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Tip off from Welsh spymaster led to Spanish armada against England

19 Feb 2021 4 minute read
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam online catalogue. The Spanish Armada off the English Coast in 1588. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.

A tip off from a Welsh spymaster led to at least one Spanish armada against England, a historian has revealed.

Hugh Owen and a network of Elizabethan Catholics used court moles to give Spain intelligence about England’s forces, and played a hand in an attempted invasion, according to a study by Jonathan Roche, of the University of Nottingham.

The PhD thesis, God’s spies: the Spanish Elizabethans and intelligence during the Anglo-Spanish War, suggests that Owen influenced the sending of at least one armada against England and handed Philip II of Spain copies of government documents.

Roche’s work cites an “overreliance on English-language sources, implying that the Spanish Elizabethans were only concerned with, and involved in, English politics” in previous studies.

He delves into Owen’s reports in Spanish archives, which suggest that the espionage had an impact on Spanish military strategy during the Anglo-Spanish War from 1585 to 1604.

Owen, a Brussels-based Welsh Catholic in exile, had a network which included Jesuits and a double agent said to have worked for the Earl of Essex. He fled to Brussels, where he coordinated his network, after his part in the Ridolfi Plot to assassinate Elizabeth I.

In 1597 he told Spain that Essex had taken most of the frontline fleet to the Azores to intercept a treasure fleet, which left England undefended. According to Roche, his report led to the immediate deployment of the third Spanish Armada, which failed only because of storms off the Scilly Isles.

Roche told The Times: “The Armada of 1597 came within miles of landing in Cornwall and, if it weren’t for a storm, who knows what might have happened?”

It is believed that Owen may have also had a hand in the first armada in 1588, however, papers that may have pointed to his involvement have been lost.

‘Gunpowder Plot’ 

Owen was accused by London of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and was subsequently arrested in the Spanish Netherlands after the authorities in England demanded his extradition. But he was freed by his Spanish protectors. He died in exile in Rome in his eighties.

Roche told The Times: “We remember Elizabethan Catholics as martyrs, executed brutally for practising their faith, or as terrorists hell-bent on re-establishing the Catholic church in England through extreme acts such as the Gunpowder Plot, but the discovery of this English Catholic spy network and the intelligence it sent to Spain highlights a far more subtle and sophisticated method through which English Catholics sought to realise their dream.”

The abstract of the thesis says: “This thesis investigates the political activities during the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) of a group of English Catholic exiles, who, on account of their political alignment with the Spanish monarchy, have been called the Spanish Elizabethans.

“It reveals how one of this group, Hugh Owen, a Brussels-based Welsh Catholic exile, developed a sophisticated espionage network, which gathered intelligence from England.

“This information this network obtained was integral in the Spanish Elizabethans’ efforts to advance their political and religious ambitions: namely, the re-establishment of Catholicism in England, achieved either through a Spanish military invasion or by the accession of a Catholic candidate to the English throne upon Elizabeth’s death.

“The limited extent to which the Spanish Elizabethans have been studied has been a consequence of the overreliance on English-language sources, implying that the Spanish Elizabethans were only concerned with, and involved in, English politics.

“This thesis, though, adopts a broader analytical approach. Drawing on material from Spain and Italy in addition to English sources, it argues that the Spanish Elizabethans were active participants in political debates across Europe and shows how the English intelligence provided by the Spanish Elizabethans shaped these discussions.

“The Spanish authorities in Madrid and Brussels, as well as the Papacy in Rome, had to be persuaded that committing military and financial resources to the cause of English Catholicism was the best use of these limited resources.

“Intelligence, gathered from England by Owen’s espionage network, was crucial in this endeavour, forming an integral part of a multi-faceted campaign which also included printed texts, military proposals, and persistent lobbying.

“Moreover, through an investigation of the intelligence reports sent by Hugh Owen to Spain – the avisos de Inglaterra – this thesis explores the direct impact of Spanish Elizabethan intelligence on the Anglo-Spanish War, revealing previously unknown details about the conflict which, in English-language historiography, is usually examined from an Elizabethan perspective alone.”

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