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The Revenge


AS WITH SOME OTHER 15th and 16th century ships, there is no authentic contemporary painting of Revenge. She was, however, among the first of a much described breed of warship, so we know near-enough exactly what she looked like. King Henry VIII of England believed in a future for the Great Ship, and so built his famous Henri Grace a Dieu of a massive 1,000 tons. His daughter Elizabeth very wisely took advice for the design and building of her ships from those best fitted to the task, master mariners such as Drake and Raleigh. These were men who knew from practical experience exactly what they wanted, and what they wanted was a ship of ... marvelous charge and fearful cumber'. Raleigh built one such ship, the Ark Royal, at his own expense (although he later sold it to the Crown), but always admitted that Revenge was better in every way. The new English galleon was designed not for sheer size but for speed and maneuverability.

It was to the slow and top-heavy Great Ship as a race horse is to a lumbering Shire, only half the size but twice as fast. In an age when England's principal enemy, Spain, still clung to the Great Ship principle the revolutionary Elizabethan galleon, with its far superior sailing qualities, proved a formidable adversary. A small host of Davids against a larger host of Goliaths.

Revenge was not merely typical of her kind, she was the best; flagship in turn of three great English sea commanders and all time favourite of her first one, none other than Sir Francis Drake. Laid down and built in 1574 she was a vessel of between 450 and 500 tons; 120 feet from beak head to taffrail, 92 feet on her gun deck, and a rather bluff 32 feet on the beam. She was rigged, as were all capital ships of that time, on four masts, with two large square sails on the fore and main, and with lateen sails on the mizzen and bonaventure. She might or might not have sometimes bent a tops'l on the main; no-one can positively know.

With two full decks and long half and quarter-decks her weight was kept low as possible by a stepping-down of the main gun deck to accommodate her four sternmost guns and this, because it allowed also for the stepping-down of successive decks, gave considerably more head-room to the officers' quarters up above. Which, incidentally, were grossly disproportionate to that remaining part of the ship left to the rest of the crew. Revenge carried a complement of 250, comprised approximately of 140 officers and sailors, 40 gunners, and 70 `soldiers' or fighting men. There was nothing arbitrary about these categories. The Spanish did not arm their seamen, or instruct their `infantry' in the rudiments of ship-handling; but flexibility was expected of every man on board an English galleon with each, in emergency, able to take the place of any other. This sort of versatility made for maximum fighting power under all conditions of loss or damage, a facility which and most remarkably in Revenge was to teach all adversaries a lesson they never forgot.

If these Elizabethan race-built galleons did have a fault, it was in the matter of armament, and Revenge, like all of her contemporaries, was cursed with too great an assortment of ordnance. Burdened with almost every type and size available, from cannon, demi-cannon and culverin down to minion, falcon and small bronze pivot-guns, adequate supplies of every different size and type of shot were difficult to maintain. So, any protracted engagement was liable to see some guns standing useless for want of proper stores. Revenge's main batters of 18 truck mounted 18-pounders were carried on the lower or main deck and the rest of her heavy pieces, culverins firing a hall of about 10 pounds, were mounted on the deck above. The remaining wide variety was ranged topsides, here, there and everywhere. It was a sorry sort of mish-mash hut, somehow, it worked.

When in 1588 Philip of Spain was known to have organised an invasion of England, Queen Elisabeth's lord admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, appointed Sir Francis Drake as his second-in-command and invited Drake to choose any of the queen's ships in which to hoist his flag. Drake, who knew as much about ships as any man in England, elected to sail in Revenge. Howard himself was in Raleigh's old ship, the boo tons Ark Royal, and his two other admirals, the veteran John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher were in Victory, of 800 tons and Triumph, a Great Ship of 1,100 tons, respectively. The latter was by far the biggest ship in a fleet of 100 sail. Of this number 16 belonged to the queen, the rest being privateers and requisitioned merchantmen. The Spanish Armada, a force of 27,000 fighting men in 130 Great Ships, commanded by the Duke of Sidonia in the mighty San Martin, was sighted off the Lizard on Friday, 19 July 1588 by a relative of Hawkins', Captain Thomas Flemyng. The news reached Plymouth late that afternoon, and the following morning saw most of the English ships up anchor and out at sea. Howard led half of the fleet to the leeward of Eddy stone Rocks so that, by sailing to windward, he could double back on the enemy. Drake's half of the force, which included the squadrons of both Hawkins and Frobisher, prepared to attack from the rear.

The first encounter between Howard and Sidonia, on 21 July, was something of an anti-climax. Sidonia's people were dismayed by the speed and maneuverability of their opponents. One of the Spanish captains afterwards wrote: `The worst of them, even without main course or topsail, can beat the best sailors we have.' On the other hand, Howard was taken aback by the range and power of the Spaniards' ordnance, and wisely forbore from pressing on into certain headlong disaster. Much shot was exchanged, but no great damage done. None, that is, as a result of direct action. But the English tactic of hit and run threw one of the Spanish flagships, the San Juan de Portugal, into collision with her sister ship the Nuestra Senora del Rosario commanded by Don Pedro de Valdes, and the Rosario in turn clashed so violently with a third big galleon that she lost her bowsprit and foremast. Crippled, she fell astern of the Armada and was spotted by Drake just before darkness fell.

What happened next became the subject of fierce controversy. Revenge was only half the size of Rosario but Drake, with his mind set on taking the big galleon as a prize, extinguished his stern lantern in order to steal up on her in the night. After one false alarm when Drake drew close to, and was about to fire upon, a neutral German merchantmen, he finally overhauled Rosario and forced her captain to surrender. He took de Valdes and his officers on board Revenge as prisoners, and put a prize crew in Rosario with orders to take her into Tor Bay. When he returned then to station at the head of his squadron he sailed into a storm of criticism, mainly from Frobisher. The fiery Yorkshireman accused Drake of putting the squadrons at risk by deserting his command in the interest of personal gain, a charge supported by John Hawkins. Lord Howard, however who was later to go off himself in pursuit of a prize completely exonerated Drake and there was further action against the Armada just two days later on 23 July. Again, neither side inflicted serious damage on the other. The lighter English ships continued to harrass the Spaniards, and on Wednesday the 31st during an attack on Sidonia's huge flagship the .San Martin, Drake showed himself perhaps a little too daring. Revenge took a severe battering from `... every size and manner of shotte', and Drake's own cabin was almost wrecked.

The fate of the Armada is well known. Harassed by the English, but even more so by appalling adverse weather, the Spanish ships were driven up to and all the way around{ the north coast of Scotland, a long and terrible passage home which only about half survived.

The next time Drake hoisted his flag in Revenge it was to lead an expedition almost equal in both size and disaster to the ill fated Armada of Spain. lie set sail in May 1589 in joint command with Sir John Norreys of 130 ships, 1,500 officers and gentle men, 17,000 soldiers, and 4,000 seamen. The force had three objectives: one, to destroy those remnants of the Armada then sheltering in ports on the Atlantic coast of Spain; two, to free Portugal of Spanish occupation and set the claimant Don Antonio (then in exile in England) firmly on the Portuguese throne; three, for Drake to sail on then to the Azores, there to secure rich prizes from the Spanish treasure fleet. The grandiose plan was a failure. Norreys found no support for his soldiers in Portugal because the native population did not want Don Antonio, and that same cruel fate of weather which had so bedevilled Philip's great Armada now bedevilled Drake's. Some of his ships were wrecked be gales, others were driven far off unmanageable that Drake course, and Revenge sprang a leak so was forced to limp home. A furious Elizabeth condemned him to disgrace and kept him ashore for the next seven years, adding insult to injury by giving Revenge to his bitter rival Frobisher.

Frobisher, now Sir Martin, wore his flag in Revenge for only a year before handing her over to another of Drake's detractors, Sir Richard Grenville. Elizabeth, determined to recoup the losses incurred by Drake's abortive expedition, had ordered a Watch on the Azores, a move designed to relieve Spanish treasure ships of their loot from South ;America. The small fleet which made up the Watch of 1591 was commanded by Thomas Howard, a cousin in family and name of the Lord High Admiral of England.

Came the first confrontation, Thomas Howard acted with that same prudence as shown by his illustrious namesake. The homeward-bound treasure fleet of 1591 was escorted by a force of warships so formidable as to make attack quite hopeless. Howard's ships had the wind, and he made good use of it to sheer off and leave well alone. All, that is, except Revenge. It is difficult now to understand why Grenville chose to fight alone against such overwhelming odds, but he stayed to take Revenge into single-handed combat against no fewer than 53 enemy ships, several of which were more than double her size. But, hero or fool, he fought a battle at sea the like of which must forever remain unique.

The grotesquely uneven contest off Flores in the Azores began in the early morning of 31 August and went on unabated for 15 hours. The Spanish fleet commanded by Alonzo de Bezan included 30 big galleons, six of which were newly built to the latest design. As Revenge had been at sea for almost four months, sickness and death had reduced her able-bodied complement to 120 men. Ranged against than were over 5,000. Revenge was twice grappled hard alongside very much larger enemy ships, but boarders were repelled both times. Finally, with his powder and shot completely exhausted, his ship part-dismasted and riddled from stem to stern, himself mortally wounded and only 20 others left alive, Grenville Surrendered. In the the fighting, the little Revenge had destroyed most certainly two and possibly four big galleons and so badly damaged a further 16 that all were lost in the storm which followed next day. Inevitably, the stricken Revenge sank also, robbing the Spaniards of their hard-won prize and doubtless permitting Grenville to die happy. His last words had been `Split me the ship, master gunner', but the gunner had no powder left with which to carry out the order.

A Ballad of the Fleet








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