1–9 August 1588

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in the late summer of 1588 has remained one of the most famous dates in English history. It is always called the Spanish Armada, as if that were the name of the battle. The Armada was in reality the Spanish word for the huge fleet of ships, now thought to have numbered 130, which set out from the port of Corunna in July 1588 to invade England. The critical battle in a week of naval skirmishes came on 8 August off the French coast at Gravelines, when the English fleet inflicted what turned out to be a decisive defeat on the only major attempt to invade England throughout all the centuries since 1066.

The commander of the English fleet in 1588, Lord Charles Howard of Effingham, later the First Earl of Nottingham (1536–1624), is shown here in a Victorian engraving of 1838.

Invasion of England was the brainchild of King Philip II of Spain (nicknamed ‘Philip the Prudent’), who had briefly been consort to the Tudor queen Mary I before her death in 1558. He was sincerely committed to eradicating Protestantism as a force in Europe, and the English, who supported the Protestant rebellion in the Spanish Netherlands and preyed incessantly on the rich Spanish trade with Latin America, came to be seen as the main threat to Spanish Catholic interests in Europe. The Armada was gathered together to bring pressure to bear on the English to overthrow Queen Elizabeth and to halt English intervention in the Low Countries. This was to be achieved either by the mere threat of invasion or, if the large Spanish army in the Netherlands commanded by the Duke of Parma could be ferried across the English Channel, by actual invasion and occupation for as long as it took to get the English to agree to Philip’s terms.

The Armada began to take shape in 1587 as a stream of ships and supplies came from all over Europe, at great expense, to provide the necessary resources. The original commander, the Marquis of Santa Cruz, died before he could take the fleet out, to be succeeded by the Andalusian nobleman, the Duke of Medina Sidonia. He was a reluctant commander, partly because he could see that the fleet, for all its size, was probably not equal to the task. The supplies wasted or rotted as the months passed and many of the ships were suitable only for Mediterranean sailing, not for the harsher Atlantic. The whole enterprise depended on good communication with the Duke of Parma, who had a personal antipathy to the new fleet commander, but above all on finding an effective deep-water port where the Armada could anchor while the Spanish army was prepared, embarked and convoyed across the Channel.

The ships finally left Corunna on 21 July 1588 in a better state than they had been, but still divided between a core of royal galleons designed for ocean combat, and a host of smaller vessels that were not. There were also four galleasses, which had proved their worth at Lepanto a decade earlier, but were difficult to manoeuvre on the open sea with their great banks of oars. Against them was ranged the English fleet commanded by Lord Howard of Effingham, the Lord High Admiral. There were at least 230 ships available, though they were divided into detachments to safeguard the coast from Cornwall to Essex.

The English had similar problems securing manpower and supplies from a parsimonious monarch, but also important advantages. The English ships were far more manoeuvrable than those of the enemy, being for the most part narrower and longer, without top-heavy castles fore and aft. They were manned by sailors with a great deal of experience, much of it in privateering against Spanish ships. The guns were designed for rapid reloading, and though generally smaller than many of the Spanish guns, they could be fired more regularly. Nor were English decks cluttered with soldiers and their equipment, unlike the Armada, which carried 24,000 men on board. These soldiers had no experience of sea-fighting and although they could prime Spanish cannon for a first volley, they had no training in moving and reloading them. The Armada had been hastily put together with cannon from across Europe, which meant problems in finding the right ammunition. Spanish shot was cast quickly in 1587–88 and contained many impurities, making it prone to break up either in the cannon or as it was fired.The English did not fully understand the technical advantages they held, but these advantages proved decisive. On 1 August the Armada, keeping very close formation so that the more vulnerable ships could be protected by the larger galleons and galleasses, was met by a portion of the English fleet under Howard off Lizard Point in Cornwall.

This painting depicts the fireships sent by the English fleet against the Spanish Armada anchored off Calais on the night of 7–8 August 1588. Although no Spanish ships were ignited, they were forced to cut their anchors and the fleet’s tight formation was broken up.

It was then that Sir Francis Drake, half-admiral, half-pirate, was supposed to have finished his game of bowls before attending to the Spanish. The story is almost certainly apocryphal, but Drake (‘El Draque’ to the Spanish) was a formidable opponent, greedy for riches, ruthless and an excellent seaman. The English fleet was nevertheless cautious in its approach because the Armada looked worryingly large. Throughout the days that followed, the English were generally helped by a favourable wind, which allowed their vessels to remain behind the Armada, threatening its rearguard. What the English had to avoid was a close encounter, because the Spanish ships were used to grappling and boarding an enemy, not to long-range gun battles. Further skirmishes occurred off Portland Bill and the Isle of Wight, but as the Armada continued to its uncertain rendezvous with Parma, the English held back. ‘We pluck their feathers by little and little,’ wrote Howard.

Medina Sidonia and his commanders were confused by the English tactics and anxious about what would happen when they arrived off the Flanders shoals and sandbanks to try to shield Parma’s embarking army. There had been no reply to any of Medina Sidonia’s letters to Parma, but when news finally arrived on 7 August, it was evident that the Spanish army of the Netherlands was in no state to stage a cross-Channel invasion. The Spanish fleet anchored off Calais, unable to find a port and worried by the risk of beaching on the shallows. On the night of 7–8 August, the English prepared eight fire ships from among their older vessels and sent them towards the anchored Spanish. The captains immediately cut their cables and anchors and dispersed into the night.Not one Spanish vessel was ignited but the tight formation was at last broken up. At 7 a.m. on 8 August, the English fleet, now organized into four squadrons, closed with the scattered enemy north of Gravelines. At some point Howard and his admirals had realized that the Spanish were not prepared for a gun duel.

He ordered attack in line astern, a tactic used thereafter up to Trafalgar and beyond. They brought their ships within 100 metres (330 feet) of the Spanish and pounded them with shot that holed many below the waterline. There was little response, though Drake’s Revenge was badly damaged as he engaged Medina Sidonia’s flagship. The battle raged all day until the Spanish fleet began a full retreat into the North Sea, abandoning any attempt to collect the invasion army.The scale of the victory took some time to understand, since only two galleons had been sunk, though many were holed. Some 600 Spaniards were killed compared with a mere 20 on the English side, and the loss of not a single English vessel.

The Armada was doomed, for its large number of weaker Mediterranean ships proved no match for the weather on the long trip home around Scotland and Ireland. Only 66 ships returned, most of them damaged, and 20,000 out of the 30,000 on board perished – killed, starved, drowned or dead from disease. The English sailors were little better off, short of food and racked with epidemics. Many were left to die in the street on their return to port and Howard was forced to pay half their wages from his own pocket. But soon the result was understood, and on 30 August the City of London, with as much pomp and circumstance as it could manage, celebrated victory at St Paul’s Cathedral. Medina Sidonia arrived back in Spain seriously ill and was never forgiven. King Philip blamed his sins and those of his people for the fact that God had abandoned the Armada to its fate, but in reality the outcome rested on small but significant material differences between the two navies.