The Gran Armada of 1588 and the Commanders of the English Military: Francis Drake, Robert Dudley, and Charles Howard
By Forrest Kutscher
The Colorado Historian, Vol.2 (2012)
Introduction: England numbers among the few European states that have remained autonomous throughout modern history. Yet this island sanctuary has faced the threat of foreign domination innumerable times. King Philip II of Spain’s 1588 mobilization of the Gran Armada against his northern foe represented perhaps the direst of these instances. Armed with what was believed to be an invincible fleet and an equally esteemed army, the Catholic monarch viewed as inevitable a triumph over the heretical Elizabeth I. England, however, was saved from such a destiny thanks to the expertise with which naval commanders Sir Francis Drake and Charles Howard, second baron of Effingham and first earl of Nottingham, handled their respective posts. Both men exhibited exemplary leadership during their control of the island’s defensive flotilla, putting their egos aside and acting in coordination to allow a concerted effort to successfully repel superior enemy forces. Howard, lord admiral of the English fleet, listened respectfully to the advice his vice-admiral Drake, who in turn accepted his subordination with a quiet dignity unusual for a man so fiercely independent. These qualities proved instrumental in the 8 August victory over the Gran Armada by the combined English forces at the Battle of Gravelines. This success on the high seas was fortunate for the island, as a landing in Kent by the Army of Flanders under the leadership of the esteemed Alexander Farnese, duke of Parma, would have likely proved disastrous given the record of military failure by the English commander, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester.
Lord admiral Charles Howard, second baron of Effingham and first earl of Nottingham, demonstrated his aptitude as supreme commander of the English naval forces not through innovative battle strategies, but rather by paying great heed to the advice he received from many of his subordinates. The lord admiral was modest enough to recognize that those under his directive had extensive experience on the high seas and could provide valuable advice at the height of a crisis. Foremost among his inferiors was vice-admiral Sir Francis Drake, a veteran sea captain both renowned by the English and reviled by the Spanish for the innumerable swashbuckling endeavors he had so eagerly taken against the latter’s merchant fleet. It was testament to the esteem in which each man held the other that, upon demotion, the fiercely independent Drake quickly recognized Howard as his superior and that the lord admiral then treated him as an equal by relying on his insights.