Galleons and millstone collars in gold and copper colours. The Chessmen Museum has gained another true showpiece. This chess game took the long way around to the museum and it has not yet been established who made it. So we don’t know for sure what it should represent, but it looks a lot like the Spanish Armada…

The Europeans did not look forward to the year 1588, since it was written in the stars that it would be a disastrous one. The question was: for whom? The Netherlands were at war with the Spanish King Philip II at that time and had declared their independence. When rumours circulated in 1587 that Philip was setting up an enormous war fleet, an Armada, people felt that the prophecy was coming true. Both sides, however, were convinced they would receive God’s support. The Catholic Spaniards had a very different outcome in mind than the protestant Northern Netherlands though.

Destination: England

Galleon in the Armada chess game

The devout Philip was not in favour of religious tolerance. The resistance in the Netherlands had to end once and for all. His rebellious subjects, however, received support from the English Queen Elizabeth I, a fellow protestant, so she had to be eliminated first. Apart from this, Dutch and English pirates were attacking Spanish ships that came from the new Americas, which cost the king a fortune. With the help of his army from the Southern Netherlands and an invincible fleet, he would teach those islanders a lesson.

The rest of Europe was aware of what Philip was plotting. Never before had such an enormous war fleet been put together and the building and supplying of it was a logistical challenge. Once the fleet was finished, the weather was not cooperating. Storms kept the fleet in Spanish and Portuguese waters until July 1588, when it could finally move on, to the army up north. A total of 130 armed ships, including 20 huge war galleons, formed an impressive but slow-moving procession.

The English maritime defence was not bad either and consisted of almost 30 galleons. In addition, they armed hundreds of merchant vessels and privately owned ships. The English land forces were a lot less impressive though, and the Spanish invasion army of tens of thousands of soldiers would sail to England and take the country under the guidance of the Armada, so Philip thought.

Or had we better go to Zeeland?

Meanwhile, the Duke of Parma had been busy in the Southern Netherlands, collecting men and vessels for the Spanish invasion army. Rumour had it that flat bottom boats would take the soldiers to England, but in Zeeland and Holland they were a bit worried about that plan. Contrary to the deep-set galleons, flat bottom boats were extremely suitable for use in the shallow Flemish waters. Wouldn’t Parma first come their way to take over the important port city of Vlissingen?

Zeeland and Holland did not wait around. They did not have their own navy forces with warships yet, but under the guidance of Justinus van Nassau, William of Orange´s illegitimate son, armed merchant ships and fishing boats successfully blocked the Scheldt River and the Flemish coast. Parma’s flat bottom boats loaded with soldiers were unable to pass and Philip´s entire invasion plan fell apart.

The first encounter

English ships fire at the Spanish Armada.

On 29 July 1588, the Spanish Armada approached the Channel and England was in sight. They wanted to carry out a surprise attack at Plymouth, but the English were already sailing out of the harbour. Eventually the two sides met for the first time on 31 July. The battle lasted for a week until the English at Calais had a brilliant idea: they let eight burning ships in a row drift towards the Spaniards in the middle of the night.

This was not the first time this type of warfare was used, but these ships were fully loaded with guns, gunpowder, ammunition and tar, anything that could burn and make noise. Inside the wall of flames, the cannons and the gunpowder started to explode and the ammunition went off in all directions. Upon seeing and hearing this hell, which came straight at them, the Spaniards thought they were dealing with a new kind of weapon of war. They were expecting a huge explosion and, in a total panic, they tried to flee in all directions. The Armada formation had finally been broken up.

In the days that followed, the English attacked isolated Spanish ships and Justinus van Nassau was able to capture two galleons. The ships that washed ashore on the British or Dutch coast or tried to moor in order to stock up were attacked and their crew killed. The Spaniards had no food or drinking water left and diseases started to break out. Despite the enormous humiliation of the ‘Invincible Armada’, the fleet decided to sail back. It was too late though: thousands of men did not die during the battles but afterwards. The year 1588 was indeed a disaster year, but it was so for Philip II.

All in all, the Armada was a formidable and majestic fleet, just like on the chessboard in the Chessmen Museum. But who are their opponents here? The English war fleet or the rebellious Dutch and their barricades?

By Marjolein Overmeer