The Defeat of the English Armada and the 16th-Century Spanish Naval Resurgence:  A More Detailed Look at the Spanish Armada, its Immediate Results, its Long-Term Effects, and its Lesser-Known Aftermath


Punctured Myths and Surprising Facts


1589:  The Drake and Norris Expedition to Portugal


Please feel free to quote from, print, and cite this essay as, “The Defeat of the English Armada and the 16th-Century Spanish Naval Resurgence, by Wes Ulm, Harvard University personal website, URL:, mirrored at © 2004.


Introduction:  King Philip of Spain and the Twenty Years’ War


            Many historical texts relate the famous Spanish Armada battle of 1588, between the Spanish fleet and its English counterpart, as a sort of isolated, signal military confrontation that radically and immediately altered the fortunes of its two combatants.  As the story is often related, Spain, the great power in Europe prior to the engagement, reeled in the face of abject defeat, ceding control of the seas to the island nation to the north.  You’ve probably heard that England and northern Europe in general were now free to engage in unfettered exploration and colonize the Western Hemisphere and North America in particular, a region which had hitherto been a satellite of Spain and its seafaring neighbor on the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal.  Spain receded into political and military insignificance, it is claimed, while England cannibalized its New World Empire and rose to prominence.  Yet this description of the Spanish Armada encounter, which is distressingly common, is also grossly inaccurate, and it fails entirely to depict the surprising aftermath of the naval battle—in which Spain would paradoxically reinforce its power on the high seas, not witness its decline.  Spain’s naval resurgence would have massive ramifications that reverberate even today— affecting the map of the Americas, augmenting the power of England’s Parliament by draining revenues from the Crown, even implicating Ireland and its tormented history into the mix.

            The Spanish Armada clash was not an isolated conflict, but merely one battle in a long, bitter war that embroiled not just Spain and England, but all of Western Europe in the ambitions of Spain’s King Philip II.  This “20 Years’ War” stretched from the mid 1580s to 1604, and it was nothing less than the first world war:  Its battles were waged on the European landmass and in the jungles of Panama and the Caribbean, in the warm waters off Europe’s Atlantic Coast, nourished by the Gulf Stream, and in the cold brine of the Pacific vastness.  Indeed, the course of events following the Spanish Armada is fascinating, and in many ways quite the contrary to what is conventionally assumed and described.  Perhaps the single most crucial encounter of the war was not the Spanish Armada battle itself, but a lesser-known clash between Spain and England at sea and on land in 1589, the year following Spain’s invasion of England.  It was in this year that an English Armada under the partial command of that renowned privateer, Sir Francis Drake, mounted a bold amphibious operation, motivated by a triple set of objectives to break the power of the Spanish crown.  It was nearly successful, but ultimately its defeat was total and replete with drastic consequences. 

            The outcome of the 1589 battle would have momentous consequences for the history of settlement in the Western Hemisphere, for the balance of power on the European Continent, even for the melancholy and tragic history of Ireland.  Most importantly, contrary to what is so often assumed, Spain would emerge strengthened in the decade following the Armada, with a fortified navy that was finally capable of fending off buccaneer attacks and reliably transporting precious metals from the Americas.  Elizabethan England would be on the losing end of most of the remaining battles with Spain, both on land and at sea, and would be plunged into debt and disarray, its colonial ambitions thwarted and its resources sapped in a draining guerrilla war in Ireland.  England definitely did not rule the seas following the Armada incident; Spain would control the waters for many decades more before passing control to the Dutch, to be followed by a titanic clash between England and France for hegemony over the sea routes in the 1700s.  The history of the Anglo-Spanish War of the late 1500s is far more intricate than the headline history usually reported in regard to the Armada, yet vastly more intriguing as well.  The hinge point of the conflict was not the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, but the debacle of the English one in 1589.  Central to both incidents was the still-fascinating figure of that legendary English seaman, Sir Francis Drake, and a closer look at the 1589 Expedition to Spain and Portugal helps to further illuminate Drake’s character in all its extraordinary multidimensionality.  The defeat of the English Armada in 1589, lesser-known yet remarkably significant event in its consequences, is related here in this article. 


The 16th Century and the Backdrop to the Anglo-Spanish Clash


            The late 15th century had seen changes that shook the world; it was one of the most formative hundred-year periods in recorded history.  Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, had fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the capture of the ancient city heralding the demise of the Eastern half of the old Roman Empire, whose Western half had crumbled nearly a millennium before.  European merchants and kingdoms were suddenly compelled to seek alternative trading routes to attain the coveted spices of the East.  Making its first appearance in the southwestern German city of Mainz, in the 1440s, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press would revolutionize the globe, enabling the rapid transmission of information, encouraging the spread of education, and midwifing the emergence of the Scientific Revolution, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment.  Gutenberg’s invention was the fundamental catalyst for the rapid historical changes of the next two centuries, and thus fostered the first global Information Age.  Furthermore, the Portuguese would initiate the European Age of Exploration, mastering the navigational nuances and shipbuilding techniques that would open Europe to the world.  Portugal’s neighbor, Spain, would quickly join in the enterprise of exploration, and sponsor an expedition that would radically alter the course of history.  In 1492 an Italian sailor, known to the Anglophone world as Christopher Columbus, would discover a new world for his Spanish sponsor, bringing Europe into contact with the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica.  Few events in history have had such an earth-shattering impact as those of the late 1400s, and the opening of two new continents to Western Europe would reshape the balance of power in the Old World. 

            Spain and Portugal derived enormous wealth from their discoveries in the form of precious metals and slaves, along with new foodstuffs that would rescue Europe from a potential nutritional crisis as its population mushroomed.  Throughout the 16th century, the sea routes of the Atlantic Ocean were dotted from one horizon to the other with the characteristic sight of Spanish treasure galleons transporting immense hauls of gold and silver from the mines of Mexico and Peru.  Inevitably, such sudden prosperity inspired envy in other West European nations with Atlantic coastlines, who coveted Spain’s newfound affluence and its New World empire in the Western Hemisphere.  The English had initiated their own Age of Exploration four years after Columbus’s voyage, with England’s King Henry VII chartering an Italian sailor, Giovanni Caboto—better known as John Cabot—to undertake his own expeditions to the New World.  Alighting in Newfoundland in 1497, Cabot claimed North America for King Henry, and his voyages led to the establishment of small fishing settlements off present-day Canada and New England.  However, the Western Hemisphere remained largely a zone of Spanish influence for most of the 1500s, until the Iberian country’s snowballing wealth prompted more concerted actions by France and England to partake in the riches by the middle of the century.  When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses at the Wittenberg Church in 1519, the Protestant Reformation was commenced, and the commercial rivalry among Western Europe’s powers would acquire a bitter religious tinge as Catholics and Protestants vied for foreign influence.

            16th century Europe featured a human epicenter in the towering personage of the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who, via a remarkable web of dynastic links, reigned over a vast landmass extending from the Netherlands to the Italian provinces, from the Central European landmass to Spain.  It was Charles V who presided over and consolidated the vast realms acquired for Spain by Conquistadors like Hernando Cortes and Francisco Pizarro, and it was he who first directed his Imperial troops against the dispersing wave of the Protestant Reformation in Germany.  Charles opined that his Empire was far too vast for one individual to govern alone, so at his abdication he split his realm, giving his son, King Philip II, control over his Western domains, chiefly Spain,  the Netherlands, Sardinia, and parts of Italy.  In classic Hapsburg style, Philip was enlisted to forge further dynastic links by marrying England’s Princess and then Queen Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII, the powerful English monarch who had founded the modern national English navy and whose marriage tribulations incited him to break with Rome and found the Protestant Church of England.  Upon her accession to the throne, Mary, an ardent Catholic, sought unsuccessfully to roll back many of the Protestant reforms instituted by her father.  She disliked and even despised her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth, imprisoning the latter in the Tower of London for a time and apparently even threatening her with execution.  (It was Philip, ironically, who interceded against this in favor of Elizabeth, and even when their two countries entered into conflict later, Philip and Elizabeth maintained an unusual degree of mutual respect.) 

            In 1558, Mary died childless and, in accordance with the terms of Henry VIII’s will, Elizabeth was selected as Queen Elizabeth I by Parliament.  At the time of Elizabeth’s coronation, oddly enough, England and Spain were on relatively cordial terms and may have even been fairly characterized as allies.  Both had rivalries with and were suspicious of the power of France.  Henry VIII had waged war with France late in his reign, the latest eruption in hostilities between the two ancient rivals.  Mary I and Elizabeth I also invaded northern France during the 1550s and early 1560s over the disputed region of Calais.  The French were victorious in both cases, permanently expelling the English from the European Continent and further aggravating the mutual enmity between the two countries.  Philip, meanwhile, had designs on the French throne and a keen interest in suppressing the Protestant Huguenot movement headquartered in northern France, and he was suspicious of France’s intentions toward settlement in the Americas.  Although a marriage alliance between the Catholic Philip and the Protestant Elizabeth was out of the question, the prior matrimonial link between Philip and Mary had assured a degree of common interest between Spain and England.  Spain’s imperial status and incredible wealth were undoubtedly desired by its neighbors, but there was little hint of the bloody conflict that would embroil Spain and England later in the century.  This changed, however, when the English broke into the slave trade in 1562.


Hawkins, Drake, and the San Juan de Ulua Incident


            The repugnant yet extremely profitable business of trafficking in black African slaves had been initiated by the Portuguese in the 1400s, and by the mid-1500s Spain had gained a monopoly on the trade’s most lucrative side—selling the captured West Africans to eager mine foremen and plantation operators in the Americas.  Spain resented smugglers and jealously guarded its advantage in the sordid trade, but inevitably others sought a piece of the action with the English themselves soon becoming involved.  The first English slave trader was a bearded, salty, yet gentlemanly sailor named John Hawkins.  A cousin of the renowned Sir Francis Drake and himself an accomplished mariner, Hawkins had gained considerable experience on the high seas when he began to voyage along the West African coast in the early 1560s, where he learned of the Atlantic slave markets and the extraordinary prosperity conferred upon the Iberian traders who ran and partook in them.  Hawkins undertook his first slaving expedition in 1562, making a tidy profit on his human cargo which he promptly reported to Queen Elizabeth I.  The Queen was initially disapproving of Hawkins’ entrepreneurial undertakings, but dropped her opposition when Hawkins revealed the extent of his profits and, in short order, herself underwrote Hawkins’ next two slaving expeditions (along with highly placed members of her Privy Council), providing ships and other material assistance.  Elizabeth’s decision has provoked many “what-ifs” among historical observers, since the support she so rapidly gave to Hawkins’ slave-trading probably entrenched England more deeply in the bloody enterprise far more than if she had admonished him for it; human trafficking, after all, now had the imprimatur of a royal sanction to justify it, muting antislavery protests that were already springing up.  Nevertheless, we have to remember that Elizabeth had inherited a relatively cash-strapped, indebted kingdom from Queen Mary, and in the context of the situation, she and the Privy Council probably sensed an unexpected financial windfall that, for all its vices, was too good an opportunity to pass up. 

            In any case, the royal support for Hawkins’ slave-trading encouraged him to continue it, something that the Spanish had noticed and did not appreciate.  Spain had maintained a virtual monopoly over the slave trade by requiring mariners from all nations to pass through Spanish ports, Seville in particular, from which Spanish authorities were able to obtain a cut of the profits gleaned by the traders.  In the eyes of Spanish officials, Hawkins’ direct sale to the West Indies constituted smuggling, and they were determined to halt they perceived as the shipment of contraband to the Caribbean islands.  On his third voyage, in 1567, Hawkins led a 6-ship slave-trading fleet with himself and his cousin Francis Drake in personal command of two of the ships.  In 1568, the vessels were compelled to water at San Juan de Ulua, near Veracruz, Mexico, to obtain supplies and materials for repair.  The Spanish viceroy, Martin Enriquez, saw an opportunity to punish the smugglers and directed his own fleet to bombard the English; only Hawkins’ and Drake’s ships, both damaged, managed to escape the Spanish noose.  Beaten and seasick from a storm they later encountered, the two mariners eventually arrived at port back in England, enraged by what they saw as appalling treachery on the part of the Spaniards.  Like many other English, French, Dutch, and even Spanish and Portuguese sailors, they would turn to piracy and buccaneering, which they viewed not as criminal acts but as the only means to respond to what they saw as an oppressive policy by the Spanish crown to hoard the wealth of Atlantic trade into its own coffers.  More importantly, the San Juan de Ulua confrontation constituted a diplomatic incident that would fracture the hitherto amicable relations between Spain and England.  It is doubtful that King Philip had any kind of personal role in his viceroy’s interception of Hawkins’ convoy; 2-way radios and telegraphy were 3 centuries away from being invented, and naval commanders therefore had considerable autonomy in their actions.  Nevertheless, Philip could not reprimand or incarcerate Enriquez for merely enforcing a stated Spanish policy against contraband, even if the viceroy may have been a bit overzealous in his duties. 

            Layered on top of the San Juan de Ulua incident was a gradual crescendo of antipathy in England toward Philip’s zealous Catholic belligerency.  England had been Protestant since Henry VIII’s break with Rome—the king had so thoroughly devastated the Catholic Church’s presence and its English assets that Queen Mary’s interlude did little to restore a Catholic power base, especially with regard to the aristocracy.  Philip had earned a reputation as the quintessential Holy Warrior for the Church in its Counterreformation efforts, a role that he relished, and not only English citizens but also Catholic Italians, French, even Portuguese regarded his ardor and machinations with trepidation.  The Netherlands in particular became a flash point.  Several provinces in the northern Dutch Lowlands began to publicly espouse Protestantism and found a clever underground leader in the person of William the Silent of Orange, who waged a crafty war of attrition and harassment in the 1570s against the Netherlands’ Spanish overlords that Philip was not able to suppress.  English religious sympathy for Dutch Protestants was coupled with considerable dismay about the adverse effects of Spanish military actions on the valuable commercial markets for English goods that had long existed in the Low Countries.  The Protestant Huguenots of France also inspired sympathy across the English Channel, especially in the aftermath of the gratuitously bloody slaughter of 20,000 of them by French Catholics in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572.  The Spanish, for their part, took exception to what they viewed as repression and disenfranchisement of English (and eventually Irish) Catholics.  Henry VIII had executed many clerics, shuttered monasteries, and confiscated Church property, sending numerous Catholics into exile.  England’s shift toward Protestantism had progressed too far to be reversed entirely, but many Spaniards began to see themselves as at least the protectors of England’s Catholic population, just as some English cast themselves as the defenders of Dutch, French, and German Protestants on the Continent.  The religious strife intensified when Pope Pius V shocked Elizabeth by excommunicating her in 1570 from the Catholic Church and absolving English Catholics from recognizing her authority.  Elizabeth had theretofore shown little inclination to support Continental Protestant rebels; like her father, she was an absolutist monarch who deeply resented challenges to the reign from within, and she feared that support for Continental rebels could rebound across the Channel to buttress similar insurgencies in England and Ireland.  However, the pontiff’s bull of excommunication changed matters, since it led her to identify more with the Protestant movement.  She came to support the Dutch rebels and Huguenots, and she sponsored measures against Catholics within the English realm, as many were suspected of disloyalty or questionable reliability.  Catholics complained of persecution, and many departed England in exile.

            These mirror-image resentments—Spanish bitterness at England’s treatment of its Catholics, English sympathy for the plucky Dutch Protestants and the underdog French Huguenots— melded with still-smoldering resentment at Spain over San Juan de Ulua and commercial competition to fuel the conditions for conflict.  The English, French, and Dutch were also harboring ambitions to establish their own colonies in the Americas; what is now St. Augustine, Florida, was originally a French Huguenot settlement—Ft. Caroline—prior to being overrun and crushed by invading Spanish forces.  The English themselves would undertake several, ultimately unsuccessful attempts to establish a permanent settlement in the 1570s and 1580s to colonize North America at Newfoundland and what is now the Middle Atlantic region (Virginia) of the U.S.  Their colonial ambitions had been fermenting ever since John Cabot had whetted their appetites by establishing a fishing settlement at Newfoundland and claiming the land for King Henry VII.  Thus the stage was set for hostilities to erupt between England and Spain, and from the 1570s to 1585, the two nations would wage a low-grade conflict on the high seas in the form of quasi-organized privateering missions led by Sir Francis Drake.


Sea Dogs, Deteriorating Relations, and the Spanish Armada


          Drake and Hawkins were at the vanguard of the sporadic but damaging buccaneering attacks on Spanish shipping and New World ports in the 1570s, joining a multinational assemblage of pirates in raiding the gold- and silver-laden treasure fleets that the Spaniards regularly shuttled between the mines of Peru and the ports of Barcelona and Cadiz.  Drake in particular spearheaded numerous expeditions against the “perfidious foes” from Spain, striking deep into the heart of New Spain with audacious raids into Panama and the West Indies and numerous ambushes on the high seas.  In 1577-1580, Drake became only the second sea commander (after Spain’s Juan Sebastian del Cano, a survivor of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition) to circumnavigate the globe, in the process laying a claim to New Albion (Spanish California) that was never followed up but served as inspiration to future generations of English mariners.  In the next decade, Drake made famous raids into the Caribbean and distinguished himself especially against Spanish defenses in Hispaniola in 1586, and in the following year he even managed to besiege the enemy at the lion’s den itself, arriving at Cadiz to torch a portion of the Spanish fleet.  His operations were not always successful; many English sailors perished from disease or were felled by Spanish gunfire in his offensives, and for all the fanfare of the 1587 Cadiz raid, the Spaniards had in fact repulsed his attack, thwarting his main objective of a sack of the port city.  Yet Drake’s reputation as “El Drache,” the Dragon of the High Seas, was at least partly deserved.  He was an undoubtedly brave and resourceful commander, skilled both in the technical nuances of wind-driven navigation and capable of inspiring loyalty in his sailors, whether battle-hardened or untested.  He could improvise his way out of potential disasters and demonstrated remarkable skill both at intelligence-gathering and contingency plans.  To his credit, Drake was also unusually magnanimous toward his adversaries; in an often ruthless time centuries before the Geneva Conventions or other such standards, Drake neither executed nor physically harmed Spanish soldiers that he had captured.  Often, his only “punishment” was to read Scriptural passages to the captive and attempt to convert him to the Protestant cause.  Drake in particular came to personify the relentless English “sea dog,” the prototypical privateering pirate who led freelance operations against the Spanish treasure fleets and Empire for the gain of his country. 

            John Hawkins, while less directly taking part in anti-Spanish buccaneering, nonetheless bolstered English seafaring prowess as Treasurer of the Navy from 1577, in which capacity he modernized the English fleet.  The original thinker and crucial innovator of the 16th-century English navy was Henry VIII, who equipped his majestic royal vessels with long-range guns that could be fired more accurately and frequently than the ordnance then commonly in use.  Hawkins further implemented Henry’s innovations while improving on them substantially.  As the naval treasurer, he competently managed the navy’s finances while redesigning the fleet to favor smaller, more maneuverable vessels, endowing them with a remarkable degree of seaworthiness.  He directed metallurgic foundries specifically toward the task of arming the English ships for long-range attack, even appropriating merchant vessels ad hoc for use in coastal defenses.  Hawkins was the astute mind behind the rapid-reaction force model for the English sailing fleet, and he did a more than competent job of ensuring that the sailing ships were in proper condition for meeting a powerful enemy squadron in the warm waters of the English Channel.  He also participated hands-on in the pre-fitting and mission planning for the deep-water vessels used by Drake and his buccaneering colleagues to harass Spanish shipping.

            Hawkins’ contributions to the English navy were valuable in the run-up to the Spanish Armada clash of 1588.  The Spaniards respected Drake and the other privateers for their valor and undoubted seafaring skill, yet they were understandably not altogether thrilled by the economic detriment and general interference in their shipping posed by the sea dogs.  The religious rhetoric on Protestant and Catholic sides alike became more strident, and the English began to more openly support the Protestant Dutch Revolt against Catholic Spain as the insurgents proved their staying power.  Following the assassination of William the Silent in 1584, the French monarchy itself imploded the next year, turning France not only into a religious battleground among rival groups but a beckoning battlefield for foreign forces intent on imposing their designs upon French territory.  The crisis on the Continent provoked action in England, and hostilities between the English and Spanish erupted openly when, in 1585, the English dispatched 7,000 soldiers under Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, to support the Dutch Protestant uprising.  Leicester’s operations in 1585 accomplished little against the professional army of the Spanish, but the gauntlet had now been officially thrown down; England and Spain were at war.  The simmering religious tensions exploded into rage on the part of the Spaniards when Queen Elizabeth reluctantly authorized the beheading of her archrival, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, in 1587.  Mary had been imprisoned for over a decade and been implicated in several assassination plots against Elizabeth, but she was still viewed by some Catholics as the rightful ruler and at least the symbolic protector of English Catholics in the country.  English interference in the Low Countries and the unabated depredations of the buccaneers had already irritated the Spanish, but Mary’s execution proved to be the last straw.  Philip began to organize an invasion force against the island nation.  Led by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, this Spanish Armada would be dispatched in the “Enterprise of England,” to rendezvous with a fleet transporting the army of Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma, toward the shores of England.  The plan suffered from the simple difficulty of communication between the two Spanish fleets and Philip’s lack of a warm-water port in northwest Europe, yet the Spaniards proceeded with their plan in 1588, three years following the formal commencement of hostilities against the English nation.


The Repulse of the Spanish and the Invasion of the English Armada


            As is well-known, the Spanish Armada failed in its invasion quest, a debacle attributable primarily to some of the worst September storms witnessed by seafaring Atlantic mariners during the entire busy century of the 1500s.  All in all, the Armada and the English fleet largely fought each other to a stalemate before the Spanish forces, led by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, decided to forsake the effort for the time being and sail around the tip of Scotland and Ireland back to Spain.  It was here that Spanish sailors were tested in a baptism by fire, with ferocious ocean storms battering their sails and challenging every technical faculty in their stock of experience.  Some Spanish ships foundered or were shipwrecked off the coast of Ireland; but most managed to return, battered yet intact, to the Spanish ports, which had carefully prepared provisions and medical facilities as well as co-opted the resources of nearby coastal towns to tend to wounded soldiers and sailors and nurse them back to health.  The Spanish reversal in 1588 was not nearly as severe or damaging as is often assumed, one of many surprising facts that has been confused in the frequently-unexamined mythology of the Armada conflict.  I’ve dedicated a separate brief article to dismantling these numerous myths and related the detailed story of the Spanish Armada—its motivations, the circumstances of the battle itself, and its repercussions—in the same article. 

            Since this particular essay is focused on the so-called English Armada that sailed against Spain and Portugal in 1589, the key take-home message of the Spanish Armada is that its failure to invade in 1588 did not represent a decisive Spanish defeat, nor did it in itself pose a serious challenge to Spanish naval power or King Philip’s war aims (which were principally directed against the Netherlands, France, and other theaters of combat on the European Continent).  To truly inflict a decisive blow against Spain, England had to follow up the Armada’s repulse with an offensive of its own, and thus it was a little-known encounter in 1589—the subject of this article—that represented the pivotal clash of the Anglo-Spanish “Twenty Years’ War” of 1585-1604.  The outcome of the 1589 battle truly would be of crucial importance to the unfolding of world events.  The English, like the French and Dutch, had looked upon Spain’s New World Empire with a longing for their own.  They did not accept Spain’s claims to the territories of Central and South America, where Spanish missionaries mingled with the cultures of the great Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations and Spanish galleons hauled countless tons of gold and silver.  The American continent and the Caribbean would long be disputed, and Spain’s fragile hold of these regions depended partly on entrenched defenses but, most importantly, on King Philip’s formidable Atlantic fleet.  The Spanish ships guarded and blocked many of the Atlantic sea lanes, not only denying access to South America and the Caribbean but frustrating settlement in North America. 

            As the Armada limped back into port following its battering by furious oceanic weather, the English—Privy Council member Sir Francis Walsingham in particular—sensed a rare and extraordinary opportunity.  Although most of Spain’s ships had managed to return to Iberian ports, they would need refitting and repairs before they could truly be seaworthy again.  English intelligence indicated that the Spanish fleet—with its hardy Atlantic nucleus—was concentrated in Santander and San Sebastian, in northern Spain on the Bay of Biscay.  As it was being refitted, it was also rendered remarkably vulnerable to English attack and destruction by flames.  As R.B. Wernham noted [p. 96]:  “The whole remaining navy of Spain lay helpless in those two ports.  There were not enough sailors to man them, not enough workmen to refit them speedily, and their soldiers had dispersed to winter quarters twelve leagues inland.  For months the ships must lie there, powerless to move or to fight.”

            A successful strike against the stationary Spanish squadrons would have had history-making consequences.  Deprived of the core of his Atlantic fleet, Philip not only would have been impaired in his capacity to wage war in Europe; he also would have lost his capacity to effectively guard and secure his New World Empire.  The Americas would have been rapidly opened to competitors, and Spain’s own uncertain grip on its New World possessions would have been pried free.  Argentina and Peru may have become the first colonies of the British Empire.  Spanish colonies in North America would have been stillborn as the English and French were finally free to exploit their frustrated ambitions in the 16th century.  The Spanish treasure galleons still lingered as a mouth-watering prize, and a major precious metals transport was moving into Iberian waters in 1589.  Moreover, King Philip’s grip on Portugal—which he had conquered in 1580—was in question, and a Portuguese pretender, Dom Antonio, proclaimed overlordship of the country in lieu of Philip himself.  Divesting Philip of Portugal would have wrested away a valuable naval resource for Spain and deprived it of ports, experienced sailors, and New World possessions. 

            Thus it was that Walsingham, Elizabeth, and England’s best seamen opted to launch an offensive operation against the Spanish in their own home ports.  Time was of the essence.  The English would launch an invasion of the Iberian Peninsula with a three-pronged series of aims:  (1) To destroy the Spanish fleet then moored and being refitted at Santander and San Sebastian, the main objective of the mission as outlined by the Queen and Privy Council; (2) to intercept the Spanish silver fleet entering from the Western Hemisphere and gain control of the Azores Islands of Portugal, thus depriving the Spanish king of the wealth underwriting his European campaigns and enabling him to expand his navy, while diverting those riches to the North Atlantic; and (3) to expel the Spanish from Portugal and replace Philip’s usurpers with Dom Antonio, proclaiming him the rightful ruler of the country.  It would be led by none other than Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norris, two naval commanders of distinguished performance and longstanding experience on the high seas.  This military operation has been recorded under several names:  “the Expedition to Portugal,” “the Drake-Norris Expedition (after its two commanders),” “the 1589 Expedition,” and so forth.  But in the interest of that always delicate art of felicitous brand-naming, perhaps it is most useful to regard this English invasion force for what it was:  the counterpoint and mirror image of its opposing predecessor the year before, an English Armada as it were.  Thus, an English Armada was prepared in 1589 to fulfill the triple objectives as outlined above.


The English Armada’s Fitful Assemblage


            As noted in the accompanying essay dispelling many myths about the Spanish Armada, the scattering of the Spanish ships hardly translated into a triumphant moment for the long-suffering English sailors who had manned the coastal defenses.  A horrific outbreak of infectious disease—possibly typhus or plague—exploded into an epidemic among the English sea-borne forces, claiming hundreds and perhaps thousands of lives.  The outbreak added bitter insult to the grievous injury that had long plagued the English military apparatus:  The troops, for all their perseverance and sacrifice, had largely not been paid in months.  Irate epithets were regularly directed against the Queen, the Privy Council, and in particular poor William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Treasurer and Queen Elizabeth’s most trusted advisor, who had found himself constantly hard-pressed to scrape together compensation for English troops and their Continental Dutch and Huguenot allies.  It seemed infuriatingly ironic that the foot soldiers, having endured months of discomfort and physical agony to defend England’s shores, would be “rewarded” for their efforts by being forced into debt by a government that was supposed to have paid their soldiers’ wages.  Yet this frustrating state of affairs was hardly unusual, and it was emblematic of the financial troubles that would plague the English war effort against Spain and pose an especially acute challenge to the funding of the English Armada of 1589.

            Queen Elizabeth had inherited a staggering debt of close to £3,000,000 from her half-sister Mary I upon her accession in 1558, but she and Cecil had shown commendable fiscal discipline in returning England to relative solvency over the next three decades.  Outside of a failed operation to capture Le Havre and Calais from the French in the first three years of her reign, Elizabeth largely refrained from the kinds of money-squandering military adventures in which her father had too often indulged, and the Queen and Council’s relative parsimony in the costs of the court helped to gradually bring the Exchequer back to a level of manageable debt, if not quite outright balancing.  The Crown’s revenues from the slave trade and its “plausibly denied” support of buccaneering also helped to buttress royal income, but the most important source of royal capital inflows came with the burgeoning wool and textile trade carried on with the Low Countries and the German Hanseatic League.  This financial wellspring was important enough that, alongside the Protestant sympathies with the Dutch insurgents, the English had a discernible financial interest in preventing King Philip’s garrisons in Holland from interfering with the lucrative wool trade—a further potential spur to induce English intervention in the Netherlands. 

            War with Spain, however, would present an exacting and inexorable challenge to English finances far above and beyond what Elizabeth had encountered before in her reign, and threaten to undo much of the patient budget-juggling that she and the Privy Council had undertaken in the previous thirty years.  The costs of the Armada defense had nearly drained the Exchequer of its last pence, and financing an offensive operation in 1589 would not be a simple task.  The costs of the expedition were well-justified if King Philip’s navy could be destroyed, and a successful interception of the Spanish silver fleet might even have enabled the invaders to turn a profit from the war.  However, the not-insubstantial expenses of assembling the fleet and fairly remunerating the sailors would pose an additional drag on the already strained English finances.  The fiscal challenge would become so severe that it, in many respects, would become the dominant obstacle to the success of the mission and, as we shall see, it would greatly impact the military and strategic missions of Drake and Norris on the ground when they reached Spain and Portugal.

            Close to 12,000 soldiers were needed for an adequate invasion force, some of them English but a part of the contingent also comprised of battle-hardened Dutch veterans and German mercenaries.  Since the Dutch had a vested interest alongside the English in a blow to King Philip, Elizabeth naturally expected her Continental allies to foot part of the bill, but disputes over financial outlays and troop commitments set the English and Dutch allies at loggerheads, with many Dutch contingents resenting what they saw as an overly demanding stance on the part of Elizabeth and the Privy Council.  In any case, arguments over the specifics of cost-sharing and troop provisions were at least partly smoothed out by a point of common financial interest among all parties.  The second objective in the triad of war aims—seizure of the Spanish treasure fleet and maintenance of control in the Azores islands—dangled a carrot before potential participants in the operation in the form of war booty, and it even helped to encourage further investment from individuals and groups with mercenary aims to support the military operation.  Such “joint-stock companies” would furnish valuable funds to purchase supplies and victuals for Drake and Norris’s attack force; it was as though investors had been drawn to pump capital into a market whose companies were explicitly designed to abscond with silver mined by the Spaniards in their own empire!  This financing scheme, clever as it was in spreading the burden of costs, also yet posed a tremendous complication that would turn out to be surprisingly troublesome.  Specifically, there was a latent conflict of war aims:  Were the English invaders and their Dutch and German allies seeking to break King Philip’s Atlantic naval power and expel him from Portugal, or were they trying to secure a profit for themselves by seizing his treasure fleets? 

            For understandable reasons, the political backers of the English Armada—Queen Elizabeth and Walsingham in particular—viewed the destruction of the Spanish fleet at Santander and San Sebastian as by far the most critical war aim.  It was only success in this mission that could possibly deprive Philip of his ample means to wage war on the European Continent, and it was only by destruction of the Spanish Atlantic fleet that Spain’s coveted New World Empire would be opened to plundering and recolonization by the country’s hungry competitors in Western Europe.  Yet the mouth-watering prospect of the capture of vast Mediterranean Spanish galleons, laden from bow to stern with precious metals and jewels, obviously fired the imagination of the often indigent or merchant-class sailors and small investors who were carrying out and bolstering the operation, and you can guess which war aim they found especially pressing.  The practical result of this was to instantly sow mutual distrust and suspicion in the minds of Elizabeth and her commanders.  She suspected—probably with some justification—that Drake, Norris, and their sailors did not share the same mission priorities as she and her Privy Council espoused, being more interested in plunder of the Spanish treasure fleets, a secondary objective in her mind, than the pivotal attacks against King Philip’s naval forces at Santander and San Sebastian.  Drake and Norris, for their part, chronically questioned whether they would be adequately and promptly supplied by the Queen in their endeavors, and they seemed to have felt a frustrating sense that Queen Elizabeth and the Privy Council did not fully comprehend the logistical challenge of landing an attack force in northern Spain only to disembark, in short order, on another mission to the Azores and Portugal proper.

            This is where the situation takes an especially ironic twist, one of several that would send the 1589 Expedition to Portugal lunging in bizarrely unexpected directions.  The trials and tribulations of the Spanish Armada ships upon the return voyage to Spain wound up, strangely enough, posing an acute challenge to the English in the context of the 1589 mission.  Medina Sidonia’s Spanish Armada fleet was supposed to arrive at Lisbon, in Portugal, and at the primary Spanish ports of Coruna and Cadiz.  As Wernham perceptively noticed [pp. 95-96], had the Spaniards landed their ships where they were supposed to, the political objectives of Elizabeth and the Privy Council would have dovetailed more easily with the more pecuniary aspirations of Drake, Norris, and their sailors:  Upon putting the Spanish navy to the torch in Lisbon and Coruna, Drake and Norris could have then easily taken advantage of favorable geography to alight in Portugal to fulfill the third objective of expelling the Spanish viceroy and placing Dom Antonio on the Portuguese throne.  They could have then proceeded overland from Lisbon and set off for the Azores to snatch the coveted treasure fleet sailing in from the West Indies.  Yet the unrelenting winds of the Atlantic voyage and the choppy seas had compelled Medina Sidonia to land, unexpectedly, at Santander and San Sebastian, something that had disappointed the Spaniards as much as it would vex the English; refitting the ships at these sites would take longer and pose more of a logistical headache than if they had entered port at Coruna or Lisbon.  In any case, Drake and Norris now perceived a bald conflict in their war aims.  Santander and San Sebastian both lay deep to the east on Spain’s northern face fronting the Bay of Biscay, and prevailing winds from the west meant that—after dropping anchor and burning the Spanish fleet at those two ports—the English would have to sail against the wind and round the northwest edge of Spain to reach Lisbon and the coveted position in the Azores.  Even in the event of permissive weather, the delay would likely enable the Spaniards to mount defenses in Portugal and possibly thwart interception of the treasure fleet.  Thus while the Queen and Privy Council clearly emphasized the Santander/San Sebastian mission first and foremost, the sailors and their investors were inclined to demur privately if not to the monarch directly; they were more desirous of a strike at Portugal initially to avoid letting the silver fleet slip away. 




            The English Armada was assembled in Plymouth beginning in February of 1589, but untoward winds, failure to deliver supplies, and personal infighting postponed its departure, buying crucial weeks for King Philip to refit his damaged navy, protect the incoming silver fleet, and invite assistance from the Hanseatic League and the Baltic states.  The prelude to the English Armada’s disembarkation was replete with carping and mutual recriminations of incompetence and blinding self-interest among the mission’s backers and participants.  Queen Elizabeth had been growing intensely aggravated by the delays and the nagging sense that a rare opportunity to smash the enemy was gradually slipping away, and she still did not fully trust the intentions of her commanders.  Wernham notes [p. 94] that she had assented to a contribution of £49,000, well above the £20,000 that was supposed to represent her share.  Her exasperation was only further exacerbated when a bright, valorous, yet impetuous young courtier named Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, stole away on April 5 with his shipmate Roger Williams on the Swiftsure on an impromptu, quixotic attack against Portugal—further augmenting fears that the English Armada had a different destination in mind from the shipyards of Santander and San Sebastian.  Essex was the epitome of the bold and erratically competent Romantic warrior who had not yet learned that the better part of valor was discretion.  He contributed measurably to many English operations, but his early departure here added a further layer of confusion to the invasion plans; Drake and Norris were hemmed in by winds for another two weeks before they were finally able to disembark and head for the Iberian Peninsula.

            When Drake and Norris finally sighted the coast of their quarry, they were not anywhere near Santander or San Sebastian, as Queen Elizabeth had hoped.  They were not even in Lisbon.  Perhaps acting on faulty intelligence, Drake had alighted in Coruna, one of the main Spanish ports which was on the path toward Lisbon but almost deserted of Spanish naval targets aside from a few hulks, small craft, and one of the least seaworthy of the Spanish “large ships.”  The mission had already assumed a Monty Python-esque quality in some respects, complete with irritated bickering among commanders who were supposed to be cooperating, soldiers dreaming of fast money, and an impetuous young courtier with visions of military laurels departing for battle two weeks in advance of the main force.  Drake’s landing party effectively sacked the lower city of Coruna (which was separated from the walled upper city) and captured or killed many Spanish soldiers, then managed to uncover and appropriate large stashes of provisions for themselves.  In yet another comically bizarre twist in the invasion, however, the Coruna soldiers also found a cornucopia of wine casks, which proved to be far more deadly to the English than all the Spanish cannon and artillery in the city.  The English proceeded to drink themselves into a stupor and become more plastered than an office party on casual Friday’s happy hour; needless to say, they were not exactly in prime fighting condition to lay siege to the walled upper city. 

            At this point, yet another still-inexplicable element of the invasion crept into the picture.  Queen Elizabeth had promised Drake and Norris an ample supply of siege trains to attack and overcome the defenses of the walled cities that they knew they would encounter in Spain and Portugal.  But the Queen ultimately never delivered the artillery, a fact that seems to have irritated Drake immensely and which he used as a justification for his refusal, on several occasions, to attack otherwise vulnerable fortresses.  In fact, in the context of the previous discussion, the Queen’s actions may have been entirely consistent with her apprehensions; she wanted her generals to focus on Santander and San Sebastian before making any attempt against Lisbon, and her refusal to supply the artillery may have been a subtle hint that they had to complete the simple and most important task—torching the Spanish fleet moored in northern Spain—before they would be offered the artillery for the far more lucrative operations in the Azores and Portugal. 

            In any case, the miscommunication on the artillery issue hampered Drake’s efforts and, combined with the drunken state of the soldiers, thwarted an attempt at a siege of the upper city when a tower collapsed on the besieging soldiers and a few overenthusiastic troops ruined a chance to breach the walls of the upper city. [see Wernham, p. 110]  The soldiers suffered light losses in Coruna overall, but when they were subsequently marched to Lisbon, the combined toll of hangovers from the wine and an apparent outbreak of disease in the torrid Iberian spring collaborated to diminish their forces considerably.  The English immediately partook in some minor quarrels with Lisbon’s defenders before heading to the walls of the Spanish-held bastion in the city center.  Once again, the English were stymied by their lack of artillery; they had no siege trains and no means to breach the walls of their target.  Archduke Albert, Philip’s nephew, was governor in Portugal and withdrew his forces within the city walls, perhaps cognizant of the invaders’ insurmountable deficiencies in weaponry and frankly mistrustful of the loyalty of his conscripted Portuguese soldiers.  Unable to breach Lisbon, Norris withdrew to Cascaes and powwowed with Drake, and they both ruled out an amphibious operation up the river Tagus to Lisbon owing to the fearsome menace of the river’s defensive guns and, once again, the lack of artillery.   

            The English Armada still had the prospect of intercepting the Spanish treasure shipment in its collective sights.  Yet just as the Spanish Armada had been thwarted by uncooperative weather, so would its English counterpart be frustrated by the caprice of the local winds, if to a less destructive degree than the storms that battered Medina Sidonia’s fleet.  Capture of the Spanish fleet, as it would soon be recognized, was indeed within the realm of possibility for the attenuated English forces, but they were persistently scattered and damaged by unusually choppy seas that forced them beyond the locations for encountering the Spanish treasure galleons, and warships protecting the treasure fleet further damaged and harassed the English ships so as to circumvent their attempts at engagement.  Ultimately, in June, the English fleet limped back to Plymouth having suffered heavy casualties—perhaps more than 10,000 participants, the vast majority of its force, were killed (mostly by disease) or deserted.  Shipping losses were much less than those of the Spanish Armada, but the combined toll caused by the soldiers’ casualties and the naval confrontations was staggering.  The English Armada had cost over £100,000—by some metrics, an even more substantial operation than the Spanish Armada itself.  Yet it had yielded paltry returns.  Although some minor Spanish towns had been sacked and a portion of Philip’s forces diverted from the Netherlands, the treasure fleet was entirely missed, the Spaniards remained in control of Portugal, and most importantly, the Spanish navy in Santander and San Sebastian—a sitting duck for a quartet of adversaries with a torch and an escape route—remained intact.  The defeat of the English Armada in 1589 proved to be a particularly bitter pill for the English because of the missed opportunity it represented.  Queen Elizabeth I recognized all too acutely that her forces could have so easily delivered a knockout punch against the Spanish, but because of mission creep, internecine quarrels, and a string of small blunders, the effort came up wanting. 




            The failure to capture the treasure of the Indies and the persistence of Spanish rule in Portugal were undeniably infuriating, but by far the most significant outcome of the English Armada’s defeat was that King Philip’s navy had slipped the noose.  Contrary to what is so often assumed, the Spanish navy after the Armada was far stronger than the one before it, in large part because that navy escaped almost certain disaster in 1589 had Drake simply landed a small raiding party in Santander.  Almost three times as much gold and silver were transported reliably and efficiently by Spain from the Americas in the 1590s than in any decade prior.  The strength and renown of the 19th-century British Imperial Navy can seduce and deceive us into thinking that the English somehow had a natural affinity for ruling the waves, and the Spanish Armada incident seems an all-too convenient marker for this ascendancy.  Yet as we’ve seen above, the English definitely did not rule the seas in the aftermath of the Spanish Armada, in large part due to the failure of its own Armada in 1589.  The Spaniards would remain the dominant sea power well into the 17th century, and when another nation assumed preeminence on the oceans, it would be the Dutch supplanting them in the late 1600s, not the English.  Only by the mid-1700s does England’s naval prowess begin to assume truly dominant dimensions, and even then it still had to meet the persistent challenge of the French.  Indeed, the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which ended the French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War) with a decisive victory for the English, may be considered to be the most accurate date to mark the rise of the English as the world’s foremost naval power; it was certainly not the case in 1589. 

            King Philip would thoroughly exploit the opportunity handed to him by the failure of the English Armada in 1589, rebuilding his fleet and using it to great effectiveness.  He instituted a clever convoy system which, as noted above, proved remarkably effective at protecting gold and silver shipments; John Hawkins undertook several buccaneering expeditions with Martin Frobisher in 1589-90, but with little success against much stronger Spanish defenses.  The English did achieve one partial success in 1596, against Cadiz, and even then it was rendered bittersweet by the failure to capture the Spanish treasure fleet in the midst of a scorched-earth policy by the defenders.  Otherwise, the 1590s saw a string of reversals for the English on land and at sea as Philip tightened the screws on his adversaries.  A low-grade naval war ensued with Spanish forces regularly repelling and often disabling English attackers on its transatlantic fleets or stationary defenses in the Caribbean and Latin America.  Those quintessential mariners, Drake and Hawkins, would themselves be killed in a disastrous offensive against the Spanish at Puerto Rico and Panama in 1595, which proved even more costly in troops and shipping for the English than the 1589 invasion of Spain and Portugal.  The 1595 operation was designed to be a strike directly at the heart of Spain’s New World Empire, but the improved, more agile Spanish navy and shrewd intelligence-gathering enabled the Spanish defenders to surprise and entrap the English, delivering them one of the worst naval and land defeats the country would suffer.  Other operations, such as the 1597 Azores expedition led by Essex, met with much the same lackluster result.   Even the English homeland did not prove immune to attack.  Uncooperative weather scattered three additional Armadas sent by King Philip to launch a large-scale attack, but in 1595 a small Spanish force under Don Carlos de Amesquita, patrolling the waters of the English Channel and short of water, was blown ashore near Cornwall.  The Spaniards easily intimidated or defeated local militia resistance and set fire to much of Cornwall, especially Penzance and surrounding locales, while plundering the hamlets for whatever victuals and nautical aids they could find.  Eventually the English began to muster a professional army and summon naval forces under Drake and Hawkins, and the Spanish decamped and returned home after holding Mass on English soil.  But Amesquita’s successful operations were emblematic of the military frustration that befell the English in the decade after the Armada.

            Perhaps the most important—and tragic—immediate ramifications of the English Armada’s defeat were in Ireland.  England had possessed a political and military relationship with Ireland since Norman times, when Henry II launched an invasion in the 12th century and established nominal Norman rule that was, over time, restricted to a region around Dublin, the so-called Pale (source of the “Beyond the Pale” idiom so familiar from everyday discourse).  The Normans were eventually assimilated and Gaelicized to become “more Irish than the Irish themselves” and Ireland stayed largely autonomous.  In the early 1500s, however, Henry VII began to assert more direct control over the Irish lords and his son, Henry VIII, followed by proclaiming himself the king of Ireland itself.  Henry was too occupied with other matters to tend to Ireland too aggressively, and it was therefore Mary and Elizabeth who would assert hegemony most directly over Ireland.  Mutual animosity had swollen up between the Protestant English and Catholic Irish, and royal policy toward the Emerald Isle was marked by an appalling level of brutality, condescension, and corruption even in the years before the Armada, inspiring sporadic uprisings and generalized tension during the 1570s and 1580s.  In contrast to the comparatively mild treatment of Catholics on England proper (relative to the state of affairs on the Continent, at least), those in Ireland were deemed unworthy of the dignity merely to be left alone, and treated with both contempt and arbitrary malice by English administrators.  Yet England may have otherwise been inclined to leave the Irish alone overall, if not for the consequences of the English Armada’s defeat.  With Spain’s navy reconstructed and regrouping after 1589, Ireland loomed strategically as a potential launching pad and port of comfort for Spanish Catholic invaders, and English actions toward the island country became more repressive and cruel in response.  The Irish were angered and began to take up arms in earnest in the 1590s. 

            The Irish rebellion against English rule was led by the Gaelic lords of Ulster, spearheaded initially by Red Hugh O’Donnell but soon joined by the clan of the O’Neills, which had hitherto been in alliance with the English.  Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, had been steeped in the military tactics and formations used by the English, and would inflict particularly severe defeats against his erstwhile allies when he took up the banner of the Gaelic lords in 1594.  It was in that year that the O’Donnells would lead native forces against English forts that had been constructed and garrisoned to suppress the Ulster lords; upon besieging the forts, the Irish would utilize clever guerrilla tactics to surround and ambush English supply lines, commencing the so-called Nine Years’ War with Irish victory under O’Donnell at the Ford of the Biscuits in 1594.  Other victories at Sligo, Armagh, Blackwater, and Clontibret confirmed the surprising military competence of the Irish against superior English forces, and in 1598, O’Neill smashed a professional English force under the accomplished general, Sir Henry Bagenal, at Yellow Ford.  A dramatic and oft-cited example of cunning waged against a superior army—O’Neill’s soldiers brilliantly constructed ensconced trenches and earthworks to trap the English in an ambush—Yellow Ford was the worst defeat ever suffered by the English on Irish soil.  O’Neill would later harass and evade battle with the Earl of Essex in 1599—the debacle that would effectively end the young earl’s career—before finally suffering defeat in a set-piece battle against Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, at Kinsale in 1601.  Kinsale effectively broke O’Neill’s power as leader of a unified Irish national front against the English, but the crafty Irish lord once again eluded capture and continued guerrilla assaults against Mountjoy’s forces, frustrating their efforts to reestablish control.  Finally, in late 1603, 6 days following the succession of the English throne from Elizabeth to King James I, O’Neill accepted favorable terms and ceased his rebellion, remaining in his Ulster home unmolested.  Nevertheless, he and the other Gaelic lords feared treachery and capture by English garrisons, and four years later, in the so-called “Flight of the Earls,” O’Neill and his compatriots decamped for Catholic lands on the Continent, effectively handing Ireland over to English rule.  1607—the same year as the Jamestown Settlement in North America—is therefore mournfully recalled by the Irish as the year when effective self-rule was forsaken to the English. 

            The Nine Years’ War had devastating effects for both sides.  Much of Ireland—the northern counties in particular— suffered desolation and a humanitarian catastrophe that, for its time, exceeded even the most war-ravaged regions of Eastern Europe in WWII in scale.  As in the 30 Years’ War in Europe, battles and skirmishes were waged in farmlands and churches, forts and markets alike.  Mountjoy burned crops in the countryside and destroyed much of Ireland’s agricultural and economic base to subdue native opposition; the result was a manmade famine that rivaled the infamous Potato Famine of the 1840s in its effects.  Perhaps 1/3 of the population lost their lives, and the combined physical and psychological ruin would etch itself on the collective soul of the country for hundreds of years, commencing the tragic history that would continue even into the 21st century.  The English, meanwhile, had been lured into a quagmire reminiscent in some ways of America’s Vietnam fiasco, but even more severe in its consequences.  Ireland became England’s main battleground after Spain’s reinforced navy frustrated English buccaneering and sea-borne convoy attacks, and tens of thousands of English soldiers would lose their lives in the bewildering, almost stupefying morass of the Irish bogs and forests, felled by disease or the bayonets and firearms of their clever Irish opponents.  All of England’s carefully-laid plans for Irish rule came crumbling down, precipitating a foreign policy calamity that would alienate the Irish people and mire the English in a hostile land for centuries.  The war in Ireland cost the English crown £2-3 million, an ulcer that would drain away assets that had carefully been accumulated for decades.  Prior to the war against Spain in 1585, the shrewd financial stewardship of the Elizabethan court had nearly effaced the £3 million debt left in 1558 by the profligacy of Henry VIII and Mary I, and the Queen’s careful implementation of the Anglican compromise effected by her predecessors contributed enormously to sparing England from the devastation of the sectarian religious wars that traumatized the Continent.  But the grinding, unceasing operations against Spain and Ireland would plunge England back into a debt not much less than that left by Mary in 1558.  Contrary to what is often assumed, the later years of the Elizabethan period in the 1590s were not jolly, heady times with the country’s people gleefully enjoying their prosperity and military success; rather, they were marked by the bitter aftertaste of an unsuccessful war, one that could have been so easily won by the English with a landing by Francis Drake at Santander in 1589.  The mounting debt of the foreign campaigns sapped the treasury and diverted trade and commerce.  This economic adversity joined in tandem with unfortunately-timed crop failures and droughts to precipitate widespread destitution and misery.  Soldiers conscripted for the war efforts against Ireland, Spain, and Philip II’s Continental allies went unpaid, and upon their return (if they survived—hundreds of thousands did not), they faced often bleak economic prospects.  William Shakespeare, it should be recognized, was a wartime playwright.  He was not a 16th-century USO maestro; there is no evidence that he was officially pressed into service by the court.  Yet his plays, both in their characterization and in their tone and substance, were directed at an exhausted, impoverished, often fearful population that had endured the effects of 20 years of war and the concomitant redirection of a nation’s scarce resources.  Both England and Spain suffered together and, in an irony frequently borne of such situations, began to sympathize as only two fierce and unremitting enemies can. 

            When Elizabeth passed the royal scepter onto James I in 1603, the king was eager to finally make peace.  While he was dispiritingly lacking in the charisma, panache, and popularity of his Tudor predecessors, James lucidly grasped the enervation and frustration wrought by the ongoing war.  After negotiating a peace with the Irish lords, he signed the Treaty of London in 1604, finally concluding the Twenty Years’ War between England and Spain.  The terms, ironically, were similar to those that Philip II had sought prior to the Spanish Armada in 1588, namely the cessation of English intervention on the Continent and a renunciation of high seas buccaneering—which, in any case, had been delivering at best diminishing returns following the Spanish navy’s refitting in 1589.  Spain had achieved many of its war aims but, like England, had nearly emptied its treasury in the process.  It had solidified its New World Empire and maintained firm control of the seas, but its position on the Continent evinced a mixed result, in no small part due to English support of Philip II’s opponents; the southern Dutch provinces (much of what is today Belgium) had remained Catholic and, with the conversion of France’s King Henry IV to Catholicism (whether piety or pragmatism or some admixture thereof, we cannot be certain), a Catholic monarch remained on the French throne.  But the northern Dutch provinces had gained some autonomy, and Philip’s larger objective—placing his daughter, the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, in control of France—had been thwarted upon Henry’s conversion.  In any case, it was the fortification and modernization of Spain’s navy and vast overseas empire that would be Philip’s most important accomplishment of the long war, not his byzantine machinations on the European Continent, and this strengthening of Spanish sea-borne power would have far-reaching ramifications that can be felt up to this day.  It is, in fact, in the areas of colonization and the power of the Crown that the defeat of the 1589 Drake and Norris expedition would exert its most far-reaching effects.


A More Assertive Parliament, and a Postponed Launch into North America


            As noted above, the failure of Drake to deliver a coup de grace at Santander in 1589 enabled Philip II to slip the noose, and compelled a continuation of the Anglo-Spanish hostilities for another 15 years—eventually spreading into Ireland.  This bloody, costly conflict depleted the English treasury and sent the nation deeply into debt.  As the economic historian John Guy has noted, the Elizabethan Exchequer was pressed into extracting funds from whatever sources were readily available to defray the war’s incessantly mounting costs, which included ship money, sale of high offices, auctioning of Crown lands—and turning to Parliament.  The sales of offices and crown lands effectively removed the safety net from the Stuart Dynasty which succeeded the Tudors; if they mounted their own debts, they had fewer recourses to turn to.  One of those was Parliament, and as the war dragged on in the 1590s, Parliament began to assert itself more unequivocally.  The English Parliament had been founded by the medieval English king, Edward I, in the 1200s.  While it had a measure of real power and exercised authority on some occasions—it was Parliament, after all, that fulfilled the terms of Henry VIII’s will in the succession of his children to the throne—the Parliament was still regarded as an instrument subordinate to the monarch well into the Tudor period.  When the monarch was compelled to become a supplicant, however, it was perhaps inevitable that the members of the Parliament began to view themselves as more integral to the English governing system than the king or queen might be otherwise inclined to acknowledge.  Parliamentarians were also more likely to be religiously fervent, and on several occasions they entered into open conflict with Elizabeth in the 1590s.  Strife between monarch and Parliament remained at a low ebb into the 17th century, but having savored such a taste of financial and—as a result—political power, Parliament was loath to relinquish it when James I and his Scottish Stuart Dynasty took the reins of England in 1603.  James had an unfortunate propensity to enhance his wardrobe and royal trappings beyond the bounds of good sense and limited budgets, plunging the Crown even further into debt above that which it had inherited from Elizabeth.  James became even more dependent upon Parliament, which began to exert more and more genuine authority in running the country.  Finally, when James’s son, Charles I, took power, a clash between the absolutism of the Stuarts and the then-novel power arrangements of a Parliamentary body became inevitable, culminating in the English Civil Wars of the mid-1600s.  With that famous (or infamous, depending on your disposition) Parliamentary general, Oliver Cromwell, victorious against Charles’s powerful Royalist forces, history had experienced a turning point, since England would turn decisively away from the authoritarian monarchical rule that would characterize the European Continent—the precursor, of course, for the perceptions of rights and responsibilities that would give rise to the American Revolution in the 1770s.  A victory by Drake in that 1589 battle would have stillborn Parliament’s snowballing power; after all, with an early conclusion to the Anglo-Spanish conflict availed by the effective destruction of Philip II’s navy, there would have been no need for the massive outlays to continue the war in the 1590s against a defeated Spain, and no need to so aggressively fear the security threat of a Catholic Ireland.  Indirectly, Spanish victory in 1589 had precipitated the rapidly shifting relationship between monarch and Parliament that would prove so crucial for the history of England and its North American colonies from the 1600s onward. 

            Speaking of North America, furthermore, the English Armada’s defeat would change the course of history.  As noted above, had Spain’s navy been destroyed in its mooring places in Santander and San Sebastian in 1589, the country would have possessed inadequate defenses for its young, vulnerable New World Empire, then disputed territory among the Protestant nations (and some Catholic ones) in Western Europe who refused to honor the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, in which Pope Alexander VI effectively recognized Spanish hegemony over the Western Hemisphere.  England had already made overtures toward long-term North American settlement.  At last following up on the Cabot expedition of 1497, the English tepidly attempted colonies on the landmass.  In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert led an expedition to seek a Northwest Passage through the icy Arctic waters of Canada toward China, as well as to establish a colony in Newfoundland, which had been hitherto explored and claimed for England by Cabot and where a small fishing community had planted itself.  Gilbert further explored the coast, charting and reconnoitering the inlets that dotted the Eastern Canadian region, but he encountered problems with discipline among his sailors and suffered in the harsh, unfamiliar seas.  One of his ships was stranded inland and a small group of would-be settlers lost, possibly killed by the harsh climate and confrontations with native tribes, and Gilbert himself would fare little better.  Deprived of much of his crew, which had been beset by scurvy and seasickness, Gilbert’s ship The Squirrel became caught in a ferocious storm and disappeared into the waves.  He had made a valiant effort, but had accomplished little above the claim already made by Cabot nearly a century earlier.  Gilbert’s half-brother Sir Walter Raleigh, however, would carry his relative’s dream forward with greater planning and foresight, and would initially meet with greater success.  Raleigh founded the Roanoke colony in 1585 in what is now Virginia, and in 1586, the first English child born in the New World—Virginia Dare—would be christened.  Raleigh had achieved substantial progress over Gilbert’s initial unsuccessful attempt, but there were signs of danger at the outset.  Many settlers were succumbing to exotic diseases of the new continent and the merciless harshness of the elements, and relations with the indigenous tribes were fractious at best.  On several occasions the Roanoke colony required resupply and rescue, and it had not yet reached the point of self-sustenance.  The Roanoke colonization effort coincided almost precisely with the onset of hostilities against Spain, and victory against the Spaniards was desperately sought so as to free up supply expeditions to the colony following the Armada attack in 1588.  Once again, a success by Drake in 1589 against the helpless Spanish fleet would have kneecapped England’s bitter enemy and opened the sea lanes, perhaps enabling a rescue of the fledgling colony.  But the fiasco in Coruna and Portugal by the Drake and Norris expedition obviated any such attempts in the New World, the settlement of which was now consigned to a lower priority.  When John White, the leader of the Roanoke Colony, finally managed to return to it in 1591, he found to his dismay that the settlement had vanished, with that ever-fascinating historical enigma—the single word, Croatoan, carved on a tree—providing only the slightest hint about its fate.  Recently, historians and meteorologists have managed to demonstrate that an unusually harsh drought and winter would have wrought havoc on settler and native alike in the region, crushing the colony’s hopes in the absence of supply from across the ocean.  It would not come; all ships had to be ready against Spain.

            The defeat of the English Expedition to Spain and Portugal in 1589, therefore, contributed integrally to one of the more commonly observed ironies about the Tudor era:  Despite their manifest interest in emulating the Iberian countries by starting their own colonies in the Western Hemisphere, which the Spaniards had initiated in 1492, the Tudors were unable to establish a permanent English settlement.  Clearly, as demonstrated by the endeavors of Gilbert and Raleigh above, this was not for lack of effort; rather, the continuing military strength and naval might of Spain posed such an imminent threat that it competed with and thwarted English colonial ambitions which were just stirring in the 1580s.  Ironically, English settlement and Empire-building in the Americans would begin as a Stuart project, not a Tudor one, and once again we can witness the hand of the 1589 battle in all this.  Had Spain been deprived of its navy and purloined of its treasure fleet by Drake and Norris, as it so nearly was, the English would have been free to continue their earnest project of North American settlement—along with, of course, taking advantage of the spoils of weakened Spanish colonial defenses in the New World.  Indeed, the English maintained a continuing interest in Spain’s colonies for centuries; possessions in the Caribbean would change hands on multiple occasions, and even in the 19th century, the English made a daring play—bold but ultimately unsuccessful against the defenses of Buenos Aires—to take Argentina.  History would have unfolded quite differently indeed in the event of a Drake landing in Santander in 1589. 

            Spain’s centuries-long hold on its coveted New World Empire, after all, hinged fundamentally on its capacity to protect it from competitors.  Furthermore, the Spanish cultural sphere that is conventionally associated with South and Central America and the Caribbean today, was a direct product of Spain’s military capabilities—or lack thereof—in forging a coherent naval and land-based defense for the vast landmasses of the Western Hemisphere.  Newspapers and newsmagazines of our modern day and age in 2003 and 2004 marvel at the rapid Hispanic demographic and cultural expansion in the United States over the past two decades, but the roots of this phenomenon date back to the latter decades of the 1500s.  The Hispanic efflorescence of recent years is predominantly a product of immigration, of course, with strong economic tugs pulling in workers and families from south of the border.  Yet the culture of these immigrants could have easily been far different from what it is today.  Most of these newcomers are identified as “Latino” or “Hispanic” precisely because of the common thread of the Spanish language and culture, and as we’ve seen above, Spain’s cultural influence on these regions could have easily been nipped in the bud, with Spanish viceroys and missionaries evicted from much of what is now Latin America had there been a slightly different result in 1589.  Philip II could not have defended Spain’s fledgling and sprawling overseas empire in the aftermath of a navy destroyed by Francis Drake’s forces.  Even such Hispanic bastions of today like Puerto Rico and Panama were sites of anti-Spanish operations by John Hawkins, Francis Drake, and other English naval geniuses, and these tenuous colonies could have been pried loose in the event of a moribund Spain in the 1590s.  One might counter, of course, that Florida, Texas, and California—places that had been part of the Spanish Empire—are, after all, now a part of the (predominantly) English-speaking United States.  But this has absolutely nothing to do with actions of the British Empire, much less the Tudors; all of these territories were acquired by the US after it itself had prevailed in battle against the British in the American Revolution of the late 1700s.  Moreover, precisely because of the longstanding association of these territories with the Spanish Empire, their laws, customs, and traditions derive substantially from Spanish precursors, in a manner far distinct from, say, New England or the American Midwest, which lacked any such historical connection to New Spain.  Let’s take a closer look at this.

            There are a number of basic discrepancies in the revolutionary histories of the United States and Latin America.  The earth-shaking revolution of the former preceded those in the latter, and the American government created in the late 1700s differed vastly from any other in the world.  However, another fundamental difference, oft-overlooked, is in the manner by which the land, resources, and imperial claims of the mother country devolved onto the successor states that emerged in the wake of the revolution.  Virtually all of what is now “Latin America” was, at one point, under the control of the Spanish Crown (or the Portuguese monarchy, in the case of Brazil).  Therefore, when the revolutions led by Agustin Iturbide in Mexico and Simon Bolivar in South America swept away Spain’s control in the early 19th century, the new Spanish-speaking countries simply inherited the territory that had been part of the Spanish Empire itself.  The native American contributions were significant in each case, but as far as the European component of the new nations’ cultural fabric, it was overwhelmingly derived from the Spanish rulers who had directly controlled the areas for centuries.  The legal systems were direct descendants of Spanish precursors, and the administration, customs, and institutions of the young states hailed directly from Spain.  While many Latin American countries engaged in border wars with each other during the 19th century, their frontiers merely shifted within an enormous territorial span which had once been designated on maps as “New Spain.” 

            The situation in the United States was radically different.  Nearly all of the territory within the landmass of the “United States of America” was never under the control of the British Empire.  Only the Oregon Territory—which now comprises much of the American Northwest—and, of course, the original 13 colonies on the East Coast were actually incorporated within Britain’s colonial realm.  Therefore, when the independence of the US was recognized by Britain in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the young nation inherited only that strip of land on the East Coast of North America, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, from the British.  The vast majority of the territory that now comprises the U.S.A. was acquired in the 19th century, after the United States had become an independent nation with its own unique culture and form of government—in stark contrast with Latin America.  Moreover, and most importantly, the bulk of U.S. territory rests on land that had been part of the French, Spanish, and Russian empires, not the British.  The unprecedentedly rapid expansion of the U.S. occurred chiefly through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803—by which the country acquired previously French domains—and the Mexican War of 1846-48, in which the United States obtained previously Spanish and, after the revolution of 1821, Mexican land.  Florida was originally a Spanish colony, and Alaska was a Russian outpost until Secretary of State William Seward negotiated its purchase in 1867. 

            In practical terms, the result of all this is that, as far as the European contribution to United States laws, history, administration, and culture (which of course is in addition to the undeniable contributions of the native Americans), it is far more heterogeneous than in Latin America, especially west of the Mississippi River.  U.S. legal traditions owe much to the customs of English common law, and on the East Coast, the contribution of the common law—and its impact on everything from land grants to courthouse oaths—is clearly predominant.  However, as we travel westward toward the Pacific, we begin to notice an increasing legacy of French and Spanish legal traditions in addition to the English common law and, of course, the uniquely American standards that emerged from the ideas of the Founding Fathers in the late 1700s.  In Florida, Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, and many other states, the law codes still bear strong witness to their Spanish heritage, and place names throughout the American Midwest and Southwest lucidly evoke the colonial histories of France and Spain in the region.  The architecture and physical layout of New Mexico, Arizona, and California draws substantial inspiration from the Spanish missions that traversed these areas for centuries.  Even the American cowboy culture and the rodeo trace their roots to the customs of New Spain—specifically, the vaqueros of northern Mexico, prior to the U.S. conquest in 1848. 

            It is here that, once again, we can gaze in abundance at the momentous impact of that little-known battle in 1589.  Had Drake alighted at his initial destination of Santander, and torched the unguarded Spanish fleet, then Spain’s operations in North America would have been curtailed drastically, and a newly-dominant English navy would have been able to forcefully assert the claims to the continent first made by John Cabot for the English crown in 1497.  Just as the Caribbean and South and Central America would have been opened to English colonial ambitions, the North American landmass from Mexico to the Hudson Bay would have been laid bare to Spain’s competitors.  Spanish missions and operations in northwestern Mexico and what is now the US Southwest would have been stillborn; deprived of viceroyal leadership and the financial backing of the Spanish crown, the Spanish settlers in these regions would have been obliged to quit them, and retrench to a far smaller, more defensible New Spain. 

            Instead, with the English Armada defeated in 1589, the more nimble, efficient Spanish navy was able to more effectively deliver supplies and communicate with the colonies of its vast possessions in the New World.  Spanish law, customs, and language permeated not only the Empire’s heartland in central and South America, but permeated the rolling desert realms of North America for centuries.  Drake himself had staked a claim to California during his famous circumnavigation in the 1570s, and he may have been able to realize that claim with a success in 1589; instead, Spain reinforced the sea route control in the Atlantic and Pacific that was so essential to its dominance in the Western Hemisphere, expanding into and consolidating the then-uncharted territory north of the Gulf of California.  This territory devolved upon Mexico upon its independence from Spain in 1821, and despite the conquest by the United States of half of Mexico’s territory in the Mexican War that concluded in 1848, the Spanish colonial presence in the region left a powerful cultural imprint that remains pronounced today.  This, of course, is on top of Spanish expansion into the Pacific, in the Philippines and the numerous archipelagos which dot that vast ocean.

            The next time you encounter another newspaper article heralding the almost inexplicably fast rise of Hispanic culture and the rapid movement of Hispanic peoples into the US, think back to the 1500s and recall that this cultural colossus, with a common mooring in the culture of Spain, could have easily been cut down to size by a few changes in the execution of a battle plan by some deservedly famous English soldiers in 1589.  The expedition by Drake and Norris in that year is probably an event you’ve never encountered until now, but the decisions made and battles encountered by that invasion force would exert a tremendous impact on the unfolding of events both in Europe and the Americas.  Its effects can be seen every day you stroll by one of those seemingly ubiquitous “Se habla español” signs in the window of a local shop.


For more information on the persistent myths and fallacies surrounding the Spanish Armada battle, read my accompanying article on Wes’s Spanish Armada Page: Top 10 Myths and Muddles about the Spanish Armada.


References and Further Reading


Berleth, Richard.  The Twilight Lords:  Elizabeth I and the Plunder of Ireland.  Roberts Rinehard, Lanham, MD, 2002.


Carr, Raymond.  Spain:  A History.  Oxford University Press, 2000.


Cheyney, Edward P. A history of England from the defeat of the Armada to the death of Elizabeth, with an account of English institutions during the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  P. Smith, New York, 1926. 


de Cordóba, Luis Cabrera.  Historia de Felipe II, Rey de España.  Junta de Castilla y León, Valladolid, 1998.


Cummins, John.  “That ‘golden knight’ Drake and his reputation.”  History Today.  Cover story, January 1996.


Falls, Cyril.  Elizabeth’s Irish Wars.  Methuen, London, 1950.


Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe.  The Spanish Armada:  The Experience of War in 1588.  Oxford University Press, 1988.


González-Arnao Conde-Luque, Mariano.  Derrota y muerte de Sir Francis Drake, a Coruña 1589-Portobelo 1596.  Xunta de Galicia, Servicio Central de Publicacións, Coruña, Spain, 1995.


Guy, John.  Essay on the Tudor period, Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, Kenneth O. Morgan, Ed.  Oxford University Press, 1997. 


Kelsey, Harry.  Sir Francis Drake: The Queen’s Pirate.  Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 1998.


Kelsey, Harry.  Sir John Hawkins:  Queen Elizabeth’s Slave Trader.  Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2003.


Lynch, John.  Spain, 1516-1598 : from nation state to world empire.  Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1992. 


Payne, Stanley.  History of Spain and Portugal.  Online:


Terrero, José.  Historia de España.  R. Sopena, Barcelona, Spain, 1988.


Thomas, Hugh.  The Slave Trade: the story of the Atlantic slave trade, 1440-1870.  Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997.


Wernham, RB.  After the Armada:  Elizabethan England and the Struggle for Western Europe, 1588-1595.  Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984.


Wernham, RB, ed.  The Expedition of Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake to Spain and Portugal, 1589.  Navy Records Society, Brookfield, Vt., 1988.


Wernham, RB.  The Return of the Armadas: the later years of the Elizabethan war against Spain, 1595-1603.  Oxford University Press, 1994.


Whiting, Roger.  The Enterprise of England:  The Spanish Armada.  Alan Sutton Publishing, Gloucester, UK 1988.


n  Wes Ulm


Please feel free to quote from, print, and cite this essay as, “The Defeat of the English Armada and the 16th-Century Spanish Naval Resurgence, by Wes Ulm, Harvard University personal website, URL:, © 2004.



Useful links:


The Spanish Armada 1588 site by Invicta Media—concise, easily readable, and information-rich summary of the Armada plans and point-by-point description, with nice, easily visualizable technical descriptions.


Spanish Armada article at Wikipedia—the free online encyclopedia is a collaborative effort of many hands worldwide.  I’m one of the contributors to the Spanish Armada article, but there were many before me, and this resource is so accurate and useful in general that it deserves mention here.


The Defeat of the Spanish Armada pages on the HistoryBuff site, Rick Brown’s outstanding resource for those seeking primary documents and old newspapers—an excellent aid for professional historians and history buffs alike.  I wrote this series of pages on the Spanish Armada in an “encyclopedia style” to provide a ready and useful reference for students and teachers seeking information on the battle.  The pages are split into articles covering the factors leading to the Armada, the confrontation itself, and its aftermath, as well as summary and conclusion sections for rapid consultation. 


The UK History Learning Site Spanish Armada page—without doubt one of the best I’ve seen on the Armada encounter, detailed yet easy to follow.  A particularly interesting aspect of this site is its demonstration that the always unpredictable weather factor wasn’t as unfavorable to the Spaniards as is often assumed.  There were sudden shifts in winds that enabled Medina Sidonia’s fleet to escape a catastrophic beaching on the Dutch and French shorelines, as well as to regroup and assume its tight defensive formation.



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