This is the fourth post in a week long series about an exhibition at Exeter’s museum. Click on pictures for enlargements.
Politically, the south west was of crucial importance during Elizabeth’s reign when hostilities with Spain put Devon and Cornwall in the front line. This drew the region into events of national importance, but these events were also experienced on a local level and were of particular significance for the region. The 1588 Spanish Armada is probably the best known event of Elizabeth’s realm, and is certainly the most iconic, but for the south west things didn’t end there: two more invasion fleets sailed for Britain in 1596 and 1597. From the exhibition catalogue I learned that the region had in fact had been repeatedly strengthened militarily during the Tudor era – forts were constructed at western harbours in the reign of Henry VIIII, including the impressive examples at St Mawes (1543) and Pendennis (1546). In Elizabeth’s reign, Plymouth’s St Nicholas Island was heavily fortified in 1583-85 and Sir Richard Grenville was given command of the defence of Devon and Cornwall in March 1587, when he readied the equipment and defences of the peninsula. Anxieties remained high throughout the 1590s, Plymouth received more fortifications, and a small force landed at Mousehole, Newlyn and Penryn in 1595, doing extensive damage when they set them afire.
But it was the 1588 Spanish Armada that really became embedded in national consciousness and whose memory has endured. This is surely because the failed invasion was accorded with such importance at the time. Special forms of prayer were issued by the government giving thanks for the nation’s deliverance, and celebrations marking the defeat became a regular fixture in a rapidly developing new national ‘Protestant’ calendar, as David Cressy has documented. In the epic struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, God appeared to have revealed his hand, assisting the numerically inferior and poorer Protestant forces to miraculously defeat the mighty fleet of a Catholic superpower. This was not a mere fluke convergence of bad weather and inspired naval leadership, this was a providential deliverance. The ‘Protestant wind’ that sent the Spanish ships into disarray was proof of God’s special care and protection of his chosen people, those Protestants who professed the ‘true’ faith.
Even at the time the iconography of the Armada was well developed (again giving lie to the ‘iconophobia’ discussed in a previous post). If you see a crescent of tall masted ships you are probably looking at a representation of the Armada of 1588, and there a few examples of these crescents in the RAMM’s exhibition. Most obviously, there is the ‘Armada Portrait’ of Elizabeth I, so called because the queen is framed by two images of the naval action. Above the queen’s left shoulder the English ships are shown bravely sailing towards a confrontation with the Spanish fleet in its distinctive crescent formation; over her right shoulder a wreckage strewn seascape represents the remains of the once proud Spanish fleet.
The exhibition also houses a wonderful series of exquisite hand coloured engravings, telling the story of the engagements off the Devon and Cornish coasts. The engravings were produced by Augustine Ryther from charts which recorded the route of the Armada around the coast. They really do provide the story of the events – this black and white copy shows the recognisable crescent shape of the fleet, and collapses the timing of the events so that two parts of the action are shown simultaneously, creating an easily understood narrative. This is a technique that I often encounter when examining early printed material with my students, particularly those ballads and broadsheets that seem to be aimed at the least literate members of society.
The prints are similar to the tapestries that were hung in Parliament in 1650. Commissioned in 1592, the ten tapestries were enormously expensive, costing £1,582 (the equivalent of 87 years wages for a labourer in 1590); and enormous in size: we think they measured 14 feet in height and between 17 and 28 feet in width. In 1650 they found their way into the Houses of Parliament, where they were mentioned in debate on several occasions. As if further evidence were needed of the longevity and significance of the Spanish Armada, in 1798 when there were concerns about a possible French invasion, the artist James Gillray was commissioned to produce images that would rouse patriotic fervour in the English people – the series of satirical prints he produced included one (above) depicting a French Admiral ordering his men to destroy the Armada tapestries.
Finally, amongst other Armada memorabilia in the collection there is also a commemorative medal similar to the one in the picture. These were not only produced in England but also in other Protestant nations, indicating the way that the defeat of Catholic Spain reverberated throughout Europe, an important symbolic victory for international Protestantism. The medal in the RAMM collection is from the Netherlands. In the 1580s the Dutch United Provinces were in revolt against Catholic Spain, and Spanish hostilities against the English were in part an attempt to stop the English aiding their European Protestant allies.
The museum medal depicts the Armada in its familiar crescent shape. It bears the famous inscription ‘Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt’ (with ‘Jehovah’ in Hebrew letters, the Tetragrammaton יהוה): ‘Jehovah blew with His wind and they were scattered’. It is a reference to Job 4: 8-11:
Even as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same.
By the blast of God they perish, and by the breath of his nostrils are they consumed.
The roaring of the lion, and the voice of the fierce lion, and the teeth of the young lions, are broken.
The old lion perisheth for lack of prey, and the stout lion’s whelps are scattered abroad. [King James Version]
References like this are deeply suggestive of one of the ways that Protestantism was changing English society. Scriptural allusions were commonplace, and from the way that they are used (casually, briefly) it strongly suggests that people were expected to recognise them and the deeper religious truths that they stood for. Job has of course already cropped up in this series of posts (see day two, domestic decoration), here the brief quotation serves a similar purpose as an image: a reminder, a prompt to reflection, a stepping stone to a more profound appreciation of one’s own faith.
In the final post tomorrow: a round up of the prominent themes.
‘West Country to World’s End: the South West in the Tudor Age’ runs until 2 March 2014 at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. You can find all the details about the museum, it’s opening times, it’s wonderful café and more here.
Sam Smiles (ed.), West Country to World’s End: The South West in the Tudor Age [essays to accompany the RAMM exhibition].
David Cressy, ‘The Spanish Armada: Celebration, Myth and Memory’, in J. Doyle and B. Moore (eds), England and the Spanish Armada (Canberra, 1990) or Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (London, 1989).