Book Club: The Armada
I’ve never been much a history buff. Mostly I think it’s because my mind just doesn’t retain knowledge about time periods and events very well, so learning about history seems to be a Sisyphean endeavor. Over time, however, I’ve come to realize something that may have been obvious to others all along, which is that learning and retaining historical information comes a lot easier when you already have some context in your mind that you can connect it to. (Really, this applies to all learning.) That’s why, when I started to read The Armada on a recommendation from a friend and realized I was reading about late 16th Century Europe, I got excited. I had only recently finished the first book of the Wolf Hall trilogy, a work of historical fiction that takes place only around fifty years prior. Not only did I have a fuller backdrop to learning about the Spanish Armada, I also found some interesting parallels to that time and today. I think 16th Century Europe is fascinating, especially in the context of today’s world.
A Quixotic Military Venture
In 1588, King Philip II of Spain launched a fleet of ships, unprecedented in size, (the Spanish Armada,) with the purpose of securing passage for the Spanish army to cross the English Channel and invade England. Queen Elizabeth I, anticipating the invasion attempt, gathered together a navy of her own. In the end, the English succeeded in fending off the Spanish Armada, and Spain’s army never had an opportunity to cross the English Channel to invade.
One of the interesting things about the defeat of the Spanish Armada is that it seems most of the Spanish, including its military commanders and the king himself, knew that the Spanish fleet was at a disadvantage. England’s ships were faster, more maneuverable, and had more long-range guns, meaning they could fire on the Spanish ships as they pleased from a safe range. The only hope the Spanish Armada had of victory was if they could manage to board some of the English ships and win in man-to-man combat, but getting close enough for boarding was unlikely given that the English ships were faster and more maneuverable.
It gets even more interesting when you learn about why King Philip II wanted to invade England in the first place.
Religious Upheaval and Conflict
In the 1580s, Spain was acting as a primary military force in support of Roman Catholicism during a time of religious upheaval in Europe. In 1580s England, it was just around 50 years ago that King Henry VIII broke ties with Rome to establish himself as head of the church in England. In the following 50 years, England largely maintained its separation from Rome, but many of the English, including one of its queens, hoped to return England to Catholicism. That queen was Mary I of England, daughter of King Henry VIII’s first wife. Mary I even married King Philip II of Spain, (yes, the same Phillip II,) who reigned over England with her until her death in 1558. After Mary I’s death, her successor, Queen Elizabeth I, (who was the daughter of Henry VIII’s second wife,) reestablished the Protestant church in England, and by the 1580s, England remained a Protestant country. One thing worth mentioning is that at this time, religion and political power were closely intertwined, meaning religion was wielded for political power, and political power was used to back religious factions. For example, during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, many English Catholics hoped to place Mary, Queen of Sots, (not to be confused with Mary I of England,) on the throne, who they hoped would reestablish Roman Catholicism in England. She had enough support to be perceived as a threat to Queen Elizabeth I, so the queen had her imprisoned, and ultimately beheaded.
The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots is seen as a major event that set King Philip II of Spain on a course towards invasion. With the most likely prospect for establishing a Catholic ruler over England extinguished, bringing England back into the fold of the Roman Catholic church seemed unlikely any other way. Even though he knew his armada would be at a disadvantage, King Philip II, believing himself to be on a divine errand, thought that God would grant him a path to victory.
Freedom of Religion
So what about this story is relevant today? When I think about 16th century Europe in the context of today’s world, it becomes apparent to me how easy it is to take for granted the principle of religious freedom, and how difficult it can be to maintain in practice. Once religion becomes intertwined with political power, it can be very hard to separate them. In the context of today’s world, religious nationalism and authoritarianism are on the rise, and even in the U.S., we are seeing elements of this.
I really enjoyed this interview with the director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU about the state of religious freedom around the world. The idea that the concept of human dignity is at the core of religious freedom is a great one to internalize.
Populists and Foreign Political Manipulation
Another thing that intrigued me about all of the conflicts across 16th century Europe was how intertwined they were. Rome offered Spain a sizeable amount of money if it successfully landed an invasion in England. Spain was not only fighting across Northern Europe, but it was also supporting political insurgents in France who were aligned with the Catholic church. Henry of Guise was one of these, a populist who grew a strong following, and the same year the Spanish Armada set sail, he and his followers occupied Paris, forcing the King of France, Henry of Valois to flee. Spain helped fund Guise, and the Spanish ambassador in Paris even assisted in the plot to depose the king. Henry of Guise, however, was later abandoned, and ended up being assassinated by the King he thought he had under his heel. In reading about Guise, I found some remarkable parallels to Donald Trump in terms of personality and motivations. Here’s a quote from The Armada summing up Guise’s fate:
As for his [Henry of Valois’] persecutor and victim, there is no mystery about Guise except how so shallow an egotist attracted so many people. He was the type of the adventurer relying on a bold front and a calloused conscience, of the gambler playing for takes beyond his means. Sooner or later his luck was bound to run out, and though Sixtus V and Philip II made the customary gestures of disapproval at the manner of his passing, there is no sign that either was much disturbed. Guise was too greedy and too careless of details to leave anyone with the impression that he served either the Church or Spain for any but his own ends. Spain probably regretted him more than Rome, but mercenaries are always expendable. He had been employed for a diversion on one flank of a vast operation, and when the main attack [the Spanish Armada] had failed he had been left, for the moment, exposed and without adequate support.
10/10 Would Highly Recommend
It’s always remarkable how history can give you a greater perspective on modern times. I’d highly recommend reading The Armada by Garrett Mattingly. Not only is 16th century Europe a relevant time period and place, the book is an incredibly interesting and entertaining read.