The trail of the castaway: the untamed journeys of Francisco de Cuéllar

One of the survivors aboard the Lavia, which sank together with the Juliana and Santa María de Visón in Sligo, in the north of Ireland, was Captain Francisco de Cuéllar, author of the well-known missive to Philip II "Letter from one who was in the English Armada and who tells of the Journey".

The trail of the castaway: the untamed journeys of Francisco de Cuéllar
The invincible armada. London Maritime Museum

At the age of sixty, His Catholic Majesty Philip II was not coping well with the feverish plundering activity of the Lutheran pirates, while Queen Isabella I had repeatedly denied him marriage.

Fed up with the fact that the treasures coming from America ended up swelling the coffers of the Perfidious Albion, he was hatching the idea of invading England. It was not so much a question of conquering the British Isle, but rather of putting an end to a heretical monarchy and making a Catholic - and in the process renewing the support of the Vatican - once again king and lord of the ancient Arthurian land.

Philip entrusted the fearsome mission to Don Alvaro de Bazan, one of the legendary heroes of Lepanto. But Don Alvaro died, and the admiralty of the company fell to Alonso Perez de Guzman, VII Duke of Medina-Sidonia, great of Spain, nobiliary and militarily speaking, with the only drawback that he was not an expert in seamanship.

At the end of May 1588, the ships of what was called the Felicísima Armada (the "Invincible" was a fine English irony) set sail. They were 125 "castles on water" carrying 30,000 men and were to head first to Flanders so that the land troops, the Spaniards of great warrior fame of the Tercios, could embark there.

From the beginning, things did not go well and the sea was clearly against Spanish interests. Arrived at the English Channel, the spirited and light British ships attacked mercilessly and, as it is known, faithfully supported by their main ally. The inclement weather was so hard on the fleet and put the Spanish Armada in the position of abandoning the enterprise, that vain dream of taking over England.

Seeing the extensive Spanish fleet in that situation, its commanders decided to go around Scotland and Ireland to enter the North Atlantic on their way back to Spain. Most of the pilots had limited knowledge of the coasts of Ireland and 20 ships were lost. Although at least 200 Irishmen embarked on board the fleet, it was clear that proper nautical charts were lacking.

The uncertainty in London about the possibility of reorganization of the survivors who had reached the Irish coast meant that their pursuit led, on numerous occasions, to summary executions. The Irish would show an ambiguous attitude towards the Spaniards: sometimes they were plundered or handed over to the English authorities, at other times they were collected, hidden, and protected.

The castaway's trail

Captain Francisco de Cuéllar, author of the well-known missive to Philip II "Letter from one who was in the English Armada and who tells of the Journey" was one of the survivors on board the Lavia, which was shipwrecked together with the ships Juliana and Santa María de Visón in Sligo, in the north of Ireland. Initially sacked by the Irish and relentlessly pursued by the English, Cuellar managed to evade his pursuers by hiding for more than seven months in the mountainous and wooded areas among villagers he called "savages".

Of all the vicissitudes experienced by Cuellar throughout his bellicose and rough life, the one in the northern forests of Ireland would undoubtedly be the most bloody. After his shipwreck Cuellar is dragged along with the living and the dead to a beach with more than 600 corpses, completely naked, as cold as a dog, at the mercy of wolves and crows that devoured the entrails of the watered bodies.

However, his journey through the Irish lands would continue to bring him terrible misfortunes. To the persecution of the English must be added the dangerous ambiguity of the Irish, some of whom welcomed him sincerely - Latin was their language - and would lose their lives for it, as was the case of the nobleman O'Rourke.

From Ireland, he went to Scotland, together with 12 other Spaniards with the help of Bishop Raymond Termi, and from there, with a ship chartered by the Duke of Parma, he sailed from Britain to Flanders where from 1589 he served Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, fighting with clean arquebus in France, Piedmont, Naples, and Flanders itself.

Location of the ships lost during England's venture.
Location of the ships lost during England's venture.

Francisco de Cuéllar also in the New World

But Cuellar's footprint could already be traced in history before his incredible adventure as a castaway in Irish lands. In the first place, he was part of what was called the Days of Portugal in 1581, an endeavor that, after the succession crisis in the kingdom of Portugal, would lead Philip to be crowned -on March 25 of that year- after the military occupation of the country. But also our captain, between 1581 and 1584, would be part of the expedition of Diego Flores Valdés to the Strait of Magellan in the frigate Santa Catalina.

They arrived with the order to establish several fortifications that would prevent the passage of English pirate ships and control that strategic point. After many maritime misadventures, Valdés managed in 1584 to establish two foundations, that of Nombre de Jesús and that of Rey Don Felipe.

But if we continue to pull the historiographic skein we find more traces of Cuellar in the New World, since he also participated in the Enterprise of the Fort of Paraíba, against the French, in an area that today would include the city of Joao Pessoa.

The conquest of Paraíba was one of the pending tasks of Governor-General Teles Barreto in the Brazilian northeast and he took advantage of the presence in the Southern Cone of the Spanish squadron of Diego Flores de Valdés - where our intrepid Cuéllar was a militant - to undertake the colonization of that northeastern region.

However, this would not arrive definitively until 1597. Before the end of his days around 1604 -the last data place him in Madrid around that year- the good Francisco would resume -who knows if with his last remaining strength- his adventures beyond the seas and would embark on several voyages to the Windward Islands -nowadays the Antilles- in search of the silver of the American kingdom.

By way of summary, we must say that the disaster of 1588 cost Spain sixty ships, twenty thousand men -including five of its twelve most veteran commanders- and together with enormous material expenses, notable damage to its prestige in a particularly difficult period.

The main cause of such a calamity was not the elements, English military expertise, nor even the incompetence of the VII Duke of Medina Sidonia. It was a monarch -Felipe II- imbued with an exalted religious sentiment that, absent in the other powers of the time without excluding the Holy See, would end up provoking the definitive collapse of the Spanish empire.

By Ezequiel Paz, Source: Inclusion