What’s in a (War’s) Name?  Nomenclature for the Anglo-Spanish Clash of the Late 1500s


            The Anglo-Spanish land and naval war of 1585-1604—of which the Spanish Armada was a part—was never given a specific name by its parents or by later historians who analyzed it.  The most straightforward designation—“the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604”—is accurate but rather bland, and there were so many other Anglo-Spanish Wars in later centuries that some head-scratching confusion might ensue.  The conflict between England and Spain was most directly a consequence of the ambitions of King Philip of Spain to dominate the European continent, and indeed Philip’s primary foes were in the Netherlands, France, and Portugal, not in England.  Thus, one might be inclined to christen the 1585-1604 conflict as “King Philip’s War.”  Unfortunately, this otherwise reasonable description suffers from the slight complication that there is already a “King Philip’s War” in history books, the name given to a fierce and bloody encounter waged between New England English settlers and native Americans led by a chief named Massasoit, aka “King Philip,” during the late 1600s.  Thus while I’ll occasionally refer to the conflict merely as an Anglo-Spanish war, my own chosen designation for it is the “Twenty Years’ War.”  This term has a nice resonance with a naming convention already in practice (e.g. the Thirty Years’ War on the European Continent from 1618 to 1648, or the Hundred Years’ War between England and France from the 14th-15th centuries).  It accurately encompasses the war’s timespan, and it conveys, in its self-compact nature, the importance of the conflict.  While it’s not much known outside of professional historians’ circles, the Twenty Years’ War between England and Spain was extremely consequential.  Spain would gain the upper hand on land and at sea following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, owing to an ensuing failure of an “English Armada” sent to invade the Iberian Peninsula in 1589, and Spanish naval victories against England in several engagements during the 1590s.  It would also solidify its New World Empire and repulse the persistent buccaneers who had preyed on Spanish shipping in previous decades, while fortifying its control over the Atlantic sea lanes.  I discuss the Twenty Years’ War in greater detail in an accompanying essay.


n      Wes Ulm


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