Wreck yields Armada 'bribes' for English

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The Independent Online

A 400-year-old ship from the Spanish Armada discovered off the coast of North-west Scotland may have been loaded with expensive bribes for English collaborators.

A 400-year-old ship from the Spanish Armada discovered off the coast of North-west Scotland may have been loaded with expensive bribes for English collaborators.

As well as four of the vessel's cannons, divers have found valuable pieces of Majolica tableware, each of which would have cost, at the time, up to £20 – the equivalent to £2,800 in today's money.

It is the first time that such high class civilian ceramics have been found on an Armada wreck site - strongly suggesting that the pottery, the finest in 16th century Europe, was taken along in the invasion fleet to either bribe or impress potential English allies.

Whether intended as decoration for a victory banquet or as gifts to oil political wheels once England had been conquered, the beautifully painted ceramic masterpieces may well have belonged to one of Spain's most powerful and controversial grandees, Don Diego Flores de Valdes. The wrecked ship probably formed part of his 16-strong Armada squadron. After the failure of the Armada, Flores de Valdes was flung into prison by the Spanish king, who held him personally responsible for the debacle.

The wreck could be that of either the 872-ton La Trinidad which had 79 sailors, 162 soldiers and 24 cannon, or the 652-ton San Juan de Fernando Home, which carried 57 sailors, 183 soldiers and 24 cannon. Both were built in Cantabria in Northern Spain in 1586 as Atlantic merchantmen, and based in Seville. They were pressed into Armada service in October 1587.

The archaeologists, from the University of St Andrews, have so far located material from the bow quarter. They have found parts of the ship's brick hearth, fragments of a cooking pot, a kitchen jug and olive oil storage jars, four anchors, four large iron cannon, two cannonballs, a depth sounding lead and the ceramics – fragments of 26 beautifully painted top-of- the-range Italian Majolica jugs and plates.

Manufactured in Urbino and Montelupo in Italy, Majolica was the smartest display tableware available anywhere in Europe and was made for use on land, not on board ships. It was apparently being transported for use in England after the hoped-for conquest.

Some of the pieces are decorated with grotesque yet, in 16th century terms, highly fashionable images of mythological creatures - half-naked women with wings and hairy goat's legs, sea monsters, cupids on horseback, strange bird-like animals and snails, based on frescoes discovered in the 16th century in Nero's Golden Palace in Rome.

The whole set would have been worth £30,000-£50,000 in today's money.

All the objects have been found on ledges and reefs at depths of up to 100 feet. The ship must have been blown towards land in a gale which drove it onto a shallow reef 100 yards off the high cliffs near Kinlochbervie.

The Armada consisted of 130 ships, of which up to 40 were wrecked. Twenty-eight wreck sites have so far been discovered, mainly off Ireland.

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