The Spanish Armada: History, Facts & Timeline

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the creation, intent, and impact of the Spanish Armada and test your understanding about the Spanish Empire, Tudor England, and privateering in the Atlantic.

The Age of Ships

The 1500s were the beginning of the age of ships. They sailed across the world, trading spices and moving armies. Ships meant wealth. Wealth meant pirates and wars.

The Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada was a massive fleet of 130 ships assembled by Spain to attack and overthrow England in 1588. The move started the Spanish-Anglo war, marking the beginning of English naval dominance of the Atlantic.

Background of the Conflict: Protestant vs. Catholic

When Spain conquered the New World in the early 1500s, immense wealth from gold, silver, and spices flowed into the Spanish Empire. Ruling Spain was Charles V. He was the first King of a unified Spain, monarch of the Netherlands from his grandfather, and in 1519 crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope and charged with protecting the Catholic faith. He passed Spain and the Netherlands on to his son, Philip II, who married Mary Tudor of England and became co-monarch of that country with his wife, restoring Catholicism to the Protestant kingdom. When Mary died in 1558, her Protestant sister, Elizabeth Tudor, became the Queen of England. Philip, back in Spain, lost his claim to England.

Philip II of Spain, whose marriage to Mary Tudor made him co-ruler of England
Philip II

Queen Elizabeth I, last of the powerful Tudor dynasty (and Philip II's sister-in-law) was not a friend of Spain. She was very fond of making English pirates official members of her navy with the sole intention of attacking Spanish treasure ships and stealing the wealth for England, a practice called privateering. One of the most successful privateers of all time was Sir Francis Drake, who was so efficient that Elizabeth knighted him, and Philip II offered a reward for his head equal to 6.5 million dollars in today's money.

Elizabeth with the Spanish Armada being defeated in the background

Philip II supported plots to overthrow Elizabeth and install her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. This was foiled when Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned for conspiracy and executed her in 1587. Elizabeth also actively sought to support the rebellion against Philip in the Netherlands to turn Philip's homeland into a free Protestant kingdom.

Philip II decided it was time for Elizabeth to be kicked out of the monarchy and, with the support of the Pope, started planning to invade England. Philip, the Pope, and other Catholic kings were afraid of Protestantism, because they saw it as abandoning the teachings of the Church, so they wanted to restore Catholicism to England. Protecting Catholicism was a very serious cause in Europe at the time; the Islamic empire had only been defeated in Spain a century before. For a Catholic king to go to war, the Pope had to give approval. The Pope saw the Protestant monarchy as a credible threat to Catholicism and declared a holy war for Philip.

The Armada and the Anglo-Spanish War

The Pope allowed Philip to collect taxes for building a massive navy and ally with other Catholic powers. Elizabeth appointed Sir Francis Drake second-in-command of the English fleet. From the start, both sides were mired by bad weather. The Spanish lost five boats sailing to England, and the English fleet meant to intercept them was stuck in harbor by the tide. Rather than attack the single fleet, the Spanish sailed past them and headed for the main English navy. Spanish ships were much better quality, with superior guns and lots of them, but English ships were faster and more maneuverable, largely because many of them were originally pirate ships. Drake used this to his advantage and managed to capture several Spanish ships.

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