The story of the Bear of Amsterdam is probably the best known of all local stories, apart from the Bells of Aberdovey. Unlike the Bells, this is not a matter of myth but a slice of Elizabethan history.
The Bear of Amsterdam was a ship in the Third Spanish Armada, which took place between October and November 1597 during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585–1604. The war, which consists of a series of naval episodes over this period, had its origins in both religious and commercial disputes. Philip II, King of Spain, defender of the Catholic faith, was under pressure to tackle the rise of Protestantism in Spanish territories in the southern Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and northern France, collectively referred to as the Low Countries. At the same time Queen Elizabeth had reinstated the Act of Supremacy that established the Church of England as the national religion, detaching England from Catholic Papal authority. This was naturally a source of tension between England and Spain. This relationship became even more strained when the English crown supported the activities of English ships trading with Spanish outposts in the West Indies. Spain held a trading monopoly on these colonies and English activities were condemned as smuggling. Spanish retaliation at the Battle of San Juan de Ulúa resulted in the capture and sinking of English ships under the command of Sir Francis Drake. The English retaliated with an escalation of privateering, which not only aimed to undermine the Spanish monopoly, but to line the pockets of the crews involved. When England came out in support of the Dutch against Spanish military action to squash the rise of Protestantism in 1585, Spain considered this a declaration of war. A number of skirmishes took place, but the final straw came with Elizabeth’s execution of Mary Queen of Scots in February 1587, leading to Philip II’s decision to invade England in order to place a Catholic monarch on the English throne, a plan for which he received papal authority in July 1587.
On 28 May 1588 the first Spanish Armada (armada meaning a fleet of warships) set sail for the English Channel and were met by the English fleet. A battle of attrition succeeded in preventing the Spanish from reaching any English port and the Spanish withdrew to Calais to regroup. The English pursued them, using fireships to break through the defensive formation, forcing another battle on the Spanish, who were defeated and forced to retreat. The second Spanish Armada took place in 1596, Philip II’s next attempt to tackle England, this time by invading Ireland, but the fleet hit a storm that annihilated it, and it never reached the English channel.
The third and final Armada took place between October and November 1597, aiming to surprise the English fleet in the English Channel as it returned from a failed expedition to the Azores, whilst another part of the Armada would land an invasion force in Falmouth or, if this proved impossible, Milford Haven, both of which were important Elizabethan ports. 136 ships set out from Spain with 8,634 soldiers, 4,000 sailors, a total of 12,634 men and 300 horses, but storms again led to the failure of Spanish plans. With their fleet dispersed, only a few ships were able to land troops in England and Wales. The returning English ships had also been disrupted by the storm, but still managed to capture several Spanish ships. The third Armada was again defeated and remaining Spanish ships were captured.
The last ship from the third Armada to be captured was the c.120 ton caravel, The Bear of Amsterdam. Having headed for Milford Haven she overshot and eventually weighed anchor in the middle of the river Dyfi on 26 October 1597, probably to acquire stores. The prevalence of Westerlies stranded the ship for until 5th November. Aberdovey was very isolated at this time, with only a few houses that served the ferry from Aberdovey to Ynyslas. A survey of ports, creeks and other landing places on the Welsh coast from earlier in the century stated that only during the herring season when fishermen arrived from elsewhere was there any activity in Aberdovey where there were only three houses, and no local boats. Local militia from both sides of the river gathered on the banks of the Dyfi and prepared themselves for a fight, but there were no suitable boats with which to board The Bear of Amsterdam, and no canons with which to hole her. Muskets had some impact, killing three and wounding others on board the ship, but the ship moved out of range during the night. D.W. Morgan (Brief Glory) quotes a contemporary document that describes how the ship landed about six men ashore in a cockboat (a small rowing boat used as the ship’s tender), with two more remaining in the boat, but these were ambushed by the Merionethshire Militia, with two killed and four captured. The Vice Admiral visited the camp of the Cardiganshire militia “but could do nothing except helplessly watch the Spaniard swinging to his anchor in midstream. Of little avail were the plans of the Merionethshire men.” A plan by the Merionethshire militia to build wooden fire rafts and float them down the river on an outgoing tide in the hope that it would set fire to the ship failed when the wind turned. In spite of intentions to capture The Bear of Amsterdam, the ship left without challenge or further incident when the winds changed.
The Bear of Amsterdam headed south, but she did not manage to return to Spain. Rounding the Cornish peninsula The Bear of Amsterdam suffered damage in another storm and surrendered on the 10th November to an English squadron. She was led into Dartmouth with no ammunition on board and almost no supplies. The crew consisted of 62 Spanish sailors, 3 Flemish and 2 English (one acting as a pilot, the other a known pirate who was immediately gaoled). Morgan says that the Captain of The Bear of Amsterdam “was a man of note and was sent up to London under guard to be exchanged for 2 Englishmen who were Spanish prisoners.”
Back in Aberdovey, Morgan describes how the local magistrate was in trouble. Ednyfed Griffith found himself under investigation when complaints were lodged against him about his handling of the Bear of Amsterdam affair: “Although he lived within a mile of the scene he failed to repair thither with any men, arms or weapons; nor did he raise any manner of force to resist the Queen’s enemies. He, being remiss, slack and careless thus greatly discouraged those that were eager.” It does not seem to have done him much harm, because in 1608 he was appointed Sheriff of Gwydgwian.
As with all good history, an unverifiable story emerged from the incident, which is that a handful of Spanish sailors swam ashore after dark, vanished into the hills and eventually integrated with Welsh inhabitants. Unless they were fluent Welsh speakers, which is improbable, it seems unlikely that the presence of foreign accents in the area would have gone unnoticed in a period of heightened awareness and fear of Spanish invasion, but it is a nice story.
In 1953 both the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the Elizabethan story of The Bear of Amsterdam were celebrated by fitting out a local ship to represent the Spanish caravel. She was moored mid-river and set on fire.
Today the episode is preserved in a popular restaurant on the sea front in Aberdovey named The Bear of Amsterdam.