A potted history of the Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada off the English coast, by Cornelis van Wierling, c.1625.

The Spanish Armada off the English coast, by Cornelis van Wierling, c.1625.

The attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada is one of the most well known events of the Elizabethan age.

The Armada was the result of Philip II of Spain’s determination to dethrone Elizabeth after she returned England to the Protestant faith. Before Elizabeth had come to power, Philip’s wife Mary I had made the country Catholic. Not only did Philip wish to remove Elizabeth, but he intended to make England Catholic once again.

To add to Philip’s dislike of Elizabeth and her religion, he was angered when she supported the Dutch in their war of independence against Spain. He had also had enough of English sailors, including Sir Francis Drake, raiding the Spanish colonies.

It took two years for Philip to prepare his ships for the invasion. In that time he was plagued by an attack on his fleet in Cadiz harbour by Sir Francis Drake, and then had his ships torn apart by a storm. It wasn’t until July 20 1588 that Philip II finally launched the Spanish Armada from Corunna. It was made up of 130 ships fitted with 2,500 guns, and carried 30,000 soldiers and sailors.

Elizabeth and her forces had been expecting Philip’s attack, and as soon as the Armada was sighted off the south coast on 29th July 1588, beacons were lit all across the country to pass word to the Queen as quickly as possible. It is rumoured that Sir Francis Drake, the vice-admiral of the English fleet, was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe when he heard of their arrival.
The Spanish suffered considerable damage from both the ravages of storms, and the superior firepower and speed of the English galleons as they fought. By August, the Armada was so heavily damaged during a running battle across the Channel that it had to shelter in Calais harbour on 6th August.

On the evening of 7th August, with another dangerous storm brewing, Drake sent fire-ships in after the Spanish fleet. Afraid that their vessels would explode at any second, the Armada’s captains cut their anchor cables, and quickly scattered.
A few weeks later, running low on cannons to fire, and suffering from thirst and exhaustion, the Spanish sailors had no only option but to give up and sail back to Spain. To add to the Spanish defeat, during September 1588, as their ships tried to go home, strong winds and terrible rain forced many ships onto rocks off the coast of Scotland and Ireland. Over half of the Armada was wrecked, and in the end only 5000 of the original sailors returned to their homes in Spain.

The English, who had sturdier ships, and were more accustomed to the waters and storms of the Channel, lost less than 100 men, and no ships. Elizabeth I celebrated their victory by issuing a medal to her sailors saying ‘God Blew and they were Scattered’.

Although the English were victorious over the Armada, it did not bring an end to the hostilities between England and Spain. It wasn’t until 1604 that James I finally settled the countries’ differences and made peace with the Spanish.


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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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