In 1588, during the reign of the English Queen Elizabeth I, King Philip II of Spain was the head of a huge empire that included a quarter of the population of Europe and parts of the 'New World' across the Atlantic ocean.
This powerful empire was not without its troubles:
- Dutch protestants had rebelled against the empire and a well trained and equipped Spanish army led by the respected Duke of Parma had been sent to the Netherlands to defeat this uprising.
- Pirates, including English privateers like Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, were raiding the Spanish convoys carrying gold and other treasure from the Americas back to Spain.
- The Catholic faith was under severe threat from the Protestants in England, France, Germany and the Netherlands.
Phillip regarded England as a powerful source of Protestant resistance and thought that by invading England he could:
- Remove the support for the Dutch rebels
- Stop the Spanish treasure convoys being attacked
- Return land and power to the catholic church in England that Elizabeth's father Henry VIII had stolen from it
- Stop the French and German protestants undermining the catholic church
To invade England Phillip needed:
- An army
- A way to get the army to England
- Legal justification for the invasion
Justification - The Catholic Church
Phillip sought and obtained permission to invade England from Pope Sixtus V. Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father, had created the Church of England because the Catholic church had refused to grant him a divorce. Henry had taken away land, wealth and power from the Catholics and used it for his own needs. The Protestants had taken advantage of this and gained control of the church. The Pope was keen to see a Catholic monarch back on the throne of England, and the restoration of lands and wealth to the Catholic church. So, not only did he agree to make the invasion legal, he also excommunicated the English Queen Elizabeth, released her subjects from any obligation to obey her and promised to pay Phillip some money when his army landed in England.
The Army - The Duke of Parma
Phillip had the Duke of Parma's 'Army of Flanders' in the Netherlands. This army had been fighting the Dutch protestant rebels in the Spanish Netherlands for some years and was highly regarded as an efficient and able fighting force. The Duke had recieved replacement troops that were poorly trained, inexperienced and exhausted from their march across Europe. The supply of money to the Army was unreliable. A Soldier had to pay for his own weapons out of his wages, and a cavalryman his horse; the enlarged army soon became badly dressed and armed.
A Means to an end - The Armada
All Philip needed now was a way to get Parma's army to England.
- The Duke of Parma needed about 6 days to get his army ready to cross the channel, which meant the Armada would have to wait after it's arrival.
- Communications between the Armada and the Duke of Parma's army was very difficult. There was no way to tell the Duke to prepare his army until the Armada actually arrived.
- The Armada was desperately short of necessary equipment such as barrels for storing food and water. This was mainly due to raids on the Spanish ports by Sir Francis Drake.
The Armada left Lisbon on 30th May and sailed north towards England but was forced to anchor at Corunna on the 19th June for repairs after a storm. The Armada stayed at Corunna until 22nd of July when it set off once again after Phillip had finally lost his patience and issued a direct order to the Duke of Medina Sidonia to set sail. It was seven days later when the Armada finally approached England being sighted off the Lizard on the 29th of July. The news was taken directly to Plymouth by Thomas Fleming aboard the Golden Hind and a series of beacons across the country were lit in a pre-arranged signal that took the message all the way to London and as far away as York. The Next day, on the 30th, Lord Howard of Effingham's fleet of 54 ships left Plymouth commanded by: Lord Howard aboard Ark Royal, John Hawkins aboard Victory, Francis Drake aboard Revenge and Martin Frobisher on the Triumph.
The tactics of the day demanded that the English place their force in front of the Armada to block its way, which would have been ideal for the Spanish as their normal practice was to pull alongside an enemy vessel, fire a broadside, board and fight it out man to man. The English, however, had other ideas; their ships being more manoeuvrable they took up position behind the Armada where they had the opportunity to direct long range gunfire at the Spanish ships.
The Spanish responded by adopting a defensive crescent shaped formation with the horns, consisting of the best warships, pointing backward at the English to protect the slower, less well armed ships in the middle. The first engagement took place on the 31st of July but this was indecisive; as were further actions over the next few days. The Duke of Medina Sidonia had an opportunity to land on the Isle of Wight for use as a base but abandoned the plan.
By August 6th both sides were in a difficult position:
- The Duke of Medina Sidonia had received no reply to his messages to the Duke of Parma and so did not know where to meet him
- the English had virtually run out of ammunition and so far had failed to stop the progress of the Armada.
The Duke of Medina Sidonia needed a deep water port to wait for a reply from the Duke of Parma and headed for Calais, not the ideal place but friendly to the Spanish at least. The English followed and were joined by a further 35 ships from Dover. As the two fleets lay at anchor on the evening of the 7th August it was obvious to both sides that this was a fine opportunity for the English to send fireships at the Spanish; accordingly the Duke of Medina Sidonia placed watch boats to catch and tow away any that might appear.
As expected the Spaniards came under attack during the night as eight ships, between around 100 to 200 tons, were launched against them on a favourable tide. The two outer fireships were caught and towed away. As the watch boats approached the other fire ships their guns were set off by the surrounding flames. The watch boats panicked and changed direction fearing more explosions. The fireships caused little physical damage but produced chaos and confusion amongst the Spanish captains, who in many cases simply cut the anchor cables to make their escape quickly.
The following day on the 8th Aug the Duke of Medina Sidonia found his fleet scattered and to give his ships time to re-assemble he engaged the English squadrons with five ships. Gradually more Spanish ships returned to the fight but bad weather and low visibility made a fleet action impossible. By the 9th the Spanish ships found themselves off Gravelines and were seriously short of ammunition, allowing the English to close and use their cannon to great effect. It wasn't just the English guns that were a threat: to the great delight of the watching English the wind was blowing the Armada in the direction of the Zeeland sands; but literally moments before they were driven aground the wind changed and allowed the Armada to escape north.
Lord Howard and his fleet pursued the Armada until the 12th of August all the way to the Firth of Forth in Scotland. For weeks after, the English maintained a force in the channel thinking that the Spanish would repair their ships, re-arm in friendly ports and return to complete their job. They were not to know that the Duke of Medina Sidonia had decided that his objective was to return his ships safely to Spain. However, the weather was yet again to play a leading part in the fate of his fleet. The Armada ran into some seriously bad storms around Scotland and Ireland and many ships were wrecked, their crews being massacred by local inhabitants as they came ashore.
In late September 1588 the remnants of the Armada, about half the original number of ships, finally returned to various Spanish port. The following year another fleet of 100 ships was sent back to England; but, once again, the weather was to be their main enemy and they were forced to return to Spain by stormy conditions.
The outcome of the battle was a huge morale booster for the English, French and Dutch protestants. It strengthened the Protestant Church of England and Elizabeth I, and created the need for the formation of a professional English Navy. The war dragged on until 1604, when James I (Mary Queen of Scots son) arranged a treaty that gave the English Catholics some freedom and helped to stop English ships from raiding the Spanish possessions in the New World; Sir Walter Raleigh was one of those that James had executed in response to Spanish demands that English raids be stopped.
The failure of the Armada is actually considered to be the start of Spanish naval supremacy as the event made the them undertake a massive modernisation programme of their navy. It wasn't until 1805, when Admiral Nelson defeated the combined Spanish and French fleets at Trafalgar, that England (or the United Kingdom by then) became master of the Oceans.