The great naval battle between Spain and England in 1588-
one of the most important battles in the history of the world- is known as the
Battle of the Invincible Armada. But in a sense, this is a misnomer. An
invincible armada is one that cannot be defeated, yet the mighty fleet of
warships that Spain sent to invade England, was defeated so badly that Spain
could never again rule the oceans. How was it possible that this armada, which
had awed all of Europe with its size and strength, was unable to stand up
against the forces of a much smaller and less powerful enemy? The answer lies
in the differences between these two countries and their rulers, Elizabeth I of
England and Philip II of Spain.
During the 16th century, Spain was at the height of her power. Newly discovered worlds and conquests of different peoples had yielded Spain an abundance of precious metals and gems, which made Spain the envy of all the other European nations. By 1580, King Philip II was ruling over an empire that covered three-fourths of the known world. Even the ancient Romans would have been envious of its size. (Walker 15-19)
Religion was one of the compelling motives behind the actions and ambitions of Spain. Philip’s father, Emperor Charles V, had established himself as the guardian of Christendom. He also had the dream of uniting all of the Christian European nations against the Turks and the Moors, who had been terrorizing Catholicism from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. However, his dreams were hindered by the coming of the Protestant Reformation, which split Christendom into two parts. (Marx 22-25)
Philip II continued in his father’s footsteps as the defender of Catholicism. After the Turks were defeated in a decisive sea battle in 1571, Philip turned his attention to another serious threat to Christendom: his Protestant neighbors. Devoutly religious and good friends with Pope Sixtus V, he was willing to use all of his resources, including his treasures from the New World, his large army, and his huge fleet of warships, just to unite Europe under a common Catholic faith. (Marx 28-33)
He probably would have accomplished his goal too, if it weren’t for the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England. England at this time, however, was not nearly as powerful or as wealthy as Spain. Her tax revenues were so small that monarchs were forced to sell their jewels and lands just to keep food on the table. As for military power, England had a few men and arms, and a fleet of ships better equipped for trading goods than fighting. (McKee 45)
England was also experiencing other problems during this time. The other parts of her kingdom- Scotland, Wales, and Ireland- were often in an open revolt against England over the matter of religion. Even the people of England herself were divided between Catholicism and Protestantism. Furthermore, a woman, who was thought to be a weak ruler, occupied the throne. There were a few major reasons why Philip II needed to conquer England, or at least befriend her. First, he was a leader in the Catholic movement to wipe out the heresy of Protestantism. The longer Elizabeth stayed on the throne, the more difficult this task became. She not only was the most important Protestant ruler but also provided the Protestants in northern Europe with support for their resistance against the Church of Rome. In addition, English Catholics were being persecuted more and more severely, mainly because Elizabeth feared that they were not loyal to her. For a long time, Philip was forced to endure this because Spain and the other main Catholic country, France, were fighting each other, and Philip needed to keep England neutral. But alliances were never permanent in Europe; countries that were bitter enemies one day became close allies the next. In 1572, the French decided to join Spain in a Catholic alliance against the Protestants. (Howarth 17-22)
The second reason was more personal to Philip. He greatly wanted to seek retribution on Elizabeth for all of the anguish she had caused him and his kingdom. For over twenty years, her privateers had been sacking Spanish settlements in America and laying claims to these cities. Her Sea Dogs, like Sir Francis Drake, had stolen on the high seas many Spanish treasures taken from the New World. This took away from the wealth of Philip’s kingdom directly. Furthermore, she had cleverly refused his marriage invitations for years and had put down a rebellion, which he had tried to start among the people of England in 1579. (Howarth 23-25)
While Philip II had all of these good reasons to invade England, he was still unable to bring himself to act until all of the advisors had exhausted themselves with arguments and the English had brought their raids to Spanish seaports. He was reluctant to act not for fear of losing the battle, but for fear of losing all of his money. While his army had been the most powerful in all of Europe at this time, Philip II had gone almost bankrupt to keep his professional army. (Howarth 26)
The real beginning of the fleet of Spanish warships that were needed for the invasion of England, the Spanish Armada, was begun in 1583 by the Spanish naval officer, Marquis of Santa Cruz. It was his defeat of a French Protestant fleet in June of that year which really demonstrated Spanish supremacy of the seas. Santa Cruz’s main confidant was the Duke of Guise, who led the Catholic League in France. Their plan was as follows: The Duke of Guise was to cross the English Channel, under the protection of Santa Cruz and his fleet, and land an army in Sussex in the southeast of England. They would help the English Catholics to rebel, set the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots free and crown her Queen of England after killing Elizabeth. (Graham 44-45) One of the main reasons Philip hesitated was due to the enormous cost of preparing the fleet. He was horrified by the figure named by Santa Cruz – four million ducats! The armada that finally sailed in 1588 was to cost Philip over ten million ducats, and a ducat today would be worth about $12.50, bringing the cost to about 125 million dollars. (Marx 28)
Philip decided that, instead of using the land forces that the French Duke of Guise had offered, he would send his own army from the Nether-lands. All of his spies in England and on the continent agreed that the most Elizabeth would be able to raise in defense of her throne was an ill-equipped and undisciplined mess, nothing capable of repelling a powerful, veteran army such as the one that was to be commanded by the Duke of Parma, the foremost military genius of the time. Thus, the conquest of England would be a matter of a few weeks at the most. Then Parma could quickly return to Holland and finish off the rebels without any interference from outside. The only weakness of the scheme lay in the difficulty of transporting Parma’s army, as well as all of its suppliers and war materials, across the Channel to England. Santa Cruz was placed in charge of planning all naval aspects of the invasion, including the preparation of an invincible armada to carry an invincible army. (Marx 30-32)
However, in 1588, Santa Cruz died. Philip II was forced to pick a new commander of his fleet. He picked the Duke of Medina Sidonia. He was neither a soldier, nor a sailor, but was chosen because of his nobility. The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, by order of Elizabeth in 1587 shocked all Catholic nations. Named by Mary, Queen of Scots, as her successor, Philip was ready now to establish himse1f as the rightful King of England. He ordered the Duke of Medina to prepare the great fleet to sail up the English Channel to link up with Parma’s army from the Netherlands. Together they would invade England. (Mckee 53) The organization of the “Great Enterprise” (which this plan began to be called) was a huge task. Philip sent agents to Germany and Italy to buy cannons, armor, gunpowder, swords, and all other weapons of war. However, more than just weapons were needed. Enough food had to be supplied for six months. Eleven million pounds of biscuits, 600,000 pounds of salt pork, 40,000 gallons of olive oil, 14,000 barrels of wine were but a part of the necessities for a force of over 30,000 men. The transports, orcas, were to be filled with 5,000 extra pairs of shoes, 11,000 pairs of sandals, as well as equipment to repair ships, and axes, spades, and shovels for digging trenches and sieges. (Marx 38-39)
With the fleet went six surgeons and six physicians, 180 priests as spiritual advisers, 19 justices and 50 administrators, carefully selected to set up a government in England, and 146 young men who volunteered for the adventure, as well as 728 servants. (Marx 40)
The main task of the Armada would be to transport soldiers to fight in England. Apart from the 22 great Portuguese and Spanish fighting ships, there were merchant ships converted for battle. Smaller panaches and zebras were used as messenger ships and guards. The Armada was divided into ten squadrons, led by the most famous and experienced commanders of the Spanish forces. In charge of the Biscay, ships were Don Juan Martinez de Recalde. Don Pedro de Valdes led the Andalusian ships. Don Miguel de Oquendo, nicknamed the “Glory of the Fleet,” was the heroic leader of the Guipuzcoana fleet. One of the most dashing commanders was the young Don Alonso de Leyva, whose task was to take over should Medina be killed or be disabled. (Marx 43-45)
During the development of the Spanish fleet, England
prepared for war as well. Defenses were improved around all cities,
especially London. Since there was no standing army in England, the Earl
of Leicester set up a militia to defend the Queen and London. John
Hawkins had been working on the development of new ships, and Drake created new
methods of fighting. Drake’s new method got rid of the usual hand-to-hand
combat aboard a boarded ship and relied on skilled sailors and heavy guns.
He figured that if the Spanish would try to board the English ships, they
could outmaneuver them and fire heavily upon them. (Mckee 68) By May 11, 1588,
the Great Armada was complete and set sail from Lisbon, Portugal. One
hundred thirty ships carrying 30,000 men sailed in an orderly procession behind
the ship of Medina, which carried the Spanish standard.
However, the weather was not in the fleet’s favor.
Great winds forced the ships to dock along the mouth of the Tagus River.
For over two weeks the ships waited to set sail. About three weeks
after they had set sail again, they were forced to seek shelter in Corunna
because of horrible sailing conditions that had scattered the Armada. (Lewis
88) Medina waited about a month to reassemble his fleet. During this
time, he repaired ships that had been damaged and refreshed rotting supplies.
The next time the ships set out, they were lucky; the wind that had
carried them north had blown back the Plymouth fleet that came to stop them. (Lewis
On Friday, July 29, Captain Thomas Fleming in the Golden
Hind caught sight of the Spanish fleet, which was only 50 miles southwest of
the southern tip of England. At the time that Sir Francis Drake was
notified of the approaching Spanish ships, he was playing a game of bowls.
It is here where he gave a rather famous comment. “There is plenty of
time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards.” He was right, in a
sense, because it was low tide and it would take another 8 hours to take the
fleet out of the harbor. When he did set sail with 54 ships, the rain
made it almost impossible to determine the position of any other ship, either
ally or enemy. (Lewis 101) Despite these conditions, the Armada sailed on,
followed by the English fleet. Two Spanish ships had been wrecked by
accident when The Rosario collided with other ships. At dawn on August 1,
she was captured by Drake, along with the San Salvador, a ship that had blown
up. From these two ships, the English acquired 2,000 cannonballs and 140
barrels of gunpowder. The next battle occurred off Portland Bill. It was
rather unsuccessful, for the Spanish were unable to board the English ships,
and the English ships were unable to damage any Spanish ship from long-range
firepower. This battle has been quoted by the English as the “waste of a
terrible value of the shot.” (Marx 87)
On August 4, as the Isle of Wright came into view, the
Duke of Medina realized that he needed ammunition and troops from Parma, but
was unable to reach them. The English fleet was determined to prevent the
Spanish from entering a little inlet, known as the Solent. Howard ordered
two ships, the Ark Royal and the Golden Lion to be towed into battle by
rowboats. Three Spanish ships detached from the main fleet in order to
engage the two English vessels. For a few hours, these ships bombarded
each other. Just as the wind finally came to the Spanish ships’
advantage, the more nimble English ships were able to getaway. The
Spanish fleet, however, continued northeast to the Strait of Dover with the
hope of meeting up with Parma at Dunkirk to recharge his supplies.
However, as he was sailing, Medina learned that there was no anchorage
deep enough for the fleet on the Flemish shore. (Walker 48)
When the English learned that the Great Fleet was forced to anchor off Calais, they felt it was their time to strike. They got ready to send in fireships. The Spanish knew that the Italian engineer, Giambelli, had made for the English fire ships laden with explosives. These “Hellburners’ ‘ were the most feared weapons for a fleet at anchor. These fireships were also used by the English to break up the crescent-shaped formation of the Armada. This arrangement of ships was used at close quarters to try and surround and then board the English ships. (Walker 49-50)
The Spanish began to prepare. Pinnaces stood guard with long grapnels to tow the fire ships away from the main fleet. Medina ordered the ships to be ready to weigh anchor for a quick getaway. As it was a lengthy business hauling up heavy sea anchors, the tactic was to attach them to buoys. If the fire ships came, then the ships cut their cables and escaped, leaving their heavy anchors attached to the buoys. When the danger was over, the ships could return to pick up the anchors. (Graham 233)
The Dover Squadron, led by Lord Henry Seymour, joined Lord Howard’s squadrons. Now the Queen’s navy almost equaled the Armada in number. The English recognized their advantage. They filled eight old ships with inflammable material and waited for the wind and tide. (Marx 120)
After midnight, the waiting Spaniards saw the glow from the fire ships approaching with the tide. As they came closer, their guns overheated and exploded, making a terrifying sight. The Spanish hastily cut their cables. In the pitch-blackness, they collided with each other in their effort to escape. The huge galleass, the San Lorenzo, was badly damaged, but no ship was set on fire.
By daylight on August 8, Medina realized many of his ships were in danger of running on the shoals of the Flemish coast, providing an easy target for the pursuing English. With four great ships, he decided to stand and fight, desperately determined to hold off the English while the rest of the Armada collected and made ready for the coming assault. (Encarta) Drake, in Revenge, led the attack. One by one, his squadron followed, opening fire at a hundred yards range. Frobisher’s squadron followed Drake’s. The Spaniards were outnumbered by about ten to one. The English had the wind behind them, and at close range, their cannons made huge holes in the Spanish hulls. Spanish sails, rigging, and castles were shattered. The pumps of the San Martin worked desperately to keep her afloat. (Marx 144-145)
In the noise, smoke, and confusion it was impossible to see what was happening. Other ships gathered, but the main battle was between Drake’s ships and the big galleons of the Portuguese and Seville squadrons. Three great Spanish ships sank that day, a dozen more were badly damaged. Six hundred Spaniards were killed and at least 800 wounded. The decks ran with their blood. (Marx 150-152)
Toward evening, after nine grueling hours, heavy rain and wind ended the battle. But worse was to come. Amid the wreckage and blood and the screams of wounded men, the winds blew the helpless Spanish ships toward the treacherous sandbanks. When dawn came, the English moved in and the exhausted Spaniards prepared themselves for death. But the English were almost out of ammunition. No attack came.
Slowly, the Spaniards forced their way through the shallow waters. At any moment, they could feel the terrible lurch of a ship grounded on the sands. Then, in the afternoon, the wind changed and blew them away from the deadly sandbanks. The Duke of Medina wrote: “We were saved by the wind, by God’s mercy, it shifted to the southwest.” (McKee 181)
It is rather strange that only 100 Englishmen had been killed since the first encounter. Why didn’t the Spanish artillery do any damage to the English fleet? One answer may be that the Spanish cannonballs were badly cast and splintered when fired. Their gunpowder was finer ground than the English, and perhaps was unsuited to the heavy cannon. Their guns may even have exploded on their gun decks. The merchant ships were not built to take either the weight or the recoil of heavy cannon. Continual pounding from their own guns put an immense strain on the ships’ timbers. Their carpenters had the never-ending task of caulking the leaks. Sometimes the guns were not properly lashed to the gun decks. When fired, the recoil sent the guns bounding across the decks, severely damaging the ships and wounding the men. (Graham 287) When the English fleet turned back, Medina and his captains held a council of war. Now their task was to get the Armada safely back to Spain. Medina wrote to the King that “the Armada was so crippled and scattered, it seemed my first duty to Your Majesty to save it, even at the risk of a very long voyage in high latitudes.” The Armada was in no condition to turn back and fight its way through the Channel. Besides, the wind was still taking it north. They decided to sail around Scotland and southward in the Atlantic, keeping well away from Ireland, back to Spain.
The English, having given up the chase, sent two pinnaces to trail the Armada as far as the Orkneys. Then they headed south. The veteran Captain Thomas Fenner of the Non-Pareil wrote predicting the fate of the Armada. As he wrote, another terrible storm arose. Spanish accounts of this storm describe the scattering of the fleet. But the Armada held on course. On August 19, in a moderate wind, they sailed safely through the Fair Isle channel between Shetland and the Orkneys, where Scottish fishermen fish. Food was running out. Only a little slimy green water was left in the unseasoned wooden casks. Most of the biscuits, salt beef, and salt fish had gone bad. Medina had to ration food, giving each man a daily allowance of eight ounces of a biscuit, and a pint of half wine/half water. Horses and mules were thrown overboard. Of the 130 ships that had set sail from Lisbon, eight great ships had been sunk. Many pinnaces and small craft had been swept away. Half the remaining ships needed drastic repairs. (Howarth 234)
Off the Orkneys, Medina sent a message to the King to say that the Armada was still together, and capable of getting back to Spain, although, besides the wounded, there was 3,000 sick on board. But soon the moderate weather changed and in the terrible seas off Cape Wrath, the Armada began to break up. In gale-force winds, the fleet was swept backward and forward around the north of Scotland, facing a fiercer enemy than the English: the wild sea. The groaning, leaking ships were kept afloat by tired, hungry men working non-stop at the pumps. Scurvy, dysentery, and fever were rife. Many ships sought land, looking for food and water. Because they had abandoned their sea anchors at Calais and had only small anchors, they were often driven onto the rocks. As the weather worsened, ships were swept away from the main body of the fleet. Many sank with all hands. (Howarth 245)
Four great ships were blown back toward Shetland. The Castello Negro was never seen again. On September 1, the Barca de Amburg fired a gun to signal she was sinking. The Grand Gonfon took off her crew, many of them wounded and dying, but was herself wrecked off Fair Isle a month later. All her 300 crew were saved, though many died afterward of hunger and fever. On September 17, the Trinidad Valencera struck a reef off northeast Ireland. Of the 450 men aboard, some of whom had been rescued from other ships, only 32 reached France. The rest had been slaughtered or died of exposure or fever. (Marx 224-226)
On about September 18, one of the worst storms hit the Atlantic. The Rata Santa Maria Encoronada and the Duquesa Santa Ana took refuge in Blacksod Bay, County Mayo, Ireland. Battles and the beatings of storms shook the Rata, but worst of all, she too had lost her sea anchors. In the rising wind and tide, she dragged her remaining anchor and grounded on the shelving beach. Her commander, Don Alonso de Leyva, transferred his men to the Santa Ana. This was a tremendous feat, as Santa Ana was anchored in another part of the bay and de Leyva had to march his men miles across a bleak headland through bogs and across rivers. The heavily laden ship set sail for Scotland but was driven on the rocks at Loughros More in the County Donegal. With great courage de Leyva, who had broken his leg, got his crew ashore. They had news that three Spanish ships were sheltering in the harbor of Killybegs. So again, they set out across the mountains. At Killybegs, they discovered that two of the ships were wrecked. Thirteen hundred men crammed onto the Girona and again set sail for Scotland. In the night the wind changed. The Girona hit a reef near the Giant’s Causeway. Less than ten men survived; everyone else was drowned, including de Leyva who had led his men so bravely. (Walker 176)
When Philip was told the dreadful news about his splendid ships, he said, “I sent them to fight against men, not storms.” Regardless of cost, he set about building better ships and making arms that were more powerful to overcome the English. Elizabeth’s treasury was almost empty, but, with money collected from the City of London and from her courtiers, she sent a fleet of 126 ships, commanded by Drake, to attack the remains of the Armada in Santander. But Drake and his captains wanted booty as well as naval victory and sailed to Corunna, hoping to attack Lisbon. Sickness broke out among the crews, and bad weather dispersed the ships. The dispirited fleet struggled back to Plymouth. The Queen was furious and Drake was in disgrace for several years.
Five years later, Philip II sent 100 ships to invade England, but more than half of them were destroyed by a fierce gale in the Bay of Biscay. The following year another Spanish fleet almost reached the southern coast of England, but again the “winds of fate” blew them back to Spain.
Overall, the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the hands of the English had almost been like the defeat of the great Philistine Goliath by David. This naval battle, however, did much more good for England, than just an increase in pride. After this battle, England took the role as the greatest power in Europe, and Spain, with a damaged army and damaged pride, could do nothing to prevent this from happening.
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