The Spanish Armada

English Ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588English Ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588 by the English School, 16th century. Repro ID: BHC0262. Copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Presented by Sir James Caird, 1947.Armada is the Spanish word for a fleet. In 1588, 'la felicissima armada', or 'the most fortunate fleet' was made up of 150 ships, mainly Spanish, but with some from Portugal and Naples. At the time, it was the largest fleet ever seen in Europe and Philip II of Spain considered it invincible. A detailed description of the fleet was published in Europe with the aim of causing fear among Spain's enemies.

Who planned the Armada campaign?

It was planned by King Philip II of Spain, who intended to sail with his navy and army, a total of around 30,000 men, up the English Channel to link up with the forces led by the Duke of Parma in the Spanish Netherlands. From there they would invade England and bring the country under the Catholic rule of Spain.

Why did Philip II want to invade England?

There were several important reasons why Philip wanted to fight with England. These centred around the religious differences between the two countries, and the competition for trade and expansion in the 'new world' of the Americas.

Why did Mary Queen of Scots have a claim to rule England?

Elizabeth I, British School, 16th centuryElizabeth I (1533–1603), British School, 16th century, circa 1590. Repro ID: BHC2680. Copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird CollectionHer grandmother, Margaret, was a sister of Henry VIII. As a child, Mary had been raised as a Catholic in France, but returned to Scotland to rule. After she was suspected of plotting to murder her husband Lord Darnley, she fled to England where she was imprisoned for 18 years because Queen Elizabeth feared plots against her throne. One such plot was uncovered in 1586 and as a result Mary Queen of Scots was executed in 1587. This event shocked Catholic Europe and Philip wanted to avenge her death.

Who were the 'Sea Beggars'?

Another irritant to Philip was Queen Elizabeth's help to the 'Sea Beggars'. This small group of Protestant noblemen were determined to drive the Spanish out of the Netherlands, and so led a revolt against Spanish occupation. They were led by William the Silent, then after his death in 1584 by his son Justin of Nassau.

How did the sailor Sir Francis Drake enrage King Philip?

In the reign of Mary I, England had begun to expand her trade and during the 1560s and 1570s built up a strong navy. Francis Drake joined the navy as a young boy and sought his fortune in the 'new world'. One way he made his name was by attacking treasure ships sailing back to Spain from America. One of his most daring acts was to 'singe the King of Spain's beard', by setting alight Spanish ships in Cadiz harbour in 1586.

For all these different reasons, King Philip wanted to establish the superiority of his navy and bring England back to Catholicism.

How did the Armada campaign begin?

Sir Francis Drake by Marcus Gheeraerts the YoungerSir Francis Drake, 1540-96 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1591. Repro ID: BHC2662. Copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection According to legend, Drake was first told of the sighting of the Armada while playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe, but answered that 'there is plenty of time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards', but there is no reliable evidence for this. The Spanish fleet kept a strict crescent formation which the English realised would be very difficult to break. Their only chance was to get the wind behind them and try and attack any stragglers.

The English ships were longer, lower and faster than before. The castles fore and aft had been lowered to give greater stability, and this meant more guns could be carried to fire lethal broadsides. The ships were also more manoueverable than the heavy Spanish vessels.

Who was the commander of the Spanish Armada?

The commander of the great Armada was the Duke of Medina Sidonia. On board, he had a large army of soldiers ready for battle on English soil with armour and cannon from Germany and Italy. The Duke had set out on the enterprise with some reluctance, for he was aware of the superiority of English ships, but hoped he would be able to join with the forces of the Duke of Parma in the Netherlands and have safe deep anchorage for his fleet before the invasion of England. To his dismay this did not happen.

The Spaniards kept their crescent formation up the Channel with great discipline but two great ships were accidentally put out of action. The Rosario collided with another ship, was disabled and captured by Drake, while the San Salvador blew up with tremendous loss of life. The two fleets skirted round each other up the Channel with neither gaining advantage.

Why did the English set some of their own ships alight?

Once the Armada had anchored off Calais the English decided to send in fireships. They filled eight old vessels with inflammable material and waited for the wind to send the burning ships towards the enemy ships, hoping to set them alight. At midnight, when the fireships approached with the wind, the Spanish cut their anchor cables ready for flight. In the darkness many ships collided with each other as the Armada scattered, but none were set on fire.

Next morning, there was the fiercest fighting of the whole Armada campaign during the Battle of Gravelines. By evening the wind was strong and the Spanish expected a further attack at dawn, but as both sides were out of ammunition none came. That afternoon the wind changed and the Spanish ships were blown off the sandbanks and towards the North Sea. With no support from the Duke of Parma, Medina Sidonia's aim was to bring the remains of the Armada back to Spain.

Did the Armada manage to return to Spain?

In the north of Scotland, the Armada met very stormy weather. Many ships were wrecked off the rocky coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Of the 150 ships that set out, 65 returned to Lisbon. The following year, Philip sent another smaller armada of about a 100 ships. This ran into stormy weather off Cornwall and was blown back to Spain. It was not until the reign of James I that peace was finally made after the conference at Somerset House in 1604.