1. The defeat of the Armada in 1588 was a great English victory. Not only did it mark England’s salvation from the threat of harsh foreign occupation, and serve as the crucial turning-point in the war against Spain, the fact that so much damage had been done to the Spanish fleet by storms at sea invited interpretation as divine intervention on behalf of Protestant England. Understandably, therefore, the months following this great event witnessed much public celebration, both secular and religious. Pageants, reviews, jousts, and public executions of Catholics abounded, church services were held throughout the land, November 29 (St. Elizabeth’s Day) was declared a day of national thanksgiving, and the entire exercise of celebration reached a climax on December 4 with a great service at St. Paul’s, with the Queen in attendance. In addition, the Armada’s defeat was memorialized in the graphic arts by such things as several commemorative medallions struck during this period, the well-known Armada Portrait of Elizabeth (perhaps the work of George Gower), and the Armada Jewel, executed by Nicholas Hilliard, commissioned and presented to Elizabeth by Nicholas Heneage. NOTE 1
2. Given all this public activity, it is surprising to observe how little impression this great event made on literature. The most memorable attempt to monumentalize it in writing, the detailed account published by Richard Hakluyt in The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (subsequently Latinized by William Camden in his Annales Rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum Regnante Elizabetha for the year 1588), did not appear until near the end of the century, and the only contemporary literary responses displaying any notable ambition of which I am aware were James Aske’s Elizabetha Triumphans, a lengthy poem in English with a Latin title, printed in 1588, NOTE 2 and Christopher Ocland’s Latin Elizabetheis, published in the following year. But there is a conspicuous silence in quarters where one would expect to find a response: there are, for example, no university anthologies such as marked many public occasions of far less importance. Therefore contemporary English Humanistic poets, such as William Gager and Richard Latewar, were not provided with a forum for publishing the kind of memorable Latin poetry of which they were capable.
3. But the defeat of the Armada did elicit a literary response from a French Protestant who regarded Elizabeth as the champion of the reforming cause, the theologian and Humanist Theodore Beza [Théodore de Bèze, 1519 - 1605], who wrote three poems in reaction to the English victory. All three were clearly written soon after the event, while the news was still fresh and emotion was running high. As a Protestant, Beza was not behindhand in hailing the victory and discovering theological significance in it. The first and best known of these poems is a fairly short epigram, Ad Serenissimam Elizabetham Angliae Reginam, published as a broadside at London in 1588. NOTE 3 The poem was accompanied by translations in English and various other languages. For some reason, perhaps because he regarded it as trivial and inferior to the next poem to be mentioned, Beza did not see fit to include it in his 1597 Poemata Varia, but it was reproduced in such works as an appendix to Ocland’s Elizabetheis, Samuel Purchas’ Haklutus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes (1625), Abraham Wright’s Delitiae Delitiarum (1637), NOTE 4 and Christian Matthiae’s Theatrum Historicum (1648). It also appears in at least two manuscript copies, an August 1588 entry by the French diarist Pierre de L’Estoile, NOTE 5 and Johan Radermacher’s personal album).
4. The second item, In Classem Hispanicam ab Anglis Oppressam, was printed as Elegy VII in Beza’s Poemata Varia (pp. 77f.).
5. To the best of my knowledge, the third, an elaborate ode in Alcaic stanzas entitled Triumpale Carmen 1588, is preserved exclusively in L’Estoile’s diary (III.179 - 82 of the published edition), immediately preceding Ad Serenissimam Elizabetham Angliae Reginam. Its authenticity seems guaranteed by the signature TH. B., a. 1588 at the end. L’Estoile prefaces his quotation of both Beza’s poems with the words:
Sur quoi Th. de Besze fist les vers latins suivants en l’honneur et triomphe de ceste insigne victoire, addresés à la Roine d’Angleterre, comme à celle qui y avoit le principal intérest; lesquels, nonobstant les empeschements et vents impeteux de la Ligue, parvinrent jusques à Paris, où un mien ami les donna, estant trouvés bien faits en fort recuellis des hommes d’esprit.
Either this poem had been printed as a second broadside of which no copies survive, or it was circulated in manuscript. This too is not included in the 1597 Poemata Varia. Considering its quality, this may seem surprising, but the reason for its omission is probably that the poems in that volume are organized according to meters, and there is no section for lyric poems.
NOTE 1 These celebrations have recently been outlined by Niel Hanson, The Confident Hope of a Miracle (2005) 383 - 87. Cf. also John Nichols, The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth (London, 1823) II.537 - 44
NOTE 2 The text was reprinted by Nichols II.545 - 82. It is very tempting to imagine that the defeat of the Armada was intended to serve as the climax of William Alabaster’s proposed Great National Epic, the Elisais, intended to be written in twelve Books, but the project collapsed after the completion of Book I when its author, previously an outpoken anti-Catholic, converted to Catholicism and fled to Rome. See Michael O’Connor, “The ‘Elisaeis’ of William Alabaster,” Studies in Philology monograph 76, 1979. At “Paulus Melissus and Jacobus Falkengergius: Two German Protestant Humanists at the Court of Queen Elizabeth,” Sixteenth Century Journal XXXVIII:1 (2007) p. 111 Lee Piepho mentions a series of poems on the defeat of the Armada by Melissus, preserved by Vatican Pal. Lat. Vat. ms. 1905 fols. 193r - 199v. Like Alabaster, for some reason Melissus broke off work on this project.
NOTE 3 Early English Books reel 237:15. Copies are owned by the British Library and the Pepysian Library of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and the John Rylands Library, Manchester.
NOTE 4 As Prof. Piepho kindly pointed out to me.
NOTE 5 Edited by G. Brunet et al. under the title Mémoires-Journaux de Pierre De L’Estoile (Paris, 1871), III.183.