Wes’s Spanish Armada Page: History, Highlights, Myths, and Muddles





Top 10 myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada


The Spanish Armada encounter of 1588 was undoubtedly an important and fascinating battle. However, even today it is frequently surrounded by common myths and confusions that date back to Victorian Era days. The battle itself was followed by 16 years of land and naval war between England and Spain in which the Spanish were mostly successful and renewed their control over the high seas, a basic fact that many texts and popular accounts often fail entirely to mention. Spain retooled its navy and shipped three times as much silver in the 1590s as before. The Spanish invasion force, moreover, was never referred to (by Philip or anyone else in Spain) as the “Invincible Armada”; medical resources on the Spanish coast were mobilized with surprising rapidity and effectiveness to tend to sick and wounded returning sailors in 1588, suggesting that the Spaniards very much were prepared for the potential failure of the Spanish Armada and run-ins with rough weather. These are just a few of the common myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada battle; a list of the “Top 10” myths is compiled and tackled below.

Please feel free to quote from, print, and cite the text below as, Top 10 myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada, history’s most confused and misunderstood battle,” by Wes Ulm, Harvard University personal website, URL: http://wesulm.bravehost.com/history/sp_armada.htm, © 2004.


(1a) Myth: The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was a decisive victory for the English that marked England’s triumph in its war with Spain. Spain never again tried to land forces in England after that, failed in its bid to end English buccaneering against Spanish treasure ships, and challenged England only on land, not at sea.

(1b) Fact: False on all counts. The Spanish Armada confrontation was not at all decisive; it was merely an early sea battle in a long, intermittent, but often grinding land and naval war between England and Spain that lasted from 1585 until 1604. As I’ll discuss below, Spain defeated England in most of the land and naval battles after the Armada and won a favorable treaty in 1604. Spain, in fact, dispatched three more Spanish Armadas in the 1590s that were dispersed by storms. Furthermore, in 1595, the Spanish, in fact, did succeed in landing troops in western England, where they attacked and burned several towns before disembarking, as will be detailed below (myth #10a). Of all the common Spanish Armada myths, this one—the failure to even acknowledge the most basic, incontrovertible fact of the war that was waged between England and Spain after the Armada—has always stricken me as the most puzzling. It’s akin to teaching the history of the US Civil War and halting at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, or discussing the Second World War and stopping at the Fall of France in 1940, without mentioning the Battles of Midway, El Alamein, Guadalcanal, or the D-Day Normandy invasion at all! A grossly misleading, terribly incorrect impression of the conflict is thereby imparted. The key here is to recognize that the Spanish Armada was merely one battle, an early one in a long war; this simple fact is often unrecognized and unacknowledged, contributing to many of the other common myths.


(2a) Myth: The defeat of the Spanish Armada was the beginning of England’s control of the high seas. Spain never recovered from the Spanish Armada fiasco and relinquished control of the ocean lanes to the English. England’s status as mistress of the seas would be unchallenged for centuries as the British Empire grew in size, and the vaunted English navy could trace its dominance of the sea lanes to the Spanish Armada’s defeat in 1588.

(2b) Fact: One of the most common statements about the Spanish Armada, and one that is totally false. Spain recovered quickly from the Armada debacle and defeated England on land and at sea in multiple military engagements in the decade following the Spanish Armada. (In fact, an English Armada sent in 1589, the year after the Spanish Armada, suffered a crushing defeat against Spain, just as its Spanish counterpart did against England in 1588.) One of the most important consequences of the Spanish Armada was that it altered assumptions about naval warfare, since the English at Gravelines had opted for smaller, rapidly reloading, more maneuverable light coastal defensive ships in place of the heavy ocean-going galleons with single-firing cannon (followed by seize-and-grapple tactics) used by Spain. The most eager students of the English naval innovations and tactics were… the Spaniards. Philip’s post-Armada squadrons were much more agile and nimble than those prior to it. The Spaniards developed and implemented an efficient convoy system that enabled them to ship three times as much gold and silver from the Americas after the Spanish Armada than before it—indeed, Spain transported more precious metals in the decade of the 1590s than in any other! England’s buccaneering sea dogs were no longer able to raid Spanish treasure transports effectively, a fact that was underscored by the complete failure of a privateering expedition by Sir John Hawkins and Sir Martin Frobisher in 1589-1590 against Spanish shipping. Furthermore, both John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake—the most famous of England’s privateering pirates—were killed in a disastrous raid against Spanish America in 1595, a multi-pronged attack against Spanish colonies in the Americas that was anticipated and utterly crushed by Spanish defenses, one of the worst defeats that the English navy would ever suffer. Spain’s post-Armada navy was retooled and expanded, and Spain ruled the waves for most of the 1600s; in contrast, by the last year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, England remained relatively weak as a sea power, and its maritime strength during the early years of the Stuart Dynasty (James I and Charles I in the early 1600s) grew only gradually and haltingly. When Spain was finally replaced as a naval bellwether in the late 17th century, it was the Dutch who assumed the mantle of dominant sea power, defeating England in several Anglo-Dutch Wars of the late 1600s. Only in the mid-1700s does England truly emerge as the naval power controlling the sea lanes, after victories in consecutive Anglo-French wars (including the famous French and Indian War with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the victory that finally enabled England to dominate North America and spread its empire on a global scale).


(3a) Myth: Spain was eclipsed as a great power following the Spanish Armada, sinking into insolvency and rapid decline, while England became rich, prosperous, and powerful.

(3b) Fact: Spain definitely did not slip into insignificance following the Armada defeat. As noted above, Spain in fact defeated England on land and at sea in numerous battles of the decade after the Spanish Armada and retained substantial influence over affairs in Europe and the Americas well into the 1600s. Crushing debt afflicted both Spain and England as a result of their war; by the close of Elizabeth I’s reign, the English were nearly £3,000,000 in debt and had sold offices and crown lands to avoid slipping further, and Spain’s Philip II had declared several bankruptcies in parallel. In addition to the exorbitant expenses in the conflict against Spain, the English were dragged into a draining, costly, inconclusive guerrilla war against Ireland from 1594-1603 led by an Irish lord named Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone. Late Elizabethan England also suffered crop failures, famines, and plagues that engendered severe poverty in much of the country. Most importantly, the continuation of the war with Spain drained English financial resources and hindered trade, leaving a severe financial burden for the Stuart kings of the early 1600s. This debt, in conjunction with the Stuarts’ profligacy, would contribute to the crisis between monarch and Parliament which caused the English Civil War of the mid-1600s, a particularly bitter and bloody conflict that would split the nation. As for Spain, the nation was eventually crippled in the late 1600s by internal corruption, failures in its monarchical system— marked by feeble rulers with a propensity to play favorites and indulge prodigally in festivities— and severe inflation caused in part by its precious metals shipments from the New World. However, in a military sense, the most decisive defeats it suffered were in the Battles of Rocroi and Passaro against the French in the 30 Years’ War (1618-1648), not the English. It was these land defeats that most severely enfeebled Spain as a European power, enabling the French to replace Spain as Europe’s dominant nation during the reign of Louis XIV.  Meanwhile,  parallel Spanish defeats against the Dutch navy enabled the Netherlands to supersede Spain as Europe's major maritime power.


(4a) Myth: The British Empire—in the sense of the long-term settlement and colonization of distant overseas territories—was initiated following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, since settlement was now finally opened up to the English and other northern Europeans.

(4b) Fact: Not by a longshot. Once again, we have to remember that the war dragged on unsuccessfully for England after the Spanish Armada, and the country’s resources and seafaring vessels had to be spared for the conflict against Spain. The failure of the English Armada in 1589, an English-led expedition to Spain and Portugal, frustrated attempts to break Spain’s naval power, and the material, financial, and human cost of this defeat prevented expeditions to North America—probably contributing to the failure of the Roanoke Colony in what is now Virginia in the United States, which had been attempted in the 1580s but from which there were no survivors. When the Treaty of London in 1604 officially ceased hostilities between Spain and England (the treaty having been signed by England’s King James I, who had succeeded Elizabeth in 1603), England lacked a permanent settlement in the Americas or anywhere else. It was only after this negotiated peace that England was finally freed to begin colonization, following on the heels of Spain, Portugal, and France.



The Lost Colony at Roanoke



(5a) Myth: Spain’s King Philip II craved nothing less than the wholesale conquest of England with the Spanish Armada, and the annexation of the island country as a colony of New Spain. England would have been converted into a Catholic nation and, had the Spanish Armada been successful, we’d all be speaking Spanish today.

(5b) Fact: Philip II had relatively modest goals with the Spanish Armada and never intended to “conquer England,” let alone convert the English populace to Catholicism en masse or compel them to speak Spanish. As I discuss in more detail below in this article’s main text, Philip’s center of attention was on the European Continent—in fact, his principal enemies were the Protestant rebels from the provinces of the Netherlands, then a part of Spain, as well as Protestant French Huguenots and Portuguese nationalists who opposed Philip’s annexation of Portugal in 1580. England was more peripheral to Philip’s scheme, and his objective with the Armada was chiefly to stop England from interfering with Philip’s central aims elsewhere—namely, to cease English military and financial support of the Dutch insurgents (whom the Protestant English had been assisting considerably) and to halt English buccaneer attacks on Spanish treasure ships. Philip certainly did seek to win tolerance for English Catholics and restore them to a more exalted status but, as discussed in the text, conditions in England since Henry VIII’s break with Rome had rendered it virtually impossible for Philip or anyone else to have forced England to convert back into a Catholic country. There was no viable Catholic replacement for the Protestant Elizabeth I since Mary Queen of Scots had been executed in 1587. Moreover, Spain’s problems in the Netherlands, the logistical issues posed by England’s location as an island nation, and the experience of Spain’s invading armies on the Continent clearly indicate that even an entirely successful Spanish Armada invasion in 1588 would have had little cultural effect on England.


(6a) Myth: In the Battle of Gravelines, the chief confrontation between the English defensive fleet and the Spanish Armada, the English won a stunning underdog victory, having been outnumbered and outgunned by the vastly more imposing Spanish Armada fleet.

(6b) Fact: The English were neither outnumbered nor outgunned at the Battle of Gravelines, as is so often claimed. There was a rough parity in the sizes of the fleets; Spain had more bulky galleons, but England had more total ships in the water.


(7a) Myth: The Battle of Gravelines was a titanic clash on the high seas, one of the largest and most extraordinary naval battles in history. The English ships inflicted heavy damage on the Spanish Armada vessels while suffering little of their own, sinking a large number of Spain’s ships and forcing the Spaniards to flee.

(7b) Fact: The Spanish Armada battle at Gravelines itself was definitely not a titanic naval clash, but a short, inconclusive, rather anticlimactic encounter between two large fleets, both of which committed major blunders and neither of which damaged each other significantly. It’s true that the Spanish Armada caused little damage to the English ships, but then, neither did the English ships cause much harm at all to the Spanish fleet, as discussed in the main text below. It was an unusually ferocious September Atlantic storm as the Spanish vessels were rounding the tip of Ireland, that damaged and/or sank most of the Spanish Armada ships that did not return to port, either directly or in compelling the vessels to beach on the rocky Irish coast. Most of Spain’s casualties from the Spanish Armada invasion resulted when sailors died of or were incapacitated from disease and exposure, not from battle wounds. In any case, most of the Spanish Armada ships did manage to return to port in Spain or Portugal. Many of the lost ships had already been in a state of disrepair, while Philip II’s crucial Atlantic class vessels—the most seaworthy in the Spanish Armada and designed for oceanic traversal, the key to Spain’s New World empire and the newly conquered Philippines archipelago in the Pacific Ocean—returned to the Iberian Peninsula largely intact. In fact, excellent seamanship was displayed by both the English and Spanish sides in their encounter, and it is quite remarkable that the Spaniards did not suffer greater losses considering the unremittingly powerful storm they had encountered.


(8a) Myth: The Spanish Armada was dubbed “the Invincible Armada” (La Armada Invencible) by an overconfident, swaggering King Philip II of Spain and his advisors, having been so nicknamed since they all assumed that the Armada was so strong that it could never be defeated by the English.

(8b) Fact: This tale is repeated with bewildering frequency—and it’s utterly, absolutely false. The Spanish Armada was never, ever referred to by King Philip or his Spanish ministers as “the Invincible Armada” (“La Armada Invencible”); this term was an English invention, not a Spanish one, used by English historians who later described the battle, yet the term is frequently attributed to the Spaniards incorrectly. In fact, the rapid mobilization of Spanish resources upon the return of the Armada ships to harbor in Spain lucidly demonstrates that the Spaniards had been very much prepared for the Armada’s potential failure. Populations in coastal towns were rapidly drafted and quickly responded to aid the often injured and seasick sailors; food supplies, hospital beds and equipment, and physicians were immediately and efficiently mustered for the Spanish Armada’s crews, saving hundreds of lives.


(9a) Myth: The English suffered barely any casualties at all in the Spanish Armada encounter, celebrating their victory with great revelry following the departure of the Armada fleet from England’s coastal waters.

(9b) Fact: The English themselves suffered thousands of casualties among their sailors in the Spanish Armada engagement due to exposure and outbreaks of infectious disease, and the battle’s aftermath was characterized not by celebration but by finger-pointing, infighting, and bitter protestations when many sailors were not compensated for months.


(10a) Myth: After the Spanish Armada’s failure to invade England, the Spaniards were never able to successfully land troops on English soil. This was a continuation of England’s long and remarkable defensive tradition, in which no hostile military force has ever succeeded in landing troops on the territory of the English island mainland since the Norman Conquest.

(10b) Fact: Not true! The claim that England has never suffered a hostile landing since 1066 is repeated with extreme frequency; and it also happens to be inaccurate. That’s because in 1595, a Spanish force led by Don Carlos de Amesquita managed to achieve just that, even though the Spanish soldiers had not intended such a landing initially. Amesquita’s small force had been patrolling the waters of the English Channel when they encountered a scarcity of potable water. Navigating the rough and fickle winds in the Channel, Amesquita’s troops were blown ashore near Cornwall on the western English coast. The Spaniards easily intimidated or defeated local militia resistance and set fire to much of Penzance and surrounding localities while plundering the hamlets for whatever victuals, nautical aids, and freshwater supplies that they could find. Eventually the English began to muster a professional army and summon naval forces under Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, but the Spanish managed to evade their adversaries when Amesquita’s force decamped and returned home to the Iberian Peninsula— after holding a traditional Catholic Mass on English soil.


The rest of this essay fleshes out the material summarized above with greater detail and a more in-depth picture of the conditions surrounding the Spanish Armada clash and its aftermath. Intended as a companion to the English Armada article, this piece cuts through the myths and lays out the facts of the Spanish Armada battle, still significant in numerous respects as discussed below, but in ways far more subtle and intricate than are generally appreciated.


Please feel free to quote from, print, and cite this essay as, Top 10 myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada, history’s most confused and misunderstood battle,” by Wes Ulm, Harvard University personal website, URL: http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~ulm/history/sp_armada.htm, © 2004.


The Spanish Armada Sets Sail Into the Waters of Historical Confusion


Chances are you’ve been exposed to the Spanish Armada incident in your history class. The broad outlines, widely familiar, are that Spain’s King Philip II sent a large fleet of ships to rendezvous with professional Spanish soldiers, led by the Duke of Parma. The combined fleet was to sail against Elizabethan England in 1588, with the aim of invading the island country, yet the Spanish Armada was never able to disembark on English soil. Encountering resistance from English naval defense forces led by the likes of Sir Francis Drake, the Armada beat an escape path around the northern coasts of Scotland and Ireland, where it encountered a ferocious Atlantic storm and suffered heavy damage and casualties before returning to ports in the Iberian Peninsula. So far, so good. But why did King Philip dispatch the Spanish Armada in the first place? What were his war aims? What actually transpired during the naval encounter between the English and Spanish fleets? Was there a raging battle, or largely a mutual avoidance of combat? What happened after the Armada? How did England respond to it, and how did Spain adjust? Most importantly, what were the short-term and long-term effects? They’re probably not what you think, because the lore of the Spanish Armada confrontation has attracted one inaccuracy after another over the years, to the point that descriptions of the most basic details of the battle’s prelude, conduct, and aftermath are regularly gotten wrong, and fundamental aspects of the conflict—especially the bitter naval and land war waged between England and Spain in the decade after the Spanish Armada—are omitted entirely, to the point that many Armada accounts are downright inaccurate and misleading.

The Spanish Armada battle is, indeed, one of the most frequently confused and thoroughly misrepresented historical incidents one can find; numerous facets of the battle, from the Armada’s war aims, to its naval composition, to its experiences on the high seas, to the encounters of the Spanish ships with the English and Dutch sailors are reported incorrectly not only on Websites but even in many textbooks. Perhaps because it was so closely intertwined with patriotic feelings in England (especially during the imperial Victorian period, from which much of the contemporary Armada historiography stems originally), the mythology of the Spanish Armada story has often intruded on the facts, and this article is an attempt to debunk the most egregious of these misconceptions and set the record straight. For a more detailed examination of the causes leading up to the Spanish Armada, the state of Europe prior to its launch, and the fascinating aftermath of the battle—which involved a war waged on multiple continents between the naval and land forces of the Spanish and English—please read my accompanying essay on the Spanish Armada and a little-known, but pivotal English counterattack against Spain and Portugal in 1589, which met with a disaster similar to its Spanish counterpart the year before.


The Spanish Armada and the Military Objectives of Philip II


The first and most common myth pertains to the Spanish Armada’s war objectives as perceived by King Philip II, the vigorous, devout, and doctrinaire Catholic Spanish ruler from the powerful Hapsburg family. Some accounts carelessly suggest that Philip craved nothing less than a conquest of England, an annexation of the island country into the growing realm of New Spain. This is reflected in the oft-repeated throw-away comment about how “If it hadn’t been for Drake et al. defeating the Armada in 1588, we’d all be speaking Spanish today.” This conclusion is patently ridiculous. For all the flourishes and posturing associated with the mission, King Philip’s objectives in the “Enterprise of England” were comparatively modest; above all, he was seeking English noninterference in what he considered to be internal Spanish affairs, cessation of military and financial support for the rebellious Dutch provinces (then constituting a province of Spain) being the primary bone of contention. Philip also sought to clamp down on the English privateers, the “sea dogs” and crafty pirates of renown, so as to preclude their attacks on Spain’s gold and silver treasure transports and other economic interchanges with its colonial empire in the Caribbean and the American continental landmass. Spain and England had in fact been virtually allies (against France) prior to 1562, when the English Captain John Hawkins—with the eventual support of Elizabeth and members of the royal privy council—broke into the transatlantic slave trade, then a tightly guarded Spanish-Portuguese monopoly. At the time, Spain expected European slave traders to its vast New World Empire to pass through a port in Spain (typically Seville) as a way station to the Americas. Spanish officials acted as middlemen, skimming off a healthy cut of the profits the merchants garnered from their trading in human cargo, a financial cornucopia which the Spaniards’ were loath to forfeit; in their eyes, Hawkins was a smuggler. Despite initial misgivings about Hawkins’ endeavors, Queen Elizabeth and her advisory Privy Council soon gave direct support to him, investing in his voyages, supplying ships and sailors, and reaping a share of the profits. (Hawkins’ chief slaved trading vessel, the Jesus of Lubeck, was a royal grant.) Hawkins’ perceived smuggling irritated Spanish viceroyal authorities, culminating in the San Juan de Ulua incident in 1568, in which a small slave-trading fleet under Drake and Hawkins was ambushed with heavy losses near Veracruz, Mexico. It was this quarrel over slave-trading rights and the diplomatic contretemps of San Juan de Ulua that launched the English into privateering and precipitated the economic competition that would impel Philip in his Armada plans 20 years later.

The Spanish monarch also endeavored—at the very least— to secure tolerance for English Catholics, though a wholesale transformation of the island country from a Protestant bastion into a Catholic nation was a nonstarter. Catholic power in England had been far too decimated by Henry VIII and his advisors in the early 1500s to be restored even with a dramatic success by the Spanish invasion force; monasteries had been liquidated, priests and bishops had been executed or banished, church properties had been seized, and the people (most crucially the aristocracy) had been diverted from the Roman Church to the national Anglican Church instead. Pope Pius V had even excommunicated Queen Elizabeth in 1570, imploring English Catholics to withhold recognition of her right to rule, a de facto recognition that England’s most prominent classes had become Protestant. It is, furthermore, doubtful that the Spanish king intended to supplant Queen Elizabeth I with a Catholic English usurper, as is often supposed, in spite of Pius V’s papal sanction. It must be recalled that the only viable Catholic candidate to take Elizabeth’s place was Mary Queen of Scots, but this plan suffered from the slight complication of Mary’s execution in 1587, the year before the Spanish Armada sailed northward. Nobody else could have been installed on the throne and been legitimately accepted by enough of England’s population to remain in power for more than a fortnight, and Philip was no stranger to this important difficulty.

Philip certainly had no intention—let alone military wherewithal—to “conquer” the English nation. The oft-repeated claim, that the Spanish Armada threatened English sovereignty, fails to consider contemporary events: Philip, after all, had been entirely unsuccessful in subjugating the tiny Netherlands, in which he had already mustered a standing army led by the brilliant and resourceful field general Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma. The Netherlands had a historical (and, therefore, legally recognized) place within the Hapsburg Spanish Empire since a dynastic marriage between Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy in 1477, and the Spaniards maintained a long-established political and administrative presence in the Dutch provinces. Furthermore, Philip could besiege his Dutch opponents by land routes as well as sea channels, and he had the additional support of his Hapsburg cousins in Central Europe. If Philip had failed to subdue the determined insurgency in the Netherlands—where, as can be seen, he was blessed with many advantages—it was a pipe dream to believe he could have accomplished much at all in England, a much larger nation with no historical ties to the Spanish Empire or Hapsburg rule, no established Spanish administrative presence, and—most importantly—no land route. Even had Philip been miraculously successful in the Armada’s operations against England, he still could not have maintained a sufficiently large occupation force in such a foreign and distant nation for long, especially with all the added logistical headaches presented by an island country and, even more importantly, Philip’s ongoing operations in France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Portugal on the Continent itself—which constituted Philip’s principal interest in any case. Spanish armies successfully stormed the capitals of numerous kingdoms in Continental Europe, Rome and Paris among them, not to mention overran much of Germany and Central Europe, yet these places did not suddenly revert to “speaking Spanish” or convert to Spanish Catholicism; indeed, the temporary Spanish military success in those locales had little if anything in the way of long-term cultural impact. Thus a “conquest” of England by the Spanish Armada was simply out of the question, and even a Catholic restoration or “regime change” was likely a nonstarter as well. Philip was fully aware of this, and close analyses of Spanish strategy and objectives lucidly illustrate that the Spanish Armada, for all its fanfare, had rather moderate goals. Hindsight has skewed our impression of events at the time, but in Philip’s eyes England was a sideshow; his prime objectives were on the European Continent, and above all he simply wanted England to stay out of the way. (As is noted in my accompanying essay, when England and Spain finally did cease hostilities with the Treaty of London in 1604, the Spanish ironically did by-and-large achieve their objectives from the 1580s.)


Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma


Outline of the Spanish Armada Engagement, 1588


Even the details of the Spanish Armada clash itself are often misunderstood. Many report the Armada confrontation as a sort of David-and-Goliath showdown in which the vastly outgunned and outnumbered English fleet miraculously managed to outwit and sink its Spanish adversary. The English were, in fact, neither outnumbered nor outgunned. Although the Spanish had a greater total tonnage of ships in the water—their bulky galleons lining the horizon—the English actually had more craft in the battle zone. They were smaller, lighter, and more maneuverable, equipped with long-range and rapidly reloadable cannon that conferred a strategic and technological advantage over the Spanish fleet—products of the enhancements introduced by King Henry VIII and John Hawkins, the prescient English Treasurer of the Navy who demonstrated remarkable skill as a sailor and administrator alike. Moreover, although the English fleet closed ranks to protect potential rendezvous sites on the island nation’s coastlines, it damaged but did not actually sink many of the ships in the Spanish attack force; only three vessels of the invading fleet were truly disabled by the English defenses. As R.B. Wernham noted [p. 3], the English sailors and soldiers “all were a little dispirited, and more than a little surprised, at their failure to destroy the Armada in battle.”

The outline of the Spanish Armada’s invasion plan was as follows: The approximately 130 Armada ships under the command of Medina Sidonia, disembarking from the port of Lisbon in May of 1588, were fundamentally intended as an escort to England for the professional, experienced land army of the Duke of Parma, which had proved its mettle in the wars on the Continent (though it had, of course, failed to suppress the Dutch Revolt entirely). The Spanish Armada was delayed for two months by scattering gales on its northward journey, but in early summer of 1588 it approached the Flemish coast where it would presumably provide the essential escort for Parma’s army—though the Armada would be compelled to remain offshore, since Philip lacked a deep-water port capable of harboring his hulking vessels on the strategic coasts of the Dutch Provinces or in France. This was in part due to rivalries with other continental powers, but even more because the Armada’s size and composition would have made harboring in any single port extremely difficult; Philip had allies in Catholic coastal regions of northwest Europe, but the architects and builders of European defensive and mercantile ports generally did not construct them the possibility of a 130-ship, galleon-laden escort in mind. Here alone, one can see another reason why a successful invasion of the British Isles was questionable even under the most optimal circumstances of weather and propitious sailing conditions: Philip dispatched his fleet with instructions for a difficult rendezvous with Parma’s troops in the Low Countries for which optimal timing was of the essence, yet the Spanish king lacked a reliable port, and he was demanding impeccable coordination over three centuries before the invention of radio. Once Medina Sidonia had anchored his vessels in the vicinity of Parma’s troops, he would then be compelled to simply wait as Parma replied and mustered his own forces from their scattered positions throughout the Dutch canal system. A difficult feat no matter how auspicious the conditions, and in any case Medina Sidonia’s prolonged standby status in the Channel would provide a relatively easy target for English attack—which is precisely what occurred. The famous English nighttime “dispatch of the fireships”—in which Drake, as it is often reported (though Lord Howard of Effingham was more directly responsible), set fire to several old hulks laden with pitch and gunpowder, and sent them in the direction of the Armada then moored off Calais in France—convinced Medina Sidonia to cut anchor and return to Spain by way of the Irish coast. There was undoubtedly an initial sense of panic among the Spanish sailors at the sight of the smoking hulks at night, accelerated by the landward current toward the galleons then arrayed in tight formation. The precipitate decision by Medina Sidonia to cut anchor was also tactically important since, no matter what the outcome of a subsequent confrontation, it would now be even more difficult to reorganize the provide the promised escort for Parma’s troops. Nevertheless, the Spanish were easily able to escape the English firing line and move themselves out of effective range, then regroup for battle formation against their English adversaries.

In the ensuing Battle of Gravelines, the only genuine confrontation between the English and Spanish navies in the waters around England, Hawkins’ improvements enabled the English to rapidly unload much of their ordnance, damaging the Spanish galleons’ hulls and masts enough that Medina Sidonia decided to delay a move to commence the traditional grapple-and-board tactics used by Spanish naval forces against their opponents, as they had effectively done against the Turks in the Mediterranean Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The English were able to position and fire their cannon with greater frequency and from a greater range than the Spanish. It was a remarkable technological and tactical advance in naval warfare and a testament to the foresight of Henry VIII and Hawkins, the chief architects of the rapid-fire long-range gun strategy (a lesson that the Spanish would learn well, since they would soon adopt similar techniques). Nevertheless, there was not much tangibly accomplished by the English fleet at Gravelines against the Spanish Armada in terms of damage, sinking, or incapacitation of Medina Sidonia’s force—which was still very much intact and a genuine menace after the Gravelines encounter. The Spanish fleet proceeded in orderly formation out of the battle zone, and it was hardly in a state of panic as it regrouped. Thus Gravelines was ultimately inconclusive, and this was largely due to the scarcity of ammunition on the English side, a chronic problem that plagued the English and engendered widespread consternation. Wernham [p. 3] quotes an English master-gunner, William Thomas: “So much powder and shot spent, and so long time in fight, and in comparison thereof so little harm.” Thus in terms of the naval confrontations themselves—Gravelines and its associated skirmishes— the Armada battle was essentially a rather anticlimactic stalemate; neither fleet inflicted severe damage on the other. It is often remarked with astonishment that the English did not lose a single ship in the Armada engagement, yet as we can see, the Spaniards suffered relatively light losses themselves—3 ships that were already of questionable seaworthiness to begin with. Both fleets made surprising blunders and failed to take advantage of opportunities, while both also demonstrated courage and quick thinking in the face of challenges. Both, in the aftermath of the conflict itself, were fully capable of reengaging each other. In any case, Medina Sidonia by this point had come to realize the impracticality of an escort for Parma in the midst of the still-hostile waters of the English Channel, and so he issued orders for the Spanish Armada—still largely intact and capable of seaborne combat—to round the tip of Scotland and Ireland en route back to Spain and Portugal. It was a series of September storms in the North Sea and the Northern Atlantic especially, not English gunnery, that actually sank most of the Spanish vessels or forced them onto the rocky coasts of Ireland. Over half of the sailors in the Armada force died or did not return to Spain in fighting form, many perishing from combat or disease or shipwreck, some disappearing into the Irish population where many of the ships struck land (hence the oft-repeated legend of the “Black Irish”), others reaching port but so wounded, ill, or seasick that they could not set sail again to wage battle for Philip’s navies. Nevertheless, most of the commanders returned home and in any case, more than half of the Spanish sailing fleet did manage to return successfully to port in the Iberian Peninsula.

The Armada defeat was not even nearly as clear-cut a victory for the English as is frequently assumed; the English lost thousands of soldiers and sailors themselves in the battle, mostly to disease and exposure as the strains of chronically maintaining a vigilant coastal defense took their toll. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, in his splendid and thorough book on the battle, notes that the personal suffering and bitter vituperation following the Spanish Armada clash were oddly similar on both the Spanish and the English sides: “this sort of personal suffering [exhaustion and disease from the battle] embraced the English forces with almost equal ferocity [p. 220],” “it remains a curious fact that that disillusionment, recrimination, and mutual reproach were almost as rife on the English side… as on the Spanish side [p. 220],” “the English fleet and, to a lesser extent, the army, were suffering from much the same combination of adversities as faced the Armada [p. 224].” Moreover, many of the courageous and long-suffering English sailors were not even paid for their valiant defense of the homeland, a fact that was understandable considering the financial straits for England at the time but which inspired no small measure of disgruntlement on the part of the English crews who thought they deserved better. Conversely, the Spanish sailors and commanders, in spite of the Armada’s failure in its invasion attempt, had shown remarkable and surprising fortitude in the face of adversity, particularly when confronted with some of the worst Atlantic storms recorded by mariners of the 16th century. As Fernandez-Armesto has noted, the resolve of the sailors and the preparations and responsiveness of the receiving ports in Spain substantially mitigated the disaster and saved thousands of lives. Extraordinary feats of poor-weather sailing and surprising durability enabled the vast majority of the Spanish “great ships” to return to port in Spain or Portugal, particularly those—as Fernandez-Armesto cogently mentions— of the battle-hardy Atlantic class, which fared remarkably well. (The especial hardiness of the Atlantic class figured prominently in the English Armada battle of 1589, as I discuss in my companion essay; the maintenance and protection of these ships was key to Spain’s Empire in the Americas, and thus these were the main targets of the English invasion of Spain and Portugal in 1589.) In some respects, the Spanish Armada had been extremely fortunate to have survived its travails as well as it did. The entire fleet was nearly beached off the coast of Flanders by untoward winds early in the invasion attempt, before a lucky shift averted a catastrophe. And such a remarkable number of ships and sailors, bruised and battered as they were, found their way home that, as suggested by Fernandez-Armesto, the Armada’s losses “seem surprisingly modest overall.”* The fleet would remain intact enough, in fact, that Philip would launch several more Armadas against the English over the next decade.

Sir Francis Drake

Significance of the Spanish Armada Confrontation


With all these caveats borne in mind, I should make it clear that the Spanish Armada’s failure was definitely not unimportant, and there were several key consequences (themselves often unmentioned) that merit recognition. They are more subtle and complicated than those normally (and falsely) assumed about the Armada’s aftermath, since they bear principally on the wars throughout the European Continent which constituted Philip’s chief focus of action. A successful Armada landing, even given the probable repulse of Spanish invading forces on the ground, would likely have compelled the English to withdraw all their troops from the Continent, leaving Philip open to wage an unrelenting war of attrition to devour his Dutch and French Protestant Huguenot opponents who were being supported by English expeditionary forces. With the Armada’s decampment for Spain after Gravelines, the English were able to continue their interventions in the Netherlands and France, helping to avert the collapse of the Dutch Revolt and further their support of the Huguenots and anti-Spanish forces in France. While many English confrontations against the fortified garrisons and professional troops of Spain were unsuccessful, there were some notable accomplishments—such as the amphibious landing and relief of the Siege of Brest in 1594—which were of enormous help to Philip’s opponents on the Continent. France’s would-be successor to King Henri III—assassinated in 1589— was the initially Protestant Henri of Navarre (known as Henri IV or Henry IV upon his coronation), an ally of the English who was opposed by the French Catholic League (also referred to as the “Holy League”) and by Philip’s allied armies, led by the always-formidable Duke of Parma.

After surviving four years of grueling warfare against Philip and his comrades-in-arms, Henri converted, perhaps somewhat opportunistically, to Catholicism in 1593 (uttering the oft-cited quote, “Paris is well worth a mass,” perhaps indicating a nod to expediency so as to secure his position as French king). This was a bittersweet development for the English, but it also assured that Philip would be unable to anoint his daughter— the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia—as the “rightful” French ruler, as the Spanish king had planned since 1589. Though the war in France ground on for several more years, Henri reinforced his position and hold on the crown against insurgents from the Catholic League. He was a bold and decisive military leader, and Henri’s defeats of League and Spanish forces at Burgundy and Amiens in 1595 and 1597, respectively, led to the Peace of Vervins in 1598, which ended hostilities between France and Spain. (Henri would become one of France’s most effective rulers, and his Edict of Nantes in 1598, which forbade persecution of French Protestants, would prove to be a politically shrewd and historically precedent-setting example of religious toleration.) Although Henri IV’s successes ensued chiefly from his own political acumen and military leadership, English aid of his cause was especially valuable as the new king struggled to establish his legitimacy and position. The continuing English assistance to the Netherlands and France thus provided a partial victory; Philip was not able to place his offspring on the French throne and did not fully subdue the northern Dutch provinces, though France did remain under a Catholic ruler and the more southerly Dutch and Flemish provinces were maintained within the Catholic fold by Parma’s military mastery and Spain’s sustained administrative presence.

English, French, and Dutch privateering would have likely ceased in the event of an Armada landing, depriving these North Atlantic states of what had become a valuable, if rather unreliable, income stream. Perhaps most importantly, the morale boost of the Armada’s defeat cannot be discounted. People of the time anxiously sought signals of the divine favor conferred upon or withheld held from their causes in the results on the ground. In a war so thoroughly suffused by religious overtones, it was a welcome relief to Protestants that God at least did not frown upon their beliefs so much that He would allow the hated Popist forces to set foot on the land of a Protestant stronghold. The Armada’s defeat undoubtedly inspired Protestants in this religious war to keep waging what was, in their eyes, a good fight against the unreformed Roman Church and its Spanish agents. Furthermore, as noted above, the Armada battle revolutionized naval warfare by altering assumptions about battle formations, use of ammunition, and the types of ships to be employed in combat—a lesson that the Spaniards, ironically, were able to apply to great effect themselves after 1588. Moreover, although the persistent war with Spain frustrated English efforts to initiate colonization in the Americas, English sailors nonetheless gained valuable experience on the high seas out of the sheer necessity of maintaining constant operations against Spain, and a generation of English mariners in the 1600s was thus able to cut its teeth on the waves and learn the always-challenging technical nuances of ocean currents, fickle winds, compass-assisted navigation, and victualling that are essential for oceanic voyages. (It should be noted, however, that Hawkins’s focus on light, maneuverable ships—useful in the defense against the Armada—may have also impaired English attempts at transatlantic exploration and settlement, since such vessels were generally not as reliable as the larger Spanish transports in ocean seafaring.)


The 1589 English Armada and the Continuing Anglo-Spanish War


Nevertheless, from a strategic perspective, the Spanish Armada’s defeat alone accomplished little for the English or their Protestant Continental allies in their concerted efforts to repulse Philip’s armies and defeat his still-imposing navy, and it was definitely not the decisive blow that it has often been mistakenly portrayed. As discussed in the main article on my Website (“The Defeat of the English Armada”), the state of affairs in the immediate aftermath of the Armada’s straggling return to Spain indeed presented an enticing opportunity to the English. They duly attempted to follow up the Spanish Armada repulse with an expedition to Spain and Portugal in 1589, an invasion by the English (led by Sir Francis Drake and John Norris) of Spanish and Portuguese soil designed, chiefly, to destroy Spain’s Atlantic navy. Had this been successful, the entire course of world history may well have been dramatically changed, since Spain would have been deprived of the naval forces it needed to sustain its fledgling New World empire, and its treasure fleet from the West Indies and Spanish Main would have fallen into the hands of its enemies. This is the principal reason that the Spanish Armada battle, as it is so often taught, is so woefully inaccurate in its rendition; it is impossible to understand the Spanish Armada without a thorough comprehension of its military and strategic context and its quite fascinating aftermath in particular. Francis Drake, Robert Dudley, Francis Walsingham, Lord Howard of Effingham, Queen Elizabeth I, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, King Philip II, the Duke of Parma, and the other major participants in the Anglo-Spanish war all grasped this well. They knew that the Spanish Armada had failed but returned to Spain intact enough for Philip to achieve his war aims later, and all recognized that—ultimately—the struggle for power in the Western Hemisphere would depend on whether the English could inflict a crushing blow at an opportune moment on Philip’s Atlantic-class squadrons, the cream of Spain’s seafaring crop and the nucleus of its power in the Americas, which had escaped the Armada confrontation largely unscathed. Only then would the Atlantic sea lanes finally open to enable the English to initiate their long-frustrated aims of New World colonization and empire, for which the Spanish and Portuguese had enjoyed such a dominant headstart after Columbus’s voyage in 1492.

This is why the English saw such a tantalizing opportunity in 1589. With the Spanish fleet moored in a few ports off northern Spain for refitting—predominantly in the cities of Santander and San Sebastian, fronting the Bay of Biscay between Spain and France—and relatively unprepared to defend the peninsular coastal waters, Spain’s Atlantic class-ships would be uniquely vulnerable to English surprise attack. It is for this reason that the English Armada of 1589, as one might term the Drake and Norris-led English invasion force against Spain and Portugal in that year, would wage such a historically significant battle, and why so many “what-ifs” accompany a slight change in the fortunes of Drake and Norris in their expedition. For reasons discussed in the companion essay, Drake and his navy never set foot in Santander or San Sebastian, a crucial error that robbed the English invasion force of an easy opportunity; instead, his troops attempted unsuccessfully to seize and sack the Spanish city of Coruña to the south, then failed in an attack on the Portuguese capital of Lisbon as well as in an attempted capture of the Spanish treasure fleet, suffering heavy casualties in the process and returning back to England defeated and demoralized. Had Drake only sailed to those cities as originally planned, rather than dallying in Coruña and (later) encountering failure in Portugal, the English would have found an undefended and dangerously vulnerable Spanish Atlantic fleet all but begging to be put to the torch. Had this occurred, the Spanish would have lost the keystone of their Atlantic power and the military underpinning of their American empire, and not only the Spanish treasure fleets but the vast span of the Americas—both the territories tenuously claimed by Spain and those still unexplored—would have been opened to predation and colonization by the English, French, Dutch, and other comers from Western Europeans coastal nations. What we now take for granted as the vast landmass and cultural sphere of “Latin America”—Panama, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Argentina, Venezuela, and many other territories on the American continent or the Caribbean— could easily have fallen under the control of the North Atlantic countries if only Drake and Norris had more successfully carried out their mission.

In any case, the fascinating and crucially important aftermath of the Spanish Armada confrontation—which was merely one battle in a long, grinding naval war between England and Spain—is often neglected, one of many egregious errors in the common portrayal of Anglo-Spanish relations during the late 16th century. While there were some successes for the English in the post-Armada period—the capture of the Madre de Dios in 1592, the relief of Brest in 1594, the sack of Cadiz in 1596 (though the English were thwarted in their attempt to capture the treasure fleet, their principal objective)—overall the English foundered in their attempts to break Spain’s power. Privateering expeditions by Hawkins and Frobisher in 1590 and 1591 were unsuccessful, and English corsairs in general were so often thwarted in their aims that the costs of their forays greatly outweighed any remunerative benefit. The Azores Islands off the Portuguese coast in particular drew English attention because of their strategic location relative to the Spanish naval ports of disembarkation and the treasure fleet, yet English attempts to challenge Spain in the vicinity of the Azores met with little success. A squadron under Lord Howard of Effingham in 1591 was surprised and scattered by a Spanish convoy passing near the coveted islands, and The Revenge, despite a brave last stand, surrendered and was captured by Spanish forces. The “Islands Voyage” expedition to the Azores in 1597, under Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and Sir Walter Raleigh began with similar hopes and encountered similar frustrations, collapsing amid Spanish defenses and bickering among the English commanders.

Most notably, the English would suffer two particularly damaging setbacks in 1595. Drake and Hawkins would lead a substantial expedition to the Spanish Main in that year. Although it was conceived as a raiding party to seize precious Spanish galleons, the expedition was planned in an effort to attack and overtake Spanish positions perceived as vulnerable, attempting to establish a foothold in and divest Spanish control over forts in Puerto Rico, Panama, and other strongholds in the West Indies and Central America. This 1595 expedition is rife with “what-ifs” since, had it been successful, the English may have seized and annexed numerous Spanish territories which are today taken for granted as Hispanic lands. (Indeed, the English did precisely that to Jamaica, which was originally a Spanish sugarcane colony but fell into English hands under Oliver Cromwell in the mid-1600s.) However, remarkably precise Spanish intelligence enabled a smothering defensive perimeter to be established on land and at sea in the targeted regions, routing the English forces who would suffer an unusually severe naval defeat. The expedition’s leaders fell into corrosive infighting as their objectives went unrealized and their ships became deprived of supplies and victuals; Hawkins died of disease in Puerto Rico in 1595, while Drake would contract a fatal dysentery on an island off Panama, where he died and was buried at sea (near Porto Bello) in January of 1596. The Spanish both feared and respected Drake and Hawkins, and now their two most formidable opponents—the most visible symbols of English buccaneering and naval derring-do—had been killed in the same expedition. During the same year, western England suffered the shock of a successful raid by a Spanish commander, Don Carlos de Amesquita, who exploited favorable winds to alight in Cornwall and torch Penzance and several other villages within the fishing region before holding Mass and disembarking again. Besides the continuing setbacks against Spain, the English would also be sucked into a painful and costly guerrilla war against Hugh O’Neill, Red Hugh O’Donnell, and other rebellious Irish lords in 1594, their efforts funded and supported by the Spanish Crown.

To be sure, the continuing war against England was also quite expensive for Spain, and English piracy, despite its diminishing returns after 1589, was still enough of a menace that it ate into the Spanish Crown’s much-needed revenues. However, Spain managed to ship three times as much precious metal in the 1590s than it did in the previous decade, and its effective control of the sea lanes both helped to guarantee its control over the American colonies as well as to thwart English attempts to initiate their own colonization for the war’s duration. Spain’s fiscal troubles continued apace and were undoubtedly exacerbated by the buccaneers’ harassing attacks and the grueling campaigns on the Continent. Nevertheless, Spain’s financial morass was chiefly of its own making. Philip had, after all, declared two bankruptcies well before England and Spain initiated mutual hostilities in 1585, and Philip’s successors—woefully lacking in his domestic thrift and self-discipline—squandered enormous sums in fiscal mismanagement and court corruption in the 1600s. If anything, Spain’s dependence on the silver shipments from the New World would probably prove to be the chief factor in its undoing as a great power in the late 17th century; the precious metals gave rise to a ruinous inflation that inexorably burdened Spain’s economy and ruined many in its merchant class. Nevertheless, these factors were chiefly internal, and as can be seen, the Spanish Armada defeat ultimately had little effect on Spain’s naval and political supremacy, or the country’s vise grip on the Western Hemisphere, during the 1590s. The Anglo-Spanish war of the late 1500s—in which Spain, not England, would emerge strengthened on the high seas—had pivotal consequences for the course of world history which reverberate powerfully today, not least in the extraordinarily large and vibrant cultural sphere of Latin America.


For more information about the little-known but extraordinarily significant invasion of Spain and Portugal by Francis Drake and John Norris against Spain in 1589, please read my main article,

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


*The Armada setback was hardly the only defeat encountered by the Spanish military in its numerous operations of the 16th and early 17th centuries, and in their historical annals, the Spaniards do not seem to have been particularly perturbed by the 1588 Armada’s defeat in any case. To the extent that the Spanish ruefully reflected upon battles lost and wars misbegotten, it was their fierce 17th-century clashes with the French—and their decisive defeats at Passaro and Rocroi in particular—that broke their power and enabled France to rise in their place as Europe’s “Great Power.”


For further reading:


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.


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.


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


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


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.


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, Top 10 myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada, history’s most confused and misunderstood battle,” by Wes Ulm, Harvard University personal website, URL: http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~ulm/history/sp_armada.htm, © 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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