Spanish Armada sets sail to secure English Channel

Spanish Armada sets sail to secure English Channel

A massive Spanish fleet, known as the “Invincible Armada,” sets sail from Lisbon on a mission to secure control of the English Channel and transport a Spanish invasion army to Britain from the Netherlands.

In the late 1580s, Queen Elizabeth’s support of the Dutch rebels in the Spanish Netherlands led King Philip II of Spain to plan the conquest of England. A giant Spanish invasion fleet was completed by 1587, but Sir Francis Drake’s daring raid on the port of Cadiz delayed the Armada’s departure until May 1588. The Invincible Armada consisted of 130 ships and carried 2,500 guns and 30,000 men, two-thirds of them soldiers. Delayed by storms, the Armada did not reach the southern coast of England until late July. By that time the British were ready.

On July 21, the outnumbered English navy began bombarding the seven-mile-long line of Spanish ships from a safe distance, taking full advantage of their superior long-range guns. The Spanish Armada continued to advance during the next few days, but its ranks were thinned considerably by the English assault. On July 28, the Spanish retreated to Calais, France, but the English sent ships loaded with explosives into the crowded harbor, which took a heavy toll on the Armada. The next day, an attempt to reach the Netherlands was thwarted by a small Dutch fleet, and the Spanish were forced to face the pursuing English fleet. The superior English guns again won the day, and the Armada retreated north to Scotland.

Battered by storms and suffering from a lack of supplies, the Armada sailed on a difficult journey back to Spain through the North Sea and around Ireland. By the time the last of the surviving fleet reached Spain in October, half of the original armada was destroyed. Queen Elizabeth’s decisive defeat of the Invincible Armada made England a world-class naval power and introduced effective long-range weapons into naval warfare for the first time, ending the era of boarding and close-quarter fighting.

READ MORE: The Spanish Armada

Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada of 1588 was an attempt by Phillip of Spain to conquer England. Phillip, who had been married to Queen Mary, was angry that her sister, Queen Elizabeth had refused his proposal of marriage. he was also very angry that England had returned to protestantism. His anger bubbled out of control as Elizabeth did nothing to stop English sailors plundering the Spanish ships returning from the Americas.

Phillip planned an invasion of England. he would send his Spanish Armada of 131 ships and 17,000 men to France. here his armada would collect a further 16,000 Spanish soldiers who had been fighting in Holland. The fleet was then to cross the English channel and defeat the armies of Queen Elizabeth’s England.

The Spanish Armada set off after much preparation and reached the initial destination of Calais in early August of 1588. The English though had seen the Armada coming. Six boats were filled with firewood and set alight. They drifted towards the anchored Spanish Fleet. Upon seeing them the Spaniards panicked and set sail into the English Channel. here they were met by the English Fleet. The Spanish Admirals knew that they had enough men to overpower the English boats and tried to get close enough to board and attack the English ships. Their plan failed though. the English boats were too fast and could keep well away from the Spaniards. More significant was the type of boat that the English Fleet had. Each boat was armed with cannon. These were brought to bear upon the Spanish Fleet with disastrous consequences: the Spaniards were easy targets.

Fearing the destruction of their fleet at the hands of the English guns the fleet set sail into the North sea. They could regroup later and attack elsewhere. The weather though worsened and many of the surviving boats were swept against the rocks of the Scottish and Irish coasts. Less than 10,000 of Phillips men returned home. the Armada had been defeated by a combination of excellent tactics and atrocious weather.

As a result of the Armada England was a much more powerful nation. Elizabeth could be reasonably secure in the knowledge that another invasion was not likely, certainly within the next few years. The Spanish had less ships with which they could protect their trading ships and so English sailors could plunder with greater ease. The failure of the Armada made England a much more powerful nation.

This Day In Histroy: The Spanish Armada was Defeated (1588)

This day in history in 1588 , Spain&rsquos &ldquoInvincible Armada&rdquo was defeated. The English navy with its smaller and quicker ships was able to inflict serious damage on the Spanish fleet. The English under their commanders Howard and Drake engaged in an eight-hour battle with the Spanish. They attacked the Spanish in the Channel, the English guns had a longer range and they inflicted serious damages on the Spanish ships. A change in wind direction persuaded the Spanish to break off from the battle and retreat towards the North Sea. This probably saved the Armada from a total defeat. The English tactics were to break up the Spanish lines and to pick off the Spanish ships one by one. The Spanish fleet had taken shelter from the English in Calais

Spanish Armada and English ships

The English used fire ships to break up the Spanish lines and they began to pick off the Spanish ships one by one. The Spanish fleet had taken shelter from the English in Calais harbor. On the night of July 29, the English sent eight burning ships into the crowded harbor at Calais. The panicked Spanish ships were forced to cut their anchors and sail out to sea to avoid catching fire. The Spanish ships had more guns than the English but they were very slow and cumbersome and this was to prove costly to Spain and their dreams of conquest.

The Armada had been attacked just as they were about to link up the Spanish army in Flanders. Here some twenty thousand men waited to be transported to England. Once they had made it safely across the English Channel they would have made their way to London. The Spanish army was widely considered the best in Europe.

Its hopes of invasion crushed, the remnants of the Spanish Armada began a long and difficult journey back to Spain. They could not go back the way that the came. Instead, they were forced to make the journey home around the British Isles. The English navy was following behind them and was constantly harrying them.

On May 19, 1588 the Invincible Armada set sail from Lisbon on a mission to secure control of the English Channel and transport Spanish troops from Flanders to England. The fleet consisted of some 130 ships, 9000 sailors and had almost 20,000 troops. The Armada had to return to Spain because of storms and this delayed the invasion and allowed the English to prepare. The English were ready to attack the Spanish in the English Channel. This was critical for the success of the English in the Channel on the 29th of July.

The retreating Armada was forced to sail around Scotland and Ireland. Many ships were destroyed by storms. Many of those who reached safety in Ireland were often killed by local chieftains. Only a small portion of the Armada survived and managed to return to Spain.

Philip’s impatience

Following multiple postponements of the invasion, Philip grew increasingly impatient. In May 1588, he ordered Medina Sidonia to launch the fleet, despite preparations still not being complete.

Many galleons therefore lacked necessary provisions such as experienced gunners and high-quality cannon shot. Although a magnificent sight to behold, the Armada had severe faults in its weaponry when it set sail.

These faults soon revealed themselves in the Battle of Gravelines where the Spanish cannons proved ineffective because of the inexperience of the crews using them.

The Spanish Armada

King Philip II of Spain was the most powerful and (seemingly) wealthy man in Europe in the latter half of the 16th century. His territories in the New World brought him enormous wealth, though the expense of administering that far-flung empire meant that Spain was heavily in debt to foreign bankers.

England, by comparison, was a relatively small nation, and not a particularly powerful or wealthy one. Why then would Philip spend the money to assemble the largest - and most expensive - naval force ever seen against his island foe?

The answer has many parts. In his youth, Philip was married to his fellow Catholic, Mary, Queen of England. He was not king, indeed the only way the English Parliament would countenance the marriage was if Philip was expressly forbidden from ruling.

He was, rather, Mary's consort, a duty he fulfilled with underwhelming enthusiasm. Philip never cared for Mary, indeed, he said while on his way to his marriage, "I am going to a crusade, not to a marriage feast". He was fueled by a religious desire to father a Catholic heir who would keep England within the Roman Catholic sphere. Mary, by now a middle-aged spinster, certainly did care for her new husband, and even managed to convince herself that she was pregnant at one point, but it was not to be.

When Mary died in 1558 her very Protestant sister Elizabeth came to the throne. Philip was unwilling to let his precarious grasp on England slip away completely he proposed marriage to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was a master at procrastination, and playing the game of politics. She kept communication open with Philip, and protested her friendship, all the while encouraging English pirates like Hawkins and Drake to seize Spanish ships and goods in the West Indies. Drake was dubbed by the Spanish "the Master Thief of the Unknown World".

In the 1560s Elizabeth also earned Spanish wrath by supporting Protestants in the Netherlands in their revolt against Spanish occupation.

Spain also believed, or at least found it useful to believe, that Elizabeth was illegitimate. Under Catholic principles, Elizabeth's father Henry VIII had no right to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, to marry Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn. Therefore Elizabeth was born out of proper wedlock, and thus had no right to the throne.

More importantly for the fervently Catholic Philip, he believed that it was his duty to lead Protestant England back to the Catholic faith - by force if necessary. He managed to get papal approval for his invasion, and a promise of money to be delivered after the Spanish had landed in England.

He also got papal permission to name the next ruler of England (by surreptitiously slipping a clause to that effect into the middle of the document of agreement with the pope). Philip planned to name his daughter Isabella as Queen of England, under his control.

The Spanish Fleet
Philip began preparing his invasion force as early as 1584. His first choice as commander was the Marquis of Santa Cruz, but when Santa Cruz died Philip ordered the Duke of Medina Sedonia to take command of the fleet. The Duke was an experienced warrior - on land. He had no naval background, and no interest in leading the Armada, as the invasion fleet came to be called. He begged to be dismissed, but Philip ignored the request.

Despite Spanish precautions, the English were well aware of the Spanish preparations. In a bold move that was apparently against Elizabeth's wishes, Sir Francis Drake sailed a small English fleet to Cadiz, where they surprised a large number of Spanish warships in the harbour. Drake burned and sunk a number of ships and slipped away before the Spanish could rally. Although the blow at Cadiz was more an annoyance than a major setback, the English took heart from this "singeing of the King of Spain's beard".

The Armada sets sail
By May of 1588, however, the Armada was finally ready to sail. The fleet numbered over 130 ships, making it by far the greatest naval fleet of its age. According to Spanish records, 30,493 men sailed with the Armada, the vast majority of them soldiers. A closer look, however, reveals that this "Invincible Armada" was not quite so well-armed as it might seem.

Many of the Spanish vessels were converted merchant ships, better suited to carrying cargo than engaging in warfare at sea. They were broad and heavy, and could not manoeuvre quickly under sail.

This might not at first glance have seemed a problem to the Spanish. They did not intend to engage the English in a sea battle. The ships of the Armada were primarily troop transport. Their major task was simply to carry armed men to a designated landing point and unload them.

Naval tactics were evolving it was still common for ships to come alongside each other and allow fighting men to engage in hand to hand combat. Advances in artillery were only beginning to allow for more complex strategies and confrontations at sea. At this stage, the English were far more adept at artillery and naval tactics than the Spanish, who were regarded as the best soldiers in Europe.

The Spanish plans called for the fleet to sail up the English Channel and rendezvous off Dover with the Duke of Parma, who headed the Spanish forces in the Netherlands. This in itself presented huge problems. Communications were slow, and the logistical problems of a rendezvous at sea were immense.

Also, the Duke of Parma was a very proud man and resented the fact that Medina Sedonia had been given command of the operation. Throughout the whole Armada affair Parma, while not openly obstructionist, did a poor job of cooperating with his titular commander, Medina Sedonia. He did not believe the enterprise could succeed, and he did the absolute minimum possible to help.

Perhaps worst of all the problems faced by the Armada was Philip himself. The king insisted on controlling the details of the Armada's mission. He issued a steady stream of commands from his palace of the Escorial, yet he seldom met with his commanders, and never allowed his experienced military leaders to evolve their own tactics. He did not listen to advice, which was a shame, for Philip had little military training and a poor grasp of naval matters. He firmly believed that God guided him, and that therefore his mission would succeed.

The English were not idle while the Spanish Armada prepared to sail. A series of signal beacons atop hills along the English and Welsh coasts were manned. When the Spanish ships were at last sighted off The Lizard on 19 July 1588, the beacons were lit, speeding the news throughout the realm. The English ships slipped out of their harbour at Plymouth and, under cover of darkness, managed to get behind the Spanish fleet.

The Battle
The Spanish sailed up the Channel in a crescent formation, with the troop transports in the centre. When the Spanish finally reached Calais, they were met by a collection of English vessels under the command of Howard. Each fleet numbered about 60 warships, but the advantage of artillery and maneuverability was with the English.

Under the cover of darkness the English set fireships adrift, using the tide to carry the blazing vessels into the massed Spanish fleet. Although the Spanish were prepared for this tactic and quickly slipped anchor, there were some losses and inevitable confusion.

On Monday, July 29, the two fleets met in battle off Gravelines. The English emerged victorious, although the Spanish losses were not great only three ships were reported sunk, one captured, and four more ran aground. Nevertheless, the Duke of Medina Sedonia determined that the Armada must return to Spain. The English blocked the Channel, so the only route open was north around the tip of Scotland, and down the coast of Ireland.

It was then that the unpredictable English weather took a hand in the proceedings. A succession of storms scattered the Spanish ships, resulting in heavy losses. By the time the tattered Armada regained Spain, it had lost half its ships and three-quarters of its men.

In England, the victory was greeted as a sign of divine approval for the Protestant cause. The storms that scattered the Armada were seen as intervention by God. Services of thanks were held throughout the country, and a commemorative medal struck, with the words, "God blew and they were scattered" inscribed on it.

The term "Invincible Armada" was not a Spanish one. It was a sarcastic phrase employed by later English commentators.

Hearts of Oak: how the Royal Navy defeated the invincible Spanish Armada

Spain's 'Invincible' Armada included 130 ships, 8,000 seamen and 18,000 soldiers manning thousands of guns. The fleet was headed for Flanders, where it would meet the Duke of Parma and ferry 30,000 troops across the Channel onto England's shores.

It was impossible to keep preparations for such a huge enterprise secret and spies brought news of the plan to England's queen, Elizabeth I.

She agreed to a pre-emptive strike by Francis Drake, who raced to Spain with a small fleet and sunk dozens of the armada ships as they waited in port at Cadiz, an action that the English celebrated as the “singeing of the king of Spain’s beard.”

This delayed the Spanish attack by months, giving England time to strengthen its defences, digging trenches across beaches, securing a giant chain across the Thames and placing alert beacons along the coast.

England's navy was smaller than the Armada, with Drake and Lord Charles Howard leading around 100 ships. But they armed their boats with long-range guns, in contrast to the Spanish fleet that was geared to fighting at close quarters.

The two forces first faced each other in July. The English flotilla attacked from distance but was unable to break the Spanish ships' defensive half-moon pattern.

As the Armada raced towards the Channel, the English continued to harass and harry their attackers, without a decisive impact.

The Spanish dropped anchor off the coast of France, where they hopped to meet up with the Duke of Parma.

Desperate to prevent the two forces combining, the English waited until nightfall and set light to eight empty ships, letting the wind and tide take them towards the Spanish.

In panic at the sight of the firefleet, the Armada fled to the open sea. Seeing the Spanish were out of formation, the Royal Navy attacked at close quarters with repeated cannon fire.

The engagement continued through the day, with the Spanish losing four ships and several more damaged. The attack stopped when the English range out of shots and supplies.

On the coast, English troops were preparing for an invasion. Queen Elizabeth, dressed in armour and a white velvet gown, gave her famous Tilbury speech to inspire her men:

"I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too. I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field."

Back at sea, weather was on the side of the English. A storm carried the battered Spanish ships into the North Sea, ending their plan to link up with the Duke of Parma.

Supplies and morale was low, and disease was ravaging the men. The Spanish decided to abandon their invasion and escape by sailing around Scotland and Ireland.

But the British weather struck again and the fleet was ravaged by storms. Ships sunk, ran aground and were broken apart.

The Spanish had lost 2,000 men fighting the Royal Navy, but they were to lose 13,000 more on the tortuous journey home.

When it arrived in Spain, the 'Invincible' Armada had lost more than half its ships, with just 60 limping home.

Defeat of the mighty Spanish fleet led to celebrations across England, and the island nation was recognised as one of Europe's sea powers, a badge that would drive its plans for centuries to come.

Do you share our passion for Britain's maritime past?

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You'll be led by Andrew Lambert, one of our country's foremost authorities on Britain's maritime history, to visit the shipyards where the British navy was built and the setting where our seafaring plans were sunk for a generation.

England sent booby-trapped fireships into the Spanish Armada

After about a week of skirmish and retreat, neither navy had gained any real advantage and had only really succeeded in depleting their supplies and ammunition. Finally, the Armada anchored in deep water off Calais, hopefully sheltered from any of the nasty weather the Channel is known for. They stayed in formation and prepared for a windy night. That night, the wind brought eight unmanned ships into the Spanish line.

Drake had taken eight of his large warships and ordered them converted into what Historic UK calls "Hell-burners": They were smothered in tar and pitch and filled with gunpowder and brimstone. He had them steered downwind, set on fire, and then abandoned. The fireships drifted toward the Spanish, who raced into the wind to intercept them.

Two of the fireships were successfully pulled away from the Armada, but the rest plowed ahead driven by rising winds, fanning the flames on the ships higher. The Duke tried to keep formation, but panic gripped the sailors. Many of the ships cut anchor and scattered. The fireships broke through the Spanish crescent, and though no ships were damaged by the fire, in the confusion, Spanish ships crashed into other Spanish ships. They tried to close ranks, but the ships were disorganized and unable to regroup as the Royal Navy closed in.


The word armada is from the Spanish: armada, which is cognate with English army. Originally from the Latin: armāta, the past participle of armāre, 'to arm', used in Romance languages as a noun for armed force, army, navy, fleet. [22] Armada Española is still the Spanish term for the modern Spanish Navy.

Background Edit

King Henry VIII began the English Reformation as a political exercise over his desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Over time, England became increasingly aligned with the Protestant reformation taking place in Europe, especially during the reign of Henry's son, Edward VI. Edward died childless, and his half-sister Mary ascended the throne. Mary and her husband, Philip II of Spain, began to reassert Roman Catholic influence over church affairs. Her attempts led to more than 260 people being burned at the stake, earning her the nickname "Bloody Mary". [23]

Mary's death in 1558 led to her half-sister Elizabeth taking the throne. Unlike Mary, Elizabeth was firmly in the reformist camp and quickly reimplemented many of Edward's reforms. Philip, no longer co-monarch, deemed Elizabeth a heretic and illegitimate ruler of England. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Henry had never officially divorced Catherine, making Elizabeth illegitimate. It is alleged that Phillip supported plots to have Elizabeth overthrown in favour of her Catholic cousin and heir presumptive, Mary, Queen of Scots. These plans were thwarted when Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned and executed in 1587. Elizabeth retaliated against Philip by supporting the Dutch Revolt against Spain, as well as funding privateers to raid Spanish ships across the Atlantic. She had also negotiated an enduring trade and political alliance with Morocco.

In retaliation, Philip planned an expedition to invade England in order to overthrow Elizabeth and, if the Armada was not entirely successful, at least negotiate freedom of worship for Catholics and financial compensation for war in the Low Countries. [24] Through this endeavour, English material support for the United Provinces, the part of the Low Countries that had successfully seceded from Spanish rule, and English attacks on Spanish trade and settlements [25] in the New World would end. Philip was supported by Pope Sixtus V, who treated the invasion as a crusade, with the promise of a subsidy should the Armada make land. [26] Substantial support for the invasion was also expected from English Catholics, including wealthy and influential aristocrats and traders. [27]

A raid on Cádiz, led by privateer Francis Drake in April 1587, had captured or destroyed about 30 ships and great quantities of supplies, setting preparations back by a year. [28] There is also evidence that a letter from Elizabeth's security chief and spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, to her ambassador in Istanbul, William Harborne, sought to initiate Ottoman Empire fleet manoeuvres to harass the Spaniards, [29] but there is no evidence for the success of that plan. Philip initially favoured a triple attack, starting with a diversionary raid on Scotland, while the main Armada would capture either the Isle of Wight or Southampton to establish a safe anchorage in The Solent. The Duke of Parma would then follow with a large army from the Low Countries crossing the English Channel. Parma was uneasy about mounting such an invasion without any possibility of surprise. The appointed commander of the Armada was the highly experienced Álvaro de Bazán, Marquis of Santa Cruz, but he died in February 1588, and the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a high-born courtier, took his place. While a competent soldier and distinguished administrator, Medina Sidonia had no naval experience. He wrote to Philip expressing grave doubts about the planned campaign, but his message was prevented from reaching the King by courtiers on the grounds that God would ensure the Armada's success. [30]

Prior to the undertaking, Pope Sixtus V allowed Philip to collect crusade taxes and granted his men indulgences. The blessing of the Armada's banner on 25 April 1588 was similar to the ceremony used prior to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. On 28 May 1588, the Armada set sail from Lisbon and headed for the English Channel. The fleet was composed of 130 ships, 8,000 sailors and 18,000 soldiers, and bore 1,500 brass guns and 1,000 iron guns. The full body of the fleet took two days to leave port. It included 28 purpose-built warships, of which 20 were galleons, four were galleys and four were Neapolitan galleasses. The remaining heavy vessels were mostly armed carracks and hulks, along with 34 light ships. [31]

In the Spanish Netherlands, 30,000 soldiers [32] awaited the arrival of the Armada, the plan being to use the cover of the warships to convey the army on barges to a place near London. In all, 55,000 men were to have been mustered, a huge army for that time. On the day the Armada set sail, Elizabeth's ambassador in the Netherlands, Valentine Dale, met Parma's representatives in peace negotiations. The English made a vain effort to intercept the Armada in the Bay of Biscay. On 6 July, negotiations were abandoned, and the English fleet stood prepared, if ill-supplied, at Plymouth, awaiting news of Spanish movements. The English fleet outnumbered that of the Spanish, 200 ships to 130, [33] while the Spanish fleet outgunned that of the English. The Spanish available firepower was 50% more than that of the English. [34] The English fleet consisted of the 34 ships of the Royal Fleet, 21 of which were galleons of 200 to 400 tons, and 163 other ships, 30 of which were of 200 to 400 tons and carried up to 42 guns each. Twelve of the ships were privateers owned by Lord Howard of Effingham, Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake. [4]

The Armada was delayed by bad weather. Storms in the Bay of Biscay forced four galleys and one galleon to turn back, and other ships had to put in for repairs, leaving about 124 ships to actually make it to the English Channel. Nearly half of the fleet was not built as warships and was used for duties such as scouting and dispatch work, or for carrying supplies, animals and troops. [31]

The fleet was sighted in England on 19 July when it appeared off the Lizard in Cornwall. The news was conveyed to London by a system of beacons that had been constructed along the south coast. On 19 July, the English fleet was trapped in Plymouth Harbour by the incoming tide. The Spanish convened a council of war, where it was proposed to ride into the harbour on the tide and incapacitate the defending ships at anchor. From Plymouth Harbour the Spanish would attack England, but Philip explicitly forbade Medina Sidonia from engaging, leaving the Armada to sail on to the east and toward the Isle of Wight. As the tide turned, 55 English ships set out to confront the Armada from Plymouth under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham, with Sir Francis Drake as vice admiral. The rear admiral was Sir John Hawkins.

First actions Edit

On 20 July, the English fleet was off Eddystone Rocks with the Armada upwind to the west. To execute its attack, the English tacked upwind of the Armada, thus gaining the weather gage, a significant advantage. At daybreak on 21 July, the English fleet engaged the Armada off Plymouth near the Eddystone Rocks. The Armada was in a crescent-shaped defensive formation, convex toward the east. The galleons and great ships were concentrated in the centre and at the tips of the crescent's horns, giving cover to the transports and supply ships in between. Opposing them, the English were in two sections, with Drake to the north in Revenge with 11 ships, and Howard to the south in Ark Royal with the bulk of the fleet.

Given the Spanish advantage in close-quarter fighting, the English ships used their superior speed and manoeuvrability to keep beyond grappling range and bombarded the Spanish ships from a distance with cannon fire. The distance was too great for the manoeuvre to be effective and, at the end of the first day's fighting, neither fleet had lost a ship in action, although the Spanish carrack Rosario and galleon San Salvador were abandoned after they collided with each other. When night fell, Drake turned his ship back to loot the abandoned Spanish ships, capturing supplies of much-needed gunpowder and gold. Drake had been guiding the English fleet by means of a lantern, which he snuffed out to slip away from the Spanish ships, causing the rest of his fleet to become scattered and disarrayed by dawn. [35] The English ships again used their superior speed and manoeuvrability to catch up with the Spanish fleet after a day of sailing.

The English fleet and the Armada engaged once more on 23 July, off Portland. A change of wind gave the Spanish the weather gage, and they sought to close with the English, but were foiled by the smaller ships' greater manoeuvrability. At one point, Howard formed his ships into a line of battle to attack at close range, bringing all his guns to bear, but he did not follow through with the manoeuvre and little was achieved.

If the Armada could create a temporary base in the protected waters of the Solent, a strait separating the Isle of Wight from the English mainland, it could wait there for word from Parma's army. However, in a full-scale attack, the English fleet broke into four groups with Martin Frobisher of the ship Aid given command over a squadron, and Drake coming with a large force from the south. Medina Sidonia sent reinforcements south and ordered the Armada back to open sea to avoid the Owers shoals. [36] There were no other secure harbours further east along England's south coast, so the Armada was compelled to make for Calais, without being able to wait for word of Parma's army.

On 27 July, the Armada anchored off Calais in a tightly packed defensive crescent formation, not far from Dunkirk, where Parma's army, reduced by disease to 16,000, was expected to be waiting, ready to join the fleet in barges sent from ports along the Flemish coast. Communication was more difficult than anticipated, and word came too late that the Parma army had yet to be equipped with sufficient transport or to be assembled in the port, a process that would take at least six days. As Medina Sidonia waited at anchor, Dunkirk was blockaded by a Dutch fleet of 30 flyboats under Lieutenant-Admiral Justinus van Nassau. [37] Parma wanted the Armada to send its light pataches to drive away the Dutch, but Medina Sidonia would not send them because he feared he would need these ships for his own protection. There was no deep-water port where the fleet might shelter, which had been acknowledged as a major difficulty for the expedition, and the Spanish found themselves vulnerable as night drew on.

The Dutch flyboats mainly operated in the shallow waters off Zeeland and Flanders where larger warships with a deeper draught, like the Spanish and English galleons, could not safely enter. The Dutch enjoyed an unchallenged naval advantage in these waters, even though their navy was inferior in naval armament. An essential element of the plan of invasion, as it was eventually implemented, was the transportation of a large part of Parma's army of Flanders as the main invasion force in unarmed barges across the English Channel. These barges would be protected by the large ships of the Armada. However, to get to the Armada, they would have to cross the zone dominated by the Dutch navy, where the Armada could not go. This problem seems to have been overlooked by the Spanish planners, but it was insurmountable. Because of this obstacle, England never was in any real danger, at least from the Duke of Parma and the Army of Flanders. Because of the eventual English victory at sea, the Army of Flanders escaped the drowning death van Nassau had in mind for them. [38] [39]

At midnight on 28 July, the English set alight eight fire ships, sacrificing regular warships by filling them with pitch, brimstone, gunpowder and tar, and cast them downwind among the closely anchored vessels of the Armada. The Spanish feared that these uncommonly large fireships were "hellburners", [40] specialised fire ships filled with large gunpowder charges that had been used to deadly effect at the Siege of Antwerp. Two were intercepted and towed away, but the remainder bore down on the fleet. Medina Sidonia's flagship and the principal warships held their positions, but the rest of the fleet cut their anchor cables and scattered in confusion. No Spanish ships were burnt, but the crescent formation had been broken, and the fleet found itself too far leeward of Calais in the rising southwesterly wind to recover its position. The English closed in for battle.

Battle of Gravelines Edit

The small port of Gravelines was part of Flanders in the Spanish Netherlands close to the border with France and was the closest Spanish territory to England. Medina Sidonia tried to regather his fleet there and was reluctant to sail further east, knowing the danger from the shoals off Flanders, from which his Dutch enemies had removed the sea marks. The English learned of the Armada's weaknesses during the skirmishes in the English Channel and concluded it was possible to close to within 100 yards (91 m) to penetrate the oak hulls of the Spanish ships. They had spent most of their gunpowder in the first engagements and had, after the Isle of Wight, been forced to conserve their heavy shot and powder for an anticipated attack near Gravelines. During all the engagements, the Spanish heavy guns could not easily be reloaded because of their close spacing and the quantities of supplies stowed between decks, as Drake had discovered on capturing the damaged Nuestra Señora del Rosario in the channel. [41] Instead, the Spanish gunners fired once and then transferred to their main task, which was to board enemy ships as had been the practice in naval warfare at the time. Evidence from Armada wrecks in Ireland shows that much of the fleet's ammunition was unused. [42] Its determination to fight by boarding, rather than employing cannon fire at a distance, proved a weakness for the Spanish. The manoeuvre had been effective in the battles of Lepanto and Ponta Delgada earlier in the decade, but the English were aware of it and sought to avoid it by keeping their distance.

With its superior manoeuvrability, the English fleet provoked Spanish fire while staying out of range. The English then closed, firing damaging broadsides into the enemy ships, which enabled them to maintain a windward position, so the heeling Armada hulls were exposed to damage below the water line when they changed course later. Many of the Spanish gunners were killed or wounded by the English broadsides, and the task of manning the cannon often fell to the regular foot soldiers who did not know how to operate them. The ships were close enough for sailors on the upper decks of the English and Spanish ships to exchange musket fire. After eight hours, the English ships began to run out of ammunition, and some gunners began loading objects such as chains into cannon. Around 4 p.m., the English fired their last shots and pulled back. [43]

Five Spanish ships were lost. The galleass San Lorenzo, flagship of Don Hugo de Moncada, ran aground at Calais and was taken by Howard after fighting between the crew, galley slaves, English, and the French. The galleons San Mateo and San Felipe drifted away in a sinking condition, ran aground on the island of Walcheren the next day and were taken by the Dutch. One carrack ran aground near Blankenberge and another foundered. Many other Spanish ships were severely damaged, especially the Portuguese and some Spanish Atlantic-class galleons, including some Neapolitan galleys, which bore the brunt of the fighting during the early hours of the battle. The Spanish plan to join with Parma's army had been defeated.

Elizabeth's Tilbury speech Edit

Because of the threat of invasion from the Netherlands, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester assembled a force of 4,000 militia at West Tilbury, Essex, to defend the Thames Estuary against any incursion up-river toward London. Because the result of the English fire ship attack and the sea battle of Gravelines had not yet reached England, on 8 August, Elizabeth went to Tilbury to review her forces, arriving on horseback in ceremonial armour to imply to the militia she was prepared to lead them in the ensuing battle. She gave to them her royal address, which survives in at least six slightly different versions. [44] One version is as follows:

My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes for fear of treachery but, I do assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself, that under God I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects and, therefore, I am come amongst you as you see at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all – to lay down for my God, and for my kingdoms, and for my people, my honour and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms – I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, for your forwardness, you have deserved rewards and crowns, and, we do assure you, on the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people. [45]

After the victory, typhus swept the English ships, beginning among the 500-strong crew of the Elizabeth Jonas and killing many mariners. The sailors were not paid for their service, and many died of the disease and starvation after landing at Margate. [46] : 144–148

Return to Spain Edit

On the day after the battle at Gravelines, the disorganised and unmanoeuvrable Spanish fleet was at risk of running onto the sands of Zeeland because of the prevailing wind. The wind then changed to the south, enabling the fleet to sail north. The English ships under Howard pursued to prevent any landing on English soil, although by this time his ships were almost out of shot. On 2 August, Howard called a halt to the pursuit at about the latitude of the Firth of Forth off Scotland. The only option left to the Spanish ships was to return to Spain by sailing round the north of Scotland and home via the Atlantic or the Irish Sea. The Spanish ships were beginning to show wear from the long voyage, and some were kept together by having their damaged hulls strengthened with cables. Supplies of food and water ran short. The intention would have been to keep to the west of the coast of Scotland and Ireland in the relative safety of the open sea. There being no way of accurately measuring longitude, the Spanish were not aware that the Gulf Stream was carrying them north and east as they tried to move west, and they eventually turned south much closer to the coast than they thought. Off Scotland and Ireland, the fleet ran into a series of powerful westerly winds which drove many of the damaged ships further toward the lee shore. Because so many anchors had been abandoned during the escape from the English fire ships off Calais, many of the ships were incapable of securing shelter as the fleet reached the coast of Ireland and were driven onto the rocks local inhabitants looted the ships. The late 16th century and especially 1588 was marked by unusually strong North Atlantic storms, perhaps associated with a high accumulation of polar ice off the coast of Greenland, a characteristic phenomenon of the "Little Ice Age". [47] More ships and sailors were lost to cold and stormy weather than in direct combat.

About 5,000 men died by drowning, starvation and slaughter by local inhabitants after their ships were driven ashore on the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland. [48] Reports of the passage of the remnants of the Spanish Armada around Ireland abound with onerous accounts of hardships and survival. [49] Spanish Captain Francisco de Cuéllar was wrecked on the coast of Ireland and gave a remarkable account of his experiences in the fleet and on the run in Ireland.

In the end, 67 ships and fewer than 10,000 men survived. [50] Many of the men were near death from disease, as the conditions were very cramped, and most of the ships had run out of food and water. Some were captured and imprisoned by the English in what was later called the "Spanish Barn" in Torquay on the south coast of England. More Armada survivors later died in Spain or on hospital ships in Spanish harbours from diseases contracted during the voyage. It was reported that when Philip learned of the result of the expedition, he declared, "I sent the Armada against men, not God's winds and waves". [51]

The following year the English launched the Counter Armada, with 23,375 men and 150 ships under Sir Francis Drake, but thousands were killed, wounded or died of disease [52] [53] [54] and 40 ships sunk or captured. [55] The attempt to restore the Portuguese Crown from Spain was unsuccessful, and the opportunity to strike a decisive blow against the weakened Spanish navy was lost. The failure of the expedition depleted the financial resources of England's treasury, which had been carefully restored during the long reign of Elizabeth I.

During the course of the war, the Spanish failed to gain control of the English Channel or stop the English intervention in Flanders or English privateer transatlantic raids. Although substantially weaker than the great armada sent in 1588, two more armadas were sent by Spain in 1596 and 1597, but both were scattered by storms. [56] Nevertheless, through Philip's naval revival, the English and Dutch ultimately failed to disrupt the various fleets of the Indies despite the great number of military personnel mobilised every year. Thus, Spain remained the predominant power in Europe for several decades. [57] The conflict wound down with diminishing military actions until a peace was agreed between the two powers on the signing of the Treaty of London in 1604.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada vindicated the English strategy and caused a revolution in naval tactics, taking advantage of the wind (the "weather gage") and line-to-line cannon fire from windward, which exposed the opponent ship's hull and rudder as targets. Also instilled was the use of naval cannon to damage enemy ships without the need to board. Until then, the cannon had played a supporting role to the main tactic of ramming and boarding enemy ships.

Most military historians hold that the battle of Gravelines reflected a lasting shift in the balance of naval power in favour of the English, in part because of the gap in naval technology and cannon armament which continued into the next century. [58] In the words of historian Geoffrey Parker, by 1588, "the capital ships of the Elizabethan navy constituted the most powerful battlefleet afloat anywhere in the world". [59] The English navy yards were leaders in technical innovation, and the captains devised new battle formations and tactics. The sleeker and more manoeuvrable full-rigged ship, with ample cannon, was one of the greatest advances of the century and permanently transformed naval warfare.

English shipwrights introduced designs in 1573, first demonstrated in Dreadnought, that allowed the ships to sail faster, manoeuvre better, and carry more and heavier guns. [60] Whereas before warships had tried to grapple with each other so soldiers could board the enemy ship, they were able to stand off and fire broadside cannonades that could sink the vessel. Superior English ships and seamanship had foiled the invasion. The English also took advantage of Spain's complex strategy that required coordination between the invasion fleet and the Spanish army on shore. The outdated design of the Spanish cannon meant they were much slower in reloading in a close-range battle, allowing the English to take control. Spain still had numerically larger fleets, but England was catching up. [61]

Spanish Armada

By the mid-1580s, Philip II of Spain had reached the end of his rope. His courtship of Elizabeth I of England had been rebuffed and the rivalry between the two nations had developed to a war-like status. Philip began preparations in 1586 for an invasion of England, hoping to accomplish three goals:

  1. End the predatory actions of the English Sea Dogs, particularly those of Sir Francis Drake, who had been especially successful in plundering Spanish ships and colonial cities.
  2. Return England to the Roman Catholic fold by removing the Protestant Queen Elizabeth
  3. Increase his power and prestige by gaining the English crown.

However, Spain's construction of the "Invincible Armada" was dealt a serious blow in 1587, when Drake launched a preemptive strike against the fleet in its home port of Cádiz. This surprise attack probably delayed the Armada by a year and provided additional time for the preparation of English defenses. By May 1588, a force of nearly 30,000 men had been gathered on 130 ships. They set sail from Lisbon, but were soon halted by adverse weather conditions and forced to put in to La Coruña. The regrouped Armada set out again in July with the first order of business being the collection of additional soldiers from the Netherlands. The Spanish ships entering the English Channel were under orders to avoid conflict with enemy vessels until the new soldier were on board. However, the faster and more maneuverable English ships under the command of Charles Howard launched a series of long-range attacks. Battles were fought for a week off Plymouth and the Isle of Wight none was decisive. The Spanish fleet then anchored in the waters off Calais and attempted to link up with the soldiers on shore. In a masterstroke, the English sent a small fleet of unmanned old ships, coated with tar and filled with gunpowder, into the midst of the Spanish navy at anchor. The resulting explosions inflicted heavy damage on the invading Armada and scattered many of the vessels that had escaped harm. The English followed up with a coordinated attack, known as the battle of Gravelines. The Spanish effort to escape from the Channel by sailing west into the Atlantic was thwarted by strong headwinds, later dubbed the "Protestant Wind." Instead, the Armada was forced to sail into the North Sea and to round Scotland in order to reach the Atlantic. This passage took a further toll on the Spanish fleet as storms continued to impede its progress and provisions ran low. A number of ships foundered on the return voyage the sailors and soldiers who washed up on the western shores of Ireland were slaughtered on the beaches by English forces. Only 67 of the original 130 ships returned to Spain and as many as 15,000 men perished. The defeat of the Spanish Armada did not automatically make England the dominant power of the western world. Spain would remain a great force in European affairs for years to come and would be able to continue its war against England into the next century. Nevertheless, changes were afoot:

  • Spain was weakened by the defeat. The cost of preparing the Armada had been tremendous and left the country with a depleted treasury at the same time that New World riches were beginning to dry up. Further, following 1588 Spain was no longer the dominant naval power in the Atlantic.
  • In England, the victory inspired a new wave of self-confidence and nationalism. The navy had emerged as a potent force in international affairs and as the prime defender of the homeland. The English also felt emboldened to begin colonization efforts in North America.