Alternate history: what if the Spanish Armada had succeeded?

Victory over the Spanish Armada is remembered as one of England’s greatest military triumphs and a key moment in the nation’s naval supremacy. What if the Spanish had broken through and landed in England? Jonny Wilkes talks to historian Robert Hutchinson about how things could have gone differently...

Illustration of Elizabeth I in a cage

Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes asks Robert Hutchinson what if… the Spanish Armada had landed in England?

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King Philip II of Spain ordered his ‘invincible’ fleet to sail up the English Channel and rendezvous with a 30,000-strong Spanish army waiting at Calais, before turning towards the coast of Kent. Once on English soil, the invasion force – under the command of the Duke of Parma, governor of the Spanish Netherlands – headed straight for London, took Queen Elizabeth I and her ministers hostage, and called for Catholics to rise up in rebellion. England was Catholic once more…

At least, that was what the Spanish hoped would happen. Instead, the events of 1588 are remembered for England’s historic victory over the Spanish Armada.

A lot went wrong for the Spanish: delays to preparations, a destructive raid on their port of Cadiz, a disrupted voyage, inexperienced leadership, poor strategy, a faster English fleet, and – as if a sign of divine intervention – the weather.

Yet had it gone differently and the landing been a success, says author and historian Robert Hutchinson, “we might be speaking Spanish today”.

Illustration of Boudica, victorious over the Romans

How could the Spanish Armada have won?

What if the Armada had been ready to sail earlier than 28 May 1588? The Spanish would likely have found the English less prepared, having not set up the beacon warning system on the coasts or built up their own fleet at Plymouth.

Perhaps more importantly, the Armada would still be under the command of Spain’s greatest admiral, the Marquess de Santa Cruz, who allegedly never lost in battle. His death in February 1588 forced the selection of a new commander: the Duke of Medina Sidonia, an able administrator, but no seaman. As Hutchinson claims: “The more experienced Santa Cruz might have been more aggressive during the running fight up the Channel.”

If Medina Sidonia had not stuck so rigidly to Philip’s orders not to attack first unless absolutely necessary – a “fatal flaw in Spanish strategy” according to Hutchinson – he could have caught the English fleet when anchored and vulnerable. Such a strike could have neutralised the naval commander, Lord High Admiral Charles Howard, as well as his second in command – Spanish enemy number one, Francis Drake.

“Bottling up the English ships at Plymouth would have provided a clear run for the Spanish and demoralised the English,” says Hutchinson. That would have meant that English ships could not have taken the crucial position west of the Armada, from which they bombarded the enemy all the way to Calais.

If the Duke of Parma’s battle-hardened troops successfully landed near Margate on the Kent coast, it is likely they would have been in the poorly defended streets of London within a week
Robert Hutchinson, Tudor historian and archaeologist

This in turn would have meant no fireship attack to break up the Armada’s crescent formation and less chance of heavy winds forcing the Spanish into retreat north. If Medina Sidonia took advantage, a landing of Parma’s army could have been possible. “Faced with invasion”, says Hutchinson,“the future of Elizabeth I and her Protestant England would have looked very black indeed.”

“If Parma’s battle-hardened troops successfully landed near Margate on the Kent coast, it is likely they would have been in the poorly defended streets of London within a week,” he adds. Parma would have been in a position to force concessions from Elizabeth I concerning Catholic worship in England and the surrender of English influence in the Spanish Netherlands. Meanwhile, Philip’s war chest would grow bigger from collecting payments that had been promised by Pope Sixtus V in the event of a successful landing.

What would have happened to Elizabeth I?

The Pope’s support for Philip’s ‘Enterprise of England’ depended on the restoration of Catholicism. “The Spanish boasted that Elizabeth would be paraded in a cage in the streets of Rome,” says Hutchinson.

Whether she was captured quickly during the siege of London or later after making a last stand at a stronghold like Windsor Castle, England would certainly have lost its Protestant regime. This would have an instant effect on European politics as Protestant rebels in the Spanish Netherlands would stop receiving English support and so likely face defeat, all but ending hope for Dutch independence.

Painting of the Spanish Armada fighting the English fleet
Tudor spin portrayed the events of August 1588 as a glorious English victory but bad weather and bad tactics had more to do with the Spanish fleet’s failure than Elizabethan derring-do (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Spanish believed Catholics around England would rise up in support of the invasion, heartened by reports from their spies of friendly populations in counties like Lancashire, Westmorland, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Hampshire; they even brought gifts of jewel-encrusted swords for Catholic nobles. Some English Catholics would conceivably support the Spanish and there would be little chance of loyal Protestants holding out. “English land forces were dangerously short of personal weapons, armour and artillery and would have proved a poor match against the Spanish invaders,” says Hutchinson.

Total conquest of England was by no means assured. The Spanish were on foreign soil and facing at least a guerrilla campaign from Protestant forces, which could have spilled over into civil war. That would come, moreover, after the problematic task of getting Parma’s army over the Channel in the first place, says Hutchinson.

“The invasion forces, with horses and artillery, would have been towed in flat-bottomed barges in a protected ‘corridor’ to safeguard them from attack. The sea would have to have been exceptionally calm, the weather kind and the tides benevolent.” If all had gone right for the Spanish, though, then it may not have been only England and Spain to have had a severely altered history.

England, no longer a Protestant nation and bearing the humiliation of invasion, could have become part of the Spanish Empire. Colonisation of the New World would have looked very different with Spain as the dominant power and England not featuring at all. Hutchinson goes so far as to say: “If England had been defeated by the Armada, its naval prowess would have been erased from history. There may not have been a British Empire.”

What really happened

The Spanish Armada, a fleet of around 150 ships carrying nearly 30,000 men, had been built for one purpose: the invasion of England.

Philip II of Spain had a mission to overthrow the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and restore Catholicism to the country. A further strategic gain from this ‘Enterprise of England’ would be to end English support for Protestant Dutch rebels in the Spanish Netherlands.

His ‘Great and Most Fortunate Navy’ set sail in May 1588, but encountered a maelstrom of misfortune and setbacks.

Once at Plymouth, the Armada was outmanoeuvred by quicker English ships and chased to Calais, where the promised Spanish army for the invasion failed to appear. The Armada was then broken up by an English fireship attack, then horrendous weather, forcing a retreat to Spain via the north of Scotland. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was hailed as a supreme victory for Elizabeth and the Protestant cause.

Dr Robert Hutchinson is a Tudor historian and archaeologist, whose critically-acclaimed books include The Spanish Armada (W&N, 2013). He was speaking to freelance writer Jonny Wilkes

This content first appeared in the March 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed

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