Spanish Armada, 1588. How did the English win?

Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada was an invasion fleet. It set sail from Spain in May, 1588. The Spanish Armada set out to the Netherlands. Here, it would collect troops of the Duke of Alva before invading England. The Armada consisted of 130 ships including 22 Galleons. Phillip II of Spain had grown tired of English ‘Sea Dogs’ and the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots had infuriated Catholics across Europe. Facing this grand fleet were the English, led by Sir Francis Drake. A combination of the weather, good planning and good luck gave the English a famous victory.

The build up

After worsening relations between England and Spain, Phillip II decided that his problems would be best dealt with through decisive action against England. Spanish interests in the New World and the Netherlands were being harmed by English actions. Furthermore, the English had stepped up their anti-Catholic policies. Elizabeth I had ordered the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. With diplomacy at a virtual standstill following the exposure of plots against Elizabeth that implicated the Spanish, war had edged ever closer.

Phillip’s decision was not made in haste. It was the culmination of factors that led to the decision to invade. Many think that the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1585 was the act that made Phillip’s mind up. Such an invasion would not come cheap. His navy would need bolstering in terms of ships and crew.

The Spanish built their new armada (fleet) through 1586/7. Fully aware of its construction and likely purpose, Sir Francis Drake decided to take action. He led a daring raid into the port of Cadiz. Here, much of the Spanish fleet was at anchor being prepared for the invasion of England. Drake’s raid damaged some 100 ships. This was not only a huge set back for the Spanish but also now meant that there was no hope of a diplomatic resolution to the countries differences.

Spanish Armada. 16th Century painting

The Armada Campaign

The Armada was finally ready to set sail in the summer of 1588. It would sail in crescent formation from Spain to the Netherlands. This formation was incredibly hard to attack and so the Spanish fleet would be best protected on it’s way through the English Channel. Once in the Netherlands the fleet would collect 30,000 men of the Duke of Alva’s army and the provisions needed for an invasion of England. Only 30 miles of sea separated the Netherlands from the English Coast. The huge army could land, make an area secure and be resupplied with ease. From here the army could then undertake it’s objective of seizing the English crown.

The plan was reasonably obvious to the English. The Spanish had few options if they were to invade. Spain had troops in the Netherlands and on the ships of the Armada. The command of the fleet was handed to Drake following his Cadiz raid. To ensure that news of the Armada reached the government in London and important towns and cities, Beacons were set up across the country. Upon the sighting of the Armada a beacon would be lit. As soon as the lit beacon was seen by the next one, that would be lit. The chain of Beacons could therefore alert the south coast and remainder of the country quite quickly.

Drake’s ships harried and harassed the Armada as it entered the Channel. No full scale attack was attempted. Faster vessels were sent to cause damage, create an element of confusion and to slow down the progress of the Spanish. The impact of these attacks was limited. Several of the galleons were damaged but it seemed that little damage had been done. Drake himself either chose or was unable to attack the Armada as it sailed past Plymouth.

There is plenty of time to win this game, and to thrash the Spaniards too.

Drake is reputed to have said this as the Spanish sailed by. He was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe at the time, from where there is an excellent view of the Channel. The quote itself is hard to verify as it doesn’t appear in print until the 18th century. Drake may have chosen to let the Armada pass. He may though have had no choice as the tidal waters in the area could have prevented his ships from setting sail at that time.

The Spanish Armada depicted in crescent formation

On July 31st, Drake did attack. The first skirmishes drew little blood, neither side being boarded or losing ships. Soon though, the English made their first breakthrough. Two of the Spanish Galleons collided. One was forced to surrender to Drake, the other ship exploded and sank. However the Spanish were able to continue on their way to collect the invading army.

The next part of the invasion is a combination of poor preparation by the Spanish, good luck for the English and excellent improvisation by Drake and the other English Commanders. Combined, it led to the defeat of the Armada.

Medina Sidonia was in command of the Armada. He was a soldier, not a sailor. His plans were based on advice he had been given. Strategically it made sense for the collection of the Duke of Alves’ troops to be at a position where the distance to England was short: it would make the invasion itself faster and easier to resupply. However Medina Sidonia either didn’t know or ignored the fact that there is no deep water harbour in the stretch of water near Calais. To collect the amassed Spanish army from here, he would have to anchor in open water.

Battle of Gravelines

Medina Sidonia’s Armada lay anchor at Gravelines, near Calais. The English saw an opportunity. They came up with a plan to break the Spanish formation. The English filled eight wooden ships ships with gunpowder. As the tide changed they were set adrift. The tide would take the ships towards the anchored Spanish vessels. Once close they could be ignited. If the ‘Hell Burners’ reached any of the Armada vessels, they would catch fire, burn and sink.

The concept of ‘Hell Burners’ was not a new one. Fire ships of this kind had been used in many naval battles before. The Spanish lookouts who saw these approaching would have known exactly what the English plan was. The only real solution to the problem of fire ships is to get out of their way. As the Spanish did this, they had to break the crescent formation. Drake’s ships could attack much more easily.

The English attacked the Galleons as they tried to break free. A fierce battle took place. The English sank three galleons, causing the loss of 600 Spanish lives and wounding a further 800. The Spanish galleons did break free. However they now had little ammunition, no route back through the English Channel and nowhere safe to lay anchor. The Armada had no choice. Broken, it had to sail north away from the English fleet.

Depiction of the Armada at the Battle of Gravelines. Artist unknown
Depiction of the Armada at the Battle of Gravelines. Artist unknown

The route to ‘safety’ was perilous for the Spanish. It’s course took it north so that it could sail around Scotland then past the West coast of Ireland on it’s way back to Spain. The Armada faced terrible weather on this journey. It also had limited supplies: it was never intended to be at sea for a journey of that length. Ravaged by the storm, the ships of the Armada sought refuge in a bay off the Galway coast, Ireland. Here they were attacked by the locals.

The Armada finally returned to Spain in tatters. Almost half of the 130 ships that had set sail did not return home. Roughly 20,000 of the Spanish soldiers and sailors perished either in battle or from disease. The Armada had been a huge failure for Spain and a massive victory for the English.

Why did the Armada fail?

Several things led to the failure of the Armada. The English planned well. Some of this was improvisation such as the deployment of fire ships. Other elements of planning were detailed and in place for some time. This includes the idea of beacons but also the radical alteration of ship design earlier in the Tudor period which meant that the English had vessels that were faster than the Spanish. This meant that they could harass and skirmish with much more efficiency.

The Weather clearly played a large part in the failure of the Spanish Armada. It hampered Spanish efforts in the Channel and was largely to blame for the loss of so many ships and men following the Battle of Gravelines.

Spanish preparations had some limitations. It is known that many of the sailors of the Armada were told that victory was a formality. Perhaps they had not taken the English seriously enough? The fact that they did not plan for a deep water port in which to anchor shows that they had not taken into account the threat of attack off the coast of Calais.

Outcome of the Spanish Armada

The Armada limping home to Spain was a cause of huge celebration in England. It was a huge victory. The failure of the Spanish Armada meant that England was secure for some time. It did not have to worry about the threat of a Spanish invasion and so could concentrate on other areas. Spain suffered economically because of the failure. The cost of the Armada had been huge and Spain was already highly reliant on silver and gold from the New World. After the Armada’s defeat, these were harder for Spain to ship back to Europe. In England itself the failure of the Armada signalled the end of any immediate threat to the throne. Plots would not have any substantial backing from Spain or the continent.


British historyElizabethan England – The Tudors (KS2)

Culture 24

British Library – Activities and source material

Royal Museums Greenwich – How close did the Spanish come to invading England in 1588?

BBC History Extra – 10 things you probably didn’t know about the Spanish Armada

BBC Bitesize – Revision notes and activities on the Spanish Armada

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