The defeat of the Spanish Armada was one of the great turning points of English history. Before, there was a real possibility that
could suffer another “1066”
and be conquered by a foreign power. Afterwards, Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed
security on her throne and England was set to become a major world power and
the champion of Protestantism in Europe. England
The Armada was a fleet of 132 ships sent by the Spanish king, Philip II, to invade
England and seize the throne from . He had been
the husband of Elizabeth ’s
half-sister, Queen Mary I, who had died childless in 1558. Mary had sought to return
to Roman Catholicism, and Philip had the same end in view. England
The gap of 30 years between Mary’s death and the sending of the Armada is evidence of the political power game, played by the European nations, which had given Philip some hope that England might return to Rome by other means (including a proposal of marriage to Elizabeth!). Elizabeth was a consummate politician and the mistress of delay and indecision when it suited her. She was thus able to keep Philip at arms’ length for many years.
Philip also had other things on his mind, not least the struggle to retain control of the Spanish Netherlands (modern day
and ). Belgium
However, Philip’s patience was sorely tried by the activities of sea captains such as Francis Drake who behaved virtually as pirates in their attacking of Spanish ships and colonies.
was the major colonial power in the , and Spanish ships, laden
with gold and other treasure and produce, were easy targets for seamen who were
not easily controlled by their home government, even had that been intended.
The fact that Americas
was happy to accept captured Spanish booty, and the honours bestowed on Drake
and other “pirates”, suggests that little such control was to be expected! Elizabeth
Preparations on both sides
The construction of the Armada began as early as 1585, but there were many delays and setbacks to its completion. Not the least of these was the action by Francis Drake in 1587 of sailing into the port of Cadiz and destroying much of the Spanish fleet. The action was described by Drake as “singeing the King of Spain’s beard”.
One thing the Spanish did not have was the element of surprise. The English knew all about the invasion plans and were well prepared for it when it came, which was in 1588. The story of Drake insisting on finishing his game of bowls before taking on the Spanish is probably apocryphal, but it summarises the relaxed approach that the English were able to take.
The idea behind the Armada was not to defeat the English at sea, but to carry troops, some of whom were to travel from Spain but the bulk of whom were to be transported from the Spanish Netherlands across the English Channel to the Thames Estuary, where they would be landed and then make a direct assault on London. Only 22 ships in the Armada fleet were purpose-built warships, the rest comprising adapted merchant ships of various types.
The English fleet that confronted the Spanish Armada was similar in composition to that of the Armada, in that the bulk of the ships were armed merchant vessels rather than purpose-built warships. These warships were similar in design to the Spanish galleons but smaller and therefore more manoeuvrable, although having similar armaments.
One huge advantage that the English had from the outset was that their commanders knew what they were doing but the Spanish did not. The English Lord High Admiral, Howard of Effingham, was both a seaman and a politician, as well as being a first cousin of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s late mother. He was ably assisted by Francis Drake, who was a consummate seaman (he had sailed round the world and been knighted on his return in 1581) who also knew the Spanish inside out from his frequent skirmishes with them.
On the other hand, the Spanish fleet was led by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who had no experience of fighting, either on land or sea, and was probably appointed (as a late substitute for the Marquis of Santa Cruz who died in February 1588) because Philip knew that Medina Sidonia would follow his orders to the letter, and the last thing Philip wanted was a commander who would show any initiative of his own.
Medina Sidonia knew all along that he was the wrong man for the job, and pleaded with Philip to be relieved from the responsibility. Apart from anything else, he suffered badly from sea-sickness! However, his pleas were turned down, and it is even possible that his letter to Philip was never shown to the King, because his courtiers knew exactly what his response would be.
Indeed, Philip’s main fault was his desire to micro-manage the whole affair. The plan was Philip’s from the outset, namely to use the Armada to collect the 30,000 strong army of the Duke of Parma and sail it across the channel to
had already suggested to Philip that he could do this without naval support,
relying instead on surprise, a fleet of lightly armed barges, and an expected
uprising by English Catholics, but he was overruled. He had no choice but to
wait for the Armada to arrive. England
The progress of the Armada
As the Armada reached sight of England on 19th July, beacons were lit that conveyed the news to London faster than any messenger could achieve; as the hill-top watchers saw the distant light from a burning beacon they would light their own so that it would be seen by the next in the chain.
As it happened, Drake’s response was delayed not so much by an unfinished game of bowls as by an unfavourable tide. Most of the English fleet was holed up in
, ready to pounce on the Armada
as it came into sight, but the low tide prevented this. The Spanish had an
opportunity to take advantage by blockading the harbour and attacking the
English ships when they emerged, but this idea was turned down because it did
not accord with Philip’s orders. Plymouth Harbour
Instead, the Armada was allowed to continue up the
with the English fleet, once the tide had turned, in pursuit. Several small engagements
took place, notably at Eddystone near ,
and off Portland Bill, but little damage was suffered by either side. Plymouth
Two Spanish ships managed to collide with each other and Drake, ever the opportunist, decided to raid the crippled ships at night for whatever they might have on board. However, this move led to other ships of the fleet not knowing where he had gone and, when dawn broke, the fleet was completely out of formation. It took a day for the ships to regroup, by which time the Armada was out of sight. However, the greater speed of the English ships allowed them to catch up.
The most significant engagement on the way up the Channel occurred off the
Isle of Wight, when the English fleet divided into four
squadrons and sailed towards the Armada ready for battle. However, Medina
Sidonia was afraid that his larger ships might be driven on to sand banks close
to shore and ordered them to escape to the open sea. He now had no choice but
to sail straight for the French coast at Dunkirk,
where he hoped that ’s
army was waiting. Parma
However, the Duke of Parma had problems of his own, and his army was far from ready to embark and be escorted to
Apart from anything else, the 30,000 troops had been reduced to 16,000 by
disease, and Dutch vessels were blockading the England . port of Dunkirk
The Armada therefore had to wait offshore near
, anchored in a crescent formation.
Medina Sidonia now had a dilemma. Calais
wanted him to send part of his fleet along the coast to deal with the Dutch
blockaders, thus enabling the troops to make their way to the waiting Armada,
but Medina Sidonia was wary of weakening his fleet as the English approached.
It was a marine version of rock versus hard place. Parma
As it happened, the initiative now lay with the English, who used a trick that had been used in similar situations in the past. This was to sacrifice eight of the fleet’s ships as fireships, setting fire to them and letting them drift towards the enemy at night. The effect of this tactic was mainly psychological, because the Spanish had no idea whether the burning ships might not contain large charges of gunpowder that would explode with devastating consequences. They did not know that the English did not have that much gunpowder to spare.
The result of the fireship attack was exactly what Howard and Drake intended, namely that a number of Spanish ships cut their anchor chains and broke formation to escape. No ships were actually set alight by the fireships, but that did not matter. The Spanish now had no choice but to engage in direct battle with the English.
The Battle of Gravelines
The Battle of Gravelines, on 29th July, was the decisive action of the campaign, and was fought very much on English terms. The Spanish ships were not prepared for a full-scale naval engagement but for an invasion, and this was what led to their defeat. As it happened, they had plenty of ammunition for their cannons, but were in little position to use it. For one thing, the gun decks were so cluttered with stores that the guns could only be fired once, there being no space to run them back far enough to reload. For another, the Armada had more Catholic priests on board (for the expected forced conversion of
trained gunners. England
The Spanish tactic was for the cannon to be fired once and the gunners then to man the rigging in preparation for boarding the crippled English ships. However, this would only be possible if the English ships got close enough, and the English captains made sure that this did not happen.
Instead, once the Spanish guns had fired their single shots, the English closed to a range that enabled their guns to have maximum impact on the thick oak timbers of the Spanish ships, especially when the ships heeled over and timbers were exposed that were normally below the waterline.
Given the tactics employed by each side, the Battle of Gravelines could only have one winner, although it was the English who were forced to disengage when they ran out of ammunition.
In terms of ships lost, the number of Spanish casualties was not all that great, given that only five ships were rendered unserviceable. However, many others had been badly damaged and had to withdraw from the battle. Apart from the fireships, no English vessels were lost. More than 600 Spanish sailors and soldiers died, to fewer than 100 on the English side.
The Armada escapes
With the wind blowing from the south, the Armada had no choice but to escape northwards, into the North Sea. There was now no chance of Philip’s plan being put into action and, for the Spanish fleet, there was only one way home.
The English chased the Spanish ships northwards as far as the Firth of Forth, so that any thoughts of returning to the Spanish Netherlands were made impossible. The English army force at Tilbury was reinforced in case any further attempts were made at an incursion up the Thames Estuary, and it was therefore at Tilbury that Queen Elizabeth made her famous victory speech on 8th August.
The Armada limped home, suffering far more losses than it had done during the battle. Due to a navigational error it sailed much closer to the western coasts of Scotland and Ireland than it should have done, and those ships that had jettisoned their anchors in panic during the fireships attack were unable to find shelter when the weather turned bad, instead being driven ashore and wrecked on the rocks.
September 1588 was a particularly bad month for Atlantic storms which, combined with the weak condition of many of the sailors due to disease and lack of food and water, led to many of the Armada ships, particularly the smaller and lighter ones, being lost. A number of Armada wrecks have been discovered in recent years, with the contents giving evidence not only of the daily lives of Spanish sailors and soldiers but of the supplies that were intended to support an invasion force.
Some Spaniards who were driven ashore did survive, and there are stories of “Spanish-Irish” children being born during the following years. Only about 10,000 of the men who set out from Spain, and half the ships, returned there.
Despite this massive setback for Philip of Spain, the balance of power on the high seas was little changed, with Spanish hegemony being scarcely dented. Most of the 22 galleons survived the battle and the Atlantic storms, and, after repair, remained perfectly serviceable.
However, English confidence was greatly boosted, as was the position of Protestantism in
Above all, the role of the weather in deciding the issue was seen by many as
divine confirmation of the rightness of England ’s
rule and of the English Reformation. The phrase “He blew with his winds and
they were scattered” was inscribed on a victory medal and the storm was also
given the name of “the Protestant wind”. Elizabeth
Even without the intervention of the elements, there is little chance that the Armada could have succeeded, simply because the English people would surely never have allowed themselves to be ruled by an autocratic (and Catholic) Spanish monarch. Even if Queen Elizabeth had been overthrown and executed, it is surely inconceivable that “King Philip of
” would have lasted very
Why the Spanish Armada was defeated
The traditional view held by the British as to why the Spanish Armada failed in its objectives was that the Spanish were out-fought and out-manoeuvred by Sir Francis Drake and Lord Howard of Effingham, aided in no small measure by the vagaries of the British weather. There is much to support this opinion, but it is not the whole story.
Philip had also deluded himself into believing that England was longing to return to being a Catholic country, which it had not been since the death of Queen Mary I (who was married to Philip) in 1558. However, that was 30 years ago, and the bulk of the English population saw no reason to change. Those with long memories had no desire for a savage regime similar to that of “Bloody Mary” with anti-Catholics being burned at the stake.
England under Elizabeth was entering a golden age, partly thanks to the overseas enterprises of men like Drake and Raleigh, the latter of whom was trying to establish a colony on the coast of North America, and which was to evolve into the state of Virginia. The English (later British) Empire was in its infancy and the future looked good. This gave the English pride and a sense of independence that they had no intention of surrendering by making a backward step. Philip had not taken this on board.
In other words, the plan for the Armada was never going to work. Had the Armada been able to collect the Duke of Parma’s troops and sail up the Thames with them it would have been met with the full might of the English army, then assembling at Tilbury, as well as being trapped by the English fleet that would have followed them closely. Without any chance of reinforcement, the Spanish soldiers would have stood no chance of victory.
Philip knew all about Drake’s cleverness and ability to think quickly and decisively, but he took no steps to counteract the threat. When given the opportunity to blockade Drake’s fleet at Plymouth, Medina Sidonia did not take it because Philip’s orders had been to race up the Channel as quickly as possible, thus ensuring that Drake would be hard on his heels. Why did Philip not have a Plan B to deal with such an eventuality? With part of the Spanish fleet preventing Drake from leaving Plymouth, the rest of the Armada might have had a chance of reaching their objective.
So, what the Spanish had was a poor plan, poorly executed by inadequate leaders, with their orders coming from a king in Spain who had no idea of what was happening at the “sharp end”.
© John Welford