HISTORY

Francis Drake’s lost fleet emerges in northwestern Spain

An environmental study linked to a project to dredge an estuary in A Coruña suggests the presence of several English ships sunk in 1589 in the failed attempt to invade the Galician city

The engraving 'Heroism of María Pita' (1589), by F. Ferrer y Ros. María Pita was a heroine in the defense of A Coruña against the English Armada.
The engraving 'Heroism of María Pita' (1589), by F. Ferrer y Ros. María Pita was a heroine in the defense of A Coruña against the English Armada.Diputación de A Coruña

The attack was devastating. A total of 180 warships carrying 27,667 English soldiers and sailors descended on Spain’s northwestern city of A Coruña on May 4, 1589. Leading the fleet was English explorer and sea captain Francis Drake. At the time, the capital of the Galicia region only had around 1,500 soldiers to defend it, besides the medieval walls in the high part of town. The only existing artillery was sitting in the castle of San Antón and on two galleons that had returned the year before from Spain’s King Philip II’s failed attempt to invade Great Britain.

Even so, the small town mounted a heroic resistance. Its few soldiers and ships counterattacked and sank eight of the British vessels as they attempted to reach the coast. The defenders put up such a fight that they ultimately defeated the much larger enemy. Five fleeing English ships were dragged by the winds or sought refuge in the nearby ria, or estuary, of O Burgo. Four of them ended up at the bottom of the sea after going up in flames just a few meters from the beach of Oza, at the mouth of the ria, while a fifth managed to penetrate the coastal inlet only to sink 100 meters from the shore.

The English ships that sank in A Coruña are proof of a tremendous military defeat for Britain, much larger than the one inflicted a year earlier on the Spanish Armada

Around 450 years later, the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and the Environment has decided to improve the water quality in the ria of A Coruña and is planning to dredge 583,337 cubic meters of this natural watercourse. But before doing that, it will have to consider an environmental impact study that includes a “Historical-archeological technical report on the environmental dredging of the sediments in ria de O Burgo,” as the coastal inlet in A Coruña is also known.

This is because the wrecks of the four ships that sank at the mouth of the estuary are still there, and the fifth one can be guessed at.

“There are verbal references by shellfish harvesters in the area about the existence of a shipwreck on the Santa Cristina sandbank that has traditionally been identified as belonging to the English fleet of 1589 commanded by Francis Drake and John Norris [who was in charge of the ground troops], following their failed attack on the city of A Coruña,” reads the report.

“They fled, leaving behind four abandoned ships that were set on fire by the crew. Documentary and bibliographical evidence indicate that these ships were adrift and on fire for several days until they finally sank. The underwater work and dredging in the area have documented remains of dining sets and iron cannonballs that belonged to this fleet,” adds the study.

An archeologist conducting a study off Lago beach in Lugo, Galicia.
An archeologist conducting a study off Lago beach in Lugo, Galicia.Archeonauta

The impact report, drafted by the consulting firm ArqueoAtlántica, puts the spotlight on the vessel in the ria that has not yet been identified, and which would be affected by dredging work. “A study of aerial photographs of the reference area between 2003 and 2015 show a location where there is a spot that has remained unchanged with the passing of the years, and which could be the remains of a shipwreck.”

But other archeological sources in the Galicia region are skeptical about the possibility of it being one of Queen Elizabeth I’s ships. “It seems quite risky to say that. It might be, but it could also be a more modern ship,” said a source who declined to have their name in print. “It is true that, according to documentary evidence, one of the English ships went up in flames inside the ria, but a dig will be necessary to confirm whether that’s what it is.”

This same source noted that what’s been known for a fact for the last 15 years or so is that there are wrecks from Philip II’s Spanish Armada sitting at the bottom of the ria of A Coruña. These could be the San Juan, the largest ship in the fleet, and the San Bernardo, which lie next to the hulk Sansón. They are three of the five vessels that defended the Galician port on the day that the English showed up on the horizon with a fleet of 180 ships.

The underwater work and dredging in the area have documented remains of dining sets and iron cannonballs that belonged to this fleet
Environmental impact study

The report notes that the area around the bridge of O Burgo, which connects both shores where the ria begins, has archeological potential. Although the water is less deep now than it once was, ships laden with goods and pilgrims from northern Europe made stops here during the Middle Ages. Due to its importance, it was under strong protection measures during the reigns of Alfonso VII and Fernando II in the 12th century. “During the Middle Ages, the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route experienced significant development, turning O Burgo first and later A Coruña into arrival ports for ships from the North Atlantic, the British Isles, the Netherlands and the western coast of France,” reads the study, noting that all this human activity may have left behind significant archeological evidence.

The work will begin in a few months, and the dredging project has already been put to tender for €48.5 million.

The English ships that sank in A Coruña are proof of a tremendous military defeat for Britain, much larger than the one inflicted a year earlier on the Spanish Armada: the Galician historian Luis Gorrochategui estimates that 35 Spanish ships sank in their failed attempt to invade England. But there was a pact of state in England never to publicize their tremendous material and human losses, estimated at around 20,000 soldiers.

English version by Susana Urra.

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