Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the first issue of the Anglotopia magazine in February. Subscribe today to receive the next issue of our magazine and read about British History, Culture and Travel all in one place. We’re now taking pre-orders for Issue #3 due out in August.
In the latter half of the 16th century, Spain dominated Europe and the world. Once allies, Spain and England found themselves drifting apart. Following several uneasy decades, Philip sent his great Armada to England, intent on thwarting England’s expansion and returning her to the Catholic faith. The Royal Navy harnessed favourable weather conditions and deployed superior seamanship to thwart Spain’s ambitions and establish England as a formidable power at sea.
- 1554 Philip marries Mary I and assumes the title of King of England and Ireland
- 1558 Mary dies and Philip supports her sister Elizabeth’s claim to the throne
- 1559 Philip proposes marriage to Elizabeth
- 1584 Treaty of Joinville signed – Philip pledges money to help the Catholic League
- 1585 Treaty of Nonsuch – Elizabeth pledges money to Protestant rebels in Netherlands
- 1587 Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots
- 1587 Sir Francis Drake attacks the Spanish Fleet at Cadiz
- 1588 Philip sends Spanish Armada to attack England
- Elizabeth I, Queen of England
- Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, Admiral of the Fleet
- Sir Francis Drake, Vice Admiral
- Sir John Hawkins, Rear Admiral
- Philip II, King of Spain, Portugal, Naples and Sicily, Lord of the Habsburg Netherlands
- Duke of Medina Sedonia, Admiral
He Blew With His Winds and They Were Scattered
According to British folklore, England’s celebrated mariner, Sir Francis Drake, was interrupted while playing bowls on the green at Plymouth Hoe with the news of the sighting of a great armada sailing up the English Channel. Despite the threat of Philip of Spain’s Grande y Felicísima Armada, Sir Francis carried on with his game, declaring that he had time enough to finish the game and thrash the Spanish afterwards. Drake’s insouciance may be a myth, but the arrival of the great Spanish fleet would not have been a shock. Relations between Spain and England had been drifting toward conflict for decades.
In the summer of 1588, Catholic Philip had finally had enough of England and sought to oust Elizabeth I. England’s Queen had become a focal point for Protestantism in Europe, she had meddled in Philip’s affairs in the Netherlands, and had given safe haven to privateers who attacked Spanish vessels.
In an era when most of the rulers of Europe were strangers to each other, Elizabeth of England and Philip of Spain were unusual in that they had met. For a time, they were related by marriage, although separated by religion. Elizabeth’s older half-sister Mary had married her cousin Philip in 1554 and he came to live in England. Both Mary and Philip were devout Catholics and their fervent wish was for England to return to the Church of Rome. Although Mary made her new husband King of England, he quit the country after Mary suffered a false pregnancy. She was left alone to try to impose Catholicism on her people, earning herself the infamous nickname “Bloody Mary” in the process.
Mary died in 1558 and Philip supported Protestant Elizabeth’s claim to the throne. Although the alternative candidate was a Catholic – Mary, Queen of Scots – she was married to the Dauphin of France and an Anglo-Franco alliance would greatly disturb the balance of power in Europe. Consequently, Philip felt that his interests were best served by Elizabeth being on the throne and by the two countries maintaining an alliance, thus sandwiching France between her two enemies and squashing any French ambitions of expansion. He felt that his role in bringing Elizabeth back to court during her sister’s reign, plus his backing of her succession to the throne, would endear him to Elizabeth. Indeed, he went so far as to propose marriage, notwithstanding her Protestantism. His marriage suit was rejected by Elizabeth yet despite the failure of the marriage plans, England and Spain were, for the time being, on good terms. Gradually, over the course of several decades, they drifted apart.
Over the years, tensions between England and Spain grew around two issues. The first was the Netherlands. The northern provinces of the Netherlands were Protestant and they rebelled against their Catholic ruler, Philip. In England, there was a good deal of sympathy for the Protestant rebels. Some of the Dutch rebels, who operated at sea, found safe haven in English ports. Elizabeth had these “Sea Beggars” banished in 1572, perhaps in an attempt to mollify Philip. In addition, after the rebels successfully broke away, they asked Elizabeth to be their ruler, an offer that she turned down. However, Elizabeth did undertake to provide money and troops in their struggle against Philip, largely because of his actions in supporting the Catholic League, which made allies of traditional enemies France and Spain, thus threatening England. She signed the Treaty of Nonsuch, which led to Philip declaring war on England, though for the meantime, he took no direct action.
The second bone of contention between Spain and England had always been the action of English and Dutch privateers against Spanish vessels. Elizabeth allowed the privateers to operate out of English harbours, much to Philip’s fury. The Queen had a good reason to unofficially back the privateers since she got a cut of the booty. In 1580, her half-share of Drake’s looted Spanish treasures was greater than the rest of her crown income for the entire year.
Once Philip declared war, Elizabeth and her advisors decided to take action. In 1585, Drake set out on an expedition in which he attacked Vigo in Spain. He then set off across the Atlantic to plunder the Spanish colonies in South America. Infuriated, Philip began to plan an invasion of England. When news of Philip’s plan reached England in the spring of 1587, Drake made a pre-emptive strike against the Spanish. He struck out for Spain and sailed into two ports at Cadiz and Corunna and “singed the King of Spain’s beard” – occupying the ports and sinking both naval and merchant vessels. He continued to harry the Spanish coast for a month, effectively delaying Philip’s invasion plans for more than a year.
Philip may have suffered a setback, but his resolve to invade England did not waver. Indeed, it probably hardened when Elizabeth had her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, executed. Although Philip was the ruler of the world’s greatest power, he had no illusions that an invasion of England would be easy. The armada he assembled had around 160 ships, carrying some 8,000 sailors and 18,000 troops. Philip’s plan was for the fleet to sail to the Spanish Netherlands to meet an army of 30,000 soldiers and then proceed to England for the invasion.
As news of the departure of the Spanish Armada reached the English, they made a futile, last-ditch attempt at brokering a peace. With no prospect of averting the Armada, the English fleet awaited the Spanish at Plymouth. The English would have known what was bearing down on them – reports suggested that it had taken two days for the massive fleet to leave port. Nevertheless, the English, along with their Dutch allies, had more ships (though less guns) than the Spaniards. It was not superior numbers that encouraged Francis Drake’s brash confidence on Plymouth Hoe, it was that the English fleet had ships of a modern design that would allow new tactics to be deployed.
Traditional medieval naval warfare relied on heavy warships carrying soldiers. Battles at sea were conducted like battles on land. The opposing ships drew alongside, whereupon arrows and handguns would be fired, troops would board and fight in hand-to-hand combat. Philip’s men, aboard their large, ponderous galleons, were expecting just such a fight. In England, a new kind of naval warfare was being planned.
The English had designed an innovative lower, lighter vessel that was faster and more maneuverable than the top-heavy Spanish galleons. English ships carried few soldiers, relying on the sailors’ gunnery skills to overpower the enemy before boarding could occur. The block and tackle on the guns of English ships were designed for repeated fire and English gun crews were drilled to load and fire throughout a battle. Spanish ships had no such system. They relied on a gun being fired once, after which the gun crew would go on deck to prepare to board the enemy.
Drake’s preparation was set and he awaited the Spanish. A system of beacons strung out along the south coast was to relay the news of the sighting of the Armada to London. Drake’s ships put to sea and engaged the Spanish on 20 July near Eddystone Rocks. After several days of fighting, the Spanish defensive crescent shape formation held and neither side made any impact, other than a couple of Spanish ships colliding. The Spanish anchored up, still in their crescent formation, off Calais on 27 July, and Drake spotted an opportunity. He loaded up old ships with flammable materials to create fire ships which he sent towards the Spanish. Fearing explosions if the fire ships came too close, many of the Spanish captains cut their anchors. The defensive formation was thus scattered and the English closed in.
On 29 July, the English attacked the Spanish near the port of Gravelines. Their ploy was to draw Spanish fire while staying out of range, and then close for battle giving repeated broadsides. By staying windward to the Spanish, the English were able to damage the Spanish hulls as they heeled. Eventually, the English ran out of ammunition, but the Spanish were already in disarray and turned to flee northwards with the English in pursuit.
The English still feared an invasion, so it was imperative to keep the Spanish fleet away from the Netherlands and the Duke of Parma’s waiting army. On 8 August, Elizabeth travelled to Tilbury and gave a rousing speech to her troops to prepare them should the invasion force arrive. It never did.
Having turned north, the Spanish had the daunting prospect of sailing up the east coast of England, around Scotland and down past Ireland to get home. Many ships were badly damaged and there were inadequate supplies of food and water since such a journey had not been in Philip’s plan. The weather was stormy and there was no way of putting into safe haven as many of the fleet had cut their anchors. The journey took a dreadful toll with only 67 ships returning to Spain. Thousands of men died due to the weather, disease and starvation. The Spanish Armada was defeated and England was saved from invasion.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada boosted English pride and has become legendary. Little England facing invasion from the mighty Spain and emerging triumphant gave the British heart during subsequent invasion threats from Bonaparte and later Hitler. The defeat of the Armada is often regarded as laying the first foundations of the British Empire.
Sites to Visit
A statue of Sir Francis Drake stands on Plymouth Hoe, Plymouth, Devon, near the green on which he was said to have been bowling when he heard news of the sighting of the Spanish Armada.
The magnificent fort at Tilbury, in Essex, on the Thames Estuary, is very near the site where Elizabeth gave her famous rallying speech to the troops.
At Culmstock in the Blackdown Hills of Devon you can find Culmstock Beacon, a small stone structure built in 1588 to support one of the relay beacons to warn of the approaching Armada.
The Ulster Museum, Belfast, has an exhibition featuring artefacts rescued from three of the many Spanish ships that were wrecked off the coast of Ireland.
The Spanish Armada (2014) by Robert Hutchison is a narrative account of the battles at sea.
The Confident Hope Of A Miracle: The True History Of The Spanish Armada (2004) by Neil Hanson flows well and describes the background as well as the battle itself.
S J Parris’ spy, Giordanno Bruno, is investigating a traitor in Drake’s fleet in Plymouth in her 2014 novel Treachery.
Films and TV
“Battlefield Britain: The Spanish Armada with Peter and Dan Snow” is available on DVD.
“Elizabeth: The Golden Age “(2008) is a sumptuous production starring Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and includes the Spanish Armada.