The Medina Sidonia Complex

This essay was originally read on the Sunrise radio program.

The Medina Sidonia Complex

By Steve O’Connor

I’ve been perusing a book that I read many years ago. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a well written historical narrative. It’s called The Armada, by Garrett Mattingly. The author won a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize Committee for the work. The book recounts the attempt of Catholic Phillip II of Spain to invade and conquer Protestant England, depose Elizabeth I, and restore England to the Catholic faith. For this purpose, he assembled the greatest naval force in history.

As in most wars, both sides were sure that God was on their side and would arrange a victory. However, God, or fate, or luck, was not kind to the Spanish. Their first major setback occurred before the fleet set sail. To quote Mattingly, “Don Alvaro de Bazan, Marquis of Santa Cruz and Captain General of the Ocean Seas, hero of Lepanto, victor of Terceira and a score of other famous fights, designated commander by sea for the invasion of England ever since that enterprise began to be planned, died at Lisbon on February 9th, 1588.” A week before the Armada was to weigh anchor, its naval commander was dead.

Now comes the part of the story that has always baffled historians. The same day that the news of Santa Cruz’s death reached Phillip II, he appointed his successor, Don Alonso de Guzman el Bueno, the Duke of Medina Sidonia. The duke was to pick up the mantle of “the invincible admiral” and Captain General of the Ocean Seas. He would sail as the new commander of the Armada. The baffling aspect of this choice is perhaps best illustrated by a letter that Medina Sidonia sent to the king after having received the shocking commission:

My health is not equal to such a voyage…for I know by experience of the little I have been at sea that I am always seasick and always catch cold. Since I have had no experience either of the sea, or of war, I cannot feel that I ought to command so important an enterprise. I know nothing of what the marquis of Santa Cruz has been doing, or of what intelligence he has of England. I feel I should give but a bad account of myself, commanding thus blindly, and being obliged to rely on the advice of others, without knowing good from bad, or which of my advisors might want to deceive or displace me.

Phillip’s response can be summed up, more or less, as: “You come from a distinguished and noble family. You’re my man.” One did not argue with 16th century monarchs. So, on May 9th, Medina Sidonia, a man who knew all about growing oranges, but absolutely nothing about sailing, the sea, or war, boarded the flagship San Martin, leading two squadrons of Portuguese and Castilian galleons, four Nepalese galleons, four squadrons of ten ships each under Hugo de Moncada from Biscay, thirty-four lighter ships, and twenty-three supply ships; in all, one hundred-thirty-three ships carrying 17,000 soldiers as well as sailors and priests, and supplied, among other things, with 123,790 cannon balls.

And yet, what was it that Captain Jack Aubrey said about the Spanish before he ordered HMS Surprise to attack the superior Santissima Trinidad in one of Patrick O’Brian’s sea novels: “It’s not that the Spanish are not brave, because they are, but they are never ready.” And so, the Armada sallied forth, armed, provisioned, and yet, somehow, not ready. Medina Sidonia, not surprisingly, made a series of errors; he was no match for experienced sea captains such as Drake and Howard.

You are probably familiar with the debacle that ensued. The story of the terrible ordeal of the men of those ships is one which I don’t have time to elaborate here. I recommend once again Mattingly’s book. It may be enough to say that The Geographical Journal, number XXVII, of 1906, contains one article entitled, “The Wrecks of The Spanish Armada on the Coast of Ireland.” Cut free from their anchors to avoid English fire ships, battered by the long-range guns of the English, harried, pursued, leaking and sinking, the Armada was driven by gale force winds, (“Protestant winds” as they became known in England). Onward the winds drove them; they passed the Shetland and Orkney Islands, and by September, southward along the west coast of Ireland, into more ravaging storms. Ships foundered on the dread lee shore; survivors were butchered by English garrison troops when they reached land, half-drowned. A gold ring was recovered from one of those wrecks a few years back, bearing the inscription, “No tengo mas que darte.” ‘I have no more to give you.’ It’s not difficult to imagine the forlorn widow who once gave that ring to the sailor or soldier to whom it had belonged, gazing out over the sea from the cliffs of A Coruña, watching for a ship that never returned.

In early October, 1588, five months after he had led the Armada out of the Port of Lisbon, the Duke of Medina Sidonia hobbled into Santander with the ruined hulks of what had once been the invincible Armada, and the king wept.

There is much to consider in this tale, the bold seamanship and expert gunnery of the English captains, the blind faith of Phillip II, the courage of many of the Spanish sailors as they watched the great galleons around them riding ever lower in the water until they disappeared under waves. But the most unforgettable figure in this epic tragedy is Don Alonso Guzman, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who lived for another twenty-two years after the Armada disaster, despised for a failure in a mission he was utterly unprepared for; blamed for the deaths of more than half of the 25,000 men who had sailed under him. He carried all the blame; the greatest Bill Buckner in European history, only this was no game. The defeat of the Armada signaled the decline of an empire, and Britannia’s rule o’er the waves for centuries to come.

I think about the old Duke from time to time, begging the king to release him from his commission, pleading honestly that he had no idea what he was doing; a man who would admit that he was not fit to command a river barge. And that feeling he must have had, I’ll call it the Medina Sidonia Complex, the feeling that you are in way over your head, that you don’t know what you’re doing and that everyone can see that you’re faking it. It’s a feeling I think most of us have had at one time or other, often when we’re new at some job.

So, when you see a young cashier at the supermarket, or a teller at the bank, looking flustered, and wearing a little tag that says, “In training,” think of the Spanish Duke, and try to be patient and kind. Remember those knowledgeable and generous Fenway fans who, years after the World Series tragedy, gave Bill Buckner a rousing ovation, a long overdue affirmation: “You were a great player, but you shouldn’t have even been on the field in the shape you were in. It wasn’t your fault.”

Imagine being thrust onto the stage of the world, carrying the hopes of a nation like a ball and chain, knowing you’re just not up to the job. Think of that poor agriculturalist of sunny Andalusia sailing out at the head of the great Armada, the wind in his teeth, feeling queasy on the rocking deck, an acrid taste in his mouth, already sensing the weight of history and the impending disaster settling on his trembling shoulders. The coast of Spain falls under the horizon and already he longs for the peace of his orange groves, but he sails onward, compelled to perform a bitter duty at his king’s command. Think of poor Don Alonso Guzman.

4 Responses to The Medina Sidonia Complex

  1. David Daniel says:

    This is brilliant chameleon of a piece that hints at its intention but doesn’t tip its hand. You kept this reader guessing (is it a book review? A fiction? A humor piece? A musing on history and the fates that drive it? A call for a little kindness?). It’s all of these and more, and because it doesn’t reveal itself easily, this reader was swept along, eager to discover where he was being led. Bravo.

    And thanks for introducing a new term to the lexicon– the Medina Sedonia Complex; I expect to see it in the next edition of the DSM.

    Note: Capt. Jack Aubrey’s remark about Spaniards never being ready obviously didn’t include Carlos Alcaraz — who, at 19, won the men’s U.S. Open last weekend.

  2. Terry Downes says:

    Once again Steve O’Connor delights. How many of us even knew the name Don Alonzo Guzman, let alone the impossible military burden absurdly thrust upon him in that world-altering clash of nations? Yet we quickly feel we’re on deck beside him amid the cannonades, squalls and Spain’s shocking naval disaster. And the lesson for each of us in the present – especially given the upheavals of politics and pandemic – that many labor under burdens we cannot easily see but which are no less real for them that bear them. Thanks go to Steve for this delightful rendering.

  3. Rich Grady says:

    You really planted the hook on this one, Mr. O’Connor, and held me spellbound. I must read The Armada by Mattingly as you suggest. I’m happy you gave Bill Buckner his due praise, after comparing him to Don Alonso Guzman for the unfair blame dumped on him for a loss. The difference is that Buckner had been a great baseball player, and Guzman had no such claim as a sailor, nevermind Admiral. It’s as if Cervantes was whispering in Mattingly’s ear, but it is you who felt empathy for Guzman and gave us a new behavioral dilemma for when a doomed mission is foisted upon a hapless person who wants no part of it, i.e. the “Medina Sidonia Complex” — bravo!