The Confident Hope of a Miracle by Neil Hanson

The story of the Spanish Armada that sailed in 1588 is one of a struggle between a power hungry empire (Spain) and a relatively poor, developing nation (England). Neil Hanson’s The Confident Hope of a Miracle brings a fresh perspective to this topic. The book is a fascinating history of the battles fought on the Armada’s voyage and the leading persons who influenced the events surrounding the Armada.

Hanson’s vivid depictions of the people involved in the formation and voyage of the Armada are particularly strong. I especially liked his portrayal of Queen Elizabeth – as a shrewd, yet petty ruler. Elizabeth’s constant penny pinching cost the English navy several opportunities at destroying the Armada. For instance, the navy had to break off the last engagement with the Armada due to lack of shot for its cannons. Another of Elizabeth’s flaws that Hansen points out was her procrastination and waffling over key decisions. She often waited so long to make a decision that it put her fleet in hazardous situations.

Elizabeth is not the only monarch that Hanson criticizes – King Phillip II of Spain is cast in a poor light as well. According to Hanson, several of Phillip’s faults may have cost him a victory over the English. Phillip micromanaged at times when he should have delegated certain tasks. For example, he insisted on signing off on all supply orders for the Armada. As a result of this micromanagement, the Armada sat in Spanish ports waiting for provisions and other supplies to be collected. In addition, Phillip insisted on his own commanders – not necessarily the best qualified ones. For instance, the Armada commander, the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, neither wanted nor was qualified to lead a fleet into battle, yet Phillip entrusted the fate of the whole expedition on him.

Although Hanson does not examine the first battle until halfway through the book, I think the first part of the book is needed to explain the political and religious situation in Europe and to describe the leading figures involved in the Armada. I think that its imperative that readers know the political and religious environment that the Armada sailed into. For example, Hanson explains that Phillip’s desire, bordering on obsession, to conquer England and bring it back into the fold of Catholicism.

The greatest strength of the book is that it is a detailed history of an event that reads like a story. Hanson’s writing style is easy to understand – even in the most technical descriptions of the cannons and ships.

The only complaint I have is that Hanson should have included more maps throughout the text. If the reader is a visual learner – as I am – it is a little difficult to keep track of the Armada on its voyage through the English Channel and around Ireland by words alone. A map detailing the coasts of Spain, France, England, the Netherlands, and Ireland would have been extremely helpful. Better maps of the tactical maneuvers of the Armada and the English navy would have helped the reader to understand the intricate movements of the opponents.

In short, the book flows from chapter to chapter with the reader becoming more and more engrossed in the story.

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