The growing frictions between England and Spain in the mid-16th century gradually led to the armed conflict between the Spanish “invincible” fleet, Armada, and the English Royal Navy in the English Channel and around the British coast in 1588, resulting in the devastating defeat of Spain and a glorious triumph of Queen Elizabeth I of England.
When Queen Elizabeth (r. 1558–1603) ascended the English throne in 1558, King Philip II of Spain (r. 1556–98), who had been the husband of the English Queen Mary I (r. 1553–58), showed interest in proposing marriage to Elizabeth in order to form an alliance with England to balance the French power on the Continent.
When Elizabeth chose to procrastinate, Philip gradually lost patience. In the mid-1580s, the situation changed dramatically, when Philip II, a fervent defender of the Roman papacy, joined his old French Catholic rivals in their wars against the French Huguenots and the Dutch Calvinists.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth became the archheretic of the Catholic world, after Pope Pius V excommunicated the queen in 1570 for declaring herself the “Supreme Governor” of the Church of England and introducing Calvinist rituals into public worship for her people.
King Philip’s hostility toward Queen Elizabeth was linked closely to his own personal trouble with his Calvinist Dutch subjects. In 1578, the king appointed the duke of Parma to suppress the Calvinists in the northern provinces of the Netherlands, who had been rebelling against Habsburg Dynasty control for decades. While the duke gained some ground in the south, the ten northern provinces declared the independence of the United Provinces, or Dutch Republic, in 1581.
Facing escalating pressure from the duke of Parma, the Dutch sought military assistance from Queen Elizabeth. She sent an army of 6,000 soldiers led by the earl of Leicester to the Netherlands, and the joint Dutch and English forces began to hold a front to check Parma’s northern advance for two years (1585-87).
To Philip II, the military involvement of the English queen in his personal dynastic affairs rendered her, just as the German Lutherans, the Dutch Calvinists, and the French Huguenots, an enemy of God.
Philip II, moreover, felt humiliated by English piracy on the high seas, which challenged the century-long imperial dominance and commercial monopoly of Spain over the Atlantic Ocean.
In the 1560s, Sir John Hawkins made three risky trips, transporting West African slaves to the Americas for sale, and thus helped England gain a share in the highly profitable slave trade. In the 1570s, Sir Francis Drake carried out a series of raids on Spanish treasure ships on the high seas. Queen Elizabeth enjoyed her share of profits from both adventures.
In 1587, while the duke of Parma made progress in upsetting the Anglo-Dutch alliance in the Netherlands, the Anglo-Spanish relationship deteriorated because of two incidents. In February, Elizabeth issued the order for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been a proxy in Philip’s conspiracy against the heretic English queen for about two decades.
In April, Sir Francis Drake led a fleet of 23 English ships, attacking the Spanish homeland, burning about 30 ships in the harbor of Cádiz, and looting treasures from the Spanish merchants worth more than 100,000 pounds in the Azores, of which Elizabeth gained 40,000 pounds.
Philip became convinced that the time had come to crush the middle-aged queen, whom the Catholic world despised and the Habsburgs had to destroy in order to save the Netherlands.
In the late summer, the strategy of the Armada invasion was designed by the king himself. The Armada would sail to the English Channel at the same time as Parma was crossing the channel with his own vessels, carrying 30,000 soldiers from Flanders.
The joint forces would then invade England by disembarking near the mouth of the Thames. The strategic plan was no longer a secret at the end of the year, and Queen Elizabeth decided to take the challenge.
English Naval Forces
By common estimation, the Spanish Armada comprised 138 ships from Spain and different Habsburg dominions, weighing a total of 58,000 tons, carrying 30,000 men and 2,400 cannons. The number of soldiers would be doubled once the forces of the duke of Parma joined in.
The English naval forces comprised 34 royal warships and 170 privately owned ships carefully chosen from East Anglia and Kent. Spain had dominated the high seas for about a century, but its navy was not superior to its English counterparts. The Armada had 21 galleons, which were massive in size, but slow in speed.
The commander of the Armada, the duke of Medina-Sidonia, was an expert of fleet logistics, but not a
professional military leader. The soldiers of the Armada were pious Catholics, but inexperienced in sea battles, especially in navigating the Channel, where winds and waves were often unpredictable.
In comparison, the major English warships were also huge, but faster, more maneuverable, and equipped with better guns. The commanders of the English Royal Navy, Lord Howard of Effington, Sir Francis Drake, and Sir John Hawkins, were career seamen, each having unique experiences in sailing and battling on the sea.
The English soldiers, including many veterans from the Dutch War, knew the Channel better and were well prepared for sea battles there. Of course, both sides were determined to win, but neither side calculated correctly how the war would eventually proceed.
On July 29, 1588, after three months of voyage from Lisbon, the Armada reached the Lizard Point, the southern tip of England. It spread into a crescent formation and sailed along the English coast northeastward up to Calais.
The duke of Medina-Sidonia led the main battleships in the center with the vanguard on the left and the rearguard on the right of about 20 capital ships each. On July 31, the English naval ships sailed out from Plymouth with an equally impressive force and kept chasing the Spanish fleet.
For next few days, the two fleets faced off tensely in the Channel, but neither side attempted a major military engagement. The Armada was approaching Calais on August 6, hoping to join the forces with the duke of Parma as planned by Philip II himself.
However, the duke had been outmaneuvered by the Dutch forces on land and sea in Flanders, did not dare risk being lacerated while convoying his army in his own small barges from Flanders across the Channel to England.
While the Spanish were considering how to get Parma’s soldiers embarked, eight English blazing fireships, on the night of August 7, penetrated the colossus of the Armada, breaking the crescent formation, setting fires on Spanish ships, and causing the whole fleet to flee in panic. On the following day, the Spanish fleet suffered from an all-day gale blowing from the south-southwest to the north-northwest, and lost many lives in the battles off Gravelines.
Afterward, the continuously deteriorating weather dispersed the Armada into the North Sea, and thus buried any hope for the duke of Parma to join the Armada for invading England. On its way back to Spain, the Armada was forced to sail around the Scottish and Irish coasts and continued to lose ships and lives under the fierce chase of the English naval force.
In mid-October, the surviving Spanish ships miraculously navigated back home. The final tally of the Armada’s loss was appalling. Only 60 of 130 ships could be accounted for, and 11,000 lives might have been lost.
In 1588, Spain undoubtedly lost the battle, Philip II was certainly humiliated, and the English victory saved England from a very probable disaster anticipated by its enemy. However, the defeat of the Spanish Armada did not alter the policies and behavior of the Spanish, English, or other major European monarchs.
The religious wars continued to spiral all over Europe. Neither did it immediately change the geopolitical balance in Europe. Spain recovered quickly and continued its interventionist role in transnational affairs of Europe, and England did not transform itself into a superpower overnight. However, Queen Elizabeth emerged from her victory a heroine to her subjects in England and Protestants all over Europe.