A HISTORY OF THE SPANISH ARMADA
By Tim Lambert
The Background to the Armada
The Spanish Armada was a great fleet of ships launched by the Spanish in 1588.
There were many reasons for war between Spain and England. In 1562 John Hawkins started the English slave trade. He transported slaves from Guinea to the West Indies.
However in 1568 the Spaniards attacked Hawkins and his men while their ships were in harbor in Mexico. Hawkins and his cousin Sir Francis Drake then began an undeclared war against Spain. They attacked Spanish ships transporting treasure across the Atlantic and stole their cargoes.
In the years 1577-1580 Drake led an expedition, which sailed around the world. Sir Francis Drake also stole huge amounts of gold and silver from the Spanish colonies but Elizabeth turned a blind eye.
Meanwhile the Spanish king ruled the Netherlands. However the Dutch turned Protestant and in 1568 they rebelled against the Catholic king's rule. Elizabeth was reluctant to become involved but from 1578 onward the Spaniards were winning. In 1585 Elizabeth was forced to send an army to the Netherlands.
Philip II of Spain then planned to invade England. However in April 1587 Sir Francis Drake sailed into Cadiz harbor and destroyed part of the fleet that was preparing to invade. Drake boasted that he had 'singed the king of Spain's beard'.
Even so the next year the invasion fleet was ready and it sailed in July 1588. The Spanish Armada consisted of 130 ships and about 27,000 men. The majority of the Spanish men were soldiers (about 19,000 of them). The other 8,000 were sailors. The Spanish Armada was commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia. The Duke was a general and he had never been to sea before.
At that time the Spanish king ruled a large part of Northeast Europe. The plan was to send the Armada to Calais to meet a Spanish army grouped there. The armada would then transport them to England.
The English fleet was gathered at Plymouth when on 29th July 1588 the Spanish Armada was sighted off the Lizard in Cornwall. According to legend Sir Francis Drake, Vice Admiral of the English fleet was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe when the news reached him. Sir Francis Drake is supposed to have said 'We have time enough to finish the game and beat the Spaniards too'.
When the Spanish arrived they sailed in a crescent formation. The English harassed the Spanish ships from behind. Drake said they 'plucked the feathers'. However the English were unable to do serious damage to the Armada until they reached Calais.
The Defeat of the Armada
When the armada arrived the Spanish troops in Calais were not ready to embark and there was nothing the Spanish Armada could do except wait at anchor in the harbor. However the English prepared fire ships. They loaded ships with pitch and loaded guns which fired when the flames touched the gunpowder, and set them on fire then steered them towards the Spanish ships. In panic the armada broke formation. Spanish ships scattered. Once the Spanish ships broke formation they were vulnerable and the English attacked doing considerable damage.
Finally the Spanish Armada sailed north around Scotland and west of Ireland. However they sailed into terrible storms and many of their remaining ships were wrecked. Eventually the Spanish lost 53 ships. The English lost none.
Despite the failure of the Spanish Armada the war went on until 1604 but neither side was able to gain a decisive advantage.
Today the Spanish Armada is still famous. However in 1545 an even larger fleet of Ships sailed from France against England. They failed to invade but Henry VIII's ship The Mary Rose sank at that time.
The Mary Rose
A history of Spain
A history of England
Life in Tudor Times