The Spanish Armada
What was the Spanish Armada?
The most powerful naval fleet of its time, consisting of 130 ships and 30,000 men, it was widely considered to be invincible.
In July 1588 the Armada set sail from Spain with the intention of invading England and overthrowing the queen, Elizabeth I.
Top 10 facts
- During the reign of Mary and subsequently of Elizabeth I the English navy had been strengthened. Its ships were more manoeuvrable, more stable and carried more guns than the larger Spanish vessels.
- England prepared for the Spanish Armada's arrival for two years. In 1587 Sir Francis Drake destroyed 20-30 ships as at the port of Cadiz and also supplies intended for the Armada. This ‘singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’ delayed the Armada.
- In July 1588 the Spanish fleet under Duke Medina Sidonia sailed from Spain. The Armada's aim was to invade England.
- When Spanish ships were sighted at Lands End in July 1588, the English lit fire beacons to pass a warning of the Armada’s arrival up the coast.
- The English knew that their best chance of success was to make the Armada break its crescent formation and pick off its ships one by one.
- On 6 August the Spanish fleet anchored at Calais where they hoped to pick up fresh supplies and ammunition. However the Spanish army had been prevented from leaving the Netherlands by the English and Dutch. This meant that the rendezvous between the Spanish army and navy could not take place.
- The English took the decision to unleash fire ships against the Spanish in order to scatter their fleet. Eight ships were packed with ammunition, deliberately set alight and directed towards the Spanish lines where they exploded like floating bombs. This forced the Spanish to break formation and run into the line of English gun fire.
- Spanish attempts to regroup were hindered by the bad weather which nearly caused the fleet to be grounded on the sandbanks near the port of Gravelines. The Battle of Gravelines led to the loss of five Spanish ships but many others were badly damaged.
- A combination of bad weather and English tactics caused the Armada to sail into the North Sea. This meant that the only way to return to Spain was to sail around the British Isles. They were ill prepared to do so, lacking maps and running low on food and water. Terrible storms during the autumn of 1588 resulted in the loss of a further 34 or 35 ships.
- Approximately half of the Spanish fleet was lost. Nearly 20,000 sailors lost their lives, mainly to disease and starvation.
- 1553Mary Tudor becomes Queen of England
- 1558Elizabeth I becomes Queen of England
- 570Pope Pius V excommunicates Elizabeth I and urges loyal Catholics to depose her
- 1572-73Drake raids Spanish Main; Spanish Netherlands in revolt
- 1573Drake captures Spanish treasure at Nombre de Dios
- 1585-1586Drake raids Spanish colonies
- 1586-1588Preparation of Spanish Armada
- 1587 FebruaryElizabeth orders the execution of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots further angering the Spanish
- 1587 AprilDrake ‘singed the beard of the King of Spain’ by attacking Spanish fleet at Cadiz and A Coruna
- 1588 JulySpanish fleet sails from A Coruna
- 1588 AugustBattle of Gravelines
- 1588 AugustArmada forced into North Sea
- 1588 SeptemberRemaining ships of Armada sail into North Atlantic
Did you know?
- The Spanish fleet used 2,088 convicts as rowers.
- The ships of the Armada, lined up in a convoy, stretched for over two miles!
- Hundreds of priests of the Spanish Inquisition accompanied the Armada. They were intent on converting the English to Catholicism.
- The only ships that the English fleet lost were the eight fire ships which they had deliberately set against the Spanish at Calais.
- The Spanish Admiral Medina Sidonia had never commanded a navy and was unhappy about taking up his post.
- Sir Francis Drake was allegedly playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe when the Armada was sighted. He is said to have remarked that there was plenty of time to finish the game before tackling the Spanish fleet.
Look through the gallery below and see if you can spot the following:
- Map showing the route taken by the Spanish Armada
- Portrait of Elizabeth I
- Portrait of Philip II
- The English fleet attacking the Armada
- Beacon fires warning of the arrival of the Armada
Spain decided to invade England and overthrow Elizabeth I for lots of different religious and political reasons.
Spain was the leading Catholic power and most powerful country in Europe.
Henry VIII of England had quarrelled with the Catholic Church and established the Protestant Anglican church. Following the death of Henry’s son Edward VI in 1553, Mary Tudor, daughter of Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, became queen. She was a fervent Catholic who earned the title “Bloody Mary” because of her ruthless persecution of Protestants. She married Phillip II of Spain but they had no children. Mary died childless in 1558 and her half sister Elizabeth I, who was a Protestant, became queen. English Catholics feared that they would be persecuted during her reign. In 1559 Phillip II proposed marriage to Elizabeth, perhaps as a result of the duty he felt to protect English Catholics, but his offer was declined.
Spain controlled a vast South American Empire in the sixteenth century. The South American conquests brought it great wealth; heavily-laden Spanish treasure ships quickly became the target of Elizabethan pirates and state-sponsored privateers such as Sir Francis Drake. The raids on their settlements and the loss of their treasure ships naturally angered and frustrated the Spanish! Philip II was particularly infuriated that Elizabeth would not condemn these attacks.
Differing interests over the Netherlands also contributed to the tensions between the two countries. Elizabeth supported Protestants in the Netherlands who were trying to overthrow the Spanish. Elizabeth’s intervention in the Netherlands in 1585 persuaded Philip that war was inevitable.
Britain’s power as a sea power capable of withstanding invasion from the might of Spain were confimed as a result of the failure of the Armada.
Elizabeth’s appearance at Tilbury inspired her army and benefited her reputation. Her speech included the famous lines ‘I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king...‘
A number of reasons have been given for the failure of the Armada. These include poor planning and execution on the part of the Spanish and differences in strategy between Phillip and Duke of Parma. The Spanish Commander Medina Sidonia had never been in charge of a naval fleet whereas the English were led by experienced sailors including Vice Admiral Sir Frances Drake. The weather was perhaps one of the most decisive factors, battering the Armada even before it reached England and blowing it off course.
Just for fun...
- Play Hunt the Armada, an interactive game from the National Maritime Museum
- Confident about your Spanish Armada knowledge? Take the Walk the plank quiz!
Children's books about the Spanish Armada
Find out more
- Find out why the English were lucky to defeat the Spanish Armada in the BBC's interactive guide
- Visit the National Maritime Museum’s animated Tudor Exploration site
- An excellent interactive guide to the Armada
- A detailed list of the ships involved and the difference in tactics between the Spanish and English fleets
- A detailed Spanish Armada timeline with information about the opposing fleets
- See a collection of beautiful jewellery recovered from the Spanish Armada in 1588 in the Ulster Museum
- The battles between English and Spanish fleets made up one of the most important campaigns in naval history; see maps of how the events unfolded