The Great Eighty-Eight! Err, Nine


I’m tired of talking about controversial things. In this election season I have offended too many friends. So how about a great negative curse. This is a major curse, but it doesn’t really fit anywhere, so you’ve probably never heard of it. It is so old that I have to explain a paragraph’s worth of the calendar first.

For many centuries and places the year didn’t start on January 1. Sure, that would be logical, but we are human. One popular new year’s day was Lady Day, March 25. Christians might claim that something important happened nine months before Christ’s birth – Easter. Except Easter moves. Lady Day is stationary. Sometimes the Roman’s would start the year at the spring equinox when the ‘V’ formed by the stars of Aries – the Roman God Mars – was in the proper place. That’s why Aries is the first sign of the Zodiac and December is not the twelfth month. Too bad the equinox and the ‘points of Aries’ are different things. And were moving away from each other. Julian dates are often in the form 1588/9 for the first three month’s of the Gregorian Year. So for English speakers there were fifteen months that could be considered in a year. Imagine how crazy this would be were I to be accurate!

When The Great and Happiest Spanish Armada tried to invade England and end that Protestant nonsense, the English didn’t defeat the Armada. They made a good showing, and God helps them who help themselves, but the hard work of defeating the Great and Happiest Armed Fleet was done by the Protestant Wind. This Divine Wind – anyone who thinks ‘Kami Kaze’ will be severely reprimanded – seemed to continue and end a curse on the Great and Happiest Fleet. The English called the year the ‘Great Eighty-Eight.’

Was the Eighty-eight really great?

Well in 1488/9 the whole history of the world changed when the Portuguese found how to go around Africa and reach the mysterious East. Shortly the Spanish would fund a confidence man named Columbus and become quite rich. To an Englishman 1488 was the year Henry VII betrothed his son Arthur to Catherine, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. This was well before the Spanish became rich, and it was only natural that the two great Atlantic seafaring powers should ally. This marriage should have changed the world as the powers were not tainted by great greed, but skill and lifestyle. Once again the proposals of Man were disposed of by a greater Power and the whole mess got started.

In 1388 the entire court of the King of England were convicted by Parliament of treason. Can you say Parliamentary supremacy? In one way Protestantism got its start when Wycliffe published his Bible in English and people called the Lollards started reading and arguing scripture. What they read did not much match what they were told by the Church. The Lollards would eventually engender the Boleyn faction which would do so much to make England Protestant. Ahem, Anne Boleyn? Mamma of Elizabeth the First? Oh, and in a totally unrelated field, the puppet king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, married his daughter to Henry, heir to Castile. This would ally Spain and England, but Spain wouldn’t exist as a kingdom for a while yet. But she was a queen Catherine in Spain. Her great grand daughter would be the Catherine of Aragon whose marriage would start the whole armada thing.

OK. Lets try forward. 1688. In 1688 there was the most perfectly managed revolution in history. In less than fifty days the new Catholic king and fool, James II, is tricked into abdication and exile. There were almost no casualties. A new Protestant dual monarchy is established. In early 1689, 1688 in English reckoning, the Declaration of Rights is, well, declared as a condition of the new monarchy. This leads to the actual supremacy of Parliament. In America Quakers in 1688 demand an end to slavery.

1788. American Constitution. French Revolution. If I have to expand on this, I have failed. Suffice it to say that 1788 saw the publication of ‘What is the Third Estate’ and the caling of the Estates General.

1888. The Ghost Dance starts in America. Jack the Ripper. The curse is broken. If we cheat a year we find the Golden Jubilee of Victoria when the British Empire was the largest and most successful empire in the history of humanity. It was followed closely by the estranged cousin non-empire of the United States of America. The amount of human advancement by these two English speaking polities cannot be overstated.

1988. The Return of the Curse. The first computer virus of note. We found our first extra solar planet. And the Iron Curtain collapsed. The Soviet Union collapses. Tim Berners-Lee proposes the Worldwide Web. I don’t know which of these will prove the most momentous, but one, I am sure, will be remembered a millenium hence.

So was there a Great Eighty-Eight? When enterprises of such pith and moment start or fail, some are tempted to see the hand of fate or Providence, I do not gainsay them. At the very least it is a good way to learn history. I am looking forward to 2088.

Sir Francis Drake (Eighty-Eight)

In eighty-eight, ere I was born,
As I can well remember,
In August was a fleet prepared,
The month before September.

Spain, with Biscayne, Portugal,
Toledo and Granado,
All these did meet and make a fleet,
And called it the Armado.

Where they had got provision,
As mustard, peas and bacon,
Some say two ships were full of whips,
But I think they were mistaken.

There was a little man of Spain
That shot well in a gun, a,
Don Pedro hight, as good a knight
As the Knight of the Sun, a.

King Philip made him admiral
And charg’d him to stay, a
But to destroy both man and boy
And then to run away, a.

The King of Spain did fret amain,
And to do yet more harm, a
He sent along, to make him strong,
The famous Prince of Parma.

When they had sailed along the seas
And anchored upon Dover,
Our Englishmen did board them then
And cast the Spaniards over.

Our queen was then at Tilbury,
What could you more desire, a?
For whose sweet sake Sir Francis Drake
Did set them all on fire, a.

But let them look about themselves,
For if they come again, a,
They shall be served with that same sauce
As they were, I know when, a.

Roy Palmer's note and glosses
The ballad looks back at the armada, possibly from the time of James I. Some of the details have become
 blurred, though the picture of victory remains clear enough.

August  the main fighting was in fact over by the end of July.
Biscayne  Vizcava, one of the Basque provinces
full of whips  a widely-held belief. Cf. Deloney's'New Ballet of the straunge and most cruel Whippes
 which the Spanyards had prepared to whippe and torment English men and women'.
Don Pedro  the Spanish commander-in-chief was in fact Don Alonso Perez, Duke of Medina Sidonia.
 called Knight of the Sun  hero of a Spanish romance,
The Mirrour of Princely Deedes and Knighthood, which was widely known in England through translations.
amain  with all his might
Parma  the Duke of Parma's fleet was to have joined the armada from the Netherlands, but failed to do so.
 Tilbury  Queen Elizabeth delivered a rousing triumphal speech there in August 1588. She was mounted
 on a white horse, thus giving rise, it is said, to the nursery rhyme,'Ride a  cock horse'.

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