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The Spanish Armada 1588

Close quarter fighting at the Battle of Gravelines 30 July 1588
Close quarter fighting at the Battle of Gravelines 30 July 1588

In 1585 the simmering conflict between England and Spain escalated to open war. Successful amphibious operations against Lisbon in 1580 and the Azores in 1583, caused King Philip II to consider an invasion of England.

Unfortunately for the Spanish, Philip decided upon a complicated plan; the Spanish fleet was to sail up the English Channel, join up with an army under the Duke of Parma in the Netherlands and invade Kent. If there was no contact with Parma the fleet might land its troops in the Solent. It was the attempt to bring together the fleet and Parma's army which proved to be the Armada's downfall.

Eventually 130 various ships were brought together carrying 10,000 sailors and 20,000 troops. The Armada sailed from Lisbon on 18 May 1588 under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia. To defend her realm Queen Elizabeth mobilised the entire 'Navy of England', ships belonging to herself and her subjects. Some 80 vessels were commanded by the Lord Admiral, Howard of Effingham, assisted by such notable subordinates as Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher.

The English outnumbered the Spanish in fighting ships, of which the Armada had only about 20 acting as convoy escorts. The Armada was harried up the Channel by the English galleons which sailed towards the enemy firing first forward and then turning away to fire aft. Not much damage was inflicted although one major Spanish ship was damaged in a collision and captured by Francis Drake in the Revenge. Another Spanish ship was destroyed by a gunpowder explosion.

The Spaniards were shepherded past the entrances to the Solent and dropped anchor off Calais. However, Parma's army would take a week to embark even if its landing craft could be protected from England's Dutch allies in the shallow waters off the Netherlands.

Medina Sidonia's fleet was now exposed. At the Battle of Gravelines on 30 July 1588 the English used fireships before closing in on the confused Armada to effective range, about 45 metres. One Spanish ship was sunk, two driven ashore and others significantly damaged before the English ran out of ammunition. The Spaniards reformed and were blown into the North Sea being forced to return home by sailing round the British Isles. Only 77 ships got back home, a major disaster for Spain and a famous victory for England.

Further reading:

  • C. Martin, "Lord Howard: The Armada 1588" in E.J. Grove (Ed.) Great Battles of the Royal Navy (London, 1994).