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The world’s most formidable war fleet was on the run in September 1588. The supposedly invincible Spanish Armada had suffered a shocking defeat to the English navy weeks before, forcing its mission to suddenly switch from mounting an amphibious invasion of London to mere survival. Driven into the North Sea by the English, the massive 130-ship fleet was forced to take the long way home to Spain over the tip of Scotland and south along Ireland’s perilous Atlantic coast.

Already bruised by the English, the Armada soon became battered by fierce storms. More than two-dozen of the Armada’s ships smashed against Ireland’s rugged coast, and the bodies of approximately 5,000 men were strewn along a 300-mile stretch of the country’s shoreline. The good fortune of the lucky few who escaped death proved fleeting as English authorities ordered the execution of survivors and threatened to torture any Irishmen giving them aid.

shipwrecks, spanish armad

Painting depicting the Spanish Armada. (Credit: National Maritime Museum, London)

Among the dead were most of the 325 soldiers and 70 crewmembers aboard La Juliana, which wrecked with two other galleons off the coast of County Sligo on September 21, 1588. Built near Barcelona in 1570, the merchant vessel plied the trade lanes between Spain and Italy before it was commandeered by King Philip II to be outfitted as a 32-gun warship in his Armada. For nearly 400 years, the wreck of La Juliana remained safely tucked under the seabed until divers discovered it in 1985 and retrieved three of its cannons. Severe storms that raked the northwest coast of Ireland the past two winters, however, shifted the sands that held the wreck. Once pieces of timber and cannonballs from La Juliana washed up on local beaches, Ireland’s National Monuments Service moved quickly to protect the site from treasure hunters and retrieve exposed relics before they washed out to sea.

Last week, divers from Ireland’s underwater archaeology unit completed their recovery operation and brought to shore relics that showed remarkably little sign of aging after four centuries under the cobalt sea. Divers retrieved nine bronze cannons, some decorated with ornate religious iconography that included images of Catholic saints. One cannon, which featured dolphin-shaped handles, depicted a bearded St. Peter holding the keys to heaven. The salvaged artifacts also included a gun carriage wheel, cannonballs and a ship’s cauldron.

“The quality of material being recovered is remarkable,” says Ireland’s Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys, “and the gun carriage wheels, designed for siege warfare on land, paint a very clear picture of the scale and intent of the planned invasion of England by King Phillip II of Spain”.

Credit: Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht

Credit: Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht

Twenty other guns from La Juliana along with the nearby wrecks of two other Armada warships—the 25-gun La Lavia and the 18-gun Santa Maria De Vison—are thought to remain buried beneath the seabed. The cannons and other artifacts raised to the surface have been taken to the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin for conservation work, which is expected to take at least two years.

About 150 miles to the south of County Sligo, near the famous Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, archaeological work continues to locate another pair of Spanish Armada ships—the 33-gun San Marcos and the 26-gun San Esteban—thought to have sunk along Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast on September 20, 1588. The ships’ final resting spots have never been found nor have those of the more than 700 men who were aboard those vessels and thought to have been buried by local residents in mass pits under the green Irish turf.

Underwater surveying work has begun to find San Marcos, and last week, under the watchful eyes of curious locals and the indifferent gazes of grazing cows, an archaeological team began a comprehensive geophysical survey of a site along the shore of Spanish Point thought to possibly contain the mass grave of San Marcos and San Esteban victims along with 60 executed survivors. If the survey indicates that a mass burial did take place on Spanish Point, it could lead to a more detailed archaeological project in the future. “The results provided by this and future planned works will hopefully provide a fascinating insight into the tragic events that occurred here,” says Clare Heritage Officer Congella McGuire.

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