The Failed Invasion of the English Armada into Spain

The failed invasion of the English Armada into Spain, often referred to as the “Counter Armada” of 1589, is a less celebrated but crucial episode in the maritime history of Europe. Just a year after the infamous defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 by the English, the tables turned when an English fleet set sail to invade Spain and Portugal, only to face unexpected challenges and ultimate failure.

The English Armada, commanded by Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norris, aimed to capitalize on the prior year’s defeat of the Spanish Armada. However, it failed to consolidate England’s naval advantage. As a result, the unsuccessful expedition allowed Spain, under Philip II, to regain and showcase its naval strength in the following decade. Image: Map of the English Armada campaigns (April – July, 1589)


The late 16th century was a tumultuous period marked by intense rivalry between Catholic Spain and Protestant England. Religious differences were exacerbated by economic and imperial competition. The tension reached its peak when, in 1588, King Philip II of Spain sent a massive naval fleet, known as the Spanish Armada, to invade England. This invasion was thwarted by a combination of English naval prowess, strategic leadership, and unfavorable weather.

Elated by this unexpected victory, England sought to capitalize on Spain’s momentary vulnerability. The idea was not only to exact revenge on Spain but also to exploit the dynastic crisis in Portugal, which had been annexed by Spain in 1580, and place a rival claimant, Dom António, Prior of Crato, on the Portuguese throne.

The English Armada, also termed the Counter Armada or Drake–Norris Expedition, was a naval assault initiated by Queen Elizabeth I of England against Spain in 1589 during the ongoing tensions of the Anglo-Spanish War and Eighty Years’ War. Commanded by Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norris, the fleet aimed to capitalize on England’s prior victory over the Spanish Armada. Image: The Darnley Portrait, c. 1575

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The Expedition

In April 1589, the English Armada, consisting of about 150 ships and 23,000 men (sailors and soldiers), set sail. Sir Francis Dradrake and Sir John Norreys were the joint commanders. The primary objectives were:

  1. To destroy the remaining ships of the 1588 Spanish Armada, which were undergoing repairs in Santander and Corunna (Coruña).
  2. To seize the treasure fleet, which annually transported vast amounts of gold and silver from the New World to Spain.
  3. To install Dom António as King of Portugal by inciting a revolt against Spanish rule.

Defense of Coruña and the heroics of María Pita

On 4 May 1589, English forces breached the defenses of Coruña’s old city. María Pita (full name: María Mayor Fernández de Cámara y Pita) (1565 – 21 February 1643), assisting her husband, an army captain, displayed remarkable bravery during the battle.

As an English commander leading the assault reached the city’s peak, Pita, in a rage, grabbed the spear with the English banner from him and killed him. Rumors suggest this man might have been Admiral Francis Drake’s brother.

This act demoralized the 12,000-strong English troops, leading them to retreat. Tragically, during the skirmish, Pita’s husband was fatally struck by a crossbow bolt. Grieving yet determined, María rallied the Spanish defenders with a cry: “Whoever has honour, follow me!”

The city’s defenders, emboldened by her courage, repelled the English, who then abandoned the siege. Notably, other women, like Inés de Ben, also played active roles in Coruña’s defense. In recognition of her valor, King Philip II granted Pita the pension of a military officer, acknowledging her significant contributions during the battle.

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María Pita, born in Sigrás, heroically defended Coruña, Galicia, against the English Armada’s assault on Spain in 1589, becoming a celebrated figure in Spanish history. Image: María Pita charging the English, by Arturo Fernández Cersa.

Challenges and Failures

  1. Corunna: The English fleet first approached the city of Corunna, intending to destroy the Spanish ships. However, the English underestimated the strength of the defenses. The Spanish put up stiff resistance, and the siege extended for far longer than the English anticipated. The delay was costly in terms of both time and resources.
  2. Lisbon: After Corunna, the English headed to Lisbon, hoping for a local uprising in favor of Dom António. However, no such revolt materialized. The Spanish and Portuguese defenders were well-prepared, and the English found themselves unable to break through.
  3. Logistical Issues: The English fleet was plagued by insufficient provisions and the outbreak of diseases. As the campaign dragged on, these problems intensified, sapping the strength and morale of the English soldiers and sailors.
  4. Spanish Countermeasures: Spain, having learned from the 1588 debacle, was better prepared. The naval defenses were strengthened, and strategic ports were well-guarded.
  5. Tactical Errors: The English commanders, Drake and Norreys, often disagreed on strategy, leading to tactical indecision. Their failure to coordinate their naval and land forces effectively, combined with their underestimation of Spanish resilience, contributed to the campaign’s failure.


  1. Retreat and Losses: Unable to achieve their objectives, the English fleet had to withdraw. The retreat was disorderly, with several ships getting separated from the main fleet and being captured by the Spanish. The expedition was a costly failure for England, with significant losses in men, ships, and resources. It’s estimated that of the 23,000 men who had set out, around 15,000 did not return, many of them succumbing to disease.
  2. Strategic Consequences: Despite the disaster of the English Armada, the broader conflict between England and Spain, often termed the Anglo-Spanish War, continued until 1604. The failure of the English Armada demonstrated that while England could defend itself effectively against Spanish aggression, projecting power onto the Iberian Peninsula was a far more challenging endeavor.
  3. Economic Implications: The expedition drained the English treasury, and the anticipated capture of the treasure fleet – which would have boosted England’s coffers – did not materialize. This financial setback took years to recover from.


The failed invasion of the English Armada into Spain is a significant chapter in the protracted rivalry between two of history’s great naval powers. It serves as a poignant reminder that success in defense does not necessarily translate to success in offense.

While the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 is celebrated as a testament to English resilience and naval strategy, the failure of the English Armada the following year underscores the challenges of expeditionary warfare and the unpredictability of military campaigns. The balance of power in the late 16th-century Atlantic world remained tenuous, with neither the English nor the Spanish achieving a decisive advantage.

Frequently Asked Questions about the English Armada

The English Armada, often referred to as the Counter Armada or the Drake–Norris Expedition, was a fleet dispatched by Queen Elizabeth I of England against Spain in 1589. This action took place during the ongoing conflicts of the undeclared Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604) and the Eighty Years’ War. Image: English galleon Ark Royal from 1587

Below, World History Edu present some of the most asked questions about the English Armada:

Who led the English Armada?

The expedition was commanded by Sir Francis Drake as admiral and Sir John Norreys as general.

Sir John Norreys

Sir John Norris (ca. 1547-1597), from Rycote, Oxfordshire, was a renowned English soldier. Son of Henry Norris, 1st Baron Norreys, he was a close friend of Queen Elizabeth. Norris served in every major Elizabethan conflict: the French Wars of Religion, the Eighty Years’ War in Flanders, the Anglo-Spanish War, and notably, the Tudor conquest of Ireland.

Sir Francis Drake; portrait by Flemish artist Marcus Gheeraerts, 1591

Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540-1596) was an English explorer and privateer. Famous for his 1577-1580 circumnavigation, the first by an Englishman, he also joined early slaving voyages with cousins Sir John Hawkins and John Lovell. Rising from a seaman, by 1588 he was a vice-admiral, playing a key role against the Spanish Armada.

Who were the commanders of the English Armada?

The commanders of the English Armada were Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norris. Sir Francis Drake served as the admiral of the fleet, overseeing naval operations, while Sir John Norris was the general in charge of the land forces. Both were experienced military leaders, with Drake being particularly renowned for his naval exploits and Norris for his experience in land warfare. Their joint leadership was crucial to the coordination of the combined sea and land operations of the expedition.

Who were the Spanish commanders and figures during the English Armada invasion?

During the English Armada’s invasion, the primary Spanish commanders who played significant roles in repelling the English were:

  • Don Alonso de Bazán: He was involved in the defense of the northern coasts of Spain against the English and played a role in the defense of Santander.
  • Don Juan del Águila: Commander of the Spanish forces in Portugal, he led the defense of Lisbon against the English and thwarted their plans to support the pretender to the Portuguese throne, António, Prior of Crato.
  • Marquis of Santa Cruz, Álvaro de Bazán: Although he died before the English Armada’s campaign, it’s worth noting his earlier significance. He was originally intended to command the 1588 Spanish Armada but died, and his strategy might have been different from the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who took over the command.
  • Duke of Medina Sidonia, Don Alonso Pérez de Guzmán: The commander of the 1588 Spanish Armada. While not directly involved in the defense against the English Armada, his experiences from the previous year’s campaign were undoubtedly influential.
  • María Pita: She was a key figure in the defense of Coruña, Galicia, during the 1589 English Armada assault on Spain. Hailing from Sigrás, her bravery and actions during the battle played a significant role in repelling the English forces, earning her a place in history as a celebrated heroine of the region. These commanders, among others, were instrumental in Spain’s successful defense against the English Armada. They effectively countered the English strategy, leading to a Spanish victory and marking a revival of Spain’s naval power in the subsequent decade.

Monument to María Pita, A Coruña

What were the broad objectives of the English Armada?

The primary goals were to destroy the remaining ships of the Spanish fleet, support Portuguese rebels against King Philip II of Spain, and capture the Azores.

However, it failed to assert English dominance, allowing Spain to reclaim its maritime strength. This expedition, though intended to be a powerful response, inadvertently showcased the resurgence of Spanish naval prowess under King Philip II in the subsequent years.

What were the specific objectives of the commanders of the English Armada?

The English military expedition aimed to disrupt the trade embargo across the vast Portuguese Empire, which spanned territories from Brazil to the East Indies, including important trading posts in India and China.

Queen Elizabeth I’s goal was twofold: to counter the rising power of Spanish Habsburg in Europe and to reopen crucial trade routes. A major challenge was that Philip of Spain had already secured his position as the king of Portugal in 1581, making any alliance with the Portuguese crown complex.

The English placed their hopes on António, Prior of Crato, Portugal’s pretender to the throne. However, António’s claim was weakened by his illegitimacy, and he struggled to gain support against his formidable rival, Duchess Catherine of Braganza, who had a robust claim in the eyes of the Portuguese elite.

Queen Elizabeth I: Frequently Asked Questions

Was the English Armada larger than the Spanish Armada?

Yes, the English Armada was composed of around 180 ships and over 27,000 men, making it larger than the Spanish Armada that had sailed the previous year.

How successful was the English Armada?

The campaign was largely unsuccessful. Although they inflicted some damage on the port city of Corunna, the English failed to capture or destroy the Spanish fleet there. An attempt to seize Lisbon and support Portuguese rebels was also unsuccessful.

What challenges did the English Armada face?

The fleet faced numerous challenges including disagreements between commanders, logistical problems, outbreaks of disease (notably dysentery and typhus), and the absence of anticipated local support in Portugal. Image: Caravels and carracks in the Tagus River, with the castle of São Jorge in the centre distance, unknown artist (1572)

The English expedition, proposed by Burghley to counter Spain, faced numerous challenges. Following the thwarted Spanish invasion, the English fleet was heavily damaged and resources were depleted, leaving Elizabeth’s treasury empty.

Optimistic planning, fueled by hopes of replicating Drake’s earlier success in Cadiz, further hampered the endeavor. The objectives were multifaceted: while the primary aim was to destroy the Spanish Atlantic fleet docked in northern Spanish ports like A Coruña, San Sebastián, and Santander, there were other ambitious goals in play.

However, these plans were contradictory and overreaching. The most urgent task, as directly mandated by Queen Elizabeth, was the obliteration of the Spanish fleet.

In the wake of limited resources, Drake and Norris devised a joint stock venture to finance the expedition, raising approximately £80,000. The Queen was to contribute a quarter, the Dutch an eighth, with the remainder sourced from nobles, merchants, and guilds.

The expedition’s treasurer, Sir James Hales, tragically died during the return journey, as commemorated in Canterbury Cathedral. The fleet’s departure was beleaguered by logistical concerns and bad weather. As they awaited departure, complications arose. The Dutch reneged on their promise to provide warships.

Provisions were quickly being consumed, and the number of volunteer troops doubled the initial estimates, swelling from 10,000 to over 20,000. Distinct from the Spanish Armada’s fleet from the prior year, the English lacked critical siege guns and cavalry, undermining the expedition’s objectives.

How many ships and men did England lose during the campaign?

By the end of the expedition, England had lost around 40 ships and an estimated 15,000-20,000 men, many to disease.

Queen Elizabeth I sanctioned the English Armada in 1589 as a counterstrike against Spain following the Spanish Armada’s failed invasion of England in 1588. Led by Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norris, the expedition aimed to exploit Spain’s weakened state. However, despite its grand ambitions, the English Armada failed to achieve its primary objectives. Image: Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, patterned with Tudor roses and trimmed with ermine

What was the financial impact of the English Armada’s failure?

The expedition was a financial disaster for its investors due to the inability to capture treasure ships or establish profitable colonies.

How did the failure of the English Armada affect the balance of power between England and Spain?

The failure allowed Philip II of Spain to rebuild his naval forces, maintaining the naval balance between the two nations and prolonging their rivalry.

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

Why is the Spanish Armada more famous than the English Armada?

The Spanish Armada’s attempt to invade England in 1588 is more renowned due to its significance in English history and national identity. The English Armada’s failure the following year is less celebrated and, therefore, less well-known.

What was the long-term impact of the English Armada?

The failed expedition underscored the challenges of large-scale naval invasions and contributed to the continuation of hostilities between England and Spain for years to come.

Was there any significant naval engagement during the English Armada’s campaign?

While there were skirmishes, particularly during the attacks on Corunna and Lisbon, there was no single, decisive naval battle like that of the Spanish Armada’s campaign the previous year.

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