The Spanish Armada
was a huge fleet
of ships assembled by King Philip II
. 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.