“As the brute beasts among the mountains”: an Armada captain’s adventures in Ireland

Who: Francisco de Cuéllar, Spanish sea captain

When: 16th century

Where: Ireland

In 1588, Captain Francisco de Cuéllar sailed with the Spanish Armada, no doubt expecting victory over the English and a triumphant return to Spain. Instead, his fleet received a crushing defeat and he attempted to sail his galleon, the San Pedro, home via Scotland and Ireland. Off the coast of County Sligo, the San Pedro floundered:

I escaped from the sea and from these enemies by having commended myself very earnestly to our Lord, and to the Most Holy Virgin, His Mother; and with me three hundred and odd soldiers, who also knew how to save themselves and to swim to shore. With them I experienced great misfortunes: naked and shoeless all the winter: passing more than seven months among mountains and woods with savages.

16th century Irish soldiers, as portrayed by Albrecht Durer

Most Armada sailors who made it to Ireland were quickly killed by either natives or garrisoned English soldiers. Many of De Cuéllar’s crewmates met a brutal end:

More than a day and a half after she had grounded, some savages arrived, who turned her up for the purpose of extracting nails or pieces of iron; and, breaking through the deck, they drew out the dead men. Don Diego Enriquez expired in their hands, and they stripped him, and took away the jewels and money which they (the dead men) had, casting the bodies aside without burying them.

Our captain, however, was lucky:

With great exertion I righted myself upon my supporting timber; and, supplicating Our Lady of Ontanar, there came four waves, one after the other, and, without knowing how, or knowing how to swim, they cast me upon the shore, where I emerged, unable to stand, all covered with blood, and very much injured.

His travels through Connacht and Ulster brought further adventure and hardship. He searched for a monastery, but found it deserted, and the church and images of the saints burned and completely ruined, and twelve Spaniards hanging within the church by the act of the Lutheran English.  He walked barefoot and wounded along a stony road, and was robbed of all his belongings.

Fortunately, some of the locals were kind enough to provide him with food and dress his wounds. He found his way to the home of Señor de Ruerque (Sir Brian O’Rourke) in County Leitrim. Although O’Rourke was a savage, he was fortunately also a very good Christian and an enemy of heretics who sheltered many of our lost Spaniards. With a few of his fellow countrymen, De Cuéllar moved on to the territory of Manglana (MacClancy), a savage gentleman, a very brave soldier and great enemy of the Queen of England and of her affairs.  Our captain lived with MacClancy for three months, acting as a real savage like themselves, and turning on his Latin charm for the ladies:

One day we were sitting in the sun with some of her [MacClancy’s wife’s] female friends and relatives, and they asked me about Spanish matters and of other parts, and in the end it came to be suggested that I should examine their hands and tell them their fortunes.

‘Irish men and women’, by Lucas d’Heere, circa 1575
‘Irish men and women’, by Lucas d’Heere, circa 1575

The English governor was not happy that MacClancy was providing shelter to the Armada survivors, and attacked  the castle. After MacClancy and his clan hid up a mountain, De Cuéllar and his countrymen held off the governor and his forces, principally because the castle was out of cannon range in a place that was marshy, breast-deep, so that even the natives could not get to it except by paths. The siege lasted for 17 days, until our Lord saw fit to succour and deliver us from that enemy by severe storms and great falls of snow. MacClancy declared the Spaniards as his most loyal friends, offering whatever was his for our service, suggesting that his sister would marry De Cuéllar. When our captain turned down this enticing offer, it seemed that MacClancy’s gratitude was conditional:

He did not wish to give me permission to leave, nor to any Spaniard of those who were with him, saying that the roads were not safe; but his sole object was to detain us, that we might act as his guard. So much friendship did not appear good to me; and thus I decided, secretly, with four of the soldiers who were in my company, to depart one morning two hours before dawn, so that they should not pursue us on the road

Shortly after Christmas, De Cuéllar travelled to Antrim and found passage to Scotland. From there, he sailed on to Flanders and eventually made it back to Spain.

De Cuéllar’s letter about his experiences provide a valuable picture, if not always a flattering one, of Tudor Ireland:

The custom of these savages is to live as the brute beasts among the mountains, which are very rugged in that part of Ireland where we lost ourselves. They live in huts made of straw.

He describes the men as large bodied, and of handsome features and limbs, wearing tight trousers and short loose coats of very coarse goat’s hair and with their hair down to their eyes. The women are very beautiful, but badly dressed, their dress described as little more than a smock and their hair covered by a linen cloth, much doubled. He notes sniffily that these people call themselves Christians but the chief inclination of these people is to be robbers, and to plunder each other and concludes that in this kingdom there is neither justice nor right, and everyone does what he pleases. But he also acknowledges that if it had not been for those who guarded us as their own persons, not one of us would have been left alive.

Further reading

Wikipedia page about Francisco de Cuéllar

De Cuéllar’s travels online


Images courtesy of http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/12/16th-century-images-of-irish-people/



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