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The Spanish Armada - Sent to Invade England in 1588

  • Category(s): Modern Historical Essays
  • Created on : 04 March 2015
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


May we relive these memorable and terrifying days for Queen Elizabeth I and her people, when King Philip’s formidable Spanish Armada sailed up the Channel armed to the teeth to invade England and crush her resistance to the might of the Catholic powers on the Continent.

1. The Political Background

Spain ruled by the Catholic King Philip of Castile, was the foremost power on the Continent in 16th Century Europe. Elizabeth I of England had declined to marry him, and she a protestant ruled England. Thus, Elizabeth’s sea captains wreaked havoc amongst Spanish ships carrying gold from the Spanish Main, what we now call Central America. This was Philip’s pretext to launch the Armada against Elizabeth, not any refusal to marry him. He was however a seriously religious man and such men in positions of authority can be dangerous to their enemies – Elizabeth I was that enemy to Philip, religious, personal, political and military.

2. The Military Side

England was essentially a purely maritime power in the 1580’s. We had no regular standing Army and our last big battle won was Agincourt in the previous Century fought by archers and knights in armour. We had now lost our French Territories – Calais was written across Mary Tudor’s “heart” when she died and Elizabeth I her younger sister succeeded her. Cromwell’s fearsome New Model Army, so well disciplined and trained, came later in the 1640’s and 1650’s. Marlborough our General conducted his victorious campaign to the battle of Blenheim in Flanders in the very early 18th Century. Our colonial victories at the Heights of Abraham (Quebec) and Plassey (India) came later that century.

Spain by contrast had conquered the Americas, defeated the Moors and fought successfully in the Netherlands all on land in this epoch. She was very strong on land and sea. We could only claim strength at sea. The Armada with so many ships and fighting soldiers on board would therefore have posed a severe threat to Elizabeth if those troops had landed on English soil. Philip intended a victory on terra firma following a successful naval encounter. He made all the necessary preparations and did not expect his plans to founder. He believed he was right and such men also believe they will achieve their aim. He was an enemy aiming at the very soul of England.

3. The Nature of the Danger Faced by Elizabethan England Caused by this Armada.

I submit the imminent and immediate variety of this danger was only averted by the English Navy’s response. I argue this Armada was anchored off Gravelines, Northern France very close to our coasts having sailed from Spanish ports. It then sailed for England despite the English fire ships setting light to and destroying a number of Galleons of the Spanish Navy. The weather then blew the Armada off course. If the Spanish troops and their Generals had landed on English soil, the result would have been as planned by King Philip of Spain. He was not to be trifled with and he was a King who expected his plans to bear fruit. The immediate danger of this Spanish Armada was closer and greater than Bonaparte’s invasion plan in 1805 and Hitler’s in 1940. England was able to breathe a great sigh of relief and beacons across England were lit to celebrate the victory over this dreaded Spanish Armada.

4. The Naval Encounter Itself.

When the Spanish Galleons were engaged by the English Navy we had the edge as our gun decks were closer to the water line than the Spanish Ships. Their Spanish broadsides hit our superstructure causing peripheral damage. Our broadsides struck at the centre of gravity of the Spanish Warships causing fatal and fundamental weakening in the seaworthiness of those enemy ships. English Naval gunnery was tried and tested in 1588 in opposing this Armada. That was our strongpoint, our Navy as our people knew.

5. Sir Francis Drake

He was our foremost sea captain, but no Admiral on the Royal Oak our then flagship. He is remembered for proudly laying down his cloak over a muddy puddle to enable Elizabeth I to walk more easily. Secondly, when told of the impending arrival of the Armada in the Channel he continued playing bowls at Plymouth: Here we see true English phlegm. I believe he was responsible for what was amusingly called “singeing the King of Spain’s beard” at the Spanish Port of Cadiz. Such was the mettle of English Naval Officers and their men in the service of Elizabeth I, for whom they would do anything.

6. The Espionage Background and My Conclusion.

The English Spymaster was another Francis: Sir Francis Walsingham. He would have had spies all over England and even on the Continent. Spying had become a thriving trade. King Philip of Spain would have had spies on the Continent for sure, probably even England. Spies if caught would be shown no mercy – the safety of the Queen’s Kingdom was at stake on the English side.

Another complexity was that English Catholics were trained as Priests in Rome, France and Spain in this era. The Pope supported this Armada against the strongest Protestant and defiant nation in Europe. The Holy Father also authorised the formation of these English priests at the English College in the Eternal City, Douai in France and Valladolid in Spain herself. Thus, England stood alone against the assembled powers in Europe, including the Holy Roman Emperor (Vienna) and our closest neighbour (France). How did these features interlock? Basically, any Catholic priest in England would be a suspected traitor if caught on English soil. Many Catholic priests who were arrested would be hung, drawn, quartered and beheaded under the penal laws prohibiting the saying of Catholic Masses rather than seditious conduct.

The lead martyr and principal Jesuit priest to be caught and tried was St Edmund Campion SJ. He was allegedly “unmasked” as a spy for the Catholic Continental powers, and tried in a State Trial for Treason in London but no mock trial. The Attorney-General prosecuting and the Elizabethan Judges presiding were in earnest. Campion would never admit treachery, but why else would he set foot on English Protestant soil to proclaim the religion of the Queen’s foes? Campion had been caught a red handed Catholic priest and would never be allowed to go about his priestly, Jesuitical and traitorous work again. Catholics were never to be trusted. Campion met the usual fate of a Catholic at Tyburn in London, as had been the case throughout Elizabeth’s reign for captured practising Roman Catholics.

For Elizabethan England in the 16th Century the defence of the Queen’s realm mattered more than anything. Dare we contradict them, as Englishmen ourselves, under Elizabeth II her namesake in this Century and much admired successor upon the English throne? England’s precious lands have been justifiably protected from this mighty Spanish Armada.