1588 and all that

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto punctures a few national illusions

June 11, 2009

Less than half the (British) population aged between 16 and 34 knows that Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada," columnist Ben Macintyre tells readers of The Times. Thank goodness for that.

One should always mistrust specious statistics. Macintyre's assertion sounds suspiciously like advertising patter about the relative popularity of identical brands of washing powder, or health czars' assessments of Icelanders' likelihood of dying from swine flu.

If he is right about what young British people know about Drake and the Armada, we should compliment over half of the country's youth on escaping delusion. Drake did not command the English fleet in the Armada campaign.

His part in the fighting was minimal after he towed away a Spanish galleon stricken not in combat, but in an accident. To judge from the sources, for most of the single day of intense fighting, he was not even present. Presumably he was playing his usual selfish game - hovering in the hope of seizing a prize.

Drake's antics disgusted other captains and aroused suspicions of knavery and avarice. His colleague Martin Frobisher threatened to "spill the best blood in his belly".

Strictly speaking, the Armada was not even defeated, although the usage is traditional and it may be pedantic to quibble at it. Contemporaries generally reported the only serious battle of the campaign as a Spanish victory.

Although the English ships, with the wind in their favour, performed better than those of their adversaries, the Spanish fleet remained almost completely intact - which was probably all it needed to do to intimidate England into peacemaking.

The Spaniards established that they could maintain a fleet in English waters, despite the absence of a friendly port - a stunning achievement. England, it seemed, lay exposed to conquest in the event of a change in the wind. Had storms not dispersed and seriously damaged the Armada on the way home, the campaign would have been a resounding Spanish success.

Even so, the strategic outcome was, at best, only modestly significant and only marginally favourable to England. In most of the remaining naval encounters of the war, the Spaniards were victorious. They launched more armadas against England - a sure sign that the campaign had demonstrated English vulnerability - although all failed for want of that elusive wind. Spanish naval supremacy lasted for another two generations.

The staggeringly significant historical fact about the Armada is not that Sir Francis Drake defeated it, but that it fed the myth of "Merrie England". This myth has crippled generations of English schoolchildren, warping their understanding of their own past, and encumbering boys with feelings of effortless superiority - symbolised in childish drivel about Drake on a bowling green with plenty of time "to thrash the Spaniards".

For centuries, the same myth nourished sectarian delusions of divine deliverance from tyranny and popery. Macintyre still believes in fragments of that myth. Happily, most other people in the UK are beginning to escape its influence.

A tweak of vocation can turn a good journalist into a good historian, and vice versa. Some people manage to do both jobs well. Macintyre is a wonderful journalist, and his father taught me history. It is depressing to me to find him hailing "a time when the power of history to shape our lives has never been greater, or more necessary".

History's life-shaping power is always absolutely great - because everything that affects the present is already part of the past, and its necessity is always, by definition, inescapable.

Even if Macintyre were right about a particular pirate's role in a particular battle, would we want to stuff the curriculum with histoire evenementielle, pub-quiz trivia and patriotic pabulum, rather than seizing the opportunity to excite students to think critically and rationally about the huge problems that link the future with the past?

There are only two good reasons to study anything: to enhance life and prepare for death. History enhances life by giving us the thrill of making sense of experience: seeing more vividly the landscapes and streetscapes that surround us, perceiving more deeply the people we meet, glimpsing the images and hearing the sounds we encounter more richly because we know the past they come from.

It prepares us for death by giving us some basic moral equipment: the ability, or at least the willingness, to shift our perspective and defer to what historians call "the sources" - the representations of themselves others have left for us.

If you can make the effort to understand people in remote periods of your own culture, let alone those of others, you will be more likely to sympathise with alterity in your own times and to love your enemies. But you won't do so by regurgitating jingoistic myths, unless to challenge and, where they are wrong, reject them.

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