In April 1591, six royal ships under the command of Lord Thomas Howard left Plymouth to intercept the annual Spanish flota, laden with New World treasure, off the Azores. Unfortunately for Howard, his men became racked with illness, were forced to put ashore on the islands and then fled their Spanish pursuers, returning to England. One of the ships, Revenge, the former flagship of Sir Francis Drake, did otherwise. It was under the command of Sir Richard Grenville, who ‘went berserk’, ‘valuing the world as nothing’, as the Spanish squadron commander Martín de Bertendona put it. Fourteen hours of battle followed as Revenge, heavily outnumbered, its position hopeless, sank two and wrecked three Spanish ships. Such actions contributed to a ‘can’t be beat’ mentality that persisted among the English for centuries.
The English of the 16th century were different from their modern-day counterparts: smaller, less hygienic, mildly inebriated inhabitants of an enchanted world. Much of the population, male and female, was different from their Continental contemporaries, too, in that they were free to labour on any land, and could buy, sell