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Old 08-12-2011, 18:29
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Default The Spanish Armada of 1588

The Spanish Armada of 1588 (Part 1)


Although there are many books and accounts written about the Armada, they are remarkable in that no two agree entirely on just what happened. This is partly due to there being no comprehensive contemporary account. Although the Spanish records are the most complete. There are just glimpses, being mainly individual’s view on events. This is not helped by many authors, in trying to explain events, filling in the gaps with their own invention and interpretation. Typically, they differ on dates, time of day, tonnage of ships, and even ship’s names. Particularly, it is difficult to obtain accurate data about wind speeds and direction at particular times of day to explain why certain manoeuvres were made. With that caveat I hope the following account is not too inaccurate.

There is a difference in dates between the English and other accounts of this event because western Europe was using the Gregorian calendar, which was introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory, and England continuing to use the Julian calendar as they wouldn’t use the Catholic calendar for another hundred years. Consequently English dates for this period lagged ten days behind the Continent; thus the 21st July 1588 in England was 31st July 1588 on the Continent. Another peculiarity is that the legal and official year in England began on 25 March. So from 1 January to 24 March 1588, English years are written as 1587. To prevent confusion, only the Gregorian dates are used, and years begin on 1 January.

For no apparent reason, names have been changed through the centuries; for example Sir John Hawkins always signed himself "Hawkyns"; and Sir Martin Frobisher signed himself "Frobiser", and there are many other examples, but only the modern spellings are used here.


The history of the period is a bewildering mixture of wars, politics, religion, power struggles, alliances, claims to thrones and treachery, with perhaps religion being the prime mover in most cases. To understand why the Spanish sent their Armada against England in 1588, a very simplified (probably over simplified) summary of the state of affairs in Europe follows.

Spain, through conquest and marriage, had amassed a huge empire with territories throughout the world, including most of South and North America,from which it derived much wealth, and thus was the most powerful and richest country in the world. In addition, Spain controlled several territories in Europe including the Netherlands, most of Italy and parts of modern France and Germany.

This empire was further enlarged in 1580 when King Henry of Portugal died with no direct descendants. Philip II of Spain claimed the Portuguese crown and annexed Portugal with an Army under the Duke of Alba, thus gaining all of its considerable overseas possessions in South America, Africa and Asia, and a very fine fleet of warships. Philip ruthlessly imposed his Catholic religion on his provinces resulting in constant persecution, unrest and civil war, especially in the Netherlands.

Philip, while still a Prince, had married the Catholic Queen Mary of England in 1554. When he inherited the Spanish Crown in 1556, they became King and Queen of both England and Spain. She died childless in 1558, and was succeeded by her Protestant half sister Elizabeth, who became Elizabeth the First of England.

This didn’t please Philip at all, and pinned his hopes of restoring England to Catholicism on Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, who was considered by many Catholics to be the rightful heir to the English throne. But when she was executed for treason in 1587, Philip was rather ambivalent about it, because if Mary had become Queen, with her French sympathies, she would probably have formed an alliance with France so threatening Spain’s dominant role in Europe.

But Philip had claims to the English throne himself, being a descendant of Edward III; and Mary Queen of Scots had named him as her heir to the throne. What he had lost he would gain by conquest, so accelerated his plan to invade England, with its restoration to Catholicism as the overt reason.

There were other reasons too. Spain’s world wide trade and source of wealth, especially with the Americas, was frequently disrupted and looted by ‘pirates and privateers’, especially Francis Drake who, from his first attack in 1572, had become a regular thorn in Philip’s side, attacking Spanish ships as far away as the Pacific Ocean. Conquering England would have the additional benefit of removing this troublesome ‘pirate’.

The Netherlands
The Netherlands had been under Spanish control from the early 1500s, but in 1566 Dutch Protestants began to revolt against Spanish rule, causing Philip to send a large Spanish army, under the Duke of Alba to quell the uprising, driving the Protestants into exile. With the help of England and France they returned, capturing several towns in the north.

By 1577 the Dutch Protestants, under William of Orange, had regained virtually all of the Netherlands demanding freedom of worship. Philip regained the initiative by sending another large army under the Duke of Parma (his nephew) to regain control, and after capturing Antwerp in 1585, controlled most of the country in the south. The Protestants in the North were sent English troops, under Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, by Queen Elizabeth I in 1586 to prevent their collapse.

If there were a monarch more sympathetic to Spain on the throne of England then Spain’s problems in the Netherlands would be so much less.

Mary Tudor, a Catholic, was the daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon and, following the death of Edward VI in 1553, became Queen Mary the First of England. She married Prince Philip of Spain in 1544, but died childless in 1558, and was succeeded by her Protestant half sister Elizabeth Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who became Elizabeth the First of England.

In 1570 the Pope declared her illegitimate, because Henry’s second marriage to her mother was not legal in Catholic eyes as he had divorced his first wife Katherine of Aragon because she didn’t bear him a son and heir. As the divorce was considered illegal, his marriage to Anne Boleyn was bigamous and therefore illegal.

The Pope also declared Elizabeth a heretic, and excommunicated her, saying that English Catholics owed no allegiance to her and it was their duty to rise up and overthrow her. Many Catholics considered Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, to be the rightful heir to the English throne, and she became the focus of Catholic ambitions to restore England to Catholicism, including those of Philip of Spain. But their hopes were dashed in February 1587 when she was executed for treason.

Spanish preparations

From 1576 onwards Philip had often been warned of the need to build up a navy and sea power to put an end to attacks by pirates (i.e Drake). He was further goaded in 1585 when Elizabeth authorised Drake and his fleet to take reprisal action for the seizure of English ships in Spain. Drake first struck at the city of Vigo, then sailed to Santo Domingo (in the present day Dominican Republic) in the Caribbean and plundered it for a month. As a result, Philip began his preparations against England in what became known as his ‘English Enterprise’.

Philip asked Don Alvaro, Marquis of Santa Cruz, to prepare an estimate of what naval forces would be needed for his English Enterprise. Santa Cruz estimated that it would take 150 great ships, and 400 smaller ones, to transport direct from Spain to England, an army 64,000 strong enough for the purpose. Philip also asked the Duke of Parma, who was currently with a large army in the Netherlands, what he needed to do the same. The Duke replied that he could do it with 30,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, transported to England in barges, dispensing with the navy altogether, providing surprise could be achieved which Philip thought highly unlikely.

In 1586 Philip combined the two plans and decided that Parma’s army in the Netherlands would be reinforced overland from Italy, then it would assemble on the Flemish coast with their barges to await the arrival from Spain of a strong naval force under Santa Cruz. This force, transporting 6,000 more Spanish infantry, would stand off the ‘Cape of Margate’, in the Thames estuary, then secure the sea communications so Parma could put to sea with his army in barges and sail to England protected by Santa Cruz’s ships.

As a diversion to draw English ships and men away from the landing area, it was proposed that Spain would first attack southern Ireland two months before the Armada sailed, but the idea was later abandoned.

[Note: The Irish plan was not without precedent as the Pope’s forces, consisting of Italian, Spanish and Irish soldiers, with the help of Spain, had previously invaded Ireland in 1579 and 1580 to promote a rebellion which was not defeated until 1583.]

On the death of Mary Queen of Scots, Pope Sixtus V promised a million gold ducats to Philip if he restored England to Catholicism, payable when he landed his army on the mainland of England. As Philip was constantly in debt, this was welcome news, and it gave new impetus to the leisurely preparations already being made in building up the Spanish fleet, which he wanted to be ready by September 1587.

But Santa Cruz had just returned from a three month voyage protecting the Azores from Francis Drake (following his attack on Cadiz), consequently his fleet and men were in no condition to undertake the "English Enterprise" without rest and repair. Further, on 16 November a violent storm hit Lisbon damaging nearly forty ships causing further delays.

These delays had a deleterious effect on both men and provisions already assembled for the enterprise. 16,000 sailors had to be fed from the provisions which had already started to deteriorate and needed replacement. Consequently the men, who were mainly accommodated aboard ships, became ill and had to be replaced, causing yet more delays. It was a vicious circle which caused Philip to constantly press Santa Cruz to sail, but out of necessity Santa Cruz always needed more time to prepare. Finally, the strain proved too much for Santa Cruz who fell ill and died in Lisbon on 9 February 1588.

Philip appointed the Duke of Medina Sidonia to take over Santa Cruz’s command of the armada, which was a strange choice because, as Medina Sidonia himself pointed out to Philip, he had no experience of the sea or of war, and that he was always seasick and, apart from not being well, he doubted he would survive the voyage. He suggested that the Mayor of Castille was more suitable, being experienced in both military and naval matters. But the King had made his choice and was not to be disobeyed and, on 18 February, ordered him to depart at once and take charge of the Armada at Lisbon, making everything ready for sailing by the 1st March at latest.

English preparations

John Hawkins had been a slave trader from his first voyage in 1555. In 1568 on his third voyage, in company with a young Francis Drake, his fleet was damaged in a storm and took refuge in a Spanish controlled harbour in Mexico where he was attacked by Spanish ships. He lost all but two ships in which he and Drake escaped, and both men were bent on revenge. In 1578 he became Treasurer of the Navy and began sweeping reforms of both its finances and shipbuilding.

From his experience he knew that a new kind of warship was needed to defeat the galleon – the standard great warship of the day. His thinking was that his ships should be able to defeat enemy ships, forcing their surrender, with gunfire alone, without the necessity of boarding them, which was the accepted way of capturing a ship. He wanted ships that were faster, more manoeuvrable, more weatherly (able to sail closer to the wind), and much better armed.

To this end he built ships for speed that were smaller, longer and narrower than the galleon; greatly reduced the height of the fore and stern castles for manoeuvrability, and decked over the waist so that more guns could be mounted. The guns themselves would include a large number of culverins which had a longer barrel and a longer range than the cannon, but fired a shot (18 pounds) of less than a third the weight of a cannon (60 pounds). His new ships became known as race-built galleons, and older ships were suitably modified, in some cases being completely rebuilt.

To man the ships he wanted a better quality of seamen, so he instituted reforms which included better pay, food and training. Consequently, his ships needed less crew to man them, as ships of the day expected a large attrition of men through disease, so they were overmanned to compensate. Also, better trained men were more efficient so less were needed, and those, because they lived longer on better food, became more experienced.

In 1584 there had been a crop failure in Spain, and Philip offered to buy the grain surplus of foreign nations. In 1585 England responded by sending ships laden with grain to Spanish ports where they were all impounded and their crews imprisoned except for one, the Primrose with a cargo of corn, which fought off a large armed boarding party. Several prisoners were taken, amongst whom was the Governor of Bibao who had the King’s Commission still on him. In part it read "I have caused a great fleet to be put in readiness in the haven of Lisbon and the river of Seville. . . I do therefore require you . . . arresting of all the shipping that may be found on the coast . . . saving those of France." (It seems that Philip was having difficulty assembling enough ships for his ‘English Enterprise’.) The Governor and his Commission were brought back to England.

There was now no doubt that Spain was preparing for an invasion of England. As a result, Queen Elizabeth authorised Francis Drake and his fleet to take revenge for this act of treachery. Drake first struck at the Spanish city of Vigo, then sailed to Santo Domingo (in the present day Dominican Republic) in the Caribbean and plundered it for a month, returning to England in 1586. Part of the plunder was 240 cannon taken from Spanish forts and ships. Guns were in great demand and these were used to arm the new English ships.

In August 1586, John Hawkins took a force of 18 warships on a three month voyage to reconnoitre the coasts of Spain and Portugal for signs of building up a large fleet that could threaten England. He captured prisoners who confirmed that Spain was preparing for a huge invasion.

Attack on Cadiz
In order to buy time for diplomatic negotiations, and to fully prepare the English fleet, Queen Elizabeth authorised Drake to make a pre-emptive strike on Spain to delay their preparations, changing her mind at the last moment, but too late; he had already sailed. In April 1587 Drake with 14 warships and 12 others sailed to Cadiz where a large fleet of ships was known to be assembling. Without any warning he sailed straight into the harbour where he found most ships unmanned and none ready for action. Despite being attacked by galleys and fireships, at least twenty four ships were destroyed by fire and gunfire at their moorings. Drake was later to call this action, "singeing the King of Spain’s beard". Philip said of it, "The damage committed there was not great, but the daring of the attempt was so."

On leaving Cadiz, Drake continued along the coast towards Cape St. Vincent plundering and capturing ships, most of which were traders, many carrying seasoned barrel staves and hoops of which 1,700 tons were destroyed by fire (enough to make about 30,000 barrels, which was to have later repercussions). Drake then sailed to the Azores to intercept returning Spanish ships. They captured the East Indiaman San Philipe carrying a cargo of enormous value. (It was worth some £114,000, of which Drake got £17,000 and Queen Elizabeth £40,000.)

Hawkins, Drake and others urged Elizabeth to use the fleet boldly to blockade the Spanish harbours, bottling up the armada in its ports. But besides being expensive, the open Atlantic Ocean in winter took a heavy toll of both ships and men spending a long period there, requiring months of refitting before they could be made ready again. Also ships were unhealthy places to spend such long periods. Their crews, living mainly on saltfish, ships biscuit and beer would inevitably fall sick, sometimes loosing half their complement to ship’s fever (typhus) and dysentery.

Building up and running a fleet of warships was an expensive business and Elizabeth sought ways to save money where she could. So during the winter of 1587-88, instead of blockading Spanish ports, she kept most of her ships half ready at anchor, releasing half the crew at a time to live ashore. This meant that only half the crews at a time were paid and fed, but they had fresh food to eat and stayed healthy. The ships were careened one at a time and had their hulls scraped and tallowed, so by the Spring both men and ships were in as good a state of health and condition as they could be. But this fortunate state was reached a by-product of Elizabeth’s frugality, rather than by her foresight.

The Spanish fleet

The Armada was made up from a hastily gathered force of all types of ships from all over Europe, with many from the Mediterranean. It comprised of 130 ships, of which 65 were fighting ships, with Santa Ana the largest at 1,294 tons. Their average weight was 470 tons.

It was organised into ten squadrons, primarily by fighting and sailing capability, and secondly by region and language spoken. There were two squadrons of galleons; four squadrons of large merchantmen; one of galleasses (sailing galleys) from Naples; one of Urcas or supply ships; one of assorted small ships for scouting and dispatch carrying; and incongruously, one of galleys.

The Portuguese Squadronof 12 Galleons, under the Duke of Medina Sidonia, Commander of the Armada in the 48 gun flagship San Martin.
The Biscayan Squadron of 14 ships, under Vice Admiral Juan Martinez de Recalde in the 30 gun flagship Santa Ana.
The Castilian Squadron of 13 ships, under Diego Flores de Valdés in the 36 gun flagship San Cristobal.
The Andalusian Squadron of 11 ships, under Don Pedro de Valdés in the 46 gun flagship Nuestra Senora del Rosario.
The Guipúzcoan Squadron of 14 ships, under Miguel de Oquendo in the 47 gun flagship Santa Ana.
The Levantine Squadronof 10 ships, under Martin de Bertandona in the 30 gun flagship La Regazona.
The Squadron of Urcas, 23 hulks or supply ships, under Juan Gómez de Medina in the 38 gun flagship El Gran Grifon.
The Neapolitan galleases, 4 ships under Don Hugo de Moncado in the 50 gun flagship San Lorenzo. (These were the most heavily armed ships in the Armada.)
The Galleys of Portugal, four 5 gun ships under Don Diego de Medrano.
The Squadron of Xebecs and other smaller ships, 24 ships of 5 to 10 guns, under Don Antonio de Medoza.

Totals: 132 ships; 8,766 sailors; 21,556 soldiers; 2,088 convict rowers.

Spanish tactics
Spanish tactics were dictated by the main purpose of the Armada which was to cover the passage and landing area of the Duke of Parma’s army from the Netherlands to England; not to defeat the English fleet in battle on the way, although it would be inevitable that they would meet and fight at some time.

Once the Armada had left the coast of Spain there were no friendly deep water ports in the Channel in which they could re-supply or seek refuge. Consequently, once at sea, they had to be self sufficient and sail non stop to the rendezvous with Parma. It was envisaged that if Parma could not be ready in time the Armada could anchor and wait somewhere on the south coast of England, possibly the Isle of Wight sheltering in ths Solent.

It was therefore a necessity that the strength of the Armada should not be unduly weakened by battle damage en route. To this end, a defensive formation was adopted for the passage, which took the form of a crescent or half moon, with the most powerful ships at the most vulnerable points on the wings.

Spanish ships had been made obsolete by the newer English ships, a fact recognized by the Spanish, but who still built ships which represented floating castles. Should it come to a fight, the Spanish tactics were to capture enemy ships by engaging at close quarters with gunfire before coming alongside and securing with grappling hooks. Whereupon, the ship would be taken by soldiers boarding and overpowering the enemy crew whose strength, it was hoped, had been reduced by the large number of muskets and small calibre guns carried on the high fore and stern castles.

Thus the purpose of a Spanish warship was to carry soldiers to do the fighting. Overall, the ships of the Armada carried two and a half times as many soldiers as they did sailors. What the Spanish didn’t initially recognise was that the English ships were simply too fast, too manoeuvrable and too heavily armed for these tactics to work.

In summary the Spanish ships were troop carriers and the English ships were gun carriers.

The English fleet

The English fleet was a more homogenous fleet than the Armada with fewer types of fighting ship, many of which were of the new ‘race-built’ galleon design – smaller, shallower, longer, faster and more manoeuvrable than the traditional galleon. Additionally, many of the guns were of the longer range culverins with their crews better trained and able to fire at twice the rate of their Spanish counterparts. (This also meant that they expended their ammunitions twice as quickly.)

There were four main types of ship:
1. The Royal ships. These were fighting galleons, of which the largest were the Bear at 1,000 tons, and Triumph at 1,100 tons. (Ark Royal, 800 tons was originally built and owned by Walter Raleigh and called Ark Raleigh but was renamed when sold to the Queen)
2. Merchant ships. The largest of which were Galleon Leicester and Merchant Royal at 400 tons. Although classed as merchant ships they were very heavily armed for fending off pirates and indulging in privateering, (private commerce raiding authorised by the Queen).
3. The City of London ships, paid for by the City of London.
4. Merchant ships paid for by the Crown.

The main fleet consisted of about 120 ships, with Triumph the largest at 1,100 tons. Their average weight was 220 tons. In addition to these were about 70 supply ships operating from their home ports, but not sailing with the fleet.

The fleet was commanded by Lord Howard of Effingham, with Sir Francis Drake as his Vice-Admiral. It is pointless to detail the squadrons as they were reorganised by Howard halfway through the campaign, but the Squadron Commanders were:-

Lord Charles Howard (the Lord High Admiral) in the 55 gun flagship Ark Royal,
Sir Francis Drake in the 46 gun flagship Revenge,
John Hawkins in the 52 gun flagship Victory,
Martin Frobisher in the 42 gun flagship Triumph,
Lord Henry Seymour in the 40 gun flagship Rainbow.

English tactics
The Armada had 62 ships over 300 tons at an average weight of 720 tons; whereas the English fleet had only 23 ships over 300 tons at an average weight of 550 tons. As the Spanish way of taking a ship was by grappling and boarding, and carried two and a half times as many men to do this, they would have an overwhelming advantage if it came to hand to hand fighting.

As Sir Walter Raleigh put it:
"Certainly, he that will happily perform a fight at sea must believe that there is more belonging to a good man of war upon the waters than great daring, and must know that there is a great deal of difference between fighting loose or at large and grappling. To clap ships together without consideration belongs rather to a madman than to a man of war . . ."

So English tactics were to avoid being boarded by engaging the Armada at a range beyond that of the Spanish short range heavy cannon, in an attempt sink or disable the ships. With the more manoeuvrable English ships, it was easy to stay out of range. But as was to become apparent, at such a range the English culverins didn’t fire a heavy enough shot to cause serious damage to the Spanish.

Regards, Bill

"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?" - Cicero.
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