Even before the execution of Mary Stuart, King Philip II of Spain began considering the invasion of England. He had been angered by the actions of Francis Drake in the West Indies and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, invasion of the Netherlands. His plan was for a great fleet to sweep the English Channel and leave it clear for Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, and his Spanish infantry to cross over from the Netherlands. Philip issued instructions to Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia, to "invade and conquer England, taking the Queen alive at all costs". (1)
Details of the planned invasion reached England's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, as early as December 1585. Walsingham, with his aggressive, almost fanatical desire to protect and promote his fledgling Protestant religion, had long feared Spanish military action against England. This initial information came from a merchant who had heard about it in Italy. However, Walsingham was unconvinced by the story. (2)
In the spring of 1586, Queen Elizabeth heard reports that Spain was preparing a huge invasion force to send against England. When she told Walsingham about this he said his agents in Spain saw no signs of such preparation in Spanish harbours. One of his well-informed spy reported that only eighteen ships in the entire Spanish fleet were ready for sea. A few weeks later the Queen heard from a sea-captain that he had seen a fleet of twenty-seven galleons in Lisbon Harbour. She summoned Walsingham, berated him, and threw a slipper in his face. (3)
In early 1587 Walsingham received alarming intelligence of the Spanish build-up. An estimated 450 ships were now in and around Lisbon, with 74,000 soldiers being mustered in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Flanders. He was also told that there were also 1,200 gunners and 8,912 sailors already in Spain, together with "accumulated provisions including 184,557 quintals of biscuit, 23,000 quintals of bacon, 23,000 butts of wine, 11,000 quintals of beef and 43,000 quintals of cheese." (4)
Throughout 1586 ships were being built and assembled along the Channel coast, and in England the Privy Council ordered the setting up of beacons at prominent places so that news of a Spanish invasion could be communicated to those with responsibility of defending the country. Francis Drake asked the Queen for fifty ships to attack the Armada while it was still on the coast of Spain. He argued that a blow struck in Spanish waters would weaken the determination of Spanish forces and raise morale in England. (5) Drake eventually received permission and arrived in Cadiz and destroyed the ships and stores assembled there. (6) Drake also managed to capture the vast and richly loaded San Philip, one of the largest of the treasure-ships ever to fall into English hands. (7)
Sir John Hawkins, the treasurer and controller of the Royal Navy, was the chief architect of the Elizabethan navy. William Cecil gave him the responsibility for providing enough ships to deal with the Spanish Armada. According to Harry Kelsey, the author of Sir John Hawkins (2002), Charles Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral, was "effusive in his praise for the ships" that Hawkins was able to supply. (8)
The Spanish Armada left Lisbon on 29th May 1588. It numbered 130 ships carrying 29,453 men, of whom some 19,000 were soldiers (17,000 Spanish, 2,000 Portuguese). Also on board were 180 monks and friars, 167 artillerymen and a hospital staff of 85 (which included five physicians, five surgeons and four priests). The Commander-in-chief, Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, took with him 50 servants. (9) The plan was to sail to Dunkirk in France where the Armada would pick up another 16,000 Spanish soldiers led by Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma. (10)
According to Juan Bentivollo, and Italian who saw the Spanish Armada leave for England: "You could hardly see the sea. The Spanish fleet was stretched out in the form of a half moon with an immense distance between its extremities. The masts and rigging, the towering sterns and prows which in height and number were so great that they dominated the whole naval concourse, caused horror mixed with wonder and gave rise to doubt whether that campaign was at sea or on land and whether one or the other element was the more splendid. It came on with a steady and deliberate movement, yet when it drew near in full sail it seemed almost that the waves groaned under its weight and the winds were made to obey it."
On hearing the news that the ships had left Spain, Charles Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral, held a council-of-war. Lord Howard decided to divide the English fleet into squadrons. Francis Drake, John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher were chosen as the three other senior commanders of the fleet. Howard went in his flagship, the Ark Royal (800 tons and a crew of 250). Frobisher was given command of the largest ship in the fleet, the Triumph (1,110 tons and a crew of 500 men) whereas Drake was the captain of the Revenge (500 tons and a crew of 250) and Hawkins was aboard the Victory (800 tons and a crew of 250).
It has been claimed that after the fleet sailed for England Philip II remained kneeling before the Holy Sacrament, without a cushion, for four hours each day. (11) Sidonia kept his ships in tight formation to give them protection from the English ships. The galleons and large ships were concentrated in the centre. By July the Armada was in the Channel. The Tudor historian, William Camden, described it as being "built high like towers and castles, rallied into the form of a crescent whose horns were at least seven miles distant". (12)
English land forces were divided into an army of 30,000 under Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon based at Windsor, whose main task was to defend Queen Elizabeth and 16,000, who were to prevent an attack on London. (13) Elizabeth proved to be a rousing and fearless leader, planning to ride at the head of her army to wherever along the coast the enemy might seek to land, while her fleet went out to battle, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in command of the ground forces, managed to dissuade her from this. He recommended instead that Elizabeth address her troops at Tilbury, where she gave a defiant and patriotic speech. Standing in front of her soldiers Elizabeth told them: "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king." (14)
On 21st July the English fleet engaged the Armada off Plymouth near the Eddystone rocks. At the end of the first day's fighting, only one ship was sunk, the San Salvador. During the fighting a tremendous explosion tore out the Spanish ship's 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. (15)
Admiral Pedro de Valdés and his flag-ship, Nuestra Senora del Rosario, collided with another Spanish vessel, breaking her bowsprit and bringing down the halyards and forecourse. As it was the Admiral's ship, it had 55,000 gold ducats on board, in order to buy supplies from foreign ports. The following morning Francis Drake and the crew of Revenge captured the crippled ship. (16)
The Armada anchored at Calais and the Duke of Medina Sidonia 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. 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 was right to be worried by such an attack. This was the opportunity that Charles Howard of Effingham, the English commander, had been waiting for. It was decided to use eight fairly large ships for the operation. All the masts and rigging were tarred and all the guns were left on board and were primed to go off of their own accord when the fire reached them. John Young, one of Drake's men, was put in charge of the fire-ships. (17)
Soon after midnight the eight ships were set fire to and sent on their way. The Spaniards were shocked by the size of the vessels. Nor had they expected the English to use as many as eight ships. 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.
The fire-ships did not in fact cause any material damage to the Spanish ships at all. They drifted until they reached the beach where they continued to burn until the fire reached the water line. Medina Sidonia, on board the São Martinho, had remained near his original anchorage. However, only a few captains had followed his orders and the vast majority had broken formation and sailed into the open sea. (18)
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 taken by the English.
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 now only move towards Dunkirk at the speed of the slowest ship. As the Amanda moved up the east coast of England the "pursuing English ships passed the bodies of the mules and horses the Spaniards had thrown into the sea". (19)
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. Bernado de Gongoro, a priest on one of the Spanish ships, complained: "The enemy did not dare to come alongside because he knew the advantage we had. The Duke offered him battle many times and he never wanted it, but only to fire on us, like a man who had better artillery with longer range." (20)
Sir John Hawkins reported to Sir Francis Walsingham: that despite the success they were having they were desperately short of gunpowder: "All that day Monday we followed the Spaniards with a long and great fight, wherein there was great valour showed generally by our company... In this fight there was some hurt done among the Spaniards... Our ships, God be thanked, have received little hurt... Now their fleet is here, and very forcible, it must be waited upon with all our force, which is little enough. There should be an infinite quantity of powder and shot provided... The men have long been unpaid and need relief." (21)
The Spanish fleet, battered and defeated, made its way along the Scottish coast. They were desperately short of supplies and it has been estimated that four or five men died each day from starvation. It was decided to throw all the horses overboard to save water. When the ships reached the Irish Sea a great storm blew up and threw against the Irish rocks. Thousands of Spaniards drowned and even those who reached land were often killed by English soldiers and settlers. One Irishman, Melaghin McCabb, boasted that he had dispatched eighty Spaniards with his axe. (22) Of the 30,000 men that had set out in the Armada, less than 10,000 arrived home safely. (23)
On 2nd August 1588, the English fleet headed home. By the time the fleet reached port, most of the ships had exhausted their supplies. Sir John Hawkins showed concern for his men: "The men have long been unpaid and need relief." However, the Queen had declared that the expenses of war must be stopped as soon as possible. The men also suffered from disease and "a sort of plague swept through the ranks, and men died by the dozens". William Cecil asked why so much money was needed if so many men were dying. Hawkins explained that it was necessary to give the back pay of dead men to their friends, who would deliver it to the families. (24)
Charles Howard of Effingham, the English commander, was also angry that his men had not received their wages. He was also disturbed by the condition of his men. The lack of fresh water caused an outbreak of disease. As they were still waiting for their wages to be paid they were even unable to buy fresh food for themselves. Howard wrote bitterly: "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." (25)
Queen Elizabeth claimed that her forces had the help of God in the victory. She ordered the issue of a commemorative medal that stated: "God blew and they were scattered." (26) According to Philippa Jones, the author of Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010): "The defeat of the Spanish Armada in July 1588 heralded the highest point in Elizabeth's rule, and was a victory that lent England not only a strong sense of national pride, but also the sense that God was on the side of a Protestant victory against the Catholic enemy." (27)
Tell her (Elizabeth) from me that... I must warn her to consider deeply the evils which may result in England from a change in religion... if this change is made all idea of my marriage with her must be broken off.
Queen Elizabeth... said that so much money was taken out of the country for the Pope every year that she must put an end to it... she kept repeating to me that she was a heretic and consequently could not marry your Majesty.
Since that guilty woman (Elizabeth) ... is the cause of so much injury to the Catholic faith... there is no doubt that whosoever sends her out of the world... not only does not sin but gains merit... And so, if those English gentlemen decide actually to undertake so glorious a work, your Lordship can assure them that they do not commit any sin.
The change of religion threatened by the Spaniards will not so much encourage their rebellion as anger them. It being easier to find flocks of white crows than one Englishman (whatever his religion) who loves a foreigner, either as a master or companion.
The greatest armada the world had seen was prepared... The Invincible Armada of the Imperial Spanish Fleet was for the first time conquered. But not by the men, nor by the squadrons, it put out to fight. It was vanquished by the elements, against which valour and human daring are impotent, because it is God who rules the seas. Only against the hurricane and the gales did we lose, because the Lord wished it, the naval supremacy of the world.
Though the English ships were smaller and fewer than those opposed to them, they were better built and better manned... their skillful use of artillery gave them a great advantage.
You should see that your squadrons do not break battle formation and that their commanders, moved to greed, do not give pursuit to the enemy and take prizes.
You could hardly see the sea. The Spanish fleet was stretched out in the form of a half moon with an immense distance between its extremities. The masts and rigging, the towering sterns and prows which in height and number were so great that they dominated the whole naval concourse, caused horror mixed with wonder and gave rise to doubt whether that campaign was at sea or on land and whether one or the other element was the more splendid. It came on with a steady and deliberate movement, yet when it drew near in full sail it seemed almost that the waves groaned under its weight and the winds were made to obey it.
It is of great importance that the Armada should be kept well together... Great care must be exercised to keep the squadron of hulks always in the middle of the fleet... No ship belonging to the Armada shall separate from it without my permission... Any disobedience of this order shall be punished by death.
Many of our largest ships are still missing... on the ships that are here there are many sick... these numbers will increase because of the bad provisions (food and drink). These are not only very bad, as I have constantly reported, but they are so scanty that they are unlikely to last two months... Your Majesty, believe me when I assure you that we are very weak... how do you think we can attack so great a country as England with such a force as ours is now?
Being bound for France to collect salt, I encountered great ships between Scilly and Ushant... they were Spaniards... three of them gave chase... but I managed to escape... They were all great ships, and as I might judge... from 200 tons to 800 tons. Their sails were all crossed over with a red cross.
The eight ships, filled with artificial fire, advanced in line... they went drifting... with the most terrible flames that may be imagined... the ships of the Armada cut their cables at once, leaving their anchors, spreading their sails, and running out to sea.
The San Mateo was a thing of pity to see, riddled with shot like a sieve... If they had not managed to get the water out of her, she must have gone to the bottom with all hands. All her sails and rigging were torn... of her sailors many perished, and of her soldiers few were left.
The enemy did not dare to come alongside because he knew the advantage we had. The Duke offered him battle many times and he never wanted it, but only to fire on us, like a man who had better artillery with longer range.
The enemy... did well because of the extreme nimbleness and the great smoke that came from their artillery.
The Duke of Medina Sidonia ordered.. the captain of the Santa Barbara, to be hanged; and condemned to the galleys other ship captains... this was because on the day of the battle they allowed themselves to drift out of the fight.
The English lost seven ships, and amongst them three of the largest the Queen possessed... Drake was wounded in the legs by a cannon ball... As the London people were so alarmed, Don Pedro de Valdez and the rest of those who were captured... had been taken in carts to London, so that the people might see that some prisoners had been captured; the rumour being spread that the Armada had been defeated.
The Queen of England... has been much injured by your Majesty's Armada... She has lost 4,000 men and over 12 ships, two of them the finest she possessed, and she is now sorry she went to war.
All that day Monday we followed the Spaniards with a long and great fight, wherein there was great valour showed generally by our company ... In this fight there was some hurt done among the Spaniards... Our ships, God be thanked, have received little hurt. . . Now their fleet is here, and very forcible, it must be waited upon with all our force, which is little enough. There should be an infinite quantity of powder and shot provided... The men have long been unpaid and need relief.
The spy I sent to England has returned... the Spanish Armada is beyond Newcastle in Scotland... The ships are in very bad condition... It is reported that horses had to be thrown overboard because of a lack of water.
Our swiftness in out sailing them, our nimbleness.... carrying more artillery than the Spanish ships.. discharging our cannons... double for their single-having far better gunners.
Their masts and sails are much spoiled... I believe they will pass about Scotland and Ireland to take themselves home... when the season of the year is considered, and the long distance they have to travel... it will be to their great ruin... In my opinion... many of them will never see Spain again.
We were about two days landing our men... We had nothing to eat but our horses... The English told us that if the Spanish did not surrender at once, 3,000 of the Queen's troops would cut their throats... in view of this and that his men were dying of hunger... the colonel decided to surrender... The next morning, at daybreak, the enemy came to separate the officers who were among the soldiers, and put them inside a square... The remaining soldiers were then made to go into an open field, and men armed with guns on one side and a body of cavalry on the other, killed over 300 of them with lance and bullet.
We were in dire need of food... nearly 80 of our soldiers and galley slaves had died of hunger and thirst, the inhabitants refusing to allow us to obtain water; nor would they sell us food. To survive, we took up arms and obtained supplies by force.
There sprang up so great a storm... we were driven ashore upon rocks... Many were drowning inside the ships, others were throwing themselves into the water, vanishing from sight; others were clinging to rafts and barrels.... when one of our people reached the beach, two hundred savages fell upon him and stripped him of what he had... they maltreated and wounded without pity, all of which was clearly visible from the battered ships - within an hour all three ships were broken in pieces... more than one thousand were drowned.
After the Spanish fleet had rounded Scotland, and were heading homewards, bad weather caused many ships to be wrecked... About 6,000 or 7,000 men have been cast away on these coasts... some 1,000 escaped to land... which since were all put to the sword.
After meeting the English fleet... and seeing that, with the type of ships they had which were a good deal smaller than the Spanish, they were able to get very near to the much larger ships and fight against them to their own advantage, the Spaniards confessed... they had lost much of their hope in the victory of their fleet... The English ships... not crowded out with useless soldiers, but with decks clear for the use of artillery... could harm the enemy, at any moment which suited them best.
The Spaniards had an army aboard their ships and Howard had none; they had more ships than he had, and of larger size... had he entangled himself with those great and powerful vessels, he would have greatly endangered England.
I heard great complaints about the command of ships in the Spanish Armada being given to young fellows just because they were nobles. Very few of them knew what to do, and their officers were no better.
This Armada was so completely crippled and scattered that my first duty to your Majesty seemed to save it, even at the risk which we are running in undertaking this voyage, which is so long and in such high latitudes. Ammunition and the best of our vessels were lacking, and experience had shown how little we could depend upon the ships that remained, the Queen's fleet being so superior to ours in this sort of fighting, in consequence of the strength of their artillery and the fast sailing of their ships.
He that will happily perform a fight at sea must believe that there is more belonging to a good man of war upon the waters than great daring, and must know there is a great deal of difference between fighting loose and grappling. To clap ships together without consideration belongs rather to a madman than to a ship of war; for by such an ignorant bravery was Peter Strozzi lost at the Azores when he fought against the Marquis of Santa Cruz. In like sort had the Lord Charles Howard, Admiral of England, been lost in the year 1588 if he had not been better advised than a great many malignant fools were who found fault with his behaviour.
The greatest armada the world had seen was prepared. It was called invincible. One fine day in June 1588, it unfurled its sails before the wind in Lisbon harbour. There were ten squadrons with a total of a hundred and thirty sail, galleons, ships of the line, galleys, hookers, caravels, tenders and cutters. In command of the fleet was the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a loyal man of proud lineage and great wealth, but in no wise versed in naval science.
Aboard the fleet sailed seven army regiments numbering nineteen thousand men, and a further eight thousand sailors and two thousand oarsmen. It was the posthumous achievement of the genius of the Marquis of Santa Cruz, almost a floating city, with all its services marvellously arrayed.
The ships built in Antwerp by Farnese were to join this armada; and a part of the seasoned Regiments of Flanders, numbering twenty-six thousand men, were to join this army.
The ten squadrons of the Empire advanced upon the Atlantic with crushing impetus. But soon there befell that adversity which was to herald worse evils. A storm lashed the galleys in the latitude of Finisterre, and the Armada had to regroup in Corunna. Then again they sailed in imposing majesty and perfect formation to give battle to the British fleet. In England the news produced a thrill of horror. Greater still was the panic when at dawn on the 30th of July, in the Port of Plymouth, the sun showed on the horizon the splendid advance of those enormous galleons with their high prows, tall poops, billowing sails and waving standards. They moved on steadily. They formed a crescent and their line stretched for seven miles. The English squadron, smaller in number and size, but lighter and more agile, was anchored in the port. The Spanish admiral deliberated as to what was best to do. The most capable captains were hotly of the opinion that not a moment should be lost in taking advantage of the magnificent opportunity. This was the time to attack the enemy fleet and annihilate it. But the Duke turned down the idea. The King had ordered that the squadron should not give battle until the ships of Farnese joined it,
The opportunity and the initiative having been lost - even the favouring wind - the English fleet, seeing ours pass by, harried it cunningly, making use of its agility. Our ships suffered slight losses in this first skirmish. But at last the Armada made fast at Calais, where it awaited Farnese. This was the beginning of calamity. The English hatched a plot. During the night they sent in some ships which had been set on fire. The alarm was raised. Men began to think they were like the terror-ships laden with gunpowder which had been encountered at Antwerp. The Duke, hasty and inexperienced, dashed out to the open sea to fight his adversary.
A terrible wind from the south-east was stirring the waves. The rain began in a flood. Lightning and thunderbolts lighted the thick darkness. The hurricane beat upon the galleons and played havoc with them, delighting in scattering them and sending them crashing into one another, or against the coastal reefs, sweeping over them and sinking them. When dawn came, the fleet was broken and dispersed. Heroism did not suffice against the attack of the English ships. The storm came on again and the damage was made greater still. The Duke ordered a retreat, to save what remained of the vessels. But the way back was by North Scotland and Ireland, and the squalls there delivered the final blow and wrought further havoc upon the fleet.
The Invincible Armada of the Imperial Spanish Fleet was for the first time conquered. But not by the men, nor by the squadrons, it put out to fight. It was vanquished by the elements, against which valour and human daring are impotent, because it is God who rules the seas. Only against the hurricane and the gales did we lose, because the Lord wished it, the naval supremacy of the world.
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.
I sent you to fight with men, and not with the weather.
God blew with His wind, and they were scattered.