El Gran Grifón

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The now restored cannon being salvaged.
Photo from Shetland Museum.
Guns from El Gran Grifón
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.
Piece from barrel of a large gun
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

The Gran Grifón, or El Gran Grifón, the 650-ton 38-gun flagship of the Spanish Armada's supply squadron of Baltic hulks (built in and chartered from the City of Rostock) was shipwrecked on Fair Isle, on the 27th September 1588. She sailed under the command and section flag of Juan Gómez de Medina and not – as often quoted – under the command of Don Alonso Pérez de Guzmán el Bueno, 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia, Admiral of Spain and commanding officer of the Armada.

She had been attacked and badly damaged right in the first meeting in the Channel but managed somehow to escape into the open North Sea where she later met the rest of the beaten Armada. Because of leaks she had to run before the wind up the east coast of Britain. However, an unusually strong storm and the tides forced the ships to cross between Norway and the Northern Isles for about a week before they reached the Atlantic. Having the coast of Ireland nearly in sight many ships were thrown back north by another storm. The Gran Grifón, the Barca de Amburgo (a hulk, chartered from the City of Hamburg) and the Trinidad Valencera (1100-ton, one of the biggest ships of the Armada) were separated from the remaining fleet. The Barca de Amburgo foundered south west of the Fair Isle, but was able to split her crew between the Gran Grifon and the Trinidad Valencera (later wrecked in Irish waters). Thus the Gran Grifon carried 43 crew and 234 soldiers - by far more sailors and armed forces than standard.

When the Gran Grifón arrived at Fair Isle trying to find a haven to effect repairs they anchored in Swartz Geo, but the tide drove the ship ashore so that she wrecked on the rocks of Stroms Hellier. The crew and soldiers scrambled ashore and were stranded on the isle for about two months before most of them departed first for Orkney (where they are remembered as the Westray Dons until today) and then to St Andrews and then to Edinburgh. 50 of the men died on Fair Isle either of their wounds, starvation or exposure and were buried in the 'Spaniards Grave'. Half of the survivors were killed when their ship en route to Spain was attacked and sent aground by Dutch gunboats alerted by the English Navy (Queen Elizabeth had only promised that they would not be molested by English ships).

The wreck of the Gran Grifón was excavated by Colin Martin and Sydney Wignall in 1970.
In 1984 a delegation from Spain planted an iron cross in the island's cemetery in remembrance of the sailors who had died there.

One of the bronze cannons, (photo left and in centre photo top right), is now restored and on display at the Shetland Museum.
More photos of artefacts from the wreck can be seen here

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