In the late 16th century Europe was divided by religion. The leading Catholic nation was Spain, while England was Protestant. To this religious animosity was added the conflict of national interests.

In 1588 the quarrels between England and Spain erupted into open warfare.

Phillip II, King of Spain, assembled a massive fleet or armada, of over 130 ships. He was determined to smash England and reduce it to a nation subject to Spain.

The Spanish Armada was sighted by the English off Cornwall on 19 July. For the next week the Armada sailed up the Channel with the outnumbered English warships keeping up a running fight.

On the night of 27 July, the Armada was anchored off Calais. The English sent in fireships to panic the Spaniards. Next morning, the English descended upon the Spanish Armada. Fierce fighting shattered the Spanish fleet. It then headed north to round Scotland and return to Spain. Of the 130 that had set out, only 53 ships returned to Spain.
The Spanish Armada was a huge fleet of ships assembled by King Philip II of Spain in 1588. The Armada consisted of about 130 ships, including war galleons and supporting ships for cargo and scouting. At the the time, the Armada was the largest assembly of naval might ever seen.

The Spanish Empire was at the peak of its power in the sixteenth century. Exploiting the resources of the Spanish colonies in the Americas was proving extremely lucrative, but piracy was rampant. In particular, English privateers were raiding Spanish ships and towns, and England was reluctant to punish them. The English-Spanish relationship was further strained by the strong anti-Catholic reforms by Queen Elizabeth I that offended the staunchly Catholic Spain. The execution of Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, who had strong ties to Spain in 1587 worsened things further. And to top things off, the English were openly supporting the Dutch rebels in the Spanish controlled Netherlands.

Philip amassed his Armada and sent it off to do nothing less than conquer England. The Armada was to secure the English Channel, then ferry across troops that would meet them in the Netherlands. The Armada left Portugal in May of 1588, heading north towards England. The English fleet was led by Lord Howard and Francis Drake, once himself a privateer who preyed on Spanish convoys. In July, the English engaged the Armada near the coast of England, but avoided direct combat; instead the Armada was harassed at its flanks with hit and run tactics. The large Spanish galleons were out-maneuvered by the small, quick English ships. Somewhat bruised, The Armada anchored at Calais and waited for the soldiers to arrive. The English took this opportunity to strike, and ambushed the anchored Spanish Armada with "hellburner" fire-ships. Again, the large galleons couldn't manuever to engage the smaller ships. The Armada was scattered and thrown into disarray. The English then struck with their entire fleet before the Spanish could reorganize.

With the Armada damaged and in disarray and facing a shortage of cannon balls and powder, the invasion looked like a failure. The Spanish Admiral, the Duke of Medina Sedonia, decided to break off the invasion and return to Spain around Scotland and through the North Sea. The English fleet pursued, but more damage was inflicted by the weather and extremely hazardous seas. The Aramada finally returned to Spain in disgrace, reduced to just 53 ships.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada is often considered the beginning of the decline of the Spanish Empire, and the beginning of England's control of the sea.

The Spanish Armada was a spectacular defeat for the World Super Power of the Early Modern Period. Philip II assembled one of the largest naval fleets ever to sail the seas yet they were thoroughly defeated by a significantly numerically inferior English fleet. The English, under Lord Howard and Sir Francis Drake, lost only the eight fire ships - at a cost of £5,111 10s, as one Naval historian remarked, "perhaps the cheapest national investment this country has ever made" and the Armada limped home to Spain minus 80 vessels. There have been many explanations for the defeat of the Armada ranging from fundamental flaws in the planning to astounding tactics employed by the English. The ultimate reasons lie in a combination of these factors yet despite impressive strategy from the English Admirals primary blame must come to rest on a failed Spanish plan.

Relations between Spain and England had deteriorated since the death of Mary Tudor in 1558 and the ascension of Elizabeth I. Philip II had made a concerted effort to avoid war with England but he had been attempting to aid Catholic plotters in the country and this led to the expulsion of the Spanish ambassador to England in 1584 over the Ridolphi Plot. Elizabeth I had been openly aiding English pirates in the West Indies with supplies and ships and Spain could not tolerate such open flouting of Spanish power in the New World. Undoubtedly the trigger event for the 'Enterprise of England' was England's involvement in the Netherlands. In 1585 with the Treaty of Nonsuch Elizabeth I committed herself to the cause of the Calvinist Dutch rebels. Philip II saw defeating England as an unavoidable and vital step in defeating the Dutch rebels.

Thus plans for the invasion began in 1586 with Philip II commanding his most trusted advisers to formulate strategies for the enterprise. Philip's key advisers on the issue where Cardinal Granvelle and the Duke of Alva (both who had accompanied during his time in England whilst married to Mary Tudor) and the Duke of Parma (by far the most in touch with the situation thanks to his presence in the Netherlands). Granvelle's time in England had not, however, endeared him to our wonderful nation, describing them as

"ordinarily of an unpleasant nature who hate foreigners...I dislike them intensely and the best of them is not worth a fig"
A naval invasion seemed an excellent direction to take since nine English governments had been overthrown or seriously undermined by sea borne invasions in the five centuries since the Norman Conquest of 1066. A number of proposals were submitted but they can be divided into three categories:
  1. Assembling a fleet strong enough to defeat the English navy and then to shepherd an army across the channel - William I's successful tactic of 1066
  2. Assembling an army in secret near the channel while launching a diversionary assault on Ireland - An earlier successful landing in Smerwick (1579-1580) by a Spanish expeditionary force to aid Catholic rebels lent credibility to this option.
  3. Surprise assault - as executed by Edward of York (1471) and Henry Tudor (1485)
These three options were considered in great detail by Philip II and his advisers however Philip II proved unable to decide between them and in the end attempted to combine them, this would prove one of the Armada's key problems, as Geoffrey Parker points out, "that all these possible strategies received consideration in 1586-1588 reflects great credit on the vision and competence of Philip and his 'national security advisers'; that they tried to undertake all three of them at once does not." The eventual plan was to launch a huge fleet from Spain that would then join up with the Army of Flanders in the Netherlands and ferry them across in the undefended barges that were available. Philip's advisers, particularly Parma, protested vehemently against this attempt to combine the plans however Philip's messianic imperialism would not allow God's mission to be thwarted and he pointed out to objectors that God would not allow this enterprise to fail.

Whilst plans were being made preparations begun. A fleet began to be assemble in Lisbon and the Duke of Parma, Governor General of the Netherlands, was told to submit his opinion of various invasion plans. The Pope was solicited for aid to this great crusade against the English heretics, a crusade for which there had been Papal pressure on Philip II to undertake for some time. It was during these years of preparation and delay that the Armada became known as 'the worst kept secret in Europe'. Despite this status the English and Elizabeth I remained entirely confused as to Philip's planned course of action. Sir William Winter, an experienced English Admiral, stated in 1588 that he believed that Parma's military preparations in the Netherlands were to secure a peace "most for his master's advantage" or to assault Holland and Zealand (the rebel Dutch states). Even later, on 18 July that year, when Valentine Dale, one of Elizabeth's peace commissioners at a conference in Bourbourg in Flanders, asked Parma outright whether he intended to carry out the Papal sentence of Deposition against the Queen Parma replied,

"yn myne opinion yow have more cause to desyre [peace] than we, for that yf the king my master doe lose a battayl he shal be able to recover hyt wel enough without harme to hemselfe, being far enough off yn in Spayne; and if the battayl be lost of your side, yt may be to lose the kingdom and all."
The significance of this statement eluded Elizabeth I and she commanded her commissioners to ask Parma again, "plainly whether or not he had any commandment from the king to invade her realm". This ignorance infuriated Dale who replied in icy terms to members of the privy council, pointing out
"he coulde speake no playner, except he had sayd 'I will gyve her a battail yn England'"
While the lack of attention paid to warnings like these may seem foolish this report would merely have been one amongst a plethora of conflicting information arriving from agents all over Europe. In the beginning of the information age government's were simply unequipped to deal with the quantity of information that arrived from around the world. On top of this torrent of information was the fact that neither country had ambassadors with the other. The English ambassador to Spain was recalled 1568 over objections about his practice of Protestant worship within the embassy and the Spanish ambassador to England was expelled 1584 following the Ridolphi plot.

Command of the Armada was originally given to Santa Cruz, an able and experienced Admiral. However he died in February of 1588 and command was passed to the Duke of Medina Sidonia. Medina is legendary as the sea sick Admiral of the Armada, an unqualified bungler. However he was an experienced General on land and the aim of the invasion was to land troops and launch a ground invasion. He was also an expert in naval administration and the re-fitting of ships. Philip knew that the Armada must sail as quickly as possible and he believed Medina was the man to accomplish this. Unfortunately the Armada came under a much greater naval threat than had been anticipated and Medina was simply too inexperienced to deal proficiently with the seasoned English Navy.

On 28 May 1588 132 ships and 30,000 men departed from Lisbon. However within just five days they ran into a storm off the cost of Finisterre and were forced to put into port and regroup and repair. Having overcome this problem the fleet continued towards England and entered the Channel in July. They were harried there by English ships but held to their strict orders not to initiate combat with the enemy. The fleet arrived in Calais on 6 August and word was sent to Parma of their arrival. However by the time Parma received this message the Armada had been scattered by the English fire ships and their invincible formation was lost. The more manoeuvrable English ships were able to slip among the now chaotic fleet and reek havoc.

One of the keys to the English victory was their superior Navy. Whilst vastly outnumbered their ships were of a superior design and the fleet as a whole was much better suited to warfare than the Armada. New English vessels had been built using a new "Race-Built" design which involved reductions in 'castles' fore and aft, sleeker lines and a longer gundeck. This new design gave the English two key advantages - greater manoeuvrability and better fire power. More importantly Elizabeth acquired 16 vessels of this type between 1585-1588 and repaired or refitted the rest in this style. It is this "Race-Built" design that gave the English ships their greater speed and manoeuvrability, rather than just a smaller size as is often thought. Thus the 'Navy Royall' was by far a more efficient and uniform fighting force. This new design and program of refitting had a notable effect on the Navy and it became increasingly focussed on large capital ships.

  • 1540: 53 vessels, 15 great ships - total displacement around 15,000 tons and 200 guns in excess of 9-pounds
  • 1595: 38 vessels, 23 exceeded 400 tons - total displacement 20,000 tons and 600 guns in excess of 9-pounds and of those 250 in excess of 16-pounds
So despite the Armada's larger numbers, she even had more Capital ships (21 to England's 18), the English Navy remained the superior military force. It was not only the Navy's ships that were superior to Spanish vessels but also the ships conscripted by Elizabeth I were vastly more useful that those Philip II was able to commandeer. Elizabeth I was able to make use of a number of private galleons, the Navy's flagship, Ark Royal, had previously been built for Sir Walter Raleigh (as the Ark Raleigh) by the Queen's shipwright, Richard Chapman. In comparison with the vessels Philip II the English selection was vastly superior. Philip's conscripts were large merchant ships and they all required extensive refitting to even allow guns to be fitted. However these refitted ships experienced problems, as the Commander of the Gran Griffon remarked she had bee damaged not only "by the many guns which some of the English ships had fired against her" but also "by the [recoil of the] guns she fired against them". Also the nature and purpose of the Armada as a transport for an invasion force must be taken into account. The English ships were all purpose built fighting vessels however by necessity many of the Spanish ships were transport vessels.

Although the English Navy remained the superior fighting force they avoided open combat until their fire ships has scattered the Armada's formation. The formation, the famous crescent, had proved extremely successful in previous campaign as it allowed all ships to fire their heavy guns simultaneously as they were mounted at the fore. More importantly this formation proved successful in negating the English manoeuvrability advantage. It was the stroke of genius that was the English fire ships that allowed the Navy Royall to bring to bear their major advantages in one on one combat. The fire ships were released into Calais and the Spanish scampered to be embark their ships and lost their formation. When scattered the English were able to move in and this is when their superiority really began to tell. It was not just their superiority but the skill and experience of their Captains and Commanders that gave them the edge. The English ships fired mostly heavy shot and so were able inflict heavy structural damage on the Spanish vessels. The Spanish however chose to fire mostly small shot - the ship San Juan Bautista de la Esperanza's shot expended "in the fight with the English vice-flagship as well as in other" was:

  • 41 - 5 pounds
  • 13 - 3&4 pounds
  • 260 - 2 or less.
Indeed Of 1,640 rounds fired by nine ships for which records survive only 175 (11 percent) exceeded 9 pounds and none exceeded 20 pounds. Repair records for the English ships following their victory show that they suffered very little structural damage. The Spanish suffered their heaviest defeat off Gravelines and began to retreat. The winds prevented them from doing anything but heading up the North Sea, around Scotland and Ireland and returning to Spain. Some historians argue that had the winds been favourable to Armada would have been able to regroup and successfully carry out the invasion. However other believe that the English had already inflicted sufficient damage that they would have been able to defeat the Armada again. Nevertheless the course the Armada actually took resulted in even more losses. The English harried them as they fled and storms caused many of the already damaged ships to founder on the rocky coastlines of Scotland and Ireland.

Tragically following the great victory of the Navy Royall the English fleet was struck by disease and sailors started dying in their thousands. The cynical Elizabethan treasury saw this as a cost saving oppotunity and instructed the Commanders to cease paying sailors who were unable to work and refused to pay for medical care. The commanders, particularly Lord Howard, were shocked and lamented that those who had saved England should be treated so. He himself finanaced medical care for them and paid their wages. However despite this generous gesture many died, far more than had perished under Spanish guns.

One of the biggest questions remaining about the Armada is was Parma ready? Would it or should it have been possible for him to join up with the Armada and thus successfully carry out the invasion? There had been communication problems between the Armada and Parma with messages arriving out of order and late. Part of the problem was a misunderstanding on the part of Duke of Medina Sidonia. He constantly insisted that Parma come out and meet him the in the Channel whilst Parma insisted that was impossible. Although he had a large number of vessels, over 300 in total, they were nearly all unarmed barges and he possessed only 26 warships. The Dutch had blockaded Dunkirk were about one third of his strength lay and without serious military aid he was unable to break free without risking the loss of his troops which would have rendered the Enterprise useless. Opinion of both Dutch and English sailors at the time was that the fleet was ready to depart and "that they could set sail in 10 to 12 days". So had the Armada managed to free the Flanders fleet from the Dutch blockade the invasion may have succeeded. Some Spaniards at the time complained that there was not deep water anchorage under Spanish control in the Netherlands but safe anchorage did exist for large vessels off Dunkirk.

So the Armada failed and Philip's outlay of 10 Million Ducats had failed to gain even a piece of England for Spain. However none of the vessels lost were the expensive capital ships. Despite the cost the biggest blow to Spain lay in the affect on her status and the country's moral. Many were remarking that the extravagant Philip II had yet again bankrupt Spain and that the country's great status. While some identify this as the beginning of the decline of the Spanish empire it is perhaps more suitable marked out as the beginning of the English rise to super power status. It is true that with other events under Philip's rule the failure of the Armada laid the seeds of Spanish decline in the 17th century, however it is certainly not a single trigger.

Footnote from The Librarian:

One of the reasons for the disparity in shot fired was due to the style of naval warfare employed; rather than rake the opposing ship from the bow or aft with heavy shot, which cripples the masts and structure of the vessel, the armada shot to hit the rigging and sail, attempting to crush deck side crew and allow easy boarding and capture, eventually.

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