The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 is often regarded as proof of England’s naval superiority during Elizabethan times, boosting the legend of Elizabeth herself along with her stirring speech at Tilbury docks a few years afterwards, and giving great heart to the Protestant causes across the continent of Europe. Sir Francis Drake and his reluctance to leave a game of bowls unfinished at Plymouth Hoe have helped cement the legend for generations of school children.
The reality, as so often, was not quite like that; however, it is just as fascinating.
By 1587 the English, with the help of, through Spanish eyes, ‘pirates’ such as Sir Francis Drake, were causing considerable damage to Spain’s trade in silver from the Americas; many ships had either been sunk or captured. In addition, what were then the Spanish Netherlands were causing the Spanish many problems, especially with the development of Protestant independence seekers, whom the English were giving considerable assistance.
When Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed under Elizabeth’s orders, the Spanish king Felipe II (Philip II), who had been married to Mary I of England and had later even tried to marry Elizabeth, decided Spain could take no more and should attack and invade.
The Spanish Armada was thus conceived. It was, however, beset by problems even before it left Spain.
For example, in 1587, Drake famously ‘singed the king of Spain’s beard’ when, in an audacious and brilliant attack, he sank between 20 and 30 Spanish ships in Cádiz harbour. Not only were ships destroyed, though; many supplies destined for the armada were lost including, crucially, thousands of barrels. The replacement barrels subsequently used for the armada were made of new wood, which was still damp, which rotted and ruined the food and soured the water on board the ships, with catastrophic consequences.
The highly experienced Spanish admiral, Álvaro de Bazán Santa Cruz, had died in 1586 to be replaced by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a rich and successful general who, unfortunately, had never been to sea before and suffered from constant sea sickness. It was he who led the fleet of 22 Spanish Royal Navy warships and 108 converted merchant vessels on the mission to attack England. From the very start, the bad weather forced one galleon and four galleys to abandon the armada and return home.
Luck appeared, for once in this tale, to favour the Spaniards when they arrived at Plymouth with the English fleet trapped in the harbour by the incoming tide – that was why Drake would have found it pointless leaving his bowls. Medina Sidonia, though, ignored the advice given by his experienced admirals to ride into the harbour on the tide and incapacitate the English fleet there and then. A decision that was to prove more than a little costly.
The English fleet was commanded by Lord Howard of Effingham, a man astute enough to realise that experienced sailors such as Drake, Sir John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher should be allowed to make the key decisions and, after tacking upwind of the Spanish to gain a significant tactical advantage, the English were able to constantly snipe away at the Spanish in a series of minor skirmishes. Two Spanish ships were captured in this way, enabling the English to take enormous supplies of gunpowder to their own fleet.
The most decisive encounter took place off the small Flemish port of Gravelines, where Medina Sidonia was attempting to reform his fleet. The superior manoeuvrability of the English ships and the use of ‘Hell Burners’ – eight old ships used as floating bombs set off to drift into the Spanish fleet, caused panic far beyond the impact achieved just by destroying a single vessel – and meant that five ships were lost completely and many more very badly damaged. The Spanish plan to join up with the land forces of the Duke of Parma and then invade south east England was abandoned and the ships were forced up the North Sea coast.
It was now that nature decided to really turn cruel towards the Spanish. The ships, many severely damaged and held together by cables, limped around Scotland and Ireland into the North Atlantic. Food and water were desperately short and the cavalry horses had long since been thrown overboard. Unprecedented Atlantic storms battered the damaged ships and, because so many of them had cut their anchor lines to escape the fire ships, they were unable to secure shelter in bays and were driven onto the rocks. Many more sailors and ships were lost than in the previous combat; an estimated 5,000 men. The English belief that God was on their side in this Protestant success was embodied by the wording on the commemorative medals that were specially struck: He blew His winds, and they were scattered.
What was left of the Grande y Felicísima Armada- the Great and Most Fortunate Navy – 67 ships and a quarter of the men, returned to Lisbon but many of the survivors were later to die in Spain or on hospital ships in Spanish harbours as a result of diseases they had contacted on their journey.
Felipe sent another, smaller, armada the following year, but that met heavy storms south of Cornwall and was blown back to Spain. The navy then underwent significant reforms which meant that it was able to dominate European seas again, even after the seemingly irreversible damage inflicted in 1588.