Brian Best, Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs and their War against Spain (Frontline, 2021)
Pity Elizabeth. In 1558, she inherited a State on the edge of chaos after the bipolar years of Mary and Edward. Religious strife dominated the national conversation. Elizabeth would try to steer a middle line, but the Catholic King of Spain was having none of it. That said, the impoverished Elizabeth had no qualms about trading with Spain’s possessions in the New World, and that commerce would soon enough turn to piracy, thanks to Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs.
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Best demonstrates the vulnerability of Spanish commercial traffic lanes from almost their inception. The Dutch and French picked Spanish ships off with ease and attacked their settlements. Elizabeth wanted a piece of the action. She gave Letters of Marque to a group of captains of small, fast warships, which authorized them to attack Spanish ships, these were the Sea Dogs. Best describes these ships and introduces us to their captains.
First up is John Hawkins. He began his naval career as a merchant, making himself wealthy through the slave trade in particular. He was soon fighting the Spanish, however, on the Queen’s behalf, though certainly not without incidents that Best relates with relish. Hawkins’ career blossomed until he rose to become the head of Elizabeth’s Navy Council and appointed Rear-Admiral to fight the Spanish Armada in 1588. After an interlude to discuss the adventures of some English sailors left behind in South America, Best turns to the story of Francis Drake. He served with Hawkins, but his most famous exploits came with his own command. Those included his circumnavigation of the world, an event that receives three chapters from Best. Thomas Cavendish also attempted to sail the globe. He too attacked the Spanish but dies off Ascension Island.
Best next considers other privateers and military commanders in shorter biographies, including John Oxenham, Richard Greenville, Thomas Stukeley, John Norreys, Christopher Carleill, Walter Raleigh, Humphrey Gilbert, Michael Geare, Christopher Newport, Martin Frobisher, George Clifford, and William Monson, all of whom might merit a full biography. There follows an oddly placed chapter on the execution of Mary Quen of Scots, then Best jumps back a year to Drake’s attack on Cadiz. The defeat of the Spanish Armada is up next, told from English and Spanish perspectives, and the disaster that ensued around the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Short chapters on the deaths of Drake and Hawkins, the fall of Cadiz, and the end of the Sea Dogs era close Best’s book.
Rather like some of the voyages he describes Best’s book on Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs is an uneven journey. He sails through the stories of Hawkins and Drake in well written chapters, but rather than expand on some of the other adventurers in Elizabeth’s navy, Best chops through them to make room to describe events, minor and major, and the head-scratching chapter on Mary’s demise. Best’s structure also strains under his material, which skips around the chronology at times. Taken as a whole, including the unsatisfactory bibliography, Best’s book doesn’t quite work, but if treated as episodes then Best tells some exciting tales of high Elizabethan adventure and you can skip the rest.