In 1588, Philip II of Spain gathered a fleet, or armada, of 130 Spanish warships, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, to invade England.
Philip II and Elizabeth I of England had been in dispute for some time. Elizabeth had made England a Protestant country, and the Catholic King Phillip was determined to dethrone her. He was married to Elizabeth’s sister, Mary I, and Philip wanted to restore England to her Catholic faith.
The problems between England and Spain weren’t confined to religion. Elizabeth had angered Philip by supporting the Dutch in their war for independence from Spain. The British were also getting an increasingly notorious reputation for raiding Spanish colonies and plundering their ships in acts of piracy and violent exploration.
The Spanish fleet set sail in May, and immediately the English gathered an emergency fleet under the control of Lord Effingham, Francis Drake, John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher.
From 20th to 27th July, the English fleet attacked the Armada as it sailed up the English Channel. However, the Armada sailed in a crescent formation, making it very difficult to attack, and the English fleet had trouble causing them any damage.
On 27th July, the Armada anchored in open seas off Calais. Drake took advantage of their vulnerability, and sent fire ships to set light to the whole fleet. In order to avoid the whole armada being destroyed by fire, the Spanish hurriedly raised anchor and sailed away. However, they headed straight into battle, sustaining heavy casualties. On 29th July, the English orchestrated another attack against the Spanish fleet, at which was to become known as the Battle of Gravelines, in the North Sea. Because the English ships were easier to maneuver in the heavy waters of the North Sea, they quickly gained the upper hand over the lighter Spanish fleet.
Fleeing north, the Spanish were chased by the English ships. The Armada sailed fast, retreating towards Spain. However, in order to get away quickly, they had to sail round the north of Scotland and the west coast of Ireland, where many of their ships were sunk by storms and hidden rocks near the coastline. By the time the Spanish Armada returned, they had lost 44 of their 133 ships.
Although the English had won the battle in the English Channel, peace between Elizabeth I and Philip II was never established. It wasn’t until James I came to the throne that the dispute between England and Spain finally settled.
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.