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The Spanish Armada

The spectacular but unsuccessful attempt by King Philip II of Spain to invade Elizabethan England. The Armada is for the English the classic foreign threat to their country and a powerful icon of national identity.

Battle: The Spanish Armada.

Date: June to September 1588.

Place: The English Channel, the North Sea and the seas around the North and West of Scotland, the Orkneys and the West of Ireland.

THe Spanish Armada
The English Fleet gives battle to the Spanish Armada: A Spanish galeas occupies the foreground, an English “race” galleon to her left and right. English ships carry the red cross of St George on a white background.

Combatants: The Armada (Spanish for “Fleet”), manned by Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Germans, Dutch, Flemings, Irish and English against the English Fleet assisted by the Dutch Fleet.

Generals: The Duke of Medina Sidonia and the Duke of Parma against Lord Howard of Effingham, High Admiral of England, Sir John Hawkins, Sir Martin Frobisher, Sir Francis Drake, Lord Henry Seymour and Sir William Winter.

The Armada
The Armada: Lord Howard in the Ark attacks
San Martin, flagship of the Duke of Medina Sidonia.
Both ships carry the red cross on the white
background, the crusader symbol and the
symbol of St George. Please click on the
image For more details and to buy a copy

Size of the navies: The Spanish Armada sailed with around 160 ships. The English mobilised up to 200 ships in the Channel. Unknown numbers of Dutch vessels harassed and attacked the Armada and hemmed the Duke of Parma’s forces into their harbour of Dunkirk.

Ships, organization, tactics and equipment: The descent of the Spanish Armada on England in 1588 ocurred at a time of profound change in sea warfare. The Spanish represented the old tradition while the English fought with a new design of warship and new tactics.

In medieval warfare at sea soldiers added castles to the merchant trading vessel at the front and the rear (fore castle and after castle) and at the top of the mast and fought their fleets as if on land, discharging arrows and handguns, boarding the enemy ships and conducting hand to hand fighting.  

The ships incorporated by the Spanish in the Armada represented this tradition. The main Spanish vessels were galleons, sailing ships that rode high out of the water with towering fore and after castles from which handheld firearms were discharged; while the crews grappled the enemy ships so that soldiers could board and capture them. Their height and broad beam made these ships awkward to sail.

The route of the Spanish Armada in 1588 up the Channel, into the North Sea and North About into the Atlantic and down the west coast of Ireland. The map shows the known wrecks of Armada ships. Of the 120 ships in the Armada half were lost, many just disappearing. The map shows the sites of the engagements between the Armada and the English fleet at Eddystone, Portland, Isle of Wight, Calais and Gravelines. Of the Armada's complement of 30,000 soldiers and sailors 20,000 were lost.

English captains, particularly John Hawkins and Francis Drake, inspired a new form of ship for the Queen’s Navy, the “race ship”, of which around 25 were built. Lower in the water, with a long prow and much reduced fore and after castles, these sleek ships carried more sophisticated forms of rigging, enabling them to sail closer to the wind, making them faster and more manoeuvrable than the Spanish ships.

England had no standing army, so her naval vessels were crewed by sailors alone. English fighting ships relied increasingly on gunnery, rather than boarding, to defeat an enemy.

The Battle of Gravelines: Vanguard engages two Spanish galleons
The Battle of Gravelines: Vanguard engages two Spanish galleons

Initially the English attempted to disable the Armada ships with long range gunfire. This form of gunnery did little damage other than to rigging which was easily replaced. The lesson was learnt and at the Battle off Gravelines the English closed in and fired repeated broadsides into the Spanish ships at short range, inflicting considerable damage and sinking several ships.

The different Spanish tradition of sea fighting prevented the Armada from countering English gunfire. Guns in Spanish ships were fired in a single salvo as a prelude to boarding; one soldier remaining by each gun for this duty while the rest of the gun teams took their places among the boarders on deck. The Spanish crews were not trained to load and fire repeatedly during a battle and the carriages and tackles of the guns were not designed or suitable for this function; the system of wheels and tackle restricting recoil rather than easing it.

Throughout the Armada’s journey up the Channel and at the Battles of Portland and Gravelines the Spanish struggled unavailingly to bring the nimble English ships within grappling and boarding distance; while suffering constant bombardment that killed many men, sank some ships and damaged others to such an extent that they foundered on the voyage home.

The action off Portland Bill. Queen Elizabeth can be seen
watching riding a white horse (allegorical: in fact she was in London)

After Gravelines it was found that no English ships had suffered hull damage, while many of the Spanish ships were severely damaged by canon fire, much of it below the waterline. Examination of Spanish canon balls recovered from wrecks showed the Armada’s ammunition to be badly cast, the iron lacking the correct composition and too brittle, causing the balls to disintegrate on impact, rather than penetrating the hull. Several guns were found to have been badly cast and of inadequate composition, increasing the danger of bursting and killing or injuring the gun crews.

Detailed records kept in the Spanish archives listed the equipment carried in each ship. From these records it was seen that the Armada carried guns of significantly greater weight than the English fleet. Study of the wrecks found off the Scottish and Irish coasts showed the largest guns not to be part of the ships’ armament but a siege train to be used on land after the invasion. The two fleets were much on a par in terms of size and numbers of operational guns.

The wrecked Spanish ships were discovered to contain a significant amount of the ammunition they had brought from Spain, while the English ships are known to have run out of ammunition by the end of the Battle of Portland and required replenishment before the Battle of Gravelines. However, much of the ammunition recovered from the wrecks proved to be of the wrong calibre for the guns carried in the ships.

A further important advance in the English service was the predominance of the sea captain over all on board his ship with a single clear chain of command; a principal decisively established by Drake when he hanged a recalcitrant gentleman called Doughty aboard the Golden Hinde. In the Spanish service the sea captain remained a lowly person, forced to defer to military officers and many others. It was never quite clear who gave the decisive orders on a Spanish ship. An interesting example of this dilemma was revealed when the Santa Maria de la Rosa in attempting to anchor in Blasket Sound off the South West coast of Ireland in September 1588, struck the terrible Stromboli rock. The pilot, who should have been entitled to take any decision on the ship’s safety, cut the anchor cable and attempted to hoist a sail to beach the catastrophically damaged vessel. Misinterpreting his actions a Spanish land officer killed him.
Winner: The Elements and the English navy.

A Portuguese galleon

The Navies:
The Spanish Navy comprised:
The Portuguese Galleons:
São Martinho (48 guns: Flagship of the commander-in-chief, the Duke of Medina Sidonia and Maestre de Francisco de Bobadilla, the senior army officer)
São João (50 guns).
São Marcos (33 guns).
São Felipe (40 guns).
San Luis (38 guns).
San Mateo (34 guns).
Santiago (24 guns).
Galeon de Florencia (52 guns).
San Cristobel (20 guns).
San Bernardo (21 guns).
Augusta (13 guns).
Julia (14 guns).

Biscayan Ships:
Santa Ana (30 guns: Flagship of Juan Martinez de Recalde, Captain General and second in command of the Armada).
El Gran Grin (28 guns).
Santiago (25 guns).
La Concepcion de Zubelzu (16 guns).
La Concepcion de Juan del Cano (18 guns).
La Magdalena (18 guns).
San Juan (21 guns).
La Maria Juan (24 guns).
La Manuela (24 guns).
Santa Maria de Montemayor (18 guns).
Maria de Aguirre (6 guns).
Isabela (10 guns).
Patache de Miguel de Suso (6 guns).
San Estaban (6 guns).

Castilian Ships:
San Cristobal (36 guns: Flagship of Diego Flores de Valdés).
San Juan Bautista (24 guns).
San Pedro (24 guns).
San Juan (24 guns).
Santiago el Mayor (24 guns).
San Felipe y Santiago (24 guns).
La Ascuncion (24 guns).
Nuestra Senora de Begona (24 guns).
La Trinidad (24 guns).
Santa Catalina (24 guns).
San Juan Bautista (24 guns).
Nuestra Senora del Rosario (24 guns).
San Antonio de Padua (12 guns).

Andalusian Ships:
Nuestra Senora del Rosario (46 guns Flagship of Don Pedro de Valdés).
San Francisco (21 guns).
San Juan Bautista (31 guns).
San Juan de Gargarin (16 guns).
La Concepcion (20 guns).
Duquesa Santa Ana (23 guns).
Santa Catalina (23 guns).
La Trinidad (13 guns).
Santa Maria de Juncal (20 guns).
San Barolome (27 guns).
Espiritu Santo.

Guipúzcoan Ships:
Santa Ana (47 guns: Flagship of Miguel de Oquendo).
Santa Maria de la Rosa (47 guns).
San Salvador (25 guns).
San Esteban (26 guns).
Santa Marta (20 guns).
Santa Barbara (12 guns).
San Buenaventura (21 guns).
La Maria San Juan (12 guns).
Santa Cruz (18 guns).
Doncella (16 guns).
Asuncion (9 guns).
San Bernabe (9 guns).
Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (1 gun).
La Madalena (1 gun).

Levantine Ships:
La Regazona (30 guns: Flagship of Martin de Bertandona)
La Lavia (25 guns).
La Rata Santa Maria Encoronada (35 guns).
San Juan de Sicila (26 guns).
La Trinidad Valencera (42 guns).
La Anunciada (24 guns).
San Nicolas Prodaneli (26 guns).
La Juliana (32 guns).
Santa Maria de Vison (18 guns).
La Trinidad de Scala (22 guns).

El Gran Grifon (38 guns: Flagship of Juan Gómez de Medina)
San Salvador (24 guns).
Perro Marino (7 guns).
Falcon Blanco Mayor (16 guns).
Castillo Negro (27 guns).
Barca de Amburg (23 guns).
Casa de Paz Grande (26 guns).
San Pedro Mayor (29 guns).
El Sanson (18 guns).
San Pedro Menor (18 guns).
Barca de Danzig (26 guns).
Falcon Blanco Mediano (16 guns).
San Andres (14 guns).
Casa de Paz Chica (15 guns).
Ciervo Volante (18 guns).
Paloma Blanca (12 guns).
La Ventura (4 guns).
Santa Bárbara (10 guns).
Santiago (19 guns).
David (7 guns).
El Gato (9 guns).
San Gabriel (4 guns).
Esayas (4 guns).

Neapolitan galeases:
San Lorenzo (50 guns: Flagship of Don Hugo de Moncado).
Zúniga (50 guns).
Girona (50 guns).
Napolitana (50 guns).

Galleys of Portugal under Don Diego de Medrano: 4 ships (each of 50 guns).

Squadron of Xebecs and other ships under Don Antonio de Medoza (including pinnaces): 24 ships (5 to 10 guns).

Complement of the Fleet:
132 ships.
8,766 sailors.
21,556 soldiers.
2,088 convict rowers.

A merchant vessel commandeered for the Armada
A merchant vessel commandeered for the Armada: print by Peter Brueghel.

A Baltic Hulk or Urca like El Gran Grifin that sank on Fair Isle
A Baltic Hulk or Urca like El Gran Grifin that
sank on Fair Isle: print by Peter Brueghel

A Portuguese galleon
A Portuguese galleon: print by Peter Brueghel.

The English Navy comprised:

Ark (flag ship of Lord Charles Howard of Effingham)
Elizabeth Bonaventure
Rainbow (Lord Henry Seymour)
Golden Lion (Thomas Howard)
White Bear (Alexander Gibson)
Vanguard (William Winter)
Revenge (Francis Drake)
Elizabeth (Robert Southwell)
Victory (Rear Admiral Sir John Hawkins)
Antelope (Henry Palmer)
Triumph (Martin Frobisher)
Dreadnought (George Beeston)
Mary Rose (Edward Fenton)
Nonpareil (Thomas Fenner)
Hope (Robert Crosse)
Galley Bonavolia
Swiftsure (Edward Fenner)
Swallow (Richard Hawkins)

The new English 'race' ship that the Spanish could not catch
The new English 'race' ship that the Spanish could not catch to
board and whose cannon did so much damage to the Armada's ships

George (hoy)
Spy (pinnace)
Sun (pinnace)

Some 150 other coasters, ships and barks.

The 8 fire ships:
Bark Talbot
Bark Bond
Bear Yonge
Cure’s Ship.

Hulk or Urcas: a cargo ship (many of the Armada Urcas were from the Baltic ports).
Xebec: a small three masted Mediterranean sailing ship with lateen and square sails.
Galleon: a large sailing ship, square rigged with three or more decks and masts.
Galley: a low, flat ship with banks of oars and limited sails.
Galeas: a galleon with oars.
Pinnace: a small sailing vessel.
Hoy: a small sailing vessel.

Account of the Sanish Armada

In 1588 King Philip II of Spain launched his “Armada” to conquer England.  Philip devised his plan to invade England by means of the Armada during the period 1570 to 1588, his purpose being to depose the heretic Protestant Queen Elizabeth and reinstate the Catholic religion in England. Philip had been the husband of the Catholic Queen Mary and considered himself King of England until Mary’s death in 1558.

Armada in Spanish simply means “Fleet”. At the time, the invasion fleet was known to the Spanish as the “Fortunate Armada”, a reference to its supposed divine support. The English ironically called it the “Invincible Armada”.

Against her initial inclination, Queen Elizabeth I of England had increasingly become a figurehead for the Protestant struggle in France and the Netherlands, where the Dutch were in revolt against Spanish rule. Her subjects had enraged the Spanish King by raiding his American possessions and even the coastline of Spain itself: Drake sacked Cadiz in 1587 and the Earl of Leicester was leading an English contingent assisting the Dutch revolt in the Netherlands.

The Pope excommunicated Elizabeth and issued an encyclical absolving Catholics from their allegiance to the English Crown, encouraging a series of plots to murder the Queen, who in turn beheaded the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, the focus of the plots. Mary’s execution was the final spur for the Spanish invasion of England.

Mary Queen of Scots: executed by Queen Elizabeth I as the focus for Catholic plotting against the English Crown. Mary’s death may have been the final trigger for the launching of the Armada against England.

Palace of El Escorial; where Philip II, King of Spain, planned the invasion of England by the Armada
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Reclusive and autocratic, Philip drew up his detailed plans for the “Armada” in the palace of Escorial, north of Madrid, consulting few and listening to little advice.

The execution of Mary Queen of Scots
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Philip’s scheme required an enormous fleet of vessels, provided by Spain, his newly acquired kingdom of Portugal and his kingdom of Naples, with such other vessels as could be commandeered, to sail from the Iberian Peninsular to the English Channel and land a substantial Spanish army, partly carried in the Armada, but mainly provided by the Spanish garrison in the Netherlands, on the coast of Kent. Once his army had conquered England, Phillip II would appoint a new king or assume the throne himself.

Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma: Spanish commander in the Netherlands,
who failed to co-operate with the Duke of Medina Sidonia, commander of the Armada

The King selected an experienced naval veteran, the Marquis de Santa Cruz, to command the Armada. Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, an eminent general and Phillip’s commander against the Dutch rebels, would command the troops brought across the Channel from the Spanish Netherlands.

A Mediterranean merchant ship commandeered for the Armada: print by Peter Brueghel.

In Phillip’s enclosed mind there was little difference between his design and the will of God. He was confident, as were his religious advisers, that any inadequacy in his planning would be remedied by divine intervention. 180 priests and monks accompanied the fleet and the crews were enjoined to strict religious observance and conduct; swearing by the men and the presence of women in the ships was particularly proscribed. For the Spanish the Armada was a religious crusade marked by a number of crusader emblems.

King Philip II of Spain, the architect of the Armada invasion of England in 1588

Phillip laboured under several misconceptions: one was that the Catholics of England would assist the invading Spanish troops against their own sovereign (in fact the first contingent of troops for the defence of England was raised by a Catholic nobleman; Viscount Montague). Another was that a seaborne invasion could be effected in the presence of a powerful and undefeated English fleet. A third was that the Spanish forces in the Netherlands could get to sea in spite of the numerous and active Dutch fleet. A fourth was that the Duke of Parma was prepared to commit his professional reputation to such a hazardous scheme.

Philip wrote a stream of written orders and directions to the Marquis de Santa Cruz and the Duke of Parma setting out in detail every aspect of the operation. In accordance with these instructions the Armada assembled at Lisbon and the necessary ammunition and stores were gathered and loaded onto the ships.

The Marquis de Santa Cruz: the intended commander
of the Armada who died before it could sail

In February 1588, with the long gestated plans finally approach culmination, the Marquis de Santa Cruz died, leaving Philip to find a replacement able to control the disparate and fractious elements within the enormous fleet and its accompanying military force. In the armed forces of 16th Century Spain command could only be effectively exercised by someone of elevated social status, particularly when he would have to work in close co-operation with a nobleman as senior as the Duke of Parma.

The Duke of Medina Sidonia
The Duke of Medina Sidonia, reluctant
commander of the Spanish Armada

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The king’s choice for command fell on Alonzo Perez de Guzman, Duke of Medina Sidonia, an aristocrat of unimpeachable status but devoid of military or naval experience. A striking features of the Armada campaign is that Medina Sidonia performed this overwhelming obligation so well in spite of his lack of experience; no doubt due in part to his own character but also to the dedication and expertise of his senior deputies.

Ignoring Medina Sidonia’s anguished pleas to be excused the appointment Philip ordered him to take command of the Armada at Lisbon and sail within two weeks.

The Armada comprised squadrons of different types of vessel. The principal naval ships were the great galleons of Portugal, sailing vessels with guns and naval crews.

Philip drafted into the Armada vessels built for Mediterranean conditions: pre-eminent among these were the Neapolitan galleys; long low ships with banks of oars pulled by convicts. 3 of the 4 galleys foundered in the storm in the Bay of Biscay early in the journey north. A compromise vessel intended to have the robustness of the galleon and the manoeuvrability of the galley were the galeases, having masts and oars, of which the Armada had four.

Central to the Armada was the mass of merchant vessels, known as hulks or urcas, converted for war by the addition of higher fore and after castles and a greater complement of guns and carrying the Spanish army with its artillery and baggage. Many of these ships came from the towns of the Hanseatic League in the Baltic. Flagship of the “hulk squadron” was the Gran Grifon from Rostock.

The title page a contemporary English translation of Medina Sidonia’s
 orders for the Armada. The illustration is of a Portuguese galleon of the Armada.

Spanish archives suggest an impressive operation in providing supplies for the expedition, but conceal its inadequacies: stores loaded too early that went bad before the Armada sailed, leaking water barrels, cannon balls of the wrong calibre, food incompetently pickled rotting in the hogsheads. Nevertheless the supplies were sufficient for the fleet to remain at sea for four months, although the ship’s companies that survived to return to Corunna and Santander in late September 1588 arrived near to starvation.

The Armada set sail from Lisbon on 28th May 1588 (British date or Old Style), picking its way out of the Tagus River and working north up the Portuguese coast until it reached Corunna on the north west coast of Spain.

Ships of the Armada at anchor

The journey from Lisbon revealed the unwieldy nature of the Armada. The larger galleons, tall bulky floating castles designed for boarding and hand to hand combat, were slow and unweatherly. Many of the merchant vessels were designed for the easier conditions in the Mediterranean; used only to sailing before the wind, dealing with adverse conditions by simply anchoring and waiting for the wind to shift. Several of the ships incorporated banks of oars; suitable for the Mediterranean, but hazardous in the heavy seas of the Atlantic coast. With its various vessels the Armada could sail at an average of 2 ½ knots with a favourable wind.

The Armada took three weeks to sail the 300 miles from Lisbon to Cape Finisterre, a journey in which it was struck by disease, hunger and thirst. On arrival off Corunna, Medina Sidonia grappled with the urge to enter the harbour and seek replenishment of his stores. As a he waited a savage and unseasonable storm struck the fleet, dispersing many of the ships as far as the Scilly Isles and wrecking several on the French coast including three of the four galleys. The Armada took refuge in Corunna and spent the next month loading further stores while pinnaces rounded up the vessels scattered across the Bay of Biscay.

During the stay in Corunna Medina Sidonia wrote to Philip II hinting that the initial leg of the journey from Lisbon had shown the Armada not to be capable of fulfilling the role Philip had assigned to it. Philip took no notice. In mid- July 1588, the Armada sailed for England.

In the meantime Lord Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral of England commanding the English Fleet in Plymouth, urged on by the impetuous Drake, had brought his ships into the Bay of Biscay, intent on attacking the Spanish in Corunna harbour. The southerly wind that enabled the Spanish to sail north prevented Howard’s fleet from sailing further south so that, fearful of missing the Armada, Howard returned to Plymouth, to await the arrival of the Spanish ships in the Channel.

After the passage across the Bay of Biscay the Armada arrived off the Scilly Isles on 19th July 1588.

Philip’s orders to Medina Sidonia were that he was to sail up the Channel keeping to the English shore until he reached Margate Point, where he was to rendezvous with the ships from Dunkirk carrying Parma’s army and ensure that Parma landed in England.

Parma understood Philip’s orders to require the Armada to eliminate the English and Dutch Fleets from the Channel and then escort his transports from Dunkirk to England. Parma had no intention of leaving Dunkirk without the protection of the Armada, if he intended to leave at all.

Lord Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral of England
and commander of the English Fleet against the Armada

Philip did not appear to appreciate the inconsistency in his plans as to where and how the two commanders were to meet. A staff with a working knowledge of the conditions in the Netherlands would have known of the powerful threat posed by the Dutch navy, making it out of the question to sail transport vessels unescorted from any of the ports available to Parma. At the same time the Armada had not been equipped with pilots familiar with the Netherlands coast so that it was incapable of safely approaching any of Parma’s harbours, situated as they were behind long and dangerous coastal sand banks.

A Dutch ship leaves port to do battle with the Armada

While Philip’s plan was an extraordinary feat, it was fundamentally unworkable. Parma’s resources were already fully stretched in the Netherlands; ultimately Spain would lose the war against the Dutch revolt. Yet Philip expected Parma to spare sufficient forces to land in England, conquer the country and remove Queen Elizabeth from her throne. The English were already fighting in the Netherlands and Parma had first hand experience of the strength and determination of the country and its commitment to the Protestant faith. Parma could spare 16,000 men for the invasion of England from the war against the Dutch, including reinforcements sent to him from Italy and Spain. Medina Sidonia had orders to provide him with a further 6,000 from the Armada, but Parma doubted that he would fulfill this commitment. Parma knew from information coming across the Channel that the English authorities were mobilising up to 200,000 troops across the country to repel the invasion. King James of Scotland, in spite of being the son of the executed Mary Queen of Scots, was committed to supporting Queen Elizabeth. An invasion of England could only end in disaster and disgrace. While not prepared openly to defy his uncle, the King of Spain, Parma appears to have decided to give minimal co-operation.

Elizabeth I, Queen of England: Philip II of Spain planned to depose her, calling her the “Heretic Queen”.
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On 19th July 1588 Captain Thomas Fleming in the Golden Hinde, glimpsed the Armada through the swirling morning mist off the Lizard and raced for Plymouth, Lord Howard’s home port. Fleming came up the channel into Plymouth with the afternoon tide to find Sir Francis Drake playing bowls with his officers on the Ho, high above the harbour. On hearing of Fleming’s sighting Drake insisted on continuing with the game.

Drake playing bowls before the Armada
Drake playing bowls on Plymouth Ho as the arrival of the Spanish Armada in the Channel is announced
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That evening with the ebb tide Howard and six of his ships left Plymouth, sailing out into the Channel and heading west, followed the next morning by twenty to thirty more ships.

The beacon fires lit across England warning of the Armada’s arrival in the Channel
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The Armada had also been seen from the land and the first of the chain of beacons fired, alerting the rest of the kingdom from Devon to Northumbria.

The Armada in the Channel
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On the night of 20th July 1588 Howard’s and Drake’s ships arrived off the Eddystone Rock where the two fleets caught sight of each other. That night Howard’s vessels worked their way to the west taking the weather gauge from the Spanish.

For the rest of the week the Armada made its ponderous way up the Channel, the vulnerable merchant hulks in the centre of its formation surrounded by the fighting ships, while Howard’s faster and more manoeuvrable vessels attempted to pick off the Spanish with long range gunnery.

Sir Francis Drake, one of Lord Howard’s commanders against the Armada and the captain of the Revenge

The Armada suffered little damage from the English fire, but two ships were lost: Nuestra del Rosario suffered a damaging collision and was forced to fall out of the formation, eventually being taken by Drake’s Revenge, and San Salvador suffered an explosion in her powder store that blew off a substantial section of the ship’s aft. She was evacuated and set adrift until she was captured and towed into Weymouth, still filled with crewmen killed and injured by the blast.

From the moment of his arrival off Cornwall Medina Sidonia pestered the Duke of Parma, with letters delivered to his headquarters in Ghent by the captains of fast pinnaces, pressing Parma to say whether his army was ready to embark and where he would meet the Armada. Parma made no reply.

The commission issued to a Spanish officer of the Armada by Philip II of Spain

Philip’s instructions were for the Armada to press on to Margate Head, there to meet the Duke of Parma and his fleet which was to have crossed the Channel. Medina Sidonia was expressly ordered not to deviate from his course or to raid any English towns the Armada might pass.

In the absence of confirmation from Parma that he would be at the rendezvous off Margate Head and with increasing evidence of their inability to neutralise the English fleet, Medina Sidonia and his senior officers resolved to meet Parma off the Flanders coast. King Philip had not allowed for this change and the Armada had no pilots familiar with the dangerous and complex coast line of the Low Countries. The only course Medina Sidonia’s senior officers could devise was for the Armada to make for Calais and anchor while contact was made with Parma and his intentions discovered.

The Spanish Armada
The Spanish Armada : the decisive action off Calais; the English attack at midnight led
by the eight fire ships that forced the Spanish to cut their cables and escape to the East

In the meantime the Armada was pursued and harried up the Channel by Howard’s fleet until on 23rd July 1588 the Armada reached Portland Bill where the wind veered to the North East, giving the weather gauge to the Spanish and enabling them to turn and attack the pursuing English ships. A spirited but confused battle ensued. At one point in the engagement Lord Howard ordered a number of ships to follow him in a line ahead attack, reserving fire until close quarters had been reached; the vessels being Victory, Elizabeth, Golden Lion, Mary Rose, Dreadnought and Swallow. It seems unlikely that this attack developed fully.

The Battle of Gravelines
The Battle of Gravelines: at which the English Fleet dispersed the Spanish Armada and forced it into the North Sea.

The English ships inflicted little damage on the Armada, in spite of firing off much of their ammunition, probably because they did not stand in close enough. The Spanish were unable to achieve the essential ingredient for their style of naval warfare, that is by coming alongside the enemy, grappling the ships together and capturing by boarding; the English ships being too nimble. The battle ended inconclusively.

On the next day the Spanish contemplated a turn into the Solent, approaching around the east tip of the Isle of Wight, but the wind was not correct and they resumed their progress up the Channel.

On 27th July 1588 the Armada anchored off Calais. None of the Spanish officers were happy at the arrangement, but there was no question of taking the Armada’s large ships on up the Channel without local pilots, with the near certainty of grounding on the sandbars that marked the coast to the East. Medina Sidonia sent further urgent messages to Parma in an attempt to discover his intentions and for the first time received a reply; Parma was not yet ready.

A merchant vessel commandeered for the Armada: print by Peter Brueghel

The Spanish Fleet anchored in a tight knit group to reduce the danger of being picked off by Howard’s marauding ships. All were aware that this rendered the Armada particularly vulnerable to attack by fire ships and on the next night that was exactly the tactic that was deployed against them. At midnight on 28th July 1588 eight vessels filled with combustible material and manned by skeleton crews sailed down on the Armada. As they approached the anchored fleet the eight ships burst into flames.

Alert to the danger of such an attack the Spanish had posted picquet vessels that attempted to tow the fire ships into shallow water where they could be beached until they burnt out, but without success, other than in one instance. The Armada was forced to apply the reserve order; cut anchor cables and sail away to the East as quickly as possible (the loss of the main anchors in this way was to have devastating consequences later when ships attempted to anchor off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland in fierce storms but were driven onto the shore).

With dawn, Medina Sidonia found the Armada scattered and the English fleet in full attack. Other Spanish ships beat back to join the flagship, San Martin, and a fierce battle took place, known as the Battle of Gravelines from the port on the coast.

The Spanish Armada: The Battle off Gravelines
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This time the English closed with the Spanish ships and used their guns at close range, the shots penetrating the wooden hulls of the Spanish ships, frequently below the water line. The Spanish inflicted little damage on the English ships.

Beaten in the battle the Spanish were carried up into the North Sea; two ships sunk and most of the remainder damaged by gunfire, with high casualties among the crew and soldiery.

Although the tactical results of the fighting were not decisive the Armada was strategically defeated. It was no longer feasible, if it ever had been, to mount a military invasion of England. The only course open to the Armada was to return home.

A contemporary illustration showing the Armada in crescent formation
pursued down the Channel by the English Fleet of Lord Howard of Effingham

The prevailing winds were westerly and Howard’s fleet lay in the mouth of the Channel. Unable to retrace his steps Medina Sidonia was forced to order his fleet to sail for home by the “North About” route round the tip of Scotland and down the west coast of Ireland; a daunting prospect for a fleet short of food and water, with many of the ships severely battle damaged and unsuited in design for such inhospitable waters. It was a cruel addition that the storms from the Atlantic were that year unseasonably bad.

Queen Elizabeth addressing her troops at Tilbury

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The Spanish possessed no charts that could help them navigate the route around Scotland and Ireland. Medina Sidonia gave his captains sailing instructions running to just a few lines with the most cursory of directions.

Around half of the ships in the Armada were sunk in the storms that raged around Scotland and Ireland in the autumn of 1588.

The ships of the Armada storm tossed on the route “North About” round the Northern tip of Scotland
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The Santa Maria de la Rosa foundering in Blasket Cove off the South West coast of Ireland.  Only one member of the crew survived; a sixteen year old Italian boy name Giovanni.  Giovanni was interrogated by English officials and then hanged

A Mediterranean merchant ship like Santa Maria de la Rosa,
that sank in Blasket Bay with only one survivor: print by Peter Brueghel

The main body of the Armada reached Corunna on 11th September 1588, comprising less than half of the ships that had sailed north in late June. Most of the ships were on starvation rations and had run out of water. Several were so badly damaged as to be scrapped. The remaining ships to survive straggled back to the north coast of Spain through October 1588.

Casualties: The contemporary Spanish record stated that 65 ships survived the Armada and 65 were lost. Of the lost, 41 were major ships. Of the 30,000 soldiers and crew in the Armada probably 20,000 died during the voyage; of wounds, by execution (by the English in Ireland), but mostly of starvation and disease. They continued to die after the Armada had reached Spanish ports.

It is said that there was no noble family in Spain that did not lose a son in the Armada.

The Armada carried a large number of horses and mules for the invasion force. These animals were put over the side in the North Sea as it was considered that there was insufficient water for the journey home. An English ship later saw the mass of animals swimming in the sea.
English casualties were slight. No ship was lost other than the eight fire ships.

Mary Queen of Scots abdicating her throne under duress

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The English admirals remained fearful that the Armada would return from the North Sea and the fleet remained on alert for some six weeks.
On hearing news of the disaster Philip II vowed that he would continue his attempts to remove Elizabeth from the throne of England.
The Duke of Medina Sidonia returned to his estates, carried during the long journey in a litter. He was banned from attending at court.
Recalde, his redoubtable second in command, was carried from his ship and died soon afterwards, refusing to see family or friends.

Anecdotes and traditions:

Queen Elizabeth I at Tilbury addressing her soldiers
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I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman ...
Queen Elizabeth reviews the Earl of Leicester's troops at Tilbury during which she made her renowned speech

Armada ships in deep trouble in the storms off the coast of Ireland

Captain Alonso de Leiva, captain of La Rata Encoronada,
shipwrecked three times on the coast of Western Ireland, finally dying

References: The literature on the Armada is extensive. A sample: