The "Invincible" Armada


In the latter part of the 16th century, Spain was the major international power and either ruled, colonized, or exercised influence over much of the known world. English 'sea-dogs' had been causing a great deal of damage to Spain's trade in silver. Men such as Sir Francis Drake attacked Spanish shipping off of the West Indies and Spain lost a vast sum of money when the ships carrying silver sunk or had their cargo captured by Drake. To the English, Drake was a hero but to the Spanish he was nothing more than a pirate who, in their view, was allowed to do what he did with the full knowledge of Queen Elizabeth. This the Spanish could not accept.

Spain controlled what was called the Spanish Netherlands. This consisted of modern day Holland and Belgium.  In particular, Holland wanted its independence. They did not like being made to be Catholic; in fact, Protestant ideas had taken root in Holland and many of those in Holland were secret Protestants. If they had publicly stated their Protestant beliefs, their lives would have been in danger. Spain used a religious secret police called the Inquisition to hunt out Protestants. However, during Elizabeth's reign, the English had been helping the Dutch Protestants in Holland. This greatly angered King Felipe II of Spain. With England under his control, Felipe could control the English Channel and his ships could have an easy passage from Spain to the Spanish Netherlands. Spanish troops stationed there could be easily supplied.

Catholic Felipe believed that it was his duty to lead Protestant England back to the Catholic faith - by force of necessary. In 1587, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was executed in England on the orders of Elizabeth. Mary Stuart, was a Catholic and Felipe II believed that he had a duty to ensure no more Catholics were arrested in England and that no more should be executed. Mary, Queen of Scots, had also made it clear that if she became Queen of England, Felipe should inherit the throne after her death. He managed to get papal approval for his invasion, and a promise of money to be delivered after the Spanish had landed in England.

He also got papal permission to name the next ruler of England (by surreptitiously slipping a clause to that effect into the middle of the document of agreement with the Pope). Felipe planned to name his daughter Isabel Clara Eugenia as Queen of England, under his control.

Felipe began preparing his invasion force as early as 1584. His first choice as commander was the Marquis of Santa Cruz, but when Santa Cruz died Felipe ordered the Duke of Medina Sidonia to take command of the fleet. Medina Sidonia was an experienced warrior on land, but he had no naval background, and no interest in leading the Armada, as the invasion fleet came to be called. He begged to be dismissed, but Felipe ignored the request.

To accomplish the conquest of England, Felipe planned a two pronged attack. He would send his "Invincible Armada" of 125 ships into the English Channel where it would link up with the Duke of Parma in the Spanish Netherlands at Calais. The Armada would ferry the Duke's soldiers across the straight of Dover and these troops would march on London, seize the Queen, and proceed to conquer the entire country.

With all that had been going on, it was very difficult for the Spanish to keep the Armada a secret. In fact, they were keen to let the English know about the Armada as it was felt that the English would be terrified at the news of such a large fleet of naval ships attacking them.

In a bold move, apparently against Queen Elizabeth's wishes, Sir Francis Drake sailed a small English fleet to Cadiz, where they surprised a large number of Spanish warships in the harbour. Drake burned and sunk around 30 ships and destroying supplies, delaying the Armada preparations for nearly a whole year. Although the blow at Cadiz was more an annoyance than a major setback, the English took heart from this "singeing of the King of Spain's beard".

IsabelClara02.jpg (39266 bytes)

Isabel Clara Eugenia

Alvaro De Bazan

Marquis of Santa Cruz

Dn Alonso Martinez de Leyva

Captain of the "Rata Encoronada"

by El Greco

By May 1588, however, the Armada was finally ready to sail. The fleet numbered over 130 ships, making it by far the greatest naval fleet of its age. According to Spanish records, 30,493 men sailed with the Armada, the vast majority of them soldiers. The organisation to get the Armada ready was huge. Cannons, guns, gunpowder, swords and many other weapons of war were needed and Spain bought them from whoever would sell to them. A number of merchant ships had to be converted to be naval ships but the Armada (or the "Great Enterprise" as Felipe called it) also contained ships that simply carried things rather than fought at sea. These ships carried amongst other items; 180 priests; 728 servants; 11 million pounds (in weight) of ships biscuits; 40,000 gallons of olive oil; 14,000 barrels of wine; 600,000 pounds of salted pork; 11,000 pairs of sandals and 5,000 pairs of shoes. A closer look, however, reveals that this "Invincible Armada" was not quite so well armed as it might seem.

Many of the Spanish vessels were converted merchant ships, better suited to carrying cargo than engaging in warfare at sea. They were broad and heavy, and could not maneuver quickly under sail.

This might not at first glance have seemed a problem to the Spanish. They did not intend to engage the English in a sea battle. The ships of the Armada were primarily troop transport. Their major task was simply to carry armed men to a designated landing point and unload them.

Naval tactics were evolving; it was still common for ships to come alongside each other and allow fighting men to engage in hand to hand combat. Advances in artillery were only beginning to allow for more complex strategies and confrontations at sea. At this stage the English were far more adept at artillery and naval tactics than the Spanish, who were regarded as the best soldiers in Europe.

The Spanish plans called for the fleet to sail up the English Channel and rendezvous off Dover with the Duke of Parma, who headed the Spanish forces in the Netherlands. This in itself presented huge problems. Communications were slow, and the logistical problems of a rendezvous at sea were immense.

Also, the Duke of Parma was a very proud man, and resented the fact that Medina Sidonia had been given command of the operation. Throughout the whole Armada affair Parma, while not openly obstructionist, did a poor job of cooperating with his titular commander, Medina Sidonia. He did not believe the enterprise could succeed, and he did the absolute minimum possible to help.

Perhaps worst of all the problems faced by the Armada was Felipe himself. The King insisted on controlling the details of the Armada's mission. He issued a steady stream of commands from his palace of the Escorial, yet he seldom met with his commanders, and never allowed his experienced military leaders to evolve their own tactics. He did not listen to advice, which was a shame, for Felipe had little military training and a poor grasp of naval matters. He firmly believed that God guided him, and that therefore his mission would succeed.

The English were not idle while the Spanish Armada prepared to sail. A series of signal beacons atop hills along the English and Welsh coasts were manned.

Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma

Nephew of Felipe II of Spain and his Governos of the Netherlands

Painted by Otto Van Veen

Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham
Unknown artist
(detail) oil on canvas, (1602)

Robert Dudely, Earl of Leicester, was put in charge of the land army stationed at Tilbury, and he organised Queen Elizabeth's famous visit. Elizabeth coped with military weakness by fashioning a valiant image, she arrived on a white steed, wearing a silver cuirass. The Queen rode through all the squadrons of her army attended by Leicester, Essex and Norreys, then lord marshall, and divers other great lords. In a speech she proclaims:

"My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that we are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes for fear of treachery; but, I do assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people.

Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself, that under God I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects; and, therefore, I am come amongst you as you see at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all - to lay down for my God, and for my kingdoms, and for my people, my honour and my blood even in the dust.

I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a King - and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms - I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

I know already, for your forwardness, you have deserved rewards and crowns, and, we do assure you, on the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. For the meantime, my Lieutenant-General Leicester shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my General, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over these enemies of my God, of my kingdom and of my people."

Lord Henry Seymour (second son of the late Protector Somerset), with Sir William Winter, was ordered with his fleet of forty English and Dutch ships, under command of Justin of Nassau, Admiral of Zealand, to lie off the coast of Flanders, to prevent the intended junction of the forces under the Dukes of Parma, with the Armada. For the Duke, by orders received from Spain, had built ships and many flat-bottomed boats, each of the latter big enough to carry thirty horses, with bridges fitted to them. He hired mariners from the east of Germany; prepared pikes, sharpened and armed with iron hooks on the sides (some may be seen at the present day in the Tower); and had also 20,000 barrels, and an infinite number of wicker baskets and faggots. In the seaports of Flanders lay his army of 103 companies of foot and 4000 horse, making together 30,000 men, and among them 700 English fugitives, under Stanley and the outlawed rebel the Earl of Westmoreland; besides 12,000 men brought by the Duke of Guise to the coast of Normandy, intended for an attack on the West of England, under cover and protection of the Armada.


Tonnage Name Men Admirals and Captains
800 The Ark Royal 400 with the flag of Charles, Lord Howard of Effingham
800 Vidory 400 Admiral Sir John Hawkins, Treasurer and Comptroller of the Navy
      Capt. R. Barker
1000 The Triumph 500 Vice-Admiral Sir Martin Frobisher
900 Bear 500 Lord Edmund Sheffield
900 Elizabeth Jonas 500 Sir Robert Southwell
600 Mary Rose 250 Capt. Edward Fenton
500 Nonpareil 250 Thomas Fenner
500 Golden Lion 250 Lord Thomas Howard
600 Elizabeth Bonaventure 250 George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland
600 Hope 250 Robert Cross
500 Revenge 250 Sir Francis Drake, Vice-Admiral of a squadron of volunteers
500 Rainbow 250 Lord Henry Seymour
500 Vanguard 250 Sir William Winter
500 Dreadnought 200 Sir George Beston
340 Antelope 160 Sir Henry Palmer
300 Swallow 160 Richard Hawkins
360 Swiftsure 180 Edward Fenner
300 Foresight 160 Christopher Baber, gent.
250 Gally Bonavolia 256 William Bourough, Esq.
In addition to this list were the Volunteer Squadrons.
240 Aid 120 William Fenner, gent.
200 Bull 100 Jeremy Turner, gent.
200 Tiger 100 John Bostocke, gent.
150 Tremountain 70 Luke Ward, gent.
120 George 30 Richard Hodges
120 Scout 70 Henry Ashley, Esq.
100 Achates 60 Gregory Riggs, gent.
70 Charles 40 John Roberts, gent.
60 Moon 40 Alexander Clifford
50 Advice 35 John Harris
50 Spye 35 Ambrose Ward
50 Martyne 35 Walter Goare
40 Sun 24 Richard Buckley
30 Cygnet 20 John Sherrife
  Brigandine 36 Thomas Scott

When the Spanish ships were at last sighted of The Lizard on 19 Jul 1588, the beacons were lit, speeding the news throughout the realm. The English ships slipped out of their harbour at Plymouth and, under cover of darkness, managed to get behind the Spanish fleet.

The Spanish Armada, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, first sailed in Apr 1588. It hit a terrible storm and many ships were damaged. They had to return to port to get repaired. The Armada sailed from Portugal in late May of 1588, up the Channel in a crescent formation, with the troop transports in the centre. The stores put on board the new ships rotted as the barrels that contained the food and water were made of new wood which was still damp. This rotted the food and made the water sour. It reached the South West coast of England on Jul 19 and was shortly thereafter challenged by the English fleet commanded by Lord Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral of England, and Sir Francis Drake. Each fleet numbered about 60 warships, but the advantage of artillery and maneuverability was with the English.

It is said that when Sir Francis Drake was informed of the Armada's approach, he replied that he had time to finish the game of bowls he was playing on Plymouth Hoe and time to defeat the Armada. It is possible that he knew that the tide of the River Tamar in Plymouth was against him, so that he could not get his ships out of Devonport - therefore, he knew that he could finish his game of bowls because his ships were dependent on the tide to move. If the tide was coming in, his ships had to stay tied up. If the tide was going out, then he had the freedom to move his ships into the Channel.

Under cover of darkness the English set fireships adrift, using the tide to carry the blazing vessels into the massed Spanish fleet. Although the Spanish were prepared for this tactic and quickly slipped anchor, there were some losses and inevitable confusion.

Howard decided that the Spanish Armada should be attacked at both ends of the crescent. The Ark Royal attacked the right wing and the Revenge and the Triumph attacked Juan Martinez de Recalde, commander of the Biscayan squadron on the left. Recalde on board the San Juan de Portugal decided to come out and fight the English ships. He was followed by Gran Grin and the two ships soon got into trouble and had to be rescued by the Duke of Medina Sidonia on board the San Martin. The English vessels, avoiding close-in combat as the Spanish desired, hung on to the flanks of the Spanish ships as they sailed up the English Channel.

The battle near Plymouth began on 31 Jul. In the afternoon the Rosario loses her foremast in a collision and later the San Salvador catches fire and explodes. Early in the morning of the 1 Aug the crippled Rosario is captured by Sir Francis Drake. At the end of the first day's fighting, only one ship was sunk. This was Spain's San Salvador when a tremendous explosion tore out its stern castle and killed 200 members of the crew. It was later discovered that a gunner's carelessness resulted in a spark reaching the gunpowder in the rear hold. The badly damaged San Salvador is captured by the English and towed to Weymouth. The following morning Francis Drake and the crew of Revenge captured the crippled Rosario. This included Admiral Pedro de Valdes and all his crew. Drake also found 55,000 gold ducats on board. That afternoon Medina Sidonia announced that if any Spanish ship broke formation the captain would be hanged immediately. He also told his captains that they must maintain a tight formation in order to prevent further attacks from the English ships. This decision meant that they could only move towards Dunkirk at the speed of the slowest ship. There was a battle near Portland Bill on 2 Aug. Sea fights take place off the Needles, as ships approach The Isle of Wight, where was a battle on 4 Aug. That day, a strong wind caused the Channel to become a lot more rough and the smaller English ships suffered from this whereas the Spanish used the wind to move quickly to the European coastline where they would pick up Spanish troops ready for the invasion of England.

The Armada, closely followed by the Western Squadron, sails towards the Straits of Dover. Constantly harassed by the English ships the slow moving Spanish Armada eventually reached Calais without further loss on the 6 Aug. Lord Henry Seymour’s Narrow Seas Squadron joins the Western Squadron. While the Armada kept its crescent shape it was very difficult for the English Navy to attack it. Once it stopped, it lost its crescent shape and left it open to attack. The Duke of Medina Sidonia now sent a message to the Duke of Parma in Dunkirk:

"...I am anchored here two leagues from Calais with the enemy's fleet on my flank. They can cannonade me whenever they like, and I shall be unable to do them much harm in return..."

He asked Parma to send fifty ships to help him break out of Calais. Medina Sidonia learned to his horror that there was no port deep enough near to where the Duke of Parma's were for him to stop his fleet. The best he could do was to harbour at Gravelines, near Calais,  and then wait for the troops to arrive. Parma was unable to help as he had less than twenty ships and most of those were not yet ready to sail.

That night Medina Sidonia sent out a warning to his captains that he expected a fire-ship attack. This tactic had been successfully used by Francis Drake in Cadiz in 1587 and the fresh breeze blowing steadily from the English fleet towards Calais, meant the conditions were ideal for such an attack. He warned his captains not to panic and not to head out to the open sea. Medina Sidonia confidently told them that his patrol boats would be able to protect them from any fire-ship attack that took place.

Medina Sidonia had rightly calculated what would happen. Charles Howard and Francis Drake were already organizing the fire-ship attack.

Then the English saw an opportunity to attack the Spanish fleet. Sir Francis Drake is given the credit for what happened next but an Italian called Giambelli should also receive credit for building the "Hell Burners" for the English. Late in the evening of the 7 Aug 1588 the English used eight old ships were loaded up with anything that could burn well. John Young, one of Drake's men, was put in charge of the fire-ships. These floating bombs were set to drift during the night into the resting Armada. The Armada was a fully armed fleet. Each ship was carrying gunpowder and the ships were made of wood with canvas sails. If they caught fire, each ship would not have a chance. Knowing about "Hell Burners", the Spanish put lookouts on each boat. They spotted the on-fire ships coming in, but what could they do? The Spanish patrol ships were unable to act fast enough to deal with the problem. The Spanish captains also began to panic when the guns began exploding. They believed that the English were using hell-burners (ships crammed with gunpowder). This tactic had been used against the Spanish in 1585 during the siege of Antwerp when over a thousand men had been killed by exploding ships.

As the Armada saw the on fire ships approaching, each ship of the Armada attempted to break out of Gravelines to save itself - but in the dark. Only one Spanish ship was lost but the crescent shape disappeared and the Armada was now vulnerable to attack. Medina Sidonia, on board the San Martin, had remained near his original anchorage.

On Monday 8 Aug, at first light Medina Sidonia and his six remaining ships left Calais and attempted to catch up with the 130 ships strung out eastwards towards the Dunkirk sandbanks. Some Spanish ships had already been reached by the English fleet and were under heavy attack. San Lorenzo, a ship carrying 312 oarsmen, 134 sailors and 235 soldiers, was stranded on the beach and was about to be taken by the English.

With their formation broken, the Spanish ships were easy targets for the English ships loaded with guns that could fire very large cannon balls. The Spanish captains tried to get their ships in close so that their soldiers could board the English vessels. However, the English ships were quicker than the Spanish galleons and were able to keep their distance.

The battle of Gravelines continued all day. One of the most exciting contests was between Francis Drake in the Revenge and Duke of Medina Sidonia in the San Martin. Drake's ship was hit several times before being replaced by Thomas Fenner in the Nonpareil and Edmund Sheffield in the White Bear, who continued the fight without success.

All over the area of sea between Gravelines and Dunkirk fights took place between English and Spanish ships. By late afternoon most ships were out of gunpowder. The Duke of Medina Sidonia was now forced to head north with what was left of the Spanish Armada. The English ships did not follow as Charles Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral, was convinced that most Spanish ships were so badly damaged they would probably sink before they reached a safe port. The battle off Gravelines was an 8 hour struggle. The English emerged victorious, although the Spanish losses were not great; only three ships were reported sunk, one captured, and four more ran aground. The Dutch later captures three ships. But they had stopped the English from attacking the rest of the Armada and worsening weather also helped the Armada to escape. Medina Sidonia later wrote that the Armada was "saved by the weather, by God's mercy..."

That evening Francis Drake wrote to a friend:

"...God hath given us so good a day in forcing the enemy so far to leeward, as I hope in God the Duke of Parma and the Duke of Sidonia shall not shake hands this few days..."

John Hawkins was also pleased with his day's work:

"...All that day Monday we followed the Spaniards with a long and great fight, wherein there was great valour showed generally by our company... Our ships, God be thanked, have received little hurt..."

Ships of the Spanish Armada face danger as they are driven by the wind and tide towards the Flemish sandbanks. Just after mid-day of the 9 Aug, the wind direction changes and the Armada is able to sail northwards. English ships pursue the Armada as it sails northwards. Hearing that the Duke of Parma's invasion force is ready to embark, Seymour's Narrow Seas Squadron returns to the English Channel on 11 Aug.

English ships pursuing the Armada, give up the chase and return to English ports 12 Aug.

The Spanish fleet fared disastrously rounding the coast of Scotland. It was then that the unpredictable English weather took a hand in the proceedings. A succession of storms scattered the Spanish ships, resulting in heavy losses.

Their supplies on board were not enough for such a journey and many of the crews were reduced to eating rope for survival. Fresh water quickly disappeared and the crews could not drink sea water. To add to their troubles, as the Armada sailed around the north of Scotland in mid-Sep, it hit a one of the worst storms in history which damaged many ships.

Those ships that survived this storm, headed for Ireland. Here they were convinced they would get help and supplies. Ireland was still Catholic and the Catholic Spanish sailors believed that those with the same religion would help them. They were wrong. The Armada harboured in what is now called Armada Bay, south of Galway. Those sailors who went ashore were attacked and killed. The Irish, Catholic or not, still saw the Spanish as invaders. Those who survived the storms, the Irish, the lack of food etc. still had to fear disease as scurvy, dysentery and fever killed many who were already in a weakened state.

Figures do vary but it is thought that only 67 ships out of 130 returned to Spain – a loss rate of nearly 50%. Over 20,000 Spanish sailors and soldiers were killed. Many in Spain blamed Medina Sidonia but King Felipe II was not one of these. He blamed its failure on the weather saying "I sent you out to war with men, not with the wind and waves".

The victory over the Armada was to make Sir Francis Drake a very famous man. The victory was even remembered at Christmas when Elizabeth ordered that everybody should have goose on Christmas Day as that was the meal she had eaten on the evening that she learned that her navy had beaten the Armada.

In England the victory was greeted as a sign of divine approval for the Protestant cause. The storms that scattered the Armada were seen as intervention by God. Services of thanks were held throughout the country, and a commemorative medal struck, with the words, "God blew and they were scattered" inscribed on it.

Throughout the whole campaign, the English lost no ships and only 100 men in battle. However, over 7,000 English sailors died from disease (dysentery and typhus mostly) during the time the Armada was in English water. Also those English sailors who survived and fought against the Armada were poorly treated by the English government. Many were given only enough money for the journey to their home and some received only part of their pay. John Hawkins showed concern for his men: "The men have long been unpaid and need relief". The overall commander of the English Navy, Lord Howard, was shocked claiming that "I would rather have never a penny in the world, than they (his sailors) should lack...". Howard wrote to William Cecil (20 Aug 1588) " ... It is a most pitiful sight to see, here at Margate, how the men, having no place to receive them into here, die in the streets. I am driven myself, of force, to come a-land, to see them bestowed in some lodging; and the best I can get is barns and outhouses. It would grieve any man's heart to see them that have served so valiantly to die so miserably...". With this, he used his own money to pay his sailors.

Note: The term "Invincible Armada" was not a Spanish one. It was a sarcastic phrase employed by later English commentators.

Anyone yacht sailing off the coast of Calais or in the English Channel should stop and remember the famous defeat of the Spanish Armada. Though no one wants to think of ships burning and sinking when purchasing new Viking Yachts for sale, remembering one of the most important sea battles of all time is necessary for any sailing or history enthusiast.


Cloulas, Ivan: Philippe II

Duchein, Michel: Elisabethe Iº d´Anglaterre

Erickson, Carolly: The First Elizabeth

Gonzalez-Arnao Conde Luque, Mariano: Los Naufragos de la Armada Invencible

Jenkins, Elizabeth: Elizabeth the Great

Kenny, Robert W.:  Elizabeth's Admiral. the Political Career of Charles Howard Earl of Nottingham 1536-1624
Neale, J.E.: Queen Elizabeth

Nolan, John S.: Sir John Norreys and the Elizabethan Military World

Somerset, Anne: Elizabeth I

Weir, Alison: The life of Elizabeth I

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