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The Battle Of The Spanish Armada Essay, Research Paper

The Battle of the Spanish Armada

The great naval battle between Spain and England in 1588- one of the

most important battles in the history of the world- is known as the Battle of

the Invincible Armada. But in a sense, this is a misnomer. An invincible armada

is one that cannot be defeated, yet the mighty fleet of warships that Spain sent

to invade England, was defeated so badly that Spain could never again rule the

oceans. How was it possible that this armada, which had awed all of Europe with

its size and strength, was unable to stand up against the forces of a much

smaller and less powerful enemy? The answer lies in the differences between

these two countries and their rulers, Elizabeth I of England and Philip II of


During the 16th century, Spain was at the height of her power. Newly

discovered worlds and conquests of different peoples had yielded Spain an

abundance of precious metals and gems, which made Spain the envy of all the

other European nations. By 1580, King Philip II was ruling over an empire that

covered three-fourths of the known world. Even the ancient Romans would have

been envious of its size. (Walker 15-19)

Religion was one of the compelling motives behind the actions and

ambitions of Spain. Philip’s father, Emperor Charles V, had established himself

as the guardian of Christendom. He also had the dream of uniting all of the

Christian European nations against the Turks and the Moors, who had been

terrorizing Catholicism from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. However,

his dreams were hindered with the coming of the Protestant Reformation, which

split Christendom into two parts.(Marx 22-25)

Philip II continued in his father’s footsteps as the defender of

Catholicism. After the Turks were defeated in a decisive sea battle in 1571,

Philip turned his attention to another serious threat to Christendom: his

Protestant neighbors. Devoutly religious and good friends with Pope Sixtus V,

he was willing to use all of his resources, including his treasures from the New

World, his large army, and his huge fleet of warships, just to unite Europe

under a common Catholic faith. (Marx 28-33)

He probably would have accomplished his goal too, if it weren’t for the

Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England. England at this time, however, was not

nearly as powerful or as wealthy as Spain. Her tax revenues were so small that

monarchs were forced to sell their jewels and lands just to keep food on the

table. As for a military power, England had a few men and arms, and a fleet of

ships better equipped for trading goods than fighting. (McKee 45)

England was also experiencing other problems during this time. The

other parts of her kingdom- Scotland, Wales, and Ireland- were often in an open

revolt against England over the matter of religion. Even the people of England

herself were divided between Catholicism and Protestantism. Furthermore, a

woman, who was thought to be a weak ruler, occupied the throne.

There were a few major reasons why Philip II needed to conquer England,

or at least befriend her. First, he was a leader in the Catholic movement to

wipe out the heresy of Protestantism. The longer Elizabeth stayed on the throne,

the more difficult this task became. She not only was the most important

Protestant ruler but also provided the Protestants in northern Europe with

support for their resistance against the Church of Rome. In addition, English

Catholics were being persecuted more and more severely, mainly because Elizabeth

feared that they were not loyal to her. For a long time, Philip was forced to

endure this because Spain and the other main Catholic country, France, were

fighting each other, and Philip needed to keep England neutral. But alliances

were never permanent in Europe; countries that were bitter enemies one day

became close allies the next. In 1572, the French decided to join Spain in a

Cath-olic alliance against the Protestants. (Howarth 17-22)

The second reason was more personal to Philip. He greatly wanted to

seek retribution on Elizabeth for all of the anguish she had caused him and his

kingdom. For over twenty years, her privateers had been sacking Spanish

settlements in America and laying claims to these cities. Her Sea Dogs, like

Sir Francis Drake, had stolen on the high seas many Spanish treasures taken from

the New World. This took away from the wealth of Philip’s kingdom directly.

Furthermore, she had cleverly refused his marriage invitations for years, and

had put down a rebellion, which he had tried to start among the people of

England in 1579. (Howarth 23-25)

While Philip II had all of these good reasons to invade England, he was

still unable to bring himself to act until all of advisors had exhausted

themselves with arguments and the English had brought their raids to Spanish

seaports. He was reluctant to act not for fear of losing the battle, but for

fear of losing all of his money. While his army had been the most powerful in

all of Europe at this time, Philip II had gone almost bankrupt to keep his

professional army. (Howarth 26)

The real beginning of the fleet of Spanish warships that were needed for

the invasion of England, the Spanish Armada, was begun in 1583 by the Spanish

naval officer, Marquis of Santa Cruz. It was his defeat of a French Protestant

fleet in June of that year which really demonstrated Spanish supremacy of the

seas. Santa Cruz’s main confidant was the Duke of Guise, who led the Catholic

League in France. Their plan was as follows: The Duke of Guise was to cross the

English Channel, under the pro-tection of Santa Cruz and his fleet, and land an

army in Sussex in the southeast of England. They would help the English

Catholics to rebel, set the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots free and crown her

Queen of England after killing Elizabeth. (Graham 44-45)

One of the main reasons Philip hesitated was due to the enormous cost of

pre-paring the fleet. He was horrified by the figure named by Santa Cruz – four

million ducats! The armada that finally sailed in 1588 was to cost Philip over

ten million ducats, and a ducat today would be worth about $12.50, bringing the

cost to about 125 million dollars. (Marx 28)

Philip decided that, instead of using the land forces that the French

Duke of Guise had offered, he would send his own army from the Nether-lands. All

of his spies in England and on the continent agreed that the most Elizabeth

would be able to raise in defense of her throne was an ill-equipped and

undisciplined mess, nothing capable of repelling a power-ful, veteran army such

as the one that was to be commanded by the Duke of Parma, the foremost military

genius of the time. Thus, the conquest of England would be a matter of a few

weeks at the most. Then Parma could quickly return to Holland and finish off the

rebels without any interference from outside. The only weakness of the scheme

lay in the difficulty of transporting Parma’s army, as well as all of its

supplies and war materials, across the Channel to England. Santa Cruz was placed

in charge of planning all naval aspects of the invasion, including the

preparation of an invincible armada to carry an in-vincible army. (Marx 30-32)

However, in 1586, Santa Cruz died. Philip II was forced to pick a new

commander of his fleet. He picked the Duke of Medina Sidonia. He was neither a

soldier, nor a sailor, but was chosen because of his nobility.

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, by order of Elizabeth in 1587

shocked all Catholic nations. Named by Mary, Queen of Scots, as her successor,

Philip was ready now to establish himse1f as the rightful King of England. He

ordered the Duke of Medina to prepare the great fleet to sail up the English

Channel to link up with Parma’s army from the Netherlands. Together they would

invade England. (Mckee 53)

The organization of the “Great Enterprise” (which this plan began to be

called) was a huge task. Philip sent agents to Germany and Italy to buy cannons,

armor, gunpowder, swords, and all other weapons of war. However, more than just

weapons were needed. Enough food had to be supplied for six months. Eleven

million pounds of biscuits, 600,000 pounds of salt pork, 40,000 gallons of olive

oil, 14,000 barrels of wine were but a part of the necessities for a force of

over 30,000 men. The transports, urcas, were to be filled with 5,000 extra pairs

of shoes, 11,000 pairs of sandals, as well as equipment to repair ships, and

axes, spades, and shovels for digging trenches and sieges. (Marx 38-39)

With the fleet went six surgeons and six physicians, 180 priests as

spiritual advisers, 19 justices and 50 administrators, carefully selected to set

up government in England, and 146 young men who volunteered for the adventure,

as well as 728 servants. (Marx 40)

The main task of the Armada would be to transport soldiers to fight in

England. Apart from the 22 great Portuguese and Spanish fighting ships, there

were merchant ships converted for battle. Smaller panaches and zabras were used

as messenger ships and guards.

The Armada was divided into ten squadrons, led by the most famous and

experienced commanders of the Spanish forces. In charge of the Biscay ships was

Don Juan Martinez de Recalde. Don Pedro de Valdes led the Andalusian ships. Don

Miguel de Oquendo, nicknamed the “Glory of the Fleet,” was the heroic leader of

the Guipuzcoan fleet. One of the most dashing commanders was the young Don

Alonso de Leyva, whose task was to take over should Medina be killed or be

disabled. (Marx 43-45)

During the development of the Spanish fleet, England prepared for war as

well. Defenses were improved around all cities, especially London. Since there

was no standing army in England, the Earl of Leicester set up a militia to

defend the Queen and London. John Hawkins had been working on the development

of new ships, and Drake created new methods of fighting. Drake’s new method got

rid of the usual hand-to-hand combat aboard a boarded ship and relied on skilled

sailors and heavy guns. He figured that if the Spanish would try to board the

English ships, they could outmaneuver them and fire heavily upon them. (Mckee


By May 11, 1588, the Great Armada was complete and set sail from Lisbon,

Portugal. One hundred thirty ships carrying 30,000 men sailed in an orderly

procession behind the ship of Medina, which carried the Spanish standard.

However, weather was not in the fleet’s favor. Great winds forced the

ships to dock along the mouth of the Tagus River. For over two weeks the ships

waited to set sail. About three weeks after they had set sail again, they were

forced to seek shelter in Corunna because of horrible sailing conditions that

had scattered the Armada. (Lewis 88)

Medina waited about a month to reassemble his fleet. During this time,

he repaired ships that had been damaged and refreshed rotting supplies. The

next time the ships set out, they were lucky; the wind that had carried them

north had blown back the Plymoth fleet that came to stop them. (Lewis 92)

On Friday, July 29, Captain Thomas Fleyming in the Golden Hind caught

sight of the Spanish fleet, which was only 50 miles southwest of the southern

tip of England. At the time that Sir Francis Drake was notified of the

approaching Spanish ships, he was playing a game of bowls. It is here where he

gave a rather famous comment. “There is plenty of time to finish the game and

beat the Spaniards.” He was right, in a sense, because it was low tide and it

would take another 8 hours to take the fleet out of the harbor. When he did set

sail with 54 ships, the rain made it almost impossible to determine the position

of any other ship, either ally or enemy. (Lewis 101)

Despite these conditions, the Armada sailed on, followed by the English

fleet. Two Spanish ships had been wrecked by accident when The Rosario collided

with other ships. At dawn on August 1, she was captured by Drake, along with

the San Salvador, a ship that had blown up. From these two ships, the English

acquired 2,000 cannon balls and 140 barrels of gunpowder.

The next battle occurred off Portland Bill. It was rather unsuccessful,

for the Spanish were unable to board the English ships, and the English ships

were unable to damage any Spanish ship from long range firepower. This battle

has been quoted by the English as the “waste of a terrible value of shot.” (Marx


On August 4, as the Isle of Wright came into view, the Duke of Medina

realized that he needed ammunition and troops from Parma, but was unable to

reach them. The English fleet was determined to prevent the Spanish from

entering a little inlet, known as the Solent. Howard ordered two ships, the Ark

Royal and the Golden Lion to be towed into battle by rowboats. Three Spanish

ships detached from the main fleet in order to engage the two English vessels.

For a few hours, these ships bombarded each other. Just as the wind finally

came to the Spanish ships’ advantage, the more nimble English ships were able to

get away. The Spanish fleet, however, continued northeast to the Strait of

Dover with the hope of meeting up with Parma at Dunkirk to recharge his supplies.

However, as he was sailing, Medina learned that there was no anchorage deep

enough for the fleet on the Flemish shore. (Walker 48)

When the English learned that the Great Fleet was forced to anchor off

Calais, they felt it was their time to strike. They got ready to send in

fireships. The Spanish knew that the Italian engineer, Giambelli, had made for

the English fireships laden with explosives. These “Hellburners” were the most

feared weapons for a fleet at anchor. These fireships were also used by the

English to break up the crescent-shaped formation of the Armada. This

arrangement of ships was used at close quarters to try and surround and then

board the English ships. (Walker 49-50)

The Spanish began to prepare. Pinnaces stood guard with long grapnels to

tow the fireships away from the main fleet. Medina ordered the ships to be ready

to weigh anchor for a quick getaway. As it was a lengthy business hauling up

heavy sea anchors, the tactic was to attach them to buoys. If the fireships came,

then the ships cut their cables and escaped, leaving their heavy anchors

attatched to the buoys. When the danger was over, the ships could return to pick

up the anchors. (Graham 233)

The Dover Squadron, led by Lord Henry Seymour joined Lord Howard’s

squadrons. Now the Queen’s navy almost equaled the Armada in number. The English

recognized their advantage. They filled eight old ships with inflammable

material and waited for the wind and tide. (Marx 120)

After midnight, the waiting Spaniards saw the glow from the fireships

approaching with the tide. As they came closer, their guns overheated and

exploded, making a terrifying sight. The Spanish hastily cut their cables. In

the pitch-blackness, they collided with each other in their effort to escape.

The huge galleass, the San Lorenzo, was badly damaged, but no ship was set on


By daylight on August 8, Medina realized many of his ships were in

danger of running on the shoals of the Flemish coast, providing an easy target

for the pursuing English. With four great ships, he decided to stand and fight,

desperately determined to hold off the English while the rest of the Armada

collected and made ready for the coming assault. (Encarta)

Drake, in the Revenge, led the attack. One by one, his squadron followed,

opening fire at a hundred yards range. Frobisher’s squadron followed Drake’s.

The Spaniards were outnumbered by about ten to one. The English had the wind

behind them, and at close range, their cannons made huge holes in the Spanish

hulls. Spanish sails, rigging and castles were shattered. The pumps of the San

Martin worked desperately to keep her afloat. (Marx 144-145)

In the noise, smoke, and confusion it was impossible to see what was

happening. Other ships gathered, but the main battle was between Drake’s ships

and the big galleons of the Portuguese and Seville squadrons. Three great

Spanish ships sank that day, a dozen more were badly damaged. Six hundred

Spaniards were killed and at least 800 wounded. The decks ran with their blood.

(Marx 150-152)

Toward evening, after nine grueling hours, heavy rain and wind ended the

battle. But worse was to come. Amid the wreckage and blood and the screams of

wounded men, the winds blew the helpless Spanish ships toward the treacherous

sandbanks. When dawn came, the English moved in and the exhausted Spaniards

prepared themselves for death. But the English were almost out of ammunition. No

attack came.

Slowly, the Spaniards forged their way through the shallow waters. At

any moment, they could feel the terrible lurch of a ship grounded on the sands.

Then, in the afternoon, the wind changed and blew them away from the deadly

sandbanks. The Duke of Medina wrote: “We were saved by the wind, by God’s mercy,

it shifted to the southwest.” (McKee 181)

It is rather strange that only 100 Englishmen had been killed since the

first encounter. Why didn’t the Spanish artillery do any damage to the English

fleet? One answer may be that the Spanish cannon balls were badly cast and

splintered when fired. Their gunpowder was finer ground than the English, and

perhaps was unsuited to the heavy cannon. Their guns may even have exploded on

their gun decks. The merchant ships were not built to take either the weight or

the recoil of heavy cannon. Continual pounding from their own guns put an

immense strain on the ships’ timbers. Their carpenters had the never-ending task

of caulking the leaks. Sometimes the guns were not properly lashed to the gun

decks. When fired, the recoil sent the guns bounding across the decks, severely

damaging the ships and wounding the men. (Graham 287)

When the English fleet turned back, Medina and his captains held a

council of war. Now their task was to get the Armada safely back to Spain.

Medina wrote to the King that “the Armada was so crippled and scattered, it

seemed my first duty to Your Majesty to save it, even at the risk of a very long

voyage in high latitudes.” The Armada was in no condition to turn back and fight

its way through the Channel. Besides, the wind was still taking it north. They

decided to sail around Scotland and southward in the Atlantic, keeping well away

from Ireland, back to Spain.

The English, having given up the chase, sent two pinnaces to trail the

Armada as far as the Orkneys. Then they headed south. The veteran Captain Thomas

Fenner of the Non Pareil wrote predicting the fate of the Armada. As he wrote,

another terrible storm arose.

Spanish accounts of this storm describe the scattering of the fleet. But

the Armada held on course. On August 19, in a moderate wind, they sailed safely

through the Fair Isle channel between Shetland and the Orkneys, where Scottish

fishermen fish. Food was running out. Only a little slimy green water was left

in the unseasoned wooden casks. Most of the biscuits, salt beef, and salt fish

had gone bad. Medina had to ration food, giving each man a daily allowance of

eight ounces of a biscuit, and a pint of half wine/half water. Horses and mules

were thrown overboard. Of the 130 ships that had set sail from Lisbon, eight

great ships had been sunk. Many pinnaces and small craft had been swept way.

Half the remaining ships needed drastic repairs. (Howarth 234)

Off the Orkneys, Medina sent a message to the King to say that the

Armada was still together, and capable of getting back to Spain, although,

besides the wounded, there were 3,000 sick on board. But soon the moderate

weather changed and in the terrible seas off Cape Wrath, the Armada began to

break up.

In gale force winds, the fleet was swept backward and forward around the

north of Scotland, facing a fiercer enemy than the English: the wild sea. The

groaning, leaking ships were kept afloat by tired, hungry men working non-stop

at the pumps. Scurvy, dysentery, and fever were rife. Many ships sought land,

looking for food and water. Because they had abandoned their sea anchors at

Calais and had only small anchors, they were often driven onto the rocks. As the

weather worsened, ships were swept away from the main body of the fleet. Many

sank with all hands. (Howarth 245)

Four great ships were blown back toward Shetland. The Castello Negro was

never seen again. On September 1, the Barca de Amburg fired a gun to signal she

was sinking. The Grand Gonfon took off her crew, many of them wounded and dying,

but was herself wrecked off Fair Isle a month later. All her 300 crew were saved,

though many died afterward of hunger and fever. On September 17, the Trinidad

Valencera struck a reef off northeast Ireland. Of the 450 men aboard, some of

whom had been rescued from other ships, only 32 reached France. The rest had

been slaughtered, or died of exposure or fever. (Marx 224-226)

On about September 18, one of the worst storms hit the Atlantic. The

Rata Santa Maria Encoronada and the Duquesa Santa Ana took refuge in Blacksod

Bay, County Mayo, Ireland. Battles and the beatings of storms shook the Rata,

but worst of all, she too had lost her sea anchors. In the rising wind and tide

she dragged her remaining anchor and grounded on the shelving beach. Her

commander, Don Alonso de Leyva, transferred his men to the Santa Ana. This was a

tremendous feat, as the Santa Ana was anchored in another part of the bay and de

Leyva had to march his men miles across a bleak headland through bogs and across

rivers. The heavily laden ship set sail for Scotland, but was driven on the

rocks at Loughros More in the county Donegal. With great courage de Leyva, who

had broken his leg, got his crew ashore. They had news that three Spanish ships

were sheltering in the harbor of Killybegs. So again, they set out across the

mountains. At Killybegs they discovered that two of the ships were wrecked. Thi

rteen hundred men crammed onto the Girona and again set sail for Scotland. In

the night the wind changed. The Girona hit a reef near the Giant’s Causeway.

Less than ten men survived; everyone else was drowned, including de Leyva who

had led his men so bravely. (Walker 176)

When Philip was told the dreadful news about his splendid ships, he said,

“I sent them to fight against men, not storms.” Regardless of cost, he set about

building better ships and making arms that were more powerful to overcome the


Elizabeth’s treasury was almost empty, but, with money collected from

the City of London and from her courtiers, she sent a fleet of 126 ships,

commanded by Drake, to attack the remains of the Armada in Santander. But Drake

and his captains wanted booty as well as naval victory and sailed to Corunna,

hoping to attack Lisbon. Sickness broke out among the crews, and bad weather

dispersed the ships. The dispirited fleet straggled back to Plymouth. The Queen

was furious and Drake was in disgrace for several years.

Five years later, Philip II sent 100 ships to invade England, but more

than half of them were destroyed by a fierce gale in the Bay of Biscay. The

following year another Spanish fleet almost reached the southern coast of

England, but again the “winds of fate” blew them back to Spain.

Overall, the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the hands of the English

had almost been like the defeat of the great Philistine Goliath by David. This

naval battle, however, did much more good for England, than just an increase in

pride. After this battle, England took the role as the greatest power in Europe,

and Spain, with a damaged army and damaged pride, could do nothing to prevent

this from happening.

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