The Defeat of the Spanish Armada


            In 1558, upon the death of Mary I of England, her husband, Philip II of Spain had to return to Spain and allow Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth to ascend the throne.  Philip did not like the fact that Elizabeth, a Protestant, began to undo many of the things that his late wife had put into place.  The only recourse, he felt, was the invasion of England and the forced abdication or death of the queen.  Since the battle would be not only political, but religious, Philip received support from Pope Sixtus V to embark on what he felt was a crusade.

The Spanish held the supreme power in the seas thanks to its large and powerful navy.  Despite the conquests of Sir Francis Drake of England in the New World, his exploits only seemed to have heightened the fury of Philip rather than staking a claim to the seas for England.  The fighting began in 1585 and was scattered throughout the colonies of both countries.  The Armada was to lead the way for the Spanish troops to get a foothold in the southeast of England and provide support for all Spanish missions.  The first problem arose when the assigned captain, the very seasoned Álvaro de Bazán died and had to be replaced by Medina Sidonia.  In 1588, Medina led twenty-two warships and over a hundred converted merchant ships across the English Channel to take the first steps toward invading the English mainland.

While awaiting the arrival of the Duke of Parma’s soldiers, the Spanish Armada, anchored near Gravelines at Calais, France, was sacked by Drake and his superior Lord Howard of Effingham, who sent fire ships (literally ships that are on fire) into the heart of the Spanish fleet, scattering them throughout the water.  This cut off the Armada from Parma’s army and should have been the undoing of the war effort for Spain.  The Spanish quickly regrouped an sailed around England and Ireland and headed back to Spain.  Again the English were fortunate in that the Spanish fleet met foul weather and over one-third of the Armada never made it home.  The defeat of the oft-feared Spanish Armada should have been a rallying point for English, but, most likely due to the undisciplined nature of Sir Francis Drake, the Spanish were not pressed into submission and emerged after a short time to retake many of their lands in the New World, defeat Drake, establish an infantry on the British mainland and force the undeclared war to continue until 1604.

Fortunately for the English, the rough English Channel and the ambitions of the French to defeat Spain helped the English to fight to a stalemate with Spain.  When the fighting finally stopped the English found themselves fortunate to not be overthrown as they were in such debt that they could not pay their sailors, many of whom died from diseases from extended fighting without leaving their ships, nor their soldiers.  James I (VI of Scotland) was left to pick up the pieces of the messy war that ended shortly after Elizabeth’s death.  Despite the defeat of the Spanish Armada amounting to relatively nothing, and the English only being able to force a stalemate with Spain in the end, the protection of their homeland did provide significant morale boost for the English for years to come.  Ultimately, despite most conventional thought of the British defeat of the Spanish Armada, it was the Dutch in the mid-1600s that ended the Spanish supremacy of the seas.


Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588 was painted by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg of France (later England) in 1796 and depicts the battle of between the English and Spanish Armadas at Gravelines, France after the English had forced the Spanish to leave Calais, where they awaited the soldiers that would invade the English Mainland, by sending burning ships into their ranks as they sat anchored in the water.