A Parish History

A Parish History is a monthly contribution by Dick Toy.


King Felipe’s fleet had for a while become trapped amid the  sandbanks off Gravelines and Dunkirk.   The English had packed some elderly ships with gunpowder and combustible material, taken the crews off, and sent these “fireships” to drift into the “roads” where the Spaniards had been waiting, intending to embark the Duke of Parma’s army, and to carry it across the sea to England.   Winds and currents had carried the English fireships into this area from the West (the English Channel end of the trap), and a couple of Spanish ships had been destroyed by them, while others had run aground on the sandbanks while trying to take evasive action.

The great majority, however, had survived, and had got away, down-wind, from out among the sandbanks, and had begun to assemble into formation, to the North of the “roads”  –  that is, the North Sea end of the bottle-neck.   Drake realised with horror that the Spanish fleet was between him and the Thames Estuary, their presumed objective.

Both fleets set off, down-wind, and in good order.   The Duke of Medina Sidonia, however, was well aware that if he entered the Thames estuary, to make a direct assault on London, he would be sailing up-stream, in ever-narrowing and ever-shallowing water, with the English fleet behind him, and, presumably, the English army waiting for him, and although he had plenty of fighting men aboard, he had failed to pick up the Duke of Parma’s men, and so he could expect to be out-numbered.   Under those circumstances, he made a very unwise decision, and decided to abandon his mission, and return to Spain.   As the winds were not favourable, and as, more important, the English fleet was still in the Channel, and in the Straits of Dover thwarted the direct route home, he gave orders that the Armada should return to Spain the long way round, round Scotland and Ireland, circumnavigating the whole of the British Isles.

The English were not expecting this.   Men of the regular army, and of the train-bands, had assembled on either shore of the estuary, digging themselves in, preparing for an invasion.   Queen Elizabeth herself rode out from London, along the Essex shore, and at Tilbury she made her famous speech to her loyal men “…I know that I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too;  and think foul scorn that Parma, or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which, rather than any dis·honour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms…”.

As the words of Churchill, heard over the radio in 1940, inspired the people of Britain to defy the Nazi·s, so also Elizabeth in 1588 had found the perfect words to rally her people for war.

But the Armada did not enter the Thames Estuary, and, with a good South-West wind behind it, sailed on Northwards, past the coasts of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincs and Yorks.   The English fleet followed them, but, with powder and shot running low, did not attempt to engage them.   Both fleets were in sight of land the whole way, and could hear the bells, and watch the beacons signalling their passage.

On Thursday, the Eleventh of August, 1588. the men of Houghton heard their church bells ringing the alarm.   Leaving the field, the coal pit or the smithy, those men who had been enrolled in the train-bands rushed down to the church, and climbed into the belfry where they were issued with their weapons.   They then presumably fell in, in the Broadway.   After some time, a party of them moved off, up to Warden Law, to observe what was going on.   They were accompanied by a couple of men on horseback, who could ride back and report back to the main party.

Up on Warden Law, the beacon was lit, and as night fell, it blazed out bravely.   The men could see the previous beacon, at Roseberry Topping, burning atop the Cleveland Hills, on the other side of the Tees.   Soon, the fire on Warden Law would be sighted by the men of Gateshead, and the light on Beacon Hill (where the Queen Elizabeth Hospital now stands) would be ignited, and the alarm would be passed on to the hills across the Tyne.   ( Both Roseberry Topping and Warden Law have been severely scarred by Nineteenth-Century quarrying, and the profiles of both hills must have looked different in 1588 ).

As evening drew on, and the light faded, the men of Houghton watched the great ships of Spain sail past, and then, presumably, most of them stood down, and returned to their homes and their beds.

The next morning, the corpses began to come ashore : thousands and thousands of drowned horses and mules.

These were the steeds which would have carried the Spanish cavalry, and the mules which would have hauled the Spanish guns.   As there was insufficient drinking water aboard, to serve the needs of both men and beasts, it had been resolved to put the horses overboard.

It might have been kinder and more sensible to butcher them for meat.   Perhaps the cavalrymen could not face doing that.   They may have felt that, as they could see land, their horses could see it, and would swim towards the English shore.   But of course the horses, down in the troughs between the waves, with their eyes and mouths full of salt water, could not see the English beacons, and would not have understood that they represented safety, even if they could have seen them.

Instead, they tried to swim behind the ships from which they had been ejected, as if they expected to be picked up and taken aboard.

These creatures had been bred on the plains of Spain.   They had then, in the Spring of 1588, been marched down to the coast.   That had been a pleasant enough experience, but then they had been led to the quayside in Lisbon, and forced up gang-planks into the galleons.   They had then endured several days of bad weather in the Bay of Biscay, and then the terrifying days of the running sea-fight in the Channel, with the Spanish guns roaring out, from the gun-deck just above their heads.

And then it had come to this.   The last that was seen of them was a report by a Hartlepool fisherman.   He reported “a sea devoid of ships, but black with horses and mules, their eyes bulging, their tongues protruding, still locked in a desperate struggle to stay afloat until they slipped beneath the waves for the last time”.

The following morning, Friday the Twelfth, the train-bandsmen  of Houghton and of other parishes, who had expected to be facing the Spaniards in battle, were down on Ryhope, Seaton, and other beaches, burying these unfortunate beasts.

The Armada sailed on.   On the Twelfth it was off Berwick, on the Thirteenth it was off the Firth of Forth.

Here, their English escort left them.   They had been terrified that the Spaniards would attempt a landing at Edinburgh, seize the person of young King James, rally some Highland clans  ( many of which were still Catholic ),  invade England from the North, and attempt to place Queen Mary’s son on the Throne of England.

But the Spaniards no more attempted to enter the Forth than they had attempted the Thames.   They sailed on Northwards, to disaster.  The wind veered, and now blew from the North-West.   The Fleet lost formation, and some ships ran ashore and were wrecked.   Two even reached Norway, and were lost on that shore.

Most ships, however, got through the Pentland Firth, into the wild and open waters beyond Cape Wrath.   Here the plan was to turn South, well to the West of any of the “out islands” of Scotland or Ireland, and to set a course for Spain.   But in those days there was no sure means of identifying longitude, and the bulk of the ships turned too soon, and were caught up in the tangle of isles and capes that mark the Atlantic coasts of Scotland and Ireland.

The survivors from the two wrecks in Norway had been comparatively lucky.   The Northern cod fisheries were expanding at that time, and though none of the men seem to have ever reached home, most of them found employment in the local fishing fleet, married local girls, and settled down.   It is said that on two of the Lofoten Islands, the inhabitants are to this day swarthier than other Norwegians.

Those who were wrecked on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland were not usually so fortunate.   Some fell into the hands of wreckers, who murdered them for the few coins or rings about their persons.   But many of those wrecked in Scotland were saved by clan chieftains, who were delighted to augment their fighting strength with properly trained soldiers.

Of those wrecked in Ireland, some were murdered, but others were succoured by the clergy (trained in Douai), or by other citizens.   In those parts of the country under effective English rule, military patrols hunted down and, wherever possible, hung the survivors.

The remnant of the great fleet sailed on, most of the vessels in appalling condition.   Many were driven ashore on wild coasts.  Others, with competent officers aboard, succeeded in avoiding these hazards, and sailed on Southwards, in the direction of Spain.  Some foundered or ran aground before reaching the homeland.   One, oddly enough, was wrecked on the coast of Devon, a few miles from Plymouth, where the Spaniards had first sighted England.   In this case, it is good to report that the survivors were treated in a civilised manner as prisoners of war.

A few other ships would be lost on the coasts of Brittany and Normandy.   The Wars of Religion were now devastating France, but these areas supported the Catholic cause, and most of the Armada survivors rescued by the Bretons were well-treated, and eventually repatriated to Spain.

By the end of the Autumn of 1588, sixty-seven Spanish ships (out of a hundred and fifty-two which had sailed : less than fifty per cent of the total) had returned to Spanish ports.   One of the boats which managed to limp home was the San Martin, the flagship of the Armada.   The Duke of Medina Sidonia went ashore, ready to give the King an account of the expedition, and an explanation as to why things went wrong, but King Felipe did not want to see him.   The Duke was relieved of his command, and he retired to his estates.

In this article, details such as exact dates, accounts of the route taken by the Armada, and the disasters that befell it, and the drowning of the horses and mules, are taken from contemporary accounts.   But the report on the duties undertaken by the Houghton-le-Spring train-band on the Eleventh of August is, I am afraid, largely conjecture, based on incidents in other villages, verbal reminiscences of Home Guard activities in a more recent war, and my own assumptions as to what presumably happened.   ]