In 1588, a massive fleet of 130 ships set sail. It was one of the largest fleets ever assembled and its size was unprecedented at the time. Its goal was the Kingdom of England, and its mission was to restore Catholicism to the British Isles.
What followed was a harrowing tale of a beleaguered nation against a superpower and a struggle of triumph and defeat that would alter the course of the two kingdoms for centuries to come. European, and indeed, world history, was heavily influenced by the events of the Spanish Armada and the stout resistance of Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant kingdom.
Why the Spanish Armada Was Organized
In the 16th century, King Henry VIII started the English Reformation. He was searching for a way to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who was Spanish and Catholic. England aligned itself with the Protestant Reformation happening on the continent, and it drew much concern from the Catholic nations, especially Spain, which was, at the time, an extremely powerful country enriched by its plunder of the New World.
However, England’s path towards Protestantism was reversed when Henry’s son, Edward VI, died without an heir, leaving the throne to his half-sister Mary, a devout and zealous Catholic. With her husband being Philip II of Spain, her desire to see England return to Catholicism saw hundreds of “heretics” burned at the stake and earned her the name “Bloody Mary.” After her death in 1558, her half-sister, Elizabeth, took the throne and reinstated the Protestant reforms.
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From the Spanish and Catholic perspectives, Elizabeth was seen as illegitimate due to the fact that the Catholics did not recognize Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. In addition, Elizabeth’s pro-Reformation stance led her to be declared a heretic in the eyes of the Spanish court and the Catholic Church. Relationships between the two kingdoms deteriorated even further when Elizabeth supported a Dutch revolt against the Spanish (the Netherlands was under the control of Spain at the time), and English privateers continually harassed Spanish shipping.
Philip II of Spain decided that something had to be done about the Kingdom of England, as it was becoming a major thorn in the side of Spain and her interests.
The Spanish Armada Sets Sail
Philip II of Spain decided that Spain was powerful enough to launch an invasion of England, but to transport tens of thousands of soldiers, a massive fleet would have to be built, as well as have the necessary power to neutralize English naval threats in the Channel. With the Pope’s blessing, the action was deemed an official Crusade. New ships were built while others were upgraded, and on May 28, 1588, the Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon under the command of Admiral Medina Sidonia. One hundred thirty ships carrying thousands of cannons, and 18,000 soldiers (excluding 8,000 sailors) aimed to rendezvous with the rest of the army (another 30,000 soldiers and hundreds of flyboats) in the Netherlands. The English fleet actually outnumbered the Spanish fleet but were mostly light ships and carried fewer cannons than their Spanish counterparts, who had the English heavily outgunned.
While in the Bay of Biscay, heavy storms hampered the progress of the Spanish Armada, and six ships had to abandon the rest of the fleet. The English were not without their problems too. A pre-emptive interception failed, and when the Spanish Armada was spotted off the coast of Cornwall, the English fleet was trapped in Plymouth Harbour by the incoming tide. This was a perfect opportunity for the Armada to attack England, but King Philip II had given explicit orders that the fleet was to meet up with the soldiers and transports in the Spanish Netherlands, so the Armada sailed on towards the Isle of Wight. The English grabbed the opportunity and left port under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham with Sir Francis Drake as Vice Admiral and Sir John Hawkins as Rear Admiral.
The Fighting Begins
On July 21, the two fleets engaged for the first time. The English ships were fast and maneuverable, providing difficult targets for the Spanish, but they did not have the range to cause any damage to the Spanish Armada. The attack was broken off, but two Spanish ships were abandoned as they had collided with one another and could not be repaired.
In the following days, the English harried the Spanish, but no ships were sunk. The Spanish Armada made its way to Calais, where it anchored and waited for the army to arrive. Conditions had been poor, and disease had reduced the army to 16,000. While waiting, the rebel Dutch blockaded the port with 30 flyboats. With a shallow draught, these boats could operate in the shallow waters that snaked across the port. With their deeper draughts, the Spanish ships could not venture out to engage the Dutch without risk of running aground.
When the English fleet arrived, the English sacrificed eight of their ships by turning them into fireships, filled with highly flammable materials, and set alight. At night they launched these ships at the Spanish Armada. Although no Spanish ships were burnt, the Spanish defensive formation was broken, as many ships scattered to avoid the threat. Seeing this as an opportunity, the English closed in and gave battle on August 8, and the Battle of Gravelines commenced. For hours, the English fired their cannon, taking advantage of the poor Spanish positions. The Spanish casualty rate was high in the face of the full broadsides, and apart from the cost in life, the Spanish lost five ships, including two captured, and had to abandon their planned link-up with the army. The rest of the Spanish Armada limped northwards.
The Spanish Armada Retreats & Returns to Spain
With the English fleet blocking the most direct route back to Spain, the Spanish Armada fled northwards, with the only way back being to round Scotland and past Ireland. The English fleet pursued until the Firth of Forth off the Scottish coast before leaving the Spanish to suffer on their own. The English were dealing with their own problem in the form of a fleetwide typhus outbreak.
The Spanish Armada suffered from the severe westerlies that buffeted the Irish coast. The winds were especially harsh in 1588, and the Spanish ships, damaged, and many without anchors, were dashed against the rocks and then looted by the Irish. Cold and starvation took their toll, killing thousands of Spaniards. Many more lost their lives to drowning, hunger, and the cold than to actual combat.
Battle, storms, and general wear and tear reduced the Spanish Armada from 130 ships when they left port to just 67 when they arrived back in Spain. Along the way, many thousands of soldiers and mariners lost their lives, and several hundred were captured. Fewer than 10,000 survived the venture. Sailing past the Irish coast was particularly bad, and the Spanish lost up to 24 ships wrecked along the coastline. It is estimated that around 6,000 Spaniards died on or off the coast of Ireland. For Spain, the Spanish Armada was a complete disaster, while in England, the thrill of victory boosted confidence for years to come.
The War Continues
The actions of the Spanish Armada constituted only one part of a much greater war. The Anglo-Spanish War was an undeclared war that saw intermittent fighting from 1585 to 1604. Although the Spanish failed to knock England out in 1588, subsequent battles would force the conflict to shift back and forth in favor of each of the Kingdoms.
Buoyed by their victory in 1588, the English sent an armada of their own in 1589 to cripple Spanish naval power and to stir up a Portuguese insurrection, but the English failed in both objectives. The Spanish defeated them in battle, and storms wrecked the English fleet. The venture was arguably as much a disaster for the English as the previous year had been for the Spanish.
The Spanish then sent two more armadas in 1596 and 1597. Both of them were scattered by storms and failed to achieve any goals. The Treaty of London in 1604 saw an end to the war, which had financially crippled both kingdoms.
The Legacy of the Spanish Armada
The totality of the naval encounter, and specifically the Battle of Gravelines, had revealed the changing nature of naval warfare. The English had revolutionized certain aspects in maritime warfare and shipbuilding that helped them gain an edge over the Spanish. They had succeeded in building faster ships that could, and would in the future, hold more cannons. The English also improved upon their guns’ reload time, significantly altering how combat was waged.
Prior to 1588, the standard form of ship-to-ship combat was dominated by ramming and boarding, with cannon providing a secondary function. This was because of the slow reload rate. Ships would usually shoot one barrage and then close in to ram. With faster cannon reloading time, and faster ships, it was possible to evade the enemy’s attempts to close the gap, and at the same keep firing at regular intervals.
These changes were significant, but did not make England the dominant naval power overnight. Further advancements and the effects thereof would take many decades to prove their worth, but England, and later, the United Kingdom, would eventually become the undisputed ruler of the seas.