Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada; the Apothecaries painting, sometimes attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. A stylised depiction of key elements of the Armada story: the alarm beacons, Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury, and the sea battle at Gravelines.
There is no doubt that the defeat of the Spanish Armada was a pivotal moment in British history, and one that helped define a nation. But England had been exhausted by the effort of repelling the invaders. She may only have lost 50–100 dead and 400 wounded, and none of her ships had been sunk, but after the victory, typhus, dysentery and hunger killed many sailors and troops (estimated at 6,000–8,000) after being discharged without pay. So much for Elizabeth’s fine words at Tilbury.
However, the English victory revolutionised naval battle tactics with the promotion of gunnery, which until then had played a supporting role to the tasks of ramming and boarding. The Battle of Gravelines started a lasting shift in the balance of naval power in favour of the English. Geoffrey Parker wrote that ‘the capital ships of the Elizabethan navy constituted the most powerful battle fleet afloat anywhere in the world.’ The English navy yards were leaders in technical innovation, and the captains devised new tactics.
Superior English ships and seamanship had foiled the invasion. The Armada failed because Spain’s over-complex strategy required coordination between the invasion fleet and the Spanish army on shore. But the poor design of the Spanish cannon meant they were much slower in reloading in a close-range battle, allowing the English to take control. Spain still had numerically larger fleets, but England was catching up.
Elizabeth became known as ‘Gloriana’. The ‘Protestant wind’ had worked in England’s favour. On these shores at least, Protestantism ruled and the Catholic bogeymen were seemingly banished. Clerics preached that God and Protestant England were as one and Papists were promised hell in the Channel and in the afterlife. In the words of the bishop of Salisbury, John Piers, God had executed ‘justice upon our cruel enemies; turning the destruction that they had intended on us upon their own heads’.
Sir Roy Strong:
To England and Protestant Europe this was seen as God’s judgement and his handmaiden went in triumph through the streets of London to St Paul’s to give thanks amidst the acclamation of her people. In a sense she became England. The defeat of the Spanish Armada made a reality of what her government had striven to achieve, a united people held together by the crown, Protestant, patriotic, fearless in defence of Queen and country. Although in political terms the victory may have changed little and the country was to remain involved in a costly war for the rest of the reign, in moral ones it gave confidence and creative energy to what was in essence a new civilisation and society …
The boost to national pride lasted for years, and Elizabeth’s legend persisted and grew long after her death.
The Spanish appear to have shrugged off their defeat as nothing more than an unfortunate setback. The Spanish navy underwent a major organisational reform that helped it to maintain control over its trans-Atlantic routes. High-seas buccaneering and the supply of troops to Philip II’s enemies in the Netherlands and France continued, but brought few tangible rewards for England.
Within a few years Spain, opposed to Henry of Navarre’s claim to the French throne, invaded Normandy and Brittany, captured Amiens and Calais and threatened the key Channel port of Brest. The English sent 4,000 men to Brittany and, with their French allies, saw off that threat. But a Spanish raid from Blanet in galleys not at the mercy of English winds exposed again the vulnerability of Elizabeth’s realm and her navy was recalled from overseas duties. The danger was very real as Philip was planning a second invasion Armada. It set off in winter 1596 but was thwarted not by English galleons, but by the weather.
The following year Elizabeth sought to retaliate by planning her own armada against Spain. A hundred ships and 6,000 men were to be sent to burn the port of Ferrol, where the Spanish were preparing yet another invasion fleet, but the task proved to be beyond England’s cash-strapped capacity. Drake also set sail with a fleet of privateers to establish a base in the Azores, attack Spain and raise revolt in Portugal. The expedition raided Corunna, but withdrew from Lisbon after failing to co-ordinate its strategy effectively with the Portuguese. Elizabeth fell back on the strategy of building up her country’s defences.
In October 1597 the third Armada set off. The Spanish plan was to sail 9,000 troops, protected by galleons, from Ferrol, while another 1,000 sailed in barges from Brittany with the apparent purpose of a swift raid. In reality, they were to meet at Falmouth, land and join up with a supposed rebellion by English Catholics. Again, the weather came to the rescue and the invaders were scattered by a storm off the Lizard.
Between 1595 and 1597 large-scale operations were resumed; Drake was called out from his retirement and placed, with Hawkins, in command of another expedition. Raleigh and Lord Essex brilliantly attacked Cadiz, capturing the city and temporarily bankrupting King Philip of Spain. But the delayed West Indies expedition accomplished little; both Drake and Hawkins died and were buried at sea, disease ravaged the fleet and in April 1596 several of their ships reached Falmouth in great want and distress.
Soon Philip was preparing another great armada and Elizabeth called up an army to defend her regal frame, to which Cornwall and Devon were to contribute 2,000 men. They were not necessary as the fabled ‘Protestant wind’ came to the rescue – the armada was struck by fierce gales off Finisterre.
At Plymouth, the military Governor raised his garrison to 100, and while under his supervision many more hundreds of pounds were spent upon the fortifications of Plymouth Citadel. The strain was being felt: notification was given that there would not be sufficient funds out of the revenue of Devon and Cornwall to meet his half-yearly charges, now amounting to £900.
Ralegh and Essex were fitting out another joint expedition at Plymouth, this time for the Azores, to intercept the Plate fleet. Meanwhile, information was coming into the west country of the renewed preparations in Spanish harbours: an armada of 100 sail. It was thought that, as in 1588, they would be heading for Calais. In the Azores, the English fleet of Raleigh and Essex just missed the Plate treasure fleet bound for Spain: the narrowest escape King Philip had had. Essex and Ralegh quarrelled bitterly and, their fleet battered by the gales of that summer and in no condition to fight, made for home.
Two days before they left, the Adelantado weighed anchor from Ferrol (Spain) and with all his armada kept company ‘with great joy’ until within twenty-five leagues from the Scilly Isles off Cornwall. Then it transpired what his objective was not Calais at all, but Falmouth. His instructions were a new and elaborated version of the great Menendez’s plan of the 1570s: to seize, fortify and garrison Pendennis Castle at Falmouth, then take his fighting ships to the Scilly Isles, wait there and destroy the English ships returning from the Azores. If successful in this, he was, with the other half of his forces, some 10,000 men, to march eastward and capture Plymouth. It was an ambitious plan, and some part of it might have achieved success. But again, the Channel winds prevented it being put to the test. It was October when the armada put out. It was within two days’ sail of Land’s End when the autumn gales struck it and forced it to turn back.
The immediate consequence of the failed invasion was that the fortification of Pendennis Castle was undertaken in real earnest. Lord Essex gave his opinion that it was not defensible as it was against an army landed, and that an engineer should be employed to make the ground better to resist fire. It was reported that the Adelantado had meant to establish himself on the headland and turn it into an island by cutting the narrow neck of the peninsula.
At the moment of danger, Raleigh had drawn 500 levies into Pendennis, a crippling burden for a poor county. When it had passed, Godolphin wrote to him: ‘Our country poor people do and will much repine at the burden of maintaining these small forces, of 400 or 500 at Penryn for guard thereof, which guard to the intended force is of ineffectual moment.’ He suggested a further garrison to lie in readiness about Truro. ‘But what speak I of beggarly country aid against princes’ royal armies, which cannot but by our prince’s purse and munition be resisted?’ The strain of defence, the constant responding to calls on levies, maintaining them in service, was becoming too expensive for Cornwall’s meagre resources.
Still the Spanish refused to give up. By then Henry IV was firmly in control of France and by the 1598 Peace of Venins he abandoned his support for England in return for the Breton and Normandy ports captured by the Spanish. Philip of Spain’s successor, Philip III, then tried to negotiate a leaseback of those ports for use as a springboard to England. Luckily for England, Henry rejected that plan.
In 1601 Spanish attention turned to Ireland, then in a turmoil of revolt led by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. The rebels defeated Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Essex, and the Spanish saw their chance. Forty ships and 5,000 troops sailed for the Irish coast. The fleet was battered by storms and half turned back, but the remainder made landfall, landing at Kinsale in September. By then, however, the rebels had been defeated. The Spanish became bogged down in the beachhead, and when news came through that the remnants of the rebel armies coming to join them had been crushed, they surrendered on honourable terms.
On Elizabeth’s death in 1603, James VI of Scotland became king of England offered Philip III a negotiated peace. Both sides were exhausted by 20 years of war and the August 1604 Treaty of London offered an honourable settlement. Spain effectively recognised that they could not reverse the Reformation in England; the English agreed to halt efforts to destroy Spain’s trading monopoly in much of the Americas.
Mutual suspicion and tension, however, continued for decades until the French once again became England’s main threat.
The myths of the Armada became reality for most Britons up to the Second World War and beyond. They helped define a sense of Englishness driven by both fear and certainty. Its fury, brief though it was, and bungled as much of the enterprise was, gave the nation a moment of invigoration and renewal. As Garrett Mattingly wrote in 1959: ‘Its story, magnified and distorted by a golden mist, became a heroic apologue of the defence of freedom against tyranny, an eternal myth of the victory of the weak over the strong, of the triumph of David over Goliath. It raised men’s hearts in dark hours, and led them to say to one another: “What we have done once, we can do again.”’
The Armada myths continue to inspire.