Singeing the King of Spain's Beard
by Hilda T. Skae
Queen Elizabeth was seated in her private apartment, her white forehead
puckered in anxious lines.
The trouble between herself and her great rival the King of Spain had
reached its height.
Throughout her reign English and Spaniards had been contending for the
mastery of the new countries which had been discovered on the other
side of the ocean, and for supremacy upon the seas. In South America
the Spanish king possessed rich mines of silver and precious stones:
and Queen Elizabeth's adventurers, half explorers, half pirates,
gloried in making descents upon the coast towns, waiting there until
the convoys came down from the mountains, and then seizing the
treasure, burning the town, and departing.
Another frolicsome adventure of the English sailors was to hang about
the rear of the Spanish 'silver fleet' on its way from America to
Spain, and when any vessel became separated from her fellows, to fall
upon her, remove the precious cargo to their own vessel, and then set
fire to the Spanish ship and send her adrift upon the high seas.
No wonder that after several years of these proceedings the Spanish
king had made up his mind that the pride of the audacious islanders
must be lowered, and a clean sweep made of the English pirates.
And it was no wonder that Queen Elizabeth was uneasy, for she had
received tidings that even then the Spaniards had a great fleet in the
harbour of Cadiz, ready for the invasion of England. At that time the
Spanish navy was the greatest in the world, while the English only had
a few hundred small vessels.
While the Queen was occupied with these gloomy thoughts, there was a
knock at the door, and a short, pleasant-looking man stood on the
The man bowed low, and the queen looked at him with an expression that
was half angry and half pleased.
'Ha, Sir Francis Drake,' she said, 'what will you?
Drake making his request of the Queen.
The great sailor smiled; and in spite of herself the sternness began to
melt from the queen's face.
Few people could have remained looking into that sunburnt countenance
and still have felt annoyed. There was such a breezy determination
about the man; and his large, clear bright eyes met the eyes of every
one else with a look which made them trust him. He had the appearance
of one to whom danger and adventure are sport, and who is strong enough
to carry out the wildest adventures with success. Through his daring
exploits he had been the cause of more trouble with the Spaniards than
any other man in Queen Elizabeth's dominions, and she knew it; but then
the queen dearly loved a brave man.
'How now, Sir Francis,' said the Queen, smiling a little in spite of
herself, 'are you already weary of dry land?'
The adventurer gravely bent his head,
'Please your Majesty,' he said, 'I should be glad to have a commission.'
'What do you want a commission for?' asked the queen.
The explorer's eyes twinkled.
'So please your Majesty, to singe the King of Spain's beard; it has
grown somewhat too long.'
The queen understood what he meant, but she felt that she must try to
'Ha, Sir Francis,' she said, 'have you not already made me enough
trouble with the King of Spain? Know you not that for your plunderings
in the new lands yonder he has called you "the master thief of the
'Your Majesty,' said Sir Francis, 'I am well aware of the King of
Spain's opinion, and I think it the more reason that I should show him
some good fighting nearer home.'
Then, throwing off his jesting manner, he showed the queen his plans
for destroying the mighty preparations which were being made against
By the time the audience was over, the clouds had lifted from the
queen's brow, and the explorer had obtained leave to carry out his
A few weeks later, the harbour of Cadiz showed the same scene of
animation which it had presented for many months past. The huge
battle-ships, with their high prows and castellated turrets, rose
majestically out of the water, while among them little boats and sloops
flitted in and out, carrying arms and provisions for the great
galleons. The clanking of armourers and hammering of ship-wrights was
going on busily, and the swarthy sailors were singing at their toil as
they coiled the ropes, polished brasses, and put the finishing touches
to the preparations which were being made for the conquest of England.
Of a sudden, into the busy harbour there sailed some half dozen small,
shabby vessels. Every head was turned to look at them, and the cry
arose among the Spaniards that these ships belonged to the English
Instantly the guns of all the forts were turned upon them, but despite
a perfect hail of shot the plucky little fleet made its way unharmed up
to the very water-lines of the great war-vessels and set each one of
them on fire; then in face of the helpless, astonished Spaniards the
English ships turned and sailed away again, to repeat the adventure in
every harbour into which they could obtain an entrance.
So well had the singeing of the King of Spain's beard been done that it
was a year before the expedition was able to set sail for England; and
when at last it came, the English people were ready for it.
By the time the 'most fortunate and invincible Armada' was on its way,
nearly every fighting man in England had volunteered for service. The
small navy had been increased by the gifts of the nobility and gentry,
who had built or hired vessels for the defence of their native land,
fitted them out and manned them at their own expense; while the cities
had collected money and sent it to the Treasury, to be used as the
queen and her ministers should find it best. Lord Howard of Effingham
had been made High Admiral of the Fleet; and with him were Sir Francis
Drake and other bold seafarers.
The army was mustered at Tilbury Fort on the river Thames, and the
queen herself went down to review the men.
'My loving people,' she said, 'I am come among you at this time, not
for sport or pleasure, but—in the midst and heat of battle—to live
and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, for my Kingdom, and my
people, my honour and my blood, if need be, even in the dust I know I
have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and
courage of a king, and of a King of England too. And I think foul
scorn that Spain, or any Prince of Europe, should dare to invade the
borders of my realm.'
No wonder that these brave words were cheered to the echo, and that
every man felt himself inspired to do his best.
The winds being light the Armada advanced only slowly. The English
fleet was lying at Plymouth, and the Admirals, Lord Howard of
Effingham, Sir Francis Drake and the others, were having a game of
bowls upon Plymouth Hoe when the news was brought that the topmasts of
the Spanish vessels had been sighted off Land's End, in Cornwall. Some
of the players were about to break up the game, but Sir Francis Drake
made them keep their places.
'There's plenty of time,' he said, 'to end the game and thrash the
Then quietly, without any flurry, the English vessels were made ready.
Some hours later, the foremost ships of the great Armada came in view,
and were soon followed by the rest of the fleet sailing majestically
along in the form of a crescent, seven miles long from tip to tip.
The English watched her go by without interfering, then the little
fleet was put to sea and followed the Armada, harassing her in the rear
and cutting off a vessel here and there.
For fully a week this running fight was kept up; then the two fleets
came face to face with each other off the town of Calais. The first
day's encounter was indecisive; the Spanish fired over the heads of the
English, while the little vessels, low down in the water, poured their
broadsides full into the huge bulk of the Spanish galleons; yet when
night came it was discovered that the English were running short of
powder, while comparatively little harm had been done to the enemy.
During the night an unpleasant surprise was prepared for the Spaniards.
Half a dozen of the oldest vessels in the English fleet filled with
pitch, resin, tarry ropes, and anything else that would burn well, were
taken by two gallant Devonshire sailors, Young and Prowse, into the
very heart of the Armada and set on fire. Then the men who had steered
the 'fire ships' took to their boats and rowed quickly back to safety,
while the burning vessels were left to drift about among the Spanish
In a panic the Spaniards cut their cables, hoisted sail, and made for
the open sea, each vessel getting in the way of her neighbours; and by
morning the entire fleet was in confusion.
Now was the opportunity of the English; the gallant little vessels
darted in among the great galleons, and attacked them like little
game-cocks fighting huge unwieldy cochinchinas.
From morning until sundown the battle raged; and it was the small
vessels which had the advantage.
Many of the Spanish ships sank or ran aground—'the feathers of the
Armada were plucked one by one'; then the remainder of the fleet made
wildly for the northern seas, the little English ships in pursuit.
When the English had followed the Spaniards sufficiently far, Drake
wrote from the deck of his vessel, 'We have driven the Spanish admirals
so far apart, that we hope they shall not shake hands these many days;
and whensoever they shall meet, I believe neither of them will rejoice
greatly at this day's service.'
A great storm completed the destruction which the English had begun,
and of the hundred and thirty-two ships that had set out for the
invasion of England, only fifty-three returned to Spain. The others
lay beneath the waters of the English Channel or had been wrecked upon
the islands of Scotland and the coasts of Ireland and Devonshire.
When the Spanish king heard the news, he said that he had sent his
fleet against men, and not against the wind and waves, and that he
could easily send another armament to the shores of England.
But the King of Spain's beard had been too badly singed.
Never again did England have to fear a foreign invasion. By the
destruction of the Armada she had proved herself worthy of the title
which she bears to this day: that of Queen and Mistress of the Seas.