Spanish Armada

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In July of 1588, the largest naval force ever assembled departed from Spain with one objective: conquer England. Phillip II of Spain gave command of the 130 ships, 25,000 men, and additional 30,000 troops stationed in the Spanish Netherlands to the Duke of Medina Sedonia with instructions to pick up the soldiers waiting in the Netherlands and invade England's southern coast.
Spanish Armada



Portrait of Phillip II.
Portrait of Phillip II
Many reasons provoked Phillip II to invade England. Tensions were already escalating between the two nations. At the time, Spain controlled the territories now known as Belgium and Holland. Spain rigorously enforced Catholicism in the originally Puritan Netherlands. Many Dutch stayed true to their origins and fought an underground religious battle against their occupiers. Puritan England was sympathetic to the Netherlands's cause and gave aid. This angered Phillip. England was also causing Spain trouble in the channel. English "sea-dogs" lead by Sir Francis Drake raided the Spanish silver trade routes costing Spain a great deal of money. Queen Elizabeth's execution of Mary, Queen of Scots is what really brought war upon the two nations. Queen Mary was Catholic and promised Phillip the throne of England if she became Queen. Phillip II took it upon himself to avenge Mary and the oppressed Catholics in England, overthrow Queen Elizabeth I, and bring papal justice.[1]

The Invasion

The invasion was no surprise to the English. It took Spain years to accumulate the forces and ships needed and they were keen to let England know why the were gathering so much naval-related resources as a force of intimidation. The armada that set sail from Spain on July 19th, 1588 consisted of 130 ships of which 22 were fighting galleons. The fleet consisted of many converted merchant ships as well as smaller zabras and patachs used to supply the galleons[2] The fleet sailed in a very defensive crescent-shaped formation with the slower galleons well protected in the middle and with
Painting of Spanish Armada.
The Crescent Formation
faster ships on the outsides. England's own naval power exceeded Spain's in numbers (200 ships to 130) but not in firepower (50% of Spain's). London was informed of the armada's position by a network of beacons. The armada sailed unchallenged until Sir Francis Drake attacked at Plymouth. This first engagement had little affect on either side beside wasting ammunition. However, after each engagement the English learned more about how to defeat this "Invincible Fleet". The armada sailed to the Netherlands without much incident for as long as they maintained the crescent formation they were considered untouchable.

Battle of Gravelines

The Battle of Gravelines is the beginning of the long demise of the Spanish Armada. The Duke of Medina Sedonia anchored his fleet at the harbor at Gravelines to pick up his additional 30,000
Route of the Spanish Armada
Route of the Spanish Armada
troops but in doing so left his fleet vulnerable. The English attacked and sent flaming ships loaded with gunpowder (practically a floating bomb) called "hell burners" at the anchored ships[3]. Luckily for the Spanish, lookouts spotted the fiery threats with time to escape but in doing so many ships were forced to cut
Armada in the Storm
Armada in the Storm
their anchor to flee.[4] This proved to be significant later. From all the minor skirmishes on the channel, the English now knew the Spanish's naval strategy. Unlike the English, Spain used their over complicated and slow canons as a supporting role as they wanted to pull along side an enemy ship and board them. This strategy might have been successful in past but it was not against the English. At Gravelines, the Spanish would expose their broadside while trying to board an English ship and would be quickly sunk by the English's superior and rapid use of canons. The English also used dreadnoughts as their primary warship and these were much faster than galleons adding even more of a kink in Spain's naval tactics. The English fleet was able to do damage to the armada but with such limited ammunition on both sides, the Spanish were able to fight off the English and escape. However the English now blocked the armada from using the channel to return to Spain. The Duke of Medina Sedonia instead was forced to plot a very long route around Scotland and Ireland.

The Armada's Demise

The armada was already short on supplies but it became so bad in some cases that sailors were forced to eat rope in order to survive. When the fleet was above Scotland it was hit by a horrific storm. Many ships were sunk and the fact that so many ships had no anchors now made their situation even worse. The surviving ships sailed for Ireland for refuge. They thought the Catholic Irish would help them. They were wrong. When the Irish saw the battered fleet arriving on their shores they viewed them as invaders and treated them with hostility killing many. Ultimately, only a mere 67 ships made it back to Spain while the English lost no ships and only 100 men in battle. However, disease took the lives of thousands on each side.

Reasons the Spanish were Defeated

The conditions definitely gave England a clear advantage. Here is why:


The Spanish relied on the strength and firepower of Galleons which were very large and slow. Their cannons were very effective at close range
Painting of Spanish Armada.
Painting of the Spanish Armada
but were overly complicated and difficult to fire rapidly.

The English used Dreadnoughts as their main warship. These ships were very maneuverable and used very effective cannons. These cannons were not as powerful as the Spanish but had a much greater range and were easier to fire quickly. These proved to be very useful at Gravelines.

"Homefield Advantage"

The English were able to restock supplies easily and did not have to sail far to engage the Spanish. Also the knowledge of currents, terrain, and weather helped press their advantage over the Spanish.


Admiral Santa Cruz was supposed to lead Phillip II's great armada but he died prior to departure and the Duke of Medina Sidonia was named his replacement. This was a poor call for though the Duke was an excellent general, he had never been to see before and did not know naval warfare.


The English were able to resupply at ports while the Spanish had to take everything they need for the whole journey. With all the delays due to weather and the fiasco with picking up the additional 30,000 soldiers in the Spanish Netherlands without a port left the Spanish with little supplies when they were forced to sail the long way around the British Isles. To make things worse, in preparation to building and preparing the armada, many barrels were made fresh for the ships. Fresh and moist wood rotted the food and made the water sour.


Spain's naval strategy involved boarding and capturing ships. Cannons were used as a supporting role to allow the ship to get close enough for the troops to board and fight. The armada sailed in a highly defensible crescent shape that put the valuable galleons in the middle to be protected. This strategy was highly affective against the English but when they dispersed to anchor at Gravelines, the English exploited their vulnerability. England on the other hand was trying to sink all the Spanish ships they could. They relied heavily on cannon fire and could do damage from a distance or let the Spanish come along broadside in an attempt to board then sink them with their superior cannons and rapid discharging capabilities.


Naval Warfare and Dominance

England's naval battle strategy was vindicated with their victory over Spain. This led to a revolution of naval warfare. Gunnery became relied upon over the traditional ramming and boarding. Also shipbuilding changed with the success of the new Dreadnought design. Many historians believe naval dominance shifted with the defeat of the Spanish Armada. England was riding the wave of a new age of naval warfare and slowly became the worlds most powerful naval power. In the near future it would be England trying to invade Spain.

England Prevails

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I
England's victory against the invaders united the nation and brought a new age of prosperity to England. Queen Elizabeth I's successful leadership strengthened her position and helped the monarchy as a whole. England loved her and she became legend. The Protestant movement was also strengthened for the notion that God favored England by destroying the Spanish fleet with the storm. So England's church and state both benefitted in the long run from the victory. This age and power grows the British Empire and an age of prosperity that Shakespeare was able to live in and write plays to be enjoyed now they were no longer concerned with invasion.


  1. The Spanish story of the Armada: and other essays
  3. "Spanish Armada"


  • "Armada, Spanish." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition. GA Tech Library. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.
  • "The Spanish Armada." History Learning Site. 2000. Web. 16 Mar. 2012. <>.
  • Corbett, Julian S. "Introduction: The Naval Art in the Middle of the Sixteenth Century." Drake and the Tudor Navy, Vol.1, by Julien S. Corbett. [S.l.]: Longmans, Green &, 1912. Print.
  • Froude, James Anthony. The Spanish Story of the Armada, and Other Essays;. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1892. Print.
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