The Spanish Armada: all at sea

The defeat of the Spanish Armada has long been celebrated as one of England’s greatest naval victories. But was the Spanish campaign doomed to fail from the start? Charlotte Hodgman speaks to Dan Snow, presenter of a three-part BBC series on the attempted invasion, to find out more

A painting showing the defeat of the Spanish Armada

One popular belief is that England’s victory against the Spanish Armada was won against all the odds. Do you agree with that view?

Not at all. When the Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon on 28 May 1588 it was almost certain to fail. Philip II was a complete control freak who refused to allow his commanders the autonomy to make their own decisions. It was probably the most rigid campaign plan with which any force has ever gone to sea or marched.

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It was the worst of both worlds for Philip’s commanders – particularly the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who didn’t want to assume command of the fleet in the first place. One of the documents we look at in the new series is a letter written by the duke that makes it clear just how reluctant he was!

Aside from Philip’s unwillingness to delegate command, why else was the Spanish campaign doomed to failure?

There were huge flaws in the entire invasion plan. It was simply unworkable. The fleet was meant to meet up with the Duke of Parma – who was commanding Spanish forces in the Netherlands – before loading men onto the ships and continuing to England, where the recently boosted army would then launch an invasion. But for various technical reasons – tides, timings and the boats themselves – that plan could never have worked. The Spanish were sailing up the Channel with the utmost guarantee of failure, which is a curious idea.

What’s even stranger is that Philip seems to have been undaunted by the military concerns being raised by his commanders. He was convinced God would provide a way of assuring that his army in the Netherlands met his navy, and that they would all somehow get across the Channel. It’s a campaign plan that historians Sam Willis and Saul David try and get to grips with in the series.

You mention that the armada itself was a weakness in the Spanish invasion plan. Surely, a fleet comprising some 130 huge warships can’t be classed as a problem?

The problem wasn’t so much with numbers – though the Spanish forces were depleted as a result of their failure to meet with the Duke of Parma as planned. Rather, the issue was the design of the ships themselves.

England’s ships were built to fight. They were designed to move fast, to sail upwind and pack a big punch, with lots of cannon onboard.

The Spanish, on the other hand, had ships that were designed for all sorts of different purposes, but which didn’t fulfil any of these particularly well. Big, bulky and unwieldy, Philip’s ships were designed to pull up alongside English vessels at sea and fight as if in a land battle: soldiers would leap aboard the enemy ships and fight hand to hand. There just wasn’t the same emphasis on artillery fire that the English had. If the Spanish had had enough men onboard, the fleet might have been able to land in Cornwall, Devon or Hampshire and march on London, much as William of Orange did a century later. The fact is, though, they just didn’t have that manpower. The invasion was really a watershed moment in naval history as artillery-firing ships began to dominate the maritime battlefield.

How aware was Philip of England’s naval strength? After all, he had been married to Mary I of England for four years.

During his relatively short stay in England, Philip correctly identified that the country’s chief line of defence lay at sea. Ironically, he actually recommended building as many ships as possible for the defence of the English realm. Little did he know that some of these new ships would later take on his armada! But even Philip couldn’t have anticipated the extraordinary ability of the Tudor state to mobilise as many men and good ships as it did.

Elizabeth’s regime was far from perfect but it did oversee the building of some very good so-called race-built galleons. And it could mobilise sailors using an almost unique system of conscription. I’ve seen contemporary documents in the British Library that list every ferryman, riverman and fisherman who could be mobilised for naval action.

So it’s fair to say England was prepared for an invasion?

Yes and no. The story of the Spanish Armada is one of Elizabeth’s penny-pinching as much as anything else. Her ships ran out of ammunition because she failed to provide the necessary funds, and provisioning was also quite poor, to the extent that many sailors became pretty ill.

England’s land forces were totally useless and could have been defeated in no time, but the navy was prepared, within the financial constraints under which Elizabeth found herself.

England’s navy was designed for coastal defence, perfect for nipping out of port, battering an invading force and then dashing back into port again.

Another popular story is that England owed its victory to the weather…

Let’s get one thing straight. The Spanish Armada was catastrophically defeated at the battle of Gravelines. After the battle, the damaged Spanish fleet was driven towards the shallows off the coast of the Netherlands, but a change in wind direction actually enabled it to limp off into the North Sea, away from the English navy. It was only as the remains of the armada sailed around northern Scotland and past the east coast of Ireland that it was battered by the elements. Any strategic threat the Spanish fleet had posed to the English throne had already been destroyed at Gravelines.

Armada: 12 Days to Save England, presented by Dan Snow, airs on BBC Two this spring.

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This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine