In July 1588 an Armada of 130 ships carrying 30,000 men and a siege train set sail from Corunna. Philip II, ruler of Spain, Portugal, much of Italy, the Netherlands and America, instructed it to ‘join hands’ (his words) with an army of 27,000 men standing by near the ports of Flanders, invade England, and overthrow the Tudor State.
He had little choice. Three years earlier Elizabeth, England’s Protestant queen, had signed a treaty with Philip’s rebellious subjects in the Netherlands that promised to supply them with troops and money, and she had also dispatched a task-force commanded by Francis Drake to destroy and capture Spanish property around the Atlantic seaboard.
This amounted to a declaration of war: now Philip wanted revenge. The Armada must therefore land an army which would capture London, depose Elizabeth, compel the new government to adopt the foreign policy of the conquerors, and secure a war indemnity by placing loyal foreign troops as garrisons in English towns.
An attainable goal?
Events a century later showed that these goals were attainable. In November 1688, a Dutch Armada landed an army which captured London, deposed the monarch, compelled the new government to adopt the foreign policy of the conquerors, and secured a war indemnity by placing loyal foreign troops in English towns.
The Spanish Armada seemed poised to anticipate this feat. Although it had taken three years to assemble, the fleet that left Corunna on 21 July 1588 reached the Channel in ten days and, despite every effort of the Royal Navy to hinder its progress, on 6 August it dropped anchor off the French port of Calais. It was now just 25 miles from the soldiers in Flanders, who started to embark as soon as they learned of the Armada’s approach. What could possibly go wrong?
In retrospect, Philip’s requirement that his ships in Spain could only invade after embarking an army 700 miles away seems unrealistic without steam-power and the telegraph – and he knew it. When his military and naval commanders pointed out the dangers inherent in his strategic plan, Philip replied ‘We are quite aware of the risk that is incurred by sending a major fleet through the Channel without a safe harbour’, but their protests must cease ‘because everything is being done for God’s cause, and so He will send good weather’.
After this, Philip saw obstacles as a divine test, a sort of hazing – ‘We must believe that Our Lord has permitted these setbacks so that, when they have been overcome with His assistance, we will see more clearly how we owe our success to Him’. He therefore insisted that everyone aboard the fleet ‘must avoid oaths, blasphemy and other offences against Our Lord, because earning His favour in this way is the best path to victory’.
Men behaving badly
The king neglected another way to ‘earn’ divine favour. As Grand Master of several prestigious Orders of Chivalry in Castile, Philip nominated deserving subjects as knights or knight commanders, provided they met certain categories established when the Orders were still primarily religious. Above all their pedigree must not include any Jews, Muslims, priests or heretics, and they must not have worked for a living.
To verify the ‘purity of blood’ of each royal nominee for knighthood, special agents visited the places where he had lived and interviewed people – often dozens of people – with knowledge of his religious and personal background and recorded any ‘stains’ (tachas) encountered. The dossiers of several senior Armada officers included significant ‘stains’: four were descended from fornicating priests, two had appeared before the Inquisition charged with heresy, two had Jewish ancestors, and one had made his living as a merchant. In each case, Philip wrote a letter to the pope requesting him to excuse the ‘stains’ detected so that he could ‘knight’ his nominee.
Perhaps Philip felt this breech of religious protocol did not matter. Convinced that the Armada was engaged in God’s service, namely the deposition of the heretic Elizabeth and the restoration of England to the Catholic faith, he expected God to overlook any shortcomings on his part and bridge any gaps between ends and means in his strategy with miracles. Nevertheless, as Sir Walter Raleigh opined some years later:
‘To invade by sea upon a perilous coast, being neither in possession of any port, nor succoured by any party, may better fit a prince presuming on his fortune than enriched with understanding’.
In the event, getting the Armada from Spain to ‘join hands’ with the army in Flanders was a miracle too far. On 7 August the English used fireships to break up the Armada’s tight formation as it lay at anchor off Calais, and the following day used their superior tactics and armament to inflict serious damage on many ships. The Armada reluctantly decided to return to Spain by sailing around Scotland and Ireland, where many ships sank or ran aground. At least one-third of the fleet was lost and perhaps one-half of its men were dead by Christmas.
Elizabeth failed to exploit this success, however. An Anglo-Dutch ‘counter-Armada’ in 1589 landed an army that sacked Corunna and almost captured Lisbon, and in 1596 another task-force briefly occupied the port of Cadiz, but Spanish troops forced the invaders to withdraw.
The war outlasted both Philip, who died in 1598, and Elizabeth, who died five years later. It only ended because her successor was King James of Scotland, who had remained at peace with Spain. One of his first acts as king of England was to suspend hostilities and in 1605, exactly 20 years after it began, James signed a peace that brought the war to an end.
Geoffrey Parker teaches history at The Ohio State University and has published 40 books. Both he and his co-author, Colin Martin, served as historical consultants on the BBC documentary Armada. Their book is a definitive history of the Spanish Armada.
Armada: The Spanish Enterprise and England’s Deliverance in 1588 is published by Yale University Press London, available on 6 December 2022.
Members of the History Hit community can purchase Armada by Geoffrey Parker and Colin Martin for the offer price of £24.00 (RRP £30.00) with free P&P when ordering via yalebooks.co.uk. Simply use the promo code “A1588” at the end of the checkout.