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  • James Houser

July 19, 1588 - The Spanish Armada

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 19, 1588. A vast array of fighting ships appears off the coast of England. The King of Spain, Philip II, has sent his Armada to initiate the invasion of Britain. Elizabeth I’s smaller, lighter fleet stands ready to receive him. It is one of the critical moments of world history: will Catholic Spain subdue Protestant England? Will Spain become the first world power?

That was a very real question in the 1580s. Ever since their victories over the French in Italy and their conquest of the New World, Spain had been on the upswing as Europe’s preeminent power. Charles V, chief of the Habsburg clan, wasn’t just King of Spain. He was also Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke of Austria, the King of southern Italy and sovereign over the Netherlands. By the end of his reign in the 1550s, he also ruled a vast New World empire stretching from Mexico to Peru that brought in vast wealth to his European dominions.

Ruling all this land, though, grew to be more of a burden than a boon. Each of Charles’s many realms each came with its own set of problems, and soon these problems overwhelmed him. Charles had to deal with expanding Spanish interests in the New World, the enormous danger of Ottoman expansion from the east, an unending rivalry with France, and finally the Protestant Reformation in Germany that threatened to destroy Europe’s entire society. Charles dealt with these problems as best he could, but he was only one man trying to do a thousand things.

In 1555, Charles did something unprecedented. Exhausted by his responsibilities and his failures, he abdicated. The most powerful man in Europe had been broken by the burden it brought upon him. He left the Holy Roman Empire and most of its troubles to his brother Ferdinand. The crown of Spain, the prosperous empire in the New World, the Italian territories and the Spanish Netherlands went to Charles’s son, Philip – now Philip II of the Spanish Empire.

Philip II is one of European history’s most complex personalities. He was rabidly Catholic, a workaholic administrator, brilliant in so many ways but lacking in so many others. In terms of character, the closest comparison I could come to is Robert McNamara, or maybe Hillary Clinton. Proud, inflexible, brilliant, unaware of limits and equally unaware of his own flaws, Philip saw himself as the leader and defender of Catholic Europe at a time when it seemed under threat from every direction.

Philip made it his mission to use Spain’s enormous wealth and military might to Make Europe Catholic Again. He waged multiple wars against the Muslim Ottomans, culminating in the great victory at Lepanto in 1571. He spent enormous sums on the Counter-Reformation and the Jesuits, trying to turn back the intellectual tide against the growing power of Protestant belief. He waged global mission work varying from peaceful conversion to outright warfare, especially in America. He funded all these missions through the colossal gold and silver shipments brought in yearly from South America, where Indian slaves in Peru died at the tune of thousands a year to hack silver nuggets from the mines of Potosi. All for the glory of God.

Philip accomplished many of his goals, but in two major areas he failed. In the Netherlands, a blend of Protestant belief and the Dutch desire for independence started a long and costly war that consumed Philip’s reign. Most of Spain’s vast troop strength and treasure was slowly bled away in the rivers and urban centers of Holland, trying to put down a stubborn enemy that simply refused to die. The Dutch Wars would last 80 years, long after Philip’s death, and ultimately bled Spain dry.

The second failure was England. Philip had long wanted to reconvert one of Europe’s greatest states to Catholicism. Henry VIII had famously founded the Church of England as an act of defiance against the Pope. Philip not only coveted England’s naval and financial strength, but also believed it was his holy mission to bring the English back into God’s realm.

To this end, he arranged a marriage with Henry’s daughter Mary. “Bloody Mary,” as she came to be known, presided over a reign of terror to return England back to Catholicism, burning Protestants at the stake. It seemed like Philip might gain ascendancy over Europe after all. The Habsburgs were on the up-and-up again. If Philip and Mary had a son, a Habsburg would sit on the English throne as well as those of Spain, Austria, and Italy. What couldn’t be accomplished then?

Well, that did NOT happen because Mary died in 1558 after only two years of marriage to Philip. The new monarch was Henry’s other daughter, stronger, more assertive, and one of history’s great rulers – Elizabeth I. Elizabeth was a staunch Protestant and reversed Mary’s change of religious policy. Elizabeth perceived that this would bring her into conflict with Spain and Philip II, but by her marriage and her support of Catholicism Mary had not just tried to roll back the tides of change in England. She had angered English patriots and subjects by appearing to bend the knee to a Spaniard and a Pope-lover. Elizabeth Tudor took the throne not just as a Protestant, then, but as a symbol of English nationalism. She was determined to reassert her country’s autonomy and freedom from Spain and the Pope.

Philip tried to bring England back into his orbit. He proposed marriage to Elizabeth. She refused him, but still tried to keep friendly relations. England and Spain were on a collision course, though. Elizabeth’s renewal of the Protestant faith in England deeply upset the devoutly Catholic Philip. Philip, in turn, supported Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots for the throne, sponsoring several failed coup attempts. Elizabeth has a golden reputation in modern times, but she was a ruthless and unshakeable ruler when she had to be. Fed up with Philip’s scheming and anxious to remove this threat to her throne, Elizabeth had Mary Queen of Scots executed in 1587.

Long before then, though, Elizabeth was already tweaking Philip’s nose. It would be suicide to oppose the mighty Spanish army and navy outright. Instead, she sponsored privateers like Francis Drake and John Hawkins to raid Spanish shipping, especially the annual treasure fleet that brought silver and gold from the New World to Cadiz. Privateers were pirates with a nice name, raiders sponsored by the English crown but not officially in English employ. Elizabeth took the profits from these raids and funneled them to the Dutch resistance that still gave the Spanish headaches. In effect, she was using Philip’s own money to fund his enemies.

Philip’s bank was breaking. Even with the massive gold and silver shipments from the New World, the Spanish Crown was deeply in debt and started to undergo yearly defaults. Even his long hours in isolation poring over his statements gave Philip no solution. His army in the Netherlands was rioting from lack of pay; he had mortgaged the gold shipments out years in advance. England’s impudence was the last straw. Philip decided to return England to God and righteous ways – by force.

When Elizabeth allowed English troops to actually fight for the Dutch against the Spanish and executed Mary Queen of Scots, Philip hit the roof. In a matter of weeks, he ordered the assembly of an enormous fleet known as the Armada. The original plan was offered by the Marquis of Santa Cruz, Spain’s best admiral; he proposed over 500 ships and 90,000 men to invade England. Philip looked at his bank accounts and immediately scaled this down to 130 ships. The troops would come from the Spanish army in the Netherlands under the Duke of Parma, perhaps Europe’s greatest living general. With Santa Cruz leading the fleet and Parma leading the army, England stood little chance.

Even before the Armada could set sail, Francis Drake struck first. In April 1587, he led a raid on the Spanish port of Cadiz and destroyed 24 ships, after which he ravaged Spanish shipping and bases all along the coast. In spite of these setbacks, Philip’s armada came together, but Drake had bought England time. Elizabeth gathered her own ships, made deals with the Dutch for more vessels, and played a game of deception while she prepared her small island country for war with Europe’s greatest empire.

Unfortunately for the Spanish, Santa Cruz died in early 1588, before the fleet set sail. In his place Philip nominated the Duke of Medina-Sedonia, a high-ranking nobleman with no military or naval experience. Queen Elizabeth chose Lord Howard of Effingham, a nobleman with some time at sea, as her fleet’s commander. Lord Howard was not the best man around, but he had people like Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher as his subordinates, and was smart enough to heed their advice when they gave it.

The Spanish fleet of 130 galleons left on May 20, 1588, heading north for the English Channel. Even though these ships were enormous and carried heavier guns than the English ships, they suffered from serious drawbacks. Their larger size and weight made them vulnerable to the Channel storms, and also made them harder to maneuver. Their larger guns were also slower to reload and had a shorter range. Finally, Drake’s raid had ruined many of their supplies, and the ships were on short rations even as they made their way north. This caused them to stop constantly for resupply on their slow crawl north, allowing the English to make ready.

The Spanish Armada passed into the English Channel on July 19, 1588. On that same day, the English located the Armada. Lord Howard’s fleet had 197 ships, all smaller and with lighter guns than the Spanish – but they were faster, more maneuverable, and with more experienced crews. Drake and Hawkins were some of history’s best admirals. Finally, they were fighting for their homeland; their own Queen Elizabeth had given them a speech on gleaming armor from horseback before they set sail.

On the night of July 20-21, the two fleets spotted each other in the moonlight and closed. The English had the wind in their favor, and their nimbler ships and superior crews gave them a decided advantage. The greater range of their smaller guns allowed them to stay away from the hulking masses of Spanish galleons, even as they plinked away. The Spanish followed the traditional tactics of closing with the enemy and boarding their vessels – they had beaten the Ottomans at Lepanto this way, and it had been the naval way of war since antiquity. The English, though, had learned a new way of fighting at sea – rely on your guns, keep up the fire, and stay out of range.

The Spanish were unable to close with or even damage the English, who kept up a harassing fire all night. Their fire was not quite lethal, but demoralized and damaged several Spanish ships – including, critically, the San Salvador, which held the fleet’s paymaster and his gold. The English failed to follow up on their advantage, though, when Drake’s squadron got lost in the darkness. The Spanish continued to sail eastward, shadowed by the English, who chased and harassed them all the way through the Channel. The constant skirmishing caused the Armada to waste its ammunition in pointless duels that it could not win.

Sensing that the battle was a stalemate, Medina-Sedonia decided to sail towards the coast of the Netherlands, hoping to link up with Parma and plan his next move. To the English, the rapidly fragmenting Armada fleeing towards the coast of France made them smell victory. They continued their pursuit, doing little actual damage but causing the Spanish Armada to turn into a pack of sleepless, bedraggled, exhausted seamen and increasingly leaky ships.

When Medina-Sedonia finally did weigh anchor in Calais, his ships were so tightly packed together that Lord Howard smelled opportunity. He consulted his commanders, who wanted to make a daring strike on the enemy. They unloaded eight of their own ships, set them on fire, and cut them loose on the sea, letting the prevailing wind sail them right into the anchored Spanish. Although the Spanish had prepared for a fire ship attack, the English nevertheless pulled it off, and in the early light of July 29 the Spanish saw eight burning hulks careening into their positions.

The Spanish ship captains hurried to cut their anchor cables. Avoiding the flames, they scattered in all directions despite Medina-Sedonia’s protests. Even though they suffered no damage from the fire ships, ships collided in the dawn, others struck out in panic, and by morning the Armada was spread out along the Channel in no formation whatsoever.

The fire ship attack spelled the Armada’s doom. With his fleet low on ammunition and morale, Medina-Sedonia had no hope of engaging the English in a decisive battle. Worse, he was nearly trapped. The English fleet held the western end of the Channel, preventing him from retreating the way he had come. The only way home was to brave the autumn gales of the North Sea by sailing all the way around the coast of Scotland and picking their way home one by one.

The voyage home was the end of the Armada. With their supplies already exhausted by their trip up the Channel, the ships limped all the way up the English coast to the east, around the gales and treacherous islands of Scotland, and back down the Atlantic seaboard to reach Spain. With Spanish seamen low on food, inexperienced, and buffeted by the weather, the North Atlantic did more damage to the Armada than the English had. After the losses in the Channel battles and the dreadful voyage through the North Sea, the Armada returned to Spain in September having lost half its ships, many of its crew, and all its hope. The English had not lost a single ship.

Even if he had wanted to try again, Philip just did not have the money to do so; even creating the first Armada had sent him into bankruptcy. The Spanish Empire, on the rise since Columbus’s voyage of 1492, began a long and slow decline. The Armada didn’t cause this decline, but it was Spain’s last chance to stop it, and 1588 can be considered the zenith of Spanish power. The growing power of Spain faltered, and began to decline next to a new enemy (England) and an old but reinvigorated enemy (France).

What’s more, as Spain’s sun set a new sun rose. England had not only survived the Spanish Armada with its faith and independence intact, but had suddenly emerged as a naval power. As its ships began to venture in greater strength throughout the world, the little island kingdom began its rise to world power. Some English explorers even took their newfound freedom to plant colonies in America to rival those of Spain, at places like Jamestown. Thus the political, religious, and social fabric of North America became dominated by the English from this point on, while Latin America remained dominated by Spain. The year 1588 saw a changing of the guard.

It’s anybody’s best guess what would have happened if Spain had managed to conquer England. No Shakespeare, no Jamestown, no English Bill of Rights or power to Parliament, and no American Revolution – the whole world would look a lot different.

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