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Francis Drake’s lost fleet emerges in northwestern Spain

An environmental study linked to a project to dredge an estuary in A Coruña suggests the presence of several English ships sunk in 1589 in the failed attempt to invade the Galician city

The attack was devastating. A total of 180 warships carrying 27,667 English soldiers and sailors descended on Spain’s northwestern city of A Coruña on May 4, 1589. Leading the fleet was English explorer and sea captain Francis Drake. At the time, the capital of the Galicia region only had around 1,500 soldiers to defend it, besides the medieval walls in the high part of town. The only existing artillery was sitting in the castle of San Antón and on two galleons that had returned the year before from Spain’s King Philip II’s failed attempt to invade Great Britain.
Even so, the small town mounted a heroic resistance. Its few soldiers and ships counterattacked and sank eight of the British vessels as they attempted to reach the coast. The defenders put up such a fight that they ultimately defeated the much larger enemy. Five fleeing English ships were dragged by the winds or sought refuge in the nearby ria, or estuary, of O Burgo. Four of them ended up at the bottom of the sea after going up in flames just a few meters from the beach of Oza, at the mouth of the ria, while a fifth managed to penetrate the coastal inlet only to sink 100 meters from the shore.

The English ships that sank in A Coruña are proof of a tremendous military defeat for Britain, much larger than the one inflicted a year earlier on the Spanish Armada

Around 450 years later, the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and the Environment has decided to improve the water quality in the ria of A Coruña and is planning to dredge 583,337 cubic meters of this natural watercourse. But before doing that, it will have to consider an environmental impact study that includes a “Historical-archeological technical report on the environmental dredging of the sediments in ria de O Burgo,” as the coastal inlet in A Coruña is also known. This is because the wrecks of the four ships that sank at the mouth of the estuary are still there, and the fifth one can be guessed at. “There are verbal references by shellfish harvesters in the area about the existence of a shipwreck on the Santa Cristina sandbank that has traditionally been identified as belonging to the English fleet of 1589 commanded by Francis Drake and John Norris [who was in charge of the ground troops], following their failed attack on the city of A Coruña,” reads the report.
“They fled, leaving behind four abandoned ships that were set on fire by the crew. Documentary and bibliographical evidence indicate that these ships were adrift and on fire for several days until they finally sank. The underwater work and dredging in the area have documented remains of dining sets and iron cannonballs that belonged to this fleet,” adds the study.

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