CHAPTER X. THE DEFEAT OF THE SPANISH ARMADA, A.D. 1588.
The England of our own days is so strong, and the Spain of our own days is so feeble, that it is not possible, without some reflection and care, to comprehend the full extent of the peril which England then ran from the power and the ambition of Spain, or to appreciate the importance of that crisis in the history of the world. We had then no Indian or Colonial Empire save the feeble germs of our North American settlements, which Raleigh and Gilbert had recently planted. Scotland was a separate kingdom; and Ireland was then even a greater source of weakness, and a worse nest of rebellion than she has been in after times. Queen Elizabeth had found at her accession an encumbered revenue, a divided people and an unsuccessful foreign war, in which the last remnant of our possessions in France had been lost; she had also a formidable pretender to her crown, whose interests were favoured by all the Roman Catholic powers; and even some of her subjects were warped by religious bigotry to deny her title, and to look on her as an heretical usurper. It is true that during the years of her reign which had passed away before the attempted invasion of 1588, she had revived the commercial prosperity, the national spirit, and the national loyalty of England. But her resources, to cope with the colossal power of Philip II., still seemed most scanty; and she had not a single foreign ally, except the Dutch, who were themselves struggling hard, and, as it seemed, hopelessly, to maintain their revolt against Spain.
On the other hand Philip II, was absolute master of an empire so superior to the other states of the world in extent, in resources and especially in military and naval forces, as to make the project of enlarging that empire into a universal monarchy seem a perfectly feasible scheme; and Philip had both the ambition to form that project, and the resolution to devote all his energies, and all his means, to its realization. Since the downfall of the Roman empire no such preponderating power had existed in the world. During the mediaeval centuries the chief European kingdoms were slowly moulding themselves out of the feudal chaos. And, though their wars with each other were numerous and desperate, and several of their respective kings figured for a time as mighty conquerors, none of them in those times acquired the consistency and perfect organization which are requisite for a long-sustained career of aggrandizement. After the consolidation of the great kingdoms, they for some time kept each other in mutual check. During the first half of the sixteenth century, the balancing system was successfully practised by European statesmen. But when Philip II. reigned, France had become so miserably weak through her civil wars, that he had nothing to dread from the rival state, which had so long curbed his father the Emperor Charles V. In Germany, Italy, and Poland he had either zealous friends and dependents, or weak and divided enemies. Against the Turks he had gained great and glorious successes; and he might look round the continent of Europe without discerning a single antagonist of whom he could stand in awe. Spain, when he acceded to the throne, was at the zenith of her power. The hardihood and spirit which the Arragonese, the Castilians, and the other nations of the peninsula had acquired during centuries of free institutions and successful war against the Moors, had not yet become obliterated. Charles V. had, indeed, destroyed the liberties of Spain; but that had been done too recently for its full evil to be felt in Philip's time. A people cannot be debased in a single generation; and the Spaniards under Charles V. and Philip II. proved the truth of the remark, that no nation is ever so formidable to its neighbours, for a time, as is a nation, which, after being trained up in self-government, passes suddenly under a despotic ruler. The energy of democratic institutions survives for a few generations, and to it are superadded the decision and certainty which are the attributes of government, when all its powers are directed by a single mind. It is true that this preter-natural vigour is short-lived: national corruption and debasement gradually follow the loss of the national liberties; but there is an interval before their workings are felt, and in that interval the most ambitious schemes of foreign conquest are often successfully undertaken.
Philip had also the advantage of finding himself at the head of a large standing army in a perfect state of discipline and equipment, in an age when, except some few insignificant corps, standing armies were unknown in Christendom. The renown of the Spanish troops was justly high, and the infantry in particular was considered the best in the world. His fleet, also, was far more numerous, and better appointed, than that of any other European power; and both his soldiers and his sailors had the confidence in themselves and their commanders, which a long career of successful warfare alone can create.
Besides the Spanish crown, Philip succeeded to the kingdom, of Naples and Sicily, the Duchy of Milan, Franche-Comte, and the Netherlands. In Africa he possessed Tunis, Oran, the Cape Verde and the Canary Islands; and in Asia, the Philippine and Sunda Islands and a part of the Moluccas. Beyond the Atlantic he was lord of the most splendid portions of the New world which "Columbus found for Castile and Leon." The empire of Peru and Mexico, New Spain, and Chili, with their abundant mines of the precious metals, Hispaniola and Cuba, and many other of the American Islands, were provinces of the sovereign of Spain.