MACAULAY'S rousing poem "The Armada" ("that great fleet invincible" bearing "the richest spoils of Mexico, the stoutest hearts of Spain") hasn't been schoolroom reading for generations, but the event in the late summer of 1588 that it celebrates still tends to be seen as a contest between an English David and a Spanish Goliath. In The Voyage of the Armada, David Howarth views matters through the other end of the glass. Revisionist though he is--his recent 1066 showed the Normans as the bad guys--he can't wholly resist the "black legend." But if he makes old-fashioned villains of King Philip II and his ambassador Mendoza, "The Spanish Story" is without heroes and heroics: it is ghastly, futile, pathetic, and appalling. "God send that the reader may be able to imagine some small part of what it was like," wrote a survivor, "for after all there is a great gulf between those who suffer and those who observe suffering from afar."

Philip had reason to be fed up with the English: they had made his dead wife's Protestant sister Elizabeth ruler instead of himself; they egged on Dutch rebels in the Spanish Netherlands; they raided his treasure fleets; they beheaded Mary Queen of Scots, who had named him her heir should she supplant Elizabeth. Closeted in the Escorial, this royal bureaucrat planned in precise detail a naval expedition that would join with the army of the governor of the Spanish Netherlands, the Duke of Parma, and proceed across the channel to invade England and rid her of heresy.

The armada consisted of 130 ships--galleons from Spain and Portugal, Mediterranean cargo vessels, Baltic freighters, galleys rowed by convicts. Only 25 of these were expressly built to carry soldiers and cannon; the rest were converted for war. With fighting castles added fore and aft they made a brave show, but were slow, clumsy and flimsy. The fleet carried nearly 30,000 soldiers, sailors, and oarsmen; 146 gentlemen were attended by 728 servants; there were 180 priests, six pilots, and 12 surgeons. Nationalities were as mixed as the ships that carried them.

The king put command of this heterogeneous convoy into the reluctant hands of a great Andalusian landowner, the Duke of Medina Sidonia. He was picked for his famous name, not his experience: he was a retiring, peaceable man appalled by his new title: Captain General of the High Seas. "I am always seasick and catch cold," he protested, but as things turned out he handled his impossible job with exemplary courage, courtesy, and common sense.

The men packed into the shops were promised plunder or heaven. But faith in God, though it might console and inspire, sabotaged Philip's plans. Success depended on winds, tides, currents, storms, sandbanks, luck. The king took none into account: God, who hated heresy, would do the right thing. All the same, he hedged his bet. A secret letter to Parma, never delivered, laid down conditions for a peaceful settlement with the English that put the armada's purpose in question: he was prepared to settle for a few negotiable concessions. Philip flouted the basic principle of war: never use force until negotiation has failed.

Evidence skin divers have recently discovered in the armada wrecks indicates that it was doomed before it sailed (more of this later). Even so, without a fair wind --at their backs--the fleet could not progress. The ships had been built not for handy sailing but as floating fortresses: the sailors' job was to bring a ship within grappling distance of the enemy so the soldiers could board and fight.

The fleet left Lisbon May 30; moving at two knots, when moving at all, the voyage took it two months. As the ships crept into the channel on July 29, beacon fires sparkled on every hilltop. They had followed the king's mystifying orders and were on the English coast, not the French, in sight of their enemies. The news spread across England, leagues ahead of the fleet, which sailed slower than a man walks. By the time it approached Plymouth, in its tight crescent formation, Drake was leisurely waiting for it at his game of bowls. Besides this brilliant, bragging pirate, now vice admiral of the fleet, the English had every other advantage: they were on home ground; their navy, run by sailors, did its own fighting; free of soldiers and their castles, the newest ships were not "high-charged" but built "snug to the water," no smaller than a galleon but with a far greater sail ratio, giving them speed and maneuverability. "Nimble" was the Elizabethan word for it. The ship's new function in combat was not to board the enemy but to hover upwind, out of his reach but close enough to sink him with long-range guns.

The fleets considered each other. The Spanish formation was intimidating: "We durst not venture in among them, their fleet being so strong," wrote an English captain. The English ships, Medina Sidonia observed, were "very fast and wellhandled, so that they could do as they like with them." He didn't yet realize his fleet would never get into grappling range: the old idea of naval warfare was finished.

In a stream of letters to the Duke of Parma he asked for instructions about their rendezvous, for shot, flat- bottomed boats, and pilots to direct him to Flemish harbors. No answer came.

On August 2 a noisy, inconclusive battle was fought. There were no great losses, but having failed to board a single ship, the Spanish felt defeated. Terribly short of food and water, Medina Sidonia crawled up the coast through seas cluttered by every little boat in southern England, out to rubberneck and lend aid. His attention was to go to Dunkirk to find the unresponsive Parma; at the last minute his pilots told him this was impossible: Dunkirk then had no navigable harbor. Baffled, the Armada anchored off Calais.

During the night, while it lay at this uneasy anchorage, the English sent burning ships drifting down upon it. The Spaniards cut anchor lines and escaped, but were later to pay grievously for their lost anchors. Before they could resume formation, a northwest wind began pushing them toward the shelving French coast. The one real battle of the doomed expedition was then fought off the village of Gravelines. To give his ships a chance to claw their way off the coast, Medina Sidonia turned to fight the English. All day some 30 Spanish galleons, in formation, fought 40 English ships that darted out of reach. "Their force is wonderful great and strong," wrote an Englishman, "yet we pluck their feathers little by little." Still, when a squall stopped the battle, the English, though unscathed, weren't sure who had won.

But the Spanish were crushed. Three ships had sunk, 600 men were killed, 300 badly wounded. The English gunnery had been devastating. During the stormy night, with a north wind pushing them onshore and every able- bodied man at the pumps trying to keep maimed ships from sinking, hope was abandoned. "It was the most awful day in the world," one man wrote. "Everyone was in utter despair and stood waiting for death." Then the wind shifted, to the southwest.

Medina Sidonia had no choice: the crippled armada must take the long way home, north around Scotland and Ireland--an unknown voyage of nearly 3,000 nautical miles, without charts, without nearly enough food and water, through equinoctial storms in high latitudes, with 1,000 wounded and 300 sick men groaning in wet, fetid, heaving quarters below. Even in stiff following winds the convoy made less than three knots.

Incapable of sailing to windward, the ships had to go where the squally winds took them. Longitude couldn't be judged in those days; neither, without the sun, could latitude; in these wild waters they were hopelessly lost. The ships had not been built for North Atlantic seas and they began to break up. The terrific pressure of cannon fire had loosened nails and bolts; planks parted; men, dying anyway of hunger and thirst, pumped night and day until the ships finally went down, out at sea or along some thundering shore. Of those who had made it into Irish harbors some hadn't enough anchors to hold them and were smashed on the rocks. One ship, the Gran Grifon, was blown up and down the length of the Irish coast over and over until finally on her northern circuit she was wrecked in the Shetland Islands. Though the inhabitants treated them decently, of 300 survivors 50 died of starvation and disease. Other ships had more terrible fates. Six thousand Spaniards died miserably after scrambling ashore. They were stripped of clothing, mutilated, massacred, hanged; some died of hunger, some of disease; some were enslaved. Howarth relates many individual tales, piteous, horrifying, sometimes even grimly funny.

About half the ships in the original armada made it back to Spain, where many who had clung to life while they had to fight for it simply lay down and died. Of the men who had set out from Lisbon in May, two-thirds were dead. The Duke of Medina Sidonia returned safely to his orange groves. He had not lost the king's favor though others unjustly blamed him for the armada's disaster.

The wrecks divers have explored off the Irish coast have revealed a more pertinent cause of the disaster. In spite of all those great cannons that had spewed out ammunition until little was left, not a single English vessel had been hit as the two fleets skirmished in the channel. Why? The answer has come up from the sea: guns and gunshot, badly made of impure iron, and quenched, as the concentric circles round each ball reveal, while still red-hot. Such badly founded shot was brittle, and when fired with the Spaniards' fine-grained musket powder would have exploded in harmless fragments, in the gun or on impact. Some of the guns brought up from their graves had burst as well. And often the biggest cannons were carried in the lightest ships, condemning them to destruction. All their courage, which no one ever disputed, did the Spaniards no good. They were beaten by ships built for sailing and manned by sailors; by unlucky winds; by long-range English gunnery that shattered their masts and hulls; by the concussion of their own guns, and by their useless shot. David Howarth tells the harrowing story with a dry-eyed clarity that shivers the timbers.