THIS month marks the 400th anniversary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. It was beaten in a 12-day series of skirmishes and four full-dress battles that saved England from invasion, marked a victory for Protestantism over Catholicism, and aided the Netherlands' revolt against Spain. Above all, that victory at sea helped create what has since become the central theme of English patriotism: the image of ordinary citizens mobilizing their righteous wrath to turn back a fearsome, dehumanizing foreign invader - be it Philip II in 1588, Napoleon in 1805, or Hitler in 1940. In summoning the nation to battle in June 1940, Winston Churchill proclaimed that ``Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.'' His words harkened back to July 1588, when the Armada pushed up the English Channel, and Englishmen hurriedly put to sea or stood to arms on land.
The splendor of a national mythos is one thing; the inaccuracy of minor myths is quite another. The most fancy of these myths is the posthumous acclaim granted Sir Francis Drake for having behaved as a 19th-century English gentleman should, by finishing his game of bowls before departing for battle. The rapid-fire messages that Drake undoubtedly dispatched while bowling are disregarded.
Then there is the foolish idea that the ``black Irish'' derive from the Spaniards shipwrecked in western Ireland as the Armada retreated homeward, as though a few starving men influenced the gene pool of a nation more than generations of Irish-Spanish commercial contact. (Most Spanish survivors who came ashore in Ireland were executed by English troops.)