For Lord Howard of Effingham the defeat of the Armada was the starting point of a different story which only ended in 2010. The tapestries he commissioned to celebrate England’s victory hung in the House of Lords for two centuries before being destroyed by fire. Plans to recreate them as paintings remained incomplete until a generous donation in 2007 saved the day.
Genesis of War
Genesis of War 1554–1588
King Philip II of Spain and Queen Elizabeth I of England held a mutual hostility. They were related through Philip’s marriage to her elder sister Queen Mary I, whose death in 1558 ended his ability to style himself king of England. Philip never accepted Elizabeth’s right to reign, regarding her as a Protestant heretic and he backed plots to eject her in favour of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. Tired of English attacks on his treasure ships, enraged by Elizabeth’s support of Dutch rebels in the Netherlands and her execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, Philip despatched the Spanish Armada a year later to take England by force.
Genesis of War
Spain’s mustering of her troops was impeded by Sir Francis Drake’s attack on Cadiz in 1587. Early in the new year, the Duke of Medina Sidonia completed preparations of the fleet at Lisbon, while the Duke of Parma readied his army from Brussels. Philip II’s plan was for Sidonia to lead the Armada up the Channel, then embark Parma’s troops and escort them aboard barges from Flanders to the shores of England. In parallel the troops would march and the ships sail on London, seizing control of both throne and government. A major pitfall, foreseen by Parma, was the improbability that Sidonia’s ships would safely dodge English and Dutch attackers in order meet his men.
Conflict July 1588
The Armada was first seen off the south-west coast of England in late July 1588. Commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, the Spanish fleet had over 130 ships and was 7 miles wide in formation. Large transport vessels were protected by heavily armed galleons. Carrying 7,000 sailors and 19,000 soldiers, together with horses and heavy siege guns, it was described as ‘invincible’.
The Spanish planned to seize control of the English Channel, collecting the Duke of Parma’s 30,000 soldiers off Holland before sailing for England and marching on London. To prevent this, the English had to defeat the Spanish at sea. In command of England’s fleet, Lord Howard of Effingham pursued the Armada for two weeks, seeking every chance to attack and weaken this powerful fighting force.
The fleets engaged off Plymouth and then the Isle of Portland. Although the English captured two Spanish ships the Armada continued its progress. When it paused, the English fleet attacked again and forced the Spanish back into open sea – and for want of a safe harbour – on to Calais. Desperate to stop the Armada collecting the Duke of Parma’s army, the English launched a fire-ship assault at midnight on 7th August. They set alight boats loaded with flammable materials, propelling them towards the Spanish fleet. In alarm and confusion, the Spanish cut their anchor cables, losing their close formation during the night.
As the Spanish tried to regain their grouping off the port of Gravelines, English commanders launched an attack. It was the fiercest battle of the conflict, with five Spanish ships lost and many others damaged. In the aftermath, the Armada faced destruction on the uncharted Flanders sandbanks, while – out of shot range – the English shadowed them. A change in the wind blew the Spanish into deeper waters and forced them into the North Sea. Gales and the English pursuit as far as the Firth of Forth meant the Spanish had to sail around Scotland and the west of Ireland. Hard hit by Atlantic storms, many ships were wrecked and only 67 returned to Spain.
The Tapestries 1592–1616
Lord Howard of Effingham commissioned a set of 10 tapestries to celebrate England’s victory over the Spanish Armada. Each was taller than 14ft and up to 28ft wide (4.4m x 8.7m). With sumptuously decorated borders around the battle scenes, and glittering gold and silver threads, the tapestries were spectacular. Costing £1,582, the equivalent of 87 years of wages for the average workman, they showed Effingham’s wealth and the importance he attached to the triumph. On completion in 1595 they hung in his London residence.
Vroom and Spierincx
The tapestries were designed by the celebrated Dutch marine artist Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom (1566–1640) and woven by Francis Spierincx (1549/51–1630), one of the most important weavers in Europe. Vroom used a set of charts showing the progress of the battles, drawn for Effingham by the cartographer Robert Adams (died 1595). Taking information about the ships’ positions, Vroom used perspective to show the battles from a bird’s-eye view. This was an innovation in tapestry design.
Weaving the tapestries
To repeat Vroom’s design, weavers in the Spierincx workshop in Delft used a full scale drawing, known as a ‘cartoon’. Sitting together at the loom, they passed weft threads in between the warp to build up the tapestries from one end of the picture. The weavers’ heavy gold and silver thread was made of silk, with fine metal wire wrapped around it. According to whether they had a ‘high’ or ‘low’ loom, the weaving was made vertically or horizontally. Tapestry weaving was labour intensive and time-consuming.
Hanging in the House of Lords
1644 - 1844
The tapestries were first hung in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in 1644. Initially they were shown only during important events, but by 1651 were probably displayed permanently. Vast in size and dominating the Lords’ Chamber, the tapestries feature in the background of pictures showing debates and state occasions. In the painting of Queen Anne in the House of Lords, by Peter Tillemans (about 1713–14), they fill the full height of the walls.
The tapestries’ iconic status increased as they hung in the House of Lords during the 18th and early 19th centuries. In times of national crisis they were a potent reminder of the 1588 victory. When debates in 1798 centred on fears of a French invasion, the satirist James Gillray designed cartoons to galvanise people. One of the scenes in his ‘Consequences of a Successful French Invasion’ depicts a French Revolutionary ordering an attack on the tapestries in the Lords Chamber, an affront to Britain’s maritime identity.
In the early years the tapestries decorated the House of Lords Parliament Chamber, but from 1801 peers moved to the more spacious Court of Requests. Here the aged and fragile tapestries were specially cleaned and supported on wooden frames. A watercolour of 1831–4 shows King William IV on the throne at the State Opening of Parliament, the walls filled with tapestry hangings. The painting was one of the last images produced showing both the Chamber and textiles before they were destroyed in 1834.
In 1739 John Pine (1690–1756) published engravings of the ten Armada tapestries, together with his version of charts originally produced by Robert Adam (died 1595). In his introduction, Pine pointed to the tapestries’ national significance, describing the defeat of the Spanish Armada as, ‘the most glorious Victory that was ever obtained at Sea, and the most important to the British Nation’. The reason he gave for reproducing the tapestries was, ‘because time, or accident, or moths may deface these valuable shadows’. His words were prophetic. After the tapestries were lost in 1834, his engravings provided a unique record of them.
Pine used the charts by Robert Adam, along with drawings of the central scenes in each tapestry by C. Lemprière, as source material. For the portrait heads of naval commanders in the decorative border, he worked from Hubert- Francois Gravelot’s (1699–1773) drawings. The border designs from the tapestries were closely copied in plates II, IV, VI, VIII and X. However in plates I, III, V, VII and IX Pine introduced a new border design, showing his skill working in the Tudor or later Rococo styles. He explained that this change was to add variety and to allow portraits of Sir Robert Carey, Sir Roger Townshend and Sir Thomas Gerard to be included.
A good friend of the artist William Hogarth, Pine was a fellow member of the Old Slaughter’s Coffee House on St Martin’s Lane. Together with colleagues they successfully petitioned Parliament to protect artists’ rights, resulting in the Engraving Copyright Act of 1735. Pine won a clause within it which gave him exclusive permission to reproduce the Armada tapestries. Commercially astute, he waited until the Act was in place before proceeding with the project.
Pine’s publication ‘The Tapestry Hangings in the House of Lords’ shows his engravings of the tapestries. The ten 14 x 23-inch (35.6 cm x 58.4 cm) engraved views show the sequence of engagements; sometimes more than one action is depicted within a design. From the first sighting of the Armada off the coast of Cornwall, Pine’s illustrations chart its progress up the Channel as far as Gravelines, pursued and attacked by the English. Pine also lists distinguished subscribers to his publication and records the details of each fleet, including the captains’ names and armaments carried for the land invasion.
On the night of 16th October 1834 the tapestries were destroyed when the buildings of the old Palace of Westminster were ravaged by fire. It began when flues close to the House of Lords Chamber ignited, and the textiles could not be saved. People were deeply saddened by the loss of these national symbols, because the tapestries had such artistic and historic value.
Building the new palace of Westminster
The new Palace of Westminster was conceived as a union of architecture, fine art and sculpture. The choice of Gothic celebrated British architectural traditions and the architect Sir Charles Barry designed the grand interiors so that cycles of paintings and schemes of sculpture could be showcased, illustrating the nation’s history. Re-creating the destroyed Armada tapestries was part of this great artistic initiative.
To decorate the Palace with new schemes of art by the nation’s best painters and sculptors, a Royal Commission on Fine Arts was established in 1841. Chaired by Prince Albert, its aims were to illustrate the story of British history up to the reign of Queen Victoria, while promoting the country’s arts. Members chose subjects that showed Britain at its best, reflecting their view that it was the most powerful country in the world. The significance of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 guaranteed its inclusion into the planned scheme.
The Prince's Chamber
Leading into the House of Lords, the Prince’s Chamber was to be decorated with art on the theme of Tudor history, with recreations of the Armada tapestries high on the walls. The rest of the scheme was comprised of twelve bronze relief sculptures of Tudor scenes and twenty-eight portraits of royalty from that period. England’s victory over the Armada in 1588 was early evidence of the nation’s maritime power, which peaked during Queen Victoria’s reign. By placing the Armada series above the statue of Victoria, she and Elizabeth I were linked as great ‘rulers of the waves’.
Richard Burchett (1815–1875) was chosen in the 1850s by the Commission to paint copies of historic Tudor royal portraits, and to produce painted reproductions of the Armada tapestries. He involved and supervised students from the art school he headed, the forerunner of today’s Royal College of Art.
Burchett completed only one Armada painting, ‘The English Fleet Pursuing the Spanish Fleet Against Fowey’, based closely on Pine’s print of the tapestry. It was a sample painting and the second in the narrative sequence, its dimensions showing that it was meant to hang above Queen Victoria’s statue.
After Prince Albert died in 1861, the Fine Arts Commission curtailed their plans for schemes of art and work on the Armada paintings was halted indefinitely. Burchett’s single completed painting was placed in storage and the empty wall compartments of the Prince’s Chamber were hung with Pugin wallpaper. The project was revived in 1907, when a Select Committee for the completion of interior decorations at the Palace included the Armada paintings as one of three priority plans. Two of these were realised, but the onset of the First World War meant that the Armada paintings were abandoned again.
In 2007 Mark Pigott KBE made a generous donation to the House of Lords for the purchase of a significant piece of historical art. The Works of Art Committee discussed a proposal that the funds be used towards completing the Armada paintings for the Prince’s Chamber. Having established that the amount would cover two paintings – and mindful of the Victorian and Edwardian difficulties over the commission – they considered ways of raising funds to complete the series. The Committee Chairman, Lord Crathorne, told Mark Pigott of the peers’ enthusiasm for the project and their dilemma. Mark Pigott generously agreed to underwrite the cost of all five paintings, making it possible for the House of Lords finally to bring the 1860s plan to fruition.
Mr Pigott shared,‘My family is pleased to offer the Armada paintings as our gift to the Nation. We have been partners with the UK for over 30 years and are very grateful for the country enabling our business to flourish. We have forged many wonderful friendships in the UK. The idea of undertaking this monumental project, and commemorating one of England’s finest victories, was a once in a lifetime opportunity that was eagerly embraced. I am pleased that the paintings will be displayed for all to enjoy in perpetuity. Thank you to Prince Albert for initiating this project and to the entire artistic team for delivering a world class panorama.’