Launch of fireships against the Spanish Armada, 7 August 1588

A contemporary Flemish interpretation of the launching of English fire-ships against the Spanish Armada. As Spain and England were in conflict, English piracy against Spanish ships was a continuing grievance for Philip II. The English were aware that Spain was amassing a fleet so, by the mid-1580s, it had reconstructed its own fleet to meet the threat. In the summer of 1588, England knew the Armada was on its way and knew its exact size and firepower. The 'battle' of the Armada was in reality a series of inconclusive engagements during which the Spanish fleet struggled up the English Channel. This campaign was the first occasion at which the great gun played the chief part in naval warfare. Although, the English captured three flagships, their success was not decisive and the Duke of Medina Sidonia, in charge of the Spanish fleet, arrived safely at Calais with his fleet not seriously depleted. On the night of 7 August Sir Francis Drake, second in command of the English fleet, sent in eight small ships packed with inflammables, known as fire-ships. They were set alight amongst the anchored Spanish fleet which caused great confusion, forcing the Spanish ships to cut their cables in order to save themselves. They never regained their anchorage. When storms swept the Spanish into the North Sea, they were scattered round the Scottish coast, and many ended up wrecked off Northern Ireland. This painting of an imagined scene shows the fire-ships running down on the Spanish fleet, with the English fleet following, although this did not happen. In the left foreground is a Spanish flagship engaged with an English vessel on her starboard side which, in turn, is engaged with a galleass on her port quarter. An English ship is running down on them from the right. Painted in about 1590, it is part of the Caird collection and was presented to the National Maritime Museum in 1938.

Object Details

ID: BHC0263
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Tudor and Stuart Seafarers Gallery
Creator: School, Netherlandish; Anthonisz, Aert
Events: Anglo-Spanish War: Spanish Armada, 1588
Date made: circa 1590
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Frame: 1120 x 1860 x 90 mm; Painting: 990 mm x 1725 mm; Overall: 39 kg;

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