The Armada may have been more than two years in the making for Philip II of Spain, but its engagements with the English fleet took place over the course of just a few days in 1588. Meanwhile, a vital cog in Spain’s plan to invade England never came to fruition at all; a Spanish army from the Netherlands had been waiting to join up with the Armada but, in the end, never left land.
This timeline of the Armada foregoes the preparation stage and gets more or less right into the action. The dates used are in the so-called “Old Style”, which follows the Julian calendar, and have not been adjusted to fit the new style of dating.
25 April Old Style (4 May New Style) 1588
Pope Sixtus V blessed the Armada’s banner (flag) in a sign of his support for the campaign to invade Protestant England, overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and reinstate Catholicism.
The Armada set sail from Lisbon and headed for the English Channel, its intention being to meet up with a Spanish army coming from the Netherlands. This army was headed by the governor of the Spanish Netherlands, the Italian Duke of Parma. It took the 130-ship Armada two days to leave port.
In the Spanish Netherlands, meanwhile, Elizabeth’s representative there, Valentine Dale, held peace negotiations with representatives of the Duke of Parma.
The negotiations between Dale and the duke’s representatives collapsed.
The Armada entered the English Channel and was was sighted for the first time by the English, off a peninsula in southern Cornwall called “The Lizard”.
Later that day, the Armada caught a fleet of 66 English ships unawares at Plymouth, but the Spanish commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, declined to attack them. Instead, the Armada sailed east, towards the Isle of Wight.
An English fleet of around 55 ships soon gave chase to the Armada, engaging the Spaniards at daybreak on 21 July near a rock grouping known as Eddystone Rocks. But by the end of the day, neither side had gained much of an upper hand.
After nightfall, however, English Vice Admiral Francis Drake made the mistake of snuffing out a lantern he had been using to guide the English fleet, in order to slip away from the Spanish. The unintended consequence was that his fleet was scattered and the Armada was given a day’s reprieve.
The two sides engaged again, this time off the Isle of Portland. As the English launched a full-scale attack, the Duke of Medina Sidonia ordered the Armada out of the Channel to avoid the Owers, a group of ledges and rocks.
The Armada anchored in open seas, off the port of Calais in the north of modern-day France. At that point, it looked as though the goal of joining up with the Duke of Parma’s army could be within sight.
But it had previously been difficult for the Armada to stay in touch with the Duke of Parma’s army, and it was only at this point that the Duke of Medina Sidonia became aware that the army was not yet assembled at the nearby port of Dunkirk as expected. Furthermore, boats belonging to Dutch rebels had blockaded Dunkirk.
Waiting in open seas, the Armada was vulnerable to attack.
In the early hours, the English sent eight so-called “fireships” to attack the Armada. These sacrificial ships were filled with combustible material before being set alight and sent towards the enemy fleet in order to cause destruction and chaos. In this case, none of the Spanish ships were burnt, but the fireships were successful in causing the fleet to break formation and scatter.
The Duke of Medina Sidonia tried to reform near the small port of Gravelines, further up the coast. But the English soon attacked, with the ensuing clash becoming known as the Battle of Gravelines.
The English fleet had learned something of the Armada’s strengths and weaknesses during its previous engagements with the Spanish fleet. This, coupled with its superior manoeuvrability, meant it was able to provoke the Armada’s front line ships into using up much of their ammunition, while many Spanish gunners were killed.
By late afternoon, however, the weather was worsening, and the English were out of ammunition. So they chose to withdraw.
When the winds shifted to blow northwards, the Armada was able to escape into the North Sea.
The Duke of Medina Sidonia held a council of war to decide whether to return to the Channel or travel home to Spain via a route that would take them around the top of Scotland. Strong south-westerly winds ultimately made the decision for the Spanish, however, pushing the Armada even further north.
Despite being out of ammunition, the English fleet still pursued the Armada up the east coast of England, not wanting it to return to meet up with the Duke of Parma’s army.
The commander of the English fleet, Lord Howard of Effingham, called off the pursuit of the Armada in the Firth of Forth, off Scotland’s east coast.
Elizabeth visited English troops at Tilbury, Essex, giving her famous battle speech. By this point, the Armada had already rounded Scotland on its journey home but there was still the potential for the Spanish army led by the Duke of Parma to attack from the port of Dunkirk in modern-day France. Meanwhile, as long as the Armada was still in waters close to the British Isles, it still posed a threat.
Ultimately, the feared Spanish invasion never came and troops at Tilbury were discharged shortly after Elizabeth’s visit. But her appearance on the north bank of the River Thames would go down as a defining moment, not just of her reign but of British history as a whole.
Elizabeth’s public presence among commoners was in itself remarkable, but the stirring speech she gave to the troops was particularly extraordinary and included the lines:
“I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too”
The troops were discharged from Tilbury. Meanwhile, the Armada was still doing okay. It may not have pulled off joining up with the Duke of Parma’s army but it had escaped the English fleet relatively unscathed and was on its way home. But this situation was not to last.
During this time, the Armada experienced some of the worst weather to ever hit the region and the result for the fleet was catastrophic. Nearly a third of its ships were wrecked on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, while the vessels that survived would return to Spain severely damaged by the storms.
Some 5,000 men are believed to have died in the wake of storms, some at the hands of English forces after their ships were driven ashore in Ireland. And many of the survivors were in a bad state – lacking food and water and suffering from diseases.
The Armada returned home, with the Duke of Medina Sidonia declaring that he would rather lose his head than return to sea. Once back in Spain, many more of the fleet’s crew members died.