Keepe the sea …

The Armada tapestries – commissioned 1592, completed 1595, destroyed 1834, recreated 2010

The Sharpest Engagement

Commander Sue Eagles QVRM, RD, RNR, Director of the Maritime Foundation, finds a message for an island nation in the newly recreated Armada tapestry paintings

Photo: © Palace of Westminster

Keepe the sea … shewing what profit cometh thereof, and also what honour and salvation.’ The fifteenth-century Libel of English Policy clearly determined the close identification of Britain with her fleet and the nation’s commitment to the sea, particularly defence of the home islands and of the territories overseas that she depended on for wealth, investment and trade.

This early Libel, effectively Britain’s Maritime Strategy, was to become the lifeblood of the British economy, and historically and culturally a fundamental part of our national identity. From its early beginnings the Navy became the instrument of this national policy and the powerful Pax Britannica of Empire and the Commonwealth served to protect our global interests and safeguard the freedom of the seas for over four hundred years. As an island nation, seafaring was in our blood.

The Armada defeated

The early sea captains were excellent navigators, tacticians and hardy and confident mariners. Hawkins, Raleigh and Drake sailed boldly to the Spanish Main and beyond to trade or to flout and pillage treasure ships and ports. Frobisher and Davis went seeking a northwest passage to the East and Gilbert claimed Newfoundland. It was the spectacular defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, however, that would symbolise the nation’s maritime responsibilities and hardwire the sea into the blood and sinew of every Englishman. When the Spanish fleet sailed into UK home waters with ‘an Armie aboord to greatly endanger the Kingdome of England’, England was ready for the death-grapple.

The Spanish had the advantage in numbers of both vessels and men, but the English fleet, with its bold and spirited commanders, superior seamanship skills and well-practised gunnery procedures, drummed the Armada up the Channel, shot it to pieces off Gravelines and left the elements to do the rest. It was a stupendous victory.

A great victory commemorated

The magnificent Armada tapestries depicting this great national victory were commissioned in 1592 by Lord Howard of Effingham, who had served as Lord High Admiral at the time of the Spanish invasion. The provenance of the whole event, the great wooden structures of the vessels, their close proximity to the English coastline and the urgency and heat of the battle were vitally conveyed, with every thread skilfully woven by one of the most important weavers in Europe, Dutchman Francis Spierincx. When completed in 1595 the tapestries hung in Lord Howard’s Chelsea Manor and then in his new London residence, Arundel House.

In the early 1650s the tapestries were moved to the House of Lords Chamber in the Royal Palace of Westminster, and for over two hundred years they became synonymous with the House of Lords and the heart of the nation’s political power. Peers regularly referred to the tapestries to illustrate their point in speeches or debate. In 1739, Lord Chesterfield, objecting to a treaty with Spain, declared, ‘these walls my Lord ought to put us in mind of the methods by which our Ancestors preserved the Trade, and vindicated the Honour of the Nation.’ The tapestries symbolised the nation’s maritime capability and prowess and served as a permanent reminder of the need to ‘keepe the sea’.

Sadly the historic tapestries perished during a great fire on 16 October 1834 which destroyed many of the buildings of the Old Palace of Westminster. Warships have always been susceptible to fire, and it is a tragic irony that such vital and fecund threads of our maritime history were lost in this way.

Bringing the tapestries back to life

In 2007, however, a generous donation made to the House of Lords ‘sparked’ the tapestries back to life, and from visual records of a series of engravings created in the 1730s by the artist John Pine, work began on recreating the tapestries in oil on canvas as a set of magnificent paintings. The two-year project was undertaken by a team of artists led by Anthony Oakshett.

The new canvases were finished earlier this year and now hang in the Prince’s Chamber, restoring the significance and importance of the historic tapestries to the nation and serving once again as a timely reminder of the role of the Navy in the defence of the realm. The UK still has responsibility for fourteen Overseas Territories, some of which are many thousands of miles away, and it is all too easy to forget that the British Isles – all 7,000 of them – have 10,500 miles of coastline and over 600 ports.

A celebration of the Armada tapestries and our nation’s great maritime and trading history will take place in the Royal Apartments in the House of Lords on 4 November 2010. The celebration will feature an exhibition of maritime paintings and artefacts including the historic ship’s bell from HMS Ark Royal, the flagship of Lord Howard of Effingham at the time of the Armada battle in 1588. The ship’s bell was struck to designate the time on board, striking the hours and half hours of the watch. It would have been struck during the days of the battle, and its presence in the House of Lords on 4 November 2010 will be a powerful reminder that time is running out on our maritime fleets. Unless we heed that fifteenth-century Libel, ‘Keepe the sea’, there is a very real danger that our great mercantile nation could be heading towards the rocks.