On 22 July 1588 the Spanish Armada, a force of 130 ships and 18,000 men, left northern Spain and headed for the English Channel. Its objective was to rendezvous with a large army assembled in the Netherlands, commanded by the Duke of Parma.

The circumstances that led to England being under threat of invasion from Spain, a Continental superpower, were a foreign-relations catastrophe. The conquest of England would gain the English crown for Philip II of Spain – briefly held, though only as consort, during his marriage to Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary I – and return the country to Roman Catholicism, ending Elizabeth’s reign and leaving Western Europe dominated by Spain.

Philip II of Spain, 1527-98
Philip II of Spain, 1527-98

The Henrician Reformation and break with Rome in the 1530s left England continually at odds with her Catholic neighbours. When it became clear Elizabeth I would never be gathered into the Catholic fold, she was excommunicated in 1570 by the Pope.

A legacy of this on-going tension was sustained investment in the English navy to defend home waters. Spain’s New World Empire was the source of enormous wealth much coveted in England. From the 1560s, English sailors turned Protestant privateering into a global enterprise, plundering Spanish shipping in European and Atlantic waters. Drake’s repeated assaults upon Spain and its colonies included the looting and burning of over two dozen ships in the Spanish naval base of Cadiz in 1587.

Sir Francis Drake, 1540-96
Sir Francis Drake, 1540-96

England also aspired to be an imperial power through private enterprise. Attempts were made in 1584 and 1587 to establish the first English colony in the world on the east coast of North America, resulting in Sir Walter Raleigh claiming the territory of ‘Virginia’ on behalf of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.

Friction between Spain and England was also caused by Elizabeth’s tacit support from the 1570s for the Protestant rebellions in the Spanish Netherlands and in France. In response, Philip II gave surreptitious aid to Catholic conspiracies against her throne and life.

Timing was key, as by the late 1580s Elizabeth was in her mid-50s, unmarried, childless, and without an heir. Her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, had the best claim to the English throne, but in 1568 she had been forced to abdicate and fled to England, where she was imprisoned. Over time, Mary was at the centre of numerous plots against Elizabeth, her continued existence regarded by many in England as the greatest challenge to Elizabeth’s regime and the Protestant settlement.

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots in captivity
Mary, Queen of Scots in captivity

After much prevarication, reluctant to remove a legitimate monarch regardless of the cause, Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant at Greenwich in February 1587. Mary’s execution resulted in her Protestant son James becoming King of Scotland, and Elizabeth’s heir. It was the final straw for Philip II and preparations to invade England accelerated.

The naval balance of power between England and Spain in the summer of 1588 was delicately poised. The English fleet outnumbered the Armada, but the Spanish ships were larger and heavily armed: much depended on tactics, nerve and (as it turned out) luck. 

Next week we'll be looking at the defeat of the Spanish Armada and Elizabeth's famous Tilbury speech. 

Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I
Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I

We've teamed up with the Art Fund to save the iconic Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, which commemorates the historic defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. If our fundraising campaign is successful it will enter a public collection for the first time in its 425-year history. 

Find out more and join our campaign