There is a wonderful scene in the 2007 film Elizabeth I: The Golden Age where she rallies the troops at Tilbury. Kate Blanchett doing Kenneth Branagh, doing Larry Olivier, doing Shakespeare’s version of the Plantagenet Henry V, doing the French at Agincourt and giving two fingers to history.
Well, fair enough squire, but it didn’t quite happen that way. Nice if it did.
I’m in a curious position now, teaching history when I never really meant to but always liked the study of it myself… Somebody, in their wisdom – or to be more honest in their lack of a history teacher – decided that my spare hours in the teaching timetable should be made up with history, and the Year 8 National Curriculum syllabus determined it should be the Spanish Armada.
My own understanding of the Spanish Armada was entirely conditioned by lessons received in the Instituto Santa Maria de Ensenanza Media in Ibiza in the 1960s, where Capitan Nunez – a retired army officer from the Spanish Civil War, dressed in full uniform with medals – used to explain history to us in a most remarkable way. He sat underneath a portrait of the Caudillo, Generalissimo Franco, the head of state since 1939, who gazed out at us and seemed to be pleading for last minute support in 1963 in an age when the Beatles were having a global success with Yellow Submarine and the decrepit minesweepers of the Spanish navy were unable to do much about the US Air Force dropping a live nuclear bomb off the coast near Almeria.
One thing I learned from my brief instruction in Spanish history from Capitan Nunez was that the English were pirates. I therefore decided that piracy was an excellent occupation, as I was English and identified totally with the role having read Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, but there were no job vacancies for pirates advertised, so I ended up joining the RAF as a technician.
The RAF in the 20th century was probably the closest thing to Elizabeth the First’s pirate navy, as it managed to hang on to various bits of the British Empire by bombing local tribesmen’s donkeys and keep the loot flowing in. I worked on the V-bomber nuclear force, the closest thing you could get to to Elizabethan privateering in the 20th century.
But, to keep to the point. Just now, teaching 16th century history, I suddenly had to make a decision. Do I take a British view of history or a Spanish view of history? I’m a Catholic, so I decided I would adopt the Spanish view. It makes sense. The Spanish navy was a disciplined fighting force and the English privateers were an indisciplined bunch of pirates. The Armada’s famed failure was due to the weather and bad timing (the Duke of Parma was but a day’s march from Calais with the invasion force when the storm blew up!) If Philip II’s forces had invaded, the Vatican had already decided it should not be a Spanish victory, but a Catholic victory. A return of English piety to the English. It made sense to me.
Having plumped for this interpretation and taught it to my young 12 year old Spanish troops, I felt a certain guilt. Was it my experience of the CRB disaster in my ‘home’ country (which is no longer home, but a monstrosity, as far as I am concerned) which made me a traitor to my own land? Frankly, I did not care. History is history. The evidence is that the British were pirates. The Spanish Catholic navy was a disciplined fighting force.
I once admired that because it was what I had been taught we had been, in our Empire, but our history is a lie because it presumes we were better than pirates before our industrial revolution and our empire. It imposes a Gradgrind view of history on a time when we were pirates, and nothing more.
As it happened, just after I finished my teaching, Melvyn Bragg did one of his excellent In Our Time programmes on The Spanish Armada. Not only did it back upeverything I had taught Year 8, but it was exactly what Capitan Nunez taught us in Franco’s Spain in 1963…
Whoops, Melvyn… Can you do something on the International Brigades 1937, just to get the historical / political balance right?