The Defeat of the Spanish Armada

by Tina Blue
July 1. 2001

          The defeat of the Spanish Armada, the great fleet sent by Philip II of Spain in the summer of 1588 to invade England, validated the innovative tactics of the English "Sea Dogs" and signaled the decline of Spain as a great European power, as well as the end of the Spanish monopoly in North America and in Portugal's Asian empire.

          The reign of Philip II (1527-1598), the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, marked the high point of Spain's power and influence in world history. Like his father, Philip had to devote enormous amounts of money and manpower to the wars needed to maintain his far-flung global empire. Even with the flow of silver from Spain's American possessions into Philip's treasury, the great cost of these wars taxed Castile, his richest kingdom, so heavily that Spain's economy was seriously undermined.

          Elizabeth Tudor became England's queen in 1558 upon the death of her half-sister Mary, who had been Philip's wife. Philip made a half-hearted proposal to his erstwhile sister-in-law, but was relieved when she turned him down.

          Nevertheless, relations between Spain and England remained amicable, at least on the surface, for the first decade of Elizabeth's reign. Despite the apparent friendliness between Spain and England, however, even as early as 1559 King Philip wrote to his ambassador in London that he eventually intended to reverse the Protestant ascendancy in England, which he considered a "great evil."

          Diplomatic and military maneuvers on the continent during this period were shaped by the Catholic powers' attempts to suppress Protestantism. Philip's attentions were focused on his possessions in the Netherlands, where Protestantism had established a strong foothold. In 1567, Philip established under the command of the Duke of Alba a huge professional army of 60,000 troops, the "Army of Flanders," to suppress heresy and rebellion in the Netherlands. By 1578, after a series of Catholic setbacks in the Dutch provinces, the Army of Flanders, now under the command of the Duke of Parma, reconquered the rebel provinces and put Spain in a position to menace France, England, and the Protestant German states. Consequently, these countries all began to send aid to the Dutch rebels, to keep Spain's forces embroiled in an endless, expensive war.

          Philip was especially incensed that the Duke of Anjou, heir apparent to the French throne and apparently Queen Elizabeth's favored suitor, had been named by the rebels as sovereign over the Netherlands, deposing Philip from all his titles in those provinces. In 1582, Anjou announced that he and Elizabeth were engaged, and several of the highest-ranking members of Elizabeth's court were present at his investiture as ruler of the Netherlands, thus extending political recognition as well as financial aid to the rebels. But Anjou's arrangement with the rebels failed, as did his courtship of Elizabeth, and in 1583 he returned to France, where he died in 1584.

          Another reason for the souring of relations between Spain and England from 1569 onwards was Spain's attempt to enforce its monopoly on trade in the Americas. Between 1569 and 1588, Spain's shipping and colonies in the New World were threatened by such English privateers as John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake, popularly known as "Sea Dogs." Elizabeth covertly encouraged the Sea Dogs and even invested in their profit-seeking ventures.           

          Philip became increasingly receptive to pleas from Catholics all over Europe and in England who wanted to see Elizabeth assassinated and Mary Stuart made queen of England. As Elizabeth's cousin, Mary, who was both the queen of Scotland and the dowager queen of France, had a strong claim to the English crown, especially since most Catholics considered Elizabeth to be illegitimate.

          In 1571, a major Catholic conspiracy against Elizabeth (the "Ridolfi conspiracy") was traced to its originator, the Spanish ambassador in London. The Ridolfi conspiracy was just one of several Catholic plots aimed at replacing Elizabeth with Mary.

          By this time Mary had been deposed and imprisoned by Scottish nobles, and, after escaping, she had fled to England to seek assistance from Elizabeth. But as the focal point of Catholic plots to depose her, Mary posed such a threat to Elizabeth's reign and to her personal safety that Elizabeth had no choice but to keep her under house arrest.

          The Ridolfi conspiracy provoked Elizabeth to shift from limited covert attempts to undermine Spanish interests to open hostility against Spain and King Philip. In addition to supporting the Dutch rebels, she also began to more openly support privateering expeditions against Spanish ships, especially the treasure ships carrying silver from the New World to Spain.

          In 1580, with his conquest of Portugal, Philip gained control of Portugal's overseas empire and its navy, thus enhancing the power of his own fleet. Up to that point, Spain's fleet had consisted mainly of lightly armed escort galleons that were no match for the heavier warships being built in England.

          By 1583 Spain commanded the seas, and Elizabeth quite reasonably feared that more plots might be hatched against her. Between 1583 and 1585, three such plots involving Mary Stuart were discovered by the efficient spy network of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's secretary of state. As hostilities grew between England and Spain, Elizabeth formalized England's alliance with the Dutch rebels. She also sent Sir Francis Drake, with several warships, to plunder Spanish treasure in the Caribbean.

          No one doubted that Spain would eventually mount a direct attack on England in response to such provocations. Philip was enraged by the constant harrying of Spanish shipping and colonies by English privateers, and he was also under pressure from Pope Sixtus V to restore God's "true church" in England. By 1585 Philip had agreed to invade England, and preparations for the attack were underway by 1586. The project took on new urgency when Mary Stuart was executed in 1587 for her involvement in yet another conspiracy against Queen Elizabeth. To pious Catholics everywhere--and few were as pious as King Philip himself--Mary became a Catholic martyr, and the invasion of England was seen as a way to avenge her death as well as to return England to the Roman church.

          In April of 1587, an English fleet under Sir Francis Drake destroyed or captured twenty-four Spanish ships in Cadiz harbor, along with large amounts of food and stores intended for the Armada. After his triumph at Cadiz, Drake announced that he would sail to the Azores to intercept the Spanish treasure-fleet from America, thus forcing the Spanish commander, the Marquis of Santa Cruz, to wait there to escort the treasure-fleet home. During this expedition many of Santa Cruz's ships were damaged by rough weather, and their crews were reduced by illness and death. These losses, combined with those at Cadiz, forced Philip to delay the invasion until the following year, thus giving England more time to prepare for the arrival of the Armada.

          Both Parma and Santa Cruz advised Philip that his plan for invading England was unworkable, because it required that a myriad of uncontrollable variables work out perfectly in order to effect a rendezvous between Santa Cruz's Armada and the Army of Flanders. The Armada was to transport the army across the Channel to England, and then back them up as they secured their position for a march on London.

          Parma's army would not be able to come out into the Channel to rendezvous with the Armada, and the Armada could not get close enough to escort the army through the blockade of English and Dutch warships. Furthermore, Channel waters were treacherous, and the Armada would have no friendly harbor in case of trouble.

          But Philip was convinced that God would arrange good weather and adjust other circumstances to ensure Spain's success in this "holy war." When Santa Cruz died early in 1588, command of the Armada fell to the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who accomplished the Herculean task of organizing and refitting a fleet that had been allowed to degenerate into chaos. Crews and stores had to be replenished, repairs made, and a feasible battle plan worked out.

          The Armada entered the English Channel with about 125 ships (five had to turn back), but many were refitted carriers originally designed to transport grain. These old, clumsy hulks were not really warships, and their poor sailing qualities severely impeded the fleet's progress.

          Entering the Channel, the Armada adopted a compact, disciplined battle formation, even while harried by the faster English vessels. Although many of the Spanish ships were larger than the English ships, they were less maneuverable and not as well armed. The Spanish planned to fight a traditional naval battle: close on the enemy ship, fire a broadside to cause damage and confusion, then grapple and board. Under these conditions the Spanish ships, carrying large numbers of crack infantry, would have triumphed.

          But the sort of battle fought by the English was something the Spanish were not prepared for. The Spaniards had plenty of ammunition, but their guns could not easily be reloaded, and the gunners were actually soldiers who were supposed to return to their battle stations after firing an initial salvo. Unlike the Spanish crews, all the English crews were seamen, not land infantry.

          Furthermore, the English gunners were trained specialists who reloaded and fired repeatedly. Since their guns had a longer firing range than the Spanish guns, the English were able to avoid getting close enough to be boarded by Spanish troops. Instead, they darted around the slower Spanish vessels, without ever coming within range of the Spanish guns.

          Even so, in their first encounters with the Spanish the English caused more confusion than actual damage, and they seriously depleted their own stores of ammunition in the process.

          But Philip's implausible battle plan received no special help from God. Medina Sidonia was unable to make timely contact with Parma, so when the Armada reached the port of Calais, he discovered that it would take six days for Parma's army to fully embark. Having reached Calais without securing the Channel, the Armada would be exposed to English attacks for those six days. Medina Sidonia seems not to have understood, either, that Parma's army could not sail out to meet the Armada unless the Spanish fleet first drove enemy ships away from the straits, for Parma had no vessels suitable for fighting.

          As the Armada sat in the waters off Calais, the English prepared eight fireships to send against them. As the fireships approached, most of the Spanish captains cut their anchor cables and fled, destroying the impenetrable battle formation that the Armada had maintained since entering the English Channel. At dawn, only five ships remained to face the English fleet. The Battle of Gravelines was fought at very close range, and this time the English guns did great damage to the Spanish vessels, sinking one and causing a high rate of casualties on all that remained.

          The Spaniards fled from the coast of Flanders into the North Sea, pursued by the English fleet in an elaborate bluff, for the English were virtually out of ammunition, and if the Spanish had turned on them, they could not have fought. On the return voyage, several of the remaining ships were wrecked off the coast of Ireland. Those who did not drown were captured by the Irish or by English soldiers. Most were executed outright, though some were held for ransom.

          The attempted invasion of England had been an overwhelmingly expensive disaster. Of the 130 ships that sailed from Spain in 1588, only 60 were finally accounted for. One-third or more of the fleet had been sunk or wrecked.

     Spain's loss, both in ships and in men, was enormous, and Spain's status as a world power was destroyed. Following the defeat of the Armada, the English and Dutch began in earnest to establish their own empires in the New World. Although Spain continued to fight expensive territorial and religious wars in Europe for several decades afterward, the defeat of the Spanish Armada decidedly marked the beginning of Spain's decline as an actor on the world stage.

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