Archaeologists from the Underwater Archaeology Unit, part of Ireland’s National Monuments Service, have identified a 16th century shipwreck as the Spanish Armada vessel La Juliana, following the recovery of nine bronze cannon decorated with Catholic saints, near Streedagh, Co. Sligo.
Contemporary documents record that between 24 and 26 vessels from the scattered Spanish invasion fleet were lost off the coast of Ireland in 1588, and that most of their crewmen either drowned or were slaughtered on the beaches – Elizabeth I having declared that helping the sailors counted as treason.
A small number of survivors did manage to escape, however, including Francesco de Cuellar, who wrote a detailed account of the loss of the three ships La Lavia, Santa Maria de Vison, and La Juliana off Co. Sligo. The wrecks are also marked on 16th- and early 17th-century maps, meaning that their general locations were known from the time of their loss, and three sunken vessels thought to be the lost warships were identified by English divers in the 1980s. Four bronze guns were recovered at that time, but the wrecks were left largely undisturbed until winter storms in 2014 and 2015 saw elements of 16th-century timbers washing up on the beach at Streedagh. The Underwater Archaeology Unit was informed and, as part of its monitoring brief at the sites, the Unit began detailed dive surveys this year. They found that while two of the wrecks were still covered, the remains of a third, identified as La Juliana, were exposed. The decision was taken to record as much of the exposed wreck as possible, and to recover vulnerable artefacts.
The Unit – under the directorship of Fionnbarr Moore, and assisted by Karl Brady and Connie Kelleher – recovered nine cannon of various sizes, all in excellent condition and ornately decorated with the names and images of saints.
Several of these were stamped with their date of manufacture, 1570, including one that bore an image of St Matrona holding a cross and a ship.
‘La Juliana was built in Spain in 1570, commissioned by a wealthy family of Barcelona merchants, and St Matrona is a saint particularly revered in the Catalan region, and associated with Barcelona,’ Fionnbarr explained. ‘The ship operated as a trade vessel, but was commandeered three times, before being finally ordered into service by Philip II of Spain as part of his Armada campaign.’
Other figures represented on the guns include St Sebastian, St Rocco (a martyr associated with warding off plague), St Peter holding his keys to Heaven, St John the Evangelist, and St John the Baptist. While, as a warship, La Juliana is known to have had 32 guns, she would also have been armed as a civilian vessel, to ward off pirates, Fionnbarr added.
Among the other finds from the wreck were cannon balls of various sizes, nine gun carriage wheels, two anchors, fragments of pottery, and a bronze cauldron that still had tar or pitch inside; it was probably used for caulking or treating ropes.
The recovered cannon have been sent to the National Museum of Ireland for conservation, and the site is now being monitored with the help of the local Sligo Aqua Club, and the Grange Armada Development Association (GADA) who are developing a local museum and study centre focused on the story of the Armada. In the meantime, the Underwater Archaeology Unit is working to put together a plan and resources for further investigation.