David Howarth’s monumental book, The Voyage of the Armada: The Spanish Story, easily ranks among my favorite history books. Historical narratives seldom get better than this.
Some writers are able to take history, and turn it into an apallingly dull affair. By the time they’re finished, you’d think history was merely a bunch of facts, numbers, names and dates. In the end, a dislike of history can indicate at least one of two things: one, you’ve got problems; or two, you’ve been reading badly-written history books.
Thankfully, however, there are writers who are able to make history interesting, and David Howarth is among them. History books like his are the ones worth reading. They have the power to make you love history in a way you might never have thought possible.
The Voyage of the Armada is well-written, engaging, and stretches the mind. To be sure, I began it skeptically; but when I was finished, I walked away awestruck. Set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it recounts the history of the Spanish Armada sent by the Catholic King of Spain to invade Protestant England. Until the publication of this book, the story of the Armada had been told primarily from the English viewpoint, which glorified the English victory far beyond the truth. Howarth ably sets the record straight, and gives us the other side of the story. Drawing from a plethora of original Spanish sources, he tells the Armada’s story from a different perspective – the Spanish perspective.
One can best grasp the story from this excerpt:
… the soldiers were marched back to the quays and taken in boats and shut up in their ships again. They were the only people who were supposed not to know what the fleet was for. A few weeks earlier, the king himself had sent instructions that the soldiers and sailors had better be told they were going to the Indies. But for once his instructions were ignored; it was too late for deception. Everyone in Lisbon knew the truth. All over Europe, indeed, everyone of consequence knew it: the fleet was bound for the conquest of England. The men who manned it had not been told a lie, as the king proposed. Officially, the had not been told anything at all. But even the most dimwitted of them had been discussing it for months. Without any information, their ideas of England, and of what they were in for, can only have been the vaguest: a cold, wet, windy and altogether unpleasant island for to the north – barbaric and said to be guilty of devilish heresies. Rumor said the conquest would be easy.
In reality, the conquest would be far from easy. And instead of fulfilling its mission, the Armada would ultimately return home, driven back in defeat. Howarth does an excellent job of injecting the narrative with a real sense of urgency and danger. He also brings the characters to vivid life, making them much more than dry, dusty figures from the past.
There’s really nothing objectionable in Howarth’s book (other than a few references to an affair by which Phillip II had an illegitimate son), and most readers over the age of 13 will probably find it as fascinating as I did. Watch out, though: history buffs will inevitably have a hard time putting it down.