Mattingly Documents the Spanish Armada

Garrett Mattingly’s account of the Spanish Grand Armada in The Defeat of the Spanish Armada was quickly recognized as a classic of narrative history. It confirmed his place among the premier historians of his time.

Summary of Event

In Europe and America during the nineteenth century, the methodology of the natural sciences became the principal model for scholarly research in history. Scientific guidelines were applied to reconstruct as accurately and objectively as possible what had actually happened in a given event. Research began with the meticulous collection and evaluation of original sources, drawn from archives as well as from printed documents. These materials were then synthesized in published accounts directed mainly at other scholars. The scientific paradigm thus formulated maintained its grip on the modes of historical research and writing into the early years of the twentieth century. Defeat of the Spanish Armada, The (Mattingly)
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[kw]Mattingly Documents the Spanish Armada (1959)
[kw]Spanish Armada, Mattingly Documents the (1959)
[kw]Armada, Mattingly Documents the Spanish (1959)
Defeat of the Spanish Armada, The (Mattingly)
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[g]North America;1959: Mattingly Documents the Spanish Armada[06010]
[g]United States;1959: Mattingly Documents the Spanish Armada[06010]
[c]Historiography;1959: Mattingly Documents the Spanish Armada[06010]
[c]Publishing and journalism;1959: Mattingly Documents the Spanish Armada[06010]
Mattingly, Garrett
Merriman, Roger B.
De Voto, Bernard[Devoto, Bernard]
Schama, Simon

This nexus of science and history came under increasing challenge in the disillusionment accompanying the aftermath of World War I. The prevailing school of scientific history was deemed far too narrow and superficial because of its concentration on political, diplomatic, and military history. The real driving forces of history for the new generation of historians were the vast impersonal currents of social and economic change. A few historians even contended that no truly objective or scientific knowledge of the past was possible because of the necessarily inadequate and biased nature of the sources. Traditionalists, however, found these criticisms too speculative or exaggerated and continued to cultivate the time-honored themes of politics and war, albeit in a less congenial environment. Among the most distinguished practitioners of the old narrative history after 1940 was the American scholar Garrett Mattingly.

Born in Washington, D.C., the son of a civil engineer, Mattingly completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard University. His 1935 doctoral dissertation on a little-known Spanish diplomat in sixteenth century England reflected the strong influence of his mentor, the eminent historian of the Spanish Empire Roger B. Merriman. Anglo-Spanish relations would remain a centerpiece of Mattingly’s research interests throughout his career.

Between 1940 and the mid-1950’s, Mattingly wrote two major books. His 1941 biography of the English king Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, presented a thoroughly researched fresh perspective on her star-crossed reign. His Renaissance Diplomacy
Renaissance Diplomacy (Mattingly) (1955) traced with remarkable clarity the rise and significance of professional diplomats in early modern Europe. Mattingly’s scholarly career climaxed in 1959 with his The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, a dazzling account of the Spanish Grand Armada’s conflict with the England of Henry VIII’s Protestant daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.

Mattingly dated the genesis of his study of the Spanish Armada to the inspiring example of the English people during the Battle of Britain, early in World War II. Virtually alone, the English faced the Nazi juggernaut that had overrun virtually all of continental Europe and was then poised just across the English Channel to conquer Great Britain as well. Parallel to this situation, England in 1588 had stood virtually alone against Spain, the greatest power of that era. With its vast overseas territories, including much of Latin America, Spain constituted the largest empire in sheer territorial extent in world history. The image of an English David confronting the Spanish Goliath came readily to mind among a deeply apprehensive English people.

The Anglo-Spanish War launched by the Spanish Armada in 1588 formed the final chapter in King Philip II’s Philip II[Philip 02] attempt to reunify Europe under one faith, Catholicism, as it had been in the Middle Ages. The medieval unity had been shattered earlier in the sixteenth century by the Protestant Reformation. Under Queen Elizabeth I, Elizabeth I[Elizabeth 01] the English were determined to preserve their religious independence from Rome. England stood as the last major obstacle to Philip’s restoration of a Catholic Europe under Spanish protection.

After the failure of negotiations, Philip’s master strategy for the conquest of England involved the dispatch of a huge fleet of 130 ships carrying some thirty thousand soldiers and sailors. The great Spanish galleons and dozens of smaller sailing ships were to rendezvous just off the Netherlands coast with Philip’s finest general, the duke of Parma, and a veteran Spanish army of sixteen thousand men. The Armada’s task was to screen off any attacking English ships and thereby allow Parma’s men to cross the Channel. According to this scenario, England would quickly fall and Queen Elizabeth would be deposed in favor of a Catholic ruler, probably Philip II himself. The re-Catholicization of Protestant areas of Europe would quickly follow.

If the odds favored Philip II in theory, the reality proved otherwise. From late July through the first week of August, 1588, a series of fierce naval engagements in the Channel left the English fleet with a distinct advantage, although still far from ultimate victory. The superior speed, maneuverability, and firepower of the generally smaller English ships, coupled with the Spaniards’ lack of food and munitions, were the key factors. At any rate, the massive Spanish warships could not get close enough to their swifter counterparts to engage in the grappling and boarding operations so crucial to their success.

On August 9, the plight of the Spanish fleet turned suddenly from serious to desperate. Rapidly shifting gale force winds not only prevented the Spanish fleet from protecting the duke of Parma’s crossing of the Channel but also drove the floundering ships ever northward. Over the following weeks, the remnants of the Armada were swept by the wind out of the Channel and beyond the range of any possible meeting with Parma. Ultimately, their course took them around Scotland and down the west coast of Ireland to a humiliating return home to Spain. More vessels and men were lost en route. Overall, more than one-third of the fleet perished and all the first-line ships suffered significant damage. Some two-thirds of the men had died from battle wounds, drowning, or disease. This was the essence of the story that Mattingly recounted in The Defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Previous accounts of the Armada had focused almost exclusively on the actions of the two combatants, England and Spain. Mattingly placed the conflict within the much broader setting of European affairs. He described at the outset the basic motives and diplomatic maneuverings of all the parties with a direct stake in the outcome of the battle, that is, the French, the Dutch, and the papacy, as well as the English and the Spanish. A series of short chapters on each regime produced a kaleidoscopic “history-in-the-round” effect and a deeper understanding of the war’s background. Mattingly borrowed this device, known as “simultaneity,” from fellow historian Bernard De Voto.

Mattingly strove in The Defeat of the Spanish Armada for an objective, even-handed approach, rather than the undisguised bias so often evident in previous accounts. He was consistent in following the evidence where it led. Because Mattingly wrote for nonspecialist readers, he dispensed with the usual scholarly footnotes. For specialists, he did list the basic archival and printed documentary sources on which his narrative was based.

Mattingly wrote in a lean, compressed style appropriate to his topic and proved especially adept at describing the character and motivations of the prominent leaders. He noted, for example, the haunting half-smile of Mary, Queen of Scots, as she faced execution. Also memorable was the astonishingly stoic response of King Philip II as he received, deep in his fortress palace near Madrid, the news of the Armada’s fate. Such vivid details came invariably from original sources, especially from diaries, memoirs, and state papers. Finally, like a historical novelist or mystery writer, Mattingly perfected the literary technique of sustained suspense.

The destruction of the Armada through English seamanship and wretched weather permanently ended Philip II’s dream of re-Catholicizing Europe. In this respect above all, it marked the end of an era. As Mattingly noted, the history of Europe and realms far beyond, like America, would likely have been very different had the Armada vanquished the English fleet in 1588 and Spain conquered England.


The Defeat of the Spanish Armada was quickly hailed as a triumph of traditional narrative history. In 1960, it received a special Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;history and had already become a best seller. Its unique style, structure, and use of sources had an acknowledged influence on such later scholars as the celebrated British historian Simon Schama, although his work followed the postmodern approach to history. Mattingly demonstrated conclusively in his book that first-rate history could still be written within the old framework of political, diplomatic, and military history, rooted in the scientific method. It could also coexist with the newer trends in historiography.

The Defeat of the Spanish Armada would continue to be read both by specialists and by the general reading public, a rare marriage of popular appeal and serious scholarship. For Mattingly, narrative history should be a well-written story of what happened and why, based on the best evidence available. Defeat of the Spanish Armada, The (Mattingly)
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Further Reading

  • Carter, Charles H., ed. From the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation: Essays in Honor of Garrett Mattingly. New York: Random House, 1965. The first two chapters contain moving testimonials to Mattingly as historian and teacher.
  • Friguglietti, James. “Mattingly, James.” In American Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 3. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Especially perceptive on the innovation and importance of Mattingly’s work in The Defeat of the Spanish Armada.
  • Kelly, Boyd, ed. Encyclopedia of Historical Writing. Vol. 2. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999. Supplements Friguglietti, especially in the bibliographical citations of the old literature.
  • Mattingly, Garrett. “The Historian of the Spanish Empire.” American Historical Review 54 (1948), 32-48. In paying tribute to his Harvard mentor Roger B. Merriman, Mattingly describes the main principles and methods that shaped his own approach to the study and writing of history.

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