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Famous Fleets: The Spanish Armada

By Sid Nair

The history of the Spanish Armada is a story of war, intense rivalry, and destruction. The Spanish Armada was a massive fleet of ships created by King Philip II of Spain in the 16th century. A staunch Catholic, Philip was dedicated to overpowering the Protestants of Europe. Specifically, he desired to see the destruction of the rule of Queen Elizabeth I of England. He therefore created and launched his Spanish Armada in 1588 with the intention of invading and defeating England.

Philip had a long-standing rivalry with Elizabeth I for a few reasons. First, he despised Elizabeth for the execution of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. He felt that Mary was the rightful heir to the English throne instead of the Protestant Elizabeth. Along with this, Queen Elizabeth I had recently assisted Dutch rebels in a series of rebellions in the Spanish Netherlands. These things led Philip II to pursue war with his English enemy.

In order to launch his fleet of approximately 130 ships and 30,000 men, Philip took out a series of loans from various European countries. This included a hefty amount from Pope Sixtus V, who desired to see England convert to Catholicism by any means necessary. Philip chose the Marquis de Santa Cruz to lead the armada. However, the marquis died before the campaign was launched, and his replacement was the Duke of Medina Sidonia. The duke was a general in Philip's army, and he had no naval experience prior to his appointment as head of the Spanish Armada. Despite these early setbacks, the fleet set sail.

The first major battles that the Spanish faced did not involve cannon fire. Instead, many of the Spanish crews were forced to endure disease, starvation, and a lack of fresh water. This caused the Spanish to seek places to resupply their ships as they sailed northward. Along with these trials, storms began to harass the fleet, crippling some of the ships. The fleet continued to press on, planning to unite with the Duke of Parma off the coast of the Spanish Netherlands before proceeding to the English mainland.

By this time, the English knew that the Spanish were up to something, and they prepared for the invasion. Knowing that they were outnumbered and outgunned, the leaders of the British navy planned a surprise attack against the mighty Spanish fleet. Those who devised this ambush included Lord High Admiral Howard, Sir Francis Drake, and Sir John Hawkins. As the Spanish Armada was docked in the French port of Calais, the English launched their attack on July 29, 1588. The British navy set several of their own ships on fire, rigged the ships' cannons to fire automatically, and sailed them directly into the Spanish Armada. This worked to great effect, causing surprise and panic among many of the Spanish ships. Several Spanish ships even collided with one another, immobilizing them in the process.

The ensuing battle was a huge victory for the British. Many Spanish ships decided to cut their own anchors in order to escape the port of Calais. In doing so, however, many of them were sealing their own fate. Any attempt to escape south was cut off by British blockades, and Dutch rebels had blockaded the Spanish from receiving any reinforcements from the Duke of Parma and the Netherlands. The Spanish Armada was thus forced to retreat northward around Scotland and Ireland.

As the Spanish attempted to circle Scotland and Ireland in their long retreat back to Spain, they ran into even more trouble. Storms arose and wreaked havoc on the battered armada. Since many of the ships no longer had anchors, they were helpless against the storms and waves that beat against them. The few ships that survived the battle with the British and the storms limped back to their homeland. In all, only about 76 of the original 130 ships and 15,000 of the original 30,000 men made it back to Spain.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada ended Spanish domination of the Atlantic Ocean and also brought an end to much of Spain's power within Europe. The high cost in human life and gold demoralized Spain's people and plunged the nation into immense debt. Spain's economy then sharply declined, and England became the prominent naval power in Europe and the Atlantic. The history and defeat of the Spanish Armada is important to learn because it is a key element in the formation of modern Europe and greatly impacted world events.

The following resources offer even more details and insight into the history of the Spanish Armada: