The Last ‘Battle’ of the Revenge August 28, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
Beachcombing is not a great one for anniversaries but for Flores, 31 August 1591, a naval ‘battle’ – if a fire-fight between a solitary ship, the Revenge, and three dozen enemy can be so called – he will make an exception. (Actually we are still a couple of days out, but this is the closest that Beachcombing can manage – class prep is taking over his life).
Arguably the most famous sixteenth-century European warship and certainly the best made the Revenge had an extraordinary career before taking on these unacceptable odds. In 1587 she had accompanied Drake when the English attacked Cadiz, ‘singing’ the Spanish king’s beard. In 1588 she had led the line against the Armada with Drake on board. Then in 1591 under Sir Richard Grenville (pictured) she was part of an English squadron that was met by the Spanish at the island of Flores in the Azores.
The details of her last fight are quickly given.
At Flores an English squadron of 22 ships commanded by Lord Thomas had taken rest while lying in wait for a Spanish Treasure Fleet. The English squadron, including the crew of the Revenge, had suffered heavily from a fever epidemic and were barely ready when on 31 August a Spanish war fleet (woops) came into view. Estimates vary but the English were likely outnumbered by three to one and the Spanish fleet included vessels such as the San Felipe (1500 tons) and the San Cristóbal that would have made life-loving English sailors tremble.
In the circumstances Thomas did the sensible thing: he ran, his boats cutting anchor and taking to the ocean as quickly as the winds would allow him. On the Revenge Ricky Grenville, however, did something so unexpected, so bizarre that even almost five hundred years later historians have still not made sense of it. He ordered the Revenge – most of whose crew were sickly below – to sail straight at the Spanish.
When Beachcombing was younger he liked to imagine the faces of the Spanish commanders as they realised what Grenville was doing (‘¡Coño, Miguel!’). Now in overripe maturity he gets more satisfaction from visualising the expression of a sailor on the Revenge watching fifty-three Spaniard vessels (the canonical number in Tennyson’s poem – ‘the Revenge: a Naval Ballad’) converging on the solitary English ship. Either way it must have been an incredible sight.
The Revenge’s crew fought for fifteen hours, repelling boarder after boarder including the San Felipe, her extraordinary joinery allowing her to survive body blows from scores of Spanish canon. The English sailors sang an evening psalm at dusk and at dawn the Spanish surveyed the ship with its masts shot away ‘a logge on the sees’.
Yet still the English fought on.
When Grenville realised that all was lost he wanted to blow up the ship rather than allow it to fall into Spanish hands: an order his crews baulked at. Surrender was negotiated and the Spanish took possession on September 1 1591.
Grenville died several days later of his wounds and the wrecked Revenge sank with her Spanish boarding party at the nearby island of Terceira in, it has often been noted, her final act of revenge.
Revenge’s canons were still being washed ashore in the seventeenth century. Beachcombing would pull out a couple of toenails with his IKEA pliers to run his fingers along one of those guns, polished for decades by the Atlantic.
Back in England the Elizabethans were horrified.
Can write no good news from hence; the loss of the Revenge, with Sir R. Grenfield is stale; they disguised it here with the sinking of so many of the King of Spain’s ships and men; and besides she has since sunk in the sea, with many Spaniards that were in her; they condemn the Lord Thomas for a coward, and some say he is for the King of Spain. [Thomas Phelippes]
But then Raleigh wrote a hagiographical description of Grenville’s last fight. And from there the Revenge sailed into English school text-books, distracting generations of English boys from rubber band fights, a process helped along by Tennyson’s poetic rendering.
(Of course, in a modern text-book the story of Revenge would be as welcome as a cow pat at a picnic, but that is another story.)
So extraordinary was Grenville’s achievement (if it can be so called) that it transcended national boundaries. Indeed, in modern accounts Spanish historians are generally more enthusiastic than their British colleagues.
But now to the question. What the hell was Grenville – Greynvile as he signed himself – thinking? Beachcombing offers three solutions.
i) Maniac Grenville: Grenville had forgotten to take his clozapine on the morning of the 31st and filled with a nasty surfeit of Protestant rage he decided (as you do) to take as many Spaniards down as he could with the finest ship and one of the finest crews in the world.
ii) Show-off Grenville: Grenville had intended to sail through the Spanish, in bravado, daring the enemy. But he quickly got bogged down as the foe fell upon him and had to make the most of it. If Grenville were a woman and Beachcombing a Freudian the words ‘penis envy’ would appear at this point.
iii) Incompetent Grenville: Grenville either didn’t realise that these were Spanish ships – this has been suggested. Or he believed that Thomas’ boats would follow him in – even though they were already going in the opposite direction. Given the Revenge’s performance the English squadron perhaps had an outside chance of overcoming the Spanish fleet – not that Beachcombing would have wasted a penny on that bet.
To help us we have the briefest of biographies of Grenville: cousin of both Raleigh and Drake, a soldier in Turkey, a colonial in County Cork, a pioneer in America and a Vice-Admiral. And we also have one telling anecdote, from a Dutch source of Grenville at dinner:
He was of so hard a complexion that, as he continued among the Spanish Captains, while they were at dinner or supper with him, he would carouse three or four glasses of wine; and, in a bravery, take the glasses between his teeth, and crush them in pieces, and swallow them down, so that oftentimes the blood ran out of his mouth, without any harm at all to him: and this was told me, by diverse credible persons that, many times, stood and beheld him. [John Huyghen Van Linschoten]
Each, of course, will come to their own reckoning of Flores, but Beachcombing would be inclined to put the final ‘charge’ of the Revenge down as the naval equivalent of chewing wine glasses. In other words, Grenville was an honest to God Elizabethan psycho and Beachcombing dreads to think what he would have done with a pair of IKEA pliers and, say, a couple of English catholics (gulp).
Beachcombing exhorts the doubting reader to return to Grenville’s portrait and look at those eyes – they would glow in the dark.
Beachcombing is trying to put together a collection of battles fought unwisely for his weird wars series: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com