In this critique of The Armada , I will identify Garrett Mattingly's purpose in writing this book and how well he fulfilled his purpose. Also I will evaluate the merits and shortcomings of this book in relation to the themes, sources used, and the author's writing style.

Author's Purpose

Garrett Mattingly stated he first thought of writing an account of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in June 1940. He said the idea attracted him because: "it seemed there might have some interest in replacing the narrative of in the broader European context in which it had once been viewed but from which, in the peaceful years before 1914, it had become more and more detached "(v).

The broader European context Mattingly referred to was the division of the European countries based on their religion. Thus, this was not just a battle between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, but rather between European Protestants and European Catholics in all countries.

Author's Theme

Mattingly intimated that many accounts of the naval war between (primarily) England and Spain gave economic interests as the motivating factor. To historians such as AT Mahan, the conflict "seemed to be the command of the ocean seas and the opportunity to exploit the newly discovered routes to Asia and the Americas" and that they found it "absurd and shocking to fight about the relative validity of conflicting systems of ideas "(v). Of course, the "conflicting systems of ideas" was Catholicism and Protestantism. Thus, throughout his book, Mattingly described numerous times how the major players in the drama (and minor characters) believed they were fighting a Holy War, "a final struggle to the death between the forces of light and forces of darkness" (v) . For example, a Spanish officer had no doubt that they would defeat the English, because "it [was] well known that we fight in God's cause ….. God will surely arrange matters so that we can grapple and board [the English (216).

The English Protestants, who precipitated the war by executing Mary, Queen of Scots, felt that they were saving England and other European countries from the tyranny of the papacy. In contrast to other historians, Mattingly's predominant theme was to show how the European countries were still so deeply divided due to conflicting ideologies and how each side strove to unify Europe religiously. A good example of this deep division was seen in the actions of Sir William Stanley. Stanley was English, but was also Catholic. He was forced to choose between betraying his country or betraying his faith. He chose "to serve God" (49).

Author's Writing Style

Not being a prolific admirer of military history, I approached this book with the idea that this account of warfare (like numerous others I have read) would be extremely dull. I was very surprised and pleased to discover I was wrong on that point. Mattingly wrote in a suspenseful manner that kept me turning pages to find out what would happen next. He kept my interest by ending his chapters with a teasing foreshadowing of what would follow in the next chapter. For example, in chapter eleven, which detailed Sir Francis Drake's raid of the Spanish coast, Mattingly wrote:

Drake had already so confused and disrupted Spanish plans that few supplies moved for a month after he was gone, and no Spanish Armada could sail that year for England, whether the English were still off Cape St. Vincent or not (128).

This suspenseful writing of Mattingly's kept the reader motivated to find out what Drake would do next, and what the Spanish response would be to this invasion of their country.

Another aspect of Mattingly's writing style that was different from most military histories was the addition of personality characteristics of the major players in this drama. Images of Elizabeth mourning the death of her cousin, even though she signed her execution warrant, gave the reader glimpses of the Virgin Queen (or Jezebel, as she was called by the Catholics) as a very complex, fascinating character.

I also enjoyed very much how Mattingly intertwined the rather monotonous descriptions of the battles with many illustrations of court intrigues, diplomatic matters, and political maneuvers that England and Spain both employed. For example, Mattingly asserted that Queen Elizabeth's primary motive to delay Mary's execution was to deter Philip of Spain from attacking England, since "Elizabeth's ruin" would mean "the triumph of Mary Stuart" (26). Therefore, Philip had great interest in ensuring that Mary would not ascend the throne in England, which would unite it with France.

On the negative side, I did spot a few details that were inconsistent, and some that were, frankly, unbelievable. For instance, early in the narrative, Mattingly wrote that "early in the 1580s" the "Enterprise of England began to be a definite plan" (75). If that is accurate, then it is incredible that in 1587-88, the Spanish navy was still so unprepared for a naval war as Mattingly described in chapter seventeen. This is even more surprising considering that Spain had been fighting in Holland already for some time. Perhaps there was a reason why Philip should still be so unprepared to fight England years after he began to plan for it, but if so, Mattingly made no mention of it.

Author's Sources

Mattingly used, for the most part, primary sources such as correspondence between the major personalities in the war, and other reports and papers written during this time period. Mattingly very wisely studied the documents held in the state archives of all the primary countries involved in this conflict, ie England, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Italy, as well as the Catholic archives in the Vatican. This was important to do, because naturally, each side would present their own versions of events to put themselves in the best possible light.

Mattingly also referred to a few secondary sources, such as Sir Julian Corbett's Drake and the Tudor Navy (1899), and the more recent account The Enterprise of England by Thomas Woodroffe (1958).


I much enjoyed reading this narrative of the battle between England and Spain. For one thing, it eliminated the perception I had picked up from somewhere that the English victory was an extraordinary circumstance. For some reason, I had believed that the Spanish naval force was superior and had been expected to defeat England, instead of the actual occurrence of England being the better-equipped navy. This is a good book, as Mattingly's writing style of combining the battle descriptions with more interesting accounts of court intrigues, diplomatic relations, and political machinations, with occasional humorous anecdotes kept the interest of the reader.

Source by Mary Arnold

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