In this lesson, we will study the famous Spanish Armada and its attempt to invade England in 1588. We will discuss the Armada's background, preparation, voyage, and ultimate fate.
A Dark Night
It was a grand sight on a dark night. Nearly 130 ships sailed along smoothly in crescent formation, their Spanish flags flying high, their crews confident that they could invade their English enemy's homeland and change the world. The Armada, as this fleet was called, was invincible, or so Spain thought when it began its journey north. The harsh reality, however, was about to strike.
England vs. Spain
By the mid-1580s, conflict between Spain and England was heightened tremendously. For one thing, England's queen, Elizabeth I, was all too happy to encourage English piracy against Spain. If the queen's 'sea dogs,' led by Sir Francis Drake, could capture Spanish silver and other commodities coming from the New World, Elizabeth certainly wasn't going to hinder them. In fact, she enjoyed the profits.
King Philip II of Spain, however, was not pleased at all. He greatly resented the English pirates. He was also vexed by English support of Dutch rebels in the Netherlands. As far as Philip was concerned, the Netherlands belonged to the Catholic Spain. Many Protestant Dutchmen felt differently, and they wanted their country back.
Queen Elizabeth had been helping them as much as she could. To top it off, Elizabeth executed the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587, which angered Philip and made him all the more interested in revenge. The stage was set for a major conflict.
Preparing the Armada
Already in 1586, Philip had begun preparing the Armada with the goal of sailing up the English Channel, taking control of it, picking up extra troops in the Spanish Netherlands, and invading England. The project was plagued with difficulties right from the start:
- In 1587, Drake pulled a surprise attack on the developing fleet, which damaged some ships and set back the Spanish schedule.
- Philip chose the Duke of Medina Sidonia to command the Armada. The duke wasn't a bad general on land, but he had no experience at sea. In fact, he tended to get seasick.
- The Armada's much-needed stores of food and water quickly became contaminated, for they had been stored in damp barrels.
- The Spanish Netherlands lacked an acceptable port from which the Armada could take on extra troops.
- The Armada's first attempt to sail was cut short by a nasty storm in April of 1588. Several ships were damaged and had to be repaired before the fleet set sail again.
The Armada Comes to Call on England
Finally, the Armada set out for England in mid-July 1588. Its approximately 130 ships carried over 2,400 cannon and about 22,000 sailors and soldiers. The fleet sailed in a protective crescent formation that was difficult for the English to attack with any effect.
In a few days, the Armada had arrived on the coast of England. A series of beacon flashes alerted the English to the Spaniards' arrival. Drake led the English fleet out to meet the Armada, but no matter how he tried, he could not break through the crescent. The Armada sailed up the English Channel.
Spain's fleet met with a major difficulty, however, when it came time to pick up extra soldiers in the Spanish Netherlands. There simply was not a good port nearby that could handle the Armada. Finally, the commander stopped at Gravelines in France in early August. The protective crescent broke as the Armada entered the harbor, making it vulnerable to attack.
The English were waiting nearby to do just that, and on August 7, Drake sent eight 'fire ships,' essentially floating bombs, to try to destroy the Spanish fleet, which was really a floating fire hazard with its wooden hulls, canvas sails, and stores of gunpowder. Luckily for the Armada, someone noticed the 'fire ships' well ahead of time, and the Spanish fleet scurried out of the way. The crescent was further scattered.
The English didn't wait long to attack again. On August 8, Drake sunk three Spanish warships and managed to block the channel. The Armada was now a disorganized mess.
With the channel blocked, the Spaniards sailed north around Scotland toward Ireland. The seasick duke hoped to garner some support from the Catholic Irish. By this time, the food and water storage problem was becoming acute, and the Spaniards were starving and thirsty.
The fleet was also plagued by disease and storms. What's more, when it arrived in Ireland, it was met not by helpful supporters but by angry Irishmen who recognized the Armada as the invading force that it was and drove it away from Ireland.
There was really nothing left for the Armada to do but slink away home. The mission was a failure. Only about half of the Spanish ships made it back to Spain. Well over 15,000 sailors and soldiers died, many of them from starvation, storms, and disease rather than in battle. The invincible Armada was broken, defeated, and extremely embarrassed.
England rejoiced at its triumph over Spain, and the English looked hopefully ahead to the day when their country would be an empire with colonies, great wealth, and naval supremacy. In less than a century, those English dreams would come true, and the defeated Spain could do nothing to stop them.
The Spanish Armada set sail for England in July of 1588, after about two years of preparation and a whole host of problems and setbacks. King Philip II of Spain sent the Armada because he resented English piracy, which was encouraged by Queen Elizabeth I and led by Sir Francis Drake. The king also took offense at English assistance to Dutch rebels in the Spanish Netherlands, and Elizabeth's execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.
The Armada, which was traveling in a protective crescent formation, quickly reached the coast of England, but ran into difficulties when it tried to pick up more soldiers at the port of Gravelines in France. After a couple English attacks, the Spanish fleet became disorganized. The Spanish commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, sailed his fleet north around Scotland to Ireland, where he hoped to receive support from Irish Catholics.
Help was not forthcoming, and the fleet was suffering from hunger, thirst, disease, and storms. There was nothing left for the Armada to do but head for home in shame and defeat while the English looked on, rejoicing.
Review this video lesson in order to:
- Understand the reasons for the Spanish Armada
- Discuss the major players in England and Spain
- Evaluate the failure of the Armada