On February 6, 1778, France signed two treaties with the United States, one of Amity and Commerce, the other, a defensive Alliance. In them, France recognized the absolute sovereignty and independence of the United States. On March 10, the Foreign Minister of France, the comte de Vergennes, sent a dispatch that included a copy of the treaties to the Marquis de Noailles, the French Ambassador to the Court of St. James. He was directed to deliver the copy to the Court. The result was on March 17, 1778, England declared war on France.
The thrones of King Louis XVI of France and King Charles III of Spain were branches of the same tree—the House of Bourbon; in fact, King Charles was King Louis’ uncle. Through the Pacte de Famille of 1761, it was agreed in article four that “whoever attacks one crown, attacks the other.” It was this Pacte that led Vergennes to believe that Spain would come to the aid of France if attacked by England. The Prime Minister of Spain, José Moñino, the Count of Floridablanca, however, was hesitant to involve Spain in France’s business. Spain had just ended a war with Portugal, her treasury was depleted, her colonies were unprotected by sea which made them vulnerable to the powerful British navy, and her government was never informed prior to the announcement that France had been negotiating the two treaties with the United States. It was not long, though, before Floridablanca saw the situation as an opportunity. He made it known to Vergennes that Spain might consider an “enterprise worthy of the two powers” if it was in Spain’s interest. On November 20, Floridablanca asked Vergennes: what was the plan he was considering if the two countries combined forces; what concessions could Spain expect for her participation; and how would Spain be guaranteed the concessions before any peace agreement was sought? Due to ill health, Vergennes was not able to respond to Floridablanca’s questions until December 24 when he sent a draft of the general plan and invoked the Pacte de Famille as sufficient promise that France would not make a separate peace.
It was not until February 26, 1779, that Vergennes agreed to all of the concessions requested by Floridablanca—“the restitution of Gibraltar, possession of the river and the fort at Mobile, the restitution of Pensacola with the whole coast of Florida . . . . The expulsion of the English from the Bay of Honduras . . . the revocation of the privilege granted to the same Englishmen to cut logwood on the coast of Campeche, and the restitution of the island of Minorca.
On March 10, after meeting with the First Minister of State, Comte de Maurepas, Vergennes directed the Secretary of State for the Marine, Antoine de Sartine, and the Minister of War, the Comte de Montbarey to finalize the operational details of the plan. Within a week, a complete plan was presented to Vergennes. He reviewed it, found it acceptable and sent it on to the Court at Madrid.
There remained only two obstacles to be worked out between the two countries. The first was that France recognized the independence of the United States, but Spain did not. King Charles was reluctant to recognize her independence “for fear that such recognition would set a bad example for the Spanish colonies in America.”Vergennes, in turn, informed Floridablanca that France would not disgrace herself by nullifying a treaty in order to enter into a convention and that if Spain joined France she was doing so with that understanding. Floridablanca resolved the issue by promising that Spain would not seek a separate peace therein respecting France’s obligation to the United States not to enter into a peace agreement unless American independence was secured.
The second was that King Charles would not officially declare war on England or allow the Spanish fleet to leave port until he heard back regarding a peace proposal he had given to the British Ambassador in Madrid on April 3. The terms were really those of a peace ultimatum:
Suspension of arms indefinitely between Great Britain and France, not to be ruptured without one year’s notice by either party; mutual disarmament, within one month in Europe, within four months in America, within eight or twelve months in Africa and Asia. Plenipotentiaries of both belligerent courts were to meet at a peace conference, under the mediation of Spain, with Madrid suggested for the seat of conference. The King of Great Britain, at the intervention and mediation of the King of Spain, was to grant a separate suspension of arms to the “American Colonies,” . . . . promising not to break it without a year’s notice in advance to the King of Spain . . . To settle the different objects and others relating to the suspension and the effects it is to produce while it lasts, one or more commissioners from the Colonies shall repair to Madrid, and His Britannic Majesty will send his own, under the mediation of the King to settle the above articles, & during this time the Colonies are to be treated as independent in fact.
Lord Grantham, the English Ambassador, delivered it to the Court of St. James. The Spanish Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Marqués de Almodóvar, was to wait one week for a response after the proposal arrived in London. If no response was forthcoming after a week, Almodóvar was to demand a response within the next three days. If there was still no response at the end of the three days, he was to assume the proposal was found to be unacceptable. He was then to send a courier back to Spain by way of Paris. If he stopped at the Court of Versailles, Vergennes would know that the plans were found acceptable. If he did not stop at Versailles, Vergennes was to give orders for the French fleet to set sail southward. The courier never stopped. It is unclear if the proposal was a sincere attempt at peace or an ultimatum phrased to insure its rejection because during the week that Ambassador Almodóvar was waiting for a response, Spain and France secretly signed the Convention of Aranjuez—a re-affirmation of the Pacte de Famille and a joint agreement to wage war on England. On May 7 and 8, Vergennes ordered all correspondence with England to cease and all ports closed to British traffic. The courier reached the Court at Madrid on May 15 with the rejected peace proposal. King Charles however was still not ready to declare war on Great Britain until it was confirmed that the French fleet safely departed from Brest.
By May 25, twenty-eight ships of the line under the command of Admiral Louis Guillouet, the comte de D’Orvilliers, with four months of water and provisions, were ready to set sail from Brest harbor; their sailing orders would arrive four days later. Unfortunately, they were not able to depart until June 3 due to the British ships that were patrolling the mouth of the harbor and an unfavorable wind. They sailed down the coast of France, crossed the Bay of Biscay and arrived at the rendezvous point off Corunna, Spain on June 10. A couple of days later they were joined by two French ships of the line from Toulon, but the Spanish fleet was still nowhere in sight. It took two weeks for the news of D’Orvilliers’ departure to reach the Court at Madrid. On June 16 King Charles ordered his military to lay siege to Gibraltar and Ambassador Almodóvar to deliver a dispatch to Lord Weymouth, England’s Secretary of State for the Southern Department, containing a declaration of war. Shortly thereafter, Floridablanca sent orders for the fleets at Ferrol and Cadiz to set sail. Because he wanted the armada to have overwhelming firepower, he increased the number of Spanish ships of the line from twenty to thirty-six. Similar to Vergennes’actions, Floridablanca prohibited the importation of British goods and ordered all British subjects to leave the country within fifteen days.
On July 2, eight ships from Ferrol, a Spanish port just north of Corunna, arrived at the rendezvous point. According to Floridablanca, they had originally been scheduled to arrive at by the first week of June. No explanation was offered to explain the four week delay. The remaining twenty-eight ships under the command of Lieutenant-General Don Luis de Cordoba were coming from Cadiz, a Spanish port just north of the Straits of Gibraltar. They set sail on June 22 but because of the north winds along the coast of Portugal did not reach the rendezvous point until July 23. D’Orvilliers fleet had been waiting for them for six weeks. By now half of their water and provisions had been consumed and due to the inadequate supply of medicines, sickness began to appear on some of the ships. Because D’Orvilliers had been appointed admiral of the armada, French signal codes were going to be used. They had been sent to Spain in advance, but somehow had not been translated, printed and distributed to the Spanish captains. This task was assigned to Major Mazzaredo shortly after the Spanish fleet departed Cadiz; he was not finished when the fleet reached the rendezvous point because each set had to be copied by hand. It took another week for him to finish them, for the Spanish captains to have their questions regarding them answered, and for the sailing formation to be determined. On July 30, the armada of sixty-six ships of the line set sail for the English Channel. They sailed in double column, spanned four and a half miles from vanguard to rear, and the two countries’ships of the line were interspersed throughout each column.
By the beginning of August, sickness had spread to every ship in the French fleet and in some cases had become deadly. It has never been determined the exact nature of the sickness—smallpox, scurvy, typhoid, putrid fever—but 80 sailors had already died and 1,500 were ill. On August 2, D’Orvilliers wrote to Sartine and informed him that “two thirds of French vessels would no longer have water after September 1.” The armada did not reach the Channel off Cornwall until August 15 due to the winds off the island of Ushant just west of Brest and the slow sailing of the Spanish ships. Once the western part of the Channel was under the armada’s control, an expeditionary force of 20,000 soldiers under the command of the comte de Vaux would to be transported from Normandy to the Isle of Wight. Upon landing, 4,000 soldiers would march on Newport, the island’s major city. The next landings of 8,000 soldiers simultaneously would take place at Gosport and Portsea Island at the mouth of Portsmouth harbor. The final landings would occur on Eastney and Southsea beaches near Portsmouth. Each force was made-up of 3500 soldiers. The Eastney force under the command of Jean-Baptiste de Vimeur, the comte de Rochambeau, was to attack the city from its supposedly impregnable land side as the Portsmouth arsenals and dockyards were being bombarded from Gosport. Rochambeau was aware that four regiments of dragoons had been stationed on the outskirts of Portsmouth, two cavalry regiments were nearby at Chichester and Salisbury and with the headquarters of the Royal Marines in Portsmouth, multiple garrisons were stationed throughout the town.
Unknown to D’Orvilliers, on June 11, the Spanish Ambassador to the Court at Versailles, the Count of Aranda, requested that Vergennes increase the size of the expeditionary force from 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers. This would allow the force to capture Portsmouth rather than destroy her arsenals and dockyards. The next day Vergennes met with Sartine, Montbarey, Maurepas and Vaux. Against Sartine’s recommendation, it was decided to commit 37,000 soldiers to the expeditionary force. The new plan called for fifty battalions of infantry, five battalions of grenadiers, 3,400 cavalry and 1,200 artillerymen. The cost of the original plan was 3,5000,000 livres; the cost of the new plan would be 9,700,000 livres. If Portsmouth, the preeminent naval port in England, was captured and held by the expeditionary force, Spain believed she could negotiate an exchange of it for Gibraltar at the peace negotiations. The only restriction that Floridablanca placed on the fleet was that it had to be homeward bound by the beginning of September because navigation in the Channel any later was too hazardous. The new plan necessitated a new timeframe for operations; Vergennes requested Floridablanca to revoke the September deadline. Floridablanca granted the request shortly after receiving it. Due to the change in the plan, Vaux estimated that it would take one week for the entire force to be transported across the Channel.
The British Channel Fleet was under the command of Admiral Charles Hardy, the former governor of Greenwich Hospital. He had not been to sea for nearly twenty years and suffered from poor health. His flag captain was Richard Kempenfelt; he found Hardy to be a bad administrator, inaccessible to advice, who acted with little forethought and did not separate the important from the trivial.
Hardy’s fleet was made up of thirty-six ships of the line. One squadron consisting of ten ships under the command of Vice-Admiral George Darby did not return from convoy duty until June 10. Lord Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty, urged Hardy to set sail on the 11th, but was informed that Darby needed a couple of days to take on water and provisions. Hardy set sail with thirty ships on June 16 knowing only that D’Orvilliers had headed south after departing from Brest. His other six ships, when ready, would catch up. While sailing southward, he learned from the captain of a neutral vessel that the French fleet was seen off Cape Finisterre, a point along the coast of Spain just south of Corunna. At the same time, the Admiralty had received an intelligence report from Cadiz that the Spanish fleet was almost ready to set sail and that they were going to join up with the French fleet. On June 19, Hardy received orders from Sandwich informing him that he might be sailing into a battle in which he would be out-gunned; for his fleet’s safety and that of England, he was to return to the Channel.
Hardy did not return to Portsmouth or Plymouth, but rather sailed further west—to Torbay on the Devon coast. It was here that he learned of Spain’s declaration of war. On July 14, after taking on water and provisions, he set sail for the Isles of Scilly southwest of Cornwall. Hardy’s secretary, Lord Mulgrave, wrote to the Admiralty and explained his decision: first, convoys from the Leeward Islands and East Indies were scheduled to arrive soon and they would need protection if the armada were to suddenly appear, and in the event there was an attempt on Ireland, the admiral’s fleet would be able to intercept it. Hardy had no intention of yielding his western position. No matter how large the armada was, he knew the south-westerly winds could push it into the Channel and with luck a southerly wind could then drive the ships onto the English coast.
It was also on the 14th that the Admiralty learned France and Spain had assembled 400 transports in the Channel at Le Havre and St. Malo, both northeast of Brest. The Admiralty, anticipating such an action, had already planned to have frigate squadrons attack the transports in the Channel. Flag Secretary Kempenfelt stated “Twenty-five . . . coppered [frigates], will be sufficient to hazard [the transports], so as to prevent their effecting anything.”
At the end of July, the Channel fleet had been pushed eastward and well up the Channel by a strong south-westerly wind. On July 27, Sandwich issued Hardy new orders; he was not to come into port but rather would be resupplied at sea and then was to sail westward to the Isles of Scilly or as far as he judged necessary “to frustrate the enemy;” his orders continued to be of a defensive nature.
On August 14, Sandwich sent new orders to Hardy: if the French portion of the armada headed back to Brest, he was to leave his station and prevent their retreat by engaging them in battle. His orders had finally become offensive in nature. On the 15th, as the Marlborough, a ship of the line, sailed down the Channel to join Hardy, she sighted the armada. Immediately the ship’s first lieutenant boarded a sloop, set off for Plymouth and then to Blackheath, the home of Lord Sandwich. The First Lord informed the Admiralty of the sighting and directed them to summon Prime Minister Lord North and army commander in chief Jeffrey Amherst to join him in London. He also sent a message to the port admiral, Lord Molyneux Shuldman, at Plymouth. His greatest fear had become a reality; the armada was inside of the Channel fleet. On the 16th, the armada appeared off Plymouth.
Amherst considered two ways to defend the island from the invasion: either spread out his forces along the coast or station them in one position for a counter-strike. He had 21,000 foot soldiers and cavalry and approximately 30,000 militia. He chose the former.
A screen of dragoons patrolled the coast of Kent and Sussex (the closest invasion points for an attack on London), while a striking force lay back round London: the infantry of the line and militia astride the Thames in Kent and Essex, with the cavalry of the northern force at Colchester; the Household Cavalry and Foot Guard (of the Royal Family) in the capital from which they could move out on either side of the river . . .A battalion thrown forward from Rye and a cavalry regiment at Chichester would impose some delay where landings were most likely; and the naval bases at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham had garrisons and encampments to meet the first onslaught. But beyond Plymouth the coast was almost naked, and Cornwall had only a slight regiment of Militia.
Amherst had been preparing England’s defenses for the past three months.
On August 17, the Channel fleet was being pushed further west by an easterly wind when Hardy learned that the armada was off Plymouth. What he did not know was that D’Orvilliers had just received orders from Versailles, dated August 7, to sail west to Falmouth. Following another recommendation of Ambassador Aranda, Vergennes had decided to change the landing spot for the expeditionary force from the Isle of Wight to Falmouth in Cornwall. There were a number of reasons for the change: all of the delays had caused the armada to fall eight weeks behind schedule, Falmouth would not require a long siege to capture, convoys from the East Indies and the Caribbean would be easy prey from the location, and once the expeditionary force had safely landed, Cornwall’s terrain would serve as their fortress. D’Orvilliers was ordered “to block the English in Plymouth, and to detach two divisions, one to St. Malo and the other Le Havre, to escort the transports on which [the soldiers] were to embark.” Afterwards, the French fleet was to cruise the waters between Cape Ouessant and the Isles of Scilly; the Spanish fleet was to cruise the waters between the Isles of Scilly and Cape Clear, Ireland.  Immediately D’Orvilliers wrote back to Sartine asking for the orders to be reconsidered. He wrote,
According to what I take here from the Normans who are doing the fishing [off] the coast of England, Falmouth is of no resource for the release of some ships of war. The port water is not enough, and the harbor is too small to contain a squadron, is also exposed to all offshore winds . . . We navigate as at chance, and without Knowledge of the dangers.
He never received a reply because on the 18th an easterly wind pushed the armada fifty miles southwest of Lizard, Cornwall. Interestingly, the armada had been outside of Portsmouth harbor for two full days and did not fire a single cannon. On August 23, Sandwich, believing the transports carrying the invading force from Normandy were going to take advantage of the easterly-wind and begin their crossing of the Channel, ordered some copper-bottomed frigates along with Sir Hyde Parker and his ships from the Channel Islands to begin patrolling for the transports. On August 25, D’Orvilliers learned from a passing vessel that the Channel fleet was one hundred miles west of the Isles of Scilly. He had a decision to make: take on the Channel fleet or sail back to Falmouth as previously ordered. Even though fog was beginning to roll in, the winds were unpredictable, the supply convoy that he was expecting had been prevented by the weather from reaching him and the armada already had 140 dead and 2,400 ill from disease, he chose to bring the Channel fleet to battle. On the 26th, Hardy in the meantime with a south-westerly wind at his back had begun to sail back to Plymouth through a fog. On the 29th, one of his ships briefly sighted the armada; the same occurred the following day. It was not until the 31th that one of D’Orvilliers’ships sighted the Channel fleet. The armada gave chase but between the fog, the slow Spanish ships of the line, and the Spanish ships’inability to maintain formation, the Channel fleet slowly disappeared. The next day when the fog lifted, the Channel fleet was twelve miles south of Plymouth near the Eddystone Rocks; the armada, having pursued what they thought was the Channel fleet but instead was a fleet of East Indiamen, ended up at Land’s End, the western tip of Cornwall. Even if the armada had brought the Channel fleet to battle, it is unlikely that the outcome would have been good for the armada. The Ville-de-Paris had 560 men sick, the Augustus had 44 dead and 500 sick, the Active had 400 sick, the Intrepid had 70 dead and 529 sick, the Cato had 300 sick, the Palmier had 330 sick, the Crown had 440 sick, the Destiny had 300 sick and the Alexan had 300 sick, to name only a few. Vergennes had conditional orders sent to D’Orvilliers on September 3; he received them on September 8: if he had not defeated Hardy or forced him into port, he was to return to Brest. The invasion had come to an end. By mid-September many ships in Brest harbor were little more than floating hospitals. The French fleet had returned with almost 8,000 very ill sailors.
The level of incompetence surrounding the story of this armada is staggering:
•Vergennes “economic war”had considerable merit and would have been less expensive
•The French fleet was not adequately provisioned at Brest
•The French fleet had inadequate and unhealthy crews
•The Spanish fleet arrived at the rendezvous point six weeks late
•It took better than two weeks for the news that the French fleet had left Brest harbor to reach the Court at Madrid
•The French signal codes should have been already translated and studied beforehand
•The French fleet should have been provisioned and the sick taken from the ships off the coast Ushant
•The new invasion plan of June 12 should neverhave been adopted
•The landing at Cornwall would have been extremely difficult to supply with provisions
•Aranda had too much influence with the French War Cabinet
Archives du Ministere des Affaires Entrangeres, Espagne, t. 590, “Montmorin to Vergennes, 17 September 1778,” 402-05: Vergennes at first hoped for an economic war with England, but Floridablanca could not support such a prolonged action. In a letter to Montmorin dated February 12, Vergennes wrote “If we succeed only interrupting Britain’s trade, you may depend on it that the resultant alarm and despondency will be as great as if we landed in some part of the island.”
Samuel Flagg Bemis, The Diplomacy of the American Revolution (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1975), 82; The final condition was taken from the text of the instructions Parliament gave to the Carlisle Peace Commissioners in 1778. S.E. Morison, Sources and Documents Illustrating the American Revolution(Oxford, 1923),186-203.
“Intelligence from Bilbao and Other Places, 3 July 1779,” in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, July 1 through October 31, 1779, Barbara B. Oberg ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 22-26, ff. 3.
Espagne, t. 594, “Vergennes to Montmorin. 21 June 1779,” 293-94; Espagne, t. 594, “Montmorin to Vergennes, 26 June and 1 July 1779,” 330, 355; Espagne, t. 594, Montmorin to Vergennes, 5 July 1779,” 375-78.
Charles Middleton, Lord Barham, Letters and Papers (London: Navy Records Office, 1907), 1: 297. The Admiralty, starting in 1770, began to sheath the bottoms of her frigates with copper plates; this prevented barnacles from collecting on the wood and sea worms from boring into it. It also made the ships faster.