An Overview of the Spanish Armada

In the summer of 1588, Spain launched the largest fleet then known to European society.  Its ambitious task was to meet the powerful army in the Spanish Netherlands and convoy it across the Channel.  Had this operation been successful, the Spanish would almost certainly have swept aside England’s limited land defenses.  Queen Elizabeth would have been deposed, and in one form or another, England would have become part of Spain’s growing empire.

While much of the conflict between England and Spain centered on the broader struggle between Protestants and Catholics that so dominated the sixteenth century, it had not been inevitable.  During the reign of Queen Mary, England was officially Catholic, and Phillip II of Spain, her husband, was nominally the king.  Her successor, Elizabeth, again reversed England’s religious affiliation and chose not to renew Phillip’s marital connection to the kingdom, but Spain had been an ally for some time, with the French as their mutual opponent.  Elizabeth’s reign began with that political relationship enduring for ten years.

It was Spain’s war with the Dutch that pulled apart this alliance.  The Netherlands, comprising both modern Holland and most of modern Belgium, had been transferred from the German Empire to the Kingdom of Spain while Charles V had been ruler of both.  As was common elsewhere in Europe, the Dutch embrace of Protestantism had a strongly political component.  The Dutch Protestants attempted to secede from Spain, while the Spanish forces attempted to retain control of these provinces.  A long and costly war ensued.

Between 1568 and 1585, this war created tensions between England and Spain.  In 1568, Spain sent a ship laden with gold to pay its local expenses in the Spanish Netherlands came under French attack; the ship took refuge in English harbor, but when the English government learned that the gold had come from Genoa, it seized the shipment.  Spanish retaliation ensured that the rift, and soon England covertly aided the Dutch rebels.  In  May 1585, in the midst of a very energetic Spanish offensive led by the brilliant Duke of Parma, the Spanish temporarily detained all foreign ships from northern countries.

The English expanded their anti-Spanish activity, and then, in 1587 Queen Elizabeth had Mary, Queen of Scots, executed.  In recent years, Mary had been a central part of Spanish plans concerning England, and her death gave Phillip II final justification to accept the counsel that some advisors had given him for years: to mount an invasion of England itself.

His plan was to use the battle-tested army that he had already deployed in the north under the Duke of Parma; to protect that army as it crossed the Channel, a massive fleet would sail from Spain to meet with Parma’s forces and give them cover in the crossing.  The problem with this plan was that Spain had relatively few vessels that had been constructed as warships.  Most Spanish galleons were cargo vessels that had been given a few guns for defense.  130 vessels were eventually assembled for this voyage, but of them, 23 were simply large cargo ships known as hulks.  There were even eight oared vessels, four of them galleys and another four being a hybrid type known as the galleass.  Still, it was an impressive force when taken as a whole.

The operation underwent difficulty from the start. The Armada set sail from Lisbon on May 9; it should be observed at this point that Portugal was then a part of the Spanish Empire.  Unfavorable winds kept the fleet’s progress to an astonishingly slow rate; by the end of the month it was still in Spanish coastal waters.  Moreover, their supplies were going bad.   A series of English attacks near Cadiz under Sir Francis Drake in 1587 had hit Spanish shipping hard, and among the goods lost were barrel staves intended to carry the Armada’s provisions.  Inferior substitutes were used instead, and as a result, the food was already decaying after the prolonged voyage in home waters.  Admiral Medina Sidonia ordered the fleet into port at La Coruna, but as they did so, a storm struck and divided the fleet, requiring additional time to gather the missing ships.

The Armada set sail again on July 21, and faced another storm on July 27, but on July 30 it finally reached the English Channel.  The decision had been made to bypass the English port at Plymouth, rather than engaging the fleet there in the hope of catching the enemy unawares.  The eventual failure of the mission led to criticism of this decision, but in fact it was sound; English scouting vessels had already spotted the Armada as early as the 29th, and the fleet at Plymouth was ready.  Given that the Spanish chose to bypass Plymouth, the English made an equally interesting decision: they allowed the Spanish to pass, as intended, and then the English fleet gave chase, firing on the Spanish from a distance.

Gunnery was still at an early stage in its development.  The English had somewhat larger-ranged guns, although fewer of these guns were on the ships at Plymouth, and more of them would join the fleet further east.  More importantly, English guns tended to be shorter-barreled and mounted short, cart-like carriages that enabled rapid reloading; Spanish guns were mounted on carriages typical of field artillery, which slowed the reloading process.  The Spanish had more and better powder, but their shot was often unreliable, much of it being made of stone and rendered brittle by the production process.  For both sides, fire was relatively inaccurate at most distances.

Thus, the first engagement on July 31 was inconclusive.  The Spanish adopted an ingenious sickle formation with the more vulnerable vessels at the east-pointing center of the sickle, and the strongest warships at both ends and in the center rear.  The English could fire with little effect from a distance, but any effort to converge for a close fight could be countered by the Spanish with their tight formation.  The Armada only lost two vessels in this engagement, both as a result of accident rather than enemy action, but they had both been effective combat vessels and their absence would be felt later.

For the next several days, the English followed, endeavoring alternately to keep their faltering stores of powder supplied and to have an effect on the Spanish ships.  One effort that showed some promise was the practice of drawing in much closer to the Spanish, and firing from close range.  Still, it was too little, and the English were not yet in any position to exploit such an advantage.  So, on the 5th of August, the English broke off the chase, returning to port for more supplies and for reinforcements.

The Armada proceeded to Calais, making anchor and waiting for Parma to arrive with his soldiers.  Desperate to prevent this combined force from making the next leg of its voyage, the English decided to employ fireships.  On the night of the 7th into the 8th, four ships were set afire and directed toward the Spanish fleet.  The Spanish actually succeeded in intercepting two of them, but the other two made it through, and the Spanish overreacted.  In their haste, the Spanish ships cut themselves free of their anchors, rather than raising them.

By morning, the fleet had drifted over a large area, and then the English followed up with a disciplined attack that took advantage of their ships’ superior mobility.  The battle extended into the 9th of August, and then the prevailing winds carried the Armada too far north to be able to return to Parma’s army.  It was too late to carry out the planned invasion this time.

There had been hope that the ships could regroup and make a second attempt, but the wind pattern forced the Armada to sail north and then west around the British Isles, and most of the auxiliary ships ran aground in Scotland or Ireland.  Of the 130 ships that set off on the voyage, only about half ever made it home.  Most of the survivors were the galleons proper, and many of them would never see service again.

The failure of the Armada did not change the balance of power overnight.  It was, however, a costly defeat for Spain after nearly a century of expansion, while it preserved England as a Protestant power, and thereby did much to guarantee the survival of the rebellious Dutch provinces, as well.  It was a turning point, but it would take time for this to be realized.



Guilmartin Jr, John F.  Galleons and Galleys.  Cassell & Co., 2002.

Tincey, John.  The Spanish Armada.  Osprey, 1988.


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