The English Navy Full of Drunkenness, Disorder and the Plague: The Cadiz Fiasco of 1625

The English navy has a reputation as a force to be reckoned with from the 16th century onwards. But in the early 17th century it saw a period of decline, with failure led from the top. The failures of this supposedly mighty military machine are exemplified by the Cadiz expedition of 1625.

Going on the Offensive

Protestant England was in a near-constant state of conflict with the two great Catholic powers of western Europe – Spain and France. Conflicts in the Atlantic made the Spanish their particular enemies. And so the English Lord High Admiral dreamed up a scheme to attack the Spanish by invading Cadiz.

Buckingham’s Character

The Lord High Admiral in 1625, and the man behind the Cadiz expedition, is now best remembered for his fictional role in Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham, was an ambitious political operator who had risen to great power at court. It was this that earned him the position of Lord High Admiral.

But Buckingham had no knowledge of the sea or experience commanding fleets. He was eventually removed from command of the expedition he himself had devised, being replaced by Sir Edward Cecil, but by then he had seeded the force with men like himself. Of the six friends of Buckingham who held the senior roles in the expedition, none had any experience of naval war.

Map of Cadiz (1888).
Map of Cadiz (1888).

The State of the Fleet

The fleet Buckingham gathered consisted of ninety English ships along with fifteen provided by Dutch allies. But this was not as impressive as it seemed. Over half of the ships were Newcastle colliers, forced into military service for the expedition. Of the properly warlike ships, most were armed merchantmen rather than royal warships. Many of the vessels were old and in poor condition, having been in service since the days of the Spanish Armada. A few miles out of port the Lion, one of the few warships, sprung so many leaks that it had to be sent home.

The Quality of Recruits

The 10,000 soldiers raised for the expedition were no better than the ships. A rabble pressed into service, many of them were criminals, and around 10% were unfit for service due to illness, age or physical defects.

While the troops were billeted in Dorset and Devon, it became clear that the food they were eating would not be paid for. Farmers refused to feed them, at which point they rioted. In response, their weapons were confiscated, preventing them from training.

Supply Problems

The men continued to go hungry on the voyage. A few days out it became clear that there were not enough supplies, and rations were cut by a quarter.

Military supplies were also inadequate. Many of the muskets were poorly made, lacking touch-holes to light their powder. The ammunition did not fit the guns, and they could not make replacements as the bullet moulds were warped.

Terrible Weather

High winds buffeted the fleet as it sailed to Spain. The Anne Royal, the flagship, became badly smashed up and was only kept above water by constantly pumping out the leaking hold.

Forty ships under the Earl of Essex became separated from the fleet during the storms. On approaching Spain, the main fleet under Cecil spotted what appeared to be enemy vessels, and gave chase in hopes of looting their treasure. These turned out to be Essex’s ships, the Earl having failed to signal his identity.

Ignoring Orders and Intelligence

Essex was also the first to enter Cadiz bay when the English reached their goal. Sent ahead by Cecil to find anchorage for the fleet, he instead attacked the 27 Spanish ships gathered there and was almost destroyed. Only the arrival of the rest of the fleet saved him.

Intelligence from a merchant captain told Cecil that Cadiz was poorly garrisoned, and if he attacked quickly he could seize the city. But the commander was so worried about the fort of Puntal that he ignored this information and settled in to bombard the fort into submission, rather than taking the opportunity.

The Defence of Cádiz against the English. Francisco Zurbarán, 1634.
The Defence of Cádiz against the English.
Francisco Zurbarán, 1634.

Storming the Fort

Taking the fort of Puntal took 24 hours, during which time a Dutch ship ran aground and Essex’s flagship was hit by another English ship. Despite firing over 2,000 rounds, the attackers barely scratched the fort, and it was finally taken by soldiers after a botched landing.

Meanwhile, the noise and smoke had warned the Spanish of what was happening, and they were mustering troops.

A Dry March

Hearing of an approaching Spanish force, Cecil led 8,000 of his soldiers to try to cut them off. This involved marching across the island of León, which consisted mainly of salt marshes. The dry, salty atmosphere made the men extremely thirsty, but no provisions had been brought.

As night fell, Cecil camped near a set of buildings that stored wine. To slake the troops’ thirst and ease their mood, Cecil ordered a butt of wine opened for each regiment. The thirsty men gulped the wine down on empty stomachs. Drunken soldiers ran riot, menacing their officers and breaking open the rest of the wine.

The force was in disarray. Seeing the utter mess, Cecil ordered the retreat the next day, leaving behind a hundred men too drunk to walk, as well as piles of equipment cast aside by soldiers too hungover to bear carrying it.

The Plague

The Spanish ships had retreated into an inlet and blockaded it, so there was no chance for Cecil’s fleet to defeat them. Having failed on every front, he re-embarked the men and headed back for England.

One final horror now struck the fleet. Plague had broken out among the men. Some ships had too few sailors men left to keep sailing. Cecil tried to solve this by sending healthy men to these ships, in exchange for sick ones. This spread the plague all around the expeditionary force.

Ship by ship, the fleet limped back to England. Cecil and Essex returned to court to report to their superiors, abandoning thousands of hungry, sick men to fend for themselves.


Regan, Geoffrey (1991), The Guinness Book of Military Blunders.

Andrew Knighton

Andrew Knighton is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE