It happened today - July 29, 2015
On July 29 back in 1588 the English navy won one of its most important victories when it defeated the “Invincible” Spanish Armada with which Philip II of Spain sought to crush Protestant England like an insect. When tyrannical bombast meets quietly determined self-government, Thousand Year Reichs and other such vainglorious constructs often come tumbling ignominiously down.
July 29 is also the day the Doors had their first #1 hit with “Light My Fire,” which I was tempted to discuss not only to give the knucklebone shampoo to Jim Morrison’s talents as a lyricist. Evidently he was upset that he never received his due recognition as a poet, to which I sneer at his shade that the last poetaster to rhyme moon spoon and June with an air of self-congratulation was infinitely superior to one who would seriously write that someone’s brain was “squirming like a toad.” But I digress. Except that a key part of the English victory in 1588 was that they did indeed light the Armada’s fire, releasing the burning hulks known as “fire-ships”, full of blazing pitch, brimstone, gunpowder and tar, upwind of their foe anchored off Calais with deadly effect on the very early morning of July 29.
The defeat of the Armada, which took months to complete, also gave rise, you’ll be irritated to hear, to the original version of that annoying online scam where someone in West Africa has a big bank deposit, some diamonds etc. that they need your help sneaking out. Following the defeat of the Armada, and the disastrous effort to return home by sailing north round the British Isles in September 1588 only to come to grief on the rocky Atlantic coast of Scotland and Ireland, prospective English chumps would get letters from someone claiming to be an enormously wealthy Spanish noble currently stuck in Ireland who would give you a serious heap of doubloons later if you would just front him some actual coin of the English realm now to get him home. Which is why that scam is properly called “the Spanish prisoner”.
Still, you can’t blame Francis Drake, Lord Howard or Queen Elizabeth for that. They commanded with consummate skill and coolness or, in the case of the queen, inspired her subjects by her general conduct and, in a famous speech on August 8 to soldiers on watch against an invasion, her stirring words: “Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself, that under God I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects”. And their ingenuity; the day before that speech the English had again beaten the battered Armada in the Battle of Gravelines, pioneering the use of gunnery rather than ramming and boarding as the main tactic.
Now suppose the Spanish had won. Suppose Philip had managed to make good his claim to the throne of England (he had married Elizabeth’s Catholic sister Mary) and brought Spain’s stagnant, oppressive and plutocratic system to England. Where would we be today? Would Canada be another Venezuela, Argentina or Cuba?
Perhaps this scenario is as fanciful as an email from Nigeria promising untold wealth. Perhaps a Spanish invasion would have been repulsed by an armed citizenry devoted to their ancient liberties, or never even gotten its barges full of soldiers from Flanders across the Channel against Dutch opposition. But again, it’s easy to be complacent about a threat after it’s defeated. To me the victory in 1588 is another of those triumphs against long odds on which our freedom today depends.