Posted on 11th April 2021
In May 1588, one hundred and thirty ships on the orders of Philip II of Spain set sail to invade England, but what set this invasion in motion?
Philip II of Spain, a devout catholic had been married to Mary I of England, but following her death, her protestant half-sister Elizabeth came to the throne. Philip having lost all influence over England and its people offered marriage to Elizabeth but this was refused; Elizabeth was determined to restore England to the protestant nation it had been under her father Henry VIII.
Philip deeming Elizabeth illegitimate, believed Mary, Queen of Scots to be the rightful ruler, but Mary already imprisoned by Elizabeth since 1568, was executed on her orders in 1587.
Spain had already began building its armada in 1586, with the intention of invading England in 1587, however Sir Francis Drake sailed with his fleet into the ports of Cadiz and Corunna in 1587 where he destroyed over thirty naval and merchant ships of the Spanish fleet, pillaging them and returning home laded with gold and treasure. This became known as ‘Singeing the King of Spain’s Beard’.
After this attack on the Spanish fleet, the invasion was delayed into 1588.
The Spanish fleet under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, set sail from Lisbon in Portugal in May 1588. Medina Sidonia was an experienced soldier but had very limited experience at sea. The original naval commander the Marquis of Santa Cruz having planned the invasion was due to command the naval forces, however he died in February 1588. Was this an omen of what was to come?
The Spanish ships were bulky and heavy and their cannons were not quick to reload; they were also slower to manoeuvre than the smaller, lighter English vessels.
The Spanish fleet were first sighted in the English-channel in July 1588; beacons, known as the ‘Fires over England’ were lit along the south coast to warn of their approach. A story exists that Sir Francis Drake was playing bowls at the time, and when informed of the Spanish approaching, he stated that there was plenty of time to finish the game and still beat the Spaniards.
The English fleet led by Lord Howard of Effingham, sailed out from Plymouth and ordered the firing of the ships guns at long range to hamper the Spanish approach. This tactic harassed the Spanish fleet but caused little damage to their ships or their tight crescent formation, however two Spanish ships collided with each other. As both were now out of action, they were abandoned.
Due to bad weather, the Spanish fleet made their way to Calais in France where they anchored off shore, still tightly packed in their crescent formation. Medina Sidonia believed that the English would send in Fireships but told his captains not to panic and to hold formation. The English fleet did send in eight fireships, filled with flammable material (pitch and brimstone) and gunpowder. The Spanish captains, ignoring Medina Sidonia’s orders panicked and sailed into open sea. The formation now broken, gave the English fleet the advantage.
In the ensuing battle of Gravelines, the English fleet fought off the Spanish. The changing wind forced the armada northwards around the coast of Scotland. The strong winds and rocky coast caused them to lose many more men and ships on their return. Of the one hundred and thirty ships that sailed as few as sixty returned to Spain.
The English fleet were victorious in battle, defending the islands shore and protecting Elizabeth’s and England’s protestant nation.
Tagged as: Junior Tudors
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