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The Spanish Armada of 1588

By Wes Ulm
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The Spanish Armada is the term conventionally applied to a massive fleet dispatched against England by Spain's Catholic King Philip II in 1588, leading to an early and important confrontation in the nearly 20-year Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604 (the "Twenty Years' War"). The Armada had been sent following a rift in Anglo-Spanish relations resulting from commercial competition, religious differences, and disputes over English aid to Protestant Dutch rebels, though its proximate cause was the English execution of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots in 1587. The flotilla's mission was to serve as an escort for an invading professional army led by Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma, one of the king's generals who had been combating a Protestant uprising in the Spanish-ruled Netherlands. The Spanish fleet was repulsed by English defensive ships, however, and suffered major losses in a September Atlantic storm while rounding the coast of Scotland en route to Spain. The Spaniards were nonetheless able to regroup quickly, and defeated a retaliatory English invasion force dispatched to Spain and Portugal in 1589. The Spanish navy was retooled in the 1590s and effectively solidified Spanish control over the waves, protecting treasure fleets from privateering while vanquishing English opponents on the high seas and on the coasts of Spanish America, and Spain continued as Europe's dominant power into the 1600s. While the Spanish Armada's defeat therefore did not provide England with control over sea lanes or enable settlement of North America, it was still significant in many respects: It helped to thwart Spanish aims on the European continent, assisted Dutch and French Protestant forces, provided English sailors with navigational and military experience, inspired future generations of English mariners, and revolutionized naval warfare. This article discusses the background and causes of the Spanish Armada invasion, Philip's objectives with the Armada, the naval encounters between England and Spain in 1588, and the aftermath of the conflict.


Warm Relations and 16th-Century Anglo-Spanish Alliances

For most of the 16th century, Spain and England enjoyed relatively amicable relations, and at times one may fairly have deemed them allies. Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty and ruler of England from 1485-1509, earnestly supported the growth of the English merchant marine. He expanded trade ties with Spain via exports of wool to the Iberian Peninsula which Spain shared with Portugal, and he fostered commerce with Spain's rapidly expanding empire in the Americas, which over the course of the 16th century would introduce England to numerous products from the New World. Henry also spurred interest in exploration by chartering the first voyages of John Cabot to Newfoundland in 1496-7. Cabot claimed North America for England, but Henry was careful thereafter not to encroach on claims advanced by Spain and Portugal in the Western Hemisphere, a policy also followed by his son and successor Henry VIII (ruled 1509-1547)

The elder Henry cemented the two countries' growing trade and diplomatic relations with an Anglo-Spanish dynastic alliance, through which his first son Arthur and then, upon Arthur's premature death, his second son Henry were married to Spain's Catherine of Aragon. The wedding of the future Henry VIII and Catherine would inadvertently have momentous consequences, for it was Henry's desire to divorce Catherine which engendered the crisis that led to Henry's break with the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s. Henry had also quarreled with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who counted Spain among his many dominions. The political strife with the Emperor was exacerbated by England's progressive drift from Papal Authority and the country's increasingly Protestant character late in Henry VIII's reign. However, Henry averted a breach in Anglo-Spanish relations by allying with Charles in a war against France in 1543. Henry's daughter Mary I would later continue the Anglo-Spanish dynastic alliance via a marriage to Spain's King Philip II in 1554.

Following Henry's death and the brief reign of the Protestant Edward VI and Catholic Mary I, Henry's Protestant second daughter acceded to the throne in 1558 as Queen Elizabeth I. During the reign's first few years, Spain and England continued their previous course of relations, one characterized by at least a mutually deferential neutrality if not an indisputable state of amity. Elizabeth and Philip held each other in relatively high esteem, and Philip himself had helped to protect Elizabeth from the scourges of her half-sister Mary during the latter's violent persecution of Protestants in England. Both England and Spain, furthermore, shared a concern about France's growing power. Spain saw a potential imperial rival, while England had waged war against France under Henry VIII and suffered the loss of Calais-England's last possession on the European Continent-late in Mary's reign. Elizabeth's soldiers attempted to recover it but were defeated at Le Havre in 1563, engendering further resentment and suspicion against England's ancient enemy. Thus well into the 1560s, there was little to suggest that England and Spain would clash later in the century. The catalyst for this conflict, however, first took shape in the form of competition for high seas commerce, which would help to bring simmering differences over religion into sharp focus.

The Slave Trade, San Juan de Ulua, and Anglo-Spanish Conflict

In 1562, the English sailor John Hawkins ushered England into the slave trade when he set sail from West Africa with a shipment of slaves to Spain's colonies in the Caribbean. Upon his return to England, Queen Elizabeth initially rebuked him for his commerce in human trafficking. However, Hawkins' profit margins from the expedition were enormous, and the Queen and her advisory Privy Council-faced with a persistent debt and financial hardships inherited from Mary's reign-decided to condone Hawkins' actions and then directly support him, providing ships and capital investment to enable future voyages. Spain was soon made aware of Hawkins' trading activities and expressed objections to them. Spain had reaped enormous profits from the slave trade by requiring merchants to take their human cargo to Spanish ports like Seville prior to sale in the Americas, where Spain's officials were able to collect revenue by taxing the merchants. The Spaniards branded Hawkins a smuggler since he bypassed Spanish way-stations in his expeditions, and their challenge to Hawkins' commercial ventures would embroil his country as a whole since members of the English royal court were themselves investors.

Matters would come to a boil with Hawkins' fourth expedition in 1567-8. He commanded a fleet of six vessels, with Hawkins and his cousin, the soon-to-be-renowned Sir Francis Drake, at the personal helm of two of them. Running low on victuals and supplies, Hawkins decided to water, restock, and repair his small fleet at San Juan de Ulua, an island fortress near Veracruz, Mexico, early in 1568. Spain's viceroy in the region, Martin Enriquez, responded to Hawkins' flotilla by dispatching a fleet of Spanish ships which approached the English and feigned friendliness-then promptly commenced a deadly bombardment. Most of the English ships were lost, with only two-those of Hawkins and Drake-slumping back to port in England, heavily damaged. The attack at San Juan de Ulua in 1568 served as the diplomatic incident which fractured relations between England and Spain. Drake and Hawkins bitterly resented what they viewed as Spanish treachery and heavy-handedness, and they-like many other merchants plying the Atlantic, no matter what their cargo-had begun to nurture grievances against what they perceived as Spain's unjustified monopoly over the ocean's commerce and its hoarding of the precious metal wealth of the Americas. Philip may have regarded Enriquez's response as overzealous but he was in no position to denounce a viceroy who purported to be enforcing a stated policy of the Crown, and Elizabeth, while loath to initiate open warfare with Spain, nonetheless quietly supported privateering expeditions against Spanish treasure ships by Drake, Hawkins, and others.

Privateering, the Dutch Revolt, and Excommunication

Drake not only menaced Spanish shipping on the high seas but began to scout the coast of Spanish America as well, periodically raiding towns and stealthily bombarding encampments before Spain's defensive fortifications could respond. In 1570-1 he led profitable expeditions to Panama, defeating opposition there and seizing Spanish shipments, and in 1572 he even managed to capture Nombre de Dios, a Panamanian port city. From 1577-80, he undertook one of history's great maritime voyages, in which he would become the leader of only the second expedition-after that of Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastian del Cano, sailing for Spain in 1519-to circumnavigate the world, even claiming the coast of an area near what is now San Francisco for England as "New Albion." (The claim was not followed up, however.) Drake later managed to sack the Spanish port of Vigo in 1585 and then the major city of Cadiz in 1587.

The willingness of English sailors to harass Spanish shipping was coupled with increasing sympathy for the cause of Dutch Protestants who had revolted against Spanish rule in the Netherlands in the late 1560s. Emperor Charles V was a member of the Hapsburg family in Europe, and through a tangled series of marriage alliances, he had inherited the Netherlands among his domains, which he then passed on to his son Philip II-along with Spain. The Protestant Reformation created a fissure among Philip's territories exacerbated by the king's own devout Catholicism, and in 1566 the Dutch Revolt had commenced against the Spanish viceroy, the Duke of Alva, with the Protestant rebels eventually led by the tenacious William I of Orange (William the Silent).

Elizabeth initially wanted no part of the Dutch Revolt and eschewed involvement, in spite of San Juan de Ulua and the implorings of some of her country's more vehemently Protestant elements to aid the Dutch. She had inherited from her father a belief in the absolute authority of monarchs, and she was averse to support a rebellion that could justify a parallel revolt in England as well. Nevertheless, her position began to change after 1570, when Pope Pius V excommunicated her. Perhaps more alarming than the excommunication itself was Pius's injunction, late in the Papal Bull, that her subjects were absolved of any loyalty to her and should not recognize her position on the throne of England. Elizabeth was shocked by the Pope's language, as she had been issued a direct threat to her legitimacy. Her lot had now been cast with the Protestants no matter what her prior intentions, and she began to pursue policies directed against the Catholics of England (though not with the zealotry that Mary I had pursued against Protestants). Another pivotal event a decade later further modified her stance vis--vis the Protestant rebels on the Continent. In 1580, King Philip managed to seize the throne of Portugal following a succession dispute, thereby acquiring control of Portugal's vast wealth and network of Iberian ports. The Spanish king had also begun meddling in the dynastic affairs of religiously divided France, which would later transform into a direct attempt to place his daughter, the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, onto the French throne. Elizabeth feared Philip's intentions and, in the years after San Juan de Ulua, the Papal Excommunication, and Philip's seizure of Portugal, provided incrementally increasing support to Protestant fighters in the Netherlands and France as a counterweight. Funds were used to purchase arms and supplies for the rebels, and Spanish ships delivering materiel and money to forces in the Dutch provinces were detained in English ports.

The "Last Straw": Open War and Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

The Spanish Crown and Spain's merchants had come to bitterly resent the unrelenting privateering attacks on Spanish shipping, and Philip was especially incensed by English financial support to the Dutch rebels, which he saw as outside interference in the sovereign affairs of Spain. English aid to the Dutch steadily increased until, in 1585, 7,000 English troops were dispatched under the leadership of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to assist the Dutch. While Leicester's troops accomplished little against the entrenched army of the Spaniards, the mission effectively threw down the gauntlet: England and Spain were now at war.

Two years later, the incident that brought about the Spanish Armada itself finally took place. In 1567, a cousin of Elizabeth's, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots of the Stuart family, had been expelled from the throne of increasingly Protestant Scotland by a group of nobles after a power struggle with her Protestant half brother. She sought refuge in England the following year, but she had clashed with Elizabeth before and was regarded as Elizabeth's archrival, the only viable competitor to the throne. Elizabeth had her imprisoned in 1568 out of concern over potential support for her within England, and Elizabeth's fears magnified tremendously after her own excommunication in 1570, following which English Catholics began to rally around Mary as the rightful heir to the throne. Mary became the focus of a stormy series of court intrigues and, even though her direct involvement is often debated, she was implicated in the Ridolfi Plot of 1570-1 and the Babington Plot of 1586, both of which had intended to engineer a palace coup. Reluctantly, Elizabeth agreed to a warrant of execution and, in 1587, Mary was beheaded.

The execution of Mary unleashed a firestorm among Catholics in England and exiles abroad. It was also crucial in that it provided the pretext for Philip to launch "the Enterprise of England," the Great Armada which would finally respond forcefully to the privateering and assistance to the Dutch rebels which the Spanish court had found so objectionable. Philip proceeded to hatch an invasion plan with his advisors.

Next Section: Objectives and Planning of the Armada

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