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A Rare Survival—English Fortification Plan Defending Against The Spanish Armada On the Coast of Flanders During the Anglo-Spanish War

Intricately-detailed fortification plan from the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604), drawn for one of Queen Elizabeth's ministers as part of a report on the efforts to defend against an attack by the Spanish Armada during the Anglo-Spanish War.

The plan shows bastions and trenches arrayed in a v-pattern facing the waters, where a fleet of ships are blockading the shore. Smaller boats are unloading men at the beach. Based on the standards and flags being carried by the invading forces, which include the Spanish red-x on a white background, these are the ships of Spain and its allies.

The map shows trenches laid out on the beach. These, however, are labeled as abandoned in a circa 1600 English hand. The note says, “Trenches abandoned Beinge made in ye usuall forme not guardable.”

Cannons fire from five positions on the bastions, while troops amass in formation, facing the enemy. The various types and locations of defenses and troops are labeled with the letters A-L, suggesting a matching key, perhaps in a letter to one of Queen Elizabeth's ministers which originally accompanied the map.

The troops represented by the blue coloring are likely the Dutch and English troops. Their cavalry advance against blocks of Spanish infantry (see areas marked with “K”). The infantrymen carry pikes and fire muskets. The companies of Spanish soldiers look to be facing a pitched attack at the center of the plan, but several companies wait in formation in reserve closer to shore, while more and more soldiers are wading to shore from the Spanish landing vessels.

The paper shows signs of having been folded, further suggesting that it was delivered to its recipient—likely an advisor of Queen Elizabeth I—as part of an update on the ongoing hostilities, and the English efforts to support the Dutch forces against Spanish assault from the sea.

The plan matches the style and contents of a map made by English soldiers, officials, and intelligencers in the field. These dispatches would then be sent back to Queen Elizabeth’s advisors for review and analysis. Several such plans and maps survive in the Cotton Collection of manuscripts held at the British Library.

Possible makers include Simon Basil, who was known to have drawn surveys and plans, including of Ostend (1590) and Flushing (1597), among other works. He was later named Surveyor of the King’s Works from 1606 to 1615. Another possibility is Paul Ivey (or Ives), who served in the Netherlands and at Ostend (1596-9).

The Dutch Revolt and the Anglo-Spanish War

What is today the Netherlands came under Spanish Hapsburg control in the late-Medieval period due to their association with the Burgundy noble family, which controlled most of the Low Countries by 1450. Maximilian I, Archduke of Austria and a Hapsburg, married Mary of Burgundy—the last remaining member of the Valois-Burgundy line. They had two children, Philip and Margaret. Margaret married first Prince John of Asturias and then Philibert II, Duke of Savoy. Philip married Juana of Castile, creating a Spanish line of the Hapsburg family and tying the Dutch Provinces to Spain. Their son, Charles V, ruled as Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Spain, making him monarch over one of the largest swathes of territory in history.

During Charles’ rule, the Low Countries were consolidated and given a federal structure in 1548. Charles abdicated in 1555, passing Spain and the Netherlands to his son, Philip II. The title of Holy Roman Emperor went to Philip’s brother, Ferdinand I of Austria. Philip II considered himself a Spaniard and he was far removed from the politics and culture of the Netherlands, even though he ruled over them. Philip made strides to further consolidate the Netherlands, undermining the States General, and also sought to move against the Protestant Reformation which had spread widely in the Provinces. Together with increased taxes, the nobles and merchants of the Netherlands bristled and, by 1568, portions of the Netherlands were in open revolt against Spain.

This revolt is known today as the Eighty Years’ War. It was characterized by grueling sieges and rampant privateering. Although there was a period of peace, the Twelve Years Truce (1609-1621), the conflict only ended in 1648 when Spain finally recognized Dutch independence in the Treaty of Münster.

As with most conflicts of the early modern period, the war spread to other political entities and encompassed other struggles. England, a Protestant stronghold, had proven an enduring thorn in Spain’s side from the time of Elizabeth’s ascension in 1558. Besides religious differences, English privateers harassed Spanish shipping, including their famed treasure galleons, in the Atlantic and the Pacific, led most famously by the circumnavigator and buccaneer Francis Drake.

By the mid-1580s, Queen Elizabeth, who had been quietly supporting the Dutch Revolt, had to openly enter the fray as the Dutch were losing Antwerp after a long siege. Fearing Spanish invasion if the Dutch rebels should fail, she promised military support in August 1585 under the Treaty of Nonsuch. After the Treaty, English privateers ramped up their efforts. Thomas Cavendish, for example, sought to take ships along the Western shore of South America, leading to a second English circumnavigation and the capture of the richest Spanish prize taken to that date. The English Navy also sought out Spanish targets, achieving several victories, including at Cadíz in 1587.

In the Netherlands, Elizabeth’s favorite, the Earl of Leicester, led an ill-fated campaign during which he alienated the Dutch and from which he asked to be recalled in 1587. The next year, the English managed to stave off disaster as poor weather and dogged fighting kept the Spanish Armada from landing. The fighting continued throughout the 1590s, with English troops making up a sizeable portion of the armies fighting in the Low Countries.

By the early seventeenth century, both sides were looking for peace. When Elizabeth died in 1603, her successor, King James I, dedicated himself to ending hostilities. His officials negotiated a return to the pre-conflict status quo with the Treaty of London of 1604. The English would stop supporting the Dutch, while the Spanish were to halt their encouraging of rebellion in Ireland. They also called off their privateering fleets.

Identifying The Battle Plan

This plan stemmed from one of the numerous invasions, battles, and sieges of the 1590s and early 1600s. It most closely resembles the defenses from the Siege of Ostend (1601-1604), but the precise location it depicts is still under investigation. However, its survival is remarkable and a manuscript plan like this is very rarely seen.

Peter Barber, “England II: Monarchs, Ministers, and Maps, 1550-1625," in Monarchs, Ministers and Maps: The Emergence of Cartography as a Tool of Government in Early Modern Europe, ed. David Buisseret, 57-98 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Many thanks to Peter Barber for his input and to Katie Parker for her research and writing in describing this plan.