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Spanish Armada

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Defeat of the Spanish Armada, by Philip James de Loutherbourg

The Spanish Armada was a spanish naval fleet (army of ships) most famous for being used by Spain's King Philip II against Britain in 1588. The ships were on their way to Flanders (across the English channel from England) to fetch an army to invade England. The Royal Navy of England during queen Elizabeth I's reign caught up with them on the way. The English defeated the Armada by using the wind to blow ships that were lit on fire into the anchored fleet. This started on 12 July 1588 and ended during August 1588.

The Second in Command of the Royal Navy was Sir Francis Drake. Drake was playing a game of bowling with his friends when he heard of the attack. He boldly insisted that he had time to finish the game and defeat the Spanish Armada afterwards.

The Spanish Armada was led by the Spanish Duke of Medina Sidonia, who had no naval experience. He replaced the original commander, who died in February.

Reasons for the Armada

  • Religion: Years of religious differences led up to the conflict between Catholic Spain and Protestant England. Philip II was particularly perturbed by the spread of Protestantism in England and he wanted to conquer England to bring it back into the Catholic fold. He also had the support of the Pope in his efforts to restore and spread Catholicism.
  • Trade: The Spanish saw England as a competitor in trade and in expansion to the ‘New World’ (America). This led to many skirmishes (irregular fights) between the English pirates and privateers and the Spanish vessels. English sailors deliberately targeted Spanish shipping around Europe and the Atlantic. This included Sir Francis Drake’s burning of over 20 Spanish ships in the port of Cadiz (Spain) in April 1587.
  • Politics: The turning point came following the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots – Spain’s Catholic ally. The killing of Mary, ordered by Elizabeth, was the final straw for Philip II in the tensions between the two countries.
  • Spanish Netherlands: England, as a Protestant nation, continued to interfere in the Netherlands in support of Dutch Protestantism undermining Spanish influence there.


The defeat of the Armada is often attributed to a severe storm which scattered the Spanish vessels before they met the British fleet, meaning they could not use the many more ships they had to their advantage as planned. The British had only 55 ships, but these ships were not bigger but carried more guns. The Spanish only had short-range cannons, while the English had long-range cannons. Part of the English strategy was to sink or damage the enemy ships before they got close enough to fire back at them.

The English ships were also more manoeuvrable. The Spanish galleons could have their oars broken off completely by a heavy vessel sailing past nearby. The morale and dedication of the British sailors was high, improved by the famous speech by Queen Elizabeth and loyalty to England. They were led by experienced captains who had years of naval battles behind them.

The defeated Spanish fled north through the North Sea with the English chasing them. Many more ships were lost, and thousands of men died during the retreat.

Even though the English sailors had done so well, they didn't get paid and were made to stay on their ships and 'Guard' in case there was another Spanish attack. Lord Howard of Effingham was shocked, when he found out that his soldiers were not getting paid, claiming that "I would rather have never a penny in the world, than they (his sailors) should lack...." (I would rather die poor than see my men go unpaid).

A year later, Queen Elizabeth sent a similar English Armada of more than a hundred ships and 19,000 troops to complete her victory. They were to seize a fleet of Spanish treasure ships and impose a new king on Portugal. This expedition also failed.

Reasons for the failure

Unrealistic expectations

King Philip II of Spain had a poor understanding of his plan of action. Believing that God was on his side was a faulty understanding of the reality.

Francis Drake’s raid on Cadiz

As the Armada was being prepared, the English admiral Sir Francis Drake launched a daring raid on the Spanish port of Cadiz, disrupting the preparations of the Spanish and the invasion had to be postponed until 1588.


The Duke of Medina-Sidonia had not been selected for his skills as an admiral, but because his noble birth. He was not very confident to lead such a huge armada against the English naval ships.

The Spanish lacked experienced gunners

The Spanish lacked experienced gunners on their ships. On the other hand, in the English fleet roughly one man in ten was a gunnery specialist, meaning that every gun crew was supervised by someone with the relevant skills and experience. As a result, when the battle came, the English fired two or three times faster.

Inferior ammunition

The Spanish carried more ammunition for their cannons than the English, but it was not as good. Spanish iron ore was inferior in quality to that found in England. The situation was made worse by the rush to produce ammunition for the expedition. To speed up production, cannon balls had been cooled in water, weakening their structure.

The Weather

Even before they reached their destination, the ships of the Spanish Armada were scattered by storms twice. Some were damaged, others lost, and there were long delays while they regrouped. It was an omen of what was to come, with storms smashing the fleet as it fled the English and limped home around the British Isles.

Fire ships

The English use of fire ships against the Spanish fleet did not sink any enemy ship. However, it forced the Spanish to scatter, ships were damaged as they collided with each other, giving the English an advantage in the days that followed.

Route of the Spanish Armada

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