Saturday, 28 July 2018

Reality is Odder…

… than fiction. Often.

492. Sir Henry Woddryngton to [Hunsdon?] [Aug. 11.] Cott. Calig., D. I., fol. 276.

… (fn. 4) ay last in the mor … the Spanish fleet to the Fryth … there cast anchor and launched out … cockboat with 12 or 14 men in her, all Spaniards, directed to Colonel Simple, who … conveyed to him safely to Edinburgh. After conference with him, the town understanding that they were Spaniards committed them to ward; who confessed that in that ship there is about 100 soldiers with victual and munition.

"Upon thapprehension of those that came ashoare, Collonell Simple road in great haste to therle Bothwell to his howse of Creighton, viij myles from Edenbrowghe. And Carmighell understand[ing] therof made ready and pursewed him with all speed and brought him back to Edenbroughe."

'Elizabeth: August 1588', in Calendar of State Papers, Scotland: Volume 9, 1586-88, ed. William K Boyd (London, 1915), pp. 587-606. British History Online [accessed 17 July 2018].

I have the good fortune to work for an academic institution, which gives me free access to a range of resources, including a decent research library (although having worked in Oxford, it is not a patch on the Bodleian; but then, few places are) and online resources. One which recently came to my attention was ‘British History Online’ ( which, to my interest at least, has digitised a great number of historical items, including the Calendars of State Papers, which are one of those resources much seen referred to by the amateur, but rarely (or never, in my case) accessed.

Unfortunately, for those who are not attached to academia by however tenuous a thread, accessing some of the content takes money. You can subscribe as an individual, but I am not sure how much it costs, The focus is on 1300 – 1800 documents, which is perfect for me, but then I wargame in an odd corner of the odd world of wargaming anyway.

The point I am vaguely gesturing to in the title of the post is that what really happened is often as weird, if not more so, than what we can imagine. I am, as some of you probably know, engaged in a narrative wargame campaign set in 1588 when a breakaway section of the Spanish Armada landed at Whitby in North Yorkshire. Being somewhat interested in events in Scotland as a result of this, I was intrigued to come across the above entry in the August 1588 entry in the Calendar of State Papers: Scotland.  These documents are summaries of letters sent to and from English agents in Scotland to the Elizabethan regime and preserved there. Thus, you do not get a full picture of what is going on – it is a bit like hearing one end of a telephone conversation. Nevertheless, the bit I have reproduced above is suggestive of a few things.

The most obvious deduction from the above is that contemporaries did not know about the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Obviously, they knew that it was, that it had sailed up the Channel and been dispersed by a gale with a little help from the English fleet, but no-one knew where it was or in what state. It may well have landed up off the coast of North Yorkshire, or Scotland, or Ireland. Individual ships probably pitched up in all of these places. Some of the ships were indeed wrecked in them. But it was perfectly possible, in the world of 1588, that some ships, 20 is mentioned a bit further on in the CSPS, might have made a landing. The uncertainties of how the various factions of Scotland would react to that remain, precisely, uncertainties. James certainly acted against some, if temporarily.

That is, of course, the second deduction. How either English or Scots would have reacted to the Armada landing is a matter of speculation. Some think that the troops would have romped through to London, captured the Queen and either deposed her or insisted on her return to the Catholic faith. Others think that an offer of a treaty including toleration for Catholics and an exit from the Low Countries would have been sufficient. Opinions vary on how English Catholics would react, as they do as to how the English trained bands and so on would do in battle.

There are, here, mighty imponderables, questions which contemporaries would have wondered about but which they did not have to answer. As a wargamer interested in such things, I do have to find some sort of answer. As you have probably seen, my answer is that the results would have been neither as good as the optimists expected, nor as bad as the pessimists feared. Some English would have fought; there were enough vested interests in the regime to ensure that, to say nothing of residual anti-Spanish resentment, left after the marriage of Mary to Phillip II. Some Catholics may have joined the Spanish. It rather depended – the factors making people choose sides are many and various.

The other issue is that, of course, the passage above from CSPS really makes no comment about the importance or otherwise of the events. Was there a Scottish Catholic conspiracy? Was it just a few minor malcontents? I have no idea. In the general run of things, there is little about Scotland and the Armada. There does not need to be. Aside from the aforementioned wrecks, the Armada changed little in Scotland, except that James VI received an enhanced payment from the coffers of the English government. Various claims by English diplomats and agents that Phillip had offered James 20,000 French crowns, 20,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry are just that: claims. I doubt if there is any evidence even if the papers of the Scottish government were extant (they might be, I don’t know).

Nevertheless, the point is that my Armada lands scenario is a realistic one in terms of the history of the period. It is made up; it did not happen. But contemporaries certainly did not see that it was impossible. My fiction relates quite closely to the reality. 


  1. Superb. Thanks for this. I remember churning through the CSPD books at Queens library for years, looking for particular letters and entries, and hoping to find something that had been missed in the references of other books for some of my published work, so this is very useful.
    Stranger than fiction? Yes, definitely. There are some scary/strange/random entries in the primary sources which make one feel relieved that we live in a more enlightened (?) time. Though future historians might pity us, of course.

    1. I was a bit surprised to find it, but it is very useful. A great deal of Victorian heavy lifting by the editors, I think. I do wonder a bit what they left out of the entries, however.

      There are some very odd things in the historical record. Future historians will probably think us a deluded as any other generation, however.