The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10

Author: Edward Shepherd Creasy  | Date: A.D. 1588

Defeat of the Spanish Armada

A.D. 1588


Two years after the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the throne of England, the Geneva Confession of Faith (Calvinistic) was adopted by the Scottish nation, which thus formally became Protestant. The aim of Mary, Queen of Scots, to restore the Catholic religion in that kingdom added many complications to her royal task, as well as to her personal fortunes. Her final condemnation and execution, 1587, for conspiracy against Elizabeth, occurred at a time when the shadow of Spanish supremacy was being cast broadly over Europe. The Spanish power was still attempting the subjugation of the Netherlands, and it was the ambition of Philip II to bring England also under his own sway and that of Rome.

Elizabeth had given aid to Philip’s rebellious subjects in the Netherlands, and Sir Francis Drake had committed many depredations upon Spain and her colonies. For the purpose of avenging these acts, as well as the death of Mary Stuart, and of overthrowing the Reformation in Great Britain, Philip gathered up all his strength and prepared to hurl a mighty naval force, the "Invincible Armada," against England.

Creasy’s masterly survey of the European situation at this period unfolds the Anglo-Spanish complications. His exhaustive account of the Armada and its ill-fated enterprise makes clear everything important in this famous passage of history.

On the afternoon of July 19, 1588, a group of English captains was collected at the bowling green on the Hoe, at Plymouth, whose equals have never before or since been brought together, even at that favorite mustering-place of the heroes of the British navy. There was Sir Francis Drake, the first English circumnavigator of the globe, the terror of every Spanish coast in the Old World and the New; there was Sir John Hawkins, the rough veteran of many a daring voyage on the African and American seas and of many a desperate battle; there was Sir Martin Frobisher, one of the earliest explorers of the Arctic seas in search of the northwest passage.

There was the high admiral of England, Lord Howard ofEffingham, prodigal of all things in his country’s cause, and who had recently had the noble daring to refuse to dismantle part of the fleet, though the Queen had sent him orders to do so in consequence of an exaggerated report that the enemy had been driven back and shattered by a storm. Lord Howard—whom contemporary writers describe as being of a wise and noble courage, skilful in sea matters, wary and provident, and of great esteem among the sailors—resolved to risk his sovereign’s anger, and to keep the ships afloat at his own charge, rather than that England should run the peril of losing their protection.

Another of our Elizabethan sea-kings, Sir Walter Raleigh, was at that time commissioned to raise and equip the land forces of Cornwall; but we may well believe that he must have availed himself of the opportunity of consulting with the lord admiral and the other high officers, which was offered by the English fleet putting into Plymouth; and we may look on Raleigh as one of the group that was assembled at the bowling green on the Hoe.

Many other brave men and skilful mariners, besides the chiefs whose names have been mentioned, were there, enjoying, with true sailor-like merriment, their temporary relaxation from duty. In the harbor lay the English fleet with which they had just returned from a cruise to Corunna in search of information respecting the real condition and movements of the hostile armada. Lord Howard had ascertained that our enemies, though tempest-tossed, were still formidably strong; and, fearing that part of their fleet might make for England in his absence, he had hurried back to the Devonshire coast. He resumed his station at Plymouth, and waited there for certain tidings of the Spaniards’ approach.

A match at bowls was being played, in which Drake and other high officers of the fleet were engaged, when a small armed vessel was seen running before the wind into Plymouth harbor with all sails set. Her commander landed in haste, and eagerly sought the place where the English lord admiral and his captains were standing. His name was Fleming; he was the master of a Scotch privateer; and he told the English officers that he had that morning seen the Spanish Armada off the Cornish coast. At this exciting information the captains began to hurry down to the water, and there was a shouting for the ships’ boats; butDrake coolly checked his comrades, and insisted that the match should be played out. He said that there was plenty of time both to win the game and beat the Spaniards. The best and bravest match that ever was scored was resumed accordingly. Drake and his friends aimed their last bowls with the same steady, calculating coolness with which they were about to point their guns. The winning cast was made; and then they went on board and prepared for action, with their hearts as light and their nerves as firm as they had been on the Hoe bowling green.

Meanwhile the messengers and signals had been despatched fast and far through England, to warn each town and village that the enemy had come at last. In every seaport there was instant making ready by land and by sea; in every shire and every city there was instant mustering of horse and man. But England’s best defence then, as ever, was in her fleet; and, after warping laboriously out of Plymouth harbor against the wind, the lord admiral stood westward under easy sail, keeping an anxious lookout for the armada, the approach of which was soon announced by Cornish fisher-boats and signals from the Cornish cliffs.

It is not easy, without some reflection and care, to comprehend the full extent of the peril which England then ran from the power and the ambition of Spain, or to appreciate the importance of that crisis in the history of the world. Queen Elizabeth had found at her accession an encumbered revenue, a divided people, and an unsuccessful foreign war, in which the last remnant of our possessions in France had been lost; she had also a formidable pretender to her crown, whose interests were favored by all the Roman Catholic powers. It is true that, during the years of her reign which had passed away before the attempted invasion of 1588, she had revived the commercial prosperity, the national spirit, and the national loyalty of England. But her resources to cope with the colossal power of Philip II still seemed most scanty; and she had not a single foreign ally, except the Dutch, who were themselves struggling hard, and, as it seemed, hopelessly, to maintain their revolt against Spain.

On the other hand, Philip II was absolute master of an empire so superior to the other states of the world in extent, in resources, and especially in military and naval forces as to makethe project of enlarging that empire into a universal monarchy seem a perfectly feasible scheme; and Philip had both the ambition to perform that project and the resolution to devote all his energies and all his means to its realization. Since the downfall of the Roman Empire no such preponderating power had existed in the world. During the medival centuries the chief European kingdoms were slowly moulding themselves out of the feudal chaos; and though the wars with each other were numerous and desperate, and several of their respective kings figured for a time as mighty conquerors, none of them in those times acquired the consistency and perfect organization which are requisite for a long-sustained career of aggrandizement. After the consolidation of the great kingdoms they for some time kept each other in mutual check.

During the first half of the sixteenth century the balancing system was successfully practised by European statesmen. But when Philip II reigned: France had become so miserably weak through her civil wars that he had nothing to dread from the rival state which had so long curbed his father, the Emperor Charles V. In Germany, Italy, and Poland he had either zealous friends and dependents or weak and divided enemies. Against the Turks he had gained great and glorious successes; and he might look round the Continent of Europe without discerning a single antagonist of whom he could stand in awe. Spain, when he acceded to the throne, was at the zenith of her power.

The hardihood and spirit which the Aragonese, the Castilians, and the other nations of the peninsula had acquired during centuries of free institutions and successful war against the Moors had not yet become obliterated. Charles V had, indeed, destroyed the liberties of Spain; but that had been done too recently for its full evil to be felt in Philip’s time. A people cannot be debased in a single generation; and the Spaniards under Charles V and Philip II proved the truth of the remark that no nation is ever so formidable to its neighbors, for a time, as a nation which, after being trained up in self-government, passes suddenly under a despotic ruler. The energy of democratic institutions survives for a few generations, and to it are superadded the decision and certainty which are the attributes of government when all itspowers are directed by a single mind. It is true that this preternatural vigor is short-lived: national corruption and debasement gradually follow the loss of the national liberties; but there is an interval before their workings are felt, and in that interval the most ambitious schemes of foreign conquest are often successfully undertaken.

Philip had also the advantage of finding himself at the head of a large standing army in a perfect state of discipline and equipment, in an age when, except some few insignificant corps, standing armies were unknown in Christendom. The renown of the Spanish troops was justly high, and the infantry in particular was considered the best in the world. His fleet, also, was far more numerous and better appointed than that of any other European power; and both his soldiers and his sailors had the confidence in themselves and their commanders which a long career of successful warfare alone can create.

Besides the Spanish crown, Philip succeeded to the kingdom of Naples and Sicily, the duchy of Milan, Franche-Comt, and the Netherlands. In Africa he possessed Tunis, Oran, the Cape Verd and the Canary islands; and in Asia, the Philippine and Sunda islands and a part of the Moluccas. Beyond the Atlantic he was lord of the most splendid portions of the New World, which Columbus found "for Castile and Leon." The empires of Peru and Mexico, New Spain, and Chile, with their abundant mines of the precious metals, Española and Cuba, and many other of the American islands were provinces of the sovereign of Spain.

Whatever diminution the Spanish empire might have sustained in the Netherlands seemed to be more than compensated by the acquisition of Portugal, which Philip had completely conquered in 1580. Not only that ancient kingdom itself, but all the fruits of the maritime enterprises of the Portuguese, had fallen into Philip’s hands. All the Portuguese colonies in America, Africa, and the East Indies acknowledged the sovereignty of the King of Spain, who thus not only united the whole Iberian peninsula under his single sceptre, but had acquired a transmarine empire little inferior in wealth and extent to that which he had inherited at his accession. The splendid victory which his fleet, in conjunction with the papal and Venetian galleys, had gainedat Lepanto over the Turks, had deservedly exalted the fame of the Spanish marine throughout Christendom; and when Philip had reigned thirty-five years, the vigor of his empire seemed unbroken, and the glory of the Spanish arms had increased, and was increasing throughout the world.

One nation only had been his active, his persevering, and his successful foe. England had encouraged his revolted subjects in Flanders against him, and given them the aid, in men and money, without which they must soon have been humbled in the dust. English ships had plundered his colonies; had defied his supremacy in the New World as well as the Old; they had inflicted ignominious defeats on his squadrons; they had captured his cities and burned his arsenals on the very coasts of Spain. The English had made Philip himself the object of personal insult. He was held up to ridicule in their stage plays and masks, and these scoffs at the man had—as is not unusual in such cases—excited the anger of the absolute King even more vehemently than the injuries inflicted on his power. Personal as well as political revenge urged him to attack England. Were she once subdued, the Dutch must submit; France could not cope with him; the empire would not oppose him; and universal dominion seemed sure to be the result of the conquest of that malignant island.

There was yet another and a stronger feeling which armed King Philip against England. He was one of the sincerest and one of the sternest bigots of his age. He looked on himself, and was looked on by others, as the appointed champion to extirpate heresy and reëstablish the papal power throughout Europe.

A powerful reaction against Protestantism had taken place since the commencement of the second half of the sixteenth century, and he looked on himself as destined to complete it. The Reformed doctrines had been thoroughly rooted out from Italy and Spain. Belgium, which had previously been half Protestant, had been reconquered both in allegiance and creed by Philip, and had become one of the most Catholic countries in the world. Half Germany had been won back to the old faith. In Savoy, in Switzerland, and many other countries the progress of the Counter-reformation had been rapid and decisive. The Catholic league seemed victorious in France. The papal court itselfhad shaken off the supineness of recent centuries, and, at the head of the Jesuits and the other new ecclesiastical orders, was displaying a vigor and a boldness worthy of the days of Hildebrand or Innocent III.

Throughout Continental Europe the Protestants, discomfited and dismayed, looked to England as their protector and refuge. England was the acknowledged central point of Protestant power and policy; and to conquer England was to stab Protestantism to the very heart. Sixtus V, the then reigning Pope, earnestly exhorted Philip to this enterprise. And when the tidings reached Italy and Spain that the Protestant Queen of England had put to death her Catholic prisoner, Mary, Queen of Scots, the fury of the Vatican and Escurial knew no bounds. Elizabeth was denounced as the murderous heretic whose destruction was an instant duty.

A formal treaty was concluded in June, 1587, by which the Pope bound himself to contribute a million of scudi to the expenses of the war, the money to be paid as soon as the King had actual possession of an English port. Philip, on his part, strained the resources of his vast empire to the utmost. The French Catholic chiefs eagerly coöperated with him. In the seaports of the Mediterranean and along almost the whole coast from Gibraltar to Jutland the preparations for the great armament were urged forward with all the earnestness of religious zeal as well as of angry ambition.

"Thus," says the German historian of the Popes,1 "thus did the united powers of Italy and Spain, from which such mighty influences had gone forth over the whole world, now rouse themselves for an attack upon England! The King had already compiled, from the archives of Simancas, a statement of the claims which he had to the throne of that country on the extinction of the Stuart line; the most brilliant prospects, especially that of a universal dominion of the seas, were associated in his mind with this enterprise. Everything seemed to conspire to such an end —the predominancy of Catholicism in Germany, the renewed attack upon the Huguenots in France, the attempt upon Geneva, and the enterprise against England. At the same moment a thoroughly Catholic prince, Sigismund III, ascended the throneof Poland, with the prospect also of future succession to the throne of Sweden. But whenever any principle or power, be it what it may, aims at unlimited supremacy in Europe, some vigorous resistance to it, having its origin in the deepest springs of human nature, invariably arises. Philip II had to encounter newly awakened powers, braced by the vigor of youth and elevated by a sense of their future destiny.

"The intrepid corsairs, who had rendered every sea insecure, now clustered round the coasts of their native island. The Protestants in a body—even the Puritans, although they had been subjected to as severe oppression as the Catholics—rallied round their Queen, who now gave admirable proof of her masculine courage and her princely talent of winning the affections and leading the minds and preserving the allegiance of men

Ranke should have added that the English Catholics at this crisis proved themselves as loyal to their Queen and true to their country as were the most vehement anti-Catholic zealots in the island. Some few traitors there were, but as a body, the Englishmen who held the ancient faith stood the trial of their patriotism nobly. The lord admiral himself was a Catholic, and—to adopt the words of Hallam—"then it was that the Catholics in every country repaired to the standard of the lord lieutenant, imploring that they might not be suspected of bartering the national independence for their religion itself." The Spaniard found no partisans in the country which he assailed, nor did England, self-wounded,

"Lie at the proud foot of her enemy."

For upward of a year the Spanish preparations had been actively and unremittingly urged forward. Negotiations were, during this time, carried on at Ostend, in which various pretexts were assigned by the Spanish commissioners for the gathering together of such huge masses of shipping, and such equipments of troops in all the seaports which their master ruled; but Philip himself took little care to disguise his intentions; nor could Elizabeth and her able ministers doubt but that this island was the real object of the Spanish armament.

The peril that was wisely foreseen was resolutely provided for. Circular-letters from the Queen were sent round to the lord lieutenants of the several counties requiring them to "call together the best sort of gentlemen under their lieutenancy, and to declare unto them these great preparations and arrogant threatenings, now burst forth in action upon the seas, wherein every man’s particular state, in the highest degree, could be touched in respect of country, liberty, wives, children, lands, lives, and—which was specially to be regarded—the profession of the true and sincere religion of Christ, and to lay before them the infinite and unspeakable miseries that would fall out upon any such change, which miseries were evidently seen by the fruits of that hard and cruel government holden in countries not far distant.

"We do look," said the Queen, "that the most part of them should have, upon this instant extraordinary occasion, a larger proportion of furniture, both for horsemen and footmen, but especially horsemen, than hath been certified thereby to be in their best strength against any attempt, or to be employed about our own person or otherwise. Hereunto as we doubt not but by your good endeavors they will be the rather conformable, so also we assure ourselves that almighty God will so bless these their loyal hearts borne toward us, their loving sovereign, and their natural country, that all the attempts of any enemy whatsoever shall be made void and frustrate, to their confusion, your comfort, and to God’s high glory."2

Letters of a similar kind were also sent by the council to each of the nobility and to the great cities. The Primate called on the clergy for their contributions; and by every class of the community the appeal was responded to with liberal zeal, that offered more even than the Queen required. The boasting threats of the Spaniards had roused the spirit of the nation, and the whole people "were thoroughly irritated to stir up their whole forces for their defence against such prognosticated conquests; so that in a very short time all her whole realm, and every corner, were furnished with armed men, on horseback and on foot; and those continually trained, exercised, and put into bands in warlike manner, as in no age ever was before in this realm.

"There was no sparing of money to provide horse, armor, weapons, powder, and all necessaries; no, nor want of provision of pioneers, carriages, and victuals, in every county of the realm, without exception, to attend upon the armies. And to this general furniture every man voluntarily offered, very many their services personally without wages, others money for armor and weapons, and to wage soldiers—a matter strange, and never the like heard of in this realm or elsewhere. And this general reason moved all men to large contributions: that when a conquest was to be withstood wherein all should be lost, it was no time to spare a portion."3

Our lion-hearted Queen showed herself worthy of such a people. A camp was formed at Tilbury; and there Elizabeth rode through the ranks, encouraging her captains and her soldiers by her presence and her words. One of the speeches which she addressed to them during this crisis has been preserved; and, though often quoted, it must not be omitted here.

"My loving people," she said, "we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear! I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come among you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die among you all, to lay down for my God, for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood even in the dust.

"I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too, and think it foul scorn that Parma, of Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm, to which, rather than any dishonor shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, for your forwardness, you have deserved rewards and crowns: and we do assure you, on the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean time my lieutenant-general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject, not doubting but by your obedience to mygeneral, by your concord in the camp, and your valor in the field we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people."

Some of Elizabeth’s advisers recommended that the whole care and resources of the government should be devoted to the equipment of the armies, and that the enemy, when he attempted to land, should be welcomed with a battle on the shore. But the wiser counsels of Raleigh and others prevailed, who urged the importance of fitting out a fleet that should encounter the Spaniards at sea, and, if possible, prevent them from approaching the land at all.

In Raleigh’s great work, the History of the World, he takes occasion, when discussing some of the events of the First Punic War, to give his reasonings on the proper policy of England when menaced with invasion. Without doubt we have there the substance of the advice which he gave to Elizabeth’s council; and the remarks of such a man on such a subject have a general and enduring interest beyond the immediate crisis which called them forth.

Raleigh says: "Surely I hold that the best way is to keep our enemies from treading upon our ground; wherein if we fail, then must we seek to make him wish that he had stayed at his own home. In such a case, if it should happen, our judgments are to weigh many particular circumstances that belong not unto this discourse. But making the question general, the positive, Whether England, without the help of her fleet, be able to debar an enemy from landing, I hold that it is unable so to do, and therefore I think it most dangerous to make the adventure; for the encouragement of a first victory to an enemy, and the discouragement of being beaten to the invaded, may draw after it a most perilous consequence.

"Great difference I know there is, and a diverse consideration to be had, between such a country as France is, strengthened with many fortified places, and this of ours, where our ramparts are but the bodies of men. But I say that an army to be transported over sea, and to be landed again in an enemy’s country, and the place left to the choice of the invader, cannot be resisted on the coast of England without a fleet to impeach it; no, nor on the coast of France or any other country, except every creek,port, or sandy bay had a powerful army in each of them to make opposition.

"For let the supposition be granted that Kent is able to furnish twelve thousand foot, and that those twelve thousand be layed in the three best landing-places within that country, to wit, three thousand at Margat, three thousand at the Nesse, and six thousand at Foulkstone, that is, somewhat equally distant from them both, as also that two of these troops—unless some other order be thought more fit—be directed to strengthen the third, when they shall see the enemy’s fleet to head toward it: I say, that notwithstanding this provision, if the enemy, setting sail from the Isle of Wight, in the first watch of the night, and towing their long boats at their sterns, shall arrive by dawn of day at the Nesse, and thrust their army on shore there, it will be hard for those three thousand that are at Margat—twenty-and-four long miles from thence—to come time enough to reinforce their fellows at the Nesse. Nay, how shall they at Foulkstone be able to do it, who are nearer by more than haft the way? seeing that the enemy, at his first arrival, will either make his entrance by force, with three or four shot of great artillery, and quickly put the first three thousand that are intrenched at the Nesse to run, or else give them so much to do that they shall be glad to send for help to Foulkstone, and perhaps to Margat, whereby those places will be left bare.

"Now, let us suppose that all the twelve thousand Kentish soldiers arrived at the Nesse ere the enemy can be ready to disembark his army, so that he will find it unsafe to land in the face of so many prepared to withstand him, yet must we believe that he will play the best of his own game—having liberty to go which way he list—and, under covert of the night, set sail toward the east, where what shall hinder him to take ground either at Margat, the Downes, or elsewhere, before they at the Nesse can be well aware of his departure?

"Certainly there is nothing more easy than to do it. Yea, the like may be said of Weymouth, Purbeck, Poole, and of all landing-places on the southwest; for there is no man ignorant that ships, without putting themselves out of breath, will easily outrun the soldiers that coast them. ’Les armes ne volent point en poste’ (’Armies neither rye nor run post’), saith a marshalof France. And I know it to be true that a fleet of ships may be seen at sunset, and after it at the Lizard, yet by the next morning they may recover Portland, whereas an army of foot shall not be able to march it in six days.

"Again, when those troops lodged on the sea-shore shall be forced to run from place to place in vain, after a fleet of ships, they will at length sit down in the midway and leave all at adventure. But say it were otherwise, that the invading enemy will offer to land in some such place where there shall be an army of ours ready to receive him; yet it cannot be doubted but that when the choice of all our trained bands, and the choice of our commanders and captains, shall be drawn together—as they were at Tilbury in the year 1588—to attend the person of the Prince, and for the defence of the city of London, they that remain to guard the coast can be of no such force as to encounter an army like unto that wherewith it was intended that the Prince of Parma should have landed in England.

"For end of this digression, I hope that this question shall never come to trial: his majesty’s many movable forts will forbid the experience. And although the English will no less disdain, than any nation under heaven can do, to be beaten upon their own ground, or elsewhere, by a foreign enemy, yet to entertain those that shall assail us, with their own beef in their bellies, and before they eat of our Kentish capons, I take it to be the wisest way—to do which his majesty, after God, will employ his good ships on the sea, and not trust in any intrenchment upon the shore."

The introduction of steam as a propelling power at sea has added tenfold weight to these arguments of Raleigh. On the other hand, a well-constructed system of railways, especially of coast-lines, aided by the operation of the electric telegraph, would give facilities for concentrating a defensive army to oppose an enemy on landing, and for moving troops from place to place in observation of the movements of the hostile fleet, such as would have astonished Sir Walter, even more than the sight of vessels passing rapidly to and fro without the aid of wind or tide. The observation of the French marshal whom he quotes is now no longer correct. Armies can be made to pass from place to place almost with the speed of wings, and far more rapidly than anypost-travelling that was known in the Elizabethan or any other age. Still, the presence of a sufficient armed force at the right spot, at the right time, can never be made a matter of certainty, and, even after the changes that have taken place, no one can doubt but that the policy of Raleigh is that which England should ever seek to follow in defensive war.

At the time of the armada, that policy certainly saved the country, if not from conquest, at least from deplorable calamities. If, indeed, the enemy had landed, we may be sure that he would have been heroically opposed. But history shows us so many examples of the superiority of veteran troops over new levies, however numerous and brave, that, without disparaging our countrymen’s soldierly merits, we may well be thankful that no trial of them was then made on English land. Especially must we feel this when we contrast the high military genius of the Prince of Parma, who would have headed the Spaniards, with the imbecility of the Earl of Leicester, to whom the deplorable spirit of favoritism, which formed the great blemish on Elizabeth’s character, had then committed the chief command of the English armies.

The ships of the royal navy at this time amounted to no more than thirty-six; but the most serviceable merchant vessels were collected from all the ports of the country; and the citizens of London, Bristol, and the other great seats of commerce showed as liberal a zeal in equipping and manning vessels as the nobility and gentry displayed in mustering forces by land. The seafaring population of the coast, of every rank and station, was animated by the same ready spirit; and the whole number of seamen who came forward to man the English fleet was 17,472; the number of the ships that were collected was 191; and the total amount of their tonnage, 31,985. There was one ship in the fleet —the Triumph—of 1100 tons, one of 1000, one of 900, two of 800 each, three of 600, five of 500, five of 400, six of 300, six of 250, twenty of 200, and the residue of inferior burden.

Application was made to the Dutch for assistance; and, as Stowe expresses it: "The Hollanders came roundly in with threescore sail, brave ships of war, fierce and full of spleen, not so much for England’s aid as in just occasion for their own defence, these men foreseeing the greatness of the danger that might ensueif the Spaniard should chance to win the day and get the mastery over them; in due regard whereof, their manly courage was inferior to none."

We have more minute information of the number and equipment of the hostile forces than we have of our own. In the first volume of Hakluyt’s Voyages, dedicated to Lord Effingham, who commanded against the armada, there is given—from the contemporary foreign writer Meteran—a more complete and detailed catalogue than has perhaps ever appeared of a similar armament:

"A very large and particular description of this navie was put in print and published by the Spaniards, wherein were set downe the number, names, and burthens of the shippes, the number of mariners and soldiers throughout the whole fleete; likewise the quantitie of their ordinance, of their armor, of bullets, of match, of gun-poulder, of victuals, and of all their navall furniture was in the saide description particularized.

"Unto all these were added the names of the governours, captaines, noblemen, and gentlemen voluntaries, of whom there was so great a multitude that scarce was there any family of accompt, or any one principall man throughout all Spaine, that had not a brother, sonne, or kinsman in that fleete; who all of them were in good hope to purchase unto themselves in that navie—as they termed it—invincible, endless glory and renown, and to possess themselves of great seigniories and riches in England and in the Low Countreys. But because the said description was translated and published out of Spanish into divers other languages, we will here only make an abridgement or brief rehearsal thereof.

"Portugall furnished and set foorth under the conduct of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, generall of the fleete, 10 galeons, 2 zabraes, 1300 mariners, 3300 souldiers, 300 great pieces, with all requisite furniture.

"Biscay, under the conduct of John Martines de Ricalde, admiral of the whole fleete, set forth 10 galeons, 4 pataches, 700 mariners, 2000 souldiers, 250 great pieces, etc.

"Guipusco, under the conduct of Michael de Oquendo, 10 galeons, 4 pataches, 700 mariners, 2000 souldiers, 310 great pieces.

"Italy, with the Levant islands, under Martine de Vertendona, 10 galeons, 800 mariners, 2000 souldiers, 310 great pieces, etc.

"Castile, under Diego Flores de Valdez, 14 galeons, 2 pataches, 1700 mariners, 2400 souldiers, and 380 great pieces, etc.

"Andaluzia, under the conduct of Petro de Valdez, 10 galeons, 1 patache, 800 mariners, 2400 souldiers, 280 great pieces, etc.

"Item, under the conduct of John Lopez de Medina, 23 great Flemish hulkes, with 700 mariners, 3200 souIdlers, and 400 great pieces.

"Item, under Hugo de Moncada, 4 galliasses, containing 1200 gally-slaves, 460 mariners, 870 souldiers, 200 great pieces, etc.

"Item, under Diego de Mandrana, 4 gallies of Portugall, with 888 gally-slaves, 360 mariners, 20 great pieces, and other requisite furniture.

"Item, under Anthonie de Mendoza, 22 pataches and zabraes, with 574 mariners, 488 souldiers, and 193 great pieces.

"Besides the ships aforementioned, there were 20 caravels rowed with oares, being appointed to performe necessary services under the greater ships, insomuch that all the ships appertayning to this navie amounted unto the summe of 150, eche one being sufficiently provided of furniture and victuals.

"The number of mariners in the saide fleete were above 8000, of slaves 2088, of souIdlers 20,000—besides noblemen and gentlemen voluntaries; of great cast pieces, 2600. The aforesaid ships were of an huge and incredible capacitie and receipt, for the whole fleete was large enough to containe the burthen of 60,000 tunnes.

"The galeons were 64 in number, being of an huge bignesse, and very flately built, being of marveilous force also, and so high that they resembled great castles, most fit to defend themselves and to withstand any assault, but in giving any other ships the encounter farr inferiour unto the English and Dutch ships, which can with great dexteritie wield and turne themselves at all assayes. The upper worke of the said galeons was of thicknesse and strength sufficient to beare off musket-shot. The lower worke and the timbers thereof were out of measure strong, being framed of plankes and ribs foure or five foote in thicknesse, insomuch that no bullets could pierce them but such as were discharged hard at hand, which afterward prooved true, for a great number of bullets were founde to sticke fast within the massie substance of those thicke plankes. Great and well-pitched cables were twined about the masts of their shippes, to strengthen them against the battery of shot.

"The galliasses were of such bignesse that they contained within them chambers, chapels, turrets, pulpits, and other commodities of great houses. The galliasses were rowed with great oares, there being in eche one of them 300 slaves for the same purpose, and were able to do great service with the force of their ordinance. All these, together with the residue aforenamed, were furnished and beautified with trumpets, streamers, banners, warlike ensignes, and other such like ornaments.

"Their pieces of brazen ordinance were 1600, and of yron a 1000.

"The bullets thereto belonging were 120,000.

"Item of gun-poulder, 5600 quintals; of matche, 1200 quintals; of muskets and kaleivers, 7000; of haleberts and partisans, 10,000.

"Moreover, they had great stores of canons, double-canons, culverings and field-pieces for land services.

"Likewise they were provided of all instruments necessary on land to conveigh and transport their furniture from place to place, as namely of carts, wheeles, wagons, etc. Also they had spades, mattocks, and baskets to set pioners on worke. They had in like sort great store of mules and horses, and whatsoever else was requisite for a land armie. They were so well stored of biscuit, that for the space of halfe a yeere they might allow eche person in the whole fleete halfe a quintall every moneth, whereof the whole summe amounteth unto an hundreth thousand quintals.

"Likewise of wine they had 147,000 pipes, sufficient also for halfe a yeere’s expedition. Of bacon, 6500 quintals. Of cheese, 3000 quintals. Besides fish, rise, beanes, pease, oile, vinegar, etc.

"Moreover, they had 12,000 pipes of fresh water, and all other necessary provision, as namely candles, lanternes, lampes, sailes, hempe, oxe-hides, and lead to stop holes that should be made with the battery of gunshot. To be short, they brought allthings expedient, either for a fleete by sea, or for an armie by land.

"This navie—as Diego Pimentelli afterward confessed—was esteemed by the King himselfe to containe 32,000 persons, and to cost him every day 30,000 ducates.

"There were in the said navie five terzaes of Spaniards—which terzaes the Frenchmen call regiments—under the command of five governours, termed by the Spaniards masters of the field, and among the rest there were many olde and expert souldiers chosen out of the garisons of Sicilie, Naples, and Tercera. Their captaines or colonels were Diego Pimentelli, Don Francisco de Toledo, Don Alonco de Lucon, Don Nicolas de Isla, Don Augustin de Mexia, who had eche of them thirty-two companies under their conduct. Besides the which companies, there were many bands also of Castilians and Portugals, every one of which had their peculiar governours, captaines, officers, colors, and weapons."

While this huge armament was making ready in the southern ports of the Spanish dominions, the Duke of Parma, with almost incredible toil and skill, collected a squadron of war-ships at Dunkirk, and a large flotilla of other ships and of flat-bottomed boats for the transport to England of the picked troops which were designed to be the main instruments in subduing England. The design of the Spaniards was that the armada should give them, at least for a time, the command of the sea, and that it should join the squadron that Parma had collected off Calais. Then, escorted by an overpowering naval force, Parma and his army were to embark in their flotilla, and cross the sea to England, where they were to be landed, together with the troops which the armada brought from the ports of Spain.

The scheme was not dissimilar to one formed against England a little more than two centuries afterward. As Napoleon, in 1805, waited with his army and flotilla at Boulogne, looking for Villeneuve to drive away the English cruisers and secure him a passage across the Channel, so Parran, in 1588, waited for Medina Sidonia to drive away the Dutch and English squadrons that watched his flotilla, and to enable his veterans to cross the sea to the land that they were to conquer. Thanks to Providence, in each case England’s enemy waited in vain!

Although the numbers of sail which the Queen’s government and the patriotic zeal of volunteers had collected for the defence of England exceeded the number of sail in the Spanish fleet, the English ships were, collectively, far inferior in size to their adversaries’, their aggregate tonnage being less by half than that of the enemy. In the number of guns and weight of metal the disproportion was still greater. The English admiral was also obliged to subdivide his force; and Lord Henry Seymour, with forty of the best Dutch and English ships, was employed in blockading the hostile ports in Flanders, and in preventing the Duke of Parma from coming out of Dunkirk.

The Invincible Armada, as the Spaniards in the pride of their hearts named it, set sail from the Tagus on May 29th, but near Corunna met with a tempest that drove it into port with severe loss. It was the report of the damage done to the enemy by this storm which had caused the English Court to suppose that there would be no invasion that year. But, as already mentioned, the English admiral had sailed to Corunna, and learned the real state of the case, whence he had returned with his ships to Plymouth.

The armada sailed again from Corunna on July 12th. The orders of King Philip to the Duke of Medina Sidonia were that he should, on entering the Channel, keep near the French coast, and, if attacked by the English ships, avoid an action and steer on to Calais roads, where the Prince of Parma’s squadron was to join him. The hope of surprising and destroying the English fleet in Plymouth led the Spanish admiral to deviate from these orders and to stand across to the English shore; but, on finding that Lord Howard was coming out to meet him, he resumed the original plan, and determined to bend his way steadily toward Calais and Dunkirk, and to keep merely on the defensive against such squadrons of the English as might come up with him.

It was on Saturday, July 20th, that Lord Effingham came in sight of his formidable adversaries. The armada was drawn up in form of a crescent, which from horn to horn measured some seven miles. There was a southwest wind, and before it the vast vessels sailed slowly on. The English let them pass by, and then, following in the rear, commenced an attack on them. A running fight now took place, in which some of the best ships ofthe Spaniards were captured; many more received heavy damage, while the English vessels, which took care not to close with their huge antagonists, but availed themselves of their superior celerity in tacking and manoeuvring, suffered little comparative loss.

Each day added not only to the spirit, but to the number, of Effingham’s force. Raleigh, Oxford, Cumberland, and Sheffield joined him; and "the gentlemen of England hired ships from all parts at their own charge, and with one accord came flocking thither as to a set field where glory was to be attained and faithful service performed unto their Prince and their country."

Raleigh justly praises the English admiral for his skilful tactics: "Certainly he that will happily perform a fight at sea must be skilful in making choice of vessels to fight in: he must believe that there is more belonging to a good man of war upon the waters than great daring, and must know that there is a great deal of difference between fighting loose or at large and grappling. The guns of a slow ship pierce as well and make as great holes as those in a swift. To clap ships together, without consideration, belongs rather to a madman than to a man of war; for by such an ignorant bravery was Peter Strossie lost at the Azores when he fought against the Marquis of Santa Cruza.

"In like sort had the Lord Charles Howard, admiral of England, been lost in the year 1588, if he had not been better advised than a great many malignant fools were that found fault with his demeanor. The Spaniards had an army aboard them, and he had none; they had more ships than he had, and of higher building and charging; so that, had he entangled himself with those great and powerful vessels, he had greatly endangered this kingdom of England; for twenty men upon the defences are equal to a hundred that board and enter; whereas, then, contrariwise, the Spaniards had a hundred for twenty of ours, to defend themselves withal. But our admiral knew his advantage, and held it; which had he not done, he had not been worthy to have held his head up."

The Spanish admiral also showed great judgment and firmness in following the line of conduct that had been traced out for him; and on July 27th he brought his fleet unbroken, thoughsorely distressed, to anchor in Calais roads. But the King of Spain had calculated ill the number and the activity of the English and Dutch fleets. As the old historian expresses it: "It seemeth that the Duke of Parma and the Spaniards grounded upon a vain and presumptuous expectation that all the ships of England and of the Low Countreys would at the first sight of the Spanish and Dunkerk navie have betaken themselves to flight, yeelding them sea-room, and endeavoring only to defend them-selues, their havens, and sea-coasts from invasion.

"Wherefore their intent and purpose was, that the Duke of Parma, in his small and flat-bottomed ships, should, as it were under the shadow and wings of the Spanish fleet, convey ouer all his troupes, armor, and war-like provisions, and with their forces so united, should invade England; or while the English fleet were busied in fight against the Spanish, should enter upon any part of the coast, which he thought to be most convenient. Which invasion—as the captives afterward confessed—the Duke of Parma thought first to have attempted by the river of Thames; upon the bankes whereof having at the first arrival landed twenty or thirty thousand of his principall souldiers, he supposed that he might easily have wonne the citie of London; both because his small shippes should have followed and assisted his land forces and also for that the citie itselfe was but meanely fortified and easie to ouercome, by reason of the citizens’ delicacie and discontinuance from the warres, who, with continuall and constant labor, might be vanquished, if they yielded not at the first assault."4

But the English and Dutch found ships and mariners enough to keep the armada itself in check, and at the same time to block up Parma’s flotilla. The greater part of Seymour’s squadron left its cruising-ground off Dunkirk to join the English admiral off Calais; but the Dutch manned about five-and-thirty sail of good ships, with a strong force of soldiers on board, all well seasoned to the sea-service, and with these they blockaded the Flemish ports that were in Parma’s power. Still it was resolved by the Spanish admiral and the Prince to endeavor to effect a junction, which the English seamen were equally resolute to prevent; and bolder measures on our side now became necessary.

The armada lay off Calais, with its largest ships ranged outside, "like strong castles fearing no assault, the lesser placed in the middle ward." The English admiral could not attack them in their position without great disadvantage, but on the night of the 29th he sent eight fire-ships among them, with almost equal effect to that of the fire-ships which the Greeks so often employed against the Turkish fleets in their war of independence.

The Spaniards cut their cables and put to sea in confusion. One of the largest galeases ran foul of another vessel and was stranded. The rest of the fleet was scattered about on the Flemish coast, and when the morning broke it was with difficulty and delay that they obeyed their admiral’s signal to range themselves round him near Gravelines. Now was the golden opportunity for the English to assail them, and prevent them from ever letting loose Palma’s flotilla against England, and nobly was that opportunity used.

Drake and Fenner were the first English captains who attacked the unwieldy leviathans; then came Fenton, Southwell, Burton, Cross, Raynor, and then the lord admiral, with Lord Thomas Howard and Lord Sheffield. The Spaniards only thought of forming and keeping close together, and were driven by the English past Dunkirk, and far away from the Prince of Parma, who, in watching their defeat from the coast, must, as Drake expressed it, have chafed like a bear robbed of her whelps. This was indeed the last and the decisive battle between the two fleets. It is, perhaps, best described in the very words of the contemporary writer, as we may read them in Hakluyt:

"Upon the 29 of July in the morning, the Spanish fleet after the forsayd tumult, having arranged themselues againe into order, were, within sight of Greveling, most bravely and furiously encountered by the English, where they once again got the wind of the Spaniards, who suffered themselues to be deprived of the commodity of the place in Caleis road, and of the advantage of the wind neer unto Dunkerk, rather than they would change their array or separate their forces now conjoyned and united together, standing only upon their defence.

"And albeit there were many excellent and warlike ships in the English fleet, yet scarce were there 22 or 23 among them all, which matched 90 of the Spanish ships in the bigness, or couldconveniently assault them. Wherefore the English shippes using their prerogative of nimble steerage, whereby they could turn and wield themselues with the wind which way they listed, came often times very near upon the Spaniards, and charged them so sore that now and then they were but a pike’s length asunder; and so continually giving them one broad side after another, they discharged all their shot, both great and small, upon them, spending one whole day, from morning till night, in that violent kind of conflict, until such time as powder and bullets failed them.

"In regard of which want they thought it convenient not to pursue the Spaniards any longer, because they had many great advantages of the English, namely, for the extraordinary bigness of their shippes, and also for that they were so neerely conjoyned, and kept together in so good array, that they could by no meanes be fought withall one to one. The English thought, therefore, that they had right well acquitted themselues in chasing the Spaniards first from Caleis, and then from Dunkerk, and by that means to have hindered them from joyning with the Duke of Parma his forces, and getting the wind of them, to have driven them from their own coasts.

"The Spaniards that day sustained great loss and damage, having many of their shippes shot thorow and thorow, and they discharged likewise great store of ordinance against the English, who, indeed, sustained some hinderance, but not comparable to the Spaniards’ loss; for they lost not any one ship or person of account; for very diligent inquisition being made, the English-men all the time wherein the Spanish navy sayled upon their seas, are not found to have wanted above one hundred of their people; albeit Sir Francis Drake’s ship was pierced with shot above forty times, and his very cabben was twice shot thorow, and about the conclusion of the fight, the bed of a certaine gentleman lying weary thereupon, was taken quite from under him with the force of a bullet.

"Likewise, as the Earle of Northumberland and Sir Charles Blunt were at dinner upon a time, the bullet of a demy-culvering brake thorow the middest of their cabben, touched their feet, and strooke downe two of the standers-by. With many such accidents befalling the English shippes, which it were tedious to rehearse."

It reflects little credit on the English government that the English fleet was so deficiently supplied with ammunition as to be unable to complete the destruction of the invaders. But enough was done to insure it. Many of the largest Spanish ships were sunk or captured in the action of this day. And at length the Spanish admiral, despairing of success, fled northward with a southerly wind, in the hope of rounding Scotland, and so returning to Spain without a further encounter with the English fleet.

Lord Effingham left a squadron to continue the blockade of the Prince of Parma’s armament; but that wise general soon withdrew his troops to more promising fields of action. Meanwhile the lord admiral himself, and Drake, chased the "vincible" armada, as it was now termed, for some distance northward; and then, when they seemed to bend away from the Scotch coast toward Norway, it was thought best, in the words of Drake, "to leave them to those boisterous and uncouth northern seas."

The sufferings and losses which the unhappy Spaniards sustained in their flight round Scotland and Ireland are well known. Of their whole armada only fifty-three shattered vessels brought back their beaten and wasted crews to the Spanish coast, which they had quitted in such pageantry and pride.

Some passages from the writings of those who took part in the struggle have been already quoted, and the most spirited description of the defeat of the armada which ever was penned may perhaps be taken from the letter which our brave vice-admiral Drake wrote in answer to some mendacious stories by which the Spaniards strove to hide their shame. Thus does he describe the scenes in which he played so important a part:5

"They were not ashamed to publish, in sundry languages in print, great victories in words, which they pretended to have obtained against this realm, and spread the same in a most false sort over all parts of France, Italy, and elsewhere; when, shortly afterward, it was happily manifested in very deed to all nations, how their navy, which they termed invincible, consisting of one hundred forty sail of ships, not only of their own kingdom, but strengthened with the greatest argosies, Portugal carracks, Florentines, and large hulks of other countries, were by thirty of her majesty’s own ships of war, and a few of our own merchants, by the wise, valiant, and advantageous conduct of the Lord Charles Howard, high admiral of England, beaten and shuffled together even from the Lizard in Cornwall, first to Portland, when they shamefully left Don Pedro de Valdez with his mighty ship; from Portland to Calais, where they lost Hugh de Moncado, with the galleys of which he was captain; and from Calais, driven with squibs from their anchors, were chased out of the sight of England, round about Scotland and Ireland; where, for the sympathy of their religion, hoping to find succor and assistance, a great part of them were crushed against the rocks, and those others that landed, being very many in number, were, notwithstanding, broken, slain, and taken, and so sent from village to village, coupled in halters to be shipped into England, where her majesty, of her princely and invincible disposition, disdaining to put them to death, and scorning either to retain or to entertain them, they were all sent back again to their countries, to witness and recount the worthy achievements of their invincible and dreadful navy. Of which the number of soldiers, the fearful burden of their ships, the commanders’ names of every squadron, with all others, their magazines of provision, were put in print, as an army and navy irresistible and disdaining prevention; with all which their great and terrible ostentation, they did not in all their sailing round about England so much as sink or take one ship, barque, pinnace, or cock-boat of ours, or even bum so much as one sheep-cote on this land."


2Strype, cited in Southey: Naval History.

3Copy of contemporary letter in the Harleian Collection, quoted by Southey.

4Hakluyt: Voyages.

5Strype, and the notes to the Life of Drake, in the Biographia Britannica.


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Chicago: Edward Shepherd Creasy, "Defeat of the Spanish Armada," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 252–265. Original Sources, accessed December 9, 2023,

MLA: Creasy, Edward Shepherd. "Defeat of the Spanish Armada." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 252–265. Original Sources. 9 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Creasy, ES, 'Defeat of the Spanish Armada' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.252–265. Original Sources, retrieved 9 December 2023, from