A history of Ireland in 100 objects: Salamander pendant, circa 1588

This incongruously elegant jewelled pendant was recovered from the wreck site of the Spanish galleass ‘Girona’, which sank off…

This incongruously elegant jewelled pendant was recovered from the wreck site of the Spanish galleass ‘Girona’, which sank off Lacada Point, on the north Antrim coast, in the autumn of 1588.

‘Girona’ was part of the largest invasion fleet yet assembled, the great armada of 130 ships that set sail from Lisbon on May 30th, 1588. Its aim, as part of Philip II’s crusade against Protestant “heretics”, was to take control of England, depose Elizabeth I and re-establish a Catholic monarchy. (Philip had been married to Elizabeth’s sister and predecessor, Mary.) Spain and England were already fighting a proxy war in the Low Countries; Philip was now intent on a comprehensive victory.

On board the ships was a vast store of ordnance, including the massive siege guns intended to batter down the walls of London.

The pendant embodies the imperial power and commercial reach of Spain. Its body is of gold from the Spanish colonies in the new world of America. The rubies that marked out its spine and tail – three of the original nine stones survive – probably came from southern Asia. The fine workmanship in the detail of the scales, claws and tail adds to the flair of an object that bespeaks the exuberance of a self-confident empire.

The salamander is a real Mexican lizard but also a mythical creature with the magical ability to survive and extinguish fire. For the officer who wore the pendant, it thus served as a talismanic protection against the obvious danger of fighting on a wooden ship.

The charm was even more necessary than its owner must have hoped when ‘Girona’ set sail. The armada was held up by English manoeuvres and unfavourable winds in the English Channel, and left with little choice but to try to return to Spain by sailing around Scotland and back down the west coast of Ireland. Its commander, Medina Sidonia, warned his captains to “take heed lest you fall upon the Island of Ireland for fear of the harm that may happen to you upon that coast”. But the foul Atlantic weather took its toll: ‘Girona’ was one of at least 26 ships that foundered off Ireland.

‘Girona’ alone had a crew of 600, along with 700 others rescued from previous wrecks. Just six are thought to have survived. Among those who drowned were the captain, Fabricio Spinola, one of the fleet’s senior commanders, Alonso de Leiva, and Tomas Perrenoto, nephew of Cardinal de Granvelle. Most of those who died, however, were, as always, the anonymous foot soldiers of imperial wars.

For those from the wrecked ships who did make it ashore, the land proved no safer than the sea. The English lord deputy, Fitzwilliam, gave instructions to “apprehend and execute all Spaniards”. The survivors were hunted down and, with the exception of a few nobles who were ransomed, butchered. In all, about 5,000 Spaniards were drowned or killed, remembered only in local places names like Carraignaspana and Port na Spanaigh. But the failure of the armada, and the consequent consolidation of the Protestant monarchy of England, had enormous consequences for Ireland.

Thanks to Andrea Clements

Where to see it Ulster Museum, Botanic Gardens, Belfast, 048-90440000, nmni.com/um