Ireland and the Spanish Armada: A Story of Survival

On a cold, stark night in August 1588, as a fierce gale subsided and the clouds slowly parted, light from a full autumn moon revealed a horrific scene strewn along the shoreline of Streedagh Strand in County Sligo, Ireland. The drowned corpses of 800 doomed sailors, washed up by the raging Atlantic Ocean waves, lay scattered among the rocks, seaweed and sand; the bodies, already stripped of all items of value, were left as carrion for packs of starving wild dogs and flocks of hungry ravens. The shattered remnants of the wreckage of several wooden ships, dozens of smashed wooden war chests, which had contained gold, silver and jewels, now looted and carried off by bands of scavenging, local inhabitants, added to the flotsam and jetsam created by the force of the furious waves. Concealed among a thick bank of shore reeds a short distance from the shore, an unconscious lone survivor was woken by the sounds of the feeding frenzy, and wondered if he was having a horrible dream. Struggling upright, he propped himself on one elbow and let his gaze slowly wander the length of the strand, revealing the scene of utter carnage. As his terrified mind raced and tried to make sense of the awful sight before him, memories started to return and images of earlier events began to unfold. He remembered three ships fleeing in panic, a dangerously rocky shoreline, terrified fellow sailors, a violent storm and then… darkness.

Thirty years earlier in February 1558, Catholic Queen Mary I, Henry VIII’s daughter, died and her half-sister Elizabeth ascended the throne of England. As Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, she set out to undo the religious reforms enacted by Mary and her husband and co-monarch, Philip II of Spain, also a devout Catholic. Even after his wife’s death, Philip had no wish to sever his ties with England, and for many years maintained peace with England, and even defended Elizabeth from the Pope's threats of excommunication. He had also sent a proposal of marriage to Elizabeth, hoping that as her husband, he would be able to influence policy and further Catholic emancipation. Elizabeth delayed replying to Philip’s proposal and in the interim, learned that Philip was also forging an alliance with France. When she discovered that Philip signed the Treaty of Joinville with the Catholic League of France, Elizabeth formed an alliance between England and the Protestant rebels in the Netherlands. She also enacted a policy of piracy against Spanish trade and began to plunder the great Spanish treasure ships returning from the New World. When the Treaty of Nonsuch was signed at Nonsuch Palace in Surrey by Elizabeth in 1585, and which promised troops and supplies to the Dutch rebels, sworn enemies of Spain, Philip considered this an act of war and initiated plans for an invasion of England. The last straw for Philip was the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587, which ended Philip's hopes of placing a Catholic on the English throne. He turned instead to more direct plans to invade England and return the country to Catholicism.

At the end of May 1588, with the blessing of Pope Sixtus V, a fleet of 130 ships set sail from A Coruna, Spain under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a high-born courtier. Medina Sidonia, although a competent soldier and distinguished administrator, had no naval experience and wrote to Philip expressing grave doubts about the planned campaign, but his letter was prevented from reaching the King on the grounds that God would ensure them success. The fleet, known as the Spanish Armada, was composed of 130 ships, 8,000 sailors, 18,000 soldiers, and was armed with 1,500 brass and 1,000 iron guns. From the Spanish Netherlands, a further 30,000 soldiers, under the command of the Duke of Parma, waited for the arrival of the Armada. The plan was to use the cover of the warships to convey the army on barges to a place near London, and then march on the city. All told, a total of 55,000 men were to have been mustered, an imposing army for that time. On the day the Armada set sail, Elizabeth's ambassador in the Netherlands, Valentine Dale, met Parma's representatives in peace talks, but in July the negotiations were abandoned, and the English fleet stood at anchor in Plymouth, awaiting news of Spanish movements. Philip initially planned for an attack on three fronts, starting with a raid on Scotland, while the main Armada would attack the Isle of Wight, then establish a safe anchorage in the Solent. The Duke of Parma would follow with a large army from the Low Countries and sail across the English Channel. The Duke was uneasy about mounting such an invasion without the possibility of surprise, was wary of the costs that such a venture would incur, and advised Philip to abandon or at least postpone the overly ambitious plan. The revised plan entailed sailing north into the English Channel, establish a safe anchorage and then rendezvous with Parma’s army at Dunkirk, France.

Unfortunately for Philip, his plan had little chance of success from the outset, mainly because of lengthy delays, poor lines of communication, the lack of a deep bay for anchorage and violent storms. As the battle commenced a storm struck the English Channel, which devastated large numbers of the Spanish fleet. There was one hard fought battle against the English navy, but the Spanish were forced into a retreat, and the majority of their ships were destroyed by the harsh weather. The Armada chose not to attack the English fleet at Plymouth, and failed to establish a temporary anchorage in the Solent after one Spanish ship had been captured by Francis Drake in the English Channel. The fleet finally dropped anchor off Calais and while waiting communications from the Duke of Parma's army, was routed by an English fire ship attack. In the Battle of Gravelines the Spanish fleet was further damaged and forced to abandon its rendezvous with Parma's army. Despite all of the setbacks, they managed to regroup and, driven by southwest winds, sailed north, with the English fleet following them up the east coast of England. In their haste to flee the relentless English pursuit, many of the Spanish ship captains ordered the anchor chains cut, an act that would prove to be disastrous later on as events unfolded.

After its defeat at the battle of Gravelines, the Armada had attempted to return home through the North Atlantic. Unfortunately, a series of violent storms blew them off course and toward the west coast of Ireland, where, with no anchors to stabilize many of the ships, the Spanish Armada was doomed. When word of the Armadas’ fate reached Dublin, Queen Elizabeth issued instructions to her government ministers, stating that any and all survivors found on Irish soil were to be immediately executed and anyone found rendering aid or shelter were to be given the same punishment. Soldiers on horseback were dispatched to patrol the coastline and search for survivors. As many as 24 ships were wrecked on the rocky coastline from Antrim in the north to Kerry in the south, and it is estimated that up to 5000 sailors and soldiers died in Ireland. Those who managed to escape the dragnet fled Ireland, with many crossing over into Scotland. It was reported that, when Philip learned of the result of the expedition, he declared, "I sent the Armada against men, not God's winds and waves.”

On Streedagh Strand, the survivor Francisco de Cuéllar, a Spanish sea captain, drifted in and out of consciousness until the sound of horse hoofs pounding along the shoreline jolted him back to reality. Shaking his head and rubbing his eyes, still unsure if he was dead or alive, awake or an unwilling participant in some hellish nightmare, he got to his knees and peered through the rushes. In the distance, close to the waters’ edge, he could see the horsemen, at full gallop, approach his place of concealment. His heart sank as he realized that the riders were English soldiers and knew discovery would mean instant death. Frantic, he looked closer at his surroundings and noticed a low stone wall about fifty yards from where he knelt. Mustering his strength, and not daring to stand upright, he crawled on his hands and knees until he reached the wall; then with a quick glance behind, scrambled over the top and lay silent and exhausted on the other side.

With no time to linger, he left the shelter of the wall and moved cautiously until he entered a large wooded area where he would be out of sight of the soldiers on the strand. Upright, he ran for what seemed an eternity, tree branches whipping and stinging his face and arms and briars impeding his progress. But as the morning sun began to rise and warm him, strangely, he felt safe in the woods, and was reminded of his father and the happy times they spent together exploring the forest close to his hometown of Cuellar in the Spanish province of Segovia. He had spent long hours there in wide eyed wonderment and recalled his father teaching him the names of every tree and every bird. A memory flashed through his mind reminding of something his father had told him all those years ago. He had once asked him what would happen if they ever got lost in the woods. His father had replied that it was impossible to get lost and told him that as moss only grows on the north side of tree trunks, it would always be easy to find your bearings. He would use that advice as his guide and hoped that he could outrun his pursuers and continue to head north.

Out of breath he slowed to a walking pace, occasionally glancing fearfully over his shoulder and as he came to the woods edge, met an elderly woman who was driving cattle into hiding. She told him that English soldiers were searching for survivors and had already killed 100 captives who had sought refuge in her village. Before parting, she warned him to stay out of the road and to travel only at night. Leaving the shelter and relative safety of the woods, his first foray onto open ground did not go well for him. With the woods behind him he walked until he came across a small stone building set on a slight rise close to a narrow stream. Hoping for shelter and maybe some food, he approached the building warily and as he got nearer he could see that it was a church which had been sacked and set on fire, smoke still rising from the charred roof timbers. Rounding the corner, he was shocked to see the bodies of twelve sailors hanging from nooses tied to the iron bars on the windows. Terrified and desperate, he turned and ran blindly back to the shelter and safety provided him by the trees…

What followed was a seven-month long fight for survival by de Cuellar. Freezing, alone and frightened, he lived on a diet of wild berries and watercress and came close to death several times. Fortunately for him, during his travels along the west coast of Ireland, he was befriended and given food and shelter by two powerful Irish chieftains, O’Rourke and MacClancy. The chieftains, themselves no stranger to English wrath and violence, helped de Cuellar to travel to Donegal in the north of the country, where he eventually boarded a ship bound for Scotland. A full and detailed account of his adventures survive and can be read in a letter written by him soon after his escape from Ireland.

*The chieftain O'Rourke was hanged at London for treason in 1590; the charges against him included giving aid to survivors of the Armada. *MacClancy was captured by the English in 1590 and beheaded.

After the Armada disaster, de Cuéllar served in the army of Philip II under Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, Count Fuentes and Count Mansfeld. Between 1589 and 1598 he served variously in the Siege of París, the Campaigns of de Laón, Corbel, Capela, Châtelet, Dourlens, Cambrai, Calais, and Ardres, and in the siege of Hults. In 1599 and 1600 he served under Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy in the war of Piamonte. In 1600 he was in Naples with Viceroy Lemos.

In 1601, de Cuéllar was commissioned to return to America and served as infantry captain in a galleon to Islas de Barlovento (Windward Islands), but didn't sail in don Luis Fernández de Córdova's navy until 1602. It was his last military service. He lived in Madrid in the period 1603–1606, hoping for new commissions in America. Nothing is known about his death or whether he had any children. Read the full text of Francisco de Cuellar’s personal account here:

From "Out of the Ice: Ireland Then and Now."

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Tags: Armada, Cuellar, Francisco, History of Ireland, Sligo, Spanish, Tudor Ireland, de

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on January 15, 2017 at 4:19pm

Glad you liked it Mike. As for the chests read de Cuellar's letter.

On the subject of the 'black' Irish, read my reply to Robert's comment above...

Comment by Brian Nolan on January 16, 2017 at 8:37am

Nicely written... I read De Cuellar's letter/diary some 40 years ago one afternoon in the Sligo Public Library. De Cuellar was one of at least twenty survivors who made it home to Spain. His letter was actually a letter of apology to King Phillip II ... explaining how he lost the King's ship and begging for forgiveness...and more work. His description of the poverty of the ordinary Irish peasant was a picture that endured for the next three hundred years in rural west Ireland. Poverty beyond our imagination, a poverty that got worse in the next thirty years with the Plantation of Ulster and the Flight of the Earls. No doubt when the Lord of Tirconnell, Red Hugh O'Donnell, Taoiseach of the O'Donnell clans, fled to Spain after the disastrous Battle of Kinsale on Jan 6 1602, he recounted to King Phillip II, how the O'Donnells helped protect the poor Spanish and Portugese sailors after the Armada, confirming De Cuellar's account. Phillip II of Spain had the title 'King of Ireland appended to his long list of titles after his marriage to Queen Mary of England (Queen Elizabeth I's half sister). However he never pursued that title after Mary's death, and maintained some diplomacy with the Elizabethan court. The O'Donnells never fully understood that subtlety. They were promised by both the Spanish Kings. Phillip II and Phillip III, that they would give the O'Donnells assistance to regain their ancestral lands in Ireland, but the tentacles of the Elizabethan spy network extended even to Spain where in late 1602, Red Hugh O'Donnell, Lord of Tirconnell, was poisoned by James 'Spanish' Blake at Simancas Castle, Valladollid, while en-route to meet King Phillip III.


Comment by John Anthony Brennan on January 16, 2017 at 12:55pm

Thanks for the info Brian. It is a wonderful story for sure.

Comment by Rosemary Hayes on May 10, 2021 at 1:32am

This is a most interesting account of the English and Spanish at war.It was a cruel time and am amazed at the numbers killed ..I need to read more to grasp the politics , religious significance  and brutality of such times yet have times really changed?War ,grasp for power ,intolerance .

It is with different values today I find it hard to be objective and  grasp the enormity of lives recorded .

To the notion of Black Irish ,my aunts talked of it.I saw it at first hand in our family .Ten family  members ,some blue eyed,blond hair ,while others not only black hair but darker skins .

My aunt used to say and believe,"It was the Spanish ".Further to that when I  had genetic testing done,I was 93% Irish ,Scandinavian 4% and Iberian peninsula 3% .The last was a shock.

Therefore a mixture of cultures from whence one came..

Thank you for the interesting article and look forward to the book JohnA.Brennan,


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