Among Savages by Fiona Hurley [Article]

We all know how Elizabeth I and her navy defeated the Spanish Armada, but how many of us knew of the stories of the Spanish who survived? I for one, knew nothing, and didn’t think to learn anything! Along comes Fiona, who has provided us with an account of Francisco de Cuéllar, post defeat!

A note from the author,

I’m writing a novel based in Ireland in the early 1600s. Much of the information about the time comes from English travellers and colonizers, who as you can imagine were not the most unbiased sources! Francisco de Cuéllar’s story struck me as fascinating because he is an outsider. The account of his adventures provides a vivid picture of Ireland during the Tudor period.

Among Savages

A Spanish Armada captain’s adventures in Ireland

In 1588, Captain Francisco de Cuéllar sailed with the Spanish Armada, no doubt expecting victory over the English and a triumphant return to Spain. Instead, his fleet received a crushing defeat and he attempted to sail his galleon, the San Pedro, home via Scotland and Ireland. Off the coast of County Sligo, the San Pedro floundered:

I escaped from the sea and from these enemies by having commended myself very earnestly to our Lord, and to the Most Holy Virgin, His Mother; and with me three hundred and odd soldiers, who also knew how to save themselves and to swim to shore. With them I experienced great misfortunes: naked and shoeless all the winter: passing more than seven months among mountains and woods with savages.


16th century Irish soldiers, as portrayed by Albrecht Durer

Most Armada sailors who made it to Ireland were quickly killed by either natives or garrisoned English soldiers. Many of De Cuéllar’s crewmates met a brutal end:

More than a day and a half after she had grounded, some savages arrived, who turned her up for the purpose of extracting nails or pieces of iron; and, breaking through the deck, they drew out the dead men. Don Diego Enriquez expired in their hands, and they stripped him, and took away the jewels and money which they (the dead men) had, casting the bodies aside without burying them.

Our captain, however, was lucky:

With great exertion I righted myself upon my supporting timber; and, supplicating Our Lady of Ontanar, there came four waves, one after the other, and, without knowing how, or knowing how to swim, they cast me upon the shore, where I emerged, unable to stand, all covered with blood, and very much injured.

His travels through Connacht and Ulster brought further adventure and hardship. He searched for a monastery, but found it deserted, and the church and images of the saints burned and completely ruined, and twelve Spaniards hanging within the church by the act of the Lutheran English.  He walked barefoot and wounded along a stony road, and was robbed of all his belongings.

Fortunately, some of the locals were kind enough to provide him with food and dress his wounds. He found his way to the home of Señor de Ruerque (Sir Brian O’Rourke) in County Leitrim. Although O’Rourke was a savage, he was fortunately also a very good Christian and an enemy of heretics who sheltered many of our lost Spaniards. With a few of his fellow countrymen, De Cuéllar moved on to the territory of Manglana (MacClancy), a savage gentleman, a very brave soldier and great enemy of the Queen of England and of her affairs.  Our captain lived with MacClancy for three months, turning on his Latin charm for the ladies:

One day we were sitting in the sun with some of her [MacClancy’s wife’s] female friends and relatives, and they asked me about Spanish matters and of other parts, and in the end it came to be suggested that I should examine their hands and tell them their fortunes.


‘Irish men and women’, by Lucas d’Heere, circa 1575

The English governor was not happy that MacClancy was providing shelter to the Armada survivors, and attacked the castle. After MacClancy and his clan hid up a mountain, De Cuéllar and his countrymen held off the governor and his forces, principally because the castle was out of cannon range in a place that was marshy, breast-deep, so that even the natives could not get to it except by paths. The siege lasted for 17 days, until our Lord saw fit to succour and deliver us from that enemy by severe storms and great falls of snow. MacClancy declared the Spaniards as his most loyal friends, offering whatever was his for our service, suggesting that his sister would marry De Cuéllar.

When our captain turned down this enticing offer, it seemed that MacClancy’s gratitude was conditional:

He did not wish to give me permission to leave, nor to any Spaniard of those who were with him, saying that the roads were not safe; but his sole object was to detain us, that we might act as his guard. So much friendship did not appear good to me; and thus I decided, secretly, with four of the soldiers who were in my company, to depart one morning two hours before dawn, so that they should not pursue us on the road.

Shortly after Christmas, De Cuéllar travelled to Antrim and found passage to Scotland. From there, he sailed on to Flanders and eventually made it back to Spain.

De Cuéllar’s letter about his experiences provide a valuable picture, if not always a flattering one, of Tudor Ireland:

The custom of these savages is to live as the brute beasts among the mountains, which are very rugged in that part of Ireland where we lost ourselves. They live in huts made of straw.

He describes the men as large bodied, and of handsome features and limbs, wearing tight trousers and short loose coats of very coarse goat’s hair and with their hair down to their eyes. The women are very beautiful, but badly dressed, their dress described as little more than a smock and their hair covered by a linen cloth, much doubled. He notes sniffily that these people call themselves Christians but the chief inclination of these people is to be robbers, and to plunder each other and concludes that in this kingdom there is neither justice nor right, and everyone does what he pleases. But he also acknowledges that if it had not been for those who guarded us as their own persons, not one of us would have been left alive.

Looking forward to Fionas novel!


I'm a lover of all things Tudor, and historical - fiction or fact. My aim is to bring together writers of all calibers to share their work with like minded people!

4 thoughts on “Among Savages by Fiona Hurley [Article]

  1. While I am aware that the Spanish Armada captains choose the long route, via Scotland and Ireland, to sail home, I know little of the fate they met. It had never surprised me that, with the Catholic link, the survivors sought to spend the winter in Ireland with those who were religiously like-minded, but I had not realised the Spaniards had met such opposition and cruelty from the “savages” – a word I would never have associated with the Irish, yet some did behave in such a manner, I now learn. Some Spaniards, I believe, received a warmer welcome and stayed, marrying the local girls, but perhaps that was more out of gratitude for the protection they had been given by families or communities. Captain De Cuéllar’s account of this is certainly of great interest and importance as though the sea battle between England and Spain in 1588 has been well-documented, the fate of the Spaniards has received less attention in English accounts, and I imagine there are many other written descriptions of varied experiences, by the Armada captains and other literate crew members, which will appear in this novel.

    I would definitely like to read the full version and perhaps when it is available, an announcement could be made here on ATWC. This short extract has already aroused my interest and I have learned much from these few paragraphs so an entire book would give me much greater knowledge and understanding, and I am now looking forward to the publication of this book. Good luck with your writing, Fiona.

    • Hi Chasqui,
      Glad you enjoyed the article! Captain De Cuéllar’s story is a fascinating one and I’m always glad to share it with other people.
      My novel isn’t actually about the Spanish Armada; in fact it’s set 18 years later. Hope that’s not too disappointing, but maybe a tale of pirates operating out of early 17th-century Ireland will also be of interest 🙂
      My research into Irish society of the era brought me to accounts by travelers to the country (usefully placed online by the University of Cork). The reports by English travelers can be eye-poppingly prejudiced (Edmund Spenser, author of
      The Faery Queen, was particularly vicious), although some of them admired the music, whiskey, and pretty women!
      Ireland at the time was a patchwork of areas under direct English control and areas controlled by local chieftains. Some of these chieftains collaborated with the English, some fought against the English, and others changed allegiances as often as they changed horses. It was complicated! In addition, a series of rebellions and reprisals left much of the Irish population in desperate poverty, with many turning to theft in order to survive. So a Spaniard landing on Irish shores could meet with hospitality or death, depending on where he landed.
      Ireland and Spain did have close ties through trade and religion. When the Earl of Tyrone rebelled against English authority in the 1590s, he turned to Spain for help. Unfortunately for the Irish, Spanish help came too late and at the wrong location, leading to defeat at the Battle of Kinsale (you can find a very readable account of this in The Last Armada by Des Ekin).
      I could talk about this forever, so I’d better end now 🙂

  2. Hi Fiona,

    Thanks so much for your very interesting message. Don’t worry – the fact that your book doesn’t concentrate on The Armada itself but 18 years afterwards is a bonus to me. So much has been written about this sea battle but little is known of ensuing events. I had always known that the Irish played a part in the Spaniards’ post-Armada attempts to return home and even if they had sympathised with the losing side, the strong presence of the English in their land must have curtailed some efforts to help the Spanish sailors, either through fear or direct intervention. I am not too surprised that the English version was biased, or downright inaccurate at times, but perhaps that was more the result of ignorance of the facts as I imagine the “official government line” would have put neither the Spaniards nor the Irish in a good light.

    So good to chat to you about this and if you ever come across any evidence that Christopher Marlowe was on board any of the English ships during The Armada campaign, or had any involvement, please let me know as I would be very interested to find out. I am making a study of him and more rumours than facts abound about his life, one of these being of his involvement in the Armada, in his capacity as government agent. Many thanks and good luck with your writing and I look forward to hearing of the publication of your book so I can buy and read it soon after.

    Sorry for if there has been a delay in my reply. Although I signed up to receive an email when any comments about your submission were posted, none has arrived. In future, I shall check myself to see if there are any further messages here.

    Best wishes,

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