Spanish Armada II

Spanish Armada II

The defeat of the Spanish Armada was one of the most important events of early modern European history. King Philip II of Spain (r. 1556–1598) was a militant Catholic, determined not only to uphold the Catholic Church but also to lead a great Catholic counteroffensive. Into this vast effort he was prepared to pour the blood and treasure of his kingdoms. In the long struggle that ensued, Queen Elizabeth of England (r. 1558–1603) became the Protestant champion, supporting surreptitiously a revolt against Spain in the Netherlands led by William of Orange (called William the Silent). In 1585 when it appeared that Spanish troops in the Netherlands under the Duke of Parma might capture the port of Antwerp, Elizabeth intervened actively on the rebel side, dispatching 6,000 English troops to the Netherlands under the Earl of Leicester.

In addition to the religious issue and English support of the rebels in the Netherlands, there was a third cause of tension: the intrusion of English ships into the Spanish Empire in the New World. English privateers led by Sir Francis Drake were attacking Spanish shipping and selling slaves there in defiance of Spanish rule. In a sense, England and Spain were already at war to see which power would control the Atlantic Ocean.For Philip, the decisive event was the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in February 1587. Mary was a Catholic and the former queen of France and Scotland, and there were a number of plots to overthrow Elizabeth and make her queen. With France distracted by religious civil war, Philip began planning his so-called Enterprise of England to punish England.

Philip secured papal sanction for his plans and ordered the collection of a fleet of the largest naval and maritime vessels. This force was intended as much for intimidation as outright invasion. Philip’s strategy was to gain control of the English Channel and facilitate the passage of Parma’s veteran Spanish army to England. A distinguished seaman, Álvaro de Bazán, 1st Marquis of Santa Cruz, had command of the Armada enterprise, but he died suddenly in February 1588 and was replaced by a reluctant Duke of Medina Sidonia, who had never held sea command before. Meanwhile, Parma cut a ship canal from Antwerp and Ghent to Bruges, assembled 28 warships at Dunkirk (Dunkerque), and built several hundred landing craft and barges to carry his men and horses across the Channel.

In the spring of 1587 Drake conducted a highly successful raid on the Spanish assembly port of Cádiz, “singeing the beard of the King of Spain” as he put it. He destroyed some Spanish ships and many supplies, including much of the Spanish stock of seasoned barrel staves. This condemned the Armada to suffer rotting provisions in unseasoned barrels.

In April 1588 the Spanish ships began to assemble. Delays led to refitting at the northern port of Carunna in June. The Armada of 124 ships, manned by 8,500 seamen and galley slaves and carrying 19,000 troops, finally set out on July 12. On July 20 the English sailed from Plymouth. The first engagement took place off Plymouth the next day, with the Spanish ships sweeping east up the Channel in a loose crescent-shaped formation.

Up until this point, battles at sea had been similar to those on land; the principal aim was to take enemy vessels by boarding. In the Armada fight, a new form of battle at sea emerged because of the long-range guns employed by the English. The English had 172 warships; 50 of these, only lightly armed, took little role in the battle. The English ships mounted a total of 1,972 guns, while the Spanish had 1,124. The Spanish outnumbered the English in short-range cannon (163 to 55) and medium-range perriers (326 to 43), but this was reversed in long-range culverins (635 for the Spanish to 1,874 for the English). While the Spanish hoped to fight in close, grapple, and board their opponents, the English planned to stand off and blast away at the Spanish ships beyond the range of the Spaniards’ guns.

Admiral Lord Howard of Effingham had overall command of the English fleet; his key subordinates included Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake. The English early gained the weather gauge, establishing a position upwind and attacking the Spanish ships daily until the Armada anchored at the French port of Calais on July 27. Neither side had inflicted major damage on the other.

Parma sent word that he was under blockade by a Dutch fleet at Bruges under Justinus of Nassau. Then, before dawn on July 28 the English sent eight fire ships into the Calais anchorage, forcing the Armada ships to cut their cables and put to sea. Medina Sidonia intended that his ships reanchor once the fire ships had passed, but many of the Spanish vessels crashed together. Crews were unable to get at spare anchors, and the ships drifted northeastward along the coast. With the wind blowing out of the south-southwest, Medina Sidonia realized that his ships could not regain the harbor.

The Battle of Gravelines, off the Flanders coast, ensued with the English engaging individual Spanish ships unable to form a protective formation. The English maintained position to windward of the Spanish ships. The heeling hulls of the Armada ships were thus exposed to possible damage below the waterline. The English were forced to break off the fight, however, and returned to port to replenish stocks of ammunition. Through a week of fighting the Spanish had expended upwards of 100,000 rounds of shot, but no English ship was seriously damaged.

The famous Protestant Wind now swept the Spanish ships into the North Sea, leaving their captains no choice but to continue on around the British Isles and then sail down the western coast of Ireland en route back to Spain. The ships limped in singly during August through September. Sixty-three of the Spanish ships, or half of the total, were lost, of which the English sank or captured 15. A major Atlantic storm drove many weakened ships and their exhausted crews ashore, and 19 Spanish ships are known to have been wrecked on the Scottish and Irish coasts.

After 1588 nothing went right for Philip II. He continued his plans to conquer England and his efforts to defeat the Dutch rebels, and in the 1590s he even took on a new enemy in France. Philip died in 1598, having failed in his grand design. The Armada fight marked the beginning of the end of Spanish greatness and the rise of England and also had a pronounced influence on the conduct of naval warfare.


Anderson, David. The Spanish Armada. New York: Hempstead, 1988.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. The Spanish Armada: The Experience of War in 1588. London: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Lewis, Michael A. Armada Guns: A Comparative Study of English and Spanish Armaments. London: Allen and Unwin, 1961.

Martin, Colin, and Geoffrey Parker. The Spanish Armada. New York: Norton, 1988.

Mattingly, Garrett. The Armada. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959.