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Spanish Armada

Spanish Armada

The 1588 Spanish Armada was a fleet of 132 ships assembled by King Philip II of Spain (r. 1556-1598) to invade England, his 'Enterprise of England'. The Royal Navy of Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558-1603) met the Armada in the English Channel and, thanks to superior manoeuvrability, better firepower, and bad weather, the Spanish were defeated.

After the battle, the remains of the Armada were then obliged to sail around the dangerous shores of Scotland and so more ships and men were lost until only half of the fleet eventually made it back to Spanish waters. The English-Spanish war continued, and Philip tried to invade with future naval expeditions, but the defeat of the 1588 Armada became the stuff of legend, celebrated in art and literature and regarded as a mark of divine favour for the supremacy of Protestant England over Catholic Spain.

Prologue: Three Queens & One King

Philip of Spain's interest in England went back to 1553 when his father, King Charles V of Spain (r. 1516-1556) arranged for him to marry Mary I of England (r. 1553-1558). Mary was a staunch Catholic but her reversal of the English Reformation and proposed marriage to a prince of England's great rival and then the richest country in Europe led to open revolt - the Wyatt Rebellion of January 1554. Mary quashed the revolt, persecuted Protestants to earn her nickname 'Bloody Mary', and married Philip anyway. As it turned out, the marriage was not a happy one, and Philip spent most of his time as far as possible from his wife. Philip became the King of Spain in 1556 and so Mary its queen but she died in 1558 of cancer. Philip wasted no time whatsoever and proposed to Mary's successor, her sister Elizabeth. The Virgin Queen rejected the offer, along with many others, and she steered her kingdom away from Catholicism.

These were dangerous times for Elizabeth as seemingly everyone wanted her throne, none more so than Philip of Spain.

Elizabeth reinstated the Act of Supremacy (April 1559), which put the English monarch at the head of the Church (as opposed to the Pope). As a result, the Pope excommunicated the queen for heresy in February 1570. Elizabeth was also active abroad. She attempted to impose Protestantism in Catholic Ireland but this only resulted in frequent rebellions (1569-73, 1579-83, and 1595-8) which were often materially supported by Spain. The queen also sent money and arms to the Huguenots in France and financial aid to Protestants in the Netherlands who were protesting against Philip's rule.

The queen's religious and foreign policies put Elizabeth directly against Philip who saw himself as the champion of Catholicism in Europe. Then a third monarch arrived on the stage, Mary, Queen of Scots (r. 1542-1567). Catholic Mary was the granddaughter of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, and she had been unpopular in Protestant Scotland and forced to abdicate in 1567 and then flee the country in 1568. Kept in confinement by her cousin Elizabeth, Mary became a potential figurehead for any Catholic-inspired plot to remove Elizabeth from her throne. Indeed, for many Catholics, Elizabeth was illegitimate as they did not recognise her father's divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536). Several plots did occur, notably a failed rebellion in the north of England stirred up by the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland, both staunch Catholics. Then the conspiratorial Duke of Norfolk, who had plotted with Spain to mount an invasion of England and crown Mary queen (the 1571 Ridolfi plot), was executed in 1572. These were dangerous times for Elizabeth as seemingly everyone wanted her throne, none more so than Philip of Spain.

The English Parliament remained keen to better secure Elizabeth's throne by at least having an heir; already that body had twice formally asked Elizabeth to marry (1559 and 1563). Now there was an additional threat to the dynasty in the form of Mary. Without an heir, Mary could take over Elizabeth's throne. Accordingly, in 1586, Parliament twice asked the queen to sign Mary's death warrant. Elizabeth finally signed the warrant on 1 February 1587 when it was revealed the former Scottish queen had plotted against her cousin. Mary had sought to encourage Philip of Spain, who she named her heir, to invade England and so indisputable evidence was gathered of her treasonous intentions.

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English-Spanish Relations

When Mary, Queen of Scots was executed on 8 February 1587, Philip had one more reason to attack England. Philip was angry at rebellions in the Netherlands which disrupted trade and Elizabeth's sending of several thousand troops and money to support the Protestants there in 1585. If the Netherlands fell, then England would surely be next. Other bones of contention were England's rejection of Catholicism and the Pope, and the action of privateers, 'sea dogs' like Francis Drake (c. 1540-1596) who plundered Spanish ships laden with gold and silver taken from the New World. Elizabeth even funded some of these dubious exploits herself. Spain had not been entirely innocent either, confiscating English ships in Spanish ports and refusing to allow English merchants access to New World trade. When Drake attacked Cadiz in 1587 and 'singed the king's beard' by destroying valuable ships and supplies destined for Spain, Philip's long-planned invasion, what he called the 'Enterprise of England', was delayed, but the Spanish king was determined. Philip even gained the blessing and financial aid of Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-90) as the king presented himself as the Sword of the Catholic Church.

The Fleets

Philip finally assembled his massive fleet, an 'armada' of 132 ships, although his financial problems and the English attacks on supplies from the New World did not allow him to build a navy quite as large as he had hoped. The Armada, packed already with 17,000 soldiers and 7,000 mariners, sailed from Lisbon (then under Philip's rule) on 30 May 1588. It was intended that the Armada would establish dominance of the English Channel and then reach the Netherlands in order to pick up a second army led by the Duke of Parma, Philip's regent there. Parma's multinational army consisted of Philip's best troops and included Spaniards, Italians, Germans, Burgundians, and 1,000 disaffected Englishmen. The fleet would then sail to invade England. Philip's force was impressive enough but the king hoped that once in England, it would be swelled by English Catholics eager to see Elizabeth's downfall. The Armada was commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, and Philip had promised Medina on his departure, "If you fail, you fail; but the cause being the cause of God, you will not fail" (Phillips, 123).

The 20 English royal galleons were better armed than the best of the Spanish ships & their guns could fire further.

Henry VIII of England (r 1509-1547) and Mary I had both invested in England's Royal Navy and Elizabeth would reap the rewards of that foresight. England's fleet of around 130 ships was commanded by Lord Howard of Effingham. The large Spanish galleons - designed for transportation, not warfare - were much less nimble than the smaller English ships which would, it was hoped, be able to dash in and out of the Spanish fleet and cause havoc. In addition, the 20 English royal galleons were better armed than the best of the Spanish ships and their guns could fire further. The English also benefitted from such experienced and audacious commanders as vice-admiral Drake whom the Spanish called 'El Draque' ('the Dragon') and who had circumnavigated the globe in the Golden Hind (1577-80). Another notable commander with vast sailing experience was Martin Frobisher (c. 1535-1594) in the Triumph, while old sea salts like John Hawkins (1532-1595) had ensured, as treasurer since 1578, the navy had the best equipment Elizabeth could afford, including such fine ships as Drake's flagship, the Revenge, and Howard's flagship, the ultra-modern Ark Royal.


Facing storms, the Armada was obliged to first make for the port of Coruña and so it took two months to finally reach the English Channel. By this time, the invasion was no surprise to the English who spotted the Spanish galleons off the coast of Cornwall on 19 July. Fire beacons spread the news along the coast and, on 20 July, the English fleet sailed from its homeport of Plymouth to meet the invaders. There were about 50 fighting ships on each side and there would be three separate engagements as the navies battled each other and storms. These battles, spread over the next week, were off Eddystone, Portland, and the Isle of Wight. The English ships could not take advantage of their greater manoeuvrability or the superior knowledge of tides of their commanders as the Spanish adopted their familiar disciplined line-abreast formation - a giant crescent. The English did manage to fire heavily at the wings of the Armada, 'plucking their feathers' as Lord Howard put it (Guy, 341). Although the English fleet outgunned the Spanish, both sides found themselves with insufficient ammunition and commanders were obliged to be frugal with their volleys. The Spanish prudently retreated to a safe anchorage off Calais on 27 July having lost only two ships and suffered only superficial damage to many others.

Six fireships, organised by Drake, were then sent into the Spanish fleet on the night of 28 July. Strong winds blew the unmanned ships into the anchored fleet and quickly spread the devastating flames amongst them. The English ships then moved in for the kill off Gravelines off the Flemish coast on 29 July. The Spanish fleet broke its formation still having lost only four ships but many more were now badly damaged by cannon shots. Even worse, 120 anchors had been hastily cut and lost in order to escape the fire ships. The loss of these anchors would be a serious hindrance to the manoeuvrability of the Spanish ships over the coming weeks. The Armada was then hit by the increasingly strong winds from the south-west. The Duke of Medina Sidonia, unable to get close enough to grapple and board with the flighty English ships and with Parma's force blockaded in by Dutch ships, ordered a retreat and abandonment of the invasion.

Drake reported victory from his ship Revenge:

God hath given us so good a day in forcing the enemy so far to leeward as I hope in God that the Prince of Parma and the Duke of Sidonia shall not shake hands these few days; and whensoever they shall meet, I believe neither of them will greatly rejoice of this day's service.

(Ferriby, 226)

The Armada was forced by the continuing storm to sail around the tempestuous and rocky shores of Scotland and Ireland in order to return home. Several English ships pursued the Spanish to Scotland but the bad weather and unfamiliar coastlines did the real damage. Stores quickly ran out, horses were thrown overboard, ships were wrecked, and those mariners who escaped to shore were handed over to the authorities for execution. There was another bad storm in the Atlantic, and only half of the Armada made it back to Spain in October 1588. Incredibly, England was saved. 11-15,000 Spaniards had died compared to around 100 Englishmen.


Meanwhile, Elizabeth visited her land army in person, gathered at Tilbury in Essex in order to defend London should the Armada make landfall. Another English army had been stationed on the north-east coast and a mobile force followed the Armada as it had progressed along the English coast. The army at Tilbury, consisting of infantry and cavalry totalling 16,500 men, was to have been led by the queen's favourite Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (l. c. 1532-1588) but he was too unwell to do so. Elizabeth, wearing armour and riding a grey gelding, roused her troops with the following celebrated speech:

My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes for fear of treachery, but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear…I always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects, and therefore I am come amongst you as you see me at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too, and think it foul scorn that Parma or Spain or any Prince of Europe, should dare invade the borders of my realm, to which, rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and we do assure you, on the word of a Prince, they shall be duly paid to you…By your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over these enemies of God, of my kingdom and of my people.

(Phillips, 122)

As it happened, when Elizabeth visited her troops on 9 August the outcome of the sea battle had already been decided. Nevertheless, her personal touch and rousing speech, combined with the unlikely victory, were the beginnings of her rising status as a living legend. Elizabeth became known as the great empress 'Gloriana', after the central figure of the 1590 poem The Fairie Queen by Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599). The combination of better ships, seamanship, and guns had allied with unfavourable weather to bring England a famous victory. The English themselves did not underestimate the last factor, indeed, this was often used as evidence of God's will. As the legend on the medals Elizabeth minted to commemorate victory reminded: Afflavit Deus et dissipati sunt ('God blew and they were scattered'). On 24 November a thanksgiving service was held in Saint Paul's Cathedral in London.


Philip did not give up despite the disaster of his great 'Enterprise', and he tried twice more to invade England (1596 and 1597) but each time his fleet was repelled by storms. The Spanish king also supported rebellions in Catholic Ireland by sending money and troops in 1601, as he had done prior to the Armada in 1580. On the other side, Elizabeth sanctioned the failed counterattack on Portugal in 1589. A mix of private and official ships and men, this expedition had confused aims and so achieved nothing. In essence, the queen then continued to favour defence over attack as the backbone of her foreign policy. In addition, high taxes were needed to pay for the war with Spain and this was a burden that added to the many others the English people had to endure, such as rises in inflation, unemployment and crime, all of which went on top of a run of bad harvests.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada did give England a new confidence and showed the importance of sea power and modern cannon firepower. A well-armed fleet with well-trained crews could extend the power of a state far beyond its shores and seriously damage the supply lines of its enemies. This was perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Armada's defeat. The Tudors had both built and now thoroughly tested the foundations of the Royal Navy which under the next ruling dynasties would grow ever-bigger and sail on to change world history from Tahiti to Trafalgar.

Spanish Armada in Ireland

The Spanish Armada in Ireland refers to the landfall made upon the coast of Ireland in September 1588 of a large portion of the 130-strong fleet sent by Philip II to invade England.

Following its defeat at the naval battle of Gravelines the Armada had attempted to return home through the North Atlantic, when it was driven from its course by violent storms, toward the west coast of Ireland. The prospect of a Spanish landing alarmed the Dublin government of Queen Elizabeth I, which prescribed harsh measures for the Spanish invaders and any Irish who might assist them.

Up to 24 ships of the Armada were wrecked on a rocky coastline spanning 500 km, from Antrim in the north to Kerry in the south, and the threat to Crown authority was readily defeated. Many of the survivors of the multiple wrecks were put to death, and the remainder fled across the sea to Scotland. It is estimated that some 6,000 members of the fleet perished in Ireland or off its coasts.


The word armada is from the Spanish: armada, which is cognate with English army. Originally from the Latin: armāta, the past participle of armāre, 'to arm', used in Romance languages as a noun for armed force, army, navy, fleet. [22] Armada Española is still the Spanish term for the modern Spanish Navy.

Background Edit

King Henry VIII began the English Reformation as a political exercise over his desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Over time, England became increasingly aligned with the Protestant reformation taking place in Europe, especially during the reign of Henry's son, Edward VI. Edward died childless, and his half-sister Mary ascended the throne. Mary and her husband, Philip II of Spain, began to reassert Roman Catholic influence over church affairs. Her attempts led to more than 260 people being burned at the stake, earning her the nickname "Bloody Mary". [23]

Mary's death in 1558 led to her half-sister Elizabeth taking the throne. Unlike Mary, Elizabeth was firmly in the reformist camp and quickly reimplemented many of Edward's reforms. Philip, no longer co-monarch, deemed Elizabeth a heretic and illegitimate ruler of England. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Henry had never officially divorced Catherine, making Elizabeth illegitimate. It is alleged that Phillip supported plots to have Elizabeth overthrown in favour of her Catholic cousin and heir presumptive, Mary, Queen of Scots. These plans were thwarted when Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned and executed in 1587. Elizabeth retaliated against Philip by supporting the Dutch Revolt against Spain, as well as funding privateers to raid Spanish ships across the Atlantic. She had also negotiated an enduring trade and political alliance with Morocco.

In retaliation, Philip planned an expedition to invade England in order to overthrow Elizabeth and, if the Armada was not entirely successful, at least negotiate freedom of worship for Catholics and financial compensation for war in the Low Countries. [24] Through this endeavour, English material support for the United Provinces, the part of the Low Countries that had successfully seceded from Spanish rule, and English attacks on Spanish trade and settlements [25] in the New World would end. Philip was supported by Pope Sixtus V, who treated the invasion as a crusade, with the promise of a subsidy should the Armada make land. [26] Substantial support for the invasion was also expected from English Catholics, including wealthy and influential aristocrats and traders. [27]

A raid on Cádiz, led by privateer Francis Drake in April 1587, had captured or destroyed about 30 ships and great quantities of supplies, setting preparations back by a year. [28] There is also evidence that a letter from Elizabeth's security chief and spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, to her ambassador in Istanbul, William Harborne, sought to initiate Ottoman Empire fleet manoeuvres to harass the Spaniards, [29] but there is no evidence for the success of that plan. Philip initially favoured a triple attack, starting with a diversionary raid on Scotland, while the main Armada would capture either the Isle of Wight or Southampton to establish a safe anchorage in The Solent. The Duke of Parma would then follow with a large army from the Low Countries crossing the English Channel. Parma was uneasy about mounting such an invasion without any possibility of surprise. The appointed commander of the Armada was the highly experienced Álvaro de Bazán, Marquis of Santa Cruz, but he died in February 1588, and the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a high-born courtier, took his place. While a competent soldier and distinguished administrator, Medina Sidonia had no naval experience. He wrote to Philip expressing grave doubts about the planned campaign, but his message was prevented from reaching the King by courtiers on the grounds that God would ensure the Armada's success. [30]

Prior to the undertaking, Pope Sixtus V allowed Philip to collect crusade taxes and granted his men indulgences. The blessing of the Armada's banner on 25 April 1588 was similar to the ceremony used prior to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. On 28 May 1588, the Armada set sail from Lisbon and headed for the English Channel. The fleet was composed of 130 ships, 8,000 sailors and 18,000 soldiers, and bore 1,500 brass guns and 1,000 iron guns. The full body of the fleet took two days to leave port. It included 28 purpose-built warships, of which 20 were galleons, four were galleys and four were Neapolitan galleasses. The remaining heavy vessels were mostly armed carracks and hulks, along with 34 light ships. [31]

In the Spanish Netherlands, 30,000 soldiers [32] awaited the arrival of the Armada, the plan being to use the cover of the warships to convey the army on barges to a place near London. In all, 55,000 men were to have been mustered, a huge army for that time. On the day the Armada set sail, Elizabeth's ambassador in the Netherlands, Valentine Dale, met Parma's representatives in peace negotiations. The English made a vain effort to intercept the Armada in the Bay of Biscay. On 6 July, negotiations were abandoned, and the English fleet stood prepared, if ill-supplied, at Plymouth, awaiting news of Spanish movements. The English fleet outnumbered that of the Spanish, 200 ships to 130, [33] while the Spanish fleet outgunned that of the English. The Spanish available firepower was 50% more than that of the English. [34] The English fleet consisted of the 34 ships of the Royal Fleet, 21 of which were galleons of 200 to 400 tons, and 163 other ships, 30 of which were of 200 to 400 tons and carried up to 42 guns each. Twelve of the ships were privateers owned by Lord Howard of Effingham, Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake. [4]

The Armada was delayed by bad weather. Storms in the Bay of Biscay forced four galleys and one galleon to turn back, and other ships had to put in for repairs, leaving about 124 ships to actually make it to the English Channel. Nearly half of the fleet was not built as warships and was used for duties such as scouting and dispatch work, or for carrying supplies, animals and troops. [31]

The fleet was sighted in England on 19 July when it appeared off the Lizard in Cornwall. The news was conveyed to London by a system of beacons that had been constructed along the south coast. On 19 July, the English fleet was trapped in Plymouth Harbour by the incoming tide. The Spanish convened a council of war, where it was proposed to ride into the harbour on the tide and incapacitate the defending ships at anchor. From Plymouth Harbour the Spanish would attack England, but Philip explicitly forbade Medina Sidonia from engaging, leaving the Armada to sail on to the east and toward the Isle of Wight. As the tide turned, 55 English ships set out to confront the Armada from Plymouth under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham, with Sir Francis Drake as vice admiral. The rear admiral was Sir John Hawkins.

First actions Edit

On 20 July, the English fleet was off Eddystone Rocks with the Armada upwind to the west. To execute its attack, the English tacked upwind of the Armada, thus gaining the weather gage, a significant advantage. At daybreak on 21 July, the English fleet engaged the Armada off Plymouth near the Eddystone Rocks. The Armada was in a crescent-shaped defensive formation, convex toward the east. The galleons and great ships were concentrated in the centre and at the tips of the crescent's horns, giving cover to the transports and supply ships in between. Opposing them, the English were in two sections, with Drake to the north in Revenge with 11 ships, and Howard to the south in Ark Royal with the bulk of the fleet.

Given the Spanish advantage in close-quarter fighting, the English ships used their superior speed and manoeuvrability to keep beyond grappling range and bombarded the Spanish ships from a distance with cannon fire. The distance was too great for the manoeuvre to be effective and, at the end of the first day's fighting, neither fleet had lost a ship in action, although the Spanish carrack Rosario and galleon San Salvador were abandoned after they collided with each other. When night fell, Drake turned his ship back to loot the abandoned Spanish ships, capturing supplies of much-needed gunpowder and gold. Drake had been guiding the English fleet by means of a lantern, which he snuffed out to slip away from the Spanish ships, causing the rest of his fleet to become scattered and disarrayed by dawn. [35] The English ships again used their superior speed and manoeuvrability to catch up with the Spanish fleet after a day of sailing.

The English fleet and the Armada engaged once more on 23 July, off Portland. A change of wind gave the Spanish the weather gage, and they sought to close with the English, but were foiled by the smaller ships' greater manoeuvrability. At one point, Howard formed his ships into a line of battle to attack at close range, bringing all his guns to bear, but he did not follow through with the manoeuvre and little was achieved.

If the Armada could create a temporary base in the protected waters of the Solent, a strait separating the Isle of Wight from the English mainland, it could wait there for word from Parma's army. However, in a full-scale attack, the English fleet broke into four groups with Martin Frobisher of the ship Aid given command over a squadron, and Drake coming with a large force from the south. Medina Sidonia sent reinforcements south and ordered the Armada back to open sea to avoid the Owers shoals. [36] There were no other secure harbours further east along England's south coast, so the Armada was compelled to make for Calais, without being able to wait for word of Parma's army.

On 27 July, the Armada anchored off Calais in a tightly packed defensive crescent formation, not far from Dunkirk, where Parma's army, reduced by disease to 16,000, was expected to be waiting, ready to join the fleet in barges sent from ports along the Flemish coast. Communication was more difficult than anticipated, and word came too late that the Parma army had yet to be equipped with sufficient transport or to be assembled in the port, a process that would take at least six days. As Medina Sidonia waited at anchor, Dunkirk was blockaded by a Dutch fleet of 30 flyboats under Lieutenant-Admiral Justinus van Nassau. [37] Parma wanted the Armada to send its light pataches to drive away the Dutch, but Medina Sidonia would not send them because he feared he would need these ships for his own protection. There was no deep-water port where the fleet might shelter, which had been acknowledged as a major difficulty for the expedition, and the Spanish found themselves vulnerable as night drew on.

The Dutch flyboats mainly operated in the shallow waters off Zeeland and Flanders where larger warships with a deeper draught, like the Spanish and English galleons, could not safely enter. The Dutch enjoyed an unchallenged naval advantage in these waters, even though their navy was inferior in naval armament. An essential element of the plan of invasion, as it was eventually implemented, was the transportation of a large part of Parma's army of Flanders as the main invasion force in unarmed barges across the English Channel. These barges would be protected by the large ships of the Armada. However, to get to the Armada, they would have to cross the zone dominated by the Dutch navy, where the Armada could not go. This problem seems to have been overlooked by the Spanish planners, but it was insurmountable. Because of this obstacle, England never was in any real danger, at least from the Duke of Parma and the Army of Flanders. Because of the eventual English victory at sea, the Army of Flanders escaped the drowning death van Nassau had in mind for them. [38] [39]

At midnight on 28 July, the English set alight eight fire ships, sacrificing regular warships by filling them with pitch, brimstone, gunpowder and tar, and cast them downwind among the closely anchored vessels of the Armada. The Spanish feared that these uncommonly large fireships were "hellburners", [40] specialised fire ships filled with large gunpowder charges that had been used to deadly effect at the Siege of Antwerp. Two were intercepted and towed away, but the remainder bore down on the fleet. Medina Sidonia's flagship and the principal warships held their positions, but the rest of the fleet cut their anchor cables and scattered in confusion. No Spanish ships were burnt, but the crescent formation had been broken, and the fleet found itself too far leeward of Calais in the rising southwesterly wind to recover its position. The English closed in for battle.

Battle of Gravelines Edit

The small port of Gravelines was part of Flanders in the Spanish Netherlands close to the border with France and was the closest Spanish territory to England. Medina Sidonia tried to regather his fleet there and was reluctant to sail further east, knowing the danger from the shoals off Flanders, from which his Dutch enemies had removed the sea marks. The English learned of the Armada's weaknesses during the skirmishes in the English Channel and concluded it was possible to close to within 100 yards (91 m) to penetrate the oak hulls of the Spanish ships. They had spent most of their gunpowder in the first engagements and had, after the Isle of Wight, been forced to conserve their heavy shot and powder for an anticipated attack near Gravelines. During all the engagements, the Spanish heavy guns could not easily be reloaded because of their close spacing and the quantities of supplies stowed between decks, as Drake had discovered on capturing the damaged Nuestra Señora del Rosario in the channel. [41] Instead, the Spanish gunners fired once and then transferred to their main task, which was to board enemy ships as had been the practice in naval warfare at the time. Evidence from Armada wrecks in Ireland shows that much of the fleet's ammunition was unused. [42] Its determination to fight by boarding, rather than employing cannon fire at a distance, proved a weakness for the Spanish. The manoeuvre had been effective in the battles of Lepanto and Ponta Delgada earlier in the decade, but the English were aware of it and sought to avoid it by keeping their distance.

With its superior manoeuvrability, the English fleet provoked Spanish fire while staying out of range. The English then closed, firing damaging broadsides into the enemy ships, which enabled them to maintain a windward position, so the heeling Armada hulls were exposed to damage below the water line when they changed course later. Many of the Spanish gunners were killed or wounded by the English broadsides, and the task of manning the cannon often fell to the regular foot soldiers who did not know how to operate them. The ships were close enough for sailors on the upper decks of the English and Spanish ships to exchange musket fire. After eight hours, the English ships began to run out of ammunition, and some gunners began loading objects such as chains into cannon. Around 4 p.m., the English fired their last shots and pulled back. [43]

Five Spanish ships were lost. The galleass San Lorenzo, flagship of Don Hugo de Moncada, ran aground at Calais and was taken by Howard after fighting between the crew, galley slaves, English, and the French. The galleons San Mateo and San Felipe drifted away in a sinking condition, ran aground on the island of Walcheren the next day and were taken by the Dutch. One carrack ran aground near Blankenberge and another foundered. Many other Spanish ships were severely damaged, especially the Portuguese and some Spanish Atlantic-class galleons, including some Neapolitan galleys, which bore the brunt of the fighting during the early hours of the battle. The Spanish plan to join with Parma's army had been defeated.

Elizabeth's Tilbury speech Edit

Because of the threat of invasion from the Netherlands, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester assembled a force of 4,000 militia at West Tilbury, Essex, to defend the Thames Estuary against any incursion up-river toward London. Because the result of the English fire ship attack and the sea battle of Gravelines had not yet reached England, on 8 August, Elizabeth went to Tilbury to review her forces, arriving on horseback in ceremonial armour to imply to the militia she was prepared to lead them in the ensuing battle. She gave to them her royal address, which survives in at least six slightly different versions. [44] One version is as follows:

My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes for fear of treachery but, I do assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself, that under God I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects and, therefore, I am come amongst you as you see at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all – to lay down for my God, and for my kingdoms, and for my people, my honour and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms – I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, for your forwardness, you have deserved rewards and crowns, and, we do assure you, on the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people. [45]

After the victory, typhus swept the English ships, beginning among the 500-strong crew of the Elizabeth Jonas and killing many mariners. The sailors were not paid for their service, and many died of the disease and starvation after landing at Margate. [46] : 144–148

Return to Spain Edit

On the day after the battle at Gravelines, the disorganised and unmanoeuvrable Spanish fleet was at risk of running onto the sands of Zeeland because of the prevailing wind. The wind then changed to the south, enabling the fleet to sail north. The English ships under Howard pursued to prevent any landing on English soil, although by this time his ships were almost out of shot. On 2 August, Howard called a halt to the pursuit at about the latitude of the Firth of Forth off Scotland. The only option left to the Spanish ships was to return to Spain by sailing round the north of Scotland and home via the Atlantic or the Irish Sea. The Spanish ships were beginning to show wear from the long voyage, and some were kept together by having their damaged hulls strengthened with cables. Supplies of food and water ran short. The intention would have been to keep to the west of the coast of Scotland and Ireland in the relative safety of the open sea. There being no way of accurately measuring longitude, the Spanish were not aware that the Gulf Stream was carrying them north and east as they tried to move west, and they eventually turned south much closer to the coast than they thought. Off Scotland and Ireland, the fleet ran into a series of powerful westerly winds which drove many of the damaged ships further toward the lee shore. Because so many anchors had been abandoned during the escape from the English fire ships off Calais, many of the ships were incapable of securing shelter as the fleet reached the coast of Ireland and were driven onto the rocks local inhabitants looted the ships. The late 16th century and especially 1588 was marked by unusually strong North Atlantic storms, perhaps associated with a high accumulation of polar ice off the coast of Greenland, a characteristic phenomenon of the "Little Ice Age". [47] More ships and sailors were lost to cold and stormy weather than in direct combat.

About 5,000 men died by drowning, starvation and slaughter by local inhabitants after their ships were driven ashore on the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland. [48] Reports of the passage of the remnants of the Spanish Armada around Ireland abound with onerous accounts of hardships and survival. [49] Spanish Captain Francisco de Cuéllar was wrecked on the coast of Ireland and gave a remarkable account of his experiences in the fleet and on the run in Ireland.

In the end, 67 ships and fewer than 10,000 men survived. [50] Many of the men were near death from disease, as the conditions were very cramped, and most of the ships had run out of food and water. Some were captured and imprisoned by the English in what was later called the "Spanish Barn" in Torquay on the south coast of England. More Armada survivors later died in Spain or on hospital ships in Spanish harbours from diseases contracted during the voyage. It was reported that when Philip learned of the result of the expedition, he declared, "I sent the Armada against men, not God's winds and waves". [51]

The following year the English launched the Counter Armada, with 23,375 men and 150 ships under Sir Francis Drake, but thousands were killed, wounded or died of disease [52] [53] [54] and 40 ships sunk or captured. [55] The attempt to restore the Portuguese Crown from Spain was unsuccessful, and the opportunity to strike a decisive blow against the weakened Spanish navy was lost. The failure of the expedition depleted the financial resources of England's treasury, which had been carefully restored during the long reign of Elizabeth I.

During the course of the war, the Spanish failed to gain control of the English Channel or stop the English intervention in Flanders or English privateer transatlantic raids. Although substantially weaker than the great armada sent in 1588, two more armadas were sent by Spain in 1596 and 1597, but both were scattered by storms. [56] Nevertheless, through Philip's naval revival, the English and Dutch ultimately failed to disrupt the various fleets of the Indies despite the great number of military personnel mobilised every year. Thus, Spain remained the predominant power in Europe for several decades. [57] The conflict wound down with diminishing military actions until a peace was agreed between the two powers on the signing of the Treaty of London in 1604.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada vindicated the English strategy and caused a revolution in naval tactics, taking advantage of the wind (the "weather gage") and line-to-line cannon fire from windward, which exposed the opponent ship's hull and rudder as targets. Also instilled was the use of naval cannon to damage enemy ships without the need to board. Until then, the cannon had played a supporting role to the main tactic of ramming and boarding enemy ships.

Most military historians hold that the battle of Gravelines reflected a lasting shift in the balance of naval power in favour of the English, in part because of the gap in naval technology and cannon armament which continued into the next century. [58] In the words of historian Geoffrey Parker, by 1588, "the capital ships of the Elizabethan navy constituted the most powerful battlefleet afloat anywhere in the world". [59] The English navy yards were leaders in technical innovation, and the captains devised new battle formations and tactics. The sleeker and more manoeuvrable full-rigged ship, with ample cannon, was one of the greatest advances of the century and permanently transformed naval warfare.

English shipwrights introduced designs in 1573, first demonstrated in Dreadnought, that allowed the ships to sail faster, manoeuvre better, and carry more and heavier guns. [60] Whereas before warships had tried to grapple with each other so soldiers could board the enemy ship, they were able to stand off and fire broadside cannonades that could sink the vessel. Superior English ships and seamanship had foiled the invasion. The English also took advantage of Spain's complex strategy that required coordination between the invasion fleet and the Spanish army on shore. The outdated design of the Spanish cannon meant they were much slower in reloading in a close-range battle, allowing the English to take control. Spain still had numerically larger fleets, but England was catching up. [61]

Spanish Armada, 1588. How did the English win?

The Spanish Armada was an invasion fleet. It set sail from Spain in May, 1588. The Spanish Armada set out to the Netherlands. Here, it would collect troops of the Duke of Alva before invading England. The Armada consisted of 130 ships including 22 Galleons. Phillip II of Spain had grown tired of English ‘Sea Dogs’ and the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots had infuriated Catholics across Europe. Facing this grand fleet were the English, led by Sir Francis Drake. A combination of the weather, good planning and good luck gave the English a famous victory.

The build up

After worsening relations between England and Spain, Phillip II decided that his problems would be best dealt with through decisive action against England. Spanish interests in the New World and the Netherlands were being harmed by English actions. Furthermore, the English had stepped up their anti-Catholic policies. Elizabeth I had ordered the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. With diplomacy at a virtual standstill following the exposure of plots against Elizabeth that implicated the Spanish, war had edged ever closer.

Phillip’s decision was not made in haste. It was the culmination of factors that led to the decision to invade. Many think that the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1585 was the act that made Phillip’s mind up. Such an invasion would not come cheap. His navy would need bolstering in terms of ships and crew.

The Spanish built their new armada (fleet) through 1586/7. Fully aware of its construction and likely purpose, Sir Francis Drake decided to take action. He led a daring raid into the port of Cadiz. Here, much of the Spanish fleet was at anchor being prepared for the invasion of England. Drake’s raid damaged some 100 ships. This was not only a huge set back for the Spanish but also now meant that there was no hope of a diplomatic resolution to the countries differences.

The Armada Campaign

The Armada was finally ready to set sail in the summer of 1588. It would sail in crescent formation from Spain to the Netherlands. This formation was incredibly hard to attack and so the Spanish fleet would be best protected on it’s way through the English Channel. Once in the Netherlands the fleet would collect 30,000 men of the Duke of Alva’s army and the provisions needed for an invasion of England. Only 30 miles of sea separated the Netherlands from the English Coast. The huge army could land, make an area secure and be resupplied with ease. From here the army could then undertake it’s objective of seizing the English crown.

The plan was reasonably obvious to the English. The Spanish had few options if they were to invade. Spain had troops in the Netherlands and on the ships of the Armada. The command of the fleet was handed to Drake following his Cadiz raid. To ensure that news of the Armada reached the government in London and important towns and cities, Beacons were set up across the country. Upon the sighting of the Armada a beacon would be lit. As soon as the lit beacon was seen by the next one, that would be lit. The chain of Beacons could therefore alert the south coast and remainder of the country quite quickly.

Drake’s ships harried and harassed the Armada as it entered the Channel. No full scale attack was attempted. Faster vessels were sent to cause damage, create an element of confusion and to slow down the progress of the Spanish. The impact of these attacks was limited. Several of the galleons were damaged but it seemed that little damage had been done. Drake himself either chose or was unable to attack the Armada as it sailed past Plymouth.

There is plenty of time to win this game, and to thrash the Spaniards too.

Drake is reputed to have said this as the Spanish sailed by. He was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe at the time, from where there is an excellent view of the Channel. The quote itself is hard to verify as it doesn’t appear in print until the 18th century. Drake may have chosen to let the Armada pass. He may though have had no choice as the tidal waters in the area could have prevented his ships from setting sail at that time.

On July 31st, Drake did attack. The first skirmishes drew little blood, neither side being boarded or losing ships. Soon though, the English made their first breakthrough. Two of the Spanish Galleons collided. One was forced to surrender to Drake, the other ship exploded and sank. However the Spanish were able to continue on their way to collect the invading army.

The next part of the invasion is a combination of poor preparation by the Spanish, good luck for the English and excellent improvisation by Drake and the other English Commanders. Combined, it led to the defeat of the Armada.

Medina Sidonia was in command of the Armada. He was a soldier, not a sailor. His plans were based on advice he had been given. Strategically it made sense for the collection of the Duke of Alves’ troops to be at a position where the distance to England was short: it would make the invasion itself faster and easier to resupply. However Medina Sidonia either didn’t know or ignored the fact that there is no deep water harbour in the stretch of water near Calais. To collect the amassed Spanish army from here, he would have to anchor in open water.

Battle of Gravelines

Medina Sidonia’s Armada lay anchor at Gravelines, near Calais. The English saw an opportunity. They came up with a plan to break the Spanish formation. The English filled eight wooden ships ships with gunpowder. As the tide changed they were set adrift. The tide would take the ships towards the anchored Spanish vessels. Once close they could be ignited. If the ‘Hell Burners’ reached any of the Armada vessels, they would catch fire, burn and sink.

The concept of ‘Hell Burners’ was not a new one. Fire ships of this kind had been used in many naval battles before. The Spanish lookouts who saw these approaching would have known exactly what the English plan was. The only real solution to the problem of fire ships is to get out of their way. As the Spanish did this, they had to break the crescent formation. Drake’s ships could attack much more easily.

The English attacked the Galleons as they tried to break free. A fierce battle took place. The English sank three galleons, causing the loss of 600 Spanish lives and wounding a further 800. The Spanish galleons did break free. However they now had little ammunition, no route back through the English Channel and nowhere safe to lay anchor. The Armada had no choice. Broken, it had to sail north away from the English fleet.

The route to ‘safety’ was perilous for the Spanish. It’s course took it north so that it could sail around Scotland then past the West coast of Ireland on it’s way back to Spain. The Armada faced terrible weather on this journey. It also had limited supplies: it was never intended to be at sea for a journey of that length. Ravaged by the storm, the ships of the Armada sought refuge in a bay off the Galway coast, Ireland. Here they were attacked by the locals.

The Armada finally returned to Spain in tatters. Almost half of the 130 ships that had set sail did not return home. Roughly 20,000 of the Spanish soldiers and sailors perished either in battle or from disease. The Armada had been a huge failure for Spain and a massive victory for the English.

Why did the Armada fail?

Several things led to the failure of the Armada. The English planned well. Some of this was improvisation such as the deployment of fire ships. Other elements of planning were detailed and in place for some time. This includes the idea of beacons but also the radical alteration of ship design earlier in the Tudor period which meant that the English had vessels that were faster than the Spanish. This meant that they could harass and skirmish with much more efficiency.

The Weather clearly played a large part in the failure of the Spanish Armada. It hampered Spanish efforts in the Channel and was largely to blame for the loss of so many ships and men following the Battle of Gravelines.

Spanish preparations had some limitations. It is known that many of the sailors of the Armada were told that victory was a formality. Perhaps they had not taken the English seriously enough? The fact that they did not plan for a deep water port in which to anchor shows that they had not taken into account the threat of attack off the coast of Calais.

Outcome of the Spanish Armada

The Armada limping home to Spain was a cause of huge celebration in England. It was a huge victory. The failure of the Spanish Armada meant that England was secure for some time. It did not have to worry about the threat of a Spanish invasion and so could concentrate on other areas. Spain suffered economically because of the failure. The cost of the Armada had been huge and Spain was already highly reliant on silver and gold from the New World. After the Armada’s defeat, these were harder for Spain to ship back to Europe. In England itself the failure of the Armada signalled the end of any immediate threat to the throne. Plots would not have any substantial backing from Spain or the continent.


British Library – Activities and source material

Royal Museums Greenwich – How close did the Spanish come to invading England in 1588?

BBC History Extra – 10 things you probably didn’t know about the Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada sailed from Spain in July 1588. The Spanish Armada’s task was to overthrow protestant England lead by Queen Elizabeth I. The Spanish Armada proved to be an expensive disaster for the Spanish but for the English it was a celebrated victory making Sir Francis Drake even more of a hero than he already was and even having an impact on Tudor Christmas celebrations!

Why did Spain want to overthrow Elizabeth? There were a number of reasons.

at the time of Elizabeth, Spain controlled what was called the Spanish Netherlands. This consisted of modern day Holland and Belgium. In particular, Holland wanted its independence. They did not like being made to be Catholic in fact, Protestant ideas had taken root in Holland and many of those in Holland were secret Protestants. If they had publicly stated their Protestant beliefs, their lives would have been in danger. Spain used a religious secret police called the Inquisition to hunt out Protestants. However, during Elizabeth’s reign, the English had been helping the Dutch Protestants in Holland. This greatly angered the king of Spain – Philip II – who wanted to stop this. He had for a short time been married to Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary, and when they were married, England was Catholic. With England under his control, Philip could control the English Channel and his ships could have an easy passage from Spain to the Spanish Netherlands. Spanish troops stationed there could be easily supplied.
also English ‘sea-dogs’ had been causing a great deal of damage to Spain’s trade in silver. Men such as Sir Francis Drake attacked Spanish shipping off of the West Indies and Spain lost a vast sum of money when the ships carrying silver sunk or had their cargo captured by Drake. To the English, Drake was a hero but to the Spanish he was nothing more than a pirate who, in their view, was allowed to do what he did with the full knowledge of the queen. This the Spanish could not accept.
In 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed in England on the orders of Elizabeth. Mary, Queen of Scots, was a Catholic and Philip II believed that he had a duty to ensure no more Catholics were arrested in England and that no more should be executed. Mary, Queen of Scots, had also made it clear that if she became queen of England, Philip should inherit the throne after her death.

Hence his decision to attack and invade England.

The story of the Spanish Armada is one of mistakes all the way through. Even before the Armada sailed, serious problems were encountered:

With all that had been going on, it was very difficult for the Spanish to keep the Armada a secret. In fact, they were keen to let the English know about the Armada as it was felt that the English would be terrified at the news of such a large fleet of naval ships attacking them.

The organisation to get the Armada ready was huge. Cannons, guns, gunpowder, swords and many other weapons of war were needed and Spain bought them from whoever would sell to them. A number of merchant ships had to be converted to be naval ships but the Armada (or the “Great Enterprise” as Philip called it) also contained ships that simply carried things rather than fought at sea. These ships carried amongst other items:

11 million pounds (in weight) of ships biscuits 11,000 pairs of sandals
40,000 gallons of olive oil 5,000 pairs of shoes
14,000 barrels of wine 180 priests
600,000 pounds of salted pork 728 servants

The Armada sailed on July 19th 1588. The fleet of 130 ships – including 22 fighting galleons – sailed in a crescent shape. This was not unusual as most fleets sailed in this shape as it offered the ships in that fleet the most protection. The larger but slower galleons were in the middle of the crescent and they were protected by faster but smaller boats surrounding them. Smaller ships known as zabras and pataches supplied the galleons. The Armada faced little opposition as it approached the coast of Cornwall on July 29th, 1588. It is said that Cornish fishermen fishing off the Lizard watched the Armada pass!

However, London was warned that the Armada was nearing England’s coastline. Communications in the C16th were very poor yet the English had developed a way of informing London when the Armada was first seen. Beacons were lit along the coast. As soon as one beacon was seen, the next further along the coast was lit. When the beacons reached Beachy Head in Sussex, they went inland and towards London. In this way, London was quickly made aware that the Armada was approaching England.

As the Armada sailed up the English Channel, it was attacked by an English force lead by Sir Francis Drake. He was stationed in Plymouth. It is said that when Drake was informed of the Armada’s approach, he replied that he had time to finish the game of bowls he was playing on Plymouth Hoe and time to defeat the Armada. It is possible that he knew that the tide of the River Tamar in Plymouth was against him, so that he could not get his ships out of Devonport – therefore, he knew that he could finish his game of bowls because his ships were dependent on the tide to move. If the tide was coming in, his ships had to stay tied up. If the tide was going out, then he had the freedom to move his ships into the Channel. Whatever the truth, what is true is that Drake and his men did very little damage to the Armada as it passed up the English Channel. What the English did do was waste a lot of ammunition firing at the Armada and not having much of an impact as the Spanish ships had well built hulls that proved to be solid.

As the Armada sailed up the English Channel, the attacks by Drake’s Plymouth fleet proved to be very ineffective. With the exception of two galleons, the Armada remained relatively unscathed.

However, Medina Sidonia was facing problems of his own – the Armada was running low on ammunition. The one advantage the Spanish had at this time was the weather. On August 4th, a strong wind caused the Channel to become a lot more rough and the smaller English ships suffered from this whereas the Spanish used the wind to move quickly to the European coastline where they would pick up Spanish troops ready for the invasion of England.

Throughout the whole of its journey from Spain to the east side of the English Channel, the Armada faced few problems from the English Navy. Even though we knew of its approach, we could do little while it kept in its crescent formation.

But it hit real problems when it had to stop to pick up troops in mainland Europe. While the Armada kept its crescent shape it was very difficult for the English Navy to attack it. Once it stopped, it lost its crescent shape and left it open to attack. Medina Sidonia learned to his horror that there was no port deep enough near to where the Spanish troops were for him to stop his fleet. The best he could do was to harbour at Gravelines near modern day Calais on July 27th 1588, and then wait for the troops to arrive.

Sir Francis Drake is given the credit for what happened next but an Italian called Giambelli should also receive credit for building the “Hell Burners” for the English. Eight old ships were loaded up with anything that could burn well. These floating bombs were set to drift during the night into the resting Armada. The Armada was a fully armed fleet. Each ship was carrying gunpowder and the ships were made of wood with canvas sails. If they caught fire, each ship would not have a chance. Knowing about “Hell Burners”, the Spanish put lookouts on each boat. They spotted the on-fire ships coming in, but what could they do?

As the Armada saw the on fire ships approaching, each ship of the Armada attempted to break out of Gravelines to save itself – but in the dark. Only one Spanish ship was lost but the crescent shape disappeared and the Armada was now vulnerable to attack.

The English did attack but they were bravely fought off by the Spanish. Four Spanish galleons stood their ground and fought Drake. The Spanish were outnumbered ten to one. Three of these galleons were sunk and 600 men were killed and 800 wounded. But they had stopped the English from attacking the rest of the Armada and worsening weather also helped the Armada to escape. Medina Sidonia later wrote that the Armada was “saved by the weather, by God’s mercy…”

However, the English fleet blocked off any chance the Armada had of going back down the English Channel. Therefore, when the Armada reassembled into a fleet, it could only go up the east coast of England and then around the north of Scotland. From here the Armada could sail past the western Irish coast and back to Spain.

However, their supplies on board were not enough for such a journey and many of the crews were reduced to eating rope for survival. Fresh water quickly disappeared and the crews could not drink sea water. To add to their troubles, as the Armada sailed around the north of Scotland in mid-September, it hit a one of the worst storms in history which damaged many ships.

Those ships that survived this storm, headed for Ireland. Here they were convinced they would get help and supplies. Why did they think this? Ireland was still Catholic and the Catholic Spanish sailors believed that those with the same religion would help them. They were wrong. The Armada harboured in what is now called Armada Bay, south of Galway. Those sailors who went ashore were attacked and killed. The Irish, Catholic or not, still saw the Spanish as invaders. Those who survived the storms, the Irish, the lack of food etc. still had to fear disease as scurvy, dysentery and fever killed many who were already in a weakened state.

Figures do vary but it is thought that only 67 ships out of 130 returned to Spain – a loss rate of nearly 50%. Over 20,000 Spanish sailors and soldiers were killed. Throughout the whole campaign, the English lost no ships and only 100 men in battle. However, over 7,000 English sailors died from disease (dysentery and typhus mostly) during the time the Armada was in English water. Also those English sailors who survived and fought against the Armada were poorly treated by the English government. Many were given only enough money for the journey to their home and some received only part of their pay. The overall commander of the English Navy, Lord Howard of Effingham, was shocked claiming that “ I would rather have never a penny in the world, than they (his sailors) should lack…. ” With this, he used his own money to pay his sailors.

Who was to blame for this defeat?

Many in Spain blamed Medina Sidonia but King Philip II was not one of these. He blamed its failure on the weather saying “I sent you out to war with men, not with the wind and waves.”

To some extent the English agreed as a medal was struck to honour the victory. On it were the words “God blew and they were scattered.”

1. They were near to their naval ports and did not have to travel far to fight the Armada.

2. The English had many advantages with regards to the ships they used. The Spanish put their hope in the power of the galleons. The English used smaller but faster ships. However, they could do little to penetrate the crescent shape of the Armada even though they had powerful cannons on board.

3. The Spanish had different tactics to the English. The English wanted to sink the Spanish ships whereas the Spanish wanted to board our ships and then capture them. To do this they would have to come up alongside our ships leaving them exposed to a broadside from English cannons on our ships.

4. Our ships, being smaller than the Spanish galleons, were more manoeuvrable which was a valuable advantage.

5. The biggest reason for the victory of the English, was the fatal error in the plan of the Spanish. While it sailed in a crescent shape, the Armada was relatively safe. But part of its plan was to stop, pick up sailors and then sail to England. The simple fact that the plan involved stopping the Armada, meant that it was fatally flawed. Warships on the move and in formation gave the Armada protection. Once the ships were still, they were open to attack.

The victory over the Armada was to make Sir Francis Drake a very famous man. The victory was even remembered at Christmas when Elizabeth ordered that everybody should have goose on Xmas Day as that was the meal she had eaten on the evening that she learned that her navy had beaten the Armada.

How the Spanish Armada Was Really Defeated

The Spanish Armada campaign of 1588 changed the course of European history. If the Duke of Parma’s 27,000 strong invasion force had safely crossed the narrow seas from Flanders, the survival of Elizabeth I’s government and Protestant England would have looked doubtful indeed. If those battle-hardened Spanish troops had landed, as planned, near Margate on the Kent coast, it is likely that they would have been in the poorly defended streets of London within a week and the queen and her ministers captured or killed. England would have reverted to the Catholic faith and there may have not been a British Empire to come.

It was bad luck, bad tactics and bad weather that defeated the Spanish Armada—not the derring-do displayed on the high seas by Elizabeth’s intrepid sea dogs.

But it was a near run thing.

The Spanish Armada off the English coast, historical painting by Cornelis Claesz. van Wieringen (1620-1625) via Wikimedia Commons.

Because of Elizabeth’s parsimony, driven by an embarrassingly empty exchequer, the English ships were starved of gunpowder and ammunition and so failed to land a killer blow on the ‘Great and Most Fortunate Navy’ during nine days of skirmishing up the English Channel in July–August 1588.

Only six Spanish ships out of the 129 that sailed against England were destroyed as a direct result of naval combat. A minimum of fifty Armada ships (probably as many as sixty-four) were lost through accident or during the Atlantic storms that scattered the fleet en route to England and as it limped, badly battered, back to northern Spain. More than 13,500 sailors and soldiers did not come home— the vast majority victims not of English cannon fire, but of lack of food and water, virulent disease and incompetent organisation.

Thirty years before, when Philip II of Spain had been such an unenthusiastic husband to Mary I, he had observed: “The kingdom of England is and must always remain strong at sea, since upon this the safety of the realm depends.”

Elizabeth knew this full well and gambled that her navy, reinforced by hired armed merchantmen and volunteer ships, could destroy the invasion force at sea. Her warships, she maintained, were the walls of her realm and they became the first, and arguably her last, line of defense. Decades of neglect had rendered most of England’s land defenses almost useless against an experienced and determined enemy. In March 1587, the counties along the English Channel had just six cannon each.

England had no standing army of fully armed and trained soldiers, other than small garrisons in Berwick on the Scottish borders, and in Dover Castle on the Channel coast. Moreover, Elizabeth’s nation was divided by religious dissent—almost half were still Catholic and fears of them rebelling in support of the Spanish haunted her government.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was appointed to command Elizabeth’s armies “in the south parts” to fight not only the invaders but any “rebels and traitors and other offenders and their adherents attempting anything against us, our crown and dignity.” and to “repress and subdue, slay or kill and put to death by all ways and means” any such insurgents “for the conservation of our person and peace.”

Some among Elizabeth’s subjects placed profit ahead of patriotism. In 1587, twelve English merchants—mostly from Bristol—were discovered supplying the Armada “to the hurt of her majesty and undoing of the realm, if not redressed.” Nine cargoes of contraband, valued between £300 and £2,000, were not just provisions but also ammunition, gunpowder, muskets, and ordnance. What happened to these traitors (were they Catholics?) is unknown, but in those edgy times, they would be unlikely to have enjoyed the queen’s mercy.

Elsewhere, Sir John Gilbert, half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh, refused permission for his ships to join Drake’s western squadron and allowed them to sail on their planned voyage in March 1588 in defiance of naval orders.

Unaware that Parma planned to land on the Kent coast, Elizabeth’s military advisers decided on Essex as the most likely spot where the Spanish would storm ashore. The Thames estuary had a wide channel leading straight to the heart of the capital, bordered by mud flats that posed a major obstacle to a vessel of any draught. Therefore, defensive plans included the installation of an iron chain across the river’s fairway at Gravesend in Kent. This boom, supported by 120 ship’s masts (costing £6 each) driven into the riverbed and attached to anchored lighters, was intended to stop enemy ships penetrating upriver to London.

The first flood tide broke the barrier.

A detailed survey of potential invasion beaches along the English Channel produced an alarming catalogue of vulnerability. In Dorset alone, eleven bays were listed, with comments such as: “Chideock and Charmouth are two beaches to land boats but it must be very fair weather and the wind northerly.” Swanage Bay could “hold one hundred ships and [the anchorage is able] to land men with two hundred boats and to retire again without danger of low water at any time.”

Lacking time, money and resources, Elizabeth’s government could only defend the most dangerous beaches by ramming wooden stakes into the sand and shingle as boat obstacles, or by digging deep trenches above the high water mark. Mud ramparts were thrown up to protect the few cannon available or troops armed with arquebuses (an early type of musket) or bows and arrows. Fortifications on the strategically-vital Isle of Wight were to be at least four feet high and eight feet thick, with sharpened poles driven into their face and a wide ditch dug in front. But its governor, Sir George Carey had just four guns and gunpowder enough for only one day’s use.

Portsmouth’s freshly-built ramparts protecting its land approaches had been severely criticized by Raleigh and were demolished, much to Elizabeth’s chagrin. New earth walls were built in just four months, bolstered by five stone arrow-head shaped bastions behind a flooded ditch. Yet, more than half Portsmouth’s garrison were rated “by age and impotency by no way serviceable” and the Earl of Sussex escaped unhurt when an old iron gun (supposedly one of his best cannon), blew into smithereens.

The network of warning beacons located throughout southern England since at least the early fourteenth-century was overhauled. The iron fire baskets, mounted atop a tall wooden structure on earth mounds, were set around fifteen miles apart. Kent and Devon had forty-three beacon sites and there were twenty-four each in Sussex and Hampshire. These were normally manned during the kinder weather of March to October by two “wise, vigilant and discreet” men in twelve-hour shifts. Surprise inspections ensured their diligence, and they were prohibited from having dogs with them, for fear of distraction. Not everyone spent their time scanning the horizon for enemy ships: two watchers at Stanway beacon in Essex preferred catching partridges in a cornfield and were hauled up in court.

A census in 1588 revealed only one hundred experienced “martial men” were available for military service and, as some had fought in Henry VIII’s French and Scottish wars of forty years before, these old sweats were considered hors d’ combat. Infantry and cavalry were drawn from the trained bands and county militia. One thousand unpaid veterans from the English army in the Netherlands were hurriedly recalled but they soon deserted to hide in the tenements of Kent’s Cinque Ports.

Militia officers were noblemen and gentry whose motivation was not only defence of their country, but protection of their own property too. Many living near the coast believed it more prudent to move their households inland than stay and fight on the beaches but were ordered to return “on pain of her majesty’s indignation, besides forfeiture of [their] lands and goods.”

The main army was divided into two groups. The first, under Leicester, with 27,000 infantry and 2,418 cavalry, would engage the enemy once he had landed in force. The second and larger formation, commanded by the queen’s cousin, Lord Hunsdon, totalled 28,900 infantry and 4,400 cavalry. They were recruited solely to defend the sacred person of Elizabeth herself, who probably planned to remain in London, with Windsor Castle as a handy bolt hole if the capital fell.

Despite strenuous efforts to buy weapons in Germany and arquebuses from Holland, many militiamen were armed only with bows and arrows. A large proportion was unarmed and untrained.

To avoid the dangers of fifth-columnist recusants in the militia ranks, every man had to swear an oath of loyalty to Elizabeth in front of their muster-masters.

The county of Hampshire eventually raised 9,088 men but “many… [were] very poorly furnished some lack a head-piece [helmet], some a sword, some one thing or other that is evil, unfit or unseemly about him.”

The Spanish Armada portrait of Elizabeth I, painted in 1588 to commemorate their defeat, via Wikimedia Commons.

Discipline was also problematic: the commander of the 3,159-strong Dorset militia (1,800 totally untrained) firmly believed they would “sooner kill one another than annoy the enemy.”

When the Armada eventually cleared Cornwall, some of the Cornish militia, ordered to reinforce neighboring counties, thought they had done more than enough to serve Queen and country. Their minds were on the harvest and these reluctant soldiers decided to slink away from their commanders and their colors.

The Spanish were now someone else’s problem.

ROBERT HUTCHINSON has a doctorate in archaeology and spent his career as a journalist and publishing director before becoming a critically-acclaimed Tudor historian whose books have been translated into nine languages. His latest book is The Spanish Armada.

What impact did the defeat of the Spanish Armada have on Catholics in England?

Phillip II wanted to return England to Catholicism. If the Armada had been successful, then it seems likely that a Catholic king or queen would have been placed on the throne. They would have had the power to overturn the Protestant establishment in the country. No longer would the Church of England by the state church, and once again, the Catholic Church would have been the only recognized religion.

Phillip II believed that it was right for a monarch to ensure religious conformity in their kingdom. The new Catholic monarch probably would have persecuted Protestants in much the same way as Mary I had during her reign. With Catholicism re-established, this could have hobbled Protestantism in England.

By the 1580s, the Church of England was supported by most English people, and they would have resisted any attempt to reimpose the Catholic faith. Still, England would likely have suffered a series of Religious Wars similar to France in the sixteenth century. However, the Armada's failure meant that the Church of England was now more secure than ever before. Increasingly, the English people began to see themselves as Protestant people. They saw Protestantism as an integral part of Englishness and important for their freedom. Many English people became even more anti-Catholic after the Armada. ‘Popery’ as they referred to as Catholicism, was associated with autocracy, intolerance, and slavery. This anti-Catholicism was an important aspect of English political life for many years. [7]

On the other hand, English Catholics faced an increasingly difficult life in England after the Armada's destruction. Catholics, known as ‘recusants,’ refused to recognize the Church of England. They came under official and unofficial pressure to conform to the state religion and give up their faith. [8] Even loyal English Catholics became suspect, and as a result, more and Catholics converted to Protestantism.

By the end of Elizabeth's reign, England was a Protestant nation, with only a small oppressed Catholic minority. The Armada had played an important role in this process. Phillip II had attempted to overturn the religious settlement in England, but his attempted invasion only strengthened it. England's people began to see themselves in providential terms and biblical terms as an ‘elect nation.’ [9] The English began to believe that they were chosen by God to carry out his will. This sense of mission was crucial in later decades and was an important factor in the growth of English power, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Find out more

The Spanish Armada by Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker (London 1998, 2nd edition Manchester 1999)

Armada 1588-1988 by M.J. Rodríguez-Salgado et al., (London, 1998)

England, Spain and the Gran Armada 1585-1604 by M.J. Rodríguez-Salgado and Simon Adams (eds.) (Edinburgh, 1991)

The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, Volume I 660-1649 by N.A.M. Rodger (London, 1997)

Philip of Spain by Henry Kamen (New Haven and London 1997)

The Grand Strategy of Philip II by Geoffrey Parker (New Haven and London 1998)

The Spanish Armada of 1588: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography by Eugene L. Rasor, Westport, Conn. (London, 1993)

Where the Black Irish really came from and no, it wasn’t the Spanish Armada

Let’s end the fake news on where the Black Irish came from. Many claim they are from the Spanish Armada -- the offspring of shipwrecked Spanish sailors from 1588 who stayed in Ireland -- but the truth is much more interesting.

I can explain but first let me reiterate -- they didn’t come from the Spanish Armada. That’s fake news.

How do we know? Because there are actual accounts by eyewitnesses about what happened in September 1588 when the shipwrecked sailors, fleeing a massive naval defeat and a horrendous storm, pitched up on West of Ireland beaches.

Far from welcoming colleens, there were English garrison troops waiting and they were merciless. There was an especially horrible end to nearly 1,100 Armada survivors who wrecked in Sligo’s Streedagh Bay, according to the testimony of a surviving Armada officer.

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Captain Francisco de Cuellar later wrote that, as a survivor, he found: “the land and shore were full of enemies, who went dancing with delight at our misfortune and when any one of our people reached the beach, two hundred savages and other enemies fell upon him and stripped him of what he had.”

De Cuellar stated some Irish clans protected them. According to Cuellar, they were: “ the O’Rourke of Breifne, McClancy of Rosclogher and Redmond O’Gallagher of Derry.” They managed to save lives and send many of the Spaniards secretly back to Spain. As for the others, there was no reprieve, they were brutally butchered after being stripped naked.

Who were the black Irish? Some say they came from the Spanish Armada. ("Defeat of the Spanish Armada", painted by Philip James de Loutherbourg).WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

So the Armada story is untrue.

So too is the idea that certain tribes of the Celts were dark-complexioned because every contemporary description of them describes them as red-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned people The Roman historians especially found Celtic women to be blond and warlike

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"The women of the Celtic tribes are bigger and stronger than our Roman women. This is most likely due to their natures as well as their peculiar fondness for all things martial and robust. The flaxen-haired maidens of the north are trained in sports and war while our gentle ladies are content to do their womanly duties and thus are less powerful than most young girls from Gaul and the hinterlands." -- Marcus Borealis

So we come to the crux of the matter. How come there are so many dark-haired, dark-complexioned Irish?

It’s relatively simple. The Spanish, Portuguese, and other countries in Europe, not to mention those from African countries, traded heavily with Ireland and there were constant expeditions back and forth work and ultimately intertwined families. Strong bonds were created.

For close to 500 years that trade path stayed open. Many a Spanish trader and Irish lass became embroiled in love and marriage, expand that across five centuries and that’s a whole lotta loving going on!

More proof? Black Irish tend to be from the West Coast and North West Ireland which is where the trading went on. And there, my friends, you have the truth of the matter.

Love Irish history? Share your favorite stories with other history buffs in the IrishCentral History Facebook group.

(Thanks to Mike McCormick of the AOH whose 2016 article on this topic was a great research job.)

England’s superior ships

Unlike the Spanish galleons, the smaller, more versatile English ships were well-provisioned to fight. By 1588 the English navy consisted of many swift-moving ships filled with cannon and gunner specialists that were deadly against enemy vessels.

Their speed and mobility also proved highly important. It allowed them to sail close to the more cumbersome Spanish vessels, fire deadly cannon volleys point-blank and then sail away before the Spanish could board them.

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I'm a Spaniard, and I have studied a lot about this battle.

First of all, the two navies:

Spanish armada: 22 galleons (actual equivalent of destroyers) 103 light warship (corvettes).

Royal Navy: 34 warships 163 light warships 30 dutch flyboats (equivalent of actual frigates).

Spanish navy: Alvaro de Bazan (One of the best admirals of the Spanish navy) Duke of Medina Sidonia (A young man with no experience, captain of the navy).

Royal Navy: Charles Howard (The Lord High Admiral of the Royal Navy) Francis Drake (A vice-admiral of the Royal Navy, with experience in naval battles with the Spanish navy).

Third, the incidents before the mission:

Alvaro de Bazan, the leader of the naval mission, died five months before the start of the mission, so Medina Sidonia became the leader and had to prepare the invasion fleet.

Fourth, the mission of the Spanish fleet: Spanish navy: Go to Flanders and join with the Spanish army. When the Spanish army joins the naval fleet, land in Dover.

Royal navy: Naval fight at sea and avoid any incursion of the Spanish navy.

Fifth, incidents before the battle: The Royal Navy fleet saw the Spanish fleet and they went to attack.

In spite of advice from captains of the Spanish armada to the Spanish commander to fight the Royal Navy, the Spanish commander said no and they continued the trip. So the royal navy chased all the Spanish fleet along the English channel.

Sixth, they arrived at the Belgium coast. In spite of the chase by the royal navy and the desperate English attacks at the port. the Spanish fleet lost only eight warships. The Spanish fleet never lost the formation.

The final surprise: One of the biggest storms arrived in the English channel and with that storm, the Spanish army could not join the fleet.

This big storm disbanded the Spanish fleet formation and gave the possibility to the English fleet to destroy the Spanish fleet. anon129458 November 23, 2010

Very helpful for my work, but I could have done with more reasons on why they had failed. Thanks anyway. heyheyhey123 April 29, 2010

i found this to be a very good site. it got to the main points and even though it did not have what i was looking for it was good!

very helpful in getting ideas for writing an essay. thank you! anon68613 March 3, 2010

i think it needs to say why the Spanish Armada is important in history! otherwise it is really helpful. anon50852 November 1, 2009

I think that these few paragraphs are very helpful with the understanding of the Spanish Armada .

Watch the video: Η Γαλλία στη Μεσόγειο: Μπαίνει στο παιχνίδι με ισχυρή αρμάδα. Κεντρικό δελτίο ειδήσεων. OPEN TV (January 2022).