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The Great Armada.
The Armada

THE ARMADA. The Spanish or Invincible Armada was the great fleet (in Spanish, armada) sent against England by Philip II in 1588. The marquis of Santa Cruz, to whom the command had first been given, died on the 9th of February 1588 (according to the Gregorian calendar then used by Spain; on the 31st of January by the Julian calendar used in England; the other dates given in this article will be in Old Style, or Julian calendar). Santa Cruz was succeeded by Don Alonso Perez de Guzman, duke of Medina Sidonia, a noble of large estate, but of no experience or capacity, who took the command unwillingly, and only on the reiterated order of the king.

The fleet was collected at Lisbon, after many delays, and sailed on the 20th of May 1588. Its nominal strength was 132 vessels, of 59,190 tons, carrying 21,621 soldiers and 8066 sailors. But from a third to a half of the vessels were transports, galleys or very small boats, and some of them never reached the Channel. The effective force was far below the paper strength. On the 10th of June, when the Armada had rounded Cape Finisterre, it was scattered by squalls. Some of the vessels went on to the appointed rendezvous at the Scilly Isles, but the majority anchored on the north coast of Spain. Medina Sidonia, who found many defects in his fleet, did not finally sail till the 12th of July. On the English side all the royal navy, and such armed merchant ships as could be obtained from the ports, had been collected under the command of the Lord High Admiral Howard of Effingham, who had with him Hawkins, Drake and Frobisher as subordinate admirals. The number of vessels is put at 197, but the majority were very small. It is impossible to state with confidence what were the relative numbers of guns carried by the two fleets. The Spaniards had more pieces, but their gunnery was inferior.

The Spanis Armada attacked by the English Fleet. From an old tapestry.

The English fleet carried 16,000 or 17,000 men, of whom the large majority were sailors. About 100 of their ships were at Plymouth with the lord high admiral. The others were in the Downs with Lord Henry Seymour and Sir William Winter, to co-operate with a Dutch squadron under Justinus of Nassau in blockading the Flemish ports, then occupied by the Spanish army of the duke of Parma. The object was to prevent the proposed junction of the forces of Medina Sidonia and Parma. On the 10th of July the Armada was seen off the Lizard. It sailed past Plymouth, and was followed by the English fleet. The Spaniards, who were heavy sailers, and were hampered by the transports, were much harassed by the more active English, and were defeated in all their attempts to board, which it was their wish to do in order to make use of their superior numbers of men. The flagship of the squadron of Andalucia, "Nuestra Senora del Rosario," commanded by Don Pedro de Valdes, was crippled, fell behind and had to surrender.

On the 25th of July, when the fleets were near the Isle of Wight, a shift of the wind offered the Spaniards a chance of bringing on a close action, but it soon changed again. The English fleet, of which part had been in some danger, escaped uninjured, and the Spaniards stood on. They anchored on the 26th of July at Calais. The duke of Medina Sidonia now sent an officer to Parma, calling on him to come to sea and join in a landing on the shore of England. But Parma could not leave port in face of Justinus of Nassau's squadron. While these messages were going and coming, Lord Howard had been joined by Lord Henry Seymour and Sir William Winter from the Downs. A council of war was held, to decide on the measures to be taken to assail the Spaniards at Calais. The course taken was to send fireships among them. On the night of the 28th of July the fireships were sent in, and produced an utter panic in the Armada. Most of the Spanish vessels slipped their cables and ran to sea. Others weighed anchor, and escaped in a more orderly style. One great vessel ran ashore and was taken possession of by the English, who were however compelled to give her up by the French governor of Calais.

On the 29th of July the scattered Spaniards, who were quite unable to restore order, were attacked by the English off Gravelines. The engagement was hot, and, though the English did not succeed in taking any of the Spaniards, they destroyed some of them, and their superiority in sailing force and gunnery was now so obvious that the duke of Medina Sidonia lost heart. His large vessels were indeed so helpless that only a timely shift of the wind saved many of them from drifting on to the banks of Flanders. Officers and men alike were completely discouraged. It was now recognized that an invasion of England could not be carried out in face of the more active English fleet and the proved impossibility of bringing about the proposed union with Parma's army. Suggestions were made that the Armada should sail to Hamburg, refit there, and renew the attack. But by this time the Spanish force was incapable of energetic action. Medina Sidonia and his council could think of nothing but of a return to Spain.

As the wind was westerly, and the English fleet barred the way, it was impossible to sail down the Channel. The only alternative was to take the route between the north of Scotland and Norway. So the Armada sailed to the north. Lord Howard followed, after detaching Lord Henry Seymour to remain in the Downs. He watched the Spaniards to the Firth of Forth. The English had at that time little knowledge of the seas beyond the Firth, and they were beginning to run short of food and ammunition. On the 2nd of August, therefore, they gave up the pursuit. Medina Sidonia continued to the north, till his pilots told him that it was safe to turn to the west. Up to this time the loss of the Spaniards in ships had not been considerable. If the weather had been that of a normal summer, they would probably have reached home with no greater loss of men than was usually inflicted on all fleets of the age by scurvy and fever. But the summer of 1588 was marked by a succession of gales of unprecedented violence. The damaged and weakened Spanish ships, which were from the first greatly undermanned in sailors, were unable to contend with the storms. It is not possible to give the details of the disasters which overtook them. Nineteen of them are known to have been wrecked on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. The crews who fell into the hands of the English officers in Ireland were put to the sword. Many more of them disappeared at sea. Of the total number of the vessels originally collected for the invasion of England one-half, if not more, perished, and the crews of those which escaped were terribly diminished by scurvy and starvation.

Route taken by the Spanish Armada

The failure of the Armada was mainly due to its own interior weakness, and as a military operation the English victory was less glorious than some other less renowned achievements of the British fleet. But the repulse of the great Spanish armament was an event of the first historical importance. It marked the final failure of King Philip II of Spain to establish the supremacy of the Habsburg dynasty and of the Church of Rome, which he considered as being in a peculiar sense his charge, in Europe. From that time forward no serious attempt to invade England was, or could be, made. It became therefore the unconquerable supporter of that part of Europe which had thrown off the authority of the pope. The Armada had much of the character of a crusade. Though Philip II had political reasons for hostility to Queen Elizabeth, they were so intimately bound up with the struggle between the Reformation and the Counter Reformation that the secular and the religious elements of the conflict cannot be separated from one another. The struggle was therefore not one between armed forces in national rivalry alone. It was a trial of strength between two widely different conceptions of life and of the state — between the medieval and the modern worlds. The volunteers of all ranks who came forward in large numbers on both sides were fighting for a religious cause as well as for the interests of their respective peoples.

      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol II.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 560.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study:

Hanson, Neil. The Confident Hope of a Miracle:
           The True History of the Spanish Armada.
           New York: Knopf, 2005.

Howarth, David. The Voyage of the Armada: The Spanish Story.
           Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Mattingly, Garrett. The Armada.
           New York: Mariner Books, 2005.

McDermott, James. England and the Spanish Armada: The Necessary Quarrel.
           New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

The Armada on the Web:

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