Mar 22, 2007

Book Review: The Armada

Mattingly, Garrett

Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959 (2005), 443 pages

Garrett Mattingly specialized in European history at Columbia University and he received a special citation from the Pulitzer committee in 1960 for The Armada. Despite its age, the book remains an essential component of early modern European historiography. Combining political, military, and diplomatic history, The Armada debunks some long-held myths about the 1588 conflict between the naval forces of Spain and England. Moreover, Mattingly brought a human dimension to many of the historical figures about whom he wrote, and readers leave the text with a greater appreciation of the struggles faced by such personages as Elizabeth I, Philip II, and Henry III. Finally, Mattingly was a brilliant writer whose works read more like novels than historical monographs, bringing a resplendent sense of prose to a genre whose practitioners often eschew aesthetics in their development of historical literature.

One of the most important contributions of The Armada is the effort by Mattingly to place the 1588 naval battle between Spain and England in a wider European context. Unlike earlier works – such as Julian Corbett’s Drake and the Tudor Navy (1899) – that oversimplified the conflict as a two-nation struggle for naval dominance, Mattingly recognized that there were many other factors that ultimately influenced the decision by Philip II to launch his fleet, including the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain, the War of the Three Henrys, and the effects of the Counter-Reformation on European politics. In addition, the author avoided historical hyperbole in his evaluation of the significance of the English victory, noting that the English possessed a formidable navy long before the Channel battle, and that Spain continued to be a dominant naval power in the decades after the loss. More importantly, Mattingly noted that “more American treasure reached Spain in the years between 1588 and 1603 than in any other fifteen years in Spanish history.”

Alonso de Guzmán El Bueno, 7th Duke of Medina SidoniaAlonso de Guzmán El Bueno, 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia

One of the principal aims of the author was to rehabilitate the historical reputation of Don Alonso Pérez de Guzmán el Bueno, the oft-maligned Duke of Medina Sidonia, appointed by Philip II to lead the Armada. Mattingly noted that Medina Sidonia assumed control only after the sudden death of the marquis of Santa Cruz, a mere one week before the original launch date of the Armada. He inherited a fleet in disarray, and many of his ships did not have sufficient food, water, or ammunition for the upcoming battle. In addition, the assitance that the Duke of Parma was supposed to provide Medina Sidonia never materialized, and the invasion force that Philip II expected Medina Sidonia to protect remained stranded on the shores of Dunkirk. Finally, the storms that lashed the battered Spanish ships in the North Sea and around the coast of Ireland – wrecking dozens of ships and taking the lives of thousands of Spanish soldiers and sailors – could hardly be blamed on Medina Sidonia.

Mattingly’s text does not contain footnotes, although he provided extensive notes for each chapter as appendices. The author included a brief historiographical essay on primary and secondary sources, and there are over a dozen pages of photographs of relevant artwork. The text also includes a cross-referenced index and several detailed maps that help readers become familiar with the precise geography of this epic battle in the English Channel. Mattingly also makes a convincing case for the importance of the behind-the-scenes role played by Bernardino de Mendoza, Philip II’s ambassador to France from 1584-90.

Henry III of France, also known as "Henry of Valois"

Perhaps Mattingly’s greatest strength, though, was his ability to tell a compelling story. The author filled the pages of The Armada with engrossing details about the people and events surrounding this historical drama; rather than, for example, simply noting the sexual attraction that French king Henry III displayed for men, Mattingly’s words bring this historical character to life in a way that few authors can pull off:
That carnival season in 1587 was feverishly gay… At intervals the merrymakers would froth out from the light and the music of the Louvre to cut capers in the public streets while His Most Christian Majesty in one odd disguise or another, but most often in that of a maid of honor, whopped and giggled in the center of a knot of those handsome young courtiers the Parisians called his mignons.

One leaves The Armada with much more than another dry analysis of military history, learning as much about the people who planned, executed, and waited for news of the battle as one does with ship formations, artillery devices, and military strategy.


News Grinder said...

How fast can you read, Mike? I'm always amazed by how many book reviews you post. I'd still be going through the contents page in the book you reviewed a few days ago, and here you've already read and reviewed another book.

microdot said...

Finally, a book that I don't have to drool over, one that I've owned for years and can stand rereading.
I have to get a new copy though, when he was a puppy, my dog ate parts of pages 17 to 20 dealing with the implications of Mary Queen of Scots execution.
It's one of the most entertaining historical works I've ever read!

historymike said...

News Grinder:

I read 2-3 books a week on the average, sometimes more. Most of what I review here are books I read as a historian.

I am finishing my PhD, and for the comprehensive exams candidates are expected to master a minimum of 100-150 books. These reviews help me distill what I read, plus give me something to review before comps next year.

historymike said...


This is truly a great book. Many times historical texts get dated after 20 years or so, but this one is still fresh.