Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Speed of light

The long rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I of England and King Philip II of Spain came to a head in 1588 when Philip sent 130 ships towards England with orders to invade. The feared Armada was on its way.

The English had known since 1586 of the likelihood of a Spanish invasion and were well prepared. Yet the Spaniards could attack anywhere along the south coast, and it was clearly impossible to deploy defence forces everywhere. In the event of an attack, everything would depend on the speed with which information could be transmitted and defences mobilised.

Tried and tested

The usual method of communication - messengers on horseback - was far too slow. So an older, quicker way, which had often served England well in times of threat, was pressed into service: a network of beacons, on headlands and hills, stretching all over the country.

On July 29, when the Armada was spotted making its way up the English Channel, the first beacon, on the Cornish coast, leapt into flame. Immediately the flames were seen, the next beacon was lit. Beacon answered beacon as the signal flashed northwards and eastwards; these in turn were a signal for the ringing of church bells. By the next morning, the message that the Spaniards had arrived was known as far away as Durham, some 450 km (280 miles) from the south coast, and local militias were out in force. As it happened, the Armada was defeated at sea, and Spanish soldiers did not set foot on English soil.

In July 1981, beacons were lit on many of the same sites for a happier reason, to celebrate the marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales, to Lady Diana Spencer.

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