Perhaps one of the most famous naval victories in English history, and certainly a famous moment of Elizabeth I’s reign, was the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which took place today in 1588. But was it that great a victory?
Background to invasion:
The relationship between England and Spain had slowly deteriorated following Elizabeth’s accession: she restored Protestantism to the country after Mary I’s ‘bloody’ reign under Catholicism, and she turned down King Philip’s offer of marriage (…he had been her brother in law!). Tension had built over the decades, but, interestingly, war was never formally declared.
English raids against Spanish trade, as well as Elizabeth’s support of the Protestant Dutch rebels against the Spanish, saw King Philip II of Spain plan an invasion and conquest of England. The Pope, Sixtus V, supported this move, hoping to restore Catholicism to the country, a few decades after the Virgin Queen had been excommunicated, like her father Henry VIII.
The Pope’s declaration that English Catholics held no obligation to support their Queen encouraged a series of plots against Elizabeth, hoping to replace her with her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Having had her imprisoned over decades, Mary’s execution in 1587 was the final straw for the Spanish.
What happened during the Spanish Armada?
It was on 19th May 1588 that the Armada set off from Lisbon, then part of the Philip’s kingdom. Though a fleet had been ready since 1587, English raids on Cadiz saw the departure delayed by a number of months.
Carrying 28,000 souls (8,000 sailors and 20,000 soldiers) and 2,500 guns on 130 ships (including 28 purpose-built warships), the Armada was under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia – a man without any military or naval experience.
Storms delayed the fleet travelling to the southern coast of the British Isles, but it finally reached its destination on 19th July; this delay had given the English Navy the chance to prepare. Having spotted the Armada, the first of the chain of beacons were lit, alerting the rest of the kingdom to the impending invasion.
Commanding the English force was Lord Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake, ready to take on the Spanish fleet, with around 200 ships.
Philip’s orders to Medina-Sidonia were to sail up the Channel, close to the English coast, until he reached Margate Point. Here, he was to escort ships from Dunkirk, carrying the Duke of Parma’s army, to invade England.
The English Navy – with Drake in the Revenge, and Howard aboard the Ark Royal – began bombarding the seven-mile-long line of Spanish ships from a safe distance on 21st July, using their long-range heavy guns to their advantage. Little by little, the Armada advanced over the course of the next few days, being almost unaffected by the canon fire.
Despite the slower and lesser armed ships of the Spanish, if battle was offered, the Iberian infantry would board in the traditional ways of sea warfare, and no doubt have the upper hand.
Weapons recovered from Armada wrecks, however, show the Spanish’s ammunition to be of poor quality; canon balls and guns were badly cast, meaning the balls were too brittle, and would disintegrate on impact, while the guns had a high risk of bursting and killing or injuring the soldier wielding it…
The Armada was pursued up the Channel by Howard’s fleet until 23rd July. The Spaniards had reached Portland Bill, where they gained the weather advantage (weather gauge), meaning they could turn and attack the pursuing English ships easily. No real damage was done to either fleet by this point, save the storm damage.
By the 27th, the Spanish fleet had to port, waiting on Parma’s men for their extra numbers. They had to stop at Calais, however, as Medina-Sidonia found that there was no port deep enough near to the Spanish troops for him to stop and ‘pick up’ the soldiers: the sailors were unfamiliar with the dangerous sandy coastline of the Low Countries and the Netherlands. Their position left them exposed, and they still did not have control of the Channel – as the English had pursued them from a safe distance – which was imperative for a safe crossing to England,
In the early hours of 29th July, eight burning ships, known as fireships, were sent into the crowded harbour by the English. Panic spread amongst the Armada, and they cut their anchors to sail away from the danger of the fire. They lost four ships in the to-do.
Not in formation, disoriented, and surprised, they were then attacked at dawn near Gravelines, giving its name to the battle which ensued.
After just eight hours of furious fighting, Spain’s so-called Invincible Armada was brought to heel, with canon fire at a closer range from the English. The Armada had been strategically defeated: it was no longer feasible (if it ever had been) to attempt an invasion of England. It was home-time for the Spaniards.
In a decisive battle, the superior English guns won the day, and the devastated Armada was forced to retreat north to Scotland, with a high number of men lost, as well as ships.
With the English to the west, and the wind blowing north, the Spanish had to take the long route home: around Scotland, and down the west coast of Ireland, before heading south to the Mediterranean. Storms around the coast battered the remainder of the fleet on their journey, and they were desperately in need of supplies.
Docking near Galway, a number of men were killed by the locals, who assumed they were invading; the Spanish had hoped for some brotherly Catholic assistance…
By the time the last of the survivors reached Spain in October 1588, an estimated 15,000-20,000 men had been lost, and half of the 130-strong fleet was gone.
While there was disappointment in England that so few Spanish ships has been taken or destroyed, the efficiency of the government during the crisis, and Elizabeth’s appearance amongst her troops, boosted the Queen’s prestige. 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, thus ending the era of boarding and close-quarter fighting.
The victory of the Spanish Armada was declared the greatest since Henry V’s at Agincourt in 1415. It was however, a mild victory, with plenty of other factors, such as the weather, making more of a dent in the Spanish fleet. But nonetheless, a turning point for England’s standing as a naval power, and boost for the Queen’s image at home.