Category Archives: History

Book Review: The Voyage of the Armada

I love history, plain and simple. It fascinates me. And when I encounter a good history book, I can’t help but sing its praises.

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.

The Historical Point of View

“Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.  We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the ‘present state of the question’. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge – to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts and behaviour – this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut off every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But thanks be to Our Father and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that ‘history is bunk’.”

~ C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Chapter XXVII, pp. 127-128)

Veterans Day 2010

“For it has been said so truthfully that it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag, who gives that protester the freedom to abuse and burn that flag.” ~ Zell Miller

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”        John 15:13






I met a traveller from an ancient land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Ninety-Five Theses in Their Theological Significance

by Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield

“A poor peasant’s son, then a diligent student, a humble monk, and, finally, a modest, industrious scholar, Martin Luther had already exceeded the half of the life-time allotted to him, when – certainly with the decision characteristic of him, but with all the reserve imposed by his position in life and the immediate purpose of his action – he determined to subject the religious conceptions which lay at the basis of the indulgence-usages of the time to an examination in academic debate.”(2) This singularly comprehensive and equally singularly accurate statement of Paul Kalkoff’s is worth quoting because it places us at once at the right point of view for forming an estimate of the Ninety-five Theses which Luther, in prosecution of the purpose thus intimated, posted on the door of the Castle-Church at Wittenberg on the fateful October 31, 1517. It sets clearly before us the Luther who posted the Theses. It was – as he describes himself, indeed, in their heading(3) – Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Theology, Ordinary Professor of Theology in the University of Wittenberg. And it indicates to us with equal clearness the nature of the document which he posted. It consists of heads for a discussion designed to elucidate the truth with respect to the subject with which it deals – as again Luther himself tells us in its heading. We have to do here in a word with an academic document, prepared by an academic teacher, primarily for an academic purpose. All that the Theses were to become grows out of this fundamental fact. We have to reckon, of course, with the manner of man this Professor of Theology was; with the conception he held of the function of the University in the social organism; with the zeal for the truth which consumed him. But in doing so we must not permit to fall out of sight that it is with a hard-working Professor of Theology, in the prosecution of his proper academical work, that we have to do in these Theses. And above everything we must not forget the precise matter which the Theses bring into discussion; this was, as Kalkoff accurately describes it, the religious conceptions which lay at the basis of the indulgence traffic.

Failure to bear these things fully in mind has resulted in much confusion. It is probably responsible for the absurd statement of A. Plummer to the effect that “Luther began with a mere protest against the sale of indulgences by disreputable persons.”(4) One would have thought a mere glance at the document would have rendered such an assertion impossible; although it is scarcely more absurd than Philip Schaff’s remark that the Theses do not protest “against indulgences, but only against their abuse”(5) – which Plummer elaborates into: “Luther did not denounce the whole system of indulgences. He never disputed that the Church has power to remit the penalties which it has imposed in the form of penances to be performed in this world.”(6) To treat the whole system of indulgences, as proclaimed at the time, as an abuse of the ancient custom of relaxing, on due cause, imposed penances, is to attack the whole system with a vengeance.

Read more…