Let’s take a step back into the sixteenth century, into a world where religious tensions between Catholic and Protestant nations are at the forefront of European life. The relationship between Elizabeth I and Philip II of Spain was cordial for the early years of their respective reigns, but by the late 1570s that cordiality began to fade into distant memory, and war reared its ugly head. The Spanish Armada was seen as the answer to the growing hostilities between the Catholic and Protestant kingdoms, so let’s explore its journey, its failure, and what happened after its defeat.
Philip II’s decision to invade England was not a sudden one, it was a result of years of tensions between the two countries. The English were consistently raiding Spanish trade routes, assisting Dutch rebels in the Spanish held territories of the Netherlands, and were loyal to a Protestant queen. Pope Pius V also issued a papal bull titled ‘Regnans in Exclesis’ (reigning on high) in which Elizabeth I was excommunicated, shunning her from the Catholic flock. In 1587, Philip’s patience ended, as too did the life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, executed by the English in yet another display of defiance against Catholic authority in Europe. In July of the following year, the grand armada of 132 ships, 18,000 soldiers, 7,000 sailors and 3,165 cannons gathered for one of the largest naval attacks in recorded history. On route to England, this vast force was to be bolstered by an additional 17,000 veteran fighters at Calais under the command of the Duke of Parma. They prepared for this noble and righteous ‘crusade’ against the English Protestants, and numbers alone made this army seem almost invincible. The restoration of Roman Catholicism as the single dominant religion in Europe was not to be, however, as the forces of Philip II were soon to discover.
By winter of 1588, only 67 Spanish ships returned back to their homeland. We went from having an ‘invincible’ force to one where only half of the ships returned, so what happened? It turns out everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The Spanish underestimated the leadership of strategically adept commanders, such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, but they also failed to properly communicate and strategize with their own forces. There were some skirmishes with the English, but the Spanish were intent on meeting up with the forces of the Duke of Parma. We have thousands of soldiers and sailors who were ready to assault England now waiting at Calais to rendezvous with Parma’s army. The English seized this opportunity of vulnerability and sent in smaller and more manoeuvrable fire ships to scatter the Spanish navy in a surprise attack. Following this, Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, Duke of Medina Sidonia and commander of the armada, tried to reorganise his forces whilst waiting for the arrival of the Duke at a small port in the Spanish-Netherlands called Gravelines. The English again pushed their advantage with hit and run attacks against the slower Spanish navy and successfully damaged the broadsides of many ships. The idea of being reinforced by Parma was abandoned and panic began to set in. With their route to Spain cut off, the remnants of the armada had to instead travel further north through the treacherous seas around Scotland and Ireland. This sealed Spain’s defeat, as wild storms and unruly seas tore apart hull after hull, dooming many to the depths of the ice cold ocean. Fewer than 10,000 men returned to Spain, signalling the end of any aspiration for Catholic domination over England.
Spurred on by the failure of Spain, and wanting to achieve naval superiority, Elizabeth I sanctioned a counter-armada (also known as the Drake-Norris Expedition) under the leadership of Sir Francis Drake. Most of the Spanish ships lost in their failed ‘crusade’ had been repurposed merchant ships, with many of the heavy hitting galleons surviving the journey home. Spain was not completely vulnerable to attack as the English had hoped, and Drake’s initial surprise advantage soon began to disappear. Spain reorganised and the English began to suffer, losing 40 ships to battle and bad weather as well as many more men to disease eating away at the navy. The English expedition failed just as the Spanish one did, but Spain still retained its place as the dominant naval power. After this, the conflict began to slowly wind down and a formal peace treaty was signed in 1604 ending the hostilities.