The Invincible Armada

Off Corunna, the fishermen saw their harbour as a strange glimmer of lanterns against a purple shadowland, beneath the glow of the lighthouse. Dawn paled the sky behind, and the psalms, sung by twenty thousand, rose in unison from the fleet of galleons, resonating in the coffered holds, reflected from the stone walls of the harbour, and lifting into the vastness of the sky. The July sun reddened and then gilded the gorse of the headland, and, striking down into the harbour, illuminated a forest of masts and spars, sails furled, crucified. A hundred tall ships were roped against each other, forming a giant raft across the harbour. The Invincible Armada.

The morning blessing was given on the deck of the San Juan Bautista, and the sailors resumed loading the hulk with enough stores to sink it. In the fetid holds of the former merchantman a hundred horses and mules were stabled, and there were huge bronze cannons, cannonballs, gunpowder, harquebuses, pikes, picks and shovels, shoes and sandals, bundles of ship’s biscuit, and barrels of salt pork, wine, cheese, beans, olive oil, vinegar and water. Most of the food loaded at Lisbon had already rotted, and been thrown overboard; fresh stores had been delivered. A deckhand groaned as he shouldered a barrel of salt-pork; he was whipped yesterday for swearing.

As his men prepared their arms for the daily inspection, Agostin leant on the soft timbers of the gunwale, looking at the dock below, and then past the moorings at the green headland. He imagined his feet on the track that leads up to the lighthouse, a firm line across sweet grass. For a moment he allowed himself to think of getting ashore, buying a horse from some peasant, and travelling the hundreds of leagues back home. He pictured himself at ease again, in his mother’s garden of box hedges and cool fountains, singing a cantiga to his lute. He would tell his father – what? But no one was allowed to disembark, on pain of death, and the dock was guarded. He put the thought aside. His belly itched; he picked a couple of lice from his clothing and placed them carefully on the edge of the gunwale, before flicking them towards the nearest guard.

Fat Valdez came and leant beside him on the gunwale, smoking a long-stemmed pipe and coughing out dense blue smoke.
‘That’s like dog shit, Valdez,’ said Agostin, fanning with his hand. ‘This floating carcase is bad enough already.’ His eyes were burning and he felt as if his salt-stiffened face was cracking as he grinned at his friend; there had been no water for washing.
‘It wards off ship’s fever,’ shrugged Valdez. Close up, he smelled worse than his tobacco smoke, with his black doublet greenish, salt-rimed and rotting, after weeks aboard ship. He was baggy-eyed, and Agostin asked him if he had slept.
‘While you slept like a baby up there in your officer’s hammock,’ parried Valdez, ‘myself, I lay crammed on the deck with three hundred men debating what will happen. They say that the Duke has written to King Philip that the Armada will fail, that he suffers from sea-sickness, and that we lack the knowledge or ability to perform our duties.’

‘No, we far outnumber the heretics.’ Agostin repeated what the officers had been told. ‘Once Parma’s men cross from the Netherlands, the Catholics will rise up, and London will be saved within a few days. Anyway, I believe we are to move tomorrow.’
‘If you can call it moving. My horse can swim faster than this hulk! If it took us three weeks from Lisbon, it’ll take months to reach England.’ Valdez pulled at his pipe, coughed out more smoke, and spat at the dock.
‘But those storms were exceptional, and the wind won’t forever be against us. They say that God must favour a crusade such as ours, fighting in His name.’ Agostin looked narrowly at Valdez, needing his friend to be reassured.
‘Well, the whole of Spain is praying and fasting so that we will succeed. They pray for a miracle.’ Valdez, it seemed, lacked faith in miracles.
‘Are you afraid, Nicolas?’ Agostin raised his eyebrows. Valdez practiced his bravery daily, sword-fighting, measuring himself against the number of heretics he would slay. Neither of them had ever killed anyone.
‘I’ve never been so shriven,’ said Valdez. ‘I’ve made confession to the priests a hundred times since we left Lisbon, and in such violent storms that my sins have been completely washed away, both by Christ’s blood, and by a hundred baptisms of seawater. If I die, I shall surely reach the bosom of my Redeemer.’

‘There’s a ship coming in,’ said Agostin. The galley rounding the headland bore a single mainsail painted, not with the red cross of the Armada, but with an unnatural beast, a rearing horse, front hoof uplifted, teeth bared, its mane turning into a dorsal fin, its serpentine body ending in a dolphin’s tail. The huge creature crumpled as the sail was lowered. Its sister, a carved white figurehead, writhed snarling around the elongated prow.
The White Seahorse, decks laden with timber, was steered at surprising speed around the raft of shipping, propelled by thirty oars. Shouting incomprehensibly, sailors in dun-coloured tunics and trews leapt from the deck to the dock, swinging out on ropes, and then winging through mid-air to land on bare feet. The galley was made fast, close to the cobbled ramp that led to the citadel; these sailors had been here before and knew it well.

‘Irishmen,’ said Fat Valdez. ‘Why do we need so much timber?’
Agostin told him it was for building siege engines and forts. The Irish captain, snapping out orders, was slender and husky voiced, and Agostin scrutinised him, having never seen short red hair before. He was beardless, but strutted confidently along the dock in heavy leather boots. And there was something else, in the lie of the clothing, in the swing of the walk, that made Agostin look closer still. The man was a woman. She marshalled the crew: one man over there, to direct the men operating the swinging beam hanging from ropes, dangling stacks of timber over the side to clatter on the dock. Another man to stand by the deck hatches, calling down to the crew in the hold, as cargo was shifted up to the deck. Another two to bargain with the Spanish quartermasters who crowd around the piles of timber, a few to guard the cargo, long wooden clubs leaning against their shoulders. They obeyed her commands immediately, and, from the galleons beside the dock, men turned to stare.
‘Is that a man, or a woman?’ Fat Valdez muttered. ‘Surely not.’
Agostin squinted down at the captain.
‘Hah! A woman with a shipload of sailors, they must have a fine time together.’
Valdez laughed.
‘You’re joking, look at her.’ Her face was furrowed by sun and wind, and a tooth was missing.

Agostin was about to make a lewd reply, when he saw, out of the corner of his eye, Father Bonifacio, the Jesuit, approaching, and he nudged Valdez to be quiet. Valdez tapped his pipe to empty it into the water, and swiftly tucked it away. Agostin was aware of Valdez starting to giggle, silently, as Father Bonifacio approached, paused beside them and glared at the scene below.
‘That woman is the Devil’s spawn,’ intoned Father Bonifacio, with his dusty voice that sounded like the creaking of a church door and the opening of a heavy vellum Bible. The wrinkles and warts in his grey face were as ornate as the sculptured front of the great cathedral of Seville. Agostin nudged Valdez again, but Valdez held his voice steady with an effort.
‘That is just what we were saying Father, she looks like the Devil’s spawn,’ said Valdez, and crossed himself elaborately, his eyes held empty, his fat face slack.
‘Do not look at her, or the evil will creep in to you,’ said Father Bonifacio, turning them round to face him with his bony hands on their shoulders. ‘The eye of woman touches and disturbs our soul.’ They fidgeted in front of him, gazing down, the corner of Valdez’s mouth twitching.
‘They call her Granuaile,’ said Father Bonifacio, twisting his lips in an effort to pronounce the Gaelic. ‘A priest from Galway in Ireland told me about her. She commands the storms by witchcraft.’

He stood closer to them as if to prevent Granuaile from hearing; his breath was like stomach acid, his lower lip hung loosely, showing the red, wet lining. He muttered that the Irish were unbaptised, and knew nothing of the teaching of the Faith, that they dressed in animal skins, wearing antlers on their heads, and lived in ignorance of the Sabbath. Obscenely, he croaked about abominations against nature, about murder, piracy, savages, adultery, heresy, witches, bestiality, and the uncleanness of women. Agostin murmured assent, and crossed himself repeatedly, wondering how priests knew so much about sin. He offered his handkerchief to Valdez, who was shuddering, and whose lips, compressed together, forced derision through his nostrils like a snorting pig.
Agostin shrugged. With a calm face he told Father Bonifacio that Valdez was prone to sneezing fits.
‘It is God’s will that by disease and suffering we shall find the path to salvation,’ said Father Bonifacio, his eyes cold.
Agostin suspected that the outbreak of dysentery, which had filled the hospital ships, and stricken even his tough old servant Guzman, was due to drinking foul river water from barrels of unseasoned wood, but he bowed his head meekly.
‘Amen,’ he said, and Father Bonifacio moved on.
Valdez peeped out from behind the handkerchief and Agostin scowled at him.
‘You’ll be whipped before the mast if you’re not careful.’ He snatched back his handkerchief and turned back to watch the Irish ship.

The men were still working, but Granuaile stared ahead, taking stock of the assembled fleet. Then she seemed to Agostin to look him directly in the eyes. He offers her his most brilliant smile, but her face remained set and intent, the corners of her mouth deeply etched. He shivered, as if a storm-cloud had passed across the sun, and a chill breeze had sprung up.

That night on the San Juan Bautista the men murmured of the prophecy of the astrologer Cyprianus Leoviticus: that the year 1588 would be the year of the Last Judgement, of the collapse of land and sea in devastation, of darkness at noon, and skies raining blood; the end of the world. Agostin heard the wind humming in the rigging, and lifted a moistened finger from his hammock; it had changed direction. The Irishmen were singing on their galley. They must have been drinking in the town; he envied them their freedom. He could not understand their songs, but as he dozed, he dreamed of a gigantic goddess driving a stampede of cattle, of a man with the antlers of a stag, and a she-wolf discoursing on the Scriptures. And a great storm that drove all before it. He woke and prayed, and in the dark, in his hammock, he wept for his mother, tears of pure hopelessness.
The following morning, no more goods could be crammed into the holds, and as Agostin completed his arms inspection, the hulk was detached from the dock and from the raft of vessels and towed to the island of San Anton. Agostin led his company amongst rows of tents, where temporary confessionals and altars had been set up for friars to forgive sins and administer the sacrament. They queued for hours to be granted absolution, which came with a pewter medallion stamped with images of Christ and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to be carried into battle. Agostin’s men looked longingly at the mainland; the arrangements were such as to prevent desertion.
The departing fleet, favoured at last by a light southerly breeze, was watched by crowds from the headland below the Torre de Hercules lighthouse. The hundred and twenty nine vessels filled the broad bay, displaying the scarlet crosses and holy images painted on their white sails, with red and gold banners flying, the sacred standard fluttering aloft on the mainmast of the flagship San Martin, and the fanfaring of trumpets. The July sun glittered on the wavelets, and the movement lifted Agostin’s spirits. He could still hear the watchers chanting prayers, when, in the middle of the afternoon, the wavelets flattened, and the Invincible Armada was immobilised, sails drooping in the hot still air, reflected in the undulant mirror of the sea, still within sight of Spain.

As the tattered remnant of the Spanish Armada struggled round the rocky coasts of Scotland and Northern Ireland, gales swept in, one after another from the Atlantic, bringing an early winter with them. Ships damaged by enemy action were manned by crews who were starving, injured, and ill. They had pitiful charts of these waters, and what they had availed them little, as in the treacherous currents and riptides of the Gaelic coastline their ships were pulled this way and that, powerless like leaves floating on a stream. Each rocky headland, pounded by enormous waves, resembled the next. The stars were obscured by clouds and rain, and if the wind abated a dull fog darkened the days. The San Juan Bautista, carrying survivors from two other shipwrecks and over a thousand men, soldiers, sailors, and galley slaves, was overloaded with men, with guns, and with gold.

Agostin could not remember how long the ship had been lurching so badly, its hull slamming the wave crests, bang! Bang! With each crash of the hull, it felt as though the decayed old timbers were going to break apart. The mizzen mast had fallen, and lay in a tangle of rope and torn canvas that the sailors stumbled over as they staggered along the deck. In the semi-darkness, the spray, or rain, Agostin did not know which, blew horizontally across the deck. The sea roared and raged, and the wind whistled like an evil spirit through what remained of the rigging, freezing Agostin through his soaked coat. As the captain wrestled with the helm, grimacing like a skull, rain dripping off his hat, Agostin wondered if anyone knew where they were heading. In this visibility they could be thousands of miles from land, or about to strike the jagged rocks of this cursed coast, and no-one would know.

Agostin clung to the slimy wood, the only relic now of his mother country, the great Spanish oaks that once grew around Cadiz. Rotting and splintering, the wood shuddered at each wave impact. Fat Valdez staggered across the deck to slacken a rope, praying at the top of his voice to the Virgin Mary.
‘Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte!’ shouted Fat Valdez.
The hour of our death, thought Agostin, as the ship was pounded by another wave, and another, listing sideways so that the deck was almost vertical, throwing him against a balustrade. You should have prayed to Granuaile, Fat Valdez. He clung on with bruised arms and tired muscles, as the salt water sheeted across him, looking down into a boil of sea foam and swirling grey water, a whirlpool that eddied below his feet. With a great rumbling noise the fallen mast and its crumpled tangle of rigging started to slide downwards across the deck, drawn down towards the water. The only way off this ship was to take one’s chances below. Agostin imagined the coldness of the water closing above his head, the froth and bubbling as his lungs emptied out in the chilly restfulness of the hour of death. He imagined not having to fight to stay afloat any longer. The light was fading now, but there was no relief in the storm, which would rage on through the night.

There was a powerful impact which jolted Agostin in every joint, and he heard a terrible grating, grinding sound, the ship creaked and shuddered, and the waves seemed to strike it with redoubled force. With a lurch, the ship tilted irretrievably to her port side, and the holds flooded. A shouting and screaming went up from the sailors. They had run aground. The ship was splitting apart, with the crashing sea snapping the timbers, the wood bursting asunder with deafening reports. Men who had escaped to the deck were washed into the pitiless Atlantic. It was only a matter of time before the ship’s carcass broke in two. The black serrated rocks were just visible in the gathering darkness, emerging between plumes of white spray that filled the air. Every crash of the waves sawed the hull across the jagged teeth below.

Agostin clung for his life to a rope, and climbed slowly like a waterlogged insect up to the starboard gunwale. He looked out over the edge, to land. The hull had struck at a slant against a curved ridge of rock that stuck like a talon out into the sea. A boil of surf, broken wood, and struggling bodies pounded around the bow and stern, but amidships, a few feet of surging water lay in the lee of the hull. He thought that if he could but jump, struggle through the water without being dragged under the hull, and then crawl along the rocks on hands and knees, holding fast to avoid being dislodged by the surf, then he might yet scale the cliffs above. The dying carcass shuddered with each blow of the sea, cracking and splintering where the rocks tore at it from below. He had never learned to swim.

Screen Shot 2013-05-17 at 14.39.06