History of the Spanish Armada and how it was defeated by England in 1588

Spanish Armada defeat

Spanish Armada: History, Naval Battle, & Other Notable Facts. Image: Defeat of the Spanish Armada, August 8, 1588 – painted by French-born British painter Philip James de Loutherbourg (1796)

In the summer of 1588, the Spanish Armada approached the English coast with one primary intent: Deposing the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I in order to restore Catholic rule over England. Known in Spanish as La Armada Grande, the Spanish Armada was believed to be the largest ever naval invasion fleet summoned by King Philip II of Spain.

However, there was a plot twist, and soon enough, the hunters became the hunted. The Spanish fleet fled the English coast into the North Sea, where the Spanish ships suffered further damage as they Atlantic storms smashed them against the rocky coast lines of Scotland and Ireland. Of the 130 or so ships that sailed from Lisbon in May 1588, only about 65 successfully made their way back to Spain.

The events of the Spanish Armada not only destroyed Spain’s ambition of invading England but drastically changed the balance of power. This culminated in the rise and influence of the Royal Navy of England, both regionally and globally.


It all began in the middle of the 15th century when the long periods of political and religious differences between Protestant England and Catholic Spain reached its climax.

The Spanish Kingdom largely controlled Europe both militarily and politically. With a rich history of colonial domination of the New world (i.e. the American Continent), the Roman Catholic empire was renowned for its vast wealth and formidable presence. The nation had captured the entire southern and central parts of the American continent and dreaded the idea of sharing these territories with other European countries, specifically the English and the Dutch.

In hopes of protecting its interests, Spain created a powerful naval presence in the Atlantic Ocean, along with numerous merchant ships that carried gold and other items from America to Europe. That, however, did not stop other kingdoms from wanting their share of the newly discovered world. One of these kingdoms was England.

By the 1580s, the two powers had become enemies. Spain, led by Philip II, supported attempts to make England Catholic, and England, on the other hand, sympathized with the people of the Netherlands as some of them wanted to be Protestants.

Philip II and Mary I (aka “Bloody Mary”)

Philip II, also known as Philip the Prudent, was the king of Spain from 1556-98. He also ruled Portugal as Philip I from 1580-98. A self-proclaimed champion of Roman Catholicism, he was relentless in his attempts to defend his faith against the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire and the Protestants of Europe. He promoted the interests of Catholicism beyond Spain’s borders by bringing colonies in the New World into the Catholic fold.

Mary I of England (reign -1553-1558) was succeeded to the throne by her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I

Philip became interested in England in 1553 when his father, King Charles V of Spain, arranged his marriage to Mary I of England. Mary I, a staunch Catholic herself, had succeeded her half-brother, Edward VI, to the English throne after the latter died without an heir.

Charles V’s decision to have her son marry English Queen Mary had been motivated by a religious zeal. He hoped that the union would produce an heir who would eventually solidify the restoration of England to Catholicism. The English Parliament, afraid of a possible religious agitation and foreign influence on their government, only agreed to their marriage on the basis that Philip would serve as Mary’s consort and never rule England as its king.

Philip II of Spain – Portrait by Venetian painter Titian (1550)

In 1554, Philip tied the knot with Mary I and became the king consort of England. From May, 1558, Mary I fell ill and was constantly in pain. It was believed she suffered from ovarian cysts or uterine cancer. Unfortunately, during an influenza epidemic in November, 1558, she died at St James’s Palace at age 42. Her union with Philip II could not produce any issue.

Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I

In late 1558, Mary’s thoroughly Protestant and shrewd half-sister, Princess Elizabeth, succeeded to the throne and ruled as Elizabeth I. This development loosened Philip’s already uncertain grasp on the English throne.

In order to secure his earlier position and preserve the good relations between Spain and England, Philip proposed marriage to Elizabeth. He looked forward to an Anglo-Spanish alliance similar to the one forged through marriage between Spain’s two enemies, Scotland and France.

After moments of dilly-dallying with her answer, Queen Elizabeth eventually rejected his proposal. In fact, she never wanted to be any man’s wife. She believed she was already married to the Kingdom of England and did not appreciate a foreign ruler or any man ruling her kingdom over herself. After all, she was the Queen of England.

Also, Queen Elizabeth knew that taking a husband from outside England would lend kingdom to external influences. Similarly, marrying an English man would induce rivalry among the nobles. Her only option was then to tow a safe and neutral line, i.e. an unmarried life. For this, she came to be affectionately known as the “Virgin Queen”.

Reasons for the Invasion of the Spanish Armada

The name “Spanish Armada” is from the generic name for “Spanish fleet” in Spanish.

The intended invasion of the Spanish Armada was tied to various reasons ranging from religion, politics to economics. Some of the major reasons are as follows:

  • English Privateering & Piracy in the New World

The rivalry between Spain and England grew as Elizabeth had allowed English ships captained by privateers Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher and John Hawkins to raid Spanish ships and territories in the Americas.

Some of these Spanish ships conveyed treasure from their rich New World colonies. For example, Drake directly attacked Cádiz in 1587, killed its men and undermined Spain’s commercial interests. The activities of these privateers made England wealthy at the expense of Spain and badly affected the latter’s foreign policy.

  • Religious Fervor

Philip II of Spain harbored an age-long wish to establish Catholicism in all of Europe. He knew that Spain would be more powerful and dominate Europe for a very long time if it could convert many regions to Catholic.

Besides, he had the support of the papacy. Feeling both threatened and angered by Queen Elizabeth’s religious and political maneuvers with the Dutch, he believed an invasion of England was the solution.

The Spanish Armada was launched during the peak of the Protestant Reformation which emphasized the doctrinal and social differences that existed among various religious groups and social classes. This led to several religious wars in Europe between the 16th century and the 18th century.

Again, Philip thought overthrowing Elizabeth I and placing his own daughter, Isabella, on the throne of England the next Queen of England would end the enduring wars and the Protestant rule of England.

  • England’s Interference in the Netherlands

Elizabeth’s persistent interference in the affairs of the Spanish-controlled Netherlands and her alliance with the United Provinces that had broken free from Spain’s rule eventually led to the signing of the Treaty of Nonsuch in August 10, 1585. In the Treaty, Elizabeth pledged her continual support of the Dutch rebels against Philip II, offering both financial and military aid.

Those moves by the English queen, coupled with her support for Dutch Protestantism, reduced Spain’s influence there. Consequently, a state of undeclared war resulted between the Spain and its English counterpart.

This further convinced Philip to begin planning an “Enterprise of England” which would deal with the matter once and for all.

  • The Killing of Mary, Queen of Scots

Plans for the invasion picked up speed by 1587. What represented the final straw for Philip II was the execution of Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scotland who was Spain’s influential Catholic ally. Mary’s execution had been overseen by Queen Elizabeth, her cousin.

Elizabeth felt Mary was a threat to her reign because the latter had a legitimate claim to the English throne. As the great-granddaughter of Henry VII of England, Mary was next in line to the English throne after Henry VII’s children.

Mary, Queen of Scots, had a big fallout with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, resulting in the Scottish monarch’s execution in February 1587. Her death came just one year before Spanish Armada invaded England

In contrast, it was widely-known that Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and married Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. However, since the Catholic Church did not recognize the divorce, it considered both the second marriage and Elizabeth illegitimate.

Mary had been one of the most passionate defenders of the cause of Catholicism in Europe. The Scottish queen allegedly supported plans to overthrow Elizabeth. When her treasonous activities were discovered, she was held in a long period of captivity in England and was eventually executed. Her killing came as a major political blow to both Philip II and the Catholic Church.

Read More: Queen Elizabeth I’s Deadly Feud With Mary, Queen of Scots

The Spanish Armada invades England

Spanish Armada facing off against English naval forces

In May, 1588, the Spanish Armada, a formidable fleet of more than130 ships under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, set sail from Lisbon intending to link up with troops led by the Duke of Parma in the Spanish Netherlands.

The plan was to take over the English Channel and transport a Spanish army to the British Isle from Flanders. Many considered it unwise for Philip to have appointed the Duke of Medina Sidonia as commander of the Armada, as the duke had very little experience at sea.

The fleet carried over 2,000 guns, more than 20,000 soldiers and 8000 seamen. At the time, it was the largest fleet ever formed in Europe, and Philip II thought it invincible. The Spanish Armada formed a crescent shape up on its way to the English Channel, which the Spaniards knew would be very hard to break.

The English Fleet

Although the English navy was smaller in size, a large number of private and merchants ships were added to the naval ships. In spite of their relatively smaller number, the English ships were longer, faster and easier to maneuver than those in the Spanish fleet.

Elizabeth’s naval fleet was made up of over 30 ships of the Royal Fleet and about 163 other ships, but it numbered less than hundred during most of the fighting in the English Channel.

The English commanders where Lord Howard of Effingham, High Admiral of England Sir John Hawkins, Sir Francis Drake, Lord Seymour, Sir Winter and Sir Frobisher.

In order to spread the news of the Armada to the English government, London and other important cities, beacons were installed across the country. Upon sighting the Armada, a beacon would immediately light up. The lit beacon would be detected by the next one that would also light up. The string of beacons, this way, would all light up and alert the country of the invasion.

The English Channel

On July 19th, Sir Francis Drake received news of the sighting of the Armada. Drake and other privateers who had been appointed to captain the English fleet readied their men. The English and Spanish fleets eventually met for the first time on July 31st off the coast of Plymouth.

While the English prided themselves as skilled gunners, the Spanish rivals were excellent at boarding and close-quarter fighting. After days of heavy naval cannons assault, the English chased the Spaniards toward the English Channel.

In the Channel, the two opposing forces engaged in a five-day exchange of cannon fire. The Armada’s crescent formation proved very effective as Drake and his English navy officers found it very hard to penetrate.

The English, however, got their first breakthrough when two of the Spanish ships, the Rosaria and the San Salvador, collided. While the Rosario was forced to surrender to Drake, the San Salvador exploded, killing many people on board. After the bouts of gunfire, the Spaniards began to run very low on ammunition.

The Southwest Winds

As the Armada attempted to turn around to join Parma and his army again, the fierce southwest winds prevented them from doing so. Their crescent-shaped formation was destroyed as many ships in the fleet were wrecked off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland.

In the end, the Spaniards decided to give up and sail back to Spain by heading north. Some English ships sailed after them for three days until it was obvious that their Spanish counterparts were leaving. Less than half of the Spanish fleet made it back to Spain.

Battle of Gravelines

The battle in the Channel exposed the weaknesses of the Armada to their English foes. The latter realized they must close within a hundred yards to penetrate the Spanish ships. The Spaniards were believed to be poor long-range shooters as they would rather fight by boarding than by shooting. In fact, it was eventually discovered that much of the Armada’s ammunition was never used.

During a brutal round of skirmishes off the Gravelines, the Armada was bombarded by the English shooters. The battle raged on for close to 9 hours and only ended when the English ran out of ammunition. About 1,000 Spaniards were killed with over 100 injured. The English, on the other hand, lost between 60 and 120 forces, with about 400 injured.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada and Aftermath

Spanish Armada defeat

The famous Queen Elizabeth I’s the Armada Portrait at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire

The Spaniard’s so-called “invincible Armada” was defeated, marking a defining moment in Elizabeth I’s reign. England was able to secure Protestant rule, and the nation’s reputation as a word-class power soared. Queen Elizabeth earned world-renown as a wise strategist and leader.

Ultimately, it was interplay of bad storms, poor preparation by the Spaniards and good planning by the English that gave England its famous victory. Many people in favor of Protestantism have described the fierce winds that scattered and ruined some Spanish ships as “An Act of God.” The winds became known as the “Protestant Winds.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *