The Spanish Armada (la felicissima armada or "most fortunate fleet") is the term conventionally applied in English historiography to the fleet which King Philip II of Spain used as part of an attempt to invade England in 1588.

Table of contents
1 Causes
2 The plan
3 The execution
4 The results
5 Related topics
6 Other meanings


This was the first of several invasion attempts over the next decade, and one of the most famous episodes in English history. While Philip's motives were both religious and political, the reasons given for this attack were principally religious, since the Protestant Elizabeth I of England had antagonised the Catholics by making attendance at Church of England services compulsory and instituting imprisonment for the saying or attending Catholic Mass. Moreover, the activities of English privateers on the Spanish Main over the previous years had severely dented the Spanish treasury, and in April 1587 Sir Francis Drake had burned 37 Spanish ships in harbour at Cadiz. Furthermore, England had joined the Eighty Years' War on the side of the United Provinces and against Spain. On 29 July 1587, Philip obtained Papal authority to overthrow Elizabeth and place whoever he chose on the throne of England.

The plan

Philip's invasion plan was a simple fourchette: the Duke of Parma, who was commanding Spain's army in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands, was to assemble an invading force on the North Sea coast. Parma's only means of transporting troops across the English Channel was a fleet of vulnerable barges. Therefore, the Armada was to travel North from Spanish-controlled Lisbon and meet Parma's army in order to protect its passage . Command of the Armada was given to the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a soldier with no naval experience. His instructions from Philip were detailed and strict, in contrast to Queen Elizabeth I's policy that her naval commanders be responsible for military decisions.

The execution

On May 28, 1588 the Armada, with 130 ships and 30,000 men, began to set sail from Lisbon heading for the English Channel. At this time the English fleet was prepared and waiting in Plymouth for news of Spanish movements. It took until May 30 for all ships to leave port, and on the same day Elizabeth's ambassador Dr Valentine Dale met Parma's representatives to begin peace negotions. It was not until July 17 that the peace negotiations were wholly abandoned.

The Armada, having been delayed by bad weather, was not sighted until July 19. This occurred off The Lizard, Cornwall, but a sequence of beacons had been constructed the length of the south coast of England, so that the news was known in London within two days. The Armada followed the coast as far as Plymouth, where the 150 ships of the English fleet had set sail on the night of the 19th. The English were under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham (later Earl of Nottingham), but he had acknowledged Sir Francis Drake, technically his subordinate, as the more experienced naval commander and given him effective control.

Over the next week there followed two inconclusive engagements, at Eddystone and Portland, Dorset, as well as two Spanish wrecks off the Isle of Wight. At the same time, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was assembling a force of 4000 soldiers at Tilbury Fort, Essex, to defend the estuary of the River Thames.

On July 27, the Spanish anchored off Calais, not far from Parma's waiting army of 16,000 in Dunkirk. At midnight of July 28, the English set five pitch-filled ships alight and sent them downwind into the closely-anchored Spanish vessels. Panic ensued, damaging morale but more importantly scattering the Spanish ships. The lighter English vessels could now engage them on more even terms.

Medina-Sidona tried to reform his fleet off Gravelines, France, but the English attacked on July 29. 11 Spanish ships were lost, along with the lives of 2000 men, before both sides ran out of ammunition and hostilities ceased. English casualties were about 50.

In 2002 Dr Colin Martin of St Andrews University claimed that many Spanish ships carried cannon shot that was the wrong size for their cannons.

The next day, the wind changed, forcing the Armada to the north (away from the French coast). The English pursued and harried the Spanish fleet, prevent it from properly reforming and inflicting several defeats, but again ammunition proved the limiting factor. On 12 August, Howard called a halt to the chase at the Firth of Forth

Meanwhile, the threat of invasion from the Netherlands had not been discounted. On August 8, Elizabeth went to Tilbury to encourage her forces, and the next day gave to them what is probably her most famous speech:

"... I am come amongst you as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too..."

In fact, Parma did not cross the English Channel, and the troops at Tilbury were disbanded later that month.

The results

The Armada was forced to return to Spain by sailing around the northern coasts of Scotland and Ireland - a dangerous voyage which only 67 ships and around 10,000 men survived. Total English casualties were counted at one hundred, with no ships lost.

The victory was regarded by the English as their greatest since Agincourt. The effects on national pride lasted for years, and those on Elizabeth's legend persisted well after her death. Dignitaries around Europe had to acknowledge England, effectively for the first time ever, as a force to be reckoned with. This change of perception, combined with the comparative security ensured by the defeat of the Armada and of later Spanish attempts at invasion, were contributing factors in the English renaissance which strengthened especially in the later part of Elizabeth's reign.

Related topics

Other meanings

Today, the term Spanish Armada (Armada Española) can also describe the modern navy of Spain, part of the Spanish armed forces. The Spanish navy has participated in a number of military engagements, including the dispute over the Isla Perejil. This is not a reference to the Armada above - "armada" simply means "navy" in Spanish.

Armada Española (in Spanish)

In Tennis slang, Spanish Armada is used to refer to the group of highly ranked Spanish players, like Felix Mantilla, Albert Portas, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Carlos Moy, etc.