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Spanish Armada

Spanish Armada

In May 1588, 130 Spanish ships set sail from Lisbon to invade England and overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. It was a formidable Spanish Armada, with far more firepower than the English navy and an invasion force of 19,000 soldiers ready to attack.

But, against all expectations, the Spanish Armada was totally and utterly defeated, and a significant proportion of its ships never even managed to return home. Why? Read on to learn more about the Spanish Armada's defeat that began the English supremacy of the seas.

Spanish Armada Painting of the Spanish Armada StudySmarterFig. 1 - Painting of the Spanish Armada by an anonymous artist that may have been designed for a tapestry. It is likely a depiction of the Battle of Gravelines when ships engaged in a naval battle.

Spanish Armada Facts

Here are ten key facts that provide an overview of the history of the Spanish Armada.

Armada: a fleet of warships

  1. The Spanish Armada was a fleet of 130 Spanish ships that sailed to England to invade the country and overthrow Queen Elizabeth I.
  2. The Armada took place in 1588, in the context of the wider Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604).
  3. The Armada was unsuccessful in its aims. Many troops died of disease or poor weather on their route back home.
  4. The biggest naval battle of the Armada was the Battle of Gravelines, which took place on 8 August 1588 and resulted in an English victory.
  5. Queen Elizabeth I gave a famous speech during the Spanish Armada, the Tilbury Speech.
  6. The Spanish commander of the Armada was the Duke of Medina Sidonia. He was an aristocrat with no prior naval experience.
  7. The English commander of the defending English navy was Lord Howard of Effingham. His vice-admiral was the well-known privateer, Francis Drake, who had circumnavigated the world.
  8. Part of the English victory was that English ships were faster and more manoeuvrable. The outcome of the Spanish Armada was the start of English naval supremacy.
  9. In 1589, the English launched a counter-Armada to try and conquer parts of Portugal and destroy the remainder of the Spanish fleet. However, this was also unsuccessful.
  10. The impact of the Spanish Armada in England was to bolster the legend of Queen Elizabeth I. Because the Spanish were defeated partially by bad weather, many people at the time saw this as confirmation from God that the divine will was on the side of Queen Elizabeth.

Privateer

An individual who owns an armed ship and is commissioned by the government to fight on their country's behalf in times of war.

Spanish Armada Map

This map shows the journey taken by the Spanish Armada. The Armada initially set off from Lisbon and travelled up the coast of Spain and France. They engaged with the English navy along the English channel.

Spanish Armada Map StudySmarter

A combination of English naval supremacy and poor weather forced the Spanish ships to travel up the east coast of England. This meant that they had to loop around the top of Scotland and make the long journey back to Spain along the coast of Ireland. The Spanish ships encountered dreadful storms along the Scottish and Irish shores that destroyed many ships. Approximately 5000 Spanish died on this part of the return leg. Only 67 ships made it back to Spain out of the 130 that had set off.

Spanish Armada: Dates

This timeline gives an overview of the events leading up to and during the Spanish Armada.

DateEvent
1553Catholic Mary Tudor came to the English throne.
1554Queen Mary married King Philip II of Spain. This made Philip II co-monarch of England.
1558Queen Mary died, and her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth I, became Queen of England. This meant that Philip II was no longer the co-monarch of England. Moreover, Elizabeth started reversing Queen Mary's Catholic reforms, instead bringing Protestantism back to England. This set Spain and England on the path to conflict.
1587Queen Elizabeth I executed her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. This angered Philip II, who wanted Mary Queen of Scots to become Queen of England.
1584The Protestant leader of the Dutch Revolt, Prince William of Orange, was assassinated. Elizabeth promised to help the Dutch Protestants in their war of independence against the Spanish.
1585Philip II interpreted Elizabeth's promise of military aid to the Dutch rebels in the Spanish-held Netherlands as an open declaration of war. Therefore, he ordered that all English merchant ships then anchored in Spain should be seized immediately and started planning an invasion of England.
1587Francis Drake led an expedition to Spain to cause chaos among the preparing Spanish fleet. He managed to burn many Spanish ships at the port of Cadiz. This delayed the Spanish Armada by a year.
28 May 1588The Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon.
19 July 1588The Spanish Armada was sighted off the coast of Cornwall.
21 July 1588Spanish and English fleets engaged in battle. There was no victor.
21-22 July 1588Francis Drake turned his ship back to loot two Spanish ships, but to do so, he snuffed out his ship's lantern - which was meant to be a guide for the rest of the English fleet. The English fleet was completely disarrayed and only managed to get together and catch up with the Spanish a day later.
23 July 1588Naval battle at Portland. The English fleet divided into four groups in a well-coordinated attack, and the Spanish Armada was forced to retreat to Calais.
28 July 1588The English set alight eight fireships and cast them into the port at Calais, where the Armada was anchored. The Armada scattered to avoid the attack, breaking their defensive crescent formation.
8 August 1588Battle of Gravelines. The English provoked Spanish fire while staying out of range and closed in to use their firepower. They did not have much gunpowder left after the Calais event, but they did have enough to destroy five Spanish ships and leave many others with damage. The Armada fled north, with the English in pursuit.
8 August 1588Queen Elizabeth I gave a famous speech at Tilbury.
12 August 1588The English commander called off the pursuit of the Spanish ships when they reached Scotland.
3 September 1588The commander of the Armada sent word to King Philip II that there had been four nights of storms and 17 ships had disappeared.
October 158867 of the initial 130 ships in the Spanish fleet made it back to Spain.
1589English Counter-Armada. The English sent their own fleet under Sir Francis Drake to destroy the remainder of the Spanish navy and attack Spanish-held Portugal. However, the attempt was a disaster, and the unsuccessful mission severely depleted Elizabeth I's treasury.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada

King Philip II blamed the weather for the defeat of the Spanish Armada. He famously claimed,

I sent the Armada against men, not God's winds and waves.1

But how accurate was this claim? This table investigates the evidence for the two different reasons for the defeat of the Armada.

ReasonEvidence
Bad Weather More Spanish men died from storms off the coast of Scotland and Ireland than in direct combat with the English.Of the 63 Spanish ships that never made it back to Spain, only 5 of these were sunk in enemy action. After the Battle of Gravelines, the southerly wind forced the Spanish fleet to flee north. This also forced them to head the long way home around the coast of Scotland and Ireland.
Man-made reasonsThe English ships were faster and more manoeuvrable. This led to their victory at the Battle of Gravelines, which defeated the Armada. The fact that the Spanish Armada later encountered severe storms merely worsened a defeat that had already occurred. The Spanish planned their invasion poorly. For example, a crucial part of their strategy was transporting an army to England. Still, for this army to get to the Armada, the forces would need to cross Dutch-held waters, where they were not allowed to go. The Spanish planners overlooked this logistical issue. The idea of the wind defeating the Spanish Armada worked for the English and Spanish. For the Spanish, they did not need to accept responsibility for their defeat. For the English, they could believe that God was on their side.

Just how bad was the Spanish defeat?

These key statistics reveal just how unlikely you were to survive as a Spanish sailor on the Spanish Armada.

  • Of 130 ships that set sail for England, only 67 made it back. In other words, only 52% of the vessels made it back to Spain.
  • 1 in 3 Spanish sailors died.
  • Less than 10,000 Spaniards made it back to Spain.
  • 5000 Spanish men died from disease, starvation, or murder when their ships crashed onto the shores of Scotland and Ireland.

Spanish Armada Ships

The Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon with:

  • 130 ships
  • 8000 sailors
  • 19,000 soldiers
  • 1500 brass guns
  • 1000 iron guns
  • 28 warships
  • 1.5x the firepower of the English navy

Although this might sound impressive, the truth was a bit more complicated. Although the Spanish did have some warships, the vast majority of their fleet was made up of carracks and hulks - trading ships that were not designed for warfare. Additionally, the Spanish heavy guns took a long time to reload, meaning that the Spanish continued to rely mainly on boarding enemy ships rather than making full use of their superior gun power.

Furthermore, bad weather had already taken its toll on the fleet before it got to England. The Spanish Armada encountered severe storms around the Bay of Biscay, which meant several ships had to stay behind for repairs. This meant that only 124 ships made it to the English channel.

Spanish Armada Painting of Queen Elizabeth I watching the defeat of the Spanish Armada StudySmarterFig. 3 - Painting showing a fictionalised scene where Queen Elizabeth I watches the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

In addition, the English navy was superior to the Spanish Armada. For one thing, they had 200 ships, easily outnumbering the Spanish fleet. Moreover, a more significant percentage of the English fleet consisted of galleons rather than carracks and hulks, meaning their fleet was better suited to naval battles. But the crucial difference was that the English ships were faster and easier to manoeuvre. This enabled them to keep out of Spanish firing range and, once the Spanish had exhausted their supplies, to fire back themselves.

1588 Spanish Armada

When it comes to the Spanish Armada, it is easy to focus on the historical event itself - the battles and storms of 1588 that rendered the famous invasion attempt an absolute disaster. However, what was the significance of the 1588 Spanish Armada in the broader context of European history?

Climate Change

Climate historian J. L. Anderson puts one interesting perspective forward by focusing on the role of climate change in the defeat of the Spanish Armada. He argues that,

The meteorological events which affected the course and conclusion of the campaigns were not random weather variations [...] Rather, they were in part aspects of the climatic change termed the Little Ice Age.2

The Little Ice Age was a rapid cooling of the Earth's climate in the sixteenth century. The environment only started warming again in the eighteenth century. It did not recover its former levels until the nineteenth century.

The main characteristics of the Little Ice Age were severe storms, long winters, and wet summers. The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries experienced the most extreme phases of this period - the first period coinciding precisely with the Spanish Armada. Several sailors noted that the storms were uncommonly severe during that year.

Therefore, J. L. Anderson argues that we should partially interpret the Spanish Armada's fortunes to the climate change that was occurring at the time - illustrating how climate can affect the course of human history.

The image of Queen Elizabeth I

The other significant impact of the Spanish Armada was to boost the image of Queen Elizabeth I, especially after her famous speech at Tilbury.

Spanish Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada StudySmarterFig. 3 - This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I was made to commemorate the English victory over the Spanish Armada. You can see images of the fleets and storms in the two panels on the left and right of the queen. The Spanish defeat greatly enhanced Elizabeth's prestige.

The story goes that Queen Elizabeth wore a white gown with symbolic armour, hair flowing down, and delivered a rousing speech worthy of any Lord of the Rings movie. The most famous quote from this speech is,

I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too...3

In truth, this image may be a complete fabrication. No surviving evidence from the time exists to prove what Elizabeth I said or what she wore during this speech at Tilbury. Furthermore, Elizabeth I was in a far more vulnerable position than this image portrays. The crown knew that the Spanish Armada had been preparing for three years. However, as financial resources were so low, they only sent out the English navy at the last moment.

Nevertheless, the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the legend of the famous speech of Tilbury has served to further the myth of Queen Elizabeth I for centuries to come as a "powerful political icon."3

The Spanish Armada - Key takeaways

  • The Spanish Armada was a fleet of 130 ships that set sail from Lisbon, intending to invade England and remove Queen Elizabeth I from the throne.
  • The Spanish Armada failed in its aims, and only 67 of the original 130 ships made it back to Spain.
  • Most of the Spanish fleet was destroyed in severe storms off the coast of Scotland and Ireland.
  • Many people at the time put down the defeat of the Spanish Armada to poor weather.
  • The Spanish Armada's defeat was partly due to climate change, in an event known as the Little Ice Age.

References

  1. C N Trueman, "The Spanish Armada", The History Learning Site, (17 Mar 2015).
  2. J.L.Anderson, 'Climatic Change, Sea-Power and Historical Discontinuity: The Spanish Armada and the Glorious Revolution of 1688', The Great Circle (5), 1983, p.13.
  3. Susan Fyre, 'The Myth of Elizabeth at Tilbury', The Sixteenth Century Journal, 23, (1992), p.114.

Frequently Asked Questions about Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada was a fleet of 130 ships that sailed from Spain to England with the intention of invading England and overthrowing Queen Elizabeth I. 

The leader of the Spanish fleet was the Duke of Medina Sidonia. He was an aristocrat with no prior naval experience. 

The Spanish Armada was defeated by the English navy at the Battle of Gravelines. Many of its ships were then destroyed by storms off the coast of Scotland and Ireland. 

One reason for the failure of the Spanish Armada was poor weather. Of 130 ships that set out, only five were destroyed by enemy action compared to 58 that were destroyed or damaged by bad weather. Another reason is that the English boats were faster and more maneuverable. This gave the English an advantage at sea. 

The Spanish Armada fled north after the Battle of Gravelines on 8 August 1588. This marked the end of the attempt to invade England. However, it was during September 1588 that storms wrecked many Spanish ships. 

Final Spanish Armada Quiz

Question

What was the aim of the Spanish Armada? 

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Answer

To invade England and overthrow Queen Elizabeth I to make England Catholic again. 

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Question

Which war did the Spanish Armada take place during? 

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Answer

The Anglo-Spanish War

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Question

What was the name of the speech that Queen Eizabeth I famously gave on 8 August 1588? 

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Answer

The Tilbury Speech

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Question

Who was the Spanish commander of the Armada? 

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Answer

The Duke of Medina Sidonia

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Question

Who was the commander of the English navy? 

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Answer

Lord Howard of Effingham

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Question

Why were the English boats better than the Spanish? 

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Answer

They were faster and more manoeuvrable

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Question

When did the Spanish fleet set sail from Lisbon? 

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Answer

28 May 1588

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Question

What did Francis Drake do on 21st July which nearly ruined the English navy? 

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Answer

He blew out his lantern to go after two Spanish ships in order to loot them, but his lantern was the guiding light for the rest of the navy. This put the English navy into disarray, and it was only because the ships were faster that they managed to catch up with the Spanish again. 

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Question

What did the English navy do on 28 July that broke the Spanish Armada's defensive formation? 

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Answer

They set alight eight fireships and sent them into the port of Calais where the Armada was anchored. The Spanish ships scattered to avoid being burned. 

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Question

Which famous battle ended the Spanish Armada? 

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Answer

The Battle of Gravelines

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Question

Where did the Spanish Armada encounter severe storms that damaged and destroyed many of their ships? 

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Answer

Off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland

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Question

How many Spanish ships made it back to Spain? 

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Answer

67

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Question

What did King Philip II argue was the cause of the Spanish Armada's defeat? 

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Answer

Bad weather

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Question

How many Spaniards made it back to Spain? 

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Answer

10,000

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Question

Many of the Spanish ships were not warships. What were they? 

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Answer

Trading ships

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Question

What was the climate condition that led to the bad storms which destroyed the Spanish Armada? 

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Answer

The Little Ice Age

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