In May 1588, King Philip II dispatched the 130-ship Spanish Armada on a mission to guide an invasion force to the coast of England and topple the regime of Queen Elizabeth I. This “Great and Most Fortunate Navy” was one of the mightiest fleets ever assembled, but a combination of poor tactics, robust English resistance and dismal weather ultimately doomed it to failure. By the time Philip’s “Invincible Armada” finally limped back to Spain later that autumn, at least a third of its ships were lost and some 15,000 sailors had been killed. Below, explore eight surprising facts about one of the most ambitious—and disastrous—campaigns in military history.
Before attacking Elizabeth I, Philip II tried to marry her.
The Armada was the culmination of years of hostility between King Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I, but the two weren’t always sworn enemies. Philip had once been married to Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary I, and he later threw his support behind Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne. Shortly after Mary’s death in 1558, he even sent an ambassador to Elizabeth with a proposal of marriage, only to be humiliated when she declined. Relations between Spain and England deteriorated in the decades that followed. Much of the friction centered on religion. Philip was a devout Roman Catholic, and he considered Elizabeth a Protestant heretic. The Spanish were also enraged by English pirate raids on their treasure fleets, but the breaking point came in 1585, when Elizabeth pledged military support to Protestant rebels in the Spanish Netherlands. Convinced the agreement was an act of war, Philip began planning an “Enterprise of England” to remove her from the throne.
The English raided the Armada before it left Spain.
The preparations for the Spanish Armada were one of the worst kept secrets in Europe. Elizabeth’s spies easily gleaned intelligence about the fleet being assembled in Spain, and by the spring of 1587, the English were convinced that an invasion was imminent. To slow the Armada’s progress, the Queen allowed the salty privateer and navigator Sir Francis Drake to make a surprise strike against the Spanish port of Cadiz. After briefly capturing the city’s harbor, Drake and his men torched some 30 Spanish vessels and seized or destroyed several tons of food and supplies intended for the Armada. The Spanish managed to replace most of their losses, but Drake’s “singeing of the king of Spain’s beard” may have delayed the Armada’s launch by as much as a year, allowing the English crucial time to ready themselves for an invasion.
The Armada was not the main Spanish invasion force.
The Armada was one of the largest fleets ever assembled for a single mission, but it was not intended to attack England on its own. The Spanish plan instead called for the Armada, sailing under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, to travel to the Flemish coast and rendezvous with a 30,000-strong land army under the Duke of Parma. It would then act as a defensive escort and supply convoy as Parma’s troops crossed the English Channel on small barges and moved on London. With this auxiliary role in mind, only around 35 or 40 of the Armada’s vessels were purpose-built warships. The rest were mostly armed merchantmen and cargo ships crammed with food and military supplies to support the land invasion.
A system of coastal beacons helped warn the English of the Armada’s approach.
Along with fortifying their southern beaches and marshaling militiamen, the English prepared for the Armada’s arrival by overhauling a centuries-old system of signal beacons. This primitive early warning system consisted of around 1,000 outposts spaced several miles apart along the coastline. Each was manned around the clock by teams of watchmen and equipped with a raised iron basket filled with tar and pitch. When the Spanish fleet was finally sighted off Cornwall on July 30, the spotters lit their signal fires in succession and quickly spread a call to arms around the country. That same night, a 100-ship fleet under Lord High Admiral Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake gathered outside Plymouth harbor and gave chase to the Armada.
The English used fireships to break the Armada’s formation.
The English fleet harassed the Armada for several days during its charge toward the English Channel, but their ships struggled to penetrate its crescent-shaped defensive formation. The situation grew more urgent on August 6, when Medina Sidonia dropped anchor near Calais, France to rendezvous with the Duke of Parma, who was desperately trying to gather his army in nearby Dunkirk. Knowing they couldn’t allow the Spanish to unite their forces, Drake and Lord Howard devised a scheme to scatter the enemy ships. On the night of August 8, they packed eight empty vessels with timber and pitch, set them ablaze and sent them drifting into the center of the Armada’s formation. Upon sighting the fireships, the Spanish captains fled to the open sea in panic. Most even cut their ships’ anchors in their race to avoid the floating bonfires. While the Armada escaped from Calais without serious damage, the fireship strike succeeded in breaking its defensive line. The next morning, the English engaged the now disorganized Spanish fleet at the Battle of Gravelines, where Howard and Drake used their superior long-range cannons to score a decisive victory.
Sea storms were the main cause of the Armada’s defeat.
While the English prevailed at Gravelines, they only succeeded in destroying or capturing a handful of the Armada’s ships. The true knockout blow would come courtesy of Mother Nature. In mid-August, the battered Spanish fleet was pushed into the North Sea by strong winds, ending its hopes of rendezvousing with Parma’s army. Running low on food and water, Medina Sidonia resolved to return home by rounding the tip of Scotland and sailing south along the western coast of Ireland. The voyage was accompanied by unseasonably violent storms and gales, and dozens of the Armada’s ships eventually sank at sea or were dashed against the Irish coastline, killing some 6,000 sailors. Estimates vary, but most historians believe that only around 75 or 80 of the original 130 ships managed to return to Spain. Upon learning of the state of his once glorious Armada, Philip II supposedly exclaimed, “I sent my fleet against men, not against the wind and the waves.”
England launched a counter Armada the following year—with equally disastrous results.
Almost as soon as the humiliated Armada vanished over the horizon, Elizabeth began planning a counterattack to destroy the last of Philip II’s navy and bring the Spanish Empire to its knees. By April 1859, she had outfitted Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norris with over 120 ships and dispatched them on a mission to invade Spain. It was a bold plan, but unfortunately for Elizabeth, her “English Armada” fared no better than the Spanish one. Rather than attacking the shipyards at Santander—where the remnants of the Spanish Armada were licking their wounds—Drake and Norris spent several weeks searching for plunder and unsuccessfully besieging the cities of Corunna and Lisbon. Their forces were soon riddled with disease, and Drake’s ship nearly sank after being ravaged by storms during an abortive attempt to raid the Azores. The English fleet later limped home in disgrace in the summer of 1589, having lost a staggering 11,000 men while achieving none of its military goals.
The Armada’s defeat didn’t permanently cripple the Spanish navy.
Contrary to popular belief, the defeat of the Spanish Armada wasn’t the end of Spain’s reign as a world naval power. Phillip II successfully rebuilt his fleet after the 1588 debacle and continued operations against England for several more years. He even launched two more armadas in 1596 and 1597, both of which were scattered by storms. It was not until 1604 that Elizabeth and Philip’s successors finally signed a treaty ending the 19-year Anglo-Spanish War as a stalemate. Spain’s navy continued to dominate the sea-lanes, however, and didn’t go into decline until the mid-17th century during the Thirty Years’ War.