May 19, 1588: The Spanish Armada departs Lisbon for England

by Florian Sohnke

Owing to a chain of events that began with Henry VIII’s desire for English dominance of the seas, and concluded with Elizabeth I’s shrewd political prowess and military daring, the Spanish Armada disembarks from Spain.

Beneath that bling is a master planner with worldly vision
Beneath that bling is a master planner with worldly vision

Despite indisputable evidence of a overzealous Spanish throne, the Armada was not entirely the result of Spain’s overambitious goals of overthrowing Elizabeth I, ousting hated Protestantism from English soil, and removing the loose English-Dutch alliance that threatened the Spanish Netherlands.  For Elizabeth I, unlike her Spanish counterpart, Phillip II, was a first-rate strategist. Her overt and subversive manifestations of war, intertwined across the globe, showed vision and foresight unrivaled by rulers of her time.

Through her meddling in Spanish Netherlands, Elizabeth supported the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule in the United Provinces, which threatened Spanish commerce interests and wrought political upheaval in Spain’s territorial possessions in the nearby Low Countries. Simultaneously, Elizabeth ordered the Royal Navy to attack Spanish ships on the high seas, warships and commerce vessels alike, as early as 1585.

The Royal Navy’s cunning chief, Sir Francis Drake, conducted vicious raids and scored countless decisive victories over Spanish vessels for three years prior to the Armada’s formation.  Drake, commanding twenty ships with close to 2,000 men, busied himself in battle with Spain at nearly every Spanish possession in South America, the Caribbean and in Spain itself; in one engagement in 1587, at the port of Cadiz, Drake sent over thirty Spanish warships to the bottom.

These acts of war and political manipulations fostered a sense of urgency on the Spanish throne, as Phillip knew inaction could prove costly, quickly, with Elizabeth’s plans stymieing Spanish imperial growth and monetary gains at all spots on the globe with European influence. Yet action, as history shows, is not always best when rushed by a forced hand.

Spain clumsily seeks revenge

The preliminary plan for the Armada, composed of 130 ships, over 8,000 sailors and 18,000 men, was to approach the southern coast of England, block the entry to Plymouth, and secure either Southampton or the Isle of Wright. Such victories would thus prevent the British Navy from entering the English Channel. In the interim, Spanish forces in the Spanish Netherlands – the sum of 55,000 men – would await the remaining flotillas of Spanish warships entering into the English Channel, which then would provide cover and ferry the Spanish troops into the Thames estuary, the gateway to London.

The Spanish followed the Martin Brody system of bigger boats
The Spanish followed the Martin Brody system of bigger boats

Emblematic of this era of naval warfare, most ships were designed to fulfill numerous roles; however, due in large part to Henry VIII’s visionary leadership, the English Navy, at Henry VIII’s direction, embarked on the construction of surface ships explicitly for warfare.  English ships were faster, more maneuverable and modeled with greater firepower.  Designed for war, the English Navy was designed to engage enemies at a distance and better prepared to face global enemies.  Dissimilarly, Spanish ships were slower and often doubled as merchant ships:  Spanish ships tended to be under-gunned and Spanish strategy relied on an classic but antiquated method of warfare, known as grappling, where ships would approach enemy vessels, sailors and troops would leap onboard an opponent’s ship, fight for control of the craft, and by extension, the ship’s precious cargo.

Almost immediately after the Armada’s departure, its risk-averse commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, committed his fatal error.  The Armada, after cautiously navigated up the Atlantic, failed to seize the advantage by confronting the British Navy at Plymouth, blocking its exit into the Solent and denying British warships access to the English Channel. This disastrous strategic blunder would establish the Armada’s undoing prior to any major engagement on the high seas.

Sir Francis Drake, the British commander, along with his brilliant subordinate, veteran naval officer and privateer, Martin Frobisher, neither mirrored Spain’s error, nor did they shrink from the advantages granted by the Spanish miscalculation.  The two men would milk the benefits wrung from a combination of Sidonia’s miscalculations, tides, superior vessels, perfect timing and Phillip’s insistence to proceed over the objections of a majority of his military advisers.

By mid-July, the Armada was spotted off the Lizard on the southwest coast of England. Drake, commanding The Revenge, and Lord Howard immediately made contact with the Spanish ships near Plymouth and scored a minor victory, largely in the capturing the cargo of gold and gunpowder from several damaged Armada ships which Spain abandoned.

Two days later, a second skirmish occurred, but this one more decisive in favor of the English:  Drake, Howard and Frobisher commanded smaller squadrons of ships divided into four groups to confront the Armada.  Frightened and impatient for word from the Duke of Parma’s troops in Spanish Netherlands, Sidonia ordered a squadron of the Armada to break contact with Howard’s and Frobisher’s naval units to meet Drake’s group racing toward the Armada from the south, cutting off a Spanish escape back to Spain.  Sidonia disengaged and proceeded to anchor off Calais in the English Channel.

The English, however, were not without disadvantages that would prove significant:  Notwithstanding a superiority of ships, English vessels were initially of little use because the design was for fighting at a distance.  Until a larger battle at the Gravelines, English ships would merely play cat and mouse with the Armada by driving the Spanish into the trap of Dutch allies lying in wait in the Channel.

At anchor in Calais, Sidonia was presented with the news that Parma’s troops had been reduced by one third from disease.  Lacking a friendly refuge in hostile territory, pursued by Drake’s ships and constantly harassed by Dutch flyboats, the Spanish options dwindled.

Drake meanwhile took hold of a rare opportunity:  He ordered eight ships, known as fireships, to be filled with explosive material, set ablaze and sent adrift in the direction of the Armada.  Although two fireboats were intercepted, the remaining six collided with Spanish positions and scattered the fleet allowing the English a leeward advantage.

Days later, Spain suffers an irreversible defeat at Gravelines. Running low on gunpowder from the preliminary clashes in the south of England, Drake, Howard and Frobisher concluded British warships would need to encounter better-armored Spanish warships at a range of one-hundred yards or less.  On August 8, Sidonia reorganized his ships and prepared for battle.  Because of the scheme of Spanish ships, the design disallowed convenience for supplies of gunpowder to be close to cannons and Spanish weapons were difficult to re-load.

This Drake's plan: Fireworks
This Drake’s plan: Fireworks

Drake, anew from his capture of Spanish vessels off Plymouth, devised a master plan to shower Spanish vessels with multiple rounds from a short distance – dash close and repeatedly fire on Spanish ships frantically attempting to re-load their own muzzles.  The culmination was inimical:  Spain losses were ruinous.  Five ships were sunk, twelve others were badly damaged, ran aground, or foundered and determined as unfit for battle.  Despite not having broken the Armada’s back by inflicting devastating losses, the English retreated.

In the aftermath the Gravelines engagement, the Armada limped north toward Scotland, maneuvered its way around the North Cape and was met with the a most-powerful enemy:  the elements of weather and the effects of the Gulf Stream, which forced them westward where the Armada endured its worst losses of thirty-five ships seriously damaged.  On return to Spain six weeks later, the Armada had been reduced to sixty-seven ships, half its original force, and the loss of thousands of men, rendering it useless as a military threat to the British and shattering the myth of Spanish invincibility.

The repulse of the Armada was a boon for the United Kingdom:  England would remain almost entirely unchallenged for the next three-and-a-half centuries.


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