Last week we discussed the build up to the Spanish Armada, today we look at its arrival off the English coast and the most famous speech of Queen Elizabeth's reign.

 
 
As the Armada was sighted off the English coast, beacons were lit, swiftly informing London of its impending arrival. Skirmishes followed as the Armada neared Calais. The English then employed a night-time attack by fire ships to break up the anchored Spanish formation off Gravelines. This precipitating a final battle which became a chaotic rout, in which the Armada was prevented from embarking Parma’s forces and was chased into the North Sea.
 
Launch of fireships against the Spanish Armada, 7 August 1588
Launch of fireships against the Spanish Armada, 7 August 1588
 
 
While these events were beyond Elizabeth’s control, the unfolding crisis demanded action ashore. Despite fears of an assassination attempt, Elizabeth decided to appear where English forces had gathered to repulse any Spanish landing at Tilbury near the Thames Estuary. 
 
On 9 August 1588, having inspected the troops on horseback, she delivered the most famous speech of her reign:
My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety to take heed how we commit ourself to armed multitudes for fear of treachery; but I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people.
 
Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safe guard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects, and therefore 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 my life 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 a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm; the which, rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.
 
The effect was by all accounts electrifying, and galvanized English determination. But the danger had already passed: harried by the English in the North Sea, the Armada had been forced to return home to Spain by sailing around Scotland and the west coast of Ireland. On the way, shortages of food and water and terrible Atlantic storms devastated their ships, leaving a trail of wrecks and dead, most down the Irish coast.
 
Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588
Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588
 
With victory, Elizabeth’s status as a European monarch was immeasurably enhanced. For many within the British Isles and on the Continent, the Queen of England was now the defender of Protestant Europe. 
 
Poems, pamphlets and engravings extolled Elizabeth as the vanquisher of the Catholic threat. Medals struck to celebrate the Armada’s defeat proclaimed it a Protestant victory and the storms that lashed the enemy fleet were seen as divine intervention: ‘He [God] blew and they were scattered’ was the famous legend on one. That the Armada had failed to subdue a small island nation made clear that the Spanish were not as invincible as they would have the world believe; and England and its female ruler – ‘sultana Isabel’ as she was known at the Moroccan court – could not be dismissed as marginal in matters of commerce and diplomacy. 
 
This was particularly the case with Muslim powers that were fighting Catholic Spain in the Mediterranean: before and especially after 1588, there was an extraordinary alignment between England and the Islamic world – cultural, political and economic – of a depth that arguably would not be experienced again until the modern age.
 
Next week we look at the legacy of the Armada, and its effect on both Queen Elizabeth's reign and the English psyche. 
 
Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I
Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I

Save the Armada Portrait

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.

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