Philip II of Spain was, without question, the most powerful ruler in Europe during the 1580s. A zealous Catholic, he felt it was his role to eliminate heretical Protestantism from the continent. At the same time, he envisioned a Spanish empire that would stretch from the Baltic to the New World. As his country's relationship with England faltered, Philip began to prepare for what he hoped would be the first link in a chain of events to achieve his goals. He decided to invade England. The result was not what Philip had hoped, but led instead to the defeat of the Spanish Armada, one of the major events of Elizabeth I's reign and of European history in that period.
Neil Hanson, using a wide range of sources, recreates the period and personalities in both countries in magnificent detail in his The Confident Hope of a Miracle: The True History of the Spanish Armada. He explores the diplomatic, military and commercial aspects of the event as seen from the highest level Philip and Elizabeth and their numerous advisors and military leaders and from the lowest the galley slaves and seamen. As Hanson shows, the outcome came as a surprise to many ("some felt that the mere sight of [the Armada] would be enough to make Elizabeth capitulate"). Others, however, were not so certain of victory. The Venetian ambassador in Madrid noted that the Englishmen bear "a name above all the West for being expert and enterprising in maritime affairs, and the finest fighters upon the sea . . . for the English never yield."English ships that were not only faster and easier to maneuver, but were also, Hanson writes, "armed with weapons that were, by the standards of the day, precision engineered, delivering projectiles with greater frequency, velocity and accuracy, over a greater range."Hanson also portrays the sharp contrast between the two royal leaders. Philip, austere and remote, consulted with others, yet remained the grand strategist. He had known battle only once, but, having ruled for 30 years, did not lack self-confidence. Neither did Elizabeth, though Morgan believes, "It was evident that neither the Queen nor her ministers had the slightest comprehension of the tactics that had brought her fleet to victory."Hanson's riveting narrative enlightens and stimulates our thinking about a major turning point in European history. Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and frequent contributor to BookPage.