Off the coast of Gravelines, France, Spain’s so-called “Invincible Armada” is defeated by an English naval force under the command of Lord Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake. After eight hours of furious fighting, a change in wind direction prompted the Spanish to break off from the battle and retreat toward the North Sea. Its hopes of invasion crushed, the remnants of the Spanish Armada began a long and difficult journey back to Spain.
In the late 1580s, English raids against Spanish commerce and Queen Elizabeth I’s support of the Dutch rebels in the Spanish Netherlands led King Philip II of Spain to plan the conquest of England. Pope Sixtus V gave his blessing to what was called “The Enterprise of England,” which he hoped would bring the Protestant isle back into the fold of Rome. A giant Spanish invasion fleet was completed by 1587, but Sir Francis Drake’s daring raid on the Armada’s supplies in the port of Cadiz delayed the Armada’s departure until May 1588.
On May 19, the Invincible Armada set sail from Lisbon on a mission to secure control of the English Channel and transport a Spanish army to the British isle from Flanders. The fleet was under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia and consisted of 130 ships carrying 2,500 guns, 8,000 seamen, and almost 20,000 soldiers. The Spanish ships were slower and less well armed than their English counterparts, but they planned to force boarding actions if the English offered battle, and the superior Spanish infantry would undoubtedly prevail. Delayed by storms that temporarily forced it back to Spain, the Armada did not reach the southern coast of England until July 19. By that time, the British were ready.
On July 21, the English navy began bombarding the seven-mile-long line of Spanish ships from a safe distance, taking full advantage of their long-range heavy guns. The Spanish Armada continued to advance during the next few days, but its ranks were thinned by the English assault. On July 27, the Armada anchored in exposed position off Calais, France, and the Spanish army prepared to embark from Flanders. Without control of the Channel, however, their passage to England would be impossible.
Just after midnight on July 29, the English sent eight burning ships into the crowded harbor at Calais. The panicked Spanish ships were forced to cut their anchors and sail out to sea to avoid catching fire. The disorganized fleet, completely out of formation, was attacked by the English off Gravelines at dawn. In a decisive battle, the superior English guns won the day, and the devastated Armada was forced to retreat north to Scotland. The English navy pursued the Spanish as far as Scotland and then turned back for want of supplies.
Battered by storms and suffering from a dire lack of supplies, the Armada sailed on a hard journey back to Spain around Scotland and Ireland. Some of the damaged ships foundered in the sea while others were driven onto the coast of Ireland and wrecked. By the time the last of the surviving fleet reached Spain in October, half of the original Armada was lost and some 15,000 men had perished.
Queen Elizabeth’s decisive defeat of the Invincible Armada made England a world-class power and introduced effective long-range weapons into naval warfare for the first time, ending the era of boarding and close-quarter fighting.