Defeat of the Spanish Armada Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English eliminated Spain’s threat to the English navy, prevented Spanish conquest of the Republic of the Netherlands, limited Spanish involvement in the French religious wars, and set the stage for the global acceptance of Protestantism.

Summary of Event

The enterprise of the Spanish Armada was part of Spanish king Philip II’s strategy to defeat the Republic of the Netherlands Dutch Wars of Independence (1568-1648) , which had begun to rebel against Spanish rule in 1568. England’s queen Elizabeth I feared the expansion of Spanish power in the French religious wars (1562-1594) and sought to divert it by supporting the Dutch revolution. Anglo-Spanish War (1587-c. 1600)[Anglo Spanish War (1587-c. 1600)] Armada, Spanish (1588) Howard of Effingham, Lord Charles Pérez de Guzmán, Alonzo Elizabeth I Philip II (1527-1598) Farnese, Alessandro Hawkins, Sir John Drake, Francis Philip II (king of Spain) Elizabeth I (queen of England) Hawkins, Sir John Drake, Sir Francis Farnese, Alessandro (duke of Parma) Santa Cruz, marquis de Zúñiga, Juan de Pérez de Guzmán, Alonzo Howard, Charles (second baron Howard of Effingham)

At the inception of the Netherlands’ revolt, Elizabeth I seized the Spanish pay fleet for its famed army of Flanders and sent Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake to raid coastal cities in the Spanish Indies. Finally, Philip II decided to take action against the English and reviewed several plans in 1586. Alessandro Farnese, duke of Parma and commander of the army of Flanders in the Netherlands, proposed a secret, quick channel crossing by his troops. Spain’s foremost admiral, the marquis de Santa Cruz, believed a self-sufficient army and navy should sail from Spain prepared for an eight-month campaign; he requested 150 galleons and 320 auxiliary supply ships to carry the soldiers, munitions, and supplies. The cost of the Santa Cruz plan seemed prohibitive while the Parma plan seemed extremely risky.

Exactly who bears the responsibility for Philip’s belief that he could combine the two plans into a cost-efficient strategy remains a subject of historical debate. Philip’s chief adviser, Juan de Zúñiga, is blamed by some, but the basis of “the enterprise” lay in Parma’s original belief that he could get his troop barges into the channel. Since Parma did not have a deep-water port, a rendezvous with the Armada was nearly impossible because of the Dutch coastal guard. Parma’s preparation for the crossing is another issue hotly debated. Some argue he made only token progress in barge building while others say he was ready and blame his failure to go to sea on faulty communications.

The fleet to escort Parma’s army across the channel assembled in Lisbon and consisted of approximately 30,000 men on 120 vessels with 43 armed ships weighing more than 350 tons. The legend that the Spanish fleet was larger in number and in the size of its ships is mythical. In terms of front-line warships, the two fleets were about equal in number and size. One reason for the myth about ship size was John Hawkins’s “race-built” galleons produced after 1577. They did not have the large forecastles for carrying troops to grapple and board. This allowed space for more cannons and partly accounts for the greater damage inflicted by English gunnery at close range. The comparison in the firepower of the two fleets has long been contested, but all authors acknowledge the huge advantage the English had in being able to replenish their ships with shot and powder from shore. Drake’s daring assault on Cádiz in 1587 delayed the Armada for one year. His destruction of tons of barrel staves, essential for ships’ supplies, contributed to the hellish return voyage of the Armada.

Admiral Santa Cruz died three months before the Armada set sail, and Philip II appointed the duke of Medina-Sidonia, Alonzo Pérez de Guzmán, as his replacement. As captain general in western Andalusia, the duke helped outfit the annual American fleets, but he begged not to take the Armada command because of his lack of experience at sea. His own humility was grist for later scapegoat seekers. In Lisbon, he found preparations in total disarray; the fact that the fleet set sail in 1588 was a testament to his managerial and organizational skill.

The Armada entered the English Channel on July 29 and prepared to fight the English fleet on July 31 by creating a crescent formation with the strongest ships on the wings so they could encircle any English stragglers and board them with their superior number of soldiers. Led by Lord Charles Howard, the English met the Spanish with a double-line formation intent on turning back the Spanish fleet. The English, however, could not break the Spanish formation as they stood off, using their superiority in long-range cannons and munitions but inflicting little damage. Howard had let the Spanish fleet through his line. The English fell behind, gained the wind, and forced repeated engagements but could not stop the Armada’s inexorable advance to an illusory union with Parma. As the Spanish fire reply slowed because of their lack of munitions, the English began to sail closer and to inflict greater damage. The Armada dropped anchor near Calais Roads on August 6 to await Parma’s barges from Sluys. Medina-Sidonia thought Parma was capable of leaving the shallows of Sluys, but his barges would have to exit one at a time, making them easy targets for the Dutch fly boats. Parma communicated with Philip, but not with Medina-Sidonia.

On the night of August 7-8, the English sent eight fire ships into the Spanish fleet, scattering their ships. When the double-loaded cannons exploded, many Spanish captains believed these were “hellburners,” ships packed full of powder and shot, which could devastate a closely formed fleet. On the morning of August 8, Medina-Sidonia struck his sails and offered battle to an enemy now three times his size. As the Battle of Gravelines Gravelines, Battle of (1588) ensued, Spanish ships slowly returned to their courageous admiral. The crescent re-formed under a ferocious pounding. The English ran out of powder, and the winds shifted to Spanish advantage. With no word from Parma, little ammunition, and a badly damaged fleet, Medina-Sidonia decided to sail north and return as many ships and men as possible to fight another day.

After all the channel battles, the Armada had lost only three ships to English gunfire, but the damage to others proved fatal during two weeks of severe storms on the return voyage. Lack of water and food led several ships to seek harbor in Ireland. The English executed all the Spaniards they could find, but the Irish helped hundreds of others to escape to Scotland. All the ships that followed Medina-Sidonia’s course returned to Spain. Two-thirds of the fleet was saved, but only half was fit for future service. Half the men had perished. Many crewmen died in Spanish ports because it was impossible to requisition sufficient supplies for the thousands of starving and sick survivors.


The defeat of the Armada did not crush Spain and usher in British naval supremacy (that would occur one hundred years after the defeat). Philip II began a crash naval construction program and sent two more Armadas against England; the last in 1597 had 136 ships and was considerably superior to the British fleet. The war with England that officially began with the Armada ended in a stalemate in 1604.

Yet the defeat of the Armada was a psychological lift for international Protestantism. Spain had had a series of unbroken military victories since the 1540’. The Republic of the Netherlands was saved and its independence eventually recognized by Spain in 1648. Hope was given to the French Huguenots, whose leader, Henry of Bourbon, would ascend the throne after converting to Catholicism in 1593. The war with England diverted Spanish resources from the Netherlands and France when Spanish power may otherwise have been overwhelming in those regions.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coote, Stephen. Drake: The Life and Legend of an Elizabethan Hero. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Biography combines novelistic dramatization of Drake’s life with important analysis of the way his legend became a national symbol through which England understood itself and its global actions. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doran, Susan. Queen Elizabeth I. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Portrays Elizabeth as a flawed but brilliant manipulator who used this ability to protect her country and to steer it safely through a host of dangers. Includes illustrations, map, bibliographic references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dudley, Wade G. Drake: For God, Queen, and Plunder. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’, 2003. This entry in Brassey’s “Military Profiles” series examines Drake’s naval career, including his role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. The Spanish Armada: The Experience of War in 1588. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Good analysis of the variety of plans offered to Philip. The author defends Philip’s decision and views the battle as having little significance for the outcome of the Anglo-Spanish War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Colin, and Geoffrey Parker. The Spanish Armada. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. Martin and Parker use recent underwater archaeology of Armada wrecks to speculate that Spanish cannon carriages made reloading nearly impossible during battle, thus explaining the greater damage inflicted upon Spanish ships.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mattingly, Garrett. The Armada. Reprint. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. This Pulitzer Prize-winning account is the beginning of modern Armada scholarship. It is particularly strong on the context of international relations and Spanish diplomacy.
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    xlink:type="simple">Pierson, Peter. Commander of the Armada: The Seventh Duke of Medina Sidonia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. The first biography of the Armada commander develops the duke’s character and career before and after the disaster. The appendices and diagrams provide a highly accurate account of Spanish fighting tactics.
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    xlink:type="simple">Rodriguez-Salgado, M. J. Armada, 1588-1988: An International Exhibition to Commemorate the Spanish Armada—The Official Catalogue. London: Penguin Books in association with the National Maritime Museum, 1988. This catalog of the British National Maritime Museum’s Armada Exhibition in 1988 includes 430 illustrations and pictures of artifacts, maps, leaders, rival armies and navies, invasion plans and defense measures, and ship life in the sixteenth century along with informative text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Patrick. Armada. Charleston, S.C.: Tempus, 2000. Monograph on the English defeat of the Armada. Details the causes of the attempted invasion, the battle itself, and its aftermath. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.

16th cent.: Evolution of the Galleon

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

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

Apr., 1587-c. 1600: Anglo-Spanish War

Categories: History