Saturday 28 November 2020

The Armada of Flanders

 Your starter for ten: When was Spanish naval power in the North at its height?

To make it easier, have some multiple choice options: A: 1634 B: 1588 C: 1609

Many people, myself included, would probably have answered B. Even though the Armada lost, the Spanish did sail with a fair degree of impunity up the Channel and, subsequently, around the British Isles and back to the ports of northern Spain. Most modern historiography suggests that the weather and bad communications caused the Armada’s loss, not the actions of the English navy.

However, a book I have just read:

Stradling, R. A. (1992). The Armada of Flanders: Spanish Maritime Policy and European War 1568 - 1668. Cambridge: CUP.

suggests otherwise. Stradling argues convincingly that the Spanish controlled fleet, the Armada of Flanders, was at its peak during the 1630s when it took the fight to the Dutch (in particular) in the narrow seas.

Much of the earlier effort had been on land. Alba had spent his effort, and the initial Army of Flanders in attempting to suppress the rebellion of the provinces. The 1572 influx of Sea Beggars into the ports of Zealand was related to diplomatic pressure on Elizabeth of England to reduce piracy in the Channel, as the Dutch exile had little choice but to lurk in English ports and snap up passing Spanish merchantmen.

The subsequent war, down to the 1609 truce, was mainly land-based and normally related to siege warfare. A lot of the aquatic part of it was fought out with small boats on flooded plains around besieged cities. The Duke of Parma, famously, did not have the vessels (or, in fact, the facilities) to break the Dutch blockade of the Low Countries ports to get his army out into the Channel, let alone land it in England. But that situation did not have to be the case.

Parma, of course, was distracted by intervention in the French wars of religion after 1588, and little further progress was made. The memory of the Sea Beggars lived on, however, and, as the Dutch maritime trade empire grew, strategists and theorists in Spain began to argue for an armada based in Flanders. It could they thought, pay for itself by privateering and place a huge pressure on the Dutch who relied on trade and fishing for much of their income.

A problem was ports, and a great deal of investment was needed to make Dunkirk a viable base for a fleet. Nevertheless, this was accomplished and by the time the war with the Dutch restarted in 1621 the Spanish strategy was clear. The Army of Flanders was to remain on the defensive (it did so at least after 1629; sieges were extremely expensive in terms of money, men, and material) while the pressure on the Dutch was to be maintained by a new fleet based in Dunkirk. This would intercept the Dutch trade with Iberia and beyond as well as raid the fishing fleets, thus tackling both of the main income streams for the Dutch state.

It worked rather well for about a decade. The Armada of Flanders became quite quickly an elite force within the Spanish navy (at least according to Stradling). It achieved many of its strategic aims – the Dutch maritime trade did fell the pressure. So long as money was available from Spain for its operation and maintenance, the ships could slip in and out of Dunkirk past blockading Dutch squadrons and wreak havoc among shipping and fishing fleets. The Dunkirkers became a feared privateer force as well; entrepreneurs obtained licenses to take ‘enemy’ shipping, so long as they brought it into Dunkirk and it was sold via the Admiralty courts, the crown taking its percentage.

Strategically it was a win for Spain as well. The famous Spanish Road from Italy to the Low Countries, along which reinforcements and money flowed for the Army of Flanders was pretty well cut by 1630, and the Spanish could then use the sea route along the Channel, protected, in part, by the Armada of Flanders. According to Stradling in the decade of the 1630s nearly twenty-eight and a half thousand reinforcements arrived by sea, as opposed to nearly twenty-three thousand by land. These latter, I suppose, included those Spanish troops who had fought at Nordlingen with the Cardinal-Infante.

It did not, of course, last. War with France brought additional problems for the fleet, although it also provided extra targets. In 1639 the Battle of the Downs saw the destruction of a large number of reinforcements for Flanders, although it did not bring about overall Franco-Dutch naval supremacy. In 1640, however, the pigeons started to come home to roost for the overstretched Spanish imperial system. Portugal and Catalonia both rebelled, and, allied to the Dutch and French, proved difficult to reconquer (Portugal never was, of course). The naval resources were required in Spanish waters and the Armada of Flanders spent much of the rest of its time based in Cadiz, operating relief convoys to besieged cities in the south.

Dunkirk still operated as a privateer port, but without much central direction. In other words, it proved a pain still to the British and the Dutch. One of the French war aims became the capture of Dunkirk and, after a fair old struggle, it fell in September 1646. Of course, by this time the British polity had fallen apart into civil war and the Royal Navy (or Commonwealth Navy, as the Ship-Money fleet should probably be called) was not intervening.

That was not the end, however. In 1652, as part of the ongoing struggle between France and Spain with added allies of the Commonwealth regime now at war with France, the Spanish recaptured Dunkirk in 1652. The end, so far as the Spanish went, came in 1658 when the Cromwellian British, allied now to France, besieged the port, forcing the Spanish to attempt to relieve it, which effort was crushed at the battle of the Dune. Dunkirk became British, at least until Charles II sold it to Louis XIV in 1662, at it could resume its privateer trade.


  1. Fascinating war that, from a strategic point of view but, as you say, not much in the way of big land battles for the wargamer.

    1. True on both counts, although there were probably more land battles than we think; they are just largely ignored as they are regarded as inevitable due to the decline of Spain, even though the perception of the decline of Spain is informed by the loss of Dunkirk, among other things....