The Spanish Armada campaign of 1588 changed the course of European history. If Medina Sidonia, the Spanish commander, had managed to escort Philip II’s 26,000-strong invasion army from Flanders, the future of Elizabeth I and her Protestant England would have looked very black indeed.


After landing near Margate in Kent, it is probable the battle-hardened Spanish troops would have been in the streets of London within a week. England would have reverted to the Catholic faith, and there may not have been a British empire to come. We might still be speaking Spanish today.

But Medina Sidonia suffered one of the most signal catastrophes in naval history. Myth, driven by Elizabethan propaganda, has shaped our view of that dramatic running fight up the English Channel.

The Spanish were not defeated by the queen’s plucky sea dogs fighting against overwhelming odds: it was destroyed by appalling weather, poor planning and flawed strategy and tactics.

Here are some surprising facts about the campaign…

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Both Elizabeth’s ministers and King Philip of Spain expected that the 50 per cent of England’s population that remained Catholic would rise in support of the Spanish invaders after any landing

Jewel-hilted swords, intended as Philip’s gifts for English Catholic nobles, were found in a box on board the fatally damaged Nuestra Señora del Rosario after the English vice-admiral Sir Francis Drake boarded the ship.

The Spanish king’s spies had reported beforehand that the “greater part of Lancashire is Catholic… and the town of Liverpool”, and the counties of Westmorland and Northumberland remained “really faithful to your majesty”.

In addition, another Spanish assessment in August 1586 estimated that 2,000 men could be recruited in Lincolnshire “which was well effected to the Catholic religion”, plus 3,000 more in Norfolk, while Hampshire was “full of Catholics”.

This last report may have contained some truth. In early June 1586, Henry Radcliffe, 4th Earl of Sussex, suppressed what he described as an intended rebellion “in the country near Portsmouth” and arrested some of its leaders: Elizabeth’s government took stern measures to contain the threat posed from what they saw as potential fifth columnists.

Recusants – those who refused to attend Anglican services because they were Catholic – were disarmed and those regarded as most dangerous were imprisoned without trial in a number of fortresses, such as Wisbech Castle in Cambridgeshire. These were the world’s first internment camps.

In Bedfordshire, Henry Grey, 6th Earl of Kent, inquired how he was to deal with female recusants who were “married to husbands that are conformable in religion”. Godfrey Foljambe arrested his own grandmother and “now have her in custody”.


There were some among Elizabeth I’s faithful subjects who placed profit ahead of patriotism

Sometime in 1587, Elizabeth I's ministers learnt that 12 English merchants – some based in Bristol – had been selling supplies and equipment to the Armada “to the hurt of her majesty and undoing of the realm, if not redressed”.

Their nine sizeable cargoes of contraband, valued at between £300 and £2,000 each, contained not merely provisions, but also quantities of ammunition, gunpowder and ordnance.

The fate of these reckless traders (perhaps they were Catholic sympathisers?) remains unknown but, in those edgy times, it’s unlikely they’d have enjoyed the queen’s mercy, which at best was rather limited.

Sir John Gilbert [who organised Devon's defence against the Spanish Armada] also refused permission for his ships to join Drake’s western squadron and allowed them to sail on their planned trading voyage to South America in March 1588 in defiance of naval orders.


English Catholics sailed on board the Armada

At least four of its “gentlemen adventurers” were English, and there were 18 among the salaried officers.

Inevitably, some paid the heavy price of disloyalty to the crown: five Catholics slipped away by boat from the stricken Rosario before Drake’s arrival, but two Englishmen were captured on board and taken to the Tower of London as “rebels and traitors to their country”.

One, identified as the Cornishman Tristram Winslade, was handed to officers employed by Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, who were ordered to interrogate him “using torture… at their pleasure”. (Miraculously, Winslade survived the rack and Elizabeth’s justice, and died in the Catholic seminary at Douai in France in November 1605).

On board the battle-damaged San Mateo, beached between Ostend and Sluis after the battle of Gravelines, two Englishmen were killed by Dutch sailors – one named as William Browne, a brother of Viscount Montague. The local commissioner for the Protestant States of Zeeland reported that the second man killed was “very rich, who left William as his heir”.

Portrait of Sir Francis Drake. Drake was more interested in booty than fighting when meeting the Spanish Armada, says Robert Hutchinson. (Picture by De Agostini / C. Bevilacqua / Getty Images)
Portrait of Sir Francis Drake. Drake was more interested in booty than fighting when meeting the Spanish Armada, says Robert Hutchinson. (Picture by De Agostini / C. Bevilacqua / Getty Images)

Other Englishmen were reported to having been aboard this ship, eating with her captain, Don Diego Pimentel. “One was called Robert, another Raphael, once servant to the… mayor of London. We do not know their surnames.” They may have been among those forcibly drowned or hanged by the Dutch who were rebelling against Spanish rule.

Before the campaign began there were reports of disaffection below decks in Elizabeth’s warships. After a scare on board Lord Edmund Sheffield’s Bear, the “barber and three of four others took the oath [of allegiance to the crown] and renounced the pope’s authority”.


Pope Sixtus V, who supported the Armada, was infatuated with Elizabeth, telling an astonished Venetian ambassador: “Were she a Catholic, she would be our most beloved, for she is of great worth”

Philip was forced to ask the pope for a loan to help meet the rocketing costs of preparing the Armada. However, this pope was notorious for his miserliness – the Spanish ambassador to the Vatican complained: “When it comes to getting money out of him, it is like squeezing his life blood.”

Sixtus meanwhile had a pet project to buy the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks and rebuild it in Rome – or recover it by force of arms. He was piqued that, although the Spanish army “would be sufficient for this purpose”, it was fighting England, instead of achieving his ambitions in the Holy Land.

In the end Sixtus promised to pay 1m gold ducats (£662m in 2015 spending power), but cannily stipulated that half would be paid only after Spanish forces set foot in England. The remainder would be in equal instalments every two months thereafter.

Philip could bestow the English crown on whomever he wished, providing that the realm was immediately returned to the Catholic faith. Sixtus also demanded that the church’s property and rights, alienated since the time of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, should now be restored.

Not one penny was ever paid out.

After the Armada’s defeat, Sixtus told one of his cardinals to write to Philip to console him and to encourage him to launch a new expedition against England. He refrained from writing himself, as he feared the king “might make it a pretext for asking him for money”.

Pope Sixtus V. (© SuperStock / Alamy)
Pope Sixtus V, who admired English queen Elizabeth I. (© SuperStock / Alamy)

Medina Sidonia did not want to command the Armada

He was an administrator, and had never been to sea. He told the Spanish king: “I know by the small experience I have had afloat that I soon become sea-sick.”

He had been the first to reinforce Cadiz during Drake’s raid on that city in 1587, and had been appointed captain-general of Andalusia as “conspicuous proof of the king’s favour”.

After considering his appointment for two days, Medina Sidonia made clear his absolute conviction that the Armada expedition was a grave mistake and had little chance of success. Only a miracle, he added in a frank and outspoken letter, could save it.

Philip’s counsellors, horror-struck at its electrifying contents, dared not show it to the king. “Do not depress us with fears for the fate of the Armada because in such a cause, God will make sure it succeeds” they begged the new admiral.

As for his suitability for command, “nobody knows more about naval affairs than you”.

Then their tone became menacing: “Remember that the reputation and esteem you currently enjoy for courage and wisdom would entirely be forfeited if what you wrote to us became generally known (although we shall keep it secret).”


When storms scattered and damaged the Armada after it left Lisbon, Medina Sidonia’s grave doubts about his mission returned

He wrote to Philip: “I am bound to confess that I see very few, or hardly any of those in the Armada with any knowledge or ability to perform the duties entrusted to them.

“Your majesty may believe me when I assure you that we are very weak. Do not be deceived by anyone who may wish to persuade you otherwise.” The admiral added: “Well, sire, how do you think we can attack so great a country as England with such a force as ours is now.” Better, he advised, to agree “some honourable terms with the enemy” while the Armada was being repaired in Corunna.

Not surprisingly, this gloomy letter alarmed and depressed Philip, who spent all “day and night in prayer, although suffering from the gout in his hand”. His mood was not improved by a letter from Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, commander of his land forces in the Spanish Netherlands and the general in charge of the invasion army. Parma warned Philip that the flat river barges that would carry his troops across to England could not meet the Armada at sea: “If we came across any armed English or [Dutch] rebel ships they could destroy us with the greatest ease.”

Philip noted in the margin alongside this passage: “God grant that no embarrassment may come from this.” But he could not accept any more arguments from his naval commander. He wrote to Medina Sidonia: “I have dedicated this enterprise to God. Pull yourself together then and do your part!”


Sir Francis Drake was more interested in booty than fighting

After the first fight south of Cornwall, Drake was ordered to shadow the Spanish fleet with a light burning at his stern as a guide to the following English fleet.

But sometime that night, the light disappeared. Drake had left his station to loot the stricken Rosario.

At dawn, the English admiral Lord Howard of Effingham, in Ark Royal, and two other English ships found themselves hard up against the Armada’s rearguard. They hastily retreated.

Drake claimed afterwards that he had sighted strange sails to starboard at midnight and, believing them to be Spanish, doused his lantern and set off in hot pursuit. They turned out to be innocent German merchant ships.

Doubtless Howard deemed it impolitic to court-martial one of England’s naval heroes at a time of national emergency – even though through his actions, the English fleet had lost both time and distance in chasing the Spaniards.

Martin Frobisher, commanding Triumph, seethed: “Drake’s light we looked for but there was no light to be seen… Like a coward he kept by her [the Rosario] all night because he would have the spoil… We will have our shares or I will make him spend the best blood in his belly.”

Engraving showing Queen Elizabeth I of England address her troops at Tilbury. (Photo by iStock / Getty Images Plus)
Engraving showing Queen Elizabeth I of England address her troops at Tilbury. (Photo by iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury – “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman” – which pledged that “shortly we shall have a famous victory over the enemies of my God and of my kingdom”, was made after the Armada had entered Scottish waters on its way home

That same morning, Howard had arrived with his ships and starving crews at Harwich in Essex. In the evening, while Elizabeth was still at the English army camp at Tilbury, there were rumours that Parma and his invasion force had embarked and “would be here with as much speed as possibly he could”.

The queen refused to return, for her own safety, to London, declaring that she “would not think of deserting her army at a time of danger”. The next day her troops kept a public fast for victory.

The rumours about Parma were just Elizabethan propaganda. With the cost of her forces in the likely invasion areas of Kent and Essex amounting to £783 14s 8d per day, the queen ordered an immediate demobilisation of the army.

Elizabeth I on an engraving from the 1800s, engraved by W Holl and published in London by Charles Knight, Ludgate East. (© Georgios |
Elizabeth I on an engraving from the 1800s, engraved by W Holl and published in London by Charles Knight, Ludgate East. (© Georgios |

A long propaganda tract written at the behest of Elizabeth’s secretary of state Lord Burghley was allegedly found “in the chamber of one Richard Leigh, a seminary priest who was lately executed for high treason”. In fact, it was a forgery; Leigh’s identity had been conveniently stolen

The tract claimed that the truths of English naval supremacy or the power of the Protestant God were undeniable: “The Spaniards did never take or sink any English ship or boat or break any mast or took any one prisoner.” This amazed the Spanish prisoners in London who exclaimed that “in all these fights, Christ showed himself a Lutheran”.

Medina Sidonia attracted special vilification. He had spent much of his time during the Armada campaign “lodged in the bottom of his ship for safety”. The tract concluded with this scornful and contemptuous phrase: “So ends this account of the misfortunes of the Spanish Armada which they used to call INVINCIBLE.”

The propaganda onslaught did not end there. A 10-page doggerel verse promised English readers that it was safe to eat fish, even though they had fed on corpses of Spanish sailors, infected with venereal diseases. Was this the first government health warning?


The Spanish Armada was not the last Armada sent against England

Two more were despatched in 1596 and 1597, but these fleets were also dispersed by storms.

On 23 July 1595, four Spanish galleys sailed on a reconnaissance mission from southern Brittany and landed at Mousehole in Cornwall. The fishing village was burned and three men killed.

A small force of Cornish militia fled in blind panic at their first sight of the Spanish troops and Penzance was then bombarded, destroying houses and sinking three ships in its harbour. Newlyn was also burned.

Fear of the imminent arrival of an English fleet forced the Spaniards to depart on 4 August – but not before a Catholic Mass was celebrated openly on English soil.
A larger force of 3,000 Spanish troops landed in Kinsale in south-west Ireland in 1601 to assist Irish rebels but were forced to surrender.

The 19-year Anglo-Spanish war ended in 1604 as Elizabeth’s successor, James VI and I, wanted to end the cripplingly expensive hostilities. The Treaty of London granted much of what Philip II demanded if England had been forced to sue for peace in 1588.

England ended its support of the Dutch rebellion in the Spanish Netherlands and renounced her privateers’ attacks on Spanish shipping. On Spain’s part, the treaty acknowledged that official hopes of restoring Catholicism to England were over for ever.

Robert Hutchinson is the author of The Spanish Armada (W&N, 2013).


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in April 2015.