In May 1588, the Spanish Armada left the Portuguese port of Lisbon, headed for England with more than 130 ships. Since their discovery of the New World almost 100 years before, the Spanish had built one of the wealthiest and most powerful empires on earth. King Philip II of Spain wanted to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I of England for both political and religious reasons. Elizabeth had assisted the Protestant rebels in the Netherlands to overthrow Spanish rule in the region. She also had been allowing English pirates called privateers to attack Spanish treasure ships returning from the New World.
What only added fuel to the fire were the religious disputes between a Catholic Spain and a Protestant England, whose national church had split from the Catholic Church after the excommunication of Henry VIII in 1535. Outnumbered and outgunned, the English defeated the Spanish Armada in a series of unforgettable naval encounters. The serendipitous event of the English victory over the Armada changed the balance of world power. It would have never been possible without happenstance occurrences like, death, weather, and new naval designs and strategies.
Just months before Phillip’s Armada was launched, Don Alvaro de Bazen, Marquise of Santa Cruz, died of typhus in January. Santa Cruz had been a veteran leader and a naval captain unequalled in confidence and skill at the time. He was a narcissistic, avaricious, and cruel man; these qualities made him the ideal naval commander. It was said that only four people attended his burial, “and his death was regretted by no one”. (Martin 146) If he had not passed, Santa Cruz would’ve been the ideal admiral for the mission because he was so widely respected and was willing to die for his country without a second thought.
One who knew Santa Cruz said he was “a grizzled veteran of Lepanto, offered to take on the whole English Navy at the word of the King”. The English would never have had a chance at victory over the Spanish Armada led by such a solid and able soldier. The replacement for Santa Cruz was chosen by King Philip II himself. He chose Don Alonso Perez de Guzman, the Duke of Medina Sidonia. Medina Sidonia’s qualifications to lead the Armada were lackluster. While the Duke had a vast knowledge of naval technique, he lacked combat experience.
However he was the head of one of Spain’s most ancient and aristocratic families, and King Philip II therefore saw Medina Sidonia as the seemingly perfect leader for his Armada because he was the head of such a respectable family. (Martin 147) Yet no victories bolstered his pedigree. When the Duke received the letter from the King asking him to lead the Armada, it wasn’t a surprise however. Since the very early stages of planning for the Armada, Medina Sidonia had been there and was already well briefed.
As if portending his failure, he wrote a series of letters to King Philip II stating that he didn’t want the job. One of his reasons included in the letter was “for I know by the small experience I have had afloat that I soon become seasick…” (Martin 149) Acknowledging that he was not fit for the job and that his qualifications did not add up to those necessary for the Armada to succeed, Medina Sidonia conceded that “furthermore this force is so great and the undertaking so important, that it would not be right for a person like myself, possessing no experience of seafaring or war, to take charge of it.
I have no doubt that his Majesty will do the favor which I humbly beg, and will not entrust me to do a task of which certainly, I shall not give a good account; for I do not understand it, know nothing about it, have no health for the sea and have no money to spend upon it”. (Martin 147) The king merely overlooked the Duke’s explanation as improper humility. What the King was oblivious to was that Medina Sidonia had written a second letter two days later, where he claimed that the whole endeavor “was ill-conceived and doomed almost too inevitable failure”. Martin 148) The king never heard this argument because the second letter had been intercepted by two councilors of state. In response they wrote “do not impress us with fears for the fate of the Armada, because in such a cause God will make sure it succeeds…” (Martin 148) They also threatened the Duke, saying that if he didn’t follow through with leading the Armada they would show the world the letter and he would have been charged with treason. Against his will and only because of moral pressure, special persuasion, and blackmail did Medina Sidonia accept the title captain – general of the ocean sea.
It wasn’t enough that Medina Sidonia was the completely wrong person to lead the Spanish Armada, he didn’t even believe that the invasion had any chance of being successful and thought of it as a complete waste of time. His defeatist thinking combined with poor leadership and lack of sea experience created a deadly concoction of laziness and lost hope. The launch of the Armada was no surprise to England because the Spanish had not meant to keep it a secret in hopes that Elizabeth would surrender even before the fleet was launched. With plenty of warning, England did its best to gather a large enough naval force, but it was never enough.
At first glance the Armada dwarfed the English Navy in both size of ships and numbers. With this in mind English commanders believed they would have to win the war with their long-range guns; they would attempt to sink the Spanish ships one at a time from a safe distance. The Armada, which carried a large number of tough and well-trained soldiers armed with swords and muskets, planned to use their advantage on any English ships that got too close and “the Spanish commanders intended to pull it alongside with grappling hooks and send the soldiers on board capture it. (Anderson 24) As is very common in battle, the plans going into battle are often changed based on the unpredictable circumstances that can unfold. Both sides’ predictions on tactics that would help them win, were wrong. The English belief that they would sink the Spanish ships from a safe distance was faulty because the guns at the time were tough to aim and too unpredictable to do any real harm. (Martin 53) Nonetheless most of the English privateer boats could fire off shots three times faster than Spanish ones.
They also could carry more cannons because they didn’t have to waste much space carrying food and other resources since the battles happened just miles off their home coast. While the Spanish intended to pull alongside with grappling hooks and send soldiers on board to capture the ship, English ships were too nimble to be caught in this way by the large Spanish galleons, with wide hulls and heavy cargoes. (Anderson 24) After suffering small losses in the battle that unfolded in the English Channel the Armada moved on with the plan.
The Armada was to sail to the Netherlands on the coast near Dunkirk. At the time the Netherlands was under Spanish control, and the vast majority of Spain’s most trained soldiers were stationed there. Spanish troops in the Netherlands were under the command of the Duke of Parma, a well-known and respected military leader but also the nephew of King Philip II himself. In the next stage of the king’s plan, the Armada was to pick up Parma’s Army from the beaches near Dunkirk, and escort them across the channel to England. Anderson 26) This stage had a problem; Spanish ships were not made for shallow water. They were heavy and deep in the water. The Armada could not get close to the beaches because the waters around the coast were so shallow. In addition, the Dutch rebels aided by Elizabeth controlled the shallow waters off the coast of the Netherlands. This ruined the possibility of Parma’s troops being able to sail out and join the Armada without severe casualties. Realizing this, the English took advantage of the wind, and sent eight small burning ships directly at the Armada in hope of causing chaos.
The Spanish mistaking these for “hellburners”, vessels loaded with gunpowder and other explosives that could kill thousands, broke formation, cut their anchors, and sailed away without picking up Parma’s troops. (Anderson 27) These two occurrences during battles helped lead to English victory, but both occurrences could’ve gone either way if simple things like nimble and smaller ships were used by the Spanish or if Parma’s Army was picked up at a different location. The outcome of the entire invasion could have been different.
After Phillip’s Armada failed, he said “I sent my Armada against men, not God’s winds and waves”. It wasn’t privateer long-range cannons that sunk most of the Armada’s ships, or those eight hell burners sent by Charles Howard, leader of the English fleet. It was a combination of bad decisions, strong winds, and the unforgiving coast of Ireland. By August 21, 3,000 men were sick and the Armada was too badly damaged to return to the channel and fight the English fleet. (Anderson 32) The leaders made up their mind and decided instead to make an attempt to sale home to Spain and save as many ships as they could.
The route they chose was to go West around the northern coast of Scotland and Ireland. Detailed directions were given to each vessel, and each was warned “take great heed lest you fall upon the island of Ireland, for fear of the harm that may happen on to you upon that coast”. (Anderson 32) This last desperate attempt was the worst decision of the entire voyage. Both the vessels and the sailors had come equipped with instruments for a coastal voyage through the English Channel, not an open ocean journey into dangerous and unfamiliar waters.
In the end, two thirds of the men in the Spanish fleet lost their lives, 25 or more Spanish ships lay splintered on the coast of Ireland. (Anderson 32) If equipped with the proper instruments and blessed with better weather, the Spanish may have made it back to their homeland with minimal casualties. When word of the disaster reached Spain, it crushed the King’s hope and temporarily shook his faith that God was on his side. He ordered that prayers for the Armada’s success be canceled. He also sent letters to bishops asking for churches to thank God that not everything had been destroyed.
Only months earlier when planning the invasion, Philip had wondered whether the Armada should be launched in the winter. Although the risk was high, he had the up most trust that God would provide good weather, and he even went as far as to say “since it is all for His cause, God will send good weather”. (“Spanish Armada”) Philip had sent his fleet in the name of God, but instead sheer chance had prevailed, and left the weather-tossed Armada splintered and trashed on the rocky coast of Ireland.
King Philip II was one of the most powerful people in the world, and the loss of his Armada wasn’t just a military defeat. It drained all of Spain’s funds and soldiers and set the stage for the loss of Spain’s world power. It also served as a constant reminder of how the Catholic Church was slowly losing influence and power throughout Europe and the world. The serendipitous event of the English victory over the Armada changed the balance of world power. It would have never been possible without happenstance occurrences like, death, weather, and new naval designs and strategies.
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