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HThe following text was accepted by the publisher in February 2001 and is currently in press. The scholarly apparatus will be condensed to conform to the publisher’s style, giving citations in a separate sources section which will be prepared when the text is in galley proofs for reasons of pagination.

The Invincible Armada, 1588

We found that many of the enemy’s ships held great advantage over us in combat, both in their design and in their guns, gunners and crews ... so that they could do with us as they wished. But in spite of all this, the duke [Medina Sidonia] managed to bring his fleet to anchor in Calais roads, just seven leagues from Dunkirk... and if, on the day we arrived there, Parma had come out with his forces, we should have carried out the invasion.

Don Francisco de Bobadilla, the Armada’s senior military officer, 20 August 15881

 The defeat of the Spanish Armada marked a major turning point in world history. To be sure, the popular view that the Armada marked the beginning of England’s rise and Spanish decline is over-stated, but if Philip II’s grand design had succeeded we would be living in a very different world. Beyond its immediate consequences — which were considerable — the Armada tells us a great deal about warfare at sea during a pivotal period of change.

The first link in the chain of proximate causation that led to the Armada was forged in April of 1572 when Queen Elizabeth, bowing to Spanish pressure, ordered Dutch privateers expelled from English ports. With good intelligence of Spanish dispositions and nowhere else to go, they returned home and seized the port of Brill. Welcomed by their fellow Protestants and finding the Duke of Alba’s army over-extended they seized Flushing and Enkhuisen in May, re-igniting the rebellion the Duke thought he had snuffed out in 1567-68.

Unable to stand up to the Spanish in the field, the Dutch proved tenacious in sieges and quickly learned the value of their waterways. Alive to the advantages of water transport in a land with more canals than roads, Alba created a navy to support his endeavors but could not sustain it. Its only success was in cutting off Haarlem from resupply in the Spring of 1573 and from that point Dutch control of inland waters did much to counter the skill and fortitude of the Army of Flanders. The high point of Spanish fortunes came in the summer of 1585 under the captain-generalcy of Alexander Farnese, Prince of Parma. Perhaps the finest general of his day, Parma had confined the rebellion to Holland, Zealand and Utrecht with a relentless campaign of sieges and took Antwerp in August. That May the Spanish had embargoed all northern vessels in Spanish ports. All but Dutch ships were eventually released, but the act gave Elizabeth casus belli.

To that point Elizabeth had condoned private war against Spain, but stopped short of openly-declared hostilities. Now, facing the very real possibility that Protestantism would be throttled in the Netherlands with England next, she reacted aggressively, allying herself with the Dutch, dispatching an expeditionary force to Flanders, and sending a fleet under Francis Drake to ravage the Canaries and the Caribbean. That gave Philip the excuse he needed: When Bazán offered to plan an invasion of England he responded positively and asked Parma to do the same.

Bazán, no doubt overstating his requirements out of caution, advocated a massive expedition launched from Lisbon. Parma (after extended delay, for he was unenthusiastic about diverting his forces) proposed a less costly but more daring plan: a surprise crossing of the Channel in local shipping. Philip, no doubt recoiling from the cost of Bazan’s proposal, settled on a hybrid plan: Bazán would take a fleet into the Channel, rendezvous with Parma and convoy him to England.2 Orders to that effect were dispatched to Bazán and Parma in July 1586. In tonnage of ships, numbers of troops, quantities of arms, munitions and provisions, and distance covered, it would be the most ambitious European naval enterprise to date, ultimately numbering 130-140 ships, over 90 of them of 200 tons displacement or more, carrying some 7,000 sailors and 19,000 soldiers.3 Parma would assemble 27,000 troops at their embarkation ports along with 270 vessels to carry them to England.4 These things were not done easily.

Galleys aside, the only purpose-built warships available were three Portuguese galleons, survivors of those seized in 1580, and four Neapolitan galleasses. To these, we can add 17 galleons, including 10 of the Indies Guard, designed to haul bullion and protect treasure convoys. The bulk of the Armada’s carrying capacity consisted of impressed merchantmen armed with whatever could be found and lightly armed hulks (the generic term for large merchantmen).

A fleet under Drake raided Cadiz in April 1587, destroying 24 ships and immense quantities of supplies. Drake’s presence put the Indies convoys at risk. Bazán sailed for the Azores to bring them home and did, but at considerable cost in wear and tear on ships and crews. A November storm beat up the Armada in harbor. Bazán died in February 1588.

His replacement was the Duke of Medina Sidonia, short on combat experience afloat but a superb administrator. Recognizing the enormity of his task, he begged to be excused. His pleas and subsequent arguments against the wisdom of the enterprise fell on deaf ears, for Philip knew that God approved. Due largely to the Duke’s competence, the Armada finally cleared the Tagus on 30 May 1588... with bad cooperage and putrefying provisions — partly a consequence of Drake’s destruction of barrel staves in Cadiz the previous year. Scattered by a storm while putting into Coruña for fresh supplies, the Armada was further delayed, departing on 21 July. After yet another storm on the 27th that cost it two days and its four galleys, the Armada entered the Channel on the 30th.5 Formed in a deep line abreast with rearward-curving wings tipped by its most capable warships to discourage attacks from the flanks and rear, it seemed unstoppable.

To face this juggernaut England could muster 23 large royal warships, almost all race-built galleons, some 30 large private warships and a host of smaller vessels. High Admiral Lord Howard of Effingham had been persuaded by Drake, his newly-appointed vice admiral, to bring the bulk of his force west to Plymouth, leaving a small squadron under Lord Henry Seymour in the Downs to watch Parma.6 Informed of the Armada’s approach by a watchful pinnace, the English warped out of Plymouth during the night and gained the wind. Medina Sidonia had already missed his first and probably best chance of victory two days earlier by rejecting suggestions to sail directly for Plymouth and blockade the English in port rather than wait to assemble his entire fleet.

Table 2

The Strengths of the Spanish and English Fleets

30 May 15887



20 Galleons averaging 600 tons displacement, including three former Portuguese royal warships and ten galleons of the Indies Guard 23 royal warships displacing from 250 to 1,500 tons each, the bulk of them race-built galleons
47 armed merchantmen averaging 680 tons displacement each 30 private warships displacing 300-600 tons each, the more heavily armed of them equivalent to royal warships of like size
21 hulks, large merchantmen impressed to haul troops and supplies, many of them Mediterranean vessels poorly suited for the Atlantic 30 private warships displacing 200-250 tons
4 galleasses, displacing about 1000 tons each 10 small royal vessels, pinnaces and the like
4 galleys 1 galley
31 small ships for dispatch vessels and scouts 162 small private ships

The Spanish superiority in a boarding fight was evident as was the English advantage in stand-off gunnery. Indeed, Philip had warned Medina Sidonia in April that “the enemy’s intention will be to fight at long range on account of his advantage in artillery.... to fire low and sink his opponent’s ships”8 and so it was, though not as anticipated. The English formed line and passed alongside the Spanish, harrying them with broadsides, though to no discernible effect. The only advantage came from accidents among the Spanish, a powder explosion and a series of collisions on the 31st that delivered two ships to the English the next day — one of them the powerful galleon Nuestra Señora del Rosario — along with several tons of gunpowder.

On 2 August, the English tried penetrate the Armada’s interior, only to be met by powerful warships detailed by Medina Sidonia to protect the merchantmen and hulks. The wind dropped for a time, enabling the galleasses to bring their powerful guns briefly to bear, threatening to close and board. Medina Sidonia reorganized the Armada, placing the hulks and merchantmen in the vanguard, protected by a rearguard of his best warships. On the 3rd, the English, newly formed into four squadrons led by Howard, Drake, John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher, blocked the Spanish from the Solent preventing a descent on the Isle of Wight. By now it was clear that the English could bring their guns to bear at will, but that they were doing little harm.

The 3rd and 4th saw several hot actions, notably by Drake in his flagship Revenge, in which the English closed to substantially shorter ranges than previously, perhaps experimenting to see if they could inflict serious damage. The experiments, if they were that — the hypothesis is Colin Martin’s and Geoffrey Parker’s, and convincing9 — were successful. Having learned that close-in gunnery was effective, the English backed off to conserve powder.

The fleets disengaged on the 5th, the Armada ploughing stolidly ahead and the English shadowing, low on powder and frantically resupplying. On the 6th, Medina Sidonia, not having heard from Parma and fearful of overshooting. his rendezvous, brought the Armada to anchor off Calais, within 25 miles of Parma’s embarkation ports. That evening, he received his first word from Parma.

Parma had thoroughly out-foxed the Dutch, avoiding the attentions of a blockading squadron under Justin of Nassau and successfully concealing his intentions, but for reasons of deception had held his men back from their ports. This detail revealed a fatal flaw in Philip’s plan: lacking a deep water port in Flanders or control of the Channel, it required precise coordination, something exceedingly difficult to achieve with large and heterogeneous forces, then or now. In fact, Parma ordered embarkation to proceed as soon as he learned that the Armada was at Calais. Within forty-eight hours he was ready, poised to strike.10

Meanwhile Howard anchored within sight of the Armada and received reinforcements by the hour, Seymour among them. A council of war decided to send in fireships and preparations were made accordingly. Caught in an exposed roadstead and with an offshore breeze, Medina Sidonia ordered his captains to set a second anchor.

Around midnight, eight small ships stuffed with combustibles warped in with the tide. Medina Sidonia had posted a screen of small craft as a precaution and their crews managed to tow two of the fireships clear. The rest proceeded on course, their crews taking to the boats; it was perfectly timed and executed. At the sight of the approaching flames the Spanish panicked, chopping cables and leaving anchors behind. No ship was burned, but the attack succeeded beyond expectations. Dawn found the Armada scattered and the flag galleass aground,

The ensuing battle, named for nearby Gravelines, was intense and confused. Medina Sidonia’s flagship San Martin and four of his best galleons sought to interpose themselves between the rest of the Armada and the English. They fought with admirable fortitude and were generally successful, but the English, using their agility and firepower to full advantage for the first time, closed and inflicted terrible damage. The wind drove the battle north. One galleon was sunk outright and Medina Sidonia’s five stalwarts mauled. By day’s end, the flag galleass was destroyed and the Armada driven so far to windward that any hope of rendezvous with Parma was gone. Medina Sidonia gave orders to proceed home the long way round. Most of the galleons made it, a tribute to their design and construction. Many of the rest did not, driven against the Scottish or Irish coasts and wrecked, their anchors on the bottom off Calais and not available when needed.

It was close. Had one of Medina Sidonia’s numerous messages to Parma announcing his intentions and progress arrived in time — a real possibility — Parma could have been ready when the Armada arrived. The English had been unable to stop the Armada and Parma would have had his escort. Had his veterans made it ashore there can be no doubt that they would have made mincemeat of Elizabeth’s militia.

It did not happen. England remained Protestant and Elizabeth queen. The Dutch Revolt prospered. The Royal Navy was vindicated as the core of England’s defense, but that same navy proved incapable of offensive strategic decision. English raids could be highly destructive — that on Cadiz in 1596 far surpassed Drake’s earlier attack — but accomplished little beyond increasing Spanish defense expenditures. Those included the creation of a navy which, though unable to succeed where the Armada had failed, effectively protected the treasure fleets. The war wore on in inconclusive attrition until Elizabeth’s death in 1603 and the truce called by her successor James I the next year.

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1 Quoted in Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, The Spanish Armada, revised edition (New York: Mandolin Books, 1999), 251.

2 Parker, Grand Strategy, 94-97; Martin and Parker, Armada, 98-97

3 Martin and Parker, Armada, 97 and Appendix I, 261-65. I have roughly estimated displacement by assuming a 1.5:1 ratio between displacement tonnage and the capacity figures given. Jan Glete, Warfare at Sea, 1500-1650: Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of Europe (New York: Routledge, 2000), 158, speculates that the French fleet of 1545 may have been larger than the Armada — we simply don’t know — and for that reason I have included Parma’s force.

4 Armada, 172-73.

5 The estimate of time lost is from examination of the track of the Armada plotted in Peter Padfield, Armada (London: Victor Gollancz, 1988), 102.

6 Martin and Parker, Armada, 40: 47, 171-73; Seymour’s squadron included three galleons of 4-500 tons burden two more of 150 tons and the Queen’s only galley, and nine small vessels.

7 Glete, Warfare at Sea, 158; and Martin and Parker, Armada, 97 and Appendix I, 261-65.

8 Cesáreo Fernández Duro, La Armada Invencible, 2 vols. (Madrid, 1888), II, 9-10, quoted in Geoffrey Parker, The Grand Strategy of Philip II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 251.

9 Martin and Parker, Armada, 201-204.

10 The nature of the information conveyed in Parma’s message to Medina Sidonia remains a mystery; whatever it was he fooled the Dutch and swiftly embarked his force; Martin and Parker, Armada, 168, esp. 168 n. 3.

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