Shipwrecks of the Spanish Armada: El Gran Griffon
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Shipwrecks of the Spanish Armada: El Gran Griffon

In 1588 the English navy fought off a Spanish invasion by the mighty Spanish Armada. Seventeen vessels, possibly more, survived the battle only to be shipwreck off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland.

When the Spanish Armada attempted to invade England in 1588 it was considered invincible. The Armada was to support the invading army of the Duke of Palmer, which numbered over 30,000, men. Although the Spanish had less vessels, the combined fire power of Spain and occupied Portugal was overwhelming. Yet through tactical misjudgments and bad weather their mission was a complete failure. Moreover, what the Spanish had failed to recognize was that techniques in naval warfare were changing.

Although artillery had been used on ships since the 14th century, by 1588 the Spanish navy still relied more on its crossbowmen and archers. For this tactic to be effective the Spanish galleons needed to get close to enemy vessels. By contrast the English warships of the time like the Mary Rose, which sunk at Portsmouth in 1545,used artillery as it principle armament, but at that time still relied on soldiers to board enemy ships, as did the Spanish. As a result the English ships were able to pound and destroy the Spanish navy at distance.

After devastating losses in the English Channel the remainder of the Spanish Armada headed back to the Bay of Biscay via the North Atlantic and the Scottish and Irish coast. One of those vessels was the El Gran Griffon or Grifon. The Griffon was a 38-gun, 650 ton supply ship and her captain was Juan Gómez de Medina. The Griffon had been damaged during the battle and was taking on water. Captain Medina new that his vessel needed repairs, so he anchored off Fair Isle in the Shetland Islands. By that time the Griffon had rescued soldiers and crew form other ships and its combined passengers were 511. The vessel had also become separated from its escort vessel the Trinidad Valencera, which later floundered off the Irish coast.

English ships battle against Spanish in August, 1588.

Unfortunately bad weather forced the ship onto rocks were it was destroyed. Some of the shipwrecked crew remained on Fair Isle where they were initially welcomed by locals. They used goods from the ship to trade for food. However when food became scarce they began to die of starvation, and so many moved on to the Orkneys. In the Orkneys the Spaniards blended into the local community’s and gained a reputation as hard workers and excellent seaman. They married locals and became known as the Westray Dons. Even today there are Scottish people who can trace their ancestry back to the Westray Dons. There has also been speculation that certain Scottish Lords were in fact in league with the Spanish military, despite being protestant. The Lords possibly may have aided and tried to repatriate some of the ships crew, including Juan Gómez de Medina. There are also stories of Scottish and Irish lords who captured Spanish sailors and turned them over to the English in order to gain favor by proving their loyalty to Queen Elizabeth I.

In 1970 the shipwreck of the Gran Griffon was discovered by Colin Martin and Sydney Wignal in 30 feet of water at Stroms Heeler Bay. The resulting excavation of the wreck site has not yielded 'treasure' as such, but it has uncovered important archaeological evidence. Artifcats from the shipwreck include nine cannons and cast iron breech loading guns; also lead ingots and various tools. Artifacts from the shipwreck of the Griffon and others from the Spanish Armada's vessels can be seen at Shetland Museum in Scotland.

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