Venice: May 1589

Pages 433-441

Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 8, 1581-1591. Originally published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1894.

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May 1589

May 13. Original Despatch, Venetian Archives. 828. Tomaso Contarini, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, to the Doge and Senate.
The King is at the Escurial. The journey to Valladolid has been delayed, though the King has a mind to it. All those who are called on to serve on this journey are preparing for it. Militia to the amount of 6,600 is being called out, but it is inferior in quality of men and horses, though report will exaggerate their number and their worth. The Constable of Castille will take the command. He is young and will do more through his ability than through his experience. The reasons why his Majesty undertakes this journey against the advise of his doctors, to the danger of his health and at great trouble, are possibly three. First to repress seditions which easily arise in Portugal where the population is so impatient of the present rule that neither the severity of penalties, nor the garrisons of soldiers, nor the ability of governors have succeeded in quieting these contumacious spirits. This causes a dread lest the English fleet and Drake, who is acquainted with those waters, may furnish pretexts for fresh risings, and they wish to be ready to crush them. The second reason is that the disturbed condition of France tempts all her neighbours to occupy a portion of that kingdom. The King of Spain desires to create an ample state for his son-in-law the Duke of Savoy, and then to secure his own frontiers against France. This induces the King of France to lean towards Navarre and the heretics; and the King of Spain suspects that the population of Catalonia which is hostile to this Crown may join the people of Navarre, and so he goes to Valladolid, a point admirably suited for suppressing disorders in Portugal and for reaching out his arm towards France. The third reason is to exact the eight millions of gold from the kingdom of Castille and its dependencies, and Valladolid refuses to submit to the burden.
Madrid, 13th May 1589.
May 13. Original Despatch, Venetian Archives. 829. Tomaso Contarini, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, to the Doge and Senate.
Although the English fleet delays putting out much longer than was expected, and although this delay leads people to conjecture weakness and fear on the part of the English, all the same there is no relaxation in the preparations for the kingdom of Portugal. They are continually making sure of all who might take the lead in any movement, either by putting them to death or by banishing them. On the other hand, they do not fail to supply troops for the garrisons of Portugal, although the men are raw levies, and more valuable for their quantity than for their quality. All these preparations are necessary, for the new Armada cannot be of much importance this year, and the Cardinal of Austria, who is governing Portugal, writes that that kingdom is in open and violent commotion, and that government cannot be maintained without vigorous reinforcements, especially if Drake or some other leader should offer the occasion for a rebellion. For these and other reasons already explained, his Majesty is undertaking this journey. Be will have with him Don Christoforo de Mora and Don Juan d'Idiaquez, who are his principal advisers just now.
Madrid, 13th May 1589.
May 13. Original Despatch, Venetian Archives. 830. Tomaso Contarini, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, to the Doge and Senate.
Drake, after having laid to sleep all anxiety in Portugal and caused a relaxation in the preparations for war by his unexpected delay in putting to sea, has all of a sudden left England with a fleet of one hundred and thirty sail. This has astonished everyone, and most of all the Government, which is usually watchful and alert in anticipating events, but in this case has been completely deceived by the art of the enemy; they expected anything rather than a descent of the enemy on the coast, as the relaxation of preparations and the neglect of orders abundantly show. Drake then, with all his fleet, appeared off Corunna, striking terror into the habitants of that city and the surrounding country. He seized the cattle and the people who were in the villages near the fortress. He pushed his ships into the harbour, landed troops, and encamping out of gunshot on the banks of one of the rivers which discharge into the bay, he was enabled to make excursions and to pillage at his ease, all the more so as his delay in putting out had encouraged the idea that his forces were weak or ill fitted, or, as was generally held, that he would take the attitude of France into consideration before he moved. After sacking the country Drake led his men to the attack on the fort. It was weak and ill-garrisoned; and although the Marquis of Seralva, who is defending it, is expecting succours from Don Pedro de Sottomayor, still they are afraid that these will arrive after the need for them is passed. But if Drake becomes master of that position he will have a port suitable for his fleet, where it can be reinforced and re-victualled from England. They are very much afraid lest if Don Antonio is on board, as they say he is, Drake may sail along the coast of Portugal and endeavour to cause a sudden and violent rising for which the Portuguese are quite ripe.
All this news came a few hours after I sent off my last despatch. It was sent by express from Corunna to the King at the Escurial. Couriers were at once sent to all the seaports on the coast from Galicia to Cadiz to warn them to be ready against the foe. Officers have been despatched to take command, and all preparations have been hurried on; but unless they make better speed they will be ready too late. The King has named to the command the Prior Don Ernando di Toledo, son of the Duke of Alva, a man of years and experience, who has served for long in Flanders, under his father, and was present at some of Charles V.'s wars; he has been employed as Governor of Catalonia, and is now a member of the Councils of State and of War; he has shown valour in arms, and prudence in the conduct of affairs. The naval forces of Spain are not such as to allow them to face the enemy on the open sea. Owing to the want of ships and men they are extremely weak. Workmen, too, are deficient, and so the ships are got ready very slowly. In the port of Santander are forty vessels which are being gradually put in order, and some others in other ports, so that the total may amount to sixty in all. Nevertheless, on account of the garrisons in the cities, and the orders which have been given, they think Drake cannot do any other mischief than to plunder the open ports along the coast, and to bombard the unfortified cities. It is true that from want of soldiers they have adopted a plan which may prove more hurtful than helpful; they have enrolled Portuguese, and so have armed the very people whom they have cause to fear; but perhaps they think that as they have destroyed the leaders of the movement they have made themselves safe. All the Ministers urge one another on to fresh provisions. By the King's orders Don Pietro de Medici is to raise six thousand troops in Italy, two thousand in Tuscany, three thousand in Calabria, and a thousand in Lombardy, with these troops he is to come in person into Spain. The Italian galleys, also, are to come into Spanish waters, as there are signs of movement on the part of the Schereeff, and they fear that the Turkish fleet may put out; both of these are the work of the Queen of England, against whom they are making preparations which will be good enough if they are ready in time.
Madrid, 13th May 1589.
May 15. Original Despatch, Venetian Archives. 831. Tomaso Contarini, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, to the Doge and Senate.
The French Ambassador will go to-morrow to the Escurial to have an audience, which they say he will obtain at once. The consultation and reply will then follow; and this will be greatly influenced by the present action of England, which is troubling the King seriously.
Madrid, 15th May 1589.
May 17. Original Despatch, Venetian Archives. 832. Tomaso Contarini, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, to the Doge and Senate.
Yesterday, by order of the King, the Council of War was summoned to the Escurial to consult about provisions for the kingdom of Portugal, which require acceleration. Everyone in the kingdom not only blames but openly condemns the slackness with which they proceed. They say that if proper diligence had been used the kingdom would have reaped benefit and safety. For it was well known that the English fleet was beiug got ready and was on the point of setting sail, but owing to a conviction that the fleet was weak, or that it was destined for another quarter, the blow fell before they even knew that the enemy had moved. All the same it is hoped that the ability of the King and the strength of his empire will be able to oppose the enemy, and to curb the turbulence of the Portuguese.
When paying a visit of congratulation to Don Ernando on account of the command which has been conferred upon him, I learned much of what they think will be the course of this war; and how long it will take them to put their forces together. He told me that Corunna, which is beseiged by Drake, is very weak, as it has only one line of ancient walls without flanking works or earth works, and he thought it was in inevitable danger of falling. He added that he was only surprised not to hear of its fall sooner. Its capture would cause sorrow not so much for the fort itself as for three galleons which were lying in the harbour laden with arms and munitions and many necessaries of war which would thereby fall into the enemy's hands, and because Corunna was the seat of the Viceroy and the Council of Galicia, and its fall would mean the loss of the Marquis of Seralva, a person of great esteem. Even if Drake took Corunna he could not keep it, for it was neither strong nor safe; nor could he push far inland, owing to his want of troops. He had only fifteen thousand men, of whom five thousand would he required to protect the ships, and with ten thousand, unsupported by cavalry, he could not do much, as there were already ten thousand Spanish troops in Portugal, and when he went there himself there would be twenty thousand infantry and one thousand horse, and with such an army he said he was certain he could expel Drake from Portugal and compel him to take to the sea again. It is true he told me that these troops would be composed of Germans and Italians, whose arrival he must wait; and to secure these waters against the Schereeff and the Turks the Italian galleys would be called to Spain.
Madrid, 17th May 1589.
May 18. Original Despatch, Venetian Archives. 833. Tomaso Contarini, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, to the Doge and Senate.
After Drake's occupation of the suburbs of Corunna we have had no fresh news; either because the Marquis of Seralva, who is in command is shut in and cannot communicate with the exterior, or because his Majesty, who is at the Escurial, forbids the publication of any news. We know, however, that up to the 8th, the fortress has had no succour except from the peasants who, although two thousand four hundred strong, had only six harquebusses; and so here they are afraid that the town must have fallen. If they do take it the enemy can isolate it altogether by cutting through a tongue of land which joins it to the mainland, and this without much trouble. The Prior Don Ernando left on Monday to receive the orders of the King, and then to proceed to the places which are in need of inspection and garrisons. The younger gentlemen, carried away by the ardour of youth, set off without arms and without order for this war, but had to return again on the express orders of the King, who thought that their presence might do more harm than good, and although the troops who are to serve under this new Captain General are not yet assembled, still the great money resources of his Majesty lead everyone to hope that there will be no difficulty in raising them; as he has still to draw eight millions from Spain, two millions from other quarters, and other two millions raised on loans from private bankers; so that he will have twelve millions to spend when he has drawn them all. There is, therefore, no doubt but that he will be able to make all the needful provision; but it is generally thought that if he had made them earlier it would have been better. The French Ambassador has returned from the Escurial. He was well received, in appearance, by the King; but the answer given to him was in general terms only. He says that his master and the King of Navarre have made a truce for one year. The object of this truce has been explained in a pamphlet which is being circulated in France, and of which Don Juan d'Idiaquez has a copy. It is hostile to Spain, who at this moment is attacked by England, has news of a revolt in Africa, is in dread of the Turkish fleet in Barbary waters. All these inimical movements are probably concerted. But here they are so confident in their resources that they not only persuade themselves that they are able to resist any attack, but they even say that they will be able next year to prepare a fleet and an army to sack England, and to take a just and an accumulated vengeance on their enemies. May God favour the pious intentions of this King.
Madrid, 18th May 1589.
May 23. Original Despatch, Venetian Archives. 834. Tomaso Contarini, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, to the Doge and Senate.
Let not your Serenity wonder if there is no certain news to send you about the siege of Corunna, for the passes are blocked and news is intercepted so that it may not be spread abroad, not so much owing to the action of the enemy or the weakness of the besieged, as by order of the Ministers of the Crown, who at the pass called Spinal, take care that all letters are directed to the Escurial alone, and to no place else. But these obstacles and these prohibitions make men think that it is the truth which the Ministers desire to conceal; for it is the custom here to magnify successes and minimise reverses. Positive news is expected daily, for it is thought impossible that the fortress can hold out long, owing to its weakness, unless it is relieved; while on the other hand the enemy, owing to the inconvenience of their position and the danger of being attacked, will raise the siege if the place does not surrender in a few days. The rumours at Court are, on the whole, favourable to the besieged, for they say that succours are ready, and that this has given courage to the garrison, but as a matter of fact there are no signs of anything corresponding to these rumours. In this uncertainty I do not think it advisable to trouble your Serenity with all the reports which are current, which would cause you more annoyance than profit. It is well known that besides Drake, whose experience in seamanship and knowledge of the coast have led the English safely to Corunna, there is also Colonel Norris, an officer who has fought for long in Flanders, and has acquired the reputation of a bold and able leader. He was charged with the operations on shore, and so skilfully has he effected the landing, the entrenchment, and the attack, and so well disciplined are his troops, that he has placed the town in great straights, and in danger if not quickly relieved of being lost altogether. This causes the King great anxiety, cot so much on account of the loss he suffers, as for the insult which he feels that he has received in the fact that a woman, mistress of only half an island, with the help of a corsair and a common soldier, should have ventured on so arduous an enterprise, and dared to molest so powerful a sovereign. And so the Ministers continue to assert that the end of it all will be the ignominious defeat of those who stirred up the war; and in the Council everything is postponed to the question of armaments. They are afraid lest if Corunna falls the English may attack Santander, where the King's ships are. The fortress has been re-garrisoned with troops, and is not deficient in natural defences, for the channel by which the port is reached is so uncertain and so shifting that it is impossible to enter it without a pilot and plenty of time.
The Constable of Castille, who refused to serve in the forces sent to defend Corunna unless he received the command, has now been ordered to Pampaluna to protect the shore towns infested by the English, and to guard the frontiers against Navarre. Don Ernando, who is commander-in-chief, has left the Escurial for Zamora. There is news from Portugal, from persons in the suite of the Cardinal of Austria, that the Government is more afraid of the Portuguese than of the soldiers of Drake.
These movements of the English fleet seemed likely on the one hand to stop the preparations for the King's journey to Valladolid, which it was hoped would prove a check to the enemy owing to the royal presence, but Drake by forestalling him has removed the need for the journey. On the other hand, however, Drake's presence in Corunna renders the King's journey more necessary in order to remedy the errors of the Government. And the preparations arc going forward, and the journey will be made the day after Corpus Domini. The Ministers, and especially Don Juan d'Idiaquez who never leaves his Majesty, have given orders that their horses and other belongings are to be brought to the Escurial.
Madrid, 23rd May 1589.
May 24. Original Despatch, Venetian Archives. 835. Tomaso Contarini, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, to the Doge and Senate.
Every care is taken to prevent the real state of the fortress of Corunna from becoming known; and no pains are spared so to represent matters as not to frighten the popular mind, or to diminish the prestige of the Crown. It seems, however, that the present state of the siege is very different from what was represented. The garrison is fewer in numbers than is necessary, their powder is running short, the fortress which was weak by nature has been so bombarded as to be hardly habitable. Moreover, the reliefs which endeavoured to effect an entrance have been vigorously repulsed by the enemy, and forced to retire. The besiegers in order to fortify their own position and to prevent any succour being given to the fortress, have strengthened their flanks by planting several pieces of artillery on the side whence relief might come.
The enemy left England with so favourable a wind that in six days time they reached Corunna. They found the place absolutely unprepared, for the inhabitants were certain that the English fleet was intended for France, and were living in idleness and peace.
The Governor of Galicia, who resides at Corunna, was attending to private matters; the Courts were sitting; the soldiers, as happens in time of peace, had left their quarters and their arms and were scattered all over the country; and in short every one was so far from expecting an attack that they had no time to turn the useless out of the town nor to put their dearest possessions in safety. The wife and daughter of the Marquis of Seralva, the Governor, fled in their terror, two leagues on foot. This attack has brought as much credit to the English as it has robbed from the Spanish. They, however, prepared as best they could to defend the town; the Marquis did all he was able, and the troops performed their duty; but the forces of the enemy, their sudden arrival, the weakness of the fortress, and the want of proper munitions, place the city in danger of falling. The English, besides the 130 ships I told you about, have many other smaller vessels. On board are 16,000 men, 10,000 seamen, 3,000 sappers, with picks, shovels, and all their necessary instruments, so that it is supposed that this expedition has been planned for long; and that their intention is to cut through the neck of land and to make Corunna an island. They will then make use of Corunna as a place to gather troops and to stir up Portugal; at the same time they will ravage the coast of that kingdom and of Biscay, and so keep the Spanish fleet divided. These are operations which the English could not dream of undertaking against so great a Sovereign did not their rapidity and his slowness render them not merely possible but easy Already seventy ships have been sighted off the Portuguese coast, sailing from Finisterre near which lies Corunna.
Preparations by sea and land go on here. Thirty officers have been commissioned to raise troops both in Italy and abroad. Italian troops are chiefly in request, owing to their greater experience in war. The failure of the Armada was due to the want of experienced Italian men and officers, of whom there were none allowed on board the fleet. New officers have been appointed, Don Francesco Bobadilla, Don Juan Araldonato, Don Andrea d'Alva, Don Giorgio Manrique. The naval command has not yet been publicly conferred. The truth is there are very few Spaniards fit for so responsible a post; and Italians will hardly be admitted. They say the Adelantado of Castille will be named; but to save the honour of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, he will keep his old title of General of the Spanish galleys. The Duke of Cardona, however, will not submit quietly to this appointment, for as General of the Neapolitan galleys, he claims an equal rank with the Adelantado
Madrid, 24th May 1589.
[Italian; the part in italics deciphered.]
May 27. Original Despatch, Venetian Archives. 836. Tomaso Contarini, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, to the Doge and Senate.
I knew that all information from Corunna was intercepted, and that it was impossible to be sure of any; the good news was suspect and the bad news insecure; and so I sent an agent of my own to that district with orders to push on beyond the point at which the news was intercepted, and to collect information, reaching even Corunna itself if he found it necessary. He returned and reports that Drake having learned that twelve galleys were coming from Lisbon to the relief of Corunna, and that they were gathering troops on their way, in order to avoid any risks withdrew all his troops and artillery on board, on the 19th of May, and set sail with a favourable wind. His destination is uncertain. He was not molested when embarking his troops; indeed the besieged were only too glad to hear of his departure. While he was engaged before Corunna he entrenched his troops so strongly that he never suffered any loss at all. If he had remained a few days longer the place would have fallen, for the reliefs were not as ready as was rumoured. Drake occupied the part known as the Pexaderia (the Fish market); he knocked down houses, seized cattle, killed soldiers, released officers on ransom; and by the pillage of the suburbs, and the burning of a monastery, he seemed to show that he cared more for plunder than for glory. They are waiting now to see where he will go. They are afraid that as he is master of the sea with no one to oppose him he will sail to the Azores which are so important for the West Indian navigation, and make himself master of them. They also fear that he may seize some of the fifty or sixty richly laden ships which are about just now. The Spanish are powerless to prevent this, for they have no ships ready, so they are making sure of Portugal in case the enemy should attempt it by sea or by effecting a landing. Besides the three towers at the mouth of the Tagus they have built two more nearer the town; these two have a great chain stretched between them and are well garrisoned with troops and provisions. Three thousand Spanish troops and four hundred horse are at Cascaes, and other suitable points along the coast. And in this need of men the Portuguese have been armed and placed under three Colonels. Although risings of the Portuguese are more dreaded than attacks of the enemy, yet it is thought that these troops being divided, and despatched to distant provinces, and surrounded by Castillian soldiers, will not be able to do any mischief. In Portugal, reckoning the three thousand Castillians already there, and those who arrived subsequently, there must be seven thousand infantry and a considerable amount of cavalry and other arms necessary for the defence. Troops are expected from Italy and Germany. Comparing this army of defence with the army of attack on England it is said that then there was an army without a leader, now there is a leader without an army (al' hora si haveva un armat' senza capitano, et adesso s' ha un capitano senza essercito).
I am informed on good authority that the resident ambassador of France is in treaty with the King to surrender Calais to him in return for a considerable sum of money. This information is not confirmed nor is it probable.
Madrid, 27th May 1589.
[Italian; the part in italics deciphered.]