HMS Revenge won everlasting renown for its dramatic role during the great war between England and Spain which lasted from 1585 to 1604 and helped reshape the world. In 1588, King Philip II of Spain decided to launch an invasion of England for the purpose of subjugating and converting the Protestant English. To accomplish this goal he assembled an extraordinary fleet of 130 ships from all over Europe, known as the Spanish Armada.
When word of this threat reached Queen Elizabeth, she hastily organized a defensive force consisting of some forty men-of-war. Heavily outgunned, her ships met those of the Armada in the Straits of Dover as they were approaching the English shore. In the ensuing battle, a miracle occurred. The Spanish force was badly beaten and began to retreat in the direction of the Irish Coast. In a further miracle, they were overtaken by a fierce gale which devastated the already damaged vessels, causing many to founder along the rocky coastline. Others perished during the long retreat back to Spain. Altogether, over a third of King Philip's ships and half of his sailors perished. The English had not lost a single ship. The entire nation gave thanks for its survival.
In 1591, fearful that Spain would organize another attack as the war continued, Queen Elizabeth gave support to a venture which would intercept the Spanish fleet as it was about to return home from Havana heavily laden with a two year collection of treasure and plunder from Spanish-America. The attack was to be led by two of the finest galleons in the Elizabethan Navy, the Revenge, captained by Sir Richard Granville, and the Defiance.
The Revenge, built in 1577 was 130 feet overall and displaced 440 tons. With her double line of gun-ports, she was a tough and dangerous fighting machine. While serving as Drake's flagship in the defense against the Armada, she survived although her hull was pierced by at least 40 cannon-shot.
The English fleet arrived at the anchorage of Flores in the Azores and awaited the arrival of the homebound Spanish galleons. As the battle was joined, the Revenge was the last ship to get underway and fell several miles behind the fleet. Suddenly she was surrounded by five Spanish warships which proceeded to close and then to board her. Over the next 30 hours, a desperate battle ensued in which no quarter was given. Virtually her entire crew of 153 was killed or wounded, but Sir Richard, even though mortally wounded, stubbornly refused to haul down his flag. Finally, having fought to the end, the Revenge was captured, the first ship of the Queen ever taken by Spain. She was renamed La Venganza, only to perish in a storm while being sailed back as a prize.
Even after 400 years, the last fight of the Revenge remains one of the most heroic naval actions during the era of fighting sail and may have been the most famous sea battle in English history. Tennyson immortalized it in his evocative poem "The Revenge: A Battle of the Fleet" in which he wrote
"And the sun went down, and the stars came out far over the summer sea,
But never a moment ceased the fight of the one and fifty three."