28 May 1588: The Spanish Armada sets sail

King Philip II’s fleet leaves for England’s shores – where disaster awaits


In the spring of 1588, Lisbon was abuzz with activity. For months the king of Spain and Portugal, the mighty Philip II, had been planning an attack upon the Protestant heretic, Elizabeth I of England. Two years earlier he had sent instructions across his empire, ordering harbours on the Mediterranean to send ships and weapons to the Portuguese capital, from where his invasion fleet would sail.

By the beginning of May, the preparations were almost complete. Philip’s admiral, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, had collected an armada of 130 ships of every shape and size: low troop transports; carracks and caravels; galleys powered by sweating oarsmen; tall, courtly galleons. There were six fighting squadrons and 23 supply hulks, 8,000 sailors, 2,431 guns, 600,000lbs of salt pork and 14,000 barrels of wine. Nothing would be left to chance.

Not all the omens were good, however. The original plan had been to sail earlier in the spring, but the weather was unseasonably grim and stormy, and the expedition was constantly being postponed. This meant any element of surprise was lost, since Elizabeth knew perfectly well what was happening. And in Flanders, where Philip’s men were already fighting rebels, 30,000 troops waited impatiently for their transports to arrive.

At last, on 28 May, it was time to sail. Medina Sidonia hoisted the holy banner, blessed by Pope Sixtus V himself. The crowds along the quaysides cheered and waved, and the fleet eased out into the mouth of the river Tagus. But they were, of course, sailing straight to disaster. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

More like this

28 May 1644: Blood is shed in Bolton

Royalists massacre civilians in one of the darkest incidents of the Civil War

It was late on 28 May 1644, and the Angel of Death was approaching Bolton. After almost two years of war, England was bleeding, and now a royalist army under Prince Rupert of the Rhine was marching north towards the Lancashire town, whose reputation as a hotbed of Puritanism had earned it the nickname ‘the Geneva of the North’.

By this point in the war, Lancashire had become a parliamentarian stronghold, but now Rupert’s advance seemed irresistible. Having taken Stockport three days earlier, he was moving so quickly that his Roundhead adversaries could scarcely retreat fast enough. By the time he reached Bolton, the skies were darkening and rain was pouring down, but Rupert ordered his men to attack anyway.

The first attack was repulsed with several hundred casualties, but when Rupert’s men attacked again, accompanied by the Earl of Derby, the defenders’ morale broke.

As the parliamentarian soldiers turned and fled, Rupert’s men burst into the streets of Bolton. Since everything had happened too fast for a formal surrender, there was no chance for the townsfolk to flee or even to negotiate terms. Exactly how many died remains uncertain, but parliamentarian propaganda never failed to make the most of it.

One eyewitness claimed to have seen “children crying for their fathers, women crying out for their husbands, some of them brought on purpose to be slain before their wives’ faces”. He also recalled seeing “the rending, tearing and turning of people naked, the robbing and spoiling of all the people of all things that they could carry… the massacring, dismembering, cutting of dying or dead bodies and boasting, with all new-coined oaths swearing how many Roundheads… they had killed that day.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

28 May 1759

Birth at Hayes Place in Kent of William Pitt the Younger, the second son of William Pitt, first earl of Chatham. At the age of 24 he will become Britain's youngest ever prime minister.

28 May 1860

Over 140 ships were wrecked and 40 lives were lost as a great storm, one of the worst on record, battered Britain's coastline.

28 May 1908

Writer Ian Fleming is born in Mayfair. He will name his best-known character, James Bond, after the author of one of his favourite books – Birds of the West Indies. Fleming also writes the children's book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

28 May 1912

Playing for Australia against South Africa at Old Trafford, leg-spinner Jimmy Matthews became the only cricketer to take two hat-tricks in the same Test match.

28 May 1937

San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge opens to traffic.


28 May 1961

English lawyer Peter Benenson published an article in The Observer called "The Forgotten Prisoners". It highlighted the plight of political prisoners across the world. Two months later he co-founded Amnesty International.

Browse more On this day in history