By the late 16th Century Spain's fearsome army of professional soldiers had established an Empire which brought rich rewards of silver and gold, but also incurred expensive liabilities as the territorial possessions were all remote from their home country.
With hostile France sitting between Spain and its European empire, funds, supplies and recruits had to be sent by sea through the Mediterranean or across the Bay of Biscay and up the English Channel.
In 1571 Spain and her allies destroyed the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto, temporarily removing the threat from the expanding Muslim power of the eastern Mediterranean. This great battle comprised large fleets of galleys rowing towards each other at great speed, firing their front-facing cannon and crashing together in preparation for hand to hand fighting between the Sultan's Janissary Army and the Tercios of Spain, ably assisted by Christian galley-slaves freed during the battle.
Spanish fleets sent to the North Sea were less successful, suffering serious defeats at the hands of the Dutch ‘Sea Beggars' in 1573-4 and the wrecking of a number of galleons trying to enter Dunkirk harbour. Shortly afterwards Dutch Republic successes saw the Spanish lose Antwerp(?) and Dunkirk.
The Spanish recovered some of their reputation with convincing victory over a French fleet in the Azores in 1580, and the recapture of Dunkirk in 1583, which Spanish Privateers used as a base of operations against Dutch, English and French shipping.
Spanish attacks on Antwerp in 1585 were repelled by Frederigo Gambelli's ‘Hellburner' devices - disguised as conventional fire-ships these were actually particularly nasty combinations of gunpowder and directed shrapnel.
In 1586 the Spanish felt confident enough to send the Great Armada against England.
The tactics of galleons and other fighting ships were similar to those of galleys, with a broadside being fired before closing in and boarding the enemy for close combat between soldiers. The armada carried large numbers of soldiers, but Spanish ships' cannons, not intended to be used continuously in battle, were relatively inefficient. Howard, Raleigh and Hawkins kept their distance, but although this ensured they could not be boarded it also meant they could do little damage to the Spanish ships. When the Armada anchored off Calais to await news of the Duke of Parma's invasion force lack of support from the Spanish ships in Flanders left it vulnerable to fire-ships. The possibility of fire onboard wooden ships loaded with gunpowder was a constant factor in sailors' lives but it was greatly exacerbated on this occasion by rumours that Giambelli was in the English fleet.
The Spanish Armada weighed anchor to escape the suspected Hellburners and became disorganised, allowing the manoeuvrable English ships to use their more effective cannon to great advantage. As is well known the Spanish attempt to escape from the sandbanks off the Flemish Coast, through the North Sea, around Scotland and past Ireland ended in disaster.
Successive fleets sent to gain revenge for the defeat of the ‘Invincible' Armada met no better fate, and the Dutch and English expanded their trade and the size of their fleets, taking the lion's share of trade in the North Sea and the Baltic.
The multiple defeats, in northern waters, of Spanish Fleets - composed of a mix of galleons designed for military use and merchant vessels hired from their owners and adapted for warfare - led to proposals for the development of a strong Spanish naval policy. By the early 1590s a Dunkirk Fleet employing galleys, some of which had been transferred from the Mediterranean, was established to attack the Dutch fishing fleet and the merchantmen of the Dutch Provinces and England. Armed with modern cannon that became available at the cessation of the war against France, and supplemented by privateers, they met with great success. According to Waylen – ‘The House of Cromwell and the Story of Dunkirk' – it was claimed in the English House of Commons the Flemish had inflicted more damage on commerce than the whole French navy in the previous hundred years – even landing on the coast of Cornwall on several occasions. Their actions supported the Spanish war in Flanders and in November 1603 Spinola rewarded the galley-slaves by granting them their freedom.
At this time the Spanish Mediterranean Fleet was largely galleys; galleons were mainly employed in escorting the Silver Fleet to guarantee the annual arrival of plunder from South and Central America. 1607 the Dutch surprised and destroyed a Spanish fleet of 10 galleons in Gibraltar harbour, forcing Spain to agree to a ceasefire and temporary recognition of the Dutch State's autonomy. Despite their heavy losses to the Dutch, the Spanish inflicted major defeats of the Ottomans in the Battles of Cape Corvo (1613) and Cape Celidonia (1616) which halted the Ottoman advance across the Mediterranean.
Proposals put forward in 1618 were for a Flanders Fleet to be a mix of Privateers and King's ships formed to attack Dutch fishing fleets and merchantmen with the dual aim of funding themselves – building and operating a fleet was an expensive undertaking - and weakening the Dutch Republic. 20 purpose-built warships of shallower draft, more suited to northern waters, more manoeuvrable and more able to avoid catastrophe on the numerous shifting sandbanks of the Channel and Flanders coast, would be built in Ostend where supplies of wood and chandlery were less difficult to come by than in Spain. Known as frigates they would be designed to carry a full complement of modern cast iron guns. They would be supplemented by Privateers encouraged to enrich themselves by taking Dutch prizes. The discovery of a new channel entrance to Dunkirk harbour led to the building of a large fort at New Mardyke to provide safe passage under shore based cannon and the adoption of Dunkirk as a base.
Initial problems caused by Dutch blockades were overcome and within a few years the strategy was proving successful. The self-inflicted defeat of the English, along with their Dutch allies, in the Duke of Buckingham's Expedition to Cadiz in 1625 exposed the Dutch fishing fleet to the attacks of the Dunkirkers who sank or captured twenty warships and more than a hundred fishing boats. Such success led to King Philip announcing the Dunkirk Fleet would be increased to 50 warships, but it seems unlikely this was ever achieved, but the years to 1630 saw increased success for the Dunkirk Fleet with rich pickings from the English who had declared was in 1625. Increased demands upon the Dunkirk Fleet, including the provisioning of the Spanish Army in Flanders, protection for large commercial convoys, and even fighting against the Barbary States, saw the improvements developed in northern waters passed on to other fleets. The expansion of the Atlantic Fleet to 100 galleons facilitated a great increase in transport of South American silver across the Atlantic in the Treasure Fleets and a consequent increase in the trade in spices and other luxuries, and the Spaniards won many seaborne encounters, restoring the reputation of their navy.
These victories came at great cost in ships and sailors, but the 1630s saw peace with England and the continued success of the Dunkirk Fleet against Dutch fishing fleets, capturing their armed escorts and cannon for use elsewhere and stripping the fishing boats of valuable maritime assets. France's declaration of war came as no surprise, but the Spanish navy rose to the challenge of an extra enemy fleet. In 1638 a eulogy to King Philip IV claimed that since 1621 84 naval victories had been won and 1900 enemy warships captured.
Unfortunately, in August 1638 the newly built French Atlantic Fleet scored a significant victory at Guetaria on the northern coast of Spain. Although the results of this victory were short-lived this was the first French success against the Spanish navy in many years. Later, in 1639, the Spanish suffered another defeat in the Battle of the Downs when a large fleet transporting 9,000 soldiers and 3 million escudos bullion from Spain to Flanders was trapped in the Downs by the Dutch. The Dunkirk contingent of the fleet managed to smuggle most of the reinforcements and all of the bullion to Dunkirk in their frigates – their shallow draft and ability to be rowed across the sandbanks making possible this dramatic escape. Nonetheless the loss of about thirty galleons was significant as far as the Spanish navy was concerned. and Spanish losses (in Brazil?) etc
Although the Dutch subsequently neglected their navy, the growth of the English Parliamentarian fleet, under the able command of Blake, proved too much for the Spanish whose priorities were elsewhere. Their gradual withdrawal of the majority of the frigates from Dunkirk to help the Atlantic Fleet led to a loss of their ability to contest the northern waters.
The privateers of Dunkirk continued in their successful attacks on commercial shipping until in 1642 the English Civil War removed Charles from London bringing to an end the Stuart policies helping to sustain Dunkirk. Lack of help from across the channel made a joint Dutch and French attack on Dunkirk more feasible, and the requirement for Spain to gather all its might to defend its Castillian homeland drew military resources of all kinds away from Flanders.
French military victory at Rocroi in 1644 left Dunkirk vulnerable and in 1645 the Privateers' base fell to France and the remaining ships transferred to Spain.
Parliament's indecision as to supporting France or Spain led to English destruction of a French relief fleet in 1652 and the Spanish retook Dunkirk and began planning a revival of privateering exploits. Three years later Cromwell's ‘Western Design' took the contest into the Spanish Caribbean, with an attempt to take Spanish Santo Domingo, Hispaniola. In return the privateers of Dunkirk - now including English Royalists and Dutch as well as many other nationalities - reaped great rewards by taking English ships.
But for the Spanish this was merely a final flourish at the end of the story of the Dunkirk Fleet. In 1657 Cromwell sent 6,000 New Model Army soldiers to assist the French in Flanders and a large fleet to blockade Dunkirk in exchange for the keys to the town once the Spanish had been ejected. The Battle of the Dunes in 1658 saw the defeat of the Spanish Flanders Army, the English occupation of Dunkirk and the end of the Spanish Dunkirk Fleet.
The following year Blake and Montague blockaded the Spanish ports and captured a Treasure Fleet on its arrival at Cadiz one of only two successful interceptions ever achieved. The resurgence of the Dutch, with large, purpose built warships to match the English, added another fleet capable of challenging the Spanish, and led to the decline of Spanish naval authority. Spain then used the Mediterranean to access the ‘Spanish Road' land-based routes to supply and reinforce their armies in Spanish Flanders and outside the Mediterranean concentrated their naval efforts on protecting their trans-Atlantic Treasure Fleets.
So although the Spanish had pretty well abandoned hopes of competing in the English Channel and the North Sea they remained a force to be reckoned with in the Atlantic and Mediterranean Seas, and could pose a serious threat to English Tangier.
Stradling, RA, The Armada of Flanders
Phillips CR, Six Galleons for the King of Spain, John Hopkins University Press