You may think it hardly original to choose the defeat of the Spanish Armada as the key event of 1550–99. However, its significance is often misunderstood. It was not merely an English or even British drama, but a contest when much of the fate of western Europe hung in the balance.


After the accession of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, friction between England and Catholic Spain became endemic. In 1580, the English sea captain Sir Francis Drake returned from his successful circumnavigation of the globe, including sailing up the Pacific coastline of south America and ransacking Spanish settlements. At the same time, Philip II of Spain’s forces invaded Portugal, where the royal line had died out, leaving Philip as the nearest heir. The conquest of Portugal brought huge extra colonial territories to the Spanish crown: it also brought the deep-water Atlantic port of Lisbon, a great naval asset. The successful takeover of the Portuguese islands of the Azores and Terceira in 1582/3 confirmed Spain’s new status as an oceanic power.

Meanwhile France was devastated by divisions between the Huguenot (Protestant) party and the extreme Catholic League. The death in 1584 of the Duke of Anjou, next in line to his childless brother Henri III, indicated that the throne would go to their distant cousin, the Huguenot Henri of Navarre. That was intolerable not only to the Catholic League but also to Philip II. They secretly concluded an agreement that Spain would support the League when civil war inevitably resumed. In the Netherlands, a dominion inherited by Philip from his father, a long standing rebellion appeared to be waning. Philip’s nephew, the Prince of Parma, was proving an effective general and in July 1584, the rebels’ charismatic leader, William the Silent, Prince of Orange, was assassinated.

England now faced the possibility that Spain might soon control the entire coastline of western Europe, from the western Mediterranean around France to the borders of north Holland. In August 1585, convinced she had no other option, Elizabeth concluded the treaty of Nonsuch, sending aid to the Dutch. To Philip, that made England a hostile power, and in October he began to think seriously of an invasion. By spring 1587, preparations were proceeding rapidly in Cadiz, the Basque ports and Lisbon. Then in April, with no warning, Sir Francis Drake descended on Cadiz and destroyed 24 ships, together with considerable stores of food and munitions. From then on, Spain was committed to the Enterprise of England.

1588 in context

Elizabeth I managed religious divisions and kept Spain at bay. England’s earlier prosperity declined but relations with Scotland improved

England was overshadowed by France and Spain, but since the latter were usually at odds with each other, it could pursue its own interests safe from attack.

Until 1550, England and Scotland were often at war, and for a while the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the son of Henry II threatened England with a Franco-Scottish “pincer movement” on the Borders and in the Channel. However after mid-century, France fell victim to a series of civil wars, largely the consequences of the Reformation.

Spain was hardly touched by the Reformation and grew wealthy on profits from its New World territories. Elizabeth and her council had to ensure religious divisions did not destabilise the country, and that Spain, the super-power, was kept at arm’s length.

The first aim was achieved, and English intervention in Scotland in 1560 ensured the success of the Scottish Reformation. Thereafter the victorious Protestant faction in Scottish politics cultivated an increasing amity with Elizabeth. The Scottish Reformation alarmed the French crown, and led English statesmen like the staunchly Protestant Sir William Cecil to foster the “British dimension” in their policies. All this alienated Scotland from its traditional ally, France, and strengthened good relations with England. But Spain’s Philip II became increasingly hostile to Elizabeth, whom he saw as a troublemaker, on the high seas and in the Netherlands.

Elizabethan England prospered, with good harvests for over 30 years and an increase in overseas trade. London boomed and English merchants reached out to Muscovy, the Levant, and in 1600, the East Indies.

Stability was broken only by the rising in the North, (1569–70) which was harshly repressed, and the disturbance in the capital led by the earl of Essex in 1601. The queen put great effort into public appearances, particularly in the 1570s, going on progress throughout the country. After 1588, the second part of her reign was darker, with England involved in continental wars and faced after 1594 with a gathering revolt in Ireland. The majority of the population were still Gaelic in language and culture, and remained Catholic. Led by Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, they seized the chance of throwing off the English yoke, and hoped for Spanish aid.

In England, a rising population put pressure on limited resources. Military costs led to heavy taxation, and inflation, harvest failures and poor trade due to wartime disruption made life more difficult for most, and desperate for the poor. As the queen aged, there was concern over the succession.

After the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587, her son James VI of Scotland was the most likely heir. Elizabeth never confirmed him as successor, but after 1586 she paid him a pension. On her death in March 1603, the new King James I was peacefully proclaimed by her privy council.

Standing between England and conquest

There are four main points about the events of 1588. First, despite Drake’s raid, the scale of the Spanish action was enormous, and twin-pronged. The Armada intended to link up with Parma’s Army of Flanders, which would punch home the invasion. On the vessels were 19,000 troops, almost all Spanish veterans. A further 27,000 were being readied by Parma for bringing across the Channel, in requisitioned vessels and barges. The admiral, Medina Sidonia, commanded around 130 ships with the combined firepower of 360 guns. The campaign cost 45,000 ducats a day and tied down the whole military and naval resources of the Iberian peninsula, gravely affecting the defence of other parts of the Spanish monarchy. All that stood between England and conquest was the navy.

Secondly, despite the sheer size of the Armada, the contest was not completely unequal. Largely constructed in the 1570s, the English navy’s “race-built” vessels were fast, heavily armed and weatherly. They proved far more manoeuvrable than anything in the Spanish fleet, which never managed to implement its plan of grappling and boarding them. The English on board, unlike the Spanish, were all skilled seamen and even the aristocrats in command, men like Lord Admiral Howard of Effingham and Lord Henry Seymour, all had some sailing experience and joined in the crew’s labours. The royal navy consisted of 36 fighting ships with six smaller pinnaces, essentially message ships. They were backed up by 143 merchant vessels, some of them heavily gunned for privateering – preying on the enemy’s shipping to make money out of captures. The best of the fleet, especially the ten biggest race-built vessels, was superb, but it was a small force to hold off the massive, crescent-shaped formation coming up the Channel.

Thirdly, the situation was rendered even more dangerous since the English privy council misread Spanish intentions and ordered troops to gather at Tilbury in Essex. Medina Sidonia intended to land his formidable forces in Kent. He would establish a base for Parma’s men, then as soon as they were streaming across the Channel, the veterans carried on the Armada would storm to London. However, English strategy was superior to Philip’s over-ambitious plan of linking up Medina Sidonia’s fleet with Parma’s army.

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English land forces were in the wrong place, but the navy was not, for Drake had correctly divined Spanish intentions. The English ships initially tried to engage the Armada in Atlantic waters, but failed and returned to Plymouth. There, on 30 July 1588, over a hundred ships assembled in Plymouth Sound. Under cover of darkness, they skilfully tacked across the face of the oncoming Armada and round its southern tip. Advantageously placed upwind of their opponents, English vessels continually harassed the Spanish formation as it sailed eastwards.

Parma could not move his men safely across the Channel until the Armada had cleared it of English warships. He also faced a threat from rebel Dutch vessels trying to blockade him in, ready to fire on his unarmed barges if they put to sea. Provided the English navy remained capable of fighting, Parma’s forces were unlikely to embark. Competently, Medina Sidonia brought most of his great fleet relatively unscathed into Calais roads on 6 August, but the English still controlled the Channel.

Fourthly, the English won the key battle. On the night of 7 August, eight fire ships bore down on the Spanish galleons clustered off Calais. Faced suddenly with the burning vessels, most Spanish captains cut their anchors and fled. The Armada was transformed from a cohesive and still formidable fighting force to a scattering of panic-stricken vessels. Remarkably, they managed to regroup, but the following day, off Gravelines, the English came within artillery range and the battle raged for nine hours. Morale on the Armada was broken and Medina Sidonia hanged a captain who disobeyed his orders to continue fighting. Twenty officers were arrested: a recent discovery in the Spanish archives has shown that even surrender was briefly considered.

Although the Armada sustained great damage, so far only six major galleons had been lost. Worse was to come on the way back; more than 30 ships, weakened by English guns, sank in severe storms off the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland. But as the experienced admiral of the Biscayan squadron observed in his journal, the whole venture was lost when the English retained command of the Channel, preventing them from linking up with Parma. The ships went down as they were fleeing for home, long after their enterprise had ended in defeat.

There have been attempts, at the time and more recently, to argue that the outcome was just due to luck, or weather, or more in the nature of a draw, since Spain rebuilt a substantial navy in the early 1590s. Those arguments are unconvincing. The campaign of summer 1588 was an outstanding English victory. It was hard fought, and by the end, the English were almost out of ammunition. However, Drake’s fireships were a brilliant tactical device and Gravelines must count as one of the greatest English naval actions. It is clear from the profusion of pamphlets across Europe that everyone accepted Spain had been resoundingly defeated. Philip II never again considered an invasion of England by combined sea and land forces: the best his rebuilt navy could do was to raid Cornwall.

The outcome of 1588 was a European turning point. England’s successful resistance showed that Spain was not invincible, encouraging Protestants in the Netherlands and France to continue their struggle. The Dutch threw off Spanish rule and Henri of Navarre became king of France, bringing religious peace and economic recovery. The young James VI of Scotland, bound to England by the treaty of Berwick in 1586 but alienated by the execution of his mother Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, shrewdly seized the Armada moment to emphasise his claim as Elizabeth’s heir. He wrote at the height of the crisis in summer 1588, assuring her of his support “as your natural son and compatriot of your country”. In 1589 James also composed a “Meditatioun” on the unity of “the Ile of Britain”, jointly protected by “our virtewe” and God’s “michtie wind”. Scotland’s king presented the events of 1588 as a victory for “Britain” and for himself as the future first king of “the Ile”. James had done little to help, but he recognised that the defeat of the Spanish Armada was already becoming a defining moment in the development of a national identity that would be both British and Protestant.

History facts: 1550–1559

Population peaked in mid-century for England and Wales at about 3.4 million, but by 1561 had shrunk by around a quarter of a million. This was due to poor harvests and epidemic diseases. Thereafter a steady rise took the population to c4.2 million for England and Wales by 1603.

Key years: Other important events in the second half of the 16th century

1558 – The accession of Elizabeth. Queen Mary had been a persecutor, burning over 300 people at the stake for their beliefs. Her successor, her half-sister Elizabeth, was a moderate Protestant who hoped to avoid religious division by constructing a national church acceptable to everybody. The Church of England never became completely comprehensive, but Elizabeth’s mostly benign rule brought peace and security to England.

1560 – The Scottish Reformation. The absence of the half-French Mary Queen of Scots (who as fiancée of the heir to the French throne was at the French court) allowed a Protestant group to seize control. In 1560 they dominated the Scottish Parliament, abolishing the power of the papacy and the Mass. In England Sir William Cecil persuaded Elizabeth to use English troops to evict the French, who were forced to withdraw. The Protestants, initially a minority, steadily transformed Scotland into a Presbyterian country. This was crucial in developing Anglo-Scottish Protestant solidarity, allowing a sense of “Britishness” slowly to emerge on both sides of the Border.

1561 – Recoinage completed. From 1544, coinage had been steadily debased for profit by successive monarchs until it looked untrustworthy. Plans for a full recoinage were drawn up in 1556, under Mary, but nothing was done until 1560 when the base coin was “cried down” by proclamation. The minting of good quality new coins was completed in 1561. It caused inconvenience, even hardship, but was essential for economic expansion and overseas trade.

1570 – Rebellion and excommunication. Northern England remained conservative in religion and its leading nobles, the earls of Westmorland and Northumberland, joined a conspiracy in 1569: the Duke of Norfolk would marry Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic and Elizabeth’s nearest heir, while the North would rise in rebellion. Just as it collapsed, the Pope xcommunicated Elizabeth, releasing her Catholic subjects from loyalty to her. This major tactical miscalculation made the plight of English Catholics more difficult.

1580 – Drake returns to England. Drake left Plymouth in November 1577. Three years later, he returned, becoming only the second captain, and the first English one, to complete the circumnavigation of the globe. He brought with him booty from Spanish ships and settlements, so when the Queen knighted Drake at Deptford on the deck of his weatherbeaten flagship Golden Hind she was condoning attacks on Philip II’s subjects.

1588 – The Welsh Bible. Publication of the first Welsh-language Bible. The Welsh New Testament appeared in 1567, but translating the rest of the Bible took 21 more years. The privy council ordered that by Christmas, every Welsh parish should acquire a copy. The Welsh Bible helped make Wales into a genuinely Protestant country.

1589 – The Portugal expedition. The defeat of the Armada led to over-optimistic English plans to complete the humiliation of Spain by destroying those ships that had returned to harbours on the Iberian north coast, and assisting Portugal to throw off its Spanish conquerors. The expedition had muddled aims, conflicts arose among the commanders, and little was achieved.

1596 – The Oxfordshire rising. In November 1596, a few men gathered in western Oxfordshire to complain about recent enclosures. They plotted to throw down the fences enclosing new fields, to seize weapons from the houses of the gentry, perhaps even to murder some landowners. Two were executed, but the following year the privy council also rebuked the local gentry for their enclosures. The real problem was the disastrous series of four harvest failures from autumn 1594 to autumn 1597, which sent food prices soaring and hit the poor hardest.

1599 – The Globe theatre. William Shakespeare was already established as a playwright, but in 1599 he and his troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, moved into the Globe. They became the capital’s leading company, performing among other great plays The Merchant of Venice, Henry V, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. Between 1570 and 1630, England produced a profusion of talent that has hardly ever been matched, with the Globe dominating the London scene.

More turning points in British history

Read next: The Scottish Revolution

Go back: Henry VIII declares his empire


This article was first published in the March 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine