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Spanish Armada

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The Spanish Armada was a failed seaborne invasion of England by Spain in 1588. The Armada included 130 large ships of 57,900 tons mounting 2,500 cannons and manned by 30,700 crewmen. The English fleet consisted of 197 vessels of 29,800 tons manned by 15,800 men.


The operation was planned by Philip II, king of Spain, to help realize his dynastic ambitions[1] to expand the Spanish empire and to reconvert Protestant Europe. He was repeatedly exhorted by popes Gregory XIII (d. 1585) and Sixtus V as well as by English Catholics in exile to extend the Counter Reformation to England. The stringent policies of English Queen Elizabeth I toward her Catholic subjects, her moral leadership of Protestants abroad, and particularly the encouragement she gave to Philip's rebelling subjects in the United Provinces of the Netherlands infuriated the Spanish king.

In 1587 Philip roused to action. In February 1587 Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic who also claimed the English crown was executed for treason against England. In April the English sea dog, Francis Drake, who had previously raided Spanish settlements in Central and South America, destroyed over 20 ships at Cádiz, one of Spain's main ports.


Philip tried to neutralize France by involvement in its internal power struggle. He raised money from loans from his German and Italian bankers, pledging his ordinary revenues, and especially the annual flow of treasure from his possessions in the New World. Aware of English naval prowess, he decided to overwhelm it with sheer mass. Philip marshaled 130 sail of all classes, totaling over 59,000 tons--from his Mediterranean and Atlantic fleets, from the Portuguese navy (which he controlled), and from his allies. More than 19,000 soldiers and 8,000 sailors recruited to man these ships were to join 30,000 troops who had been fighting in the Spanish Netherlands under Philip's commander, the Duke of Parma. He first chose a competent admiral, Don Álvaro de Bazán, but he died and Philip turned to Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, Duke of Medina Sidonia (1550-1615). He was an incompetent seaman, albeit intelligent and courageous.

If the Armada had landed its army in England, it may well have succeeded. The Spanish army was large, experienced, well-equipped, confident, and richly financed. English defenses were poor and outdated; troops were few and only partially trained. Spain had chosen England's weakest defensive link. London might have fallen within a week. A Catholic uprising in the north and in Ireland could have brought total defeat. England essentially depended on the will and loyalty of the common people.

English plans

Since November 1587 the English and the Dutch had been aware of Philip's intentions. To prevent a juncture of Parma's army with the Armada, Charles, Lord Howard of Effingham, the Lord Admiral, had sent small squadrons to patrol the Dutch coast. After much debate, Howard accepted Drake's advice to use 54 of the Queen's best ships then anchored at Plymouth on the English Channel, to blockade and destroy the Armada before it left the Spanish coast. But on July 29, 1588, after the winds had changed and made this venture impossible, the Armada was sighted off the Scilly Isles, near the coast of Cornwall in southwestern England.


The Armada set sail from Lisbon on May 9, 1588, but gales forced it back to La Coruña for refitting, and the voyage was not resumed until July 22. The first encounter occurred off Plymouth, near the Eddystone Rocks, on July 31, when three Spanish ships were lost at little cost to the English. Fighting resumed farther east on August 2, near Portland Bill; neither fleet lost a ship in this encounter, ammunition was seriously depleted on both sides. The English could replenish their supplies of powder and shot; the Spaniards, far from home, could not.

The Armada continued northeast with its strongest ships on either tip of its tight, crescent-shaped formation, while the slower merchantmen and hulks, which comprised a third to a half of the whole, sailed protected at its center. Late on the night of August 7, while the Armada lay at anchor before Calais, on the French side of the Strait of Dover, the English sent eight burning merchant ships into the midst of the Spanish fleet. With only time to slip their cables, the Spanish ships drifted away in panic and disorder. One great galleass (a ship propelled by sails and oars) ran aground, and the damage suffered by other Spanish vessels was extensive.

Before Medina Sidonia could regroup his fleet, the English attacked on August 8. During the next eight hours of battle the Spaniards drifted perilously near the shoals off Gravelines, northeast of Calais; but at the moment when it seemed they would be driven on to the banks and give the English easy victory, the wind veered from northwest to southwest and drove the Armada back into the safety of the North Sea. The Duke of Medina-Sidonia considered surrendering his entire Armada to the English, but instead plunged on. On August 12 a squall separated the two navies near the Firth of Forth, on the east shore of Scotland; the English gave up pursuit.

Recognizing the superior seamanship of the English fleet and the impossibility of combining with the forces of the Duke of Parma, the Spaniards headed home. They charted a course around the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland, then southwest to Ireland, where they hoped to find supplies, and finally to Spain.

26 of these ships and their crews were lost on the coast of Ireland and Scotland. Poor seamanship was at fault, together with bad maps — the Spanish pilots were unable to calculate longitude or gauge the effects of the unfamiliar tides, and the Armada ships sailed much closer to the coast than intended.

The insufficient supply of provisions was due to mismanagement, corruption, the English capture of supply ships, and spoilage. Reduced rations weakened the crews, resupply in Calais and Flanders was impossible, and disease exacerbated by hunger increased the number of deaths. Ravaged by storm and shipwreck, the Armada returned to the safety of the Spanish port of Santander, on the Bay of Biscay, with only 86 ships and less than half the men who had left five months before.


The Armada was the victim of the poor mix of its ships and armament, of its ill-trained and undermanned crews, and of the dissension and division in its incompetent command. Spanish guns were inferior to the long-range cannon of the English, whose galleons proved faster, more maneuverable, and more weatherly than the bulky Spanish vessels. Parker (1988) says Philip II caused the failure because his strategy required a synchronization between the invasion fleet and Parma's army barges that his tactics could not guarantee because the design of his cannons' carriages prevented rapid reloading in a close-range cannonade, thereby allowing England to control the Channel.[2]

Added to the problems of logistics, and the prevailing winds and currents in the English Channel, the liabilities proved devastating for the Spanish, whose basic strategy was inherently flawed. A Spanish victory was highly improbable. There were six naval encounters, but none were decisive. What destroyed the Armada was stormy weather, the use of fire-ships, loss of morale and disease. The defeat of the Armada was not decisive militarily but it did create a morale-building English myth, and Protestantism had survived a considerable threat. Protestants felt divinely favored and believed that the fortunes of Spain and Catholicism had turned. Spanish morale was undermined; it fatally weakened the Catholic League, and in reduced the respect of neutrals for Spain. The Spanish spent heavily to rebuild the fleet and lost no territory to England immediately; and the revenue from the silver mines in the Spanish Indies continued to increase and staved off bankruptcy.


For 150 years writers depended heavily on Petruccio Ubaldini's A Discourse Concernye the Spanish Fleete Invadinye Englande (1590), which explained that God favored England and English victory confirmed English Protestantism. In the 17th century William Camden (1551-1623) added nationalism and private enterprise to the English side and depicted the Duke of Medina Sidonia as an incompetent seaman. In the Enlightenment David Hume (1711-76) dropped divine favor and stressed the leadership of Elizabeth I. Hume was challenged by 19th-century Whig historians led by James A. Froude (1818-94), who criticized Elizabeth for vacillating and being unwilling to spend the money necessary to defend England. The publication of primary documents by John K. Laughton in 1894 led modern "scientific historians," led by Julian Corbet (1854-1922), to reject the Whig views and emphasize the role of England's professional navy in the victory. Historians have since debated the relative power of English and Spanish guns and the degree of credit due Francis Drake and Charles Howard.[3]


  1. As widower of Elizabeth's immediate predecessor, Mary I, Philip contended that his claim to the English throne was superior to that of Elizabeth, who he claimed was illegitimate.
  2. Geoffrey Parker, "Why the Armada Failed." History Today 1988 38(may): 26-33. Issn: 0018-2753 Fulltext: Ebsco
  3. Douglas Knerr, "Through the "Golden Mist": a Brief Overview of Armada Historiography." American Neptune 1989 49(1): 5-13.