Armada by Geoffrey Parker – 50 Years in 50 Books

In December 2022, Yale University Press published Geoffrey Parker’s latest book: Armada: The Spanish Enterprise and England’s Deliverance in 1588, which he co-authored with one of his former doctoral advisees, Colin Martin. Looking beyond the events of 1588 to the complex politics which made war between England and Spain inevitable, and at the political and dynastic aftermath, Armada deconstructs the many legends to reveal why, ultimately, the bold Spanish mission failed.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Geoffrey Parker reflects on how a meeting with former YUPL Managing Director Robert Baldock in Bertorelli’s restaurant in 1982 led to the publication of the revised, fully illustrated ‘Armada’ 40 years later.


Article by Geoffrey Parker

This book is Robert Baldock’s fault. One day in spring 1982, when he worked for Weidenfeld and I taught at St Andrews University, Robert invited me to come to London and have lunch with him at Bertorelli’s restaurant in Charlotte Street, not far from Bedford Square (although the significance of that did not emerge for another decade). He claimed he only wanted to consult me about some mutual friends as potential Yale authors, but I felt suspicious and made a mental promise not to take on any new project, should he ask me. And lo! After a jolly conversation (and a jolly good meal), Robert asked me the dreaded question: “And will we ever work together on a book?” After delivering the speech I had memorized on how I had “publishing obligations stretching into the next decade” he asked with a little smile: “Not even a book on the Spanish Armada?”

Oh! The cad! How could Robert have known that at St Andrews I supervised the exciting doctoral thesis of Colin Martin, based on the artifacts he and his team of divers had excavated from Armada ships wrecked in 1588 on the inhospitable coasts of Ireland and Scotland. The artifacts they had discovered had already made me wonder whether documents in the archives of Spain might describe them, and by the end of our lunch Robert had convinced me to write a book jointly with Colin that would be fully illustrated. I promised to deliver both typescript and images in time to publish before the Armada quatercentenary.

I returned to St Andrews to convince Colin, who was equally enthusiastic about telling the Armada story through a unique combination of history and archaeology, but a few days later we learned that George Weidenfeld was unwilling to put up money in 1982 for a book to be published in 1988. Colin and I nevertheless liked Robert’s idea so much that we put together a proposal. When Hamish Hamilton showed interest, Colin and I travelled to London together and made a presentation that included clips from a BBC film that showed Colin excavating one of the Armada wrecks. We got a terrific contract for the book.

That summer I returned to Simancas, Spain’s national archive, to find material on the Armada. Thanks to a hint from an archivist, on my second day I found a series entitled “Armada de Ingalaterra”: more than twenty huge bundles of documents that contained detailed lists of government stores issued to every ship hired by Philip II of Spain to serve against England. Judging by the dust, no one else had consulted these bundles and so every morning I entered the search room with great anticipation, wondering what I would find. I concentrated on the vessels that Colin and others had excavated, and ordered miles of microfilm that he used for his thesis, duly defended in 1983. I also consulted documents in other series, and in archives in England, Spain and the rest of continental Europe, that revealed the process by which Philip had planned and prepared his Grand Strategy for the invasion and conquest of England, and the counter-measures taken by the Tudor regime.

Simancas Castle, Spain. Colin Martin took this photo in 1966 when Geoffrey Parker was working in the search room. They first met seven years later as colleagues at the University of St Andrews.

Colin and I decided that we could cover the Armada story in twelve chapters, drawing on both history and underwater archaeology. Each of us drafted six chapters, and then critiqued what the other had written. When we noticed some gaps, each of us drafted one more chapter, and by the beginning of 1987 we had a complete typescript.

Or so we thought. At this point, the BBC commissioned Alan Ereira to make three TV programmes to mark the quatercentenary of the Armada. He invited both of us to be “historical consultants”, and to appear as “talking heads”. He also charged me with “discovering some new documents” to camera.

That part was easy. I knew that the Palacio de Zabálburu, a private archive in Madrid closed to researchers, contained important Armada documents and Alan deployed the BBC’s persuasive powers to secure permission for me to work there. Afterwards he returned with a cameraman and sound engineer to record me “discovering” a previously unknown document, written by Philip II in November 1588, as the magnitude of the Armada’s failure became clear. In it, he told his secretary that he thought he world was about to end and he wanted to die.

I discovered lots more fascinating documents in the Zabálburu collection, and working with Alan revealed many other new data, most of which Colin and I managed to squeeze into the book at proof stage. Squeezing them in so late proved very expensive, but it paid off because The Spanish Armada spent fourteen weeks in the Sunday Times bestseller charts in 1988, rising to #5. The Royal Television Society gave Alan’s Armada trilogy its “Best Documentary Series” award.

The Spanish Armada off the Coast of England, Unknown, monogrammist VHE.
National Museums Northern Ireland, Ulster Museum Collection.

The book also attracted the attention of other scholars. Underwater archaeologists contacted Colin Martin whenever they discovered evidence of a new Armada wreck (above all, the remains of three merchantmen wrecked off Streedagh Strand, near Sligo, with the loss of over 1100 men, partially exposed by storms); and historians contacted Geoffrey Parker. Nicholas Rodger, then an assistant keeper at the Public Record Office, wrote Parker a letter that drew attention to the little-used series “War Office Miscellaneous”, which provided details on the munitions issued each year by the royal Ordnance Office to each warship, the amount each warship returned, and how much it had “spent at the sea”. Fernando Bouza and María Jesús Álvarez-Coca invited Parker to examine some boxes they had found in the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid labelled “Papeles Curiosos” concerning Philip II’s plans to conquer England. One box contained not only a detailed “log” kept by Juan Martínez de Recalde, deputy commander of the Armada, but also several handwritten notes exchanged with the flagship during and after the battles with the English in the Channel, evaluating the performance of both fleets under fire and suggesting tactical adjustments.

These and other discoveries led me to contemplate a collection of essays to be entitled “In the wake of the Spanish Armada,” which would incorporate all the new material. And then the Instituto de España in Madrid invited me to give a course of five lectures on “The Grand Strategy of Philip II”.  While working those up, I got the idea of combining the two ventures and turned for advice to Robert Baldock, by then an editor at Yale University Press. The result was The Grand Strategy of Philip II, published in 1998.

Time passed. Colin continued to advise those who discovered further wrecks from the Armada; I found yet more documents on the venture while writing a new biography of Philip II (Imprudent King, also published by Yale). Then in 2014 the BBC commissioned another documentary trilogy – Armada: twelve days to save England – and asked me to serve as historical consultant, and to appear as a “talking head.” Sharing the new material with the production team – Robin Dashwood, Cameron Balbirnie, and Mark Edger – and filming with them in Spain, made me appreciate the quality and quantity of new information on the Armada campaign that had come to light since 1988 (over one hundred books besides our own came out that year, most of them in England and Spain) and I wondered about producing a new edition.

Once again Colin shared my enthusiasm and we pitched the idea to Robert, now managing director of Yale in London. He accepted, but since he inconsiderately retired soon afterwards, it fell to Heather McCallum to oversee the production of what she called a “whistles and bells illustrated edition” (denial is futile: the phrase appears in her email dated 21 May 2019). The book appeared in December 2022: it now has 21 chapters instead of 14; 728 pages instead of 296; and over 200 illustrations, chosen by Paula Martin (who also kept the two headstrong authors, separated by 4,000 miles, on message). But if in spite of all this you don’t like the finished product, gentle reader, then blame Robert Baldock.


About the author:

Geoffrey Parker taught at Cambridge and St Andrews Universities in the UK, at UBC in Canada, and at Illinois and Yale in the US, before becoming the Andreas Dorpalen Professor of European History at The Ohio State University in 1997. He has directed 35 doctoral dissertations to completion, as well as publishing 40 books and over 100 articles in three areas: military history (The Military Revolution); global environmental history (The Global Crisis); and early modern Europe (Imprudent King: a new life of Philip II and Emperor: a new life of Charles V). His work has been translated into many languages, and in 2012 the Royal Dutch Academy awarded him the Heineken Prize for History.


About the book:

Armada
The Spanish Enterprise and England’s Deliverance in 1588

Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker

The definitive history of the Spanish Armada, lavishly illustrated and fully revised

Find out more


Also by Geoffrey Parker:

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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