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One English Ship Took on a Fleet of 53 Spanish Ships—and Almost Won

HMS Revenge was aptly named.

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  • English ships and the Spanish Armada, 1588.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In August of 1591, the English ship HMS Revenge was off the coast of the Island of Flores in the Azores, part of a blockade meant to strangle the Spanish government’s constant stream of treasure from its New World empire. The Spanish knew the English ships were there, and convened an overwhelming force of more than 50 ships to meet them.

The English crews were caught with their pants down: amid repairing their ships and suffering from a fever epidemic, many were ashore when the Spanish fleet first appeared. 21 ships of the English fleet managed to slip away. One of them, the Revenge, decided to stay and fight. Outmanned, outclassed, and outnumbered, Revenge fought through the night and almost won the day. 

HMS Revenge had been a constant thorn in the side of the Spanish for years before she met the Spanish fleet off the coast of Flores. She was a pint-sized powerhouse, compared to the large ships of the time; just 400 tons, but packing dozens of guns. It was Sir Francis Drake’s flagship at Gravelines when the English struck the first blows against the Spanish Armada

Drake sailed on the Revenge the next year when the English Armada attempted to destroy what was left of Spain’s fleet. After Drake fell out out favor with Queen Elizabeth I, Revenge still preyed on the Spanish treasure fleets bringing gold to Europe from South America. The plucky English ship was a high priority target for the Spanish Navy by the time they met at Flores. 

In 1591, Revenge was commanded by Sir Richard Grenville, a noble who had a lot of wartime experience, both on the ground and the high seas. When the Spanish appeared, 100 of Grenville’s men were ashore, recovering from illness. Rather than run away and leave them, he stood to fight, sailing right at the oncoming enemy fleet. 

hms revenge
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  • 'Sir Richard Grenville's Gallant Defence of the Revenge'.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

For more than 15 hours, his weakened crew fought galleon after Spanish galleon, able to dodge much of the enemy’s fire, while inflicting serious damage on each in turn. After one was forced to retreat from the battle, another would take its place. The same happened against boarders, when vessels three times the size of Revenge would attempt to land boarding parties. The crew fought them off and the Spanish ships were forced to withdraw. She took down 16 Spanish ships in the fighting.

The lopsided numbers soon became too much for the crew of the Revenge. Eventually, she began to take massive amounts of hits from the enemy guns. After dawn broke the next day, all three of the ship’s masts had been shot away, there was six feet of water in its hold, and the Revenge was out of gunpowder. Grenville tried to scuttle the ship, but the crew surrendered instead. He died of his wounds as a prisoner. 

The Revenge was captured by the Spanish fleet, but neither she nor the fleet would make it back to Spain. As Revenge sailed off the coast of the island of Terceira, she ran into a massive hurricane. Revenge was swept up onto the rocks of the island, which, coupled with the damage she received at Flores, caused the ship to break up completely. The Spanish fleet lost another 15 ships to the storm. In the years following the Battle of Flores, Revenge and her crew were immortalized in a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet”.

“Ship after ship, the whole night long, their high-built galleons came,

Ship after ship, the whole night long, with her battle-thunder and flame;

Ship after ship, the whole night long, drew back with her dead and her shame.

For some were sunk and many were shattered, and so could fight us no more –

God of battles, was ever a battle like this in the world before?”