John Hawkins, the son of a merchant, was born in Plymouth in 1532. He became a sea captain and in 1562 became the first Englishman to start capturing people in Sierra Leone and selling them as slaves to Spanish settlers in the Caribbean. The following year his cousin, Francis Drake, joined him in these activities. As it was illegal for the settlers to buy from foreigners, Hawkins and Drake soon came into conflict with the Spanish authorities.
In 1571 Hawkins was involved in a plot with Philip II to assassinate Elizabeth I. However, he changed sides and his information helped William Cecil to have the main conspirators arrested and executed.
Hawkins was rewarded by being appointed Treasurer of the Navy. In 1577 John Hawkins helped to introduce a new type of warship. This ships were longer in relation to their breadth (about three to one) and with the forcecastle and sterncastle greatly reduced. The mainmast was placed further forwardand the sails were flatter. This ships were more manoeuvrable than any warships that had been built before.
In July 1588 131 ships in the Spanish Armada left for England. The large Spanish galleons were filled with 17,000 well-armed soldiers and 180 Catholic priests. On hearing the news Charles Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral, held a council-of-war. Lord Howard decided to divide the fleet into squadrons. Hawkins, Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher were chosen as the three other commanders of the fleet.
Howard went in his flagship, the Ark Royal (800 tons and a crew of 250). Frobisher was given command of the largest ship in the fleet, the Triumpth (1,110 tons and a crew of 500 men) whereas Drake was the captain of the Revenge (500 tons and a crew of 250) and Hawkins was aboard the Victory (800 tons and a crew of 250).
Lord Howard decided that the Spanish Armada should be attacked at both ends of the crescent. The Ark Royal attacked the right wing and the Revenge and the Triumph attacked Juan Martinez, de Recalde, commander of the Biscayan squadron on the left. Recalde on board the San Juan de Portugal decided to come out and fight the English ships. He was followed by Gran Grin and the two ships soon got into trouble and had to be rescued by the Duke of Medina Sidonia on board the San Martin.
At the end of the first day's fighting, only one ship was sunk. This was Spain's San Salvador when a tremendous explosion tore out its stern castle and killed 200 members of the crew. It was later discovered that a gunner's carelessness resulted in a spark reaching the gunpowder in the rear hold.
The following morning Francis Drake and the crew of Revenge captured the crippled Rosario. This included Admiral Pedro de Vales and all his crew. Drake also found 55,000 gold ducats on board.
That afternoon Medina Sidonia announced that if any Spanish ship broke formation the captain would be hanged immediately. He also told his captains that they must maintain a tight formation in order to prevent further attacks from the English ships. This decision meant that they could only move towards Dunkirk at the speed of the slowest ship.
Constantly harassed by the English ships the slow moving Spanish Armada eventually reached Calais without further loss. The English fleet now dropped anchor half a mile away. Soon afterwards they were joined by Lord Henry Seymour and his squadron of ships that had been controlling the seas off Dunkirk. This increased the English fleet by a third and was now similar in size to that of the Spanish fleet.
The Duke of Medina Sidonia now sent a message to the Duke of Parma in Dunkirk: "I am anchored here two leagues from Calais with the enemy's fleet on my flank. They can cannonade me whenever they like, and I shall be unable to do them much harm in return." He asked Parma to send fifty ships to help him break out of Calais. Parma was unable to help as he had less than twenty ships and most of those were not yet ready to sail.
That night Medina Sidonia sent out a warning to his captains that he expected a fire-ship attack. This tactic had been successfully used by Francis Drake in Cadiz in 1587 and the fresh breeze blowing steadily from the English fleet towards Calais, meant the conditions were ideal for such an attack. He warned his captains not to panic and not to head out to the open sea. Medina Sidonia confidently told them that his patrol boats would be able to protect them from any fire-ship attack that took place.
Medina Sidonia had rightly calculated what would happen. Charles Howard and Francis Drake were already organizing the fire-ship attack. It was decided to use eight fairly large ships for the operation. All the masts and rigging were tarred and all the guns were left on board and were primed to go off of their own accord when the fire reached them. John Young, one of Drake's men, was put in charge of the fire-ships.
Soon after midnight the eight ships were set fire to and sent on their way. The Spaniards were shocked by the size of the vessels. Nor had they expected the English to use as many as eight ships. The Spanish patrol ships were unable to act fast enough to deal with the problem. The Spanish captains also began to panic when the guns began exploding. They believed that the English were using hell-burners (ships crammed with gunpowder). This tactic had been used against the Spanish in 1585 during the siege of Antwerp when over a thousand men had been killed by exploding ships.
The fire-ships did not in fact cause any material damage to the Spanish ships at all. They drifted until they reached the beach where they continued to burn until the fire reached the water line. Medina Sidonia, on board the San Martin, had remained near his original anchorage. However, only a few captains had followed his orders and the vast majority had broken formation and sailed into the open sea.
At first light Medina Sidonia and his six remaining ships left Calais and attempted to catch up with the 130 ships strung out eastwards towards the Dunkirk sandbanks. Some Spanish ships had already been reached by the English fleet and were under heavy attack. San Lorenzo, a ship carrying 312 oarsmen, 134 sailors and 235 soldiers, was stranded on the beach and was about to be taken by the English.
With their formation broken, the Spanish ships were easy targets for the English ships loaded with guns that could fire very large cannon balls. The Spanish captains tried to get their ships in close so that their soldiers could board the English vessels. However, the English ships were quicker than the Spanish galleons and were able to keep their distance.
The battle of Gravelines continued all day. One of the most exciting contests was between Francis Drake in the Revenge and Duke of Medina Sidonia in the San Martin. Drake's ship was hit several times before being replaced by Thomas Fenner in the Nonpareil and Edmund Sheffield in the White Bear, who continued the fight without success.
All over the area of sea between Gravelines and Dunkirk fights took place between English and Spanish ships. By late afternoon most ships were out of gunpowder. The Duke of Medina Sidonia was now forced to head north with what was left of the Spanish Armada. The English ships did not follow as Charles Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral, was convinced that most Spanish ships were so badly damaged they would probably sink before they reached a safe port.
That evening Francis Drake wrote to a friend: "God hath given us so good a day in forcing the enemy so far to leeward, as I hope in God the Duke of Parma and the Duke of Sidonia shall not shake hands this few days". John Hawkins was also pleased with his day's work: "All that day Monday we followed the Spaniards with a long and great fight, wherein there was great valour showed generally by our company... Our ships, God be thanked, have received little hurt."
Hawkins also showed concern for his men: "The men have long been unpaid and need relief." Charles Howard was also angry that his men had not received their wages. He was also disturbed by the condition of his men. The lack of fresh water caused an outbreak of disease. As they were still waiting for their wages to be paid they were even unable to buy fresh food for themselves. Howard wrote bitterly: "It is a most pitiful sight to see, here at Margate, how the men, having no place to receive them into here, die in the streets. I am driven myself, of force, to come a-land, to see them bestowed in some lodging; and the best I can get is barns and outhouses. It would grieve any man's heart to see them that have served so valiantly to die so miserably."
After the Armada rounded Scotland it headed south for home. However, a strong gale drove many of the ships onto the Irish rocks. Thousands of Spaniards drowned and even those who reached land were often killed by English soldiers and settlers. Of the 25,000 men that had set out in the Armada, less than 10,000 arrived home safely.
For his role in the victory Hawkins was knighted by Elizabeth I. Sir John Hawkins went on another exhibition to the Caribbean and died in Puerto Rico in 1595.