On the night of Sunday, the 28th of July, 1588, the great Armada was huddled, all demoralised and perplexed, in Calais roads. Only a week before the proudest fleet that ever rode the seas laughed in derision at the puny vessels that alone stood between it and victory over the heretic Queen and her pirate countrymen, who for years had plundered and insulted with impunity the most powerful sovereign in Europe. Gilded prows and fluttering pennons, great towering hulls which seemed to defy destruction, the fervid approbation of all Latin Christendom, and the assurance of Divine protection, combined to produce in the men of the Armada absolute confidence in an easy conquest. But six days of desultory fighting in the Channel had opened their eyes to facts thitherto undreamed of. Handy ships, that could sail several points closer to the wind than their unwieldy galleons, could harass and distress them without coming to close quarters. At first they shouted that the English were afraid of them, but as the sense of their own impotence gradually grew upon them their spirits sank. Brave they were, but, said they, of what use is bravery against foes who will not fight with us hand to hand in the only way we wot of? And so from day to day, whilst they straggled up the Channel, their boasting gave place to dismay and disorganisation. They saw their ships were being sunk and disabled one after the other, whilst the English vessels were suffering little damage and had safe ports of refuge behind them. Thus at the end of the week they found themselves with a dangerous shoally coast to leeward, in an exposed roadstead surrounded by the reinforced English fleet. They were ripe for panic, for their commander was a fool and a craven in whom they had no confidence; and when the English fireships drifted down upon them with the wind, flaring in the darkness of the summer night, abject paralysing terror turned the huge fleet into a hustling mob of ships, in which the sole thought was that of flight. From that moment the Armada was beaten. The storms on the northern and Irish coasts, the cold, the rotten food and putrid water, pestilence and panic, added dramatic completeness to their discomfiture; but superior ships, commanders, and seamanship had practically defeated them when they slipped their cables and anchors and crowded through the narrow sea with the English fleet to windward and sandbanks on their lee.
But the Armada had represented the labour, the thought, and the sacrifice of years. Every nerve had been strained to render it irresistible. Spain and the Indies had been squeezed to the last doubloon, careful Sixtus V. had been cajoled into partnership in the enterprise, and the Church throughout Christendom had emptied its coffers to crush heresy for once and for ever. All along the coast of Ireland from the Giant's Causeway to Dingle Bay the wreckage of the splendid galleons was awash, and many of the best and bravest of Spain's hidalgos, dead and mutilated, scattered the frowning shore; or, alive, starved, naked, and plundered, were slowly done to death with every circumstance of inhumanity by the Irish kerns or their English conquerors. It could hardly be expected, therefore, that on the receipt of the dreadful news Spain should calmly resign itself to defeat. Such lessons as this are only slowly and gradually brought home to the heart of a nation; and after Mendoza's lying stories of victory had been contradicted, and the fell truth ran through Spain as the battered, plague-stricken wrecks of what was left of the Armada crept into Santander, the first heart-cry was for vengeance and a re-vindication of the national honour.