The Career of Captain Francisco de Cuéllar 1578-1606

The Career of Captain Francisco de Cuéllar 1578-1606


Captain Francisco de Cuéllar has become indelibly associated with the northwest of Ireland, in particular, Streedagh, where he was shipwrecked in 1588. The tale that he wrote of his experiences in Ireland provides one of the most colourful narratives associated with the ill-fated Spanish Armada. We know from his account that, after leaving the northwest, he eventually reached the Low Countries, and was at Antwerp in early October 1589. But what of his life beyond Ireland: what were his activities before he served in the Armada campaign of 1588, and what became of him afterwards?

Documentation in Spanish archives reveals a remarkable career that traversed the Spanish empire, but which was marred by controversy. Captain Cuéllar participated in many notable campaigns, commanding galleons and troops in combat, but occasionally clashed with superiors. He endured tribunals of inquiry into his behaviour and suffered court-martial. The personality that emerges from the documents suggests an articulate individual, quick-witted and intelligent, yet beset by insecurities over how others perceived him. Negative traits betray an egotistical and argumentative nature. Nonetheless, he participated in some of the most celebrated campaigns of the period, and served as staff officer to some of Spain’s most outstanding generals, most notably, Álvaro de Bazán (the Marqués de Santa Cruz), and Alexander Farnese (the Duke of Parma).

Early Career at Sea

Petitions submitted by Captain Cuéllar to the Spanish Councils of State, Indies, and War at Madrid, declare that he enlisted in the military in the late-1570s. Most of his assignments during the period 1578-88, were with Atlantic fleets. His initial military service was performed on the Carrera de las Indias (the route to the Americas), with the Indies Guard Squadron. This unit was tasked with the protection of the Caribbean region from incursions by French and English corsairs. It also escorted the merchant convoys and consignments of silver for the royal treasury. In 1580, when Philip II claimed the Portuguese Crown, Cuéllar served in the annexation of that kingdom. Afterwards, he was promoted to Captain, when he was assigned to a fleet destined to voyage to the Strait of Magellan, the most southerly tip of South America. Cuéllar’s service during this expedition was noteworthy for his participation in an engagement with two English galleons, which occurred in the southern Brazilian port of San Vicente, in February 1583. The encounter resulted in the loss of one Spanish vessel, and two others badly damaged, with heavy casualties. The English galleons escaped, though they were also damaged. In the aftermath of the encounter, Cuéllar became embroiled in a bitter quarrel with his commanding officer over the conduct of the engagement. He was subsequently arrested and four enquiries ensued, as each party sought to exonerate their own conduct during the encounter, and lay the blame on the other for the escape of the English. The case was referred to the Council of the Indies at Madrid, and while no definitive judgement in the case has been found, a custodial sentence appears to have been avoided. In July 1584, the fleet returned to Cádiz, and Cuéllar proceeded to the Royal Court at Madrid to petition for arrears of wages and a new commission.

In 1587, he served in a squadron that embarked from Lisbon for the Azores, to protect the homeward bound treasure fleet, as it was feared that an English flotilla, led by Francis Drake, intended to intercept it. Cuéllar then remained at Lisbon until May 1588, when the Great Armada set sail for England. He sailed with the squadron of Castile, and was given command of the galleon San Pedro, when the fleet was reorganized at La Coruña. He survived the battles in the English Channel, but disciplinary problems surfaced once again, when he was court-martialled in the North Sea, for insubordination. Two days after the climactic Battle of Gravelines, he was arrested after the San Pedro failed to respond to a signal from the flagship to stand-to, and prepare for battle, when it appeared that the Armada was about to come under attack from the English fleet. Initially, he was sentenced to death, but on appeal, this was commuted. However, he was stripped of his captaincy and transferred to the Lavia under the custody of the Judge Advocate General of the fleet, Martín de Aranda. That incident in the North Sea triggered a series of events that dramatically changed the course of Cuéllar’s life, and career. Had the Lavia returned to Spain, Cuéllar would most likely have been imprisoned. Instead, the ship fell victim to the rigours of the Armada’s homeward voyage around Scotland and Ireland, and was wrecked alongside two other vessels at Streedagh. In an ironic twist of fate the shipwreck granted Cuéllar his liberty, as he was one of three hundred survivors to reach shore. He survived the perilous first days on land, before making his way inland, to the territory of Brian O’Rourke of Breifne. His famous letter to an unnamed individual, simply referred to as Vuestra merced (Your Grace), details his experiences in the Northwest. It is a tale of survival against the odds, in which dramatic reversals of fortune are described with both humour and pathos. In August 1589, a year after he was court-martialled, Cuéllar reached the port of Dunkirk, on the Flanders coastline.

Campaigns on Land

Most of the following decade was spent in the Low Countries, France, and Savoy. After Cuéllar reached Dunkirk, he was inducted into the Army of Flanders to serve as a staff officer under the Duke of Parma. In 1590, Philip II ordered the Duke to intervene in the civil wars in France on the side of the Catholics, who opposed the Huguenot claimant to the royal crown, Henry of Navarre (the future Henry IV). Cuéllar served in the subsequent campaign and participated in the famous relief of Paris, then under siege by Navarre’s forces. A year later, Cuéllar had returned to the royal court at Madrid, where he made a claim for arrears of wages for the period he was in Ireland. In early 1592, he received a new commission to serve in the Low Countries. While returning to Flanders via the famous ‘Spanish Road’, an important troop corridor that stretched from Genoa to Luxembourg, Cuéllar was co-opted to serve in Spanish forces then assisting the Duke of Savoy. He remained in Savoy for two years, campaigning in the Alps against French Huguenots. By early 1594, he was back in Flanders, and served as a staff officer under the Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, the Cardinal-Archduke Albert, until 1598. During this period he served mostly in northern France. He was present at notable engagements including the capture of such cities as Chatelet and La Capela (1594), Cambrai and Dorlans (1595), Calais and Hulst (1596). In 1598, Cuéllar was discharged from the Archduke’s general staff, during a general reduction of the military establishment in the Low Countries, after peace was signed with France.

Later Career

Captain Cuéllar returned to Madrid in November 1598. There he joined other Flanders veterans at the royal court who were hoping to pick up new commissions. In early 1600, he was appointed to serve as staff officer to the viceroy of Naples. However, he remained at court, and the following year was offered a captaincy in a new fleet designated for permanent service in the Caribbean, the Armada de Barlovento (The Windward Fleet). Cuéllar accepted this commission, but the fleet did not depart from Spain that year. When it was deployed in 1602, it was given escort duty for that year’s treasure fleets, and collected the royal silver from the Panama Isthmus. At the end of that voyage Cuéllar was discharged from his post. In early 1603, he travelled to court to apply to have his commission at Naples re-instated. The application was successful, but again, Cuéllar did not travel to Naples. Instead, he remained at court for a further three years. In 1606, Philip III authorised a letter of recommendation on his behalf to the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico), with instructions to find a position for him in the colonial administration. The following year, an audit office of the Royal Treasury authorised a payment to him of 44 escudos. This amount represented outstanding arrears still owed to him from the Armada campaign of 1588. However, by then we might assume that he had already departed for New Spain. What became of Captain Cuéllar subsequently, awaits further research.

by Francis Kelly.

(Francis Kelly is a native of Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim, and is conducting research into the career of Captain Cuéllar for a PhD thesis at University College, Cork.)