It is the beginning of May, 1587, and a man known locally as The Dragon is headed for Cadiz on Spain’s Atlantic coast. His mission is not peaceful. The act of sailing to Cadiz poses few challenges for this master mariner, who, ten years prior, had already circumnavigated the globe – becoming only the second person (after Magellan) to do so.
But what follows his arrival in Cadiz, at the head of a small fleet centred on four English galleons, is extraordinary by any measure…
In the sixteenth century, Spain is the mightiest empire in Europe–its wealth boosted by gold plundered from the New World… It is also considered the fiercest defender of the Catholic faith; a faith under threat from the growth of Protestantism in Northern Europe, including its foremost enemy: England.
Phillip II has the Pope’s blessing to invade and subdue England, using whatever means is necessary. The Queen of England, Elizabeth I, has been excommunicated by the Pope and King Phillip is assembling a fleet of three hundred ships to solve the ‘English problem’. English sailors, regarded as little more than pirates by the Spanish, have been a thorn in its side at home and abroad, especially in the New World, where British Privateers have been particularly effective in plundering the gold that Spain has so carefully extracted from the natives.
The man commanding the small fleet now sailing into Cadiz harbour is Sir Francis Drake. The Spanish hate and fear him so much, they have named him El Draque – the Dragon. History will record that he was here to ‘singe the King of Spain’s beard’.
The tiny English fleet – sent by Elizabeth to begin a preemptive action against the gathering might of the Spanish Armada – will spend the next few days in two key Spanish ports (the other being Corunna) destroying a total of thirty-seven of Phillip II’s best ships, despite adverse weather and constant shelling from the guns on the cliffs. Seldom had there been such a display of seamanship, against such difficult conditions.
The success of the raid will delay the Armada by a full year. More significantly, the cargoes plundered by Drake in Cadiz turn out to be well-seasoned timber staves essential for the construction of wooden barrels for food and water storage. When the Armada finally sails, in the summer of 1588, one of the contributing factors in its failure will be the poor storage of supplies and consequent ill-health of the sailors in the Spanish fleet… Of such small details are vast changes in sovereign fortunes made…
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