The Spanish Armada (Spanish: Grande y Felicísima Armada, literally "Great and Most Fortunate Navy") was a Spanish fleet of 130 ships that sailed from A Coruña in late May 1588, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, with the purpose of escorting an army from Flanders to invade England. The strategic aim was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and her establishment of Protestantism in England, with the expectation that this would put a stop to English interference in the Spanish Netherlands and to the harm caused to Spanish interests by English and Dutch privateering.
The Armada chose not to attack the English fleet at Plymouth, then failed to establish a temporary anchorage in the Solent, after one Spanish ship had been captured by Francis Drake in the English Channel. The Armada finally dropped anchor off Calais. While awaiting communications from the Duke of Parma's army, the Armada was scattered by an English fireship attack. In the ensuing Battle of Gravelines the Spanish fleet was damaged and forced to abandon its rendezvous with Parma's army, who were blockaded in harbour by Dutch flyboats. The Armada managed to regroup and, driven by southwest winds, withdrew north, with the English fleet harrying it up the east coast of England. The commander ordered a return to Spain, but the Armada was disrupted during severe storms in the North Atlantic and a large number of the vessels were wrecked on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Of the initial 130 ships over a third failed to return. As Martin and Parker explain, "Philip II attempted to invade England, but his plans miscarried, partly because of his own mismanagement, unfortunate weather, and partly because the opportunistic defensive naval efforts of the English and their Dutch allies (the use of ships set afire and sailed into the anchored Armada to create panic) prevailed."
The expedition was the largest engagement of the undeclared Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604). The following year, England organised a similar large-scale campaign against Spain, the Drake–Norris Expedition or "counter-Armada of 1589", which was also unsuccessful.
The word armada is from the Spanish armada, which is a 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. Armada Española is still the Spanish term for the modern Spanish Navy. Armada (originally from its armadas) was also the Portuguese traditional term (now alternative, but in common use) of the Portuguese Navy.
Henry VIII began the English Reformation as a political exercise over his desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Over time it became increasingly aligned with the Protestant reformation taking place in Europe, especially during the reign of Henry's son, Edward VI. Edward's death without an heir led to Henry's daughter Mary I taking the throne. A devout Catholic, Mary (with her co-monarch and husband, Philip II of Spain) began to reassert Roman influence over church affairs. Her attempts led to over 260 people being burned at the stake, earning her the nickname 'Bloody Mary'.
Mary's death in 1558 led to her half-sister, Elizabeth I, 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. Under Roman law, 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; however, these were thwarted when Elizabeth had the Queen of Scots imprisoned and finally 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.
In retaliation, Philip planned an expedition to invade England in order to overthrow Elizabeth and reinstate Catholicism. Through this, it would end the English material support for the United Provinces – the part of the Low Countries that had successfully seceded from Spanish rule – and cut off English attacks on Spanish trade and settlements in the New World. The King was supported by Pope Sixtus V, who treated the invasion as a crusade, with the promise of a subsidy should the Armada make land.
A raid on Cádiz, led by Francis Drake in April 1587, had captured or destroyed some thirty ships and great quantities of supplies, setting preparations back by a year. Philip initially favoured a triple attack, starting with a diversionary raid on Scotland, while the main Armada would capture 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. He was also alarmed by the costs that would be incurred and advised Philip to postpone or abandon it. 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 this was prevented from reaching the King by courtiers on the grounds that God would ensure the Armada's success.
Prior to the undertaking, Pope Sixtus V allowed Philip II of Spain 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 twenty eight purpose-built warships, of which twenty were galleons, four galleys and four (Neapolitan) galleasses. The remainder of the heavy vessels were mostly armed carracks and hulks together with thirty-four light ships.
In the Spanish Netherlands, 30,000 soldiers 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. All told, 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 the Spanish, 200 ships to 130, while the Spanish fleet outgunned the English – its available firepower was 50% more than that of the English. 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), 12 of these were privateers owned by Lord Howard of Effingham, Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake.
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, so only about 123 or 124 ships actually made it to the English Channel. Nearly half the fleet were not built as warships and were used for duties such as scouting and dispatch work, or for carrying supplies, animals, and troops.
The fleet was not sighted in England until 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 all the way along the south coast. On that evening, 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 and from there to attack England; but Medina Sidonia declined to act because this had been explicitly forbidden by Philip, and decided to sail on to the east and towards the Isle of Wight. As the tide turned, 55 English ships set out to confront them from Plymouth under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham, with Sir Francis Drake as Vice Admiral. Howard ceded some control to Drake, given his experience in battle. The rear admiral was Sir John Hawkins.
On 20 July, the English fleet was off Eddystone Rocks, with the Armada upwind to the west. That night, in order to execute their 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 towards 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, 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 this to be effective, however, 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. When night fell, Francis Drake turned his ship back to loot the abandoned Spanish ships, capturing supplies of much-needed gunpowder, and gold. However, Drake had been guiding the English fleet by means of a lantern. As a result of him snuffing out the lantern to slip away from the Spanish ships, the rest of his fleet became scattered and was in complete disarray by dawn. It took an entire day for the English fleet to regroup and the Armada gained a day's grace. 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. This time 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 this was not followed through 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), they could wait there for word from Parma's army. However, in a full-scale attack, the English fleet broke into four groups – Martin Frobisher of Aid now also being given command over a squadron – with Drake coming in with a large force from the south. At the critical moment Medina Sidonia sent reinforcements south and ordered the Armada back to open sea to avoid The Owers shoals. 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 had proven to be far more difficult than anticipated, and it only now became known that this army had yet to be equipped with sufficient transport or assembled in the port, a process which would take at least six days, while Medina Sidonia waited at anchor; and that Dunkirk was blockaded by a Dutch fleet of thirty flyboats under Lieutenant-Admiral Justinus of Nassau. Parma wanted the Armada to send its light pataches to drive away the Dutch, but Medina Sidonia could not do this because he feared that he might need these ships for his own protection. There was no deep-water port where the fleet might shelter – always 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 that larger warships with a deeper draught, like the Spanish and English galleons, could not safely enter. The Dutch therefore 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 Justinus and his men had in mind for them, ready to fight another day.
At midnight on 28 July, the English set alight eight fireships, sacrificing regular warships by filling them with pitch, brimstone, some 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", specialised fireships filled with large gunpowder charges, which 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 now found itself too far to leeward of Calais in the rising southwesterly wind to recover its position. The English closed in for battle.
The small port of Gravelines was then part of Flanders in the Spanish Netherlands, close to the border with France and the closest Spanish territory to England. Medina Sidonia tried to re-form 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 had learned more of the Armada's strengths and weaknesses during the skirmishes in the English Channel and had concluded it was necessary to close 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 a final attack near Gravelines. During all the engagements, the Spanish heavy guns could not easily be run in for reloading because of their close spacing and the quantities of supplies stowed between decks, as Francis Drake had discovered on capturing the damaged Rosario in the Channel. Instead the gunners fired once and then jumped to the rigging to attend to their main task as marines ready to board enemy ships, as had been the practice in naval warfare at the time. In fact, evidence from Armada wrecks in Ireland shows that much of the fleet's ammunition was never spent. Their determination to fight by boarding, rather than cannon fire at a distance, proved a weakness for the Spanish; it had been effective on occasions such as the battles of Lepanto and Ponta Delgada (1582), but the English were aware of this strength 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 repeated and damaging broadsides into the enemy ships. This also enabled them to maintain a position to windward so that the heeling Armada hulls were exposed to damage below the water line. 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 on board, who did not know how to operate the guns. 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 cannons. Around 4:00 pm, the English fired their last shots and were forced to pull back.
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 murderous fighting between the crew, the galley slaves, the English who eventually killed all Spanish and slaves, and the French, who ultimately took possession of the wreck. 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; another foundered. Many other Spanish ships were severely damaged, especially the Portuguese and some Spanish Atlantic-class galleons (including some Neapolitan galleys) which had to bear the brunt of the fighting during the early hours of the battle in desperate individual actions against groups of English ships. The Spanish plan to join with Parma's army had been defeated and the English had gained some breathing space, but the Armada's presence in northern waters still posed a great threat to England.
On the day after the battle of Gravelines, the wind had backed southerly, enabling Medina Sidonia to move his fleet northward away from the French coast. Although their shot lockers were almost empty, the English pursued in an attempt to prevent the enemy from returning to escort Parma. On 2 August Old Style (12 August New Style) Howard called a halt to the pursuit in the latitude of the Firth of Forth off Scotland. By that point, the Spanish were suffering from thirst and exhaustion, and the only option left to Medina Sidonia was to chart a course home to Spain, by a very hazardous route.
The threat of invasion from the Netherlands had not yet been discounted by the English, and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester maintained a force of 4,000 soldiers at West Tilbury, Essex, to defend the Thames Estuary against any incursion up-river towards London.
On 8 August (18 August New Style), Elizabeth went to Tilbury to encourage her forces, and the next day, per legend, arrived on horseback in her own personal battle armour (and thus showing to the assembled warriors that she was prepared to fight with them in the ensuing battle to her own death). She gave to them her Royal address, which is probably her most famous speech. It survives in six different versions, each vying to be the authentic report of her words on that day. 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.
After the victory, typhus swept the fleet, killing off thousands of English mariners. Elizabeth failed in her promise to pay the sailors, and of the few who did survive, even of the crew of the royal warship, Elizabeth, most expired destitute in the gutters of Margate.
In September 1588, the Armada sailed around Scotland and Ireland into the North Atlantic. The ships were beginning to show wear from the long voyage and some were kept together by having their hulls bundled up with cables. Supplies of food and water ran short. The intention would have been to keep well 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 further to the east than planned, a devastating navigational error. Off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland the fleet ran into a series of powerful westerly winds, which drove many of the damaged ships further towards the lee shore. Because so many anchors had been abandoned during the escape from the English fireships off Calais, many of the ships were incapable of securing shelter as they reached the coast of Ireland and were driven onto the rocks and 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". More ships and sailors were lost to cold and stormy weather than in direct combat.
Following the gales it is reckoned that 5,000 men died by drowning, starvation and slaughter at the hands of English forces after they were driven ashore in Ireland. Reports of the passage of the remnants of the Spanish Armada around Ireland abound with onerous accounts of hardships and survival. In the end, 67 ships and fewer than 10,000 men survived. Many of the men were near death from disease, as the conditions were very cramped and most of the ships ran out of food and water. Many more later died in Spain, or on hospital ships in Spanish harbours, from diseases contracted during the voyage. It was reported that when Philip II learned of the result of the expedition, he declared, "I sent the Armada against men, not God's winds and waves".
The English fleet was still cautious of the remaining Armada after the Battle of Gravelines, requiring it to remain on duty even as some of its sailors died. The following year Elizabeth I launched the Counter Armada, under Sir Francis Drake, but it was unsuccessful in its goals, resulting in Spain retaining naval superiority.
The Spanish failed to gain control of the Channel from the English, nor stop their intervention in the region of Flanders or their privateer transatlantic raids; however, for the sixteen years that the war continued, the English ultimately failed to disrupt the various fleets of the Indies, despite the great number of military personnel mobilised every year. The English were also unsuccessful in plots to support Portuguese separation from the Spanish crown. Spanish naval power not only continued its hegemony in the key trade routes but also in the creation of the Armada de Barlovento. An important fortification effort ensued in different fortifications at both sides of the Atlantic, notably in Cartagena or Portobelo. Despite the efforts by the English and Dutch, Spain remained the predominant power in Europe for several decades, thanks to sufficient financing and organisation as well as superior technology to enhance its naval strength.
The result vindicated the English strategy and caused in a revolution in naval tactics – using weather gage advantage and line-to-line cannon battle from windward (revealing the opponent ship's hull and rudder as targets) – with the promotion of heavier, more numerous naval cannon, which until then had played a supporting role to the principal tactics of ramming and crew boarding.
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 it confirmed between the two nations, which continued into the next century. In the words of Geoffrey Parker, by 1588, "the capital ships of the Elizabethan navy constituted the most powerful battlefleet afloat anywhere in the world". The English navy yards were leaders in technical innovation and the captains devised new battle formations and tactics. Parker argues that the sleeker full-rigged ship, amply cannoned, was one of the greatest technological 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 heavier guns. Whereas before warships had tried to grapple with each other so that soldiers could board the enemy ship, now they more often stood off and fired broadsides that could sink the vessel. Superior English ships and seamanship had foiled the invasion. The English also took advantage of Spain's overly complex strategy that required coordination between the invasion fleet and the Spanish army on shore. The poor 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.
In England, the boost to national pride from the defeat of the Spanish invasion attempt lasted for years and Elizabeth's legend persisted and grew long after her death. Repulsing the Spanish naval force may have given heart to the Protestant cause across Europe and the belief that God was behind the Protestants. This was shown by the striking of commemorative medals that bore variations on the inscription, "1588. Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt" – with "Jehovah" in Hebrew letters ("God blew, and they are scattered"), or He blew with His winds, and they were scattered. There were also more lighthearted medals struck, such as the one with the play on the words of Julius Caesar: Venit, Vidit, Fugit (he came, he saw, he fled). The victory was acclaimed by the English as their greatest since Agincourt.
The English attempted to press home their advantage the following year, when the Drake–Norris Expedition, with a comparable fleet of English privateers, sailed to establish a base in the Azores, attack Spain and raise a revolt in Portugal. This expedition, led by Sir Francis Drake and John Norreys were defeated in Corunna but withdrew from Lisbon after failing to coordinate its strategy effectively with the Portuguese. Two more armadas were sent by Spain, in 1596 and 1597 but both were once more scattered by storms.
The Spanish Navy underwent a major organizational reform that helped it to maintain control over its trans-Atlantic routes. High-seas buccaneering and the supply of troops to Philip II's enemies in the Netherlands and France continued but brought few tangible rewards for England. The memory of the victory over the Armada was evoked during both the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War, when Britain again faced a substantial danger of foreign invasion. The Armada Memorial in Plymouth was constructed in 1888 to celebrate the tercentenary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Knerr (1989) has reviewed the main trends in historiography over five centuries. For 150 years writers relied heavily on Petruccio Ubaldini's A Discourse Concernye the Spanish Fleete Invadinye Englande (1590), which argued that God decisively favoured the Protestant cause. William Camden (1551–1623) pointed in addition to elements of English nationalism and the private enterprise of the sea dogs. He also emphasized that the Duke of Medina Sidonia was an incompetent seaman. David Hume (1711–1776) praised the leadership of Queen Elizabeth. However the Whig historians, led by James A. Froude (1818–1894), rejected Hume's interpretation and argued that Elizabeth was vacillating and almost lost the conflict by her unwillingness to previously spend enough to maintain and supply the Royal Navy's fleet of ships. Scientific modern historiography came of age with the publication of two volumes of primary documents by John K. Laughton in 1894. This enabled the leading naval scholar of the day Julian Corbett (1854–1922) to reject the Whig views and turn attention to the professionalization of the Royal Navy as a critical factor. Twentieth-century historians have focused on technical issues, such as the comparative power of English and Spanish naval guns and the degree of naval battle tactics credit due Francis Drake and Charles Howard. Inclement weather in the English Channel and on the oceans at the time has always been cited as a major factor to the outcome.