Anglo-Spanish War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

England’s war against Spain thwarted Spanish hegemony in western Europe, ensured England’s survival as a Protestant nation, greatly weakened Spain, and paved the way for creation of a British empire.

Summary of Event

The hostilities between England and Spain during the late sixteenth century were both colonial and commercial in nature, as well as being couched in the broader context of the European wars of religion during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The English feared threats to their trade in the Netherlands and the Spanish bid for hegemony in western Europe. They knew that such hegemony would be devastating for any European Protestant nation. For their part, the Spanish were both intensely nationalistic and devoutly Catholic and saw it as their right and duty to exercise such control. Anglo-Spanish War (1587-c. 1600)[Anglo Spanish War (1587-c. 1600)] Drake, Feancis Elizabeth I Philip II (1527-1598) Norris, John Devereux, Robert Farnese, Alessandro Hawkins, Sir John Philip II (king of Spain) William the Silent Norris, Sir John Leicester, earl of Drake, Sir Francis Farnese, Alessandro (duke of Parma) Antonio, Don Guise, Henry I of Lorraine, duke of Henry III (king of France) Henry IV (king of France) Howard, Thomas (first earl of Suffolk) Grenville, Sir Richard Essex, second earl of Frobisher, Sir Martin Hawkins, Sir John Elizabeth I (queen of England) James I (king of England)

Several events in 1584 brought the tensions between England and Spain to a head, triggering an overt military conflict. In June, the duke of Anjou, heir to the French throne, died, opening the path for greater Spanish influence in France, as Philip II subsidized the French Catholic League via the Treaty of Joinville. The next month, William the Silent, the Protestant leader of the Dutch Revolt against Spain, was assassinated, creating a leadership vacuum in the Netherlands. These events resulted in the English and Dutch signing the Treaty of Nonsuch Nonsuch, Treaty of (1585) in August, 1585, which provided for the English commitment of troops under Sir John Norris and later Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, to aid the Dutch. This was an extraordinary measure, given England’s lack of military resources compared to the continental powers.

In addition to waging a land war in the Netherlands alongside the Dutch, the English used their traditional maritime strategy. From September, 1585, to July, 1586, Sir Francis Drake conducted naval raids on Spain, the Canaries, the Cape Verde Islands, the West Indies, and Florida. Drake’s attacks damaged Spanish prestige and caused Philip II to shift resources to the Americas. In April, 1587, Drake raided Cádiz, and in this famous “singeing of the beard of the king of Spain,” he destroyed supplies destined for the Spanish Armada and captured the ship San Lorenzo. Perhaps the most spectacular and pivotal campaign of the entire conflict was Philip II’s attempt in May-July, 1588, to gain control of the English Channel with the Spanish Armada Armada, Spanish (1588) and to escort Italian troops under Alessandro Farnese, duke of Parma, onto English soil to conduct a full-scale invasion. The failure of the Armada and the successful Anglo-Dutch defense of Bergen-op-Zoom were significant setbacks for Spain.

In April-July, 1589, the English launched a two-pronged land and sea attack on the Iberian Peninsula. They sought to capture the remnants of the Armada, to capture the Spanish treasure fleet, and to restore the Portuguese pretender Don Antonio to the Portuguese throne. Sir John Norris, commander of the troops, and Sir Francis Drake raided Coruña and Lisbon seeking to create a popular uprising on behalf of Don Antonio. No such uprising occurred, however, and the only benefit the English gained in this campaign was the seizure of sixty grain ships from the Baltic, which strained their relations with the Hanseatic League and northern European countries.

Shortly after the return of England’s fleet, however, dramatic events in France created a huge shift in power. The assassinations of both Henry I of Lorraine, duke of Guise, and King Henry III (r. 1574-1589) brought the Protestant Henry of Navarre to the throne as King Henry IV (r. 1589-1610). Henry IV opposed Spanish influence in France. As a result of Henry’s ascension to the throne, Philip II sent troops to France in 1590 to support his demand that his oldest daughter become queen of France. Philip’s troops seized towns in Brittany, and the duke of Parma moved troops from the Netherlands to France to relieve the siege of Paris. What had been sporadic ad hoc aid from England now had to become regular and substantial if France’s Protestant king was to survive.

In 1591, England launched another naval assault focused on the Azores and interdiction of the treasure fleet. The English were overwhelmed by superior numbers, however. Lord Thomas Howard broke off the assault as hopeless, but Sir Richard Grenville refused to give up and died in battle. The English also committed their ground forces to aid their allies: seven thousand to assist the Dutch, three thousand to Brittany, and four thousand under Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, to relieve Rouen in April, 1592.

In another dramatic reversal, Henry IV converted to Catholicism on July 10, 1593, changing the dynamics of the French war and the positions of both Spain and England. At Brest, Sir John Norris led four thousand troops alongside a fleet of eight ships under the command of Sir Martin Frobisher to defend the town from Spanish forces. They managed to relieve the pressure on France during the critical period from 1593 to 1594 when Henry IV was consolidating his power. This relief of Brest, combined with the Dutch’s gaining control of important rivers and Henry IV’s breaking the power of the Catholic League, marked a significant ebbing of Spanish power. Spain did, however, capture Calais Calais;Spanish capture of , thereby forging an Anglo-French “offensive and defensive alliance” in 1596 which was expanded to a Triple Alliance with the inclusion of the Dutch in 1597.

The English, attempting to repeat the success of Drake’s West Indies raid of 1585-1586, unleashed Drake once more on the Indies alongside Sir John Hawkins, this time with disastrous results. The Spanish were prepared for the attack, the two English admirals had major disagreements, and both died before the end of the expedition. In June-July, 1596, the Cádiz Expedition was launched under the command of Charles, Lord Howard, and the earl of Essex to stop preparation of another Spanish Armada. Cádiz was seized and sacked, but the expedition failed to capture a Spanish merchant fleet in the harbor or to recover any significant treasure. This failure, in addition to Essex’s knighting of too many soldiers, angered Elizabeth I. A Spanish Armada was sent out in October, 1596, but it was dispersed by storms before it got very far. Another Armada in October, 1597, met the same fate.

The Treaty of Vervins Vervins, Treaty of (1598) of May, 1598, between Spain and France ended Spanish involvement in the French Wars of Religion; Religion, French Wars of (1562-1598) this treaty coupled with the death of Philip II in September, 1598, brought Philip III (r. 1598-1621) to the throne and initiated the final phase of the Anglo-Spanish War. The Spanish Armada of 1599 broke off its approach to England to meet the threat of a Dutch fleet on the Azores and Canaries, and no later Armada was assembled to attack England. Spain’s involvement in the Tyrone Rebellion in Ireland was the last significant episode of the conflict. The thirty-five hundred Spanish troops assisting the Irish at Kinsale surrendered to English forces on January 2, 1602. The death of Elizabeth I on March 24, 1603, and the accession of James VI of Scotland as James I of England (r. 1603-1625) brought about a cessation in hostilities and led to the Treaty of London (August, 1604), which allowed English trade with the Netherlands and promised that English merchants in Spain would not be subject to the Spanish Inquisition. The treaty was silent, however, on the issue of English trade with the West Indies.


Scholars have noted that English military intervention on the continent resembles subsequent actions against Louis XIV of France, Napoleon I, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Adolf Hitler. It therefore stands as both a factual and a symbolic beginning of England’s influence as a true world power in Europe. The end of the Anglo-Spanish War brought considerable advantages to England and its new king, James I. Relations between England and Scotland were greatly improved, because the same monarch ruled both countries. The Irish rebellion had been subdued. The huge financial burden of continuing the war, which increased the importance of Parliament as a source of funding, was brought to an end, although considerable debt remained. England’s sale of patents of monopoly and draining of revenue from church property had raised necessary funds but had created resentment toward the government. Moreover, although there had been no successful Spanish invasion of England and Spain’s bid for dominance in western Europe had been stopped, the English still maintained a significant fear of Spanish influence.

On Spain’s part, the empire’s “golden age” was over; its merchant fleet was largely destroyed, and much of its trade with its colonial possessions had been usurped by others, primarily the English and Dutch. English privateering and naval activity greatly expanded England’s reach in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, and Asian trade routes, and they led to the first serious attempts at colonization in North America, first at Roanoke and then at Jamestown. Privateers;English The chartering of the East India Company (1600) also helped pave the way for the formation of an empire. The Dutch were able to pursue greater commercial and colonial opportunities, while France was able to recover from the Wars of Religion (1562-1598). The preservation of England as a Protestant nation led to a strong connection between patriotism and an anti-Spanish, anti-Catholic attitude.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cruickshank, C. G. Elizabeth’s Army. 2d ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1966. A major study of the composition and structure of the Elizabethan ground forces with a concise treatment of the 1596 campaign against Spain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kamen, Henry. Philip of Spain. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. This biography contains a strong focus on Philip II’s wars, especially the Anglo-Spanish War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parker, Geoffrey. The Grand Strategy of Philip II. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. A major work of analysis of Philip’s military undertakings, and his leadership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wernham, R. B. After the Armada: Elizabethan England and the Struggle for Western Europe, 1588-1595. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1984. This detailed study focuses on the continental aspect, which the author asserts has been overlooked in favor of the naval actions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wernham, R. B. Before the Armada: The Emergence of the English Nation, 1485-1588. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1966. A survey which places the Anglo-Spanish War within the context of the Tudor Dynasty and explains the context for the beginning of the struggle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wernham, R. B. The Return of the Armadas: The Last Years of the Elizabethan War Against Spain, 1585-1603. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. This narrative examines the policy of Elizabeth I and her ministers and the events of the final stage of the Anglo-Spanish War.

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

Mar., 1562-May 2, 1598: French Wars of Religion

1580-1581: Spain Annexes Portugal

July 26, 1581: The United Provinces Declare Independence from Spain

July 7, 1585-Dec. 23, 1588: War of the Three Henrys

Sept. 14, 1585-July 27, 1586: Drake’s Expedition to the West Indies

July 31-Aug. 8, 1588: Defeat of the Spanish Armada

1597-Sept., 1601: Tyrone Rebellion

Categories: History