Chronicles of America 

Sir Richard Grenville

With the sun of Drake's glory in eclipse at court and with Spain and England resting from warfare on the grander scale, there were no more big battles the following year. But the year after that, 1591, is rendered famous in the annals of the sea by Sir Richard Grenville's fight in Drake's old flagship, the "Revenge". This is the immortal battle of 'the one and the fifty-three' from which Raleigh's prose and Tennyson's verse have made a glory of the pen fit to match the glory of the sword.

Grenville had sat, with Drake and Sir Philip Sidney, on the Parliamentary committee which recommended the royal charter granted to Sir Walter Raleigh for the founding of the first English colony in what is now the United States. Grenville's grandfather, Marshal of Calais to Henry VIII, had the faculty of rhyme, and, in a set of verses very popular in their own day, showed what the Grenville family ambitions were.

Who seeks the way to win renown, Or flies with wings to high desire, Who seeks to wear the laurel crown, Or hath the mind that would aspire--Let him his native soil eschew, Let him go range and seek a new.

Grenville himself was a wild and roving blade, no great commander, but an adventurer of the most daring kind by land or sea. He rather enjoyed the consternation he caused by aping the airs of a pirate king. He had a rough way with him at all times; and Ralph Lane was much set against his being the commander of the 'Virginia Voyage' of which Lane himself was the governor on land. But in action he always was, beyond a doubt, the very "beau ideal" of a 'first-class fighting man.' A striking instance of his methods was afforded on his return from Virginia, when he found an armed Spanish treasure ship ahead of him at sea. He had no boat to board her with. But he knocked some sort of one together out of the ship's chests and sprang up the Spaniard's side with his boarding party just as this makeshift boat was sinking under them.

The last fight of the "Revenge" is almost incredible from the odds engaged--fifty-three vessels to one. But it is true; and neither Raleigh's glowing prose nor Tennyson's glowing verse exaggerates it. Lord Thomas Howard, 'almost famished for want of prey,' had been cruising in search of treasure ships when Captain Middleton, one of the gentlemen-adventurers who followed the gallant Earl of Cumberland, came in to warn him that Don Alonzo de Bazan was following with fifty-three sail. The English crews were partly ashore at the Azores; and Howard had barely time to bring them off, cut his cables, and work to windward of the overwhelming Spaniards.

Grenville's men were last. The "Revenge" had only 'her hundred fighters on deck and her ninety sick below' when the Spanish fleet closed round him. Yet, just as he had sworn to cut down the first man who touched a sail when the master thought there was still a chance to slip through, so now he refused to surrender on any terms at all. Then, running down close-hauled on the starboard tack, decks cleared for action and crew at battle quarters, he steered right between two divisions of the Spanish fleet till 'the mountain-like "San Felipe", of fifteen hundred tons,' ranging up on his weather side, blanketed his canvas and left him almost becalmed. Immediately the vessels which the "Revenge" had weathered hauled their wind and came up on her from to-leeward. Then, at three o'clock in the afternoon of the 1st of September, 1591, that immortal fight began.

The first broadside from the "Revenge" took the "San Felipe" on the water-line and forced her to give way and stop her leaks. Then two Spaniards ranged up in her place, while two more kept station on the other side. And so the desperate fight went on all through that afternoon and evening and far on into the night. Meanwhile Howard, still keeping the weather gage, attacked the Spaniards from the rear and thought of trying to cut through them. But his sailing master swore it would be the end of all Her Majesty's ships engaged, as it probably would; so he bore away, wisely or not as critics may judge for themselves. One vessel, the little "George Noble" of London, a victualler, stood by the "Revenge", offering help before the fight began. But Grenville, thanking her gallant skipper, ordered him to save his vessel by following Howard.

With never less than one enemy on each side of her, the "Revenge" fought furiously on. "Boarders away!" shouted the Spanish colonels as the vessels closed. "Repel boarders!" shouted Grenville in reply. And they did repel them, time and again, till the English pikes dripped red with Spanish blood. A few Spaniards gained the deck, only to be shot, stabbed, or slashed to death. Towards midnight Grenville was hit in the body by a musket-shot fired from the tops--the same sort of shot that killed Nelson. The surgeon was killed while dressing the wound, and Grenville was hit in the head. But still the fight went on. The "Revenge" had already sunk two Spaniards, a third sank afterwards, and a fourth was beached to save her. But Grenville would not hear of surrender. When day broke not ten unwounded Englishmen remained. The pikes were broken. The powder was spent. The whole deck was a wild entanglement of masts, spars, sails, and rigging. The undaunted survivors stood dumb as their silent cannon. But every Spanish hull in the whole encircling ring of death bore marks of the "Revenge's" rage. Four hundred Spaniards, by their own admission, had been killed, and quite six hundred wounded. One hundred Englishmen had thus accounted for a thousand Spaniards besides all those that sank!

Grenville now gave his last order: 'Sink me the ship, Master-Gunner!' But the sailing master and flag-captain, both wounded, protesting that all lives should be saved to avenge the dead, manned the only remaining boat and made good terms with the Spanish admiral. Then Grenville was taken very carefully aboard Don Bazan's flagship, where he was received with every possible mark of admiration and respect. Don Bazan gave him his own cabin. The staff surgeon dressed his many wounds. The Spanish captains and military officers stood hat in hand, 'wondering at his courage and stout heart, for that he showed not any signs of faintness nor changing of his colour.' Grenville spoke Spanish very well and handsomely acknowledged the compliments they paid him. Then, gathering his ebbing strength for one last effort, he addressed them in words they have religiously recorded: '"Here die I, Richard Grenville, with a joyful and quiet mind; for that I have ended my life as a true soldier ought to do, that hath fought for his country, queen, religion, and honour. Wherefore my soul most joyfully departeth out of this body." ... And when he had said these and other suchlike words he gave up the ghost with a great and stout courage.'

Grenville's latest wish was that the "Revenge" and he should die together; and, though he knew it not, he had this wish fulfilled. For, two weeks later, when Don Bazan had collected nearly a hundred more sail around him for the last stage home from the West Indies, a cyclone such as no living man remembered burst full on the crowded fleet. Not even the Great Armada lost more vessels than Don Bazan did in that wreck-engulfing week. No less than seventy went down. And with them sank the shattered "Revenge", beside her own heroic dead.

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