The English Armada was an English attempt to attack Spain by sea in 1589, as part of the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604). Hoping to capitalize on the disarray of the Spanish navy following the English defeat of the much better-known Spanish Armada the year before, Queen Elizabeth I ordered a counterattack, to be led by Sir Francis Drake as admiral and her Master of the Horse Sir John Norreys as general, hoping that such an assault would compel Spanish king Philip II to sue for peace on English terms. The attack resulted in failure due in part to storms and disease, but also as the result of poor planning, infighting, mission creep, and overconfidence.

The Plan

The main goal of the expedition was to strike a decisive blow to the Spanish Atlantic fleet while it was still in port being repaired following the failure of the Spanish Armada. Although the Spanish had lost more than half of their ships in their ill-fated attempt to invade England, most of the ships lost were smaller, armed merchantmen, whereas the core of the Spanish fleet - the large, heavily armed galleons - had survived, damaged but repairable.

Secondary goals included landing troops in Lisbon and fomenting a revolt by the Portuguese against Spanish rule, establishing a permanent base in the Azores, and, assuming the Azores mission met with success, seizing the Spanish treasure fleet as it returned from America to Cadiz via the Azores, loaded with silver and gold.

The expedition was funded by the creation of a joint-stock company with initial capital of £80,000, one fourth of which came from the Queen's treasury, one eighth from the Dutch, and the rest from a variety individual investors.

The English Armada was very similar in size to the Spanish Armada. Altogether the fleet consisted of 6 royal galleons, 60 armed merchantmen, 60 Dutch flyboats, and around 20 pinnaces. On board were around 23,000 men, but less than 2000 were trained soldiers, with the rest being a hodgepodge of untrained volunteers, thugs and brigands, and gentleman adventurers.

Drake divided the Armada into five squadrons, one led by himself from his flagship, the Revenge, another by Norreys aboard the Nonpareil, the third by Norreys' brother Edward on the Foresight, the forth by Thomas Fenner on the Dreadnought, and the fifth by Roger Williams aboard the Swiftsure.

The Attempt

Although the fleet began to assemble in February, departure was delayed for weeks by all manner of snafu, from bad weather, to disagreements between commanders, to supplies and men not showing up, to the Dutch delaying in sending promised ships. Meanwhile, the headstrong and overly romantic courtier Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex disobeyed a direct order from the Queen that he not participate in the expedition by sneaking aboard his friend Robert William's vessel, the Swiftsure and sailing off on their own, two weeks before the rest of the fleet, to pursue Essex's quixotic goal of "conquering Portugal."

Finally, the rest of the fleet sailed in late spring, but bad weather blew Drake of course and he decided he would not be able to make it to the main base at Santander where most of the Spanish fleet lay moored, ripe for the torching. Instead, he settled for sacking the minor port of A Coruña in Galicia. Just then, a strong westerly wind arose and keep blowing for two weeks, and for some reason, the military commanders decided to get bogged down in a pointless siege of the upper town, losing several hundred men in the fighting. Meanwhile the delay gave the Spanish precious time to prepare coastal defenses in Portugal.

At this point, many of the Dutch decided to abandon the expedition and sailed for home.

Part of the expedition finally made it to Lisbon, but the anticipated revolt did not materialize, as the Portuguese were much more loyal to the Spanish than the English had realized. Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth refused to send the siege guns and reinforcements she had promised, perhaps in a fit of pique that he had failed to attack Santander as she had wanted, so the English could not besiege the town, although they did some small moral victories by burning the Lisbon granaries and by Essex melodramatically and defiantly thrusting his sword into the main gate of the city.

At this point Drake finally made it to Lisbon with the rest of the fleet, having been blown off course (yet again). Although Lisbon could not be taken, he and Norrys decided to try to salvage the expedition by pressing on to the Azores in hopes of catching the treasure fleet.

However, by now several different diseases were ravaging the English crews, reducing their effectiveness and stormy seas scattered the fleet as it attempted to sail south over open waters. The Spanish, by now long since aware of the English ships and any element of surprise long since dissipated, were able to track and harry the English vessels with the remaining warships still in service patrolling the treasure fleet route, damaging or sinking several of them.

With several of the remaining English vessels taking on water from storm damage, Drake finally called off the mission decided to run for home. The remains of the English Armada limped back to Plymouth. All told, about 10,000 English men had perished in the expedition, nearly half the total force (mostly of disease). When all was said and done about £100,000 was invested in the mission, but it returned a mere £30,000 in booty.

The Consequences

Ultimately, the English Armada failed to achieve any of its aims, but the most disastrous was the failure to destroy the Spanish fleet at Santander, because this meant the English missed a golden chance to cripple Spanish sea power. This seems to have been the only part of the expedition that Queen Elizabeth really cared about, and had the rest of the people involved been equally focused on this goal, it almost certainly would have been achieved, as the fleet was virtually defenseless, and the English even had surprise on their side in the early going.

But what ended up happening is that the fleet survived and in fact within a few years the Spanish had fully recovered and had a fleet even bigger and stronger than they had before the destruction of the Spanish Armada. Meanwhile, the English had wasted an enormous amount of money and resources for very little return. The £100,000 spent was actually even more than the Spanish had spent on their Armada. Moreover, the disastrously low return on investment permanently turned many wealthy English away from such investments, and made it much harder for the Queen to finance future expeditions through the floating of stock.

The failure of the English Armada meant that the tide of the Anglo-Spanish War had turned decisively and permanently in favor of the Spanish. Although the war would drag on for another 15 years, the English would ultimately sue for peace and settle on terms highly favorable to Spain in the 1604 Treaty of London.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that the Spanish Armada is so much more famous than the English Armada as a foolhardy expedition and a disastrous defeat when the failure of the English Armada was ultimately much more disastrous and much more decisive in deciding the course of the war in question.

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