HP096: Spanish Armada

HP096: Spanish Armada

Welcome to episode 96. This episode was a request from Jonathan Grunert via email.

The Spanish armada also called just armada or the invincible armada. The Spanish Armada was the great fleet sent by Philip II of Spain in 1588 to attack England in conjunction with a Spanish army from Flanders (present-day Belgium). England’s attempts to drive back this fleet involved the first naval battles to be fought entirely with heavy guns, and the failure of Spain’s venture saved England and the Netherlands from possible assimilation into the Spanish empire.

Philip had long been considering an attempt to re-establish the Roman Catholic faith in England, and English piracies against Spanish trade and property gave him that opportunity. The treaty of Nonsuch (1585) which England undertook to support the Dutch rebels against Spanish rule, along with damaging raids by Sir Francis Drake against Spanish commerce in the Caribbean in 1585-86, finally convinced Philip that a direct invasion of England was necessary. He decided to use 30,000 troops belonging to the veteran army of the Spanish regent of the Netherlands, the Duke de Parma, as the main invasion force, and to send from Spain sufficient naval force to defeat or deter the English fleet and clear the Strait of Dover for Parma’s army to cross from Flanders over to southeastern England.

After nearly two years’ preparation and extended delays the armada sailed from Lisbon in May 1588 under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, a replacement for Spain’s most distinguished administrator who proved to be resolute and capable in action but he had relatively little sea experience. The Spanish fleet consisted of about 130 ships with about 8,000 seamen and as many as 19,000 soldiers. About 40 of these ships were line-of-battle ships, the rest being mostly transports and light craft. The Spanish were aware that even their best ships were slower than those of the English and less well armed with heavy guns, but they counted on being able to force boarding actions if the English offered battle, after which the superiority of the Spanish infantry would prove decisive.

The English fleet was under the command of Charles Howard, 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham; he was no more experienced an admiral than Medinoa-Sidonia but was a more effective leader. His second in command was Sir Francis Drake. The English fleet at one time or another included nearly 200 ships; but, during most of the subsequent fighting in the English Channel, it numbered less than 100 ships, and at its largest it was about the same size as the Spanish fleet. No more than 40 or so were warships of the first rank; but the English ships were unencumbered by transports, and even their smallest vessels were fast and well armed for their size. The English placed great dependence on artillery; their ships carried few soldiers but had many more and heavier guns than the Spanish ships. With these guns mounted in faster and handier ships, they planned to stand off and bombard the Spanish ships at long range.

Gales forced the armada back to the port of La Coruna (in northern Spain) for refitting, and it finally got underway again in July. The Armada was first sighted by the English off Lizard Point, in Cornwall, on July 29. The larger part of the English fleet was at Plymouth, dead to leeward, but by a neat maneuver was able to get to the windward, or upwind, side of the enemy (west of the Armada, given the prevailing west winds) and hence gain the tactical initiative. In three encounters (off Plymouth, July 31; off Portland Bill, August 2; and off the Isle of Wight, August 4) the English harassed the Spanish fleet at long range, easily avoided all attempts to bring them to close action but were unable of inflict serious damage on the Spanish fleet.

The Armada reached the Strait of Dover on August 6 and anchored in an exposed position off Calais, France. The English also anchored, still to windward (west of the armada), and were reinforced by a squadron that had been guarding the narrow seas. The first certain news of the armada’s advance reached Parma in the Flanders the same day, and he at once began embarking his troops in their invasion craft; but the process required six days, and the armada had no safe port in which to wait for him, nor any means of escorting his small craft across the costal shallows where Dutch and English warships patrolled to intercept them. This defect in Spanish strategy was to prove disastrous.

At midnight on August 7-8, the English launched eight fire ships before the wind and tide into the Spanish fleet, forcing the Spanish fleet to cut or slip their cables (thus losing the anchors) and stand out to sea to avoid catching fire. The Spanish ships formation was thus completely broken. At dawn on the 8th the English attacked the disorganized Spanish ships off Gravelines, and a decisive battle followed. The English ships now closed to effective range and were answered largely with small arms. The Spanish ships’ heavy guns were not mounted, nor were Spanish gunners trained to reload in action; and they sustained serious damage and casualties without being able to reply effectively. Three Spanish ships were sunk or driven ashore, and other badly damaged. At the same time the English were forced by shortage of ammunition to break off the action and follow at a distance. By the morning of August 9, the prevailing westerly winds were driving the Spaniards toward the shoals of the Zeeland banks. At the last minute however, the wind shifted and allowed them to shape a safe course to the northward. Both the west wind and the English fleet now prevented the armada from rejoining Parma, and it was forced to make the passage back to Spain around the northern tip of Scotland. The English fleet turned back in search of supplies when the armada passed the Firth of Forth and there was no further fighting, but the long voyage home through autumn gales of the North Atlantic proved fatal to many of the Spanish ships. Whether through battle damage, bad weather, shortage of food and water, or navigational error, some ships foundered in the open sea, while others wrecked. Only 60 ships are known to have reached Spain, many of them too badly damaged to be repaired, and perhaps 15,000 men perished. The English lost several hundred, perhaps several thousand, men to disease but sustained negligible damage and casualties in action.

The defeat of the Armada saved England from invasion and the Dutch republic from extinction, while dealing a heavy blow to the prestige of the greatest European power of the age. Tactically the armada action had enduring historical significance as the first major naval gun battle under sail and from that moment, for over two and a half centuries, the gun-armed sailing warship dominated the seas.