The Girona Fede Ring

A wonderful example of a Fede ring was recovered from the wreck of the Girona, a ship of the Spanish Armada which sank off the Antrim coast in 1588. The ring, found in 1968 by a Belgian dive team, is cast in yellow gold and features a bezel of clasped hands and has an engraving around the band saying, No tengo mas que dar te, – I have nothing more to give you.

La Girona Fede Ring

It is probable that the ring was given by a wife to her husband which he wore on his fateful journey. Fede rings are love rings or rings that were given on the occasion of a marriage. The custom of a bride giving a ring informally to her husband just before or after their wedding ceremony goes back some centuries. The distinctive feature of the clasped hands has featured on rings since Roman times and is referred to in Italian as, mani in fede – hands in faith. The ring is on permanent exhibition at the Ulster Museum in Belfast and forms the centerpiece of the collection of treasure recovered from the wreck of the Girona.

Why Did Spain Want To Invade England

By the time the Spanish armada was launched in 1588, a fight had been brewing for some time between Philip II of Spain and Queen Elizabeth I of England. Although related by marriage – Philip was once married to Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary – The Spanish King was keen to overthrow Elizabeth in favor of a Catholic monarch and staunch the spread of Protestantism in England.

Hostilities were fueled in the 1580’s as Elizabeth allowed English privateer ships to plunder Spanish ships returning from the New World laden with treasure. A state of war was effectively declared between the two nations when in 1885, England signed a treaty in support of Dutch rebels in the Spanish Netherlands. It was then that King Philip began planning an Enterprise of England to remove Elizabeth from the Throne. He gained Papal support for his venture and even identified his daughter Isabella as the future Queen of England.

What Was The Spanish Armada

The invincible armada of 130 ships, with 30,000 men on board, set sail from the port of Lisbon of under the command of the general Medina-Sidonia. The plan was to stop near Calais en route to pick up an additional 30,000 troops from the Spanish Netherlands under the command of The Duke of Parma and then cross the English channel, land on the coast Kent and march on London.

Of course, an enterprise of such scale could not be launched in secret. The English became aware of the plan and launched a pre-emptive strike. In April, 1587 a raiding party led by Sir Francis Drake attacked the port of Cadiz and burned ships and supplies that were being built up for the invasion. This event, which is referred to as the Singeing the Beard of the King of Spain, destroyed 100 ships of the fleet and valuable supplies and delayed the launching of the Armada by several months. This gave the English time to prepare their naval defenses with a system of signal beacons to warn London of the Armada’s approach.

Route of The Spanish Armada
The Route of The Armada

After the initial launch from Lisbon in April of 1588 was scuppered by bad weather, the Spanish fleet finally set sail, later than planned, in July from the port of La Coruna. At the end of July, the English Fleet and the Spanish Armada engaged for the first time. No decisive action was taken by either side and the Armada dropped anchor at the port of Calais where Medina-Sidonia hoped to meet up with the Duke of Parma’s army. It was there that disaster struck the Spaniards. At midnight on August 8th, the English set fire to empty ships and let the tide carry them among the Spanish ships. The fireships caused a wave of panic to descend over the ships of the Armada. Several vessels cut their anchors to avoid catching fire, and the entire fleet was forced to flee to the open sea. In disarray, the Spanish Fleet was attacked and harried by English Navy in the Battle of Gravelines. An adverse south-westerly wind blew the Armada towards the North Sea and from there on the Spaniards were doomed.

Battered by storms and suffering from a dire lack of supplies, the Armada sailed on a perilous journey back to Spain around coast of Scotland and Ireland. Some of the damaged ships foundered at sea while many others were driven onto the coast of Ireland and wrecked. By the time the last of the surviving fleet reached Spain in October, half of the original Armada was lost and some 15,000 men had perished.

The Fate of La Girona

Built in Naples, the Girona was a galleass ship – part galleon, part galley – which was meant to be a decisive weapon in the Spanish Admiralty’s arsenal as it could be steered by both sail and oar. She departed Spain with a compliment of about 500 crew and 50 guns. She survived the Channel attacks relatively unscathed and headed to the Donegal fishing port of Killybegs. On the way, the ship picked up the survivors from the Santa Ana and the Santa Maria, swelling the numbers onboard to over 1,300.

The Girona, under oar and sail

At Killybegs, the rudder of the ship was repaired and stocked with provisions with the assistance and protection of the local MacSweeney Clan. The ship then set off eastward in the hope of reaching Scotland where more ships were available. On the night of the 26 of October a gale grew up as the ship rounded the Antrim coast and the ship was dashed on the rocks at Lacada Point.

Of the 1,300 souls on board just a handful survived and were protected by the local Chieftain Sorley Boy McDonnell. Hundreds of bodies were buried in a churchyard near the MacDonnell Castle of Dunluce. For many years, a large pile of white bones stood at Port na Spaniagh, and were know locally as The Spanish Bones.

One of the survivors of the wreck provided the origin of the surname Morning, which is common in Derry. The morning after the sinking, local people found a man wandering on the beach. He was naked, disoriented, and spoke neither English nor Gaelic, and so they called him Adam Morning, in honor of the original man, and because they found him in the morning.

“It was a complete disaster for the Spanish – it wasn’t just the numbers lost, but the fact that the Girona was by then carrying the flower of their leadership, princes and nobles. The wreck shows that they went to their death dressed for court, in all their finery with all their gold chains and collars, diamond rings and gold sword hilts and silver perfume flasks.”

Winifred Glover, Curator Ulster museum (1999)
Dunluce Castle on The Antrim Coast

The Discovery of La Girona

The location of the wreck of the Girona remained an elusive secret until its discovery in 1968. According to folklore, the local Gaelic clan, the MacDonnells, informed the English that the ship had sank at another place hoping the keep the location secret and the plunder to themselves.

The wreck was only discovered in 1968 by a Belgian professional diver by the name of Robert Sténuit. The Belgian, looking at 19th century maps, noticed two markings – Spaniard Rock and Port na Spaniagh. “When the first version of this map was made,” he told a 2008 documentary, “the geographers came and asked people how is this place named and why. There was a very vivid memory of what had happened.” After a week diving around Port na Spaniagh, they had located a bronze Armada cannon, an anchor and a gold escudo. They knew they were in the right place.

The precious haul of treasure – gold and jeweled trinkets, badges of rank, religious charms, tenderly inscribed love-tokens, money chains and nearly 1,200 gold and silver coins – showed where the offspring of Spain’s ‘best’ families perished.

Like most precious objects found in British coastal waters, the wreck was Judged by The Receiver of Wreck to be the property of the crown. After an independent valuation of £132,000, the items recovered were offered to the Ulster Museum and purchased for a sum described by Sténuit as, ‘a little money to put butter in the spinach, as we say in France‘.