Spanish Armada

Template:Battlebox The Spanish Armada (Old Spanish: Grande y Felicissima Armada, "large and most fortunate fleet"; but called by the British, with ironic intention, la Armada Invencible, "the Invincible Fleet") was a fleet sent by King Philip II of Spain in 1588 in a failed attempt to bring an end to his war with England by forcing the English government to a peace advantageous to Spain. It was the largest battle of the Anglo-Spanish War, the first of several invasion attempts in the course of the war, and one of the most famous episodes in English history. The Spanish fleet was scattered by an English fire ship attack sent in by Francis Drake in the Battle of Gravelines, battered by storms, and driven back to Spain.



Philip's motives were both religious and political. The Protestant Elizabeth I of England had antagonised the Catholics by her persecution of Catholics in England. The execution of Mary I of Scotland in 1587 had outraged European Catholics.

The religious antagonism was increased by economic competition in trade with the Spanish Empire in America, and by privateering and piracy.

Furthermore, England had joined the Eighty Years' War on the side of the Dutch Protestant United Provinces, led in revolt by William I of Orange, and against Spain. On 29 July 1587, Pope Sixtus V granted Papal authority to overthrow Elizabeth, who had been declared a heretic by Pope Pius V, and place whomever he chose on the throne of England.

Battle plan

Philip's invasion plan was a simple fourchette: the Duke of Parma, who was commanding Spain's army in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands, was to assemble an invading force on the North Sea coast. Parma's only means of transporting troops across the English Channel was a fleet of vulnerable barges. Therefore, the Armada was to travel North from Spanish-controlled Lisbon and meet Parma's army in order to protect its passage. Command of the Armada was given to Alonso de Guzman El Bueno, 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia, a soldier with no naval experience. His instructions from Philip were detailed and strict, in contrast to Queen Elizabeth I's policy that her naval commanders be responsible for military decisions.

The Armada invasion plan was flawed from the start in the unworkably precise timing and communication that it demanded between Medina Sidonia and Parma, as well as in the near-absence of deep-water ports accessible to Philip on the northwestern European coastline for a fleet of the Armada's size and composition. However, a rendezvous with Parma was feasible if the Armada could maintain position in the English Channel near Parma's scattered barges long enough for him to assemble his soldiers for battle.

The English plan was implemented by a new fleet, built by John Hawkins, consisting of light, maneuverable ships equipped with long-range cannon. The English would then execute a "line ahead" or single-file formation, sailing by the enemy, landing broadsides, while remaining beyond the range of answering fire.


On May 28, 1588 the Armada, with 130 ships and 30,000 men, began to set sail from Lisbon heading for the English Channel. At this time the English fleet was prepared and waiting in Plymouth for news of Spanish movements. It took until May 30 for all ships to leave port, and on the same day Elizabeth's ambassador Dr Valentine Dale met Parma's representatives to begin peace negotiations. It was not until July 17 that the peace negotiations were wholly abandoned.

The English Channel

The Armada, having been delayed by bad weather, was not sighted until July 19. This occurred off The Lizard, Cornwall, but a sequence of beacons had been constructed the length of the south coast of England, so that the news was known in London within two days. The Armada followed the coast as far as Plymouth, where the 55 ships of the English fleet had set sail on the night of the 19th. The English were under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham (later Earl of Nottingham), but he had acknowledged Sir Francis Drake, technically his subordinate, as the more experienced naval commander and given him effective control. In order to execute their "line ahead" attack the British snuck behind the Armada and were now upwind; giving them a significant maneuvering advantage.

Over the next week there followed two inconclusive engagements, at Eddystone and Portland, Dorset. However, at the Isle of Wight there was an opportunity for the Armada to create a temporary base in protected waters and wait for word from Parma's army. In a full on attack the British fleet broke into four groups with Drake coming in with a large force from the south. At that critical moment Medina-Sidonia sent reinforcements south and forced the Armada back into the open sea in order to avoid sandbanks. This left two Spanish wrecks near the Isle of Wight, and with no safe harbors forced the Armada to Calais whether the Spanish army was ready or not.

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British groups attacking the Armada cresent.
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The sandbanks off the southern coast.

At the same time, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was assembling a force of 4,000 soldiers at Tilbury Fort, Essex, to defend the estuary of the River Thames in the event of a Spanish landing. This and other coastal defences were rendered unnecessary, when the English naval battle plan proved effective in preventing the Armada from protecting Parma's invasion barges.

Calais and the fire ships

On July 27, the Spanish anchored off Calais, not far from Parma's waiting army of 16,000 in Dunkirk, in a crescent-shaped, tightly-packed defensive formation. They were compelled to do this by the lack of a deep-water port in France or the Low Countries where the Armada could seek shelter - a major oversight on Philip's part, although most European ports were not designed to accommodate a fleet like the Armada in the first place. At midnight of July 28, the English set eight pitch and gunpowder-filled ships alight and sent them downwind into the closely-anchored Spanish vessels. Panic ensued, damaging morale but more importantly scattering the Spanish ships as they cut anchor. The lighter English vessels could now engage them on more even terms.

Battle of Gravelines

Medina-Sidonia tried to reform his fleet off Gravelines, France, but the English attacked on July 29. 11 Spanish ships were lost or damaged (though the most seaworthy Atlantic-class vessels escaped largely unscathed), and the Spaniards suffered nearly 2,000 casualties from the battle as well as illness and exposure, before both sides ran out of ammunition and hostilities ceased. English casualties were much lighter, initially in the low hundreds from the battle itself, but a raging typhus epidemic soon swept throughout the defensive fleet, killing thousands of English sailors. Although the Gravelines engagement itself was largely an indecisive stalemate, the English defenders were availed of some breathing room as Medina Sidonia, unaware of the scarcity of English ammunition, soon directed the Armada east and north of the rendezvous zone for Parma in the English Channel.

In 2002 Dr Colin Martin of St Andrews University claimed that many Spanish ships carried cannon shot that was the wrong size for their cannon.


The day after Gravelines, the wind changed, enabling Medina Sidonia to move the Armada northward (away from the French coast). The English pursued and harried the Spanish fleet, preventing it from properly reforming and returning to escort Parma, but again ammunition proved the limiting factor and the English were compelled to disengage. On 12 August, Howard called a halt to the chase at the Firth of Forth.

Tilbury speech

Meanwhile, the threat of invasion from the Netherlands had not been discounted. On August 8, Elizabeth went to Tilbury to encourage her forces, and the next day gave to them what is probably her most famous speech:

"... I am come amongst you as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.
I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too..."

In fact, Parma did not cross the English Channel, and the troops at Tilbury were disbanded later that month.


The Armada was forced to return to Spain by sailing around the northern coasts of Scotland and Ireland – a dangerous voyage during which the Armada was buffeted by severe September storms that caused enormous damage. Only 67 ships and around 10,000 men survived. Attributedly, when Philip II learnt of the result of the expedition, he uttered: "I sent my ships to fight against men, not against the elements".

English losses were less than half those of the Spaniards and no ships were sunk, but the English sailors were themselves decimated by the deadly typhus epidemic, as well as a possibly concurrent outbreak of dysentery, which killed an estimated 6,000–8,000 soldiers according to varying estimates. English sailors also suffered from exposure and a demoralising financial dispute after England's persistent fiscal shortfalls left many of the Armada defenders unpaid for months.

The victory was still regarded by the English as their greatest since Agincourt. The effects on national pride lasted for years, and those on Elizabeth's legend persisted well after her death. Dignitaries around Europe had to acknowledge England as a military power in its own right, accorded a respect not seen since English triumphs in the Hundred Years' War with France. The Armada engagement also revolutionised naval warfare and provided valuable seafaring experience for English oceanic mariners. Furthermore, the Armada's defeat enabled the English to persist in their high seas buccaneering against the Spanish and continue sending troops to assist Philip II's enemies in the Netherlands and France.

However, the defeat of the Spanish Armada was not a decisive battle. Spain reached the climax of its military power almost one century after the Armada defeat. Furthermore, an English Armada under the command of Drake and Sir John Norris was dispatched in 1589 to torch the Spanish Atlantic navy, which had largely survived the Armada encounter and was moored in Santander and San Sebastian in northern Spain, as well as to capture the incoming Spanish treasure fleet and expel the Spanish from Portugal, which Philip had ruled since 1580. Like its Spanish predecessor, the English Armada failed in all its objectives and the invading force was repelled with heavy casualties and severe financial losses for the Elizabethan treasury.

The Anglo-Spanish War continued until 1604 and two further wars between England and Spain followed in 17th century.


Other meanings

  1. Spanish Armada (Armada Espaola) can also describe the modern navy of Spain, part of the Spanish armed forces. The Spanish navy has participated in a number of military engagements, including the dispute over the Isla Perejil. This is not a reference to the Armada above - "armada" simply means "navy" in Spanish.
  2. In Tennis slang, Spanish Armada is used to refer to the group of highly ranked Spanish players, such as Felix Mantilla, Albert Portas, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Carlos Moy, and

es:Grande y Felicsima Armada fr:Invincible Armada ja:無敵艦隊 ms:Armada Sepanyol nl:Armada pt:Armada Invencvel zh:無敵艦隊


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