In 1586, Philip II of Spain had had enough of England and its queen, Elizabeth I. Not only had English privateers been raiding Spanish possessions in the New World, but Elizabeth had also been sending troops to aid Dutch rebels in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands. Philip could no longer tolerate English meddling in Spanish interests and he began making preparations to do something about it.
Two years later, Philip ordered a huge fleet – some 130 ships carrying 24,000 men – to set sail for the English Channel and support a Spanish land invasion of England from Flanders.
The ensuing English victory against this Spanish Armada became a pivotal moment in the rise of Protestant England as a global power. It is also widely regarded as one of England’s greatest naval victories. But why exactly did the Spanish Armada fail?
A lack of secrecy
As far back as 1583, news that Philip was planning to build a great fleet was common knowledge throughout Europe. Various rumours surrounded the intended destination of this new navy – Portugal, Ireland and the West Indies were all touted.
But Elizabeth and her chief adviser, Francis Walsingham, soon learnt from their spies in Spain that this armada (the Spanish and Portuguese word for “naval fleet”) was intended for an invasion of England.
And so, in 1587, Elizabeth ordered Sir Francis Drake, one of her most experienced sea captains, to lead a daring raid on the Spanish port at Cadiz. The April raid proved extremely successful, severely damaging preparations for the Armada – so much so that it forced Philip to postpone the invasion campaign.
This gave the English precious time to prepare for the impending attack. Drake’s daring actions at Cadiz became known as “singeing the beard of the King of Spain” because of how successfully it hindered Philip’s preparations.
For Philip, his inability to keep the planned invasion campaign a secret cost him dearly both in time and in money.
Santa Cruz’s death
Thanks to Drake’s raid at Cadiz, the Armada’s launch was delayed until 1588. And this delay led to further catastrophe for the Spanish preparations; before the Armada had set sail, one of Philip’s most capable naval commanders died.
The Marquis of Santa Cruz had been the designated leader of the Armada. He had also been a leading advocate of attacking England for years – although by 1588 he had grown increasingly sceptical of Philip’s plan. His death in February 1588, just prior to the invasion campaign being launched, added further turmoil to the planning.
Santa Cruz was replaced by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a nobleman who lacked the naval experience of his predecessor.
Following multiple postponements of the invasion, Philip grew increasingly impatient. In May 1588, he ordered Medina Sidonia to launch the fleet, despite preparations still not being complete.
Many galleons therefore lacked necessary provisions such as experienced gunners and high-quality cannon shot. Although a magnificent sight to behold, the Armada had severe faults in its weaponry when it set sail.
These faults soon revealed themselves in the Battle of Gravelines where the Spanish cannons proved ineffective because of the inexperience of the crews using them.
England’s superior ships
Unlike the Spanish galleons, the smaller, more versatile English ships were well-provisioned to fight. By 1588 the English navy consisted of many swift-moving ships filled with cannon and gunner specialists that were deadly against enemy vessels.
Their speed and mobility also proved highly important. It allowed them to sail close to the more cumbersome Spanish vessels, fire deadly cannon volleys point-blank and then sail away before the Spanish could board them.
A lack of ingenuity
Medina Sidonia had a golden opportunity to defeat the English navy very early on in the invasion campaign. As the Armada sailed along the Cornwall coast, the English navy was re-supplying in Plymouth harbour, leaving them trapped and extremely vulnerable to attack.
Many Spanish officers advised launching an attack on the English vessels, but Medina Sidonia was under strict orders from Philip to avoid engaging the English fleet unless absolutely necessary. Desiring to follow Philip’s orders to the letter, the duke avoided engaging the fleet. Many historians argue that this was a critical mistake.
Following the Battle of Gravelines – during which the English ships used their better cannon and agility to both outsail and outgun their Spanish counterparts – a strong south-westerly wind forced the Spanish fleet to head into the North Sea. Although massive, the Spanish galleons lacked flexibility and could only sail with the wind at their back.
This proved to be their ultimate undoing as the wind drove what remained of Medina Sidonia’s fleet away from the Spanish army at Flanders. Unable to turn around because of the wind and the English pursuit, Medina Sidonia continued north and the invasion plan was abandoned.
The English later dubbed this south-westerly wind the “Protestant wind” – sent by God to save their country.
The weather continued to work against the Armada. After the English fleet gave up its pursuit off the east coast of Scotland, it looked as though the majority of the Spanish ships would be able to make it home safely. But after rounding the top of Scotland, the Armada ran into severe storms and nearly a third of its ships were driven ashore on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland.