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
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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