Defeat of the Armada
EVENTS HAD BEEN LEADING to a large-scale
conflict between Spain and England for several years. Spain
controlled many rich colonies in South America and the Caribbean,
and for years English ships had raided many of Spain's new colonies
and returning Spanish ships. The most notorious of the English
raiders was Sir Francis Drake. While Queen Elizabeth insisted
the raids were not authorized, she would not return the stolen
treasure to the Spanish and Drake continued to plunder without
1588, the Spanish Armada was the largest fleet in the
world. It was defeated primarily by a combination of
bad tactics and bad weather.
The fate of the Netherlands was another sore spot in relations
between Spain and England. Protestant rebels in the Netherlands
were posing a problem for Catholic Spain's rule in the country.
The English controlled the English Channel, a shipping route
that the Spanish wanted to control in order to quickly send
supplies to the Catholic troops in the Netherlands, and Elizabeth
took a more active role in 1585 when she signed the Treaty of
Nonsuch with the rebels in the Netherlands. Under this treaty,
England agreed to supply the Protestant rebels in the Netherlands
with 6,000 soldiers and financial aid.
Religious conflict was not limited to the Netherlands. Spanish
King Philip II and many other Catholics believed the Catholic
Mary, Queen of Scots - Elizabeth's cousin once removed - to
be the rightful heir to the English throne and wanted England
to return to Catholicism. When Elizabeth ordered Mary to be
executed in 1587, Philip sought to avenge her death.
After almost two years of preparation, the Spanish Armada was
ready to sail. It was the largest fleet in the world at the
time. Its 130 ships carried 19,000 soldiers and 8,000 sailors,
as well as 180 clerics who were to help reestablish Catholicism
While Philip thought the Armada was invincible, the fleet did
have its problems. After the death of Spain's best admiral,
the Marqués de Santa Cruz, Philip turned over control of the
Armada to the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, a wealthy nobleman who
lacked the necessary skills to command such a fleet. While the
English fleet consisted of fewer than 100 ships, most of these
were faster, lower, longer and could carry heavier armaments.
The first-in-command of the English fleet was Charles Howard,
Second Baron Howard of Effingham, and the second-in-command
was Drake. The Armada consisted of only 40 line-of-battle ships.
The other ships were transports or light craft. Despite the
inferior Spanish ships, Philip relied on Spain's superior infantry
who would board English ships for battle. The plan was for the
Spanish Armada to sail up the English Channel in a crescent
formation to clear a path for the entry of army troops stationed
in the Netherlands.
The first attempt to sail in May 1588 ended when the Spanish
Armada ran into storms and the fleet lost five ships. Medina-Sidonia
was forced back to Spain for refitting.
The Armada sailed again in July 1588. The Armada sailed up the
English Channel in the crescent formation as planned. The English
spotted the Armada and set sail but never gained a full advantage.
The Armada lost two of its largest ships, the Rosario and the
San Salvador, but the English could not penetrate the formation.
The Spanish Armada anchored at Calais near the Strait of Dover.
The next day, the English set several of their ships on fire
and sent them out to the English Channel, hoping they would
destroy the ships of the Spanish fleet. The ships of the Armada
cut their cables thus losing their anchors and scattered throughout
the Channel breaking the crescent formation the fleet needed
to maintain until troops arrived from the Netherlands. By this
time it was too late to effectively conduct Philip's invasion
plan. It would take several days for the Spanish army coming
from the Netherlands to reach England. The English attacked
the vulnerable Spanish ships at this conflict, known as the
Battle of Gravelines. The English attacked with their heavy
guns but the Spanish didn't have time to respond. Three of the
Armada's ships were lost and others were almost beyond repair.
Medina-Sidonia decided to return to Spain. Since the English
Channel was blocked, the remaining ships of the Spanish fleet
sailed to Spain via the Atlantic Ocean circling north of Scotland
and sailing west around Ireland.
But further disaster struck when the remaining Spanish ships
ran into storms off the coast of Ireland. By late September,
only 60 ships were left to return to Spain. Over half the men
aboard the ships perished.
The defeat of the Armada was a huge blow to Spanish power. Catholicism
was never restored in England, the Spanish influence in the
Netherlands gradually diminished and Drake increased his raids
on Spanish colonies and treasure ships. Peace between England
and Spain was not reached until 1603 when James I, son of Mary,
Queen of Scots, succeeded the childless Elizabeth to the throne.
This article originally appeared as part of a larger piece
on the 1580s in our October/November 2001