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NPR: Talk of the Nation

Interview: Neil Hanson Discusses His Book "The Confidant Hope Of A Miracle: The True History Of The Spanish Armada"

7 March 2005
Copyright © 2005 National Public Radio®. All rights reserved.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

'It is curious,' Pope Sixtus is reported to have remarked, 'that the emperor of half of the world should be defied by a woman who is queen of half an island.' The emperor was Philip II of Spain; the queen, Elizabeth I of England. And the curiosity was the stunning defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The story of that battle between the mighty fleet and the sea dogs of England has been told many times, often as the crowning triumph of England's greatest monarch. In a new book, historian Neil Hanson presents a very different portrait of Elizabeth as a greedy, vain, indecisive penny-pincher with little grasp of strategy and utter callousness towards the navy, the captains, and most particularly towards the sailors who saved her throne.

Neil Hanson joins us now from the BBC studios in Leeds, England. His book is called "The Confident Hope of a Miracle: The True History of the Spanish Armada."

And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. NEIL HANSON (Author, "The Confident Hope of a Miracle: The True History of the Spanish Armada"): It's nice to be there. And I'm usually terrible on names, but I'm fairly confident I'm going to remember yours.

CONAN: OK. You spell yours wrong, but that's all right. We'll live with that. Remind us very briefly: This was in many ways the great ideological struggle of the sixteenth century, Catholic vs. Protestant.

Mr. HANSON: Absolutely. I think it's a story, Neal, that--everyone around the world has heard of the Spanish Armada, and tends to have a pretty fair idea of what went on. And I think one of the things that astonished me, when I really began to research the subject, is that almost everything you think you know about the Armada turns out to be completely wrong. And I think one of the things I'd say is that even if you think you're not really interested in history, this is one of the great human stories of all time. This has got everything you'd want in a novel. It's a global sweep, it's got a cast of characters as rich and varied as any in history. And it's got a sense of place and a relevance to the modern era. The Armada still has a great mythic significance, and the resonances in the story are everywhere around you. This is a clash between the so-called global superpower of its era and a small nation--and there's a bit of a resonance there, for sure--and also the role that religious fundamentalism played in this conflict.

So while I'm not going to overplay the parallels, obviously, because everything else is different, there are certainly very significant resonances and interests for us today.

CONAN: One of the things many of us think we know about the Spanish Armada was that Queen Elizabeth of England was canny, you know, the ultimate politician who knew the value of her navy and played that card as the ultimate weapon in this conflict.

Mr. HANSON: Well, that's certainly the same impression that I had. And I think everybody who's grown up with Hollywood portrayals or television or BBC television portrayals of Queen Elizabeth as the greatest ever English monarch certainly has that view. But I found--one of the things I wanted to do in this book was have a look at the aftermath of the Armada, to what happened to the ordinary people on both sides after the battles were over. And there's one I discovered there that made me want to take a fresh, hard look at Queen Elizabeth I with results that certainly surprised and perhaps even shocked me, and I think may well do the readers and listeners to this program today.

Far from being this superb, decisive monarch who ruled with great skill and courage, I found Elizabeth to be chronically vain, absurdly indecisive--one set of orders to the admiral of the fleet was issued and rescinded no less than four times. And she was so absurdly parsimonious that when Sir Francis Drake, the famous admiral, took his ship out to give it a bit of target practice before fighting the Armada, the queen was so incensed at this waste of gunpowder that she actually cut his allowance of gunpowder by 50 percent. And had the English not captured two Spanish ships and plundered them for all the powder and shot aboard, the decisive battle would never have taken place because the English fleet would simply have run out of powder and shot before the main battle had even started.

CONAN: There is a famous speech that Queen Elizabeth gives at a place called Tilbury. `I am resolved in the midst and the heat of battle to live or die amongst you all and to lay down for my god and my kingdom and for my people, my honor and my blood. Even in the dust, I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.'

Mr. HANSON: Absolutely. It's fantastic, isn't it? The only slight problem is that unfortunately it turns out that the speech was a fraud. It's very doubtful that she ever uttered that speech. And even so, she only made the offer to stand shoulder to shoulder with her troops when she already knew that the Spanish Armada had been defeated. While the Armada was threatening her coast, Elizabeth was hiding out about 20 miles west of London surrounded by her bodyguards and a force of loyal troop. And she never went anywhere near anywhere that the Spaniards might have got to. And her treatment of her victorious seamen, the people who'd actually saved her throne, was absolutely appalling. She starved them of provisions and of ammunition during the actual fighting. And when they returned to port exhausted, dispirited, starving and riddled with disease, she even refused to pay them the wages that were owing to them. And had it not been for the intervention of her admirals who, in defiance of her instructions--and one or two of them were jailed for their conduct--who actually used their own money to try and feed some of the men, the death toll would have been even worse.

And as it was, the English, who lost not a single ship during the fighting, eventually 30,000 Englishmen died--the same figure who were lost by the Spaniards, who had a half of their 130-ship fleet sunk or wrecked or put beyond use.

CONAN: Talk...

Mr. HANSON: So--sorry, Neal. For me then, you know, there is a stain on the character of Elizabeth that nothing can erase.

CONAN: Talk to us for a moment, though, about the other monarch in this struggle, Philip II, a brilliant man at diplomacy, yet--well, the title of your book, "The Confident Hope of a Miracle"--when it came to actually dispatching his Armada, his plans were--well, he didn't have a very good plan. He didn't have a plan.

Mr. HANSON: He didn't have a plan at all. It's--one of the things I wanted to do was shatter as many of the myths about the Armada as I could. And one of the great myths is, of course, that this plucky little fleet of Englishmen, hopelessly outnumbered by the massive Spanish fleet, somehow bravely defeated them. It simply isn't true. The English had just as many ships as the Spanish, and they were much better ships too. They were better armed. Their cannons were far better, they could fire much quicker and much more accurately. Their crews were better and their captains were better. And the reason I've called the book "The Confidant Hope of a Miracle" is because when one Spanish admiral was asked by a representative of the Vatican before he set off, what are the chances of victory, he said, `Well, the English have got better guns, better crews, better captains, better everything. So we're sailing in the confidant hope of a miracle.' In other words, they were relying on God to provide a victory. And unfortunately for them, he didn't.

CONAN: And Philip II, you write, saw himself as the instrument of God and believed that this would work out.

Mr. HANSON: Absolutely. Philip was an absolutely fundamental religious maniac almost. He was obsessively convinced that God was on his side, that he was God's instrument and God was acting through him. And he really did think that whatever he did, God would support. He was astonished that the Armada failed. He couldn't believe it. And yet it didn't stop him from launching a further four Armadas, all of which failed in similarly dismal fashion. So unfortunately for Philip, you know, it's unwise to assume that God is automatically on your side because he tends to be on both sides according to the soldiers from each side.

And I think one of the parallels, one of the things I really did in the book was to say, well, the crucial thing to me in this battle was technology. And I draw a parallel, Neal, with the Arab-Israeli wars that have occurred over the last half century. And in those, the reason I think that Israel has always come out on top isn't necessarily because God is on Israel's side--He may well be or perhaps he's on the Arabs' side. Who knows?--but Israel has always been a client of the United States and has been supplied with weapons that are generations ahead of the Arab world's traditional supplier, which is the states of the former Soviet Union.

And I think exactly the same is true of the Armada. The British ships and guns and everything were 20 or 30 years ahead of the Spanish ones. And to me, that's the reason the British won.

CONAN: And it was also a revolution in naval tactics that the British adopted. `Sir Francis Drake,' you write, `was the first to understand that the naval ship itself was the instrument of battle, and not the soldiers who crowded its decks.'

Mr. HANSON: Absolutely. Before that, naval battles had always been decided--they were effectively won by armies. The ships only existed to transport a boarding party, a force of marines or soldiers, to somehow throw grapnels onto the other ship and land your soldiers on it so they could stage a land battle on the deck of the ship. And the English navy for the first time thought, well, we're not actually going to do that. And it was--you read everywhere in the documents the frustration of the Spaniards who could never, ever, not once in the entire campaign, the series of battles that took place, could they persuade any of the English ships to come to grips with them. The English just stayed off at long distance and pounded them to pieces with their cannons. And that's become the pattern, obviously, of naval warfare ever since. And it's also an epochal moment. It's the dying of the medieval era, the feudal era is gone, and this is the dawn of the industrial age.

CONAN: And not too chivalrous to stand off 100 yards away from your adversary and just fire guns without coming with arm's reach with sword.

Mr. HANSON: Absolutely. Chivalry came nowhere in it. And I think one of the other misunderstandings is people tend to assume that the British navy then was like the British navy in the time of Admiral Nelson. It wasn't. The British sailors and the British ships--they were all pirates. And their sole priority was to make plunder, to cash in by wrecking Spanish ships and seizing their cargos. And both Drake and the English admiral, Lord Howard, at crucial points in the battle, both of them deserted their fleets to go off in pursuit of a ship that was in trouble and they thought they could plunder. And it's astonishing, the decisive battle of the Armada, the British admiral wasn't there--he was off in a bay watching his men pillaging this boat that they'd managed to run aground. So again, there are myths all over the place in this.

And the other thing I've tried to do, Neal, to--sorry to bang on, but the other thing I've tried to do is really to tell this story--I always try in my books to write them as if they're novels. And I try--a lot of critics have said that I write in a very cinematic way, and I take that as a compliment, because what I really try and do is put the reader right in the heart of the action. I want them to feel the deck under their feet, to hear the explosions, to get a real sense of the sights and sounds and smells. And by concentrating on the ordinary people rather than the great kings and queens, though obviously they feature in this story, I think I can bring it alive much more for people because that's most of our heritage, you know. My heritage isn't in the king of England or the queen of England. It's some extremely poor person living in a small house somewhere.

CONAN: Neil Hanson's...

Mr. HANSON: And that's the story I wanted to tell.

CONAN: Neil Hanson's new book is "The Confidant Hope of a Miracle: The True History of the Spanish Armada."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get some callers involved in the conversation. Saryia(ph) joins us from Montville, Connecticut.

SARYIA (Caller): Yes. Hi. Thank you for taking my call. Yes, I'm calling because I studied--where I did my schooling, high school, was Spanish-speaking. I'm originally from Puerto Rico, and we studied history, Spain, very extensively down there because it's part of our heritage. When we studied the invincible Armada and this incident with the British navy, what the books emphasize is that the Spanish Armada had been weakened by a great storm at the time when they met the British navy, so that their defeat by the British navy was mainly because of this, you know, natural disaster, not as much because necessarily the greatness of, you know, the British army. And I was just curious--I'm sorry, British navy. And I was just curious to know what your guest's position is on this, and who's right or what emphasis is the correct one. I will take your answer off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: OK. Thanks for the call.

Mr. HANSON: OK. Thanks, Saryia. The answer is that the Spanish were indeed battered by a storm soon after they left Spain. They put back into port to repair the damage. They were indeed battered by a storm off the coast of Ireland on their way home. But in fact, the reason that they were sunk and the reason so many ships were damaged and lost was because they'd been so continually battered by English gunfire. Most of the ships were in no fit condition to sail. Many of the crew were also starving to death. They were riddled with disease. And they were barely able--some of the ships did not even have enough crewmen left because of casualties and because of illness, to be able to sail the ships at all. And that's the reason so many were wrecked in that great storm.

Because I looked at the figures, and not a single other ship was wrecked anywhere around the coast of Great Britain at the same time. So it wasn't that this was an unusually fierce storm. The real reason was they were so badly damaged they just couldn't survive.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Jonathan. Jonathan's calling from Tallahassee.

JONATHAN (Caller): Yes. My question--two subjects that were brought up just a minute ago, first of all, about the change in tactics and, second of all, about the second being having religious motivation. I recently read a science fiction series basically modeled on the career of Sir Francis Drake. And even though it's set, you know, a thousand years in the future, it's modeled on a lot of the influence that Francis Drake had in shaping the English fleet prior to the battle. And I just wanted to know what your guest would care to mention about that. And I can take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Jonathan, thanks very much.

And, Neil Hanson, you paint quite a portrait of Sir Francis Drake, himself a religious fanatic.

Mr. HANSON: Indeed so. He was as much a Protestant fundamentalist as Philip was a Catholic fundamentalist. And yes, Drake was inspirational. Drake introduced many innovations into the navy. One of the crucial things was that Drake always said all the men, officers and men, are of one company. And British officers were men who'd often--apart from the lord admiral himself, they'd come up through the ranks; they were really close to their men, they worked with them, and they knew how to get the best out of them. And Francis Drake wasn't afraid to get his own hands dirty. He'd pull on the rope with the next man.

The Spanish officers, the Spanish captains and admirals, were grandees. They wouldn't have deigned to dirty their lily-white hands by handling a rope or anything like that. And there was a real dichotomy between them. And they weren't experienced seamen. They were grandees, they were nobles who were given the captaincy of the ship because of their title, not because of their skills. And again, that's one of the crucial differences.

CONAN: And we just have a couple of minutes left. I did want to ask you, though, about some of the lessons you were talking about in terms of, you know, what happened to the Spanish Armada and this period of history--obviously, quite a while ago. One of the things that really rings through the modern era is the presence of two of the great spy masters of history.

Mr. HANSON: Absolutely, yes. The Spanish had a great spy master themselves. The English had one too. And those two were just extraordinary characters. But I think one of the most interesting things that comes out of it, Neal--and again, it's something that didn't occur to me till I'm doing it--is the sheer lack of communications then. These great spy masters--the Spaniard sitting Paris, the Englishmen in London--neither of them knew what on earth was going on. The last news of the Armada was that it was disappearing up the North Sea, pursued by the English fleet. And for weeks and weeks, literally weeks, nobody knew what had happened. Rumors began to fly, as they do. And the Spanish ambassador actually set fire to a bonfire in his Paris courtyard to celebrate the victory of the Armada about four weeks after the defeat of the Armada because nobody actually knew what had happened. You heard a rumor, you wished it to be true, as you often do, and so he organized a great celebration. Spies were absolutely vital.

But as today, I mean, it is an important lesson. You have to be careful about the sources of your information, you know. And if you obtain information under duress or if you belief rumors or gossip or the whispers that go around, then you can't be too surprised if they don't always turn out to be true.

CONAN: Neil Hanson's book is "The Confidant Hope of a Miracle: The True History of the Spanish Armada." Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. HANSON: Oh, well, thanks for having me on, Neal.

CONAN: Neil Hanson joined us from the BBC studio in Leeds, England.

In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, NPR News.

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