The Spanish Armada

After the death of his wife, Mary Tudor, King Philip II of Spain asked Elizabeth to be his bride. Philip was upset when Elizabeth refused. He also became angry when Elizabeth did nothing to stop English sea captains from robbing his ships bringing gold back from his newly acquired territories in South America.

Elizabeth and Philip were also in conflict over religion. Elizabeth disagreed with the way Philip persecuted Protestants who lived under his control. Philip objected to the way Elizabeth had forced English Catholics to attend Protestant church services.

When Philip II began persecuting Protestants living in the Netherlands, Elizabeth sent English soldiers to help protect them. In February 1587 Elizabeth agreed to the execution of Mary Stuart. Philip had hoped that Mary would eventually become the Catholic queen of England. Philip now decided to conquer England and bring an end to Elizabeth and her Protestant government.

The Duke of Medina Sidonia was placed in charge of preparing the invasion of England. After the death of Alvaro de Bazan, the Marques de Santa Cruz in 1588, the Duke of Medina Sidonia was given complete command of the operation.

The invasion took a lot of preparation and it was not until July 1588 that the 131 ships left Spain. The large Spanish galleons were filled with 17,000 well-armed soldiers and 180 Catholic priests. The plan was to sail to Dunkirk in France where the Armada would pick up another 16,000 Spanish soldiers that were under the command of Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma.

On hearing the news that the ships had left Spain, Charles Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral, held a council-of-war. Lord Howard decided to divide the English fleet into squadrons. Francis Drake, John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher were chosen as the three other senior commanders of the fleet.

Howard went in his flagship, the Ark Royal (800 tons and a crew of 250). Frobisher was given command of the largest ship in the fleet, the Triumpth (1,110 tons and a crew of 500 men) whereas Drake was the captain of the Revenge (500 tons and a crew of 250) and Hawkins was aboard the Victory (800 tons and a crew of 250).

Lord Howard decided that the Spanish Armada should be attacked at both ends of the crescent. The Ark Royal attacked the right wing and the Revenge and the Triumph attacked Juan Martinez, de Recalde, commander of the Biscayan squadron on the left. Recalde on board the San Juan de Portugal decided to come out and fight the English ships. He was followed by Gran Grin and the two ships soon got into trouble and had to be rescued by the Duke of Medina Sidonia on board the San Martin.

At the end of the first day's fighting, only one ship was sunk, the San Salvador. During the fighting a tremendous explosion tore out the Spanish ship's stern castle and killed 200 members of the crew. It was later discovered that a gunner's carelessness resulted in a spark reaching the gunpowder in the rear hold.

The following morning Francis Drake and the crew of Revenge captured the crippled Rosario. This included Admiral Pedro de Vales and all his crew. Drake also found 55,000 gold ducats on board.

That afternoon Medina Sidonia announced that if any Spanish ship broke formation the captain would be hanged immediately. He also told his captains that they must maintain a tight formation in order to prevent further attacks from the English ships. This decision meant that they could now only move towards Dunkirk at the speed of the slowest ship.

Constantly harassed by the English ships the slow moving Spanish Armada eventually reached Calais without further loss. The English fleet now dropped anchor half a mile away. Soon afterwards they were joined by Lord Henry Seymour and his squadron of ships that had been controlling the seas off Dunkirk. This increased the English fleet by a third and was now similar in size to that of the Spanish fleet.

The Duke of Medina Sidonia now sent a message to the Duke of Parma in Dunkirk: "I am anchored here two leagues from Calais with the enemy's fleet on my flank. They can cannonade me whenever they like, and I shall be unable to do them much harm in return." He asked Parma to send fifty ships to help him break out of Calais. Parma was unable to help as he had less than twenty ships and most of those were not yet ready to sail.

That night Medina Sidonia sent out a warning to his captains that he expected a fire-ship attack. This tactic had been successfully used by Francis Drake in Cadiz in 1587 and the fresh breeze blowing steadily from the English fleet towards Calais, meant the conditions were ideal for such an attack. He warned his captains not to panic and not to head out to the open sea. Medina Sidonia confidently told them that his patrol boats would be able to protect them from any fire-ship attack that took place.

Medina Sidonia had rightly calculated what would happen. Charles Howard and Francis Drake were already organizing the fire-ship attack. It was decided to use eight fairly large ships for the operation. All the masts and rigging were tarred and all the guns were left on board and were primed to go off of their own accord when the fire reached them. John Young, one of Drake's men, was put in charge of the fire-ships.

Soon after midnight the eight ships were set fire to and sent on their way. The Spaniards were shocked by the size of the vessels. Nor had they expected the English to use as many as eight ships. The Spanish patrol ships were unable to act fast enough to deal with the problem. The Spanish captains also began to panic when the guns began exploding. They believed that the English were using hell-burners (ships crammed with gunpowder). This tactic had been used against the Spanish in 1585 during the siege of Antwerp when over a thousand men had been killed by exploding ships.

The fire-ships did not in fact cause any material damage to the Spanish ships at all. They drifted until they reached the beach where they continued to burn until the fire reached the water line. Medina Sidonia, on board the San Martin, had remained near his original anchorage. However, only a few captains had followed his orders and the vast majority had broken formation and sailed into the open sea.

At first light Medina Sidonia and his six remaining ships left Calais and attempted to catch up with the 130 ships strung out eastwards towards the Dunkirk sandbanks. Some Spanish ships had already been reached by the English fleet and were under heavy attack. San Lorenzo, a ship carrying 312 oarsmen, 134 sailors and 235 soldiers, was stranded on the beach and was about to be taken by the English.

With their formation broken, the Spanish ships were easy targets for the English ships loaded with guns that could fire very large cannon balls. The Spanish captains tried to get their ships in close so that their soldiers could board the English vessels. However, the English ships were quicker than the Spanish galleons and were able to keep their distance.

The battle of Gravelines continued all day. One of the most exciting contests was between Francis Drake in the Revenge and Duke of Medina Sidonia in the San Martin. Drake's ship was hit several times before being replaced by Thomas Fenner in the Nonpareil and Edmund Sheffield in the White Bear, who continued the fight without success.

English chart showing the route of the Spanish Armada (c. 1590)
English chart showing the route of the Spanish Armada (c. 1590)

All over the area of sea between Gravelines and Dunkirk fights took place between English and Spanish ships. By late afternoon most ships were out of gunpowder. The Duke of Medina Sidonia was now forced to head north with what was left of the Spanish Armada. The English ships did not follow as Charles Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral, was convinced that most Spanish ships were so badly damaged they would probably sink before they reached a safe port.

That evening Francis Drake wrote to a friend: "God hath given us so good a day in forcing the enemy so far to leeward, as I hope in God the Duke of Parma and the Duke of Sidonia shall not shake hands this few days". John Hawkins was also pleased with his day's work: "All that day Monday we followed the Spaniards with a long and great fight, wherein there was great valour showed generally by our company... Our ships, God be thanked, have received little hurt."

Hawkins also showed concern for his men: "The men have long been unpaid and need relief." Charles Howard was also angry that his men had not received their wages. He was also disturbed by the condition of his men. The lack of fresh water caused an outbreak of disease. As they were still waiting for their wages to be paid they were even unable to buy fresh food for themselves. Howard wrote bitterly: "It is a most pitiful sight to see, here at Margate, how the men, having no place to receive them into here, die in the streets. I am driven myself, of force, to come a-land, to see them bestowed in some lodging; and the best I can get is barns and outhouses. It would grieve any man's heart to see them that have served so valiantly to die so miserably."

After the Armada rounded Scotland it headed south for home. However, a strong gale drove many of the ships onto the Irish rocks. Thousands of Spaniards drowned and even those who reached land were often killed by English soldiers and settlers. Of the 25,000 men that had set out in the Armada, less than 10,000 arrived home safely.

Philip II spent the next ten years supporting a series of plots to overthrow Elizabeth. All these schemes ended in failure and when Philip died in 1598, Elizabeth was still queen of England.

(A1) Letter from Philip II to Count Feria, the Spanish ambassador in England (12 February, 1559)

Tell her (Elizabeth) from me that... I must warn her to consider deeply the evils which may result in England from a change in religion... if this change is made all idea of my marriage with her must be broken off.

(A2) Letter from Count Feria to Philip II (19 March, 1559)

Queen Elizabeth... said that so much money was taken out of the country for the Pope every year that she must put an end to it... she kept repeating to me that she was a heretic and consequently could not marry your Majesty.

(A3) Pope Gregory XIII, letter to his ambassador in Spain (1580)

Since that guilty woman (Elizabeth) ... is the cause of so much injury to the Catholic faith... there is no doubt that whosoever sends her out of the world... not only does not sin but gains merit... And so, if those English gentlemen decide actually to undertake so glorious a work, your Lordship can assure them that they do not commit any sin.

(A4) Petruccio Ubaldino came from Italy but was living in London during 1588.

The change of religion threatened by the Spaniards will not so much encourage their rebellion as anger them. It being easier to find flocks of white crows than one Englishman (whatever his religion) who loves a foreigner, either as a master or companion.

(A5) L. Ortiz Munoz, The Glorious Spanish Empire (1940)

The greatest armada the world had seen was prepared... The Invincible Armada of the Imperial Spanish Fleet was for the first time conquered. But not by the men, nor by the squadrons, it put out to fight. It was vanquished by the elements, against which valour and human daring are impotent, because it is God who rules the seas. Only against the hurricane and the gales did we lose, because the Lord wished it, the naval supremacy of the world.

(A6) James Oliphant, A History of England (1920)

Though the English ships were smaller and fewer than those opposed to them, they were better built and better manned... their skillful use of artillery gave them a great advantage.

(A7) King Philip II, letter to Duke of Medina Sidonia (May 1588)

You should see that your squadrons do not break battle formation and that their commanders, moved to greed, do not give pursuit to the enemy and take prizes.

(A8) Juan Bentivollo was an Italian who observed the Spanish Armada on the way to England in 1588.

You could hardly see the sea. The Spanish fleet was stretched out in the form of a half moon with an immense distance between its extremities. The masts and rigging, the towering sterns and prows which in height and number were so great that they dominated the whole naval concourse, caused horror mixed with wonder and gave rise to doubt whether that campaign was at sea or on land and whether one or the other element was the more splendid. It came on with a steady and deliberate movement, yet when it drew near in full sail it seemed almost that the waves groaned under its weight and the winds were made to obey it.

(A9) In Lisbon, the Duke of Medina Sidonia gave instructions to the Spanish captains (8 May, 1588)

It is of great importance that the Armada should be kept well together... Great care must be exercised to keep the squadron of hulks always in the middle of the fleet... No ship belonging to the Armada shall separate from it without my permission... Any disobedience of this order shall be punished by death.

(A10) After he arrived in Corunna from Lisbon, the Duke of Medina Sidonia sent a letter to King Philip II of Spain (24 June 1588)

Many of our largest ships are still missing... on the ships that are here there are many sick... these numbers will increase because of the bad provisions (food and drink). These are not only very bad, as I have constantly reported, but they are so scanty that they are unlikely to last two months... Your Majesty, believe me when I assure you that we are very weak... how do you think we can attack so great a country as England with such a force as ours is now?

(A11) In June 1588 a ship from Cornwall called the Mousehole was on the way to France to collect a cargo of salt. On 27th July the captain of the Mousehole saw the Spanish Armada. He decided to return to England to report what he had seen.

Being bound for France to collect salt, I encountered great ships between Scilly and Ushant... they were Spaniards... three of them gave chase... but I managed to escape... They were all great ships, and as I might judge... from 200 tons to 800 tons. Their sails were all crossed over with a red cross.

(A12) A sailor aboard the Spanish ship San Lorenzo later reported what happened on the night of 7th August 1588 at Calais Harbour.

The eight ships, filled with artificial fire, advanced in line... they went drifting... with the most terrible flames that may be imagined... the ships of the Armada cut their cables at once, leaving their anchors, spreading their sails, and running out to sea.

(A13) Geronimo de Torre was a Catholic priest aboard the Paloma Blanca. In his log he described the Battle of Gravelines (8 August 1588)

The San Mateo was a thing of pity to see, riddled with shot like a sieve... If they had not managed to get the water out of her, she must have gone to the bottom with all hands. All her sails and rigging were torn... of her sailors many perished, and of her soldiers few were left.

(A14) Bemado de Gongoro was a priest aboard the Rosario. He later described what happened at the Battle of Gravelines.

The enemy did not dare to come alongside because he knew the advantage we had. The Duke offered him battle many times and he never wanted it, but only to fire on us, like a man who had better artillery with longer range.

(A15) Antonio de Vanegas, was a sailor aboard the Spanish ship San Martin.

The enemy... did well because of the extreme nimbleness and the great smoke that came from their artillery.

(A16) Pedro Coco Calderon was aboard the San Salvador. He later reported what happened on 11th August 1588.

The Duke of Medina Sidonia ordered.. the captain of the Santa Barbara, to be hanged; and condemned to the galleys other ship captains... this was because on the day of the battle they allowed themselves to drift out of the fight.

(A17) Report sent by Bemadino Mendoza, Spanish ambassador in France to King Philip II (20 August 1588)

The English lost seven ships, and amongst them three of the largest the Queen possessed... Drake was wounded in the legs by a cannon ball... As the London people were so alarmed, Don Pedro de Valdez and the rest of those who were captured... had been taken in carts to London, so that the people might see that some prisoners had been captured; the rumour being spread that the Armada had been defeated.

(A18) Report sent by Bemadino Mendoza, Spanish ambassador in France to King Philip II (23 September 1588)

The Queen of England... has been much injured by your Majesty's Armada... She has lost 4,000 men and over 12 ships, two of them the finest she possessed, and she is now sorry she went to war.

(A19) John Hawkins, letter sent to Francis Walsingham after the battle of Gravelines (July, 1588)

All that day Monday we followed the Spaniards with a long and great fight, wherein there was great valour showed generally by our company ... In this fight there was some hurt done among the Spaniards... Our ships, God be thanked, have received little hurt. . . Now their fleet is here, and very forcible, it must be waited upon with all our force, which is little enough. There should be an infinite quantity of powder and shot provided... The men have long been unpaid and need relief.

(A20) In September a report reached King Philip II of Spain from Calais in France.

The spy I sent to England has returned... the Spanish Armada is beyond Newcastle in Scotland... The ships are in very bad condition... It is reported that horses had to be thrown overboard because of a lack of water.

(A21) Nicholas Gorgas was the captain of the English ship Susan Pamell. In 1597 he wrote about why the English defeated the Armada.

Our swiftness in out sailing them, our nimbleness.... carrying more artillery than the Spanish ships.. discharging our cannons... double for their single-having far better gunners.

(A22) Thomas Fenner was captain of the English ship Nonpariel. After the Battle of Dunkirk he wrote a report on what he thought would happen to the Spanish ships that had fled towards Scotland (23 September, 1588)

Their masts and sails are much spoiled... I believe they will pass about Scotland and Ireland to take themselves home... when the season of the year is considered, and the long distance they have to travel... it will be to their great ruin... In my opinion... many of them will never see Spain again.

(A23) Juan de Nova was on board the Trinidad Valancera. On 14 September, 1588 the Trinidad Valancera ran aground on the Irish coast at Donegal.

We were about two days landing our men... We had nothing to eat but our horses... The English told us that if the Spanish did not surrender at once, 3,000 of the Queen's troops would cut their throats... in view of this and that his men were dying of hunger... the colonel decided to surrender... The next morning, at daybreak, the enemy came to separate the officers who were among the soldiers, and put them inside a square... The remaining soldiers were then made to go into an open field, and men armed with guns on one side and a body of cavalry on the other, killed over 300 of them with lance and bullet.

(A24) Juan de Saavedra was a Spanish army officer on board the ship Zuniga. In his diary he recorded what happened when he reached Liscannor Bay on the west coast of Ireland (23 September 1588).

We were in dire need of food... nearly 80 of our soldiers and galley slaves had died of hunger and thirst, the inhabitants refusing to allow us to obtain water; nor would they sell us food. To survive, we took up arms and obtained supplies by force.

(A25) Francisco de Cuellar was captain of the San Pedro. His ship sunk in Donegal Bay in September, 1588. When he arrived back in Spain in October 1589 he wrote about his experiences.

There sprang up so great a storm... we were driven ashore upon rocks... Many were drowning inside the ships, others were throwing themselves into the water, vanishing from sight; others were clinging to rafts and barrels.... when one of our people reached the beach, two hundred savages fell upon him and stripped him of what he had... they maltreated and wounded without pity, all of which was clearly visible from the battered ships - within an hour all three ships were broken in pieces... more than one thousand were drowned.

(A26) On 1 October 1588, Sir Richard Bingham, Governor of Cannaught in Ireland sent a report to the English government.

After the Spanish fleet had rounded Scotland, and were heading homewards, bad weather caused many ships to be wrecked... About 6,000 or 7,000 men have been cast away on these coasts... some 1,000 escaped to land... which since were all put to the sword.

(A27) Petruccio Ubaldino was born in Italy but was living in England in 1588. After the defeat of the Armada he interviewed several English sailors who had taken part in the fighting. In 1589 he published his account of how the Spanish Armada was defeated.

After meeting the English fleet... and seeing that, with the type of ships they had which were a good deal smaller than the Spanish, they were able to get very near to the much larger ships and fight against them to their own advantage, the Spaniards confessed... they had lost much of their hope in the victory of their fleet... The English ships... not crowded out with useless soldiers, but with decks clear for the use of artillery... could harm the enemy, at any moment which suited them best.

(A28) After the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Walter Raleigh described the tactics used by Lord Howard of Effingham, the English Lord Admiral.

The Spaniards had an army aboard their ships and Howard had none; they had more ships than he had, and of larger size... had he entangled himself with those great and powerful vessels, he would have greatly endangered England.

(A29) Juan de Recalde was Vice-Admiral of the Spanish Armada. After he arrived in Santander he sent King Philip II a report where he criticised the people who had served in the Spanish Armada.

I heard great complaints about the command of ships in the Spanish Armada being given to young fellows just because they were nobles. Very few of them knew what to do, and their officers were no better.

(A30) Duke of Medina Sidonia, letter to King Philip II of Spain after the battle of Gravelines (July, 1588)

This Armada was so completely crippled and scattered that my first duty to your Majesty seemed to save it, even at the risk which we are running in undertaking this voyage, which is so long and in such high latitudes. Ammunition and the best of our vessels were lacking, and experience had shown how little we could depend upon the ships that remained, the Queen's fleet being so superior to ours in this sort of fighting, in consequence of the strength of their artillery and the fast sailing of their ships.

(A31) Walter Raleigh, The History of the World (c. 1610)

He that will happily perform a fight at sea must believe that there is more belonging to a good man of war upon the waters than great daring, and must know there is a great deal of difference between fighting loose and grappling. To clap ships together without consideration belongs rather to a madman than to a ship of war; for by such an ignorant bravery was Peter Strozzi lost at the Azores when he fought against the Marquis of Santa Cruz. In like sort had the Lord Charles Howard, Admiral of England, been lost in the year 1588 if he had not been better advised than a great many malignant fools were who found fault with his behaviour.

(A32) L. Ortiz Munoz, The Glorious Spanish Empire (1940)

The greatest armada the world had seen was prepared. It was called invincible. One fine day in June 1588, it unfurled its sails before the wind in Lisbon harbour. There were ten squadrons with a total of a hundred and thirty sail, galleons, ships of the line, galleys, hookers, caravels, tenders and cutters. In command of the fleet was the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a loyal man of proud lineage and great wealth, but in no wise versed in naval science.

Aboard the fleet sailed seven army regiments numbering nineteen thousand men, and a further eight thousand sailors and two thousand oarsmen. It was the posthumous achievement of the genius of the Marquis of Santa Cruz, almost a floating city, with all its services marvellously arrayed.

The ships built in Antwerp by Farnese were to join this armada; and a part of the seasoned Regiments of Flanders, numbering twenty-six thousand men, were to join this army.

The ten squadrons of the Empire advanced upon the Atlantic with crushing impetus. But soon there befell that adversity which was to herald worse evils. A storm lashed the galleys in the latitude of Finisterre, and the Armada had to regroup in Corunna. Then again they sailed in imposing majesty and perfect formation to give battle to the British fleet. In England the news produced a thrill of horror. Greater still was the panic when at dawn on the 30th of July, in the Port of Plymouth, the sun showed on the horizon the splendid advance of those enormous galleons with their high prows, tall poops, billowing sails and waving standards. They moved on steadily. They formed a crescent and their line stretched for seven miles. The English squadron, smaller in number and size, but lighter and more agile, was anchored in the port. The Spanish admiral deliberated as to what was best to do. The most capable captains were hotly of the opinion that not a moment should be lost in taking advantage of the magnificent opportunity. This was the time to attack the enemy fleet and annihilate it. But the Duke turned down the idea. The King had ordered that the squadron should not give battle until the ships of Farnese joined it,

The opportunity and the initiative having been lost - even the favouring wind - the English fleet, seeing ours pass by, harried it cunningly, making use of its agility. Our ships suffered slight losses in this first skirmish. But at last the Armada made fast at Calais, where it awaited Farnese. This was the beginning of calamity. The English hatched a plot. During the night they sent in some ships which had been set on fire. The alarm was raised. Men began to think they were like the terror-ships laden with gunpowder which had been encountered at Antwerp. The Duke, hasty and inexperienced, dashed out to the open sea to fight his adversary.

A terrible wind from the south-east was stirring the waves. The rain began in a flood. Lightning and thunderbolts lighted the thick darkness. The hurricane beat upon the galleons and played havoc with them, delighting in scattering them and sending them crashing into one another, or against the coastal reefs, sweeping over them and sinking them. When dawn came, the fleet was broken and dispersed. Heroism did not suffice against the attack of the English ships. The storm came on again and the damage was made greater still. The Duke ordered a retreat, to save what remained of the vessels. But the way back was by North Scotland and Ireland, and the squalls there delivered the final blow and wrought further havoc upon the fleet.

The Invincible Armada of the Imperial Spanish Fleet was for the first time conquered. But not by the men, nor by the squadrons, it put out to fight. It was vanquished by the elements, against which valour and human daring are impotent, because it is God who rules the seas. Only against the hurricane and the gales did we lose, because the Lord wished it, the naval supremacy of the world.

(A33) Charles Howard, letter to William Cecil (20th August, 1588)

It is a most pitiful sight to see, here at Margate, how the men, having no place to receive them into here, die in the streets. I am driven myself, of force, to come a-land, to see them bestowed in some lodging; and the best I can get is barns and outhouses. It would grieve any man's heart to see them that have served so valiantly to die so miserably.

(A34) Philip II talking to the survivors of the Armada (1588)

I sent you to fight with men, and not with the weather.

(A35) Inscription on the Armada medal issued by Elizabeth I in 1588

God blew with His wind, and they were scattered.

© , September 1997 - April 2014