Alessandro Farnese, the son of Duke Ottavio Farnese and Margaret of Parma, was born in 1545. He fought with distinction at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
In 1577 the Duke of Parma fought under John of Austria in the Low Countries to fight against those in rebellion against Spain. He was rewarded by being appointed governor of the Netherlands and eventually secured the southern part of the country for Spain.
In July 1588 the Duke of Medina Sidonia and 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 the Duke of Parma.
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 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.
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 Duke of 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. 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 deal with any attack.
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 ships. 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. The Duke of 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 Duke of 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 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 already stranded on the beach and was about to be taken by the English.
The battle of Gravelines continued all day. One of the most exciting contests was between Francis Drake in the Revenge and 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.
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.
During this time the Duke of Parma remained in Dunkirk with 16,000 Spanish soldiers that were never picked up by the Spanish Armada.
The Duke of Parma was sent to France in 1590 to command the Spanish Army against Henry IV. His forces successfully relieved the siege of Paris (1590) and Rouen (1592) where he was badly wounded.
Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma, retired to Arras where he died in 1592.