Bookmarks Issue: 
Neil Hanson

The True History of the Spanish Armada

A-ConfidentHopeMiracleIt’s an oft-told story, one engraved in our collective memory: In 1588, the English defeated the Spanish Armada, marking the decline of the Spanish empire. In Confident Hope, Hanson argues that the Armada’s downfall was far from inevitable. The Spanish outnumbered the British, but they did have some disadvantages. Driven by Philip II of Spain’s "religious fundamentalism," the Spanish attacked in "confident hope of a miracle"—the belief that God would grant them victory. Yet, the English "sea dogs," serving under an indomitable Queen Elizabeth, fought hard and defeated their Iberian invaders, cementing their own military, political, and commercial power. Confident Hope captures the spirit of this era and the ordinary lives that were lost as two powers fought for supremacy.
Knopf. 489 pages. $35. ISBN: 1400042941

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"More than 200 closely packed pages pass before Hanson gets to the decisive sea battles, but it’s time well spent, and his account of the desperate struggle in the English channel, where the fate of nations literally turned upon a single tide, is history at its grandest and most exhilarating." David Walton

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"Hanson helps us see the forces at play, but we get the close-up view, too: the conditions of galley slaves chained to their oars; the toxic atmosphere of Elizabeth’s court, packed with courtiers and yes-men fawning over the beauty of the queen. … This is a story with a moral." Josh Ozersky

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though the author concedes that Elizabeth was a highly intelligent, remarkable monarch, he does not subscribe to the popular assumption of her political shrewdness. … Happily, he enlivens the narrative with captivating details." Roger K. Miller

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Never before has actual battle been described in such detail and rarely with such flair. … For all its careful scholarship and occasional skepticism, this is still another retelling of the national myth." Anthony Pagden

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Indeed, the book’s slow, careful pacing and minutely detailed explorations of any number of subjects—17th century techniques for the construction of weaponry, for instance—ultimately gives it a character more likely to appeal to professional scholars than amateur historians. … It’s all excellent detail, but even passionate history buffs may find it necessary to skip ahead now and again." Richard Zimler

Critical Summary

Although Hanson doesn’t say much new in Confident Hope, he gives the story of the English defeat of the Spanish Armada a modern-day spin. Without King Philip II of Spain’s desire to bring heretical parts of Europe back into the Roman Catholic fold, there would have been no devastating battles. Critics applaud Hanson’s evenhanded approach to the story, meticulous research, and good storytelling skills. They also agree that his thrilling reconstruction of the 10-day battle off England’s southern coast—replete with descriptions of military strategies and profiles of leaders like Sir Francis Drake and unremembered sailors on both sides—is where the book excels. Yet the Armada doesn’t fight its first battle until page 242, which may frustrate even avid history buffs. In sum: Confident Hope is a gripping, if not final, book on the subject.