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Spanish Armada sets sail for England

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 28 May

Spanish Armada sets sail for England


-  28th May 1588  -



One of the most famous episodes in our history, taught to schoolchildren up and down the country, the Spanish Armada was a campaign to end the reign of Elizabeth I and Protestantism in England. 130 large ships sailed for these shores packed with soldiers and sailors ready to invade and pull England into the Spanish Empire. Its failure was rooted in its planning and execution and although the success of the English has gone down in legend alongside Agincourt, the World Wars, Trafalgar and Waterloo, the positive spin put on it by Tudor politicians, which would have made Alastair Campbell proud, hides a darker secret about the treatment of English soldiers and sailors. 


The reasons for the invasion were many and varied. Philip II, King of Spain, had been married to Mary I of England until her death in 1553. In effect, he had been co-monarch in what had been an unpopular marriage among the people of England. They feared being subsumed into the vast empire of Philip. Philip, a devout Catholic, saw it as his duty to rid England of the protestant rule of Elizabeth I and return the country to the arms of the Pope and Roman Catholicism. He saw Elizabeth as a heretic and Mary, Queen of Scotland, possible heir to the English throne, and another Catholic, as the choice for queen.  Her execution in 1587 merely hastened the decision to attack, as he would have invaded anyway. The English privateers, sailors without the permission of the Queen, were attacking Spanish trading ships returning from the Americas with goods worth a fortune. The Spanish economy was suffering and Elizabeth turned a blind eye to this, infuriating the Spanish King. To make matters worse the English were also helping the Dutch fight the Spanish in the Netherlands as strategically victory for Spain would give them a base from which to attack England. 


As preparations were underway for the invasion in 1587 Sir Francis Drake audaciously attacked the Spanish fleet at anchor in Cadiz harbour, an event known as the singeing of the King’s beard. This destroyed some 30 ships, as well as supplies and barrel staves (the seasoned strips of wood used by a cooper to make barrels) that were to be vital to carry supplies of food and water. The invasion was put back for a year - which was to prove crucial.


Thus on 28th May 1588, the fleet set sail with the blessing of the Pope, Sixtus V. The fleet of 130 ships with 8,000 sailors and 18,000 soldiers carried 1500 brass guns and 1000 iron ones. They took eleven million pounds in weight of ship’s biscuit, 40,000 gallons of olive oil, 14,000 barrels of wine, 600,000 pounds of salted pork, 180 priests and 728 servants. Due to bad weather, it was delayed again and by the time the Armada reached the channel most of the water had gone off and was green with slime. Some of this was down to the barrel staves that had not been ready for use.


On 19th July the Spanish were spotted by the English off the Lizard in Cornwall. This was communicated to the rest of the English fleet by a series of beacons lit along the south coast. It is said that Francis Drake was in Plymouth playing bowls when he heard the Spanish had been sighted. It is claimed that he said he would carry on his game and that he was not worried about its imminent arrival. Some of this would be due to the English tactic of coming behind the fleet and attacking it from the rear. Thus he needed the Spanish to pass by first.


The Spanish plan was simple on paper but would be almost impossible to work in practice. The fleet, under the leadership of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a great soldier but with no experience of naval warfare and someone who was violently seasick, was to meet up with the Duke of Parma who was bringing an army of 30,000 to the Netherlands. Communication was to prove very difficult and the two sides could not co-ordinate plans. They would then escort this army over to England on barges, capture the Solent and then advance through England. 


The fleet sailed in a crescent formation with the big Spanish Galleons in the centre and the faster ships on the outside. It is a common myth that they outnumbered the English. They did not. The English fleet numbered 200; 34 of the Royal Fleet with 21 galleons, and 166 others carrying 42 guns each. As the Spanish sailed up the channel it was almost impossible for the English to disrupt their progress. A few skirmishes occurred but the English could not prevent the Spanish from arriving off the Dutch coast. However, on 27th July the Spanish put into port at Calais to await the arrival of the Duke of Parma. They were told that it would take at least 6 days for Parma to arm and ready his men. This gave the English the opportunity they needed. 


On the night of the 27/28th July, the English sent in 8 ‘fire ships” or Hell burners. The Spanish had experienced these before and were wary of vessels that were known to carry explosives. The ships were old boats packed with flammable material sent into Calais on the tide to scare the Spanish and disrupt them. It worked. On seeing these burning craft the Spanish panicked, cut their moorings and headed back out into the channel. They had now lost the protection of their crescent formation and were in disarray and in the morning. In what has been known as the Battle of Gravelines, the English attacked the vulnerable Spanish ships. The weather was also against the Spanish, blowing them first towards the dangerous coastline of the Netherlands and then North up the east coast of England. 4 of the big galleons stayed to fight the English and 3 of these were sunk as the English scattered the Spanish fleet. They followed them until they reached East Anglia as the weather and English naval power stopped them sailing back down the English Channel. This forced the Spanish to continue up the east coast of England and around the north of Scotland where many ships got caught in storms and sank. They then made their way down the west coast of Ireland on their way back to Spain. Some ships landed here to get supplies. They had been forced to eat the ropes on the ships such was their plight. They thought that, as Catholics, they would be welcomed by the Irish and given supplies. This was not the case and having landed just south of Galway, in an area still known as Armada Bay, they were attacked and killed. 


Of the 130 ships that left 67 returned, although getting exact numbers is not easy. 20,000 soldiers and sailors were estimated to have died. The Spanish blamed the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who returned to Spain a broken man. He blamed the weather. Philip II said that the Duke was not to blame and that it was God who did not want them to win this time. Whilst the weather was indeed unkind all the way through the campaign the Spanish plan was fundamentally flawed. Whilst at sea they were safe in their formation but they had to stop to meet the Duke of Parma’s army and this was always going to leave them vulnerable. The fire ships proved this to be the case and completely destroyed any hopes the Spanish might have. The English sailors were used to the waters and tides in the channel and their ships were faster and more manoeuvrable allowing them to escape from the larger, ponderous Spanish galleons. The Spanish tactic of coming alongside the English boats and boarding them using grappling hooks was always going to be difficult due to this reason and it exposed them to broadsides from the English guns. The English ships were longer, lower and faster than before. The castles at the back and front of the ships had been lowered to give greater stability meaning that more guns could be carried to fire these broadsides. The Spanish guns themselves were tricky to load, as many of them were meant for land warfare rather than naval. It had been thought that the Spanish had run out of ammunition but underwater finds show this not to be the case. Far more likely is the idea that the cannons simply could not be reloaded.


The English lost no ships and just 100 men whilst fighting the Spanish.  However, this hides the true scale of the costs to the English. It is estimated that 7000 lost their lives to dysentery or typhus whilst the Spanish Armada was at sea. The sailors who had fought to keep England safe were only given enough money to get them home and many were only paid half their wages. Many were left to beg and steal to survive. Lord Howard of Effingham, the Admiral of the Fleet, was so appalled at the treatment of the sailors that he paid some of them with his own money.


Elizabeth meanwhile had a magnificent portrait of her painted showing her inside one of the warships looking magnificent and powerful as if she had been present. In the background through one of the ship’s windows, you can see the Armada being defeated by fire ships. In the other window, the Spanish ships are being blown onto rocks by a “Protestant” wind. Her hand rests on a globe with her fingers over the Americas depicting England’s dominance of the seas and oceans. This picture was copied and taken around the Kingdom in a propaganda show to rival anything politicians could produce today and it certainly had more effect in making Elizabeth look statesmanlike that Mr Milliband’s election stone. She spoke to some of the troops at Tilbury and in Churchillian style declared, “Although I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England too.” To save money she disbanded the army the day after victory was declared. She demanded too that everyone should eat goose for Christmas, as this was what she was eating when told of the victory by her navy. 


In defeat, the Spanish were far more generous to their sailors and soldiers than the English were in victory to theirs. The political value gained by Elizabeth was huge and set her up as a great wartime leader giving her the status as one of our best ever monarchs. A BBC poll of top Britons in 2002 put her 7th behind the winner Winston Churchill. 

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