For seven years after the scattering of the Armada in 1588, Spain and its allies the French Catholic League, seriously threatened to dominate Western Europe by securing control of . . . the ‘invasion coasts’ facing England across the Channel and the Narrow Seas.

It is believed that the wreck is the ship that was referred to in a letter from Sir John Norreys to Queen Elizabeth I’s Chief Minister, Lord Burghley, dated 29th November 1592 in which he writes:

…I have yet hard nothinge but that tow packets sent from your L: sins my coming over are lost in a shypp that was cast away about Alderney…

During the second half of the sixteenth century Europe was dominated by religious conflict between the Protestant north and the Catholic south. The crucial period was from 1588 to 1595. As the Alderney ship with its cargo of firearms, bladed weapons, armour and ordnance, so perfectly illustrates, these were perilous years in which the shape and freedom of Europe was at stake. They were, however, extremely complicated times. Because of this and because the period did not end in great decisive battles, this has become one of the most neglected areas of English history.

In popular imagination, the Elizabethan struggle with Spain under Philip II is dominated by the exploits of Drake, Hawkins and Raleigh and the defeat of the ‘Invincible’ invasion fleet of 1588. In truth the naval events of this period were but a side-show, for this was a struggle for western Europe, it was a continental war the storm centre of which was France.

Nor, as most imagine, did the Spanish threat to England end with the destruction of the Armada. Thanks to New World gold and silver, Spain was still the richest country in the world with still the finest army. ‘For seven years after the scattering of the Armada in 1588 (wrote Prof. R. B. Wernham), Spain and its allies the French Catholic League seriously threatened to dominate Western Europe by securing control of the French crown, the nascent Dutch Republic, and with them the ‘invasion coasts’ facing England across the Channel and the Narrow Seas’. The danger of invasion during this period, was as real as it was in later centuries from Louis XIV, Napoleon I, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler, but as Spain had learned to its bitter cost with the Armada, for any seaborne assault on England to succeed, it must first secure a deep-water port that fronted directly on to England from across the Channel.

The situation came to a head in 1590 when Spanish troops marched south from the Low Counties and into France as far as the Seine. By then, not only did Spain control the north but, more worryingly, it also dominated Picardy and Normandy to the South. In addition Paris and the strategically vital port of Le Havre were in the hands of Philip’s allies. Even more alarming to Elizabeth and her ministers (who were still raw from the events of 1588) was the high likelihood that Britanny would soon fall. The situation was summarized by Professor Wernham; ‘what if’, he wrote, ‘the Spanish army from the Netherlands (should) link hands with the Spanish troops in Brittany? Might not Elizabeth then face, in 1591 or 1592, a more formidable invasion than her father (Henry VIII) had faced in 1545? For if all northern France, as well as Flanders, should fall under Spanish control, then a new Armada would have at its disposal not only Brest but all the French Channel ports (including) Le Havre, the ‘Newhaven’ from which Francis I had launched the 1545 invasion, (and which) was the only place between Brest and Flushing capable of harbouring and serving as advanced base for a great fleet of large warships … (that was) the nightmare that was to haunt Elizabeth and her advisors for several years to come and to bring, in 1591-2, the supreme crisis of the struggle for Western Europe’. It was to prevent such a scenario that, in October 1592, Elizabeth sent troops into Britanny under the command of the most famous soldier of the day, Sir John Norreys.

This, in broad strokes, is the background against which the Alderney Elizabethan wreck must be understood. If, indeed, it is the ‘shypp’ that was lost off Alderney while carrying dispatches from Lord Burghley to Sir John Norreys, then it dates to 1592 and was directly involved in the events of the ‘crises years’.

Bibliography

MaCaffrey, W., 1992, Elizabeth I: War and Politics 1588 – 1603, Princeton
Monaghan, J. and Bound M., 2001, A Ship Cast Away about Alderney, Guernsey, 157 -175
Wernham, R. B., 1984, After the Armada, Oxford University Press