The Spanish Armada sailed from Spain in July 1588. The Spanish Armada’s task was to overthrow protestant England lead by Queen Elizabeth I. The Spanish Armada proved to be an expensive disaster for the Spanish  but for the English it was a celebrated victory making Sir Francis Drake even more of a hero than he already was and even having an impact on Tudor Christmas celebrations!

Why did Spain want to overthrow Elizabeth? There were a number of reasons.

at the time of Elizabeth, Spain controlled what was called the Spanish Netherlands. This consisted of modern day Holland and Belgium.  In particular, Holland wanted its independence. They did not like being made to be Catholic; in fact, Protestant ideas had taken root in Holland and many of those in Holland were secret Protestants. If they had publicly stated their Protestant beliefs, their lives would have been in danger. Spain used a religious secret police called the Inquisition to hunt out Protestants. However, during Elizabeth’s reign, the English had been helping the Dutch Protestants in Holland. This greatly angered the king of Spain – Philip II – who wanted to stop this. He had for a short time been married to Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary, and when they were married, England was Catholic. With England under his control, Philip could control the English Channel and his ships could have an easy passage from Spain to the Spanish Netherlands. Spanish troops stationed there could be easily supplied.
also English ‘sea-dogs’ had been causing a great deal of damage to Spain’s trade in silver. Men such as Sir Francis Drake attacked Spanish shipping off of the West Indies and Spain lost a vast sum of money when the ships carrying silver sunk or had their cargo captured by Drake. To the English, Drake was a hero but to the Spanish he was nothing more than a pirate who, in their view, was allowed to do what he did with the full knowledge of the queen. This the Spanish could not accept.
In 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed in England on the orders of Elizabeth. Mary, Queen of Scots, was a Catholic and Philip II believed that he had a duty to ensure no more Catholics were arrested in England and that no more should be executed. Mary, Queen of Scots, had also made it clear that if she became queen of England, Philip should inherit the throne after her death.

Hence his decision to attack and invade England.

The story of the Spanish Armada is one of mistakes all the way through. Even before the Armada sailed, serious problems were encountered:

Problem 1

In 1587, Drake attacked Cadiz harbour and destroyed or damaged a number of ships that were being prepared by the Spanish for the Armada
Problem 2

The stores put on board the new ships rotted as the barrels that contained the food and water were made of new wood which was still damp. This rotted the food and made the water sour.
Problem 3 The plan was to get to the Spanish Netherlands, pick up Spanish soldiers who were stationed there and invade England’s south coast. But there was no obvious port to pick up the soldiers in the Netherlands.
Problem 4 Spain’s Lord High Admiral was the famous Santa Cruz. He was a respected and successful admiral. He died in 1586. The admiral chosen by Philip to lead the Armada after Cruz’s death was a very rich and successful general called the Duke of Medina Sidonia. Though a good general, Medina Sidonia had never been to sea before and when he did get on board his ship, he got seasick. Why did King Philip select a man who had never been to sea before to lead the world’s then largest naval fleet?
Problem 5 The Armada first sailed in April 1588. It hit a terrible storm and many ships were damaged. They had to return to port to get repaired.

With all that had been going on, it was very difficult for the Spanish to keep the Armada a secret. In fact, they were keen to let the English know about the Armada as it was felt that the English would be terrified at the news of such a large fleet of naval ships attacking them. 

The organisation to get the Armada ready was huge. Cannons, guns, gunpowder, swords and many other weapons of war were needed and Spain bought them from whoever would sell to them. A number of merchant ships had to be converted to be naval ships but the Armada (or the “Great Enterprise” as Philip called it) also contained ships that simply carried things rather than fought at sea. These ships carried amongst other items:

11 million pounds (in weight) of ships biscuits 11,000 pairs of sandals
40,000 gallons of olive oil 5,000 pairs of shoes
14,000 barrels of wine 180 priests
600,000 pounds of salted pork 728 servants

The Armada sailed on July 19th 1588. The fleet of 130 ships – including 22 fighting galleons – sailed in a crescent shape. This was not unusual as most fleets sailed in this shape as it offered the ships in that fleet the most protection. The larger but slower galleons were in the middle of the crescent and they were protected by faster but smaller boats surrounding them. Smaller ships known as zabras and pataches supplied the galleons. The Armada faced little opposition as it approached the coast of Cornwall on July 29th, 1588. It is said that Cornish fishermen fishing off the Lizard watched the Armada pass!

However, London was warned that the Armada was nearing England’s coastline. Communications in the C16th were very poor yet the English had developed a way of informing London when the Armada was first seen. Beacons were lit along the coast. As soon as one beacon was seen, the next further along the coast was lit. When the beacons reached Beachy Head in Sussex, they went inland and towards London. In this way, London was quickly made aware that the Armada was approaching  England. 

As the Armada sailed up the English Channel, it was attacked by an English force lead by Sir Francis Drake. He was stationed in Plymouth. It is said that when Drake was informed of the Armada’s approach, he replied that he had time to finish the game of bowls he was playing on Plymouth Hoe and time to defeat the Armada. It is possible that he knew that the tide of the River Tamar in Plymouth was against him, so that he could not get his ships out of Devonport – therefore, he knew that he could finish his game of bowls because his ships were dependent on the tide to move. If the tide was coming in, his ships had to stay tied up. If the tide was going out, then he had the freedom to move his ships into the Channel. Whatever the truth, what is true is that Drake and his men did very little damage to the Armada as it passed up the English Channel. What the English did do was waste a lot of ammunition firing at the Armada and not having much of an impact as the Spanish ships had well built hulls that proved to be solid.

Sir Francis Drake

As the Armada sailed up the English Channel, the attacks by Drake’s Plymouth fleet proved to be very ineffective. With the exception of two galleons, the Armada remained relatively unscathed.

However, Medina Sidonia was facing problems of his own – the Armada was running low on ammunition. The one advantage the Spanish had at this time was the weather. On August 4th, a strong wind caused the Channel to become a lot more rough and the smaller English ships suffered from this whereas the Spanish used the wind to move quickly to the European coastline where they would pick up Spanish troops ready for the invasion of England.

Throughout the whole of its journey from Spain to the east side of the English Channel, the Armada faced few problems from the English Navy. Even though we knew of its approach, we could do little while it kept in its crescent formation.

But it hit real problems when it had to stop to pick up troops in mainland Europe. While the Armada kept its crescent shape it was very difficult for the English Navy to attack it. Once it stopped, it lost its crescent shape and left it open to attack. Medina Sidonia learned to his horror that there was no port deep enough near to where the Spanish troops were for him to stop his fleet. The best he could do was to harbour at Gravelines near modern day Calais on July 27th 1588,  and then wait for the troops to arrive.

Sir Francis Drake is given the credit for what happened next but an Italian called Giambelli should also receive credit for building the “Hell Burners” for the English. Eight old ships were loaded up with anything that could burn well. These floating bombs were set to drift during the night into the resting Armada. The Armada was a fully armed fleet. Each ship was carrying gunpowder and the ships were made of wood with canvas sails. If they caught fire, each ship would not have a chance. Knowing about “Hell Burners”, the Spanish put lookouts on each boat. They spotted the on-fire ships coming in, but what could they do?

As the Armada saw the on fire ships approaching, each ship of the Armada attempted to break out of Gravelines to save itself – but in the dark. Only one Spanish ship was lost but the crescent shape disappeared and the Armada was now vulnerable to attack.

The English did attack but they were bravely fought off by the Spanish. Four Spanish galleons stood their ground and fought Drake. The Spanish were outnumbered ten to one. Three of these galleons were sunk and 600 men were killed and 800 wounded. But they had stopped the English from attacking the rest of the Armada and worsening weather also helped the Armada to escape. Medina Sidonia later wrote that the Armada was “saved by the weather, by God’s mercy…”

However, the English fleet blocked off any chance the Armada had of going back down the English Channel. Therefore, when the Armada reassembled into a fleet, it could only go up the east coast of England and then around the north of Scotland. From here the Armada could sail past the western Irish coast and back to Spain.

However, their supplies on board were not enough for such a journey and many of the crews were reduced to eating rope for survival. Fresh water quickly disappeared and the crews could not drink sea water. To add to their troubles, as the Armada sailed around the north of Scotland in mid-September, it hit a one of the worst storms in history which damaged many ships.

Those ships that survived this storm, headed for Ireland. Here they were convinced they would get help and supplies. Why did they think this? Ireland was still Catholic and the Catholic Spanish sailors believed that those with the same religion would help them. They were wrong. The Armada harboured in what is now called Armada Bay, south of Galway. Those sailors who went ashore were attacked and killed. The Irish, Catholic or not, still saw the Spanish as invaders. Those who survived the storms, the Irish, the lack of food etc. still had to fear disease as scurvy, dysentery and fever killed many who were already in a weakened state.

Figures do vary but it is thought that only 67 ships out of 130 returned to Spain – a loss rate of nearly 50%. Over 20,000 Spanish sailors and soldiers were killed. Throughout the whole campaign, the English lost no ships and only 100 men in battle. However, over 7,000 English sailors died from disease (dysentery and typhus mostly) during the time the Armada was in English water. Also those English sailors who survived and fought against the Armada were poorly treated by the English government. Many were given only enough money for the journey to their home and some received only part of their pay. The overall commander of the English Navy, Lord Howard of Effingham, was shocked claiming that “I would rather have never a penny in the world, than they (his sailors) should lack….” With this, he used his own money to pay his sailors.

Who was to blame for this defeat?

Many in Spain blamed Medina Sidonia but King Philip II was not one of these. He blamed its failure on the weather saying “I sent you out to war with men, not with the wind and waves.”

To some extent the English agreed as a medal was struck to honour the victory. On it were the words “God blew and they were scattered.”

Why did the English win?

1. They were near to their naval ports and did not have to travel far to fight the Armada.

2. The English had many advantages with regards to the ships they used. The Spanish put their hope in the power of the galleons. The English used smaller but faster ships. However, they could do little to penetrate the crescent shape of the Armada even though they had powerful cannons on board.

3. The Spanish had different tactics to the English. The English wanted to sink the Spanish ships whereas the Spanish wanted to board our ships and then capture them. To do this they would have to come up alongside our ships leaving them exposed to a broadside from English cannons on our ships.

4. Our ships, being smaller than the Spanish galleons, were more manoeuvrable which was a valuable advantage.

5. The biggest reason for the victory of the English, was the fatal error in the plan of the Spanish. While it sailed in a crescent shape, the Armada was relatively safe. But part of its plan was to stop, pick up sailors and then sail to England. The simple fact that the plan involved stopping the Armada, meant that it was fatally flawed. Warships on the move and in formation gave the Armada protection. Once the ships were still, they were open to attack.

The victory over the Armada was to make Sir Francis Drake a very famous man. The victory was even remembered at Christmas when Elizabeth ordered that everybody should have goose on Xmas Day as that was the meal she had eaten on the evening that she learned that her navy had beaten the Armada.