The Spanish Armada

The Rise & Fall of the
World's first Naval superpower

During the first 30 years of Elizabeth's reign England was largely at peace. Commerce revived, and English ships were boldly venturing across the seas to the West Indies. There they came into conflict with Spain and Portugal, which owned and ruled the whole New World and claimed a monopoly of trade. English smugglers broke through the blockade and made huge profits by selling, in the West Indies, blacks they had seized in Africa. John Hawkins, Sir Francis Drake, and other English seamen also waylaid Spanish ships on their way home and seized their gold. Elizabeth aided the English privateers with ships and money and shared in their profits and stolen treasure. Philip II finally decided to put an end to these attacks by invading and conquering England.

After years of preparation, Philip assembled a great fleet of his best and largest warships, called by the Spanish the Armada (that is, fleet). In 1588 the Armada sailed into the English Channel. The English were waiting for them and at once put out to sea. Their ships were of newer design, smaller than the Spanish galleons, but faster and more heavily armed. In a nine-day battle they inflicted terrible losses on the enemy. The ships that escaped ran into bad weather and only a few returned to Spain. English ships then carried the war to Spain. When the struggle ended--after the deaths of both Elizabeth and Philip--no Spanish fleet dared to contest England's command of the seas.

Beginning on July 21, 1588, a great fleet of ships from Spain engaged English forces in combat in English waters. This was the "Invincible Armada", sent by Philip II, king of Spain. The Armada was made up of130 ships, not more than 50 of them real men-of-war. They carried 30,493men, of whom 18,973 were soldiers.

Philip II had many reasons for attacking England. In part, his was a religious war against heretics. Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland and the Catholic hope for succession to the throne of England, had been executed. With her died the chance of defeating the Protestant Reformation. Pope Sixtus V urged Philip to the holy war, promising him financial aid.

Another reason for Philip's wrath was that English pirates, chartered by Queen Elizabeth I, had challenged Spain's dominions. English privateers captured Spanish ships carrying treasure from the New World and from Africa. This booty made up a large part of England's Royal Treasury. A climax was reached when Francis Drake sailed around the world, trading at will in Spanish territory, and was knighted by Elizabeth I on his return.

The original Spanish plan of attack was made by the foremost Spanish seaman of his time, Don Alvaro de Bazan, marquis of Santa Cruz. The plan, which called for an invading force of 556 ships and 94,222men-at-arms, was spoiled by Drake's raids. Drake entered the harbor of Cadiz with 23 English vessels in April 1587 and destroyed or captured 38 of the Spanish ships that were to make up the Armada. He took still more ships at Cascaes Bay and off Cape St. Vincent, and Philip had to change his strategy.

The new Spanish plan of attack called for fewer ships and men. The land invasion was to be commanded by Alessandro Farnese, duke of Parma, an experienced soldier and head of Philip's occupation army in the Netherlands. Santa Cruz opposed this selection, but his resistance ended with his death in January 1588. The Armada was then placed under the command of Don Alonso Perez de Guzman, duke of Medina Sidonia, an inexperienced warrior.

The Armada sailed from Lisbon on May 20, 1588. After putting in at Coruna for repairs, it was sighted in the English Channel on July 19.The English fleet that met it was composed of 197 ships; many were small coastal vessels, so the total tonnage of the two forces was about equal.

The battle was decided by the superior speed and maneuverability of the long, low English ships and by their long-range firepower. The Spanish were accustomed to the Mediterranean style of fighting, which called for ramming and boarding. The English raked the Spaniards with broadsides at long range. In the first engagement, near Eddystone, a Spanish flagship was destroyed and other vessels of the Armada were severely damaged. Other battles were fought off St. Alban's head on July 23 and off the Isle of Wight on July 25. The Armada retreated to Calais. Medina Sidonia sent a message requesting Parma's help. Blockaded, Parma was unable to aid him.

At midnight on July 28 eight fire ships drifted into the harbor of Calais and burst into flames. The Spaniards panicked, cut their anchor cables, and drifted near Gravelines. Attacked again, the Armada fled north, intending to sail around Ireland's west coast and return to Spain. Buffeted by gales, many ships sank or ran aground. In all, 63 Armada ships were lost, even though only four had been sunk in battle.


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