The Spanish Armada was an enormous 130-ship naval fleet dispatched by Spain in 1588 as part of a planned invasion of England. Following years of hostilities between Spain and England, King Philip II of Spain assembled the flotilla in the hope of removing Protestant Queen Elizabeth I from the throne and restoring the Roman Catholic faith in England. Spain’s “Invincible Armada” set sail that May, but it was outfoxed by the English, then battered by storms while limping back to Spain with at least a third of its ships sunk or damaged. The defeat of the Spanish Armada led to a surge of national pride in England and was one of the most significant chapters of the Anglo-Spanish War.
Philip and Elizabeth
Despite their family connections—Philip had once been married to Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary—the two royals had severe political and religious differences and had engaged in a “cold war” for much of the 1560s and 1570s.
Philip was particularly incensed by the spread of Protestantism in England, and he had long toyed with the idea of conquering the British Isle to bring it back into the Catholic fold.
Tensions between Spain and England flared in the 1580s, after Elizabeth began allowing privateers such as Sir Francis Drake to conduct pirate raids on Spanish fleets carrying treasure from their rich New World colonies.
By 1585, when England signed a treaty of support with Dutch rebels in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands, a state of undeclared war existed between the two powers. That same year, Philip began formulating an “Enterprise of England” to remove Elizabeth from the throne.
What Was the Spanish Armada?
The Spanish Armada was a naval force of about 130 ships, plus some 8,000 seamen and an estimated 18,000 soldiers manning thousands of guns. Roughly 40 of the ships were warships.
The Spanish plan called for this “Great and Most Fortunate Navy” to sail from Lisbon, Portugal, to Flanders, where it would rendezvous with 30,000 crack troops led by the Duke of Parma, the governor of the Spanish Netherlands.
The fleet would then guard the army as it was ferried across the English Channel to the Kent coast to begin an overland offensive against London.
England Prepares for Invasion
It was impossible for Spain to hide the preparations for a fleet as large as the Armada, and by 1587, Elizabeth’s spies and military advisors knew an invasion was in the works. That April, the Queen authorized Francis Drake to make a preemptive strike against the Spanish.
After sailing from Plymouth with a small fleet, Drake launched a surprise raid on the Spanish port of Cadiz and destroyed several dozen of the Armada’s ships and over 10,000 tons of supplies. The “singeing of the king of Spain’s beard,” as Drake’s attack was known in England, was later credited with delaying the launch of the Armada by several months.
The English used the time bought by the raid on Cadiz to shore up their defenses and prepare for invasion.
Elizabeth’s forces built trenches and earthworks on the most likely invasion beaches, strung a giant metal chain across the Thames estuary and raised an army of militiamen. They also readied an early warning system consisting of dozens of coastal beacons that would light fires to signal the approach of the Spanish fleet.
Led by Drake and Lord Charles Howard, the Royal Navy assembled a fleet of some 40 warships and several dozen armed merchant vessels. Unlike the Spanish Armada, which planned to rely primarily on boarding and close-quarters fighting to win battles at sea, the English flotilla was heavily armed with long-range naval guns.
Spanish Armada Sets Sail
In May 1588, after several years of preparation, the Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia. When the 130-ship fleet was sighted off the English coast later that July, Howard and Drake raced to confront it with a force of 100 English vessels.
The English fleet and the Spanish Armada met for the first time on July 31, 1588, off the coast of Plymouth. Relying on the skill of their gunners, Howard and Drake kept their distance and tried to bombard the Spanish flotilla with their heavy naval cannons. While they succeeded in damaging some of the Spanish ships, they were unable to penetrate the Armada’s half-moon defensive formation.
Over the next several days, the English continued to harass the Spanish Armada as it charged toward the English Channel. The two sides squared off in a pair of naval duels near the coasts of Portland Bill and the Isle of Wight, but both battles ended in stalemates.
By August 6, the Armada had successfully dropped anchor at Calais Roads on the coast of France, where Medina-Sidonia hoped to rendezvous with the Duke of Parma’s invasion army.
Fireships Scatter the Armada
Desperate to prevent the Spanish from uniting their forces, Howard and Drake devised a last-ditch plan to scatter the Armada. At midnight on August 8, the English set eight empty vessels ablaze and allowed the wind and tide to carry them toward the Spanish fleet hunkered at Calais Roads.
The sudden arrival of the fireships caused a wave of panic to descend over the Armada. Several vessels cut their anchors to avoid catching fire, and the entire fleet was forced to flee to the open sea.
Battle of Gravelines
With the Armada out of formation, the English initiated a naval offensive at dawn on August 8. In what became known as the Battle of Gravelines, the Royal Navy inched perilously close to the Spanish fleet and unleashed repeated salvos of cannon fire.
Several of the Armada’s ships were damaged and at least four were destroyed during the nine-hour engagement, but despite having the upper hand, Howard and Drake were forced to prematurely call off the attack due to dwindling supplies of shot and powder.
Speech to the Troops at Tilbury
With the Spanish Armada threatening invasion at any moment, English troops gathered near the coast at Tilbury in Essex to ward off a land attack.
Queen Elizabeth herself was in attendance and - dressed in military regalia and a white velvet gown - she gave a rousing speech to her troops, one that is often cited as among the most inspiring speeches ever written and delivered by a sovereign leader:
"I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field."
Bad Weather Besets the Armada
Shortly after the Battle of Gravelines, a strong wind carried the Armada into the North Sea, dashing the Spaniards’ hopes of linking up with the Duke of Parma’s army. With supplies running low and disease beginning to spread through his fleet, the Duke of Medina-Sidonia resolved to abandon the invasion mission and return to Spain by rounding Scotland and Ireland.
The Spanish Armada had lost over 2,000 men during its naval engagements with the English, but its journey home proved to be far more deadly. The once-mighty flotilla was ravaged by sea storms as it rounded Scotland and the western coast of Ireland. Several ships sank in the squalls, while others ran aground or broke apart after being thrown against the shore.
Defeat of the Spanish Armada
By the time the “Great and Most Fortunate Navy” finally reached Spain in the autumn of 1588, it had lost as many as 60 of its 130 ships and suffered some 15,000 deaths.
The vast majority of the Spanish Armada’s losses were caused by disease and foul weather, but its defeat was nevertheless a triumphant military victory for England.
By fending off the Spanish fleet, the island nation saved itself from invasion and won recognition as one of Europe’s most fearsome sea powers. The clash also established the superiority of heavy cannons in naval combat, signaling the dawn of a new era in warfare at sea.
While the Spanish Armada is now remembered as one of history’s great military blunders, it didn’t mark the end of the conflict between England and Spain. In 1589, Queen Elizabeth launched a failed “English Armada” against Spain.
King Philip II, meanwhile, later rebuilt his fleet and dispatched two more Spanish Armadas in the 1590s, both of which were scattered by storms. It wasn’t until 1604—over 16 years after the original Spanish Armada set sail—that a peace treaty was finally signed ending the Anglo-Spanish War as a stalemate.
The Spanish Armada. By Robert Hutchinson.
The Spanish Armada. BBC.
Sir Francis Drake. By John Sugden.
The Spanish Armada: England’s Lucky Escape. History Extra.
Elizabeth's Tilbury speech: July 1588. British Library.