Difference between the Spanish Armada and the English Armada

The Spanish Armada and the English Armada are two significant naval expeditions that took place in the late 16th century between two of Europe’s major powers, Spain and England. While both armadas are often mentioned in the context of the Anglo-Spanish rivalry of the period, they were distinct events with different goals, outcomes, and implications.

In the article below, World History Edu provides a detailed comparison of the two naval expeditions:

Context and Background

  • Spanish Armada (1588): Initiated by King Philip II of Spain, the main objective was to invade England, depose Queen Elizabeth I, and restore Catholicism in England. This move was motivated by religious, political, and economic tensions between the two nations.
  • English Armada (1589): Also known as the “Counter Armada,” this was England’s retaliatory expedition led by Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norris against Spain. The aim was to capitalize on Spain’s weakened state after the failed invasion of England the previous year.

Philip II’s Armada and the English fleet faced off in the summer of 1588

Differences between lions of Ancient Greece and the popular image of the African lion

Composition and Size

  • Spanish Armada: Comprised of about 130 ships, over 8,000 sailors, and almost 20,000 soldiers. It was one of the largest fleets of its time.
  • English Armada: Included about 150 ships with over 20,000 men, consisting of both sailors and soldiers.

Spanish Armada facing off against English naval forces

Leadership and Command

  • Spanish Armada: Led by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, an aristocrat with limited naval experience.
  • English Armada: Commanded by two experienced leaders – Sir Francis Drake, the admiral, and Sir John Norris, the general.

Sir Francis Drake

Strategy and Objectives

  • Spanish Armada: The main strategy was to sail to the English Channel, rendezvous with Spanish forces in the Netherlands, and then proceed with a joint invasion of England.
  • English Armada: The objectives were multifaceted: destroy the recovering Spanish Atlantic fleet, incite a rebellion in Lisbon against King Philip II, and establish a base in the Azores to intercept Spanish treasure ships.

Philip II of Spain. Portrait by Venetian artist Titian (1550)

Battles and Engagements

  • Spanish Armada: Encountered English naval forces in the English Channel in a series of battles. English fire-ships and unfavorable winds scattered the Spanish fleet, forcing it to sail around the British Isles and face further hardships.
  • English Armada: After initial successes in raiding the northern Spanish coast, the expedition met stiff resistance in Lisbon. The English failed to incite a rebellion and couldn’t establish a stronghold in the Azores.

Map of the English Armada campaigns (April – July, 1589)


  • Spanish Armada: It suffered significant losses, with many ships damaged or destroyed and thousands of men dead or captured. The defeat marked a decline in Spain’s naval dominance but wasn’t a fatal blow.
  • English Armada: Despite early hopes, the expedition was a failure. The English could neither instigate a significant rebellion in Portugal nor establish a lasting base in the Azores.


  • Spanish Armada: The defeat of the Armada was seen as a turning point in the balance of power. It boosted the morale of Protestant nations and was viewed in England as a divine sign favoring Protestantism. However, Spain remained a significant global power.
  • English Armada: The failure dampened the euphoria from the previous year’s victory over the Spanish Armada. It demonstrated the challenges of overseas military expeditions and showed that Spain remained formidable despite the losses of the previous year.

Protestant English monarch Elizabeth I incurred the wrath of Philip II of Spain because of her tacit approval of naval attacks on Spanish ships coming from the Americas. Philip II was also displeased by Elizabeth’s decision to make England Protestant again. Image: The Darnley Portrait, c. 1575


  • Spanish Armada: Often romanticized in English history and culture, the defeat of the Armada is seen as a seminal moment when England began to establish itself as a significant naval power.
  • English Armada: Less celebrated than its counterpart, the failure of the English Armada serves as a reminder of the complexities and uncertainties of naval warfare and international politics.

Economic Impact

  • Spanish Armada: The losses were considerable, but Spain’s vast global empire and wealth allowed it to rebuild its naval forces.
  • English Armada: The expedition was costly, funded in part by private investors who hoped for rich rewards from the venture. Its failure meant significant financial losses for many.

Later Engagements

  • Spanish Armada: While the 1588 expedition was the most famous, Spain launched other armadas against England in the subsequent years, though none reached the English coast.
  • English Armada: The 1589 expedition was one of several English naval ventures against Spain during the prolonged Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604).

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