When was the Spanish Armada and why did it happen?

The Spanish Armada led by King Philip II of Spain attempted to invade England in 1588, to avenge the death of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587.

The Spanish Armarda was launched in August 1588, ‘la felicissima armada’, or ‘the most fortunate fleet’ was made up of 150 ships, mainly Spanish, 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. The Spanish Armada famously tried, and failed, to invade England in 1588.

Why did the Spanish Armada happen?

Philip II wanted to invade England to avenge the country for its execution of Mary Queen of Scots – Spain’s Catholic ally – in 1587. This marked the turning point in years of dispute and religious differences between Catholic Spain and Protestant England. The Spanish also saw England as a competitor in trade and expansion in the ‘New World’ of the Americas.

In 1588, Philip II 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.

How did the campaign begin?

According to legend, Sir Francis Drake, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s most famous sea captains, 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.

What happened when the Armada attacked?

The commander of the Armada was the Duke of Medina Sidonia. The Duke had set out on the enterprise with some reluctance, as 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.

Did the English set some of its own ships alight?

Yes, once the Armada had anchored off Calais, the English decided to send in eight fireships. 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, 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.

Why did the Spanish Armada fail?

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 fleet of about a 100 ships. This ran into stormy weather off Cornwall and blown back to Spain. It was not until the reign of James I (ruler of Scotland and England 1603–1625) that peace was finally made between the two countries.

Armada timeline: 1588 

12 July: the Spanish Armada set sail.

18 July: the English fleet left Plymouth but the south-west wind prevented them from reaching Spain.

19 July: the Spanish Armada was sighted off the Lizard in Cornwall, where they stopped to get supplies.

22 July: the English fleet was forced back to the port due to the wind.

21 July: the outnumbered English navy began bombarding the seven-mile-long line of Spanish ships from a safe distance, taking full advantage of their superior long-range guns.

22- 23 July: The Armada was pursued up the Channel by Howard’s fleet. The Spaniards had reached Portland Bill, where they gained the weather advantage, meaning they could turn and attack the pursuing English ships.

27 July: the Armada anchored off Calais, to wait for their troops to arrive while the English sent fire ships that night.

28 July: the English attacked the Spanish fleet near Gravelines. 

29 July: the Armada was re-joined by the rest of the missing ships.

30 July: the Armada was put into battle order.

31 July: the Spanish fleet tried to turn around to join Parma and his army again. However, the prevailing south-west winds prevented them from doing so.

1 August: the Armada was off Berry head with the English fleet far behind, however, Howard was forced to wait for his ships to re-join him.

2 August: the Armada was to the North of the English, near Portland Bill, and the weather gage, which caused both fleets to turn east.

4 August: the Armada stragglers tempted the English to attack and their heavy guns got seriously damaged.

6 August: both fleets were close but avoided any conflict and there were no stragglers.

9 August: after the main danger was over, Elizabeth went to speak to the English troops at Tilbury.

12 August: the fleets came close again and the Armada was in good shape but still no fighting took place and the Medina Sidonia issued new orders to the fleet to sail north.

1 September: the Barca could no longer keep afloat due to the storm. She was taking in water faster than she could pump out.

3 September 1588: the Duke reported to the King that there had been four nights of storms and seventeen ships had disappeared.

12 September: the Trinidad Valencera was caught in a bad storm, during which she sustained so much damage that they had no choice but to go to land.

1- 17 September: many Armada ships were caught in storms and damaged causing many men to die.

26 October: many Armada ships reached safety in the north and many lives were spared.

The Armada Portrait 

Recently saved for the nation, the Armada Portrait commemorates the most famous conflict of Elizabeth I's reign – the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in summer 1588. This iconic portrait is back on public display in the Queen's House after careful conservation.

Find out more and visit The Armada Portrait

Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I