Elizabeth I: the road to war

The threat to the Crown from Catholic forces continued to grow for Queen Elizabeth I during the 1580s.

Catholic Europe was outraged by the regicide of a Catholic monarch and Mary's execution played its part in convincing King Philip II of Spain to send the Spanish Armada to invade England.

Tensions rise between England and Spain

England, the upstart Protestant nation with its 'heretic' Queen, had been a thorn in the side of King Philip II of Spain for some time, before he finally decided to act in 1587. King Philip had initially tried to keep England Catholic and under his control by asking Elizabeth to marry him in 1559, an offer she rejected. He then held out hope that Mary, Queen of Scots would succeed Elizabeth to the throne, to reunite England with Europe under Catholic rule. This hope was dashed when Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's able spymaster, uncovered the plot to overthrow Elizabeth in 1586. Mary was implicated in the plot, with reams of evidence against her, and was executed on 8 February 1587.

The road to war

At this time, English privateers had been looting Spanish ships and ports for almost 20 years, while Elizabeth refused to condemn them or return the booty. These attacks on Spain's wealth were a direct challenge to Spain's maritime and colonial monopoly in the Americas. The stakes were further raised in 1585 when Elizabeth pledged English support for the Dutch struggle for independence from their Spanish masters. For his part, Philip had authorised attacks on English seafarers for years, had been involved in a number of the conspiracies to replace Elizabeth, and had been encouraging an Irish rebellion against England.

Elizabeth avoided outright war with Philip for many years. Philip, a cautious man, saw France as a greater danger until 1585, but then began to consider how to address the persistent threats facing his empire from the defiant English upstart. It was Mary's execution, the regicide of a Catholic monarch, that finally brought matters to a head. At the Pope's urging, Philip stepped up his preparations for an invasion of England.

Planning the Spanish Armada

Philip planned a two-pronged attack to conquer England. Spain's 'Invincible Armada' included over 130 of the biggest ships in the world, making it the largest fleet ever seen. The plan was to sail from Spain up the English Channel to Flanders, where it would collect a huge land army raised by the Duke of Parma, Governor of the Spanish Netherlands. The Armada would then land this army on the Kent coast, and it would march on London and free the nation from Queen Elizabeth and her government.

A preemptive strike

Thanks to the extensive spy network assembled by Walsingham, intelligence about the impending invasion was available almost as soon as the plans were laid. Francis Drake led a preemptive strike on Spanish ships gathering at Cádiz in April 1587, and a number were destroyed. What Drake described as his 'singeing of the King of Spain's beard' delayed the Armada for a year and allowed the Queen to mobilise England’s defence.

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