attack on England till he and Parma had joined hands. Drake, however, might be crushed piecemeal in the offing when still with his aftermost ships in the Sound. So, with this true idea, unworkable because based on false information, the generals and admirals dispersed to their vessels and waited. But then, just as night was closing in, the weather lifted enough to reveal Drake's astonishing position. Immediately pinnaces went scurrying to Sidonia for orders. But he had none to give. At one in the morning he learnt some more dumbfounding news: that the English had nearly caught him at Corunna, that Drake and Howard had joined forces, and that both were now before him.
Nor was even this the worst. For while the distracted Sidonia was getting his fleet into the 'eagle formation,' so suitable for galleys whose only fighting men were soldiers, the English fleet was stealing the weather gage, his one remaining natural advantage. An English squadron of eight sail manoeuvred coast-wise on the Armada's inner flank, while, unperceived by the Spanish lookout, Drake stole away to sea, beat round its outer flank, and then, making the most of a westerly slant in the shifting breeze, edged in to starboard. The Spaniards saw nothing till it was too late, Drake having given them a berth just wide enough to keep them quiet. But when the sun rose, there, only a few miles off to windward, was the whole main body of the English fleet, coming on in faultless line-ahead, heeling nicely over on the port tack before the freshening breeze, and, far from waiting for the Great Armada, boldly bearing down to the attack. With this consummate move the victory was won.
The rest was slaughter, borne by the Spaniards with a resolution that nothing could surpass. With dauntless tenacity they kept their 'eagle formation,' so useful at Lepanto, through seven dire days of most one-sided fighting. Whenever occasion seemed to offer, the Spaniards did their best to close, to grapple, and to board, as had their heroes at Lepanto. But the English merely laughed, ran in, just out of reach, poured in a shattering broadside between wind and water, stood off to reload, fired again, with equal advantage, at longer range, caught the slow galleons end-on, raked them from stem to stern, passed to and fro in one, long, deadly line-ahead, concentrating at will on any given target; and did all this with well-nigh perfect safety to themselves. In quite a different way close-to, but to the same effect at either distance, long or short, the English 'had the range of them,' as sailors say to-day. Close-to, the little Spanish guns fired much too high to hull the English vessels, lying low and trim upon the water, with whose changing humors their lines fell in so much more happily than those of any lumbering Spaniards could. Far-off, the little Spanish guns did correspondingly small damage, even when they managed to hit; while the heavy metal of the English, handled by real seamen-gunners, inflicted crushing damage in return.
But even more important than the Englishmen's superiority in rig, hull, armament, and expert seamanship was their tactical use of the thoroughly modern line-ahead. Any one who will take the letter T as an illustration can easily understand the advantage of 'crossing his T.' The upright represents an enemy caught when in column-ahead, as he would be, for instance, when issuing from a narrow-necked port. In this formation he can only use bow fire, and that only in succession, on a very narrow front. But the fleet represented by the crosspiece, moving across the point of the upright, is in the deadly line-ahead, with all its near broadsides turned in one long converging line of fire against the helplessly narrow-fronted enemy. If the enemy, sticking to mediaeval tactics, had room to broaden his front by forming column-abreast, as galleys always did, that is, with several uprights side by side, he would still be at the same sort of disadvantage; for this would only mean a series of T's with each nearest broadside crossing each opposing upright as before.
The herded soldiers and non-combatants aboard the Great Armada stood by their useless duties to the last. Thousands fell killed or wounded. Several times the Spanish scuppers actually ran a horrid red. as if the very ships were bleeding. The priests behaved as bravely as the Jesuits of New France — and who could be braver than those undaunted missionaries were? Soldiers and sailors were alike. 'What shall we do now?' asked Sidonia after the slaughter had gone on for a week. 'Order up more powder,' said Oquendo, as dauntless as before. Even then the eagle formation was still kept up. The van ships were the head. The biggest galleons formed the body. Lighter vessels formed the wings. A reserve formed the tail.
As the unflinching Armada stood slowly up the Channel a sail or two would drop out by the way, dead-beat. One night several strange sail passed suddenly by Drake. What should he do? To go about and follow them with all astern of him doing the same in succession was not to be thought of, as his aftermost vessels were merchantmen, wholly untrained to the exact combined manoeuvres required in a fighting fleet, though first-rate individually. There was then no night signal equivalent to the modern 'Disregard the flagship's movements.' So Drake dowsed his stern light, went about, overhauled the strangers, and found they were bewildered German merchantmen. He had just gone about once more to resume his own station when suddenly a Spanish flagship loomed up beside his own flagship the Revenge. Drake immediately had his pinnace lowered away to demand instant surrender. But the Spanish admiral was Don Pedro de Valdes, a very gallant commander and a very proud grandee, who demanded terms; and, though his flagship (which had been in collision with a run-amuck) seemed likely to sink, he was quite ready to go down fighting. Yet the moment he heard that his summoner was Drake he surrendered at discretion, feeling it a personal honor, according to the ideas of the age, to yield his sword to the greatest seaman in the world. With forty officers he saluted Drake, complimenting him on 'valour and felicity so great that Mars and Neptune seemed to attend him, as also on his generosity towards the fallen foe, a quality often experienced by the Spaniards; whereupon,' adds this eyewitness, 'Sir Francis Drake, requiting his Spanish compliments with honest English courtesies, placed him at his own table and lodged him in his own cabin.' Drake's enemies at home accused him of having deserted his fleet to capture a treasure ship — for there was a good deal of gold with Valdes. But the charge was quite unfounded.
A very different charge against Howard had more foundation. The Armada had anchored at Calais to get its breath before running the gauntlet for the last time and joining Parma in the Netherlands. But in the dead of night, when the flood was making and a strong west wind was blowing in the same direction as the swirling tidal stream, nine English fire-ships suddenly burst into flame and made for the Spanish anchorage. There were no boats ready to grapple the fire-ships and tow them clear. There was no time to weigh; for every vessel had two anchors down. Sidonia, enraged that the boats were not out on patrol, gave the order for the whole fleet to cut their cables and make off for their lives. As the great lumbering hulls, which had of course been riding head to wind, swung round in the dark and confusion, several crashing collisions occurred. Next morning the Armada was strung along the Flemish coast in disorderly flight. Seeing the impossibility of bringing the leewardly vessels back against the wind in time to form up, Sidonia ran down with the windward ones and formed farther off. Howard then led in pursuit. But seeing the capitana of the renowned Italian galleasses in distress near Calais, he became a mediaeval knight again, left his fleet, and took the galleasse. For the moment that one feather in his cap seemed better worth having than a general victory.
Drake forged ahead and led the pursuit in turn. The Spaniards fought with desperate courage, still suffering ghastly losses. But, do what they could to bear up against the English and the wind, they were forced to leeward of Dunkirk, and so out of touch with Parma. This was the result of the Battle of Gravelines, fought on Monday the 29th of July, 1588, just ten days after Captain Fleming had rushed on to the bowling green of Plymouth Hoe where Drake and Howard, their shore work done, were playing a game before embarking. In those ten days the gallant Armada had lost all chance of winning the overlordship of the sea and shaking the sea-dog grip off both Americas. A rising gale now forced it to choose between getting pounded to death on the shoals of Dunkirk or running north, through that North Sea in which the British Grand Fleet of the twentieth century fought against the fourth attempt in modern times to win a world-dominion.
North, and still north, round by the surf-lashed Orkneys, then down the wild west coasts of the Hebrides and Ireland, went the forlorn Armada, losing ships and men at every stage, until at last the remnant straggled into Spanish ports like the mere wreckage of a storm.