ARMADA, SPANISH. Often called the "Invincible Armada," the Spanish Armada was the invasion fleet launched against England in 1588 by Philip II of Spain. Its defeat left England Protestant, aided the Dutch Revolt, and compounded the tax burden on Spain's strained economy.
In 1585 worsening relations between Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England erupted into war. Elizabeth signed the Treaty of Nonesuch with the Dutch and permitted Sir Francis Drake to maraud in response to a Spanish embargo. Drake surprised Vigo, Spain, in October, then proceeded to the Caribbean and sacked Santo Domingo and Cartagena.
Philip ordered the marquis of Santa Cruz in Lisbon to form an armada of thirty-four ships to pursue and "punish" Drake. He also asked Santa Cruz and the duke of Parma, his commander in the Netherlands, to submit plans for the "Enterprise of England," that is its invasion, for which he asked blessing and money from Pope Sixtus V. Parma thought that 35,000 men might cross in twelve hours with favorable weather and sufficient secrecy. He eventually collected over two hundred barges and eighty coasters.
Santa Cruz prepared a plan that called for some one hundred fifty fighting galleons and ships, six galleasses, forty galleys, and over three hundred other vessels large and small to transport fifty-five thousand infantry and sixteen hundred cavalry, artillery, and supplies. The troops would land in either Wales or Ireland. Considering the plans, Philip decided on a smaller armada. When English land and sea forces responded to its landing force, Parma would invade Kent, overthrow Elizabeth, and establish a Catholic regime.
Santa Cruz assembled at Lisbon nine Portuguese galleons and another three dozen vessels. From Basque ports Juan Martínez de Recalde and Miguel de Oquendo would bring two dozen armed ships. At Cádiz, Pedro de Valdés assembled fifteen armed Indiamen, while another dozen great ships and four galleasses sailed from Italy with Alonso Martínez de Leyva.
Drake attacked Spain in April–May 1587, destroyed over twenty ships in Cádiz Bay, and disrupted coastal shipping. Too late, Santa Cruz sailed in pursuit. Storms pounded him on his return to Lisbon, where he found plans changed. He was to sail forthwith to the Strait of Dover, cover Parma's invasion of England, and deliver six thousand men. Communication between the armada and Parma, who had to be ready, posed an immediate problem. The Armada had no safe port where it might wait. Communication had so far been through Philip. Despite Philip's demands, Santa Cruz did not sail, prevented by damage, shortages, and weather. Ailing, he died 9 February 1588.
THE ARMADA CAMPAIGN
Philip appointed as successor the duke of Medina Sidonia, experienced in naval administration if not at sea. A council of war would assist him. Though reluctant to take command, the duke had the Armada's 130 vessels, 8,000 seamen, and 19,000 infantry to sea by the end of May. Storm struck off Cape Finisterre, forcing the Armada into La Coruña. On 21 July the repaired Armada sailed, reaching the English Channel on 28 July.
Ordered to join Parma and fight only if compelled, the Spaniards expected to find the English fleet in the Narrows. For battle, they would close, grapple, and board. The Armada's sixty fighting ships were big but bulky, loaded with men and stores; their guns were of mixed sizes and quality, and trained shipboard gunners were scarce. The remaining ships were transports or small craft.
Elizabeth's navy, under Lord Admiral Charles Howard of Effingham, with Drake as vice admiral and Martin Frobisher and John Hawkins commanding squadrons, chose not to wait in the Narrows. Over sixty galleons and great ships, and forty smaller, concentrated at Plymouth, leaving some three dozen under Lord Henry Seymour to watch Parma. Aware of the Spaniards' advantage in ship-board infantry, the English hoped to gain the weather gauge and use their handier ships and superior gunnery to avoid boarding and defeat any invasion attempt. When the Armada reached the Channel, Howard put to sea.
Leyva and Recalde urged Medina Sidonia to assault Plymouth. Prompted by Philip's orders and Diego Flores de Valdés, his chief of staff, Medina Sidonia refused and held course. Using the cover of night, the English by daybreak of 31 July gained the weather gauge. The Armada assumed battle formation, with two wings of twenty strong vessels each, and a main force of another three dozen, behind which sailed the transports. Howard and Drake formed two lines and pounded the Armada, doing little damage. But that evening, collisions and an explosion cost the Armada two big ships. Flores de Valdés persuaded Medina Sidonia to abandon them and hold course, a decision that many argued hurt morale and lost a chance for a boarding action.
The Armada kept course the next three days and sparred with the English, who could not break its formation. Lacking news of Parma, Medina Sidonia sought haven in the lee of the Isle of Wight. In a daylong battle on 4 August, the English kept the Armada from its aim and forced it toward Flanders. Late on 6 August the Armada anchored off Calais, to discover that Parma, who only learned on 2 August that the Armada was in the Channel, required several days to embark his army. Parma needed the Armada's protection against both the English and a Dutch blockade. On the night of 7/8 August, Howard sent eight fire ships blazing on breeze and tide toward the Armada, whose captains cut anchor cables and put out in disarray. A galleass grounded. On 8 August the English fleet, nearly 150 in number but with three dozen doing the fighting, attacked, employing their guns at closer range. It was mid-afternoon before the thirty outgunned ships that did the Armada's fighting recovered formation. One ship sank, two galleons beached, and eight hundred men were killed. With shifting winds the Armada cleared the Flemish banks and reached the North Sea. Its commanders agreed to return to Spain around Scotland and Ireland. Many damaged ships wrecked on the Irish coast; others succumbed to storm at sea. Perhaps sixty-five reached Spanish ports, while a few hired Hanseatic hulks returned home. Over half the crews were lost to battle, shipwreck, and disease. While the English lost no ships, hundreds of seamen perished of sickness.
Elizabeth and the Dutch hailed God's favor, Philip accepted God's punishment, although Flores de Valdés was court-martialed to placate military critics. The Enterprise had too many flaws, while the English wisely counted on gunnery. In 1596 and in 1597 other armadas sailed against England, to be stopped by storm. Peace came only in 1604, after Philip and Elizabeth were dead.
Calvar Gross, Jorge, et al. La Batalla del Mar Océano: Corpus Documental de las hostilidas entre España e Inglaterra (1568–1604). 3 vols. Madrid, 1988–1993. Documentary background.
Martin, Colin, and Geoffrey Parker. The Spanish Armada. Rev. ed. Manchester, U.K., 1999. Best treatment; benefits from the many books and the 1988 symposia on the armada, when the first, lavishly illustrated, edition appeared; updated bibliography.
Mattingly, Garrett. The Armada. Boston, 1959. Marvelously written and atmospheric, fine on diplomacy, outdated on ships and battles.
Parker, Geoffrey. The Grand Strategy of Philip II. New Haven, 1998. Masterful.
Rodríguez-Salgado, M. J., ed. Armada, 1588–1988: An International Exhibition to Commemorate the Spanish Armada. London, 1988. Splendid catalogue of the exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.
Rodríguez-Salgado, M. J., and Simon Adams, eds. England, Spain and the Gran Armada: Essays from the Anglo-Spanish Conferences, London and Madrid, 1988. Savage, Md., and Edinburgh, 1991.
In 1588 the king of Spain, Philip II, attacked England with a war fleet called the Spanish Armada. The naval battle was a crushing defeat for Spain. Although this battle did not end the conflict between the two nations, both the Spanish and the English came to see it as a turning point in history.
On Course for War. Politics and religion both contributed to the conflict between Spain and England. In the early 1580s, Spain had used its naval forces to take over Portugal and its overseas empire. Both England and France opposed Spain's expansion. France responded by sending ships and troops to support Portuguese rebels. After the Spanish navy smashed a combined French and Portuguese fleet, the victorious Spanish commander suggested to Philip that the navy might settle matters with England, too.
England and Spain stood on opposite sides of a religious divide. Spain was a Roman Catholic nation, but England had become Protestant. The English queen Elizabeth I had aided Protestant rebels in the Netherlands, which was then a territory of Spain. She also allowed English seafarers such as Francis Drake to make piratical attacks on Spanish ships and ports. Philip, in turn, supported Catholic plots against Elizabeth.
By mid-1585 Philip's army seemed close to crushing the Protestant revolt in the Netherlands. England declared its support for the rebels, setting the stage for war with Spain. Philip sought advice from his naval commander, the marquis of Santa Cruz, and his governor-general in the Netherlands, the duke of Parma. They planned to send a massive fleet into English waters to take on the English navy, considered the best in Europe. Meanwhile, 30,000 of Parma's troops would cross the English Channel for a surprise attack on England. Such plans, however, could not remain secret. Drake learned of the plot and decided to strike first. In 1587 he attacked the Spanish port of Cádiz, destroying several dozen ships and slowing Spain's preparations.
The Battle. Before the fleet could sail, Santa Cruz died. His replacement, the duke of Medina Sidonia, lacked experience in naval combat. Storms then delayed the fleet's departure. In July of 1588 the Armada finally sailed for the English Channel with 125 vessels and 28,000 men.
Some of the Armada's sailors wanted to attack the English port of Plymouth. However, on Philip's orders, Medina Sidonia bypassed Plymouth and directed the Armada toward the planned meeting with Parma's force. The English fleet, which was stationed at Plymouth, slipped out of port at night and worked its way to the Armada's rear. It attacked the Armada on July 31, doing little damage. However, the Spanish lost two ships to accidents. The battle that followed centered on about 30 ships from each side.
The English tested the Spanish defenses for two days. On the third day the Armada lashed back. Knowing that the English had better shipboard guns, the Spanish planned to get close to English ships and then board them for hand-to-hand fighting. But the English kept their distance, peppering the Spanish fleet with cannon fire. The Armada anchored off Calais, France, to await Parma's force, but Parma was not quite ready to sail. The English did not wait. They attacked at night with fire ships—launching empty vessels toward the Spanish fleet and setting them on fire. The Armada fled from its anchorage and out into the North Sea. The Spanish officers decided to retreat to Spain by going north around Scotland and Ireland. They lost more than two dozen ships to storms on the return voyage. Barely half the Armada returned to Spain.
After the Armada. The defeat of the Armada brought joy to England and to Dutch Protestants. The war, however, raged on, with successes and failures on both sides, until James I of England and Philip III of Spain made peace in 1604.
To the English, the victory over the Armada came to represent the dawn of a heroic age of empire. The English also tended to see the battle as the defeat of a large force by a smaller but braver one, forgetting that their navy had had bigger guns and better ships. For the Spanish, the defeat of the Armada became a sign of the long decline that ended in the loss of their empire.
Also known as the Great and Most Fortunate Navy, the Spanish Armada was a grand fleet of warships sent by Spain in 1588 to attack England. Spain's goal was to end English interference in the Spanishcontrolled Low Countries, and return the English kingdom to the Catholic fold. Philip II, the husband of the late queen Mary I of England, saw the return of the Protestant Church under Queen Elizabeth as a mortal threat to the Catholic Church, which he staunchly defended, and a challenge to Spanish domination in the Netherlands. He sent the Armada under the command of the Duke of Medina Sedonia, whose orders were to bring Spanish soldiers from the Low Countries to the vicinity of London, where a direct threat to the city would change English minds about supporting revolts against Spanish rule in the Netherlands. A secondary aim of the Spanish Armada was to end English interference with Spain's colonial empire in the New World.
In the spring of 1588 the Armada set sail with 130 ships, eight thousand sailors, and eighteen thousand soldiers. In the meantime England was fully informed of Spanish intentions through a network of spies in the Spanish royal court. On July 19 the Armada arrived in the English Channel, intending to rendezvous with a company of twenty thousand Spanish infantry on the continent. An English battle fleet of 55 ships immediately set out from the port of Plymouth, engaging the Armada at skirmishes at Eddystone and Portland. When the Spaniards took harbor at the Isle of Wight, the English commander Sir Francis Drake attacked, chasing the Armada out of the Channel. After passing the southern English coast the Spanish anchored off the port of Calais, where the English attacked with fireships. Greatly fearing these dangerous ships that were packed with explosives and gunpowder, the Spanish scattered from Calais and sailed north to Gravelines, prepared to rendezvous with the Spanish infantry under the Duke of Parma.
At Gravelines, the faster and more maneuverable English ships dodged the heavy Spanish cannons that were used ineffectively by the Armada, and stayed well out of grappling range in order to avoid hand-to-hand fighting. Several Spanish ships were lost, and the Armada retreated from the coast under strong northwesterly winds. With the threat of a land invasion thwarted, the English shadowed the Armada as it sailed up the eastern coast of England, then attempted a return home via the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. With food and water running low, the Spanish commander ran into a heavy storm that destroyed 24 of his ships off the western coast of Ireland. Hundreds of sailors were drowned or captured after swimming to land, where the Irish—always hostile to English power—gave some of them food and shelter.
As the Spanish fleet limped home, the English gathered an armada of their own and prepared for a counterattack. This expedition failed, but the defeat of the Spanish Armada gave a boost to the Protestant cause in Europe and to the prestige of Queen Elizabeth, who at a crucial moment had rallied her country's troops with a stirring speech. England continued its support of the rebellion in the Low Countries and also supported the efforts of privateers and its navy against Spanish interests in the New World.
See Also: Drake, Sir Francis; Elizabeth I
Philip II's purposes behind the Armada were to end English attacks on Spain's commerce with her American dominions, to assert his sovereignty in Flanders, which Elizabeth had been impugning since 1585, and, above all, to bring heretic England back into the fold of Rome. He had himself a claim to Elizabeth's crown which, if success was granted to the enterprise, Philip would use in the best interests of Spain and the true faith. On the English side the issues were the defence of a protestant realm that included catholic Ireland, vigilance against the threat posed by Spanish power in Flanders, and the protection of Elizabeth's person and the ‘Englishness’ of her queenship.
Under the command of the duke of Medina-Sidonia, not a professional commander but experienced in fleet logistics, the Armada took three weeks to make Corunna from Lisbon. From the Lizard Point in Cornwall on 29 July its disciplined crescent formation was only twice broken by English forces (two of its ships were lost) before it reached Calais on 6 August. Here Parma had failed to prepare his troops, and had critically underrated Dutch naval forces, which sealed off his sea exits. The Armada's congestion made it vulnerable to Howard's fireship attack on the night of 7 August, and on the following day there was heavy Spanish loss of life in a sustained battle off Gravelines. The shoaling coast and southerlies of increasing strength prevented Medina-Sidonia from standing in again for Calais, and deteriorating weather drove a dispersed Armada up the North Sea, pursued by Howard whose ordnance, and the health of his crews, were now spent. Driven round Scotland and Ireland, in unseasonably severe weather, two-thirds of the Armada were brilliantly navigated back home, but upwards of 30 ships were lost in the Hebrides and western Ireland. Some 11,000 Spaniards may have died. Although the elements had principally saved England, the campaign brought her high international repute, while Spain proved she could place a huge naval force in northern latitudes. The campaign's outcome saw neither state radically altering its policies.
David Denis Aldridge