The Spanish fleet was commanded by a very reluctant Duke of Medina Sedona, ordered by King Philip of Spain to depose Elizabeth I, the protestant Queen of England. A Spanish army commanded by the Duke of Parma was to be escorted across the channel from the Spanish Netherlands by Medina’s war galleons.
On 20th July, the English fleet, under the command of Sir Frances Drake, sea captain and successful pirate, stood off Eddystone Rock. The following day he engaged the enemy but did little damage, the English being keen to stay out of reach of the grappling irons of the Spanish ships.
On the 23rd there was a second naval engagement off Portland, again with little progress on either side. The Armada then moved out to sea to avoid the sandbanks there, and made for Calais, where they expected to find the Spanish army.
By 27th July the Armada was anchored in a tightly packed defensive formation near Dunkirk. The invasion plans were unravelling. The Spanish had failed to capture any significant port on the south coast of England (e.g. Plymouth or Southampton), the size and height of the tower structures on the prows of the galleons making the ships unstable and difficult to manoeuvre in the shallow water of the English channel. English naval gunnery was also 5 times faster than the Spanish sailor’s rate of fire. Crucially, Medina Sedona had failed to establish communications with Parma.
The defensive formation of the Spanish fleet provided Drake with an opportunity to use the one weapon feared by all sailors at sea: the deployment of fire ships sailing into tight-packed ranks of ships at anchor. The Spanish were in just such a position. Worse, by this time the Duke of Parma’s army of 55,000 men had been reduced to 17,000, decimated by dysentery and cholera.
To avoid destruction by fire, the Spanish fleet scattered, heading into the North Sea and back to Spain via Scotland. In the process, however, over two thirds of the Armada was destroyed, wrecked on the Scottish and Irish Coasts or lost to storms in the Atlantic.
English sea power had triumphed. The protestant succession was saved and England had begun her march to empire. Elizabeth kept her throne. However, was she grateful? No!
After the victory, Elizabeth berated her naval commanders for not capturing the treasure carried by the Spanish ships, and refused to provide any funds to alleviate the suffering of the cholera victims amongst the English crews when they reached harbour. She made sure that she alone, rather than Drake, reaped the adoration of the English public that his victory brought.
Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and “A” level tutor with OOL since 1996.