Thursday, August 20, 2009

Commander of the Armada

Alonzo Perez de Guzman el Bueno
Duke of Medina Sidonia

You may not have heard of Alonzo Perez de Guzman el Bueno, also called the Duke of Medina Sidonia, but you probably have heard of the Armada. Well Alonzo etc., or as I will refer to him, the Duke, was the commander of that singularly unfortunate and indeed disastrous expedition.

When in 1588 the expedition was launched it was confidentially hoped by Philip II of Spain and by Spain in general that it would result in the defeat of England and the thwarting of Spain’s enemies. Expected benefits included the suppression of the rebellion in the Netherlands, strengthening Spain’s position in France and the strengthening of the Catholic faith. The investment of resources was prodigious by Spain and the result was a disastrous failure.1

Why this came about was almost immediately subject to some debate and the unfortunate commander, the Duke, got a major share of the blame. How fair was that?

Well it turns out not fair at all. One of the more amusing things you can read about is old English accounts that go into tirades about just how could Philip II could possibly have approved of the Duke has commander of the Armada and what possessed him and the Duke was such an obvious bad choice, blah, blah, blah. One of the requirements for holding this position is a studied and cultivated ignorance of the Spanish side of things. A most determined effort must be made to remain ignorant and clueless about the Spanish archives and historical writings.2

First the Duke was not just a Duke and a clueless nobleman who knew nothing about the sea. The Duke was the Duke of Medina Sidonia the greatest noble family in Spain, whose title and position gave him enormous prestige. In a society in which inherited status meant an enormous amount that counted for much. The bottom line was that Philip needed a man of enormous social prestige to command the Armada because his status conscious commanders would obey only someone with enormous prestige. So to be blunt Philip didn’t have a lot of choice. Further and this is something that a little work in the Spanish archives would have revealed in spades. The Duke was, if not a genius at administration, extremely competent, intelligent and almost insanely hard working and could be expected to carry out his instructions. Further the Duke was perfectly willing and able to listen to military advice and was surrounded by capable military men.3 The Duke was given very specific instructions and it was made abundantly clear that he was not to deviate from them under any circumstances, which severely constricted his freedom of action.3

When the Duke was appointed commander of the Armada, a position he tried to turn down on the grounds his knowledge of naval affairs was minimal and in fact he got sea sick on boats, things were in almost complete administrative chaos and disorder and in fact it was a very good bet the Armada would not sail at all. Due to his high intelligence and considerable administrative skill and sheer hard work the Duke was able to put the Armada together in a feat that quite rightly drew applause from his countrymen. Very few subsequent historians have drawn attention to this quite laudable feat.4

Finally it is important to remember that the Duke was severely constrained by his orders, which were quite detailed. In a nut shell the Armada was to sale up the channel, with 18,000 men link with the Duke of Parma with an additional 20,000 men at Dunkirk and the Armada would then convey the whole force to Kent in England. This was bluntly a very difficult operation made doubly so by the fact, as the Duke was well aware, the English navy was superior to the Spanish. It is at this point worth mentioning that the Duke did in fact accomplish getting the fleet up the channel and anchoring off Flanders in preparation to convey Parma’s army over the channel to Kent.5 A feat which to put it bluntly had the odds quite clearly stacked against it from the start.

The Armada was defeated by a combination of bad luck and English naval supremacy, in fact Parma’s ability to rendezvous with the fleet was extremely dubious and given the stifling instructions the Duke was expected to obey, his chances of success were weak. Incompetence by the Duke played no role and in fact the Duke, given the way his hands were tied by his instructions, made very few mistakes of any kind.6

After the remnants of the Armada limped into port the Duke was allowed, he was extremely ill when he arrived in port, to retire to his estates.7 In later years the Duke with his considerable administrative skills would serve King and Country again. However he would also perform a great service for future historians; that of convenient whipping boy.
1. Fuller, J. F. C., A Military History of the Western World, v. 2, Da Capo, New York, 1955, pp. 34-35.

2. Pierson, Peter, Commander of the Armada, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 1989. This book is basically the first that uses extensive archival research in the Spanish archives to give a portrait of the Duke.

3. Howarth, David, The Voyage of the Armada, Cassell and Co., London, 1981, pp. 20-59, Mattingly, Garrett, The Armada, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1959, pp. 204-217, Elliott, J. H., Imperial Spain, Penguin Books, London, 1963, pp. 287-299, and Europe Divided, Fontana Books, London, 1968, pp. 321-338, Rodger, N. A. M., Safeguard of the Sea, HarperCollins Pub., New York, 1997. pp. 254-260, Parker, Geoffrey, The Grand Strategy, of Philip II, Yale University Press, New Haven, CONN., 1998, pp. 179-204.

4. See Mattingly and Parker above.

5. Howarth, pp. 46-59.

6. See both Howarth and Mattingly for detail overviews of the Duke’s decisions which reveal their competence and general good sense. Mattingly pp. 369-370 gives a good over view of the Duke’s actual accomplishments and his lack of responsibility for the failure. For reasons why the Armada failed see Parker pp. 229-268.

7. Mattingly, pp. 372-373.

Pierre Cloutier

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