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Objectives and Planning of the Armada

By Wes Ulm
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Though hindsight has sometimes construed the Spanish Armada as a showdown exclusively between England and Spain in 1588, it must be remembered that Philip's primary field of interest lay in the European Continent-his troops were engaged for decades in pitched battles against Protestant forces in the Netherlands and France. To him, England was a troublesome distraction, and above all he wanted the English to stay out of the Continental theater as well as Spain's overseas colonies. Thus the Spanish Armada of 1588 had two chief objectives: compelling the cessation of English aid to Dutch rebel forces and French Protestant Huguenots (led at the time by Henri of Navarre), and halting the relentless attacks of English privateers against Spanish shipping from the Americas. Philip may have also desired to replace Elizabeth with a Catholic ruler in England, and he indeed portrayed himself as the protector of English Catholics, but the feasibility of such a strategy would have been dubious at best considering the almost complete lack of a suitable successor. Elizabeth had no living siblings, and perhaps the only viable Catholic replacement for Elizabeth was Mary Queen of Scots, who of course had been executed the year before.

In any case a wholesale "conquest" of England (and annexation to the Spanish Crown) was utterly out of the question. Philip had been unable to suppress a revolt in the tiny Netherlands, in which Spain had already garrisoned troops, which was already united with Spain under the Hapsburg crown, which the Spaniards could access by land routes, and for which the Spanish king could gain assistance from his Hapsburg cousins in central Europe. Considering the vastly greater complications posed by England-a larger and more populous country, with no historical linkage to the Hapsburg Crown and no entrenched garrison of Spanish soldiers, with all the associated headaches posed by a distant island nation-any prospect of a Spanish conquest of England was simply a nonstarter. Nevertheless, Philip had clear demands of the English and a Spanish victory would have dealt a severe blow to the aspirations of Protestant forces on the Continent, and thus both sides prepared for confrontation from 1587.

Philip's plan was to transport to English soil the professional army of Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma-the shrewd and effective general of Philip's armies in the Netherlands, and perhaps the most intimidating battlefield opponent in Europe at the time. Protestant Dutch naval forces and pirates had posed enough of a threat to Parma that he maintained any potential invasion force in barges scattered throughout the canals and channels of the Netherlands and northern France. Philip believed that Parma could assemble and ferry his force to England only with the assistance of an escort to rendezvous with him in the English Channel, and for this purpose he conceived the Spanish Armada, a force of nearly 130 ships-many of them Mediterranean-style galleons- and almost 30,000 soldiers, to be led by the Duke of Medina Sidonia. The Armada was delayed both by Drake's Sack of Cadiz in 1587 and stormy Atlantic weather, but finally in May of 1588, Medina Sidonia's fleet set sail from Lisbon.

It should be noted that at no time did Philip, or anyone else within the Spanish court or military, dub the invasion fleet the Invincible Armada. This was a term applied in later years by English historians. The Spaniards, in fact, were keenly aware of the possibilities of the Armada's failure and the capriciousness of the Atlantic weather, and they scrupulously prepared for adversity by ensuring that major ports in Spain and Portugal could quickly muster food, water, and medical resources for returning sailors. As discussed below, this preparation was crucial in minimizing casualties.

The Armada Confrontation

Competing Naval Styles, the Fireships, and Gravelines

Naval historians have frequently noted that Philip's invasion plan was badly flawed from the outset. Philip lacked control of a deep-water port on the northwestern European coastline, and in any case it is questionable whether any single port at the time could have accommodated a fleet of the Armada's magnitude to begin with. Moreover, the proposed rendezvous with Parma required exact communications and positioning, a feat that was incredibly difficult even under the best of circumstances-radios had not yet been invented of course, and it was difficult to maneuver so many ships with precision in the shifting winds. Thus the only means to effect a rendezvous was for Medina Sidonia's fleet to anchor offshore and remain long enough for Parma to assemble his barges and depart the Dutch coastline, a severe limitation which of course made the Armada vulnerable to English interception while at anchor. In defense of the British coastline, the English supplied nearly 200 ships, far more than those of the Spaniards, though the English vessels were of a fundamentally different nature than the hulking galleons of the Armada. The English ships were lighter and more maneuverable, and-most valuably-they were equipped with long-range guns that could fire more frequently than those of the Spaniards. These innovations were first introduced by King Henry VIII himself, who modernized the English navy, but they were implemented with special vigor by John Hawkins in the 1570s, who had assumed the position of Treasurer of the Navy.

The English defensive forces, led by Lord Howard of Effingham and Francis Drake, engaged in two brief, stalemated clashes with the Spanish fleet in mid-July, after which the Spanish Armada anchored off of Calais in France, delivering word of its arrival and awaiting the assembled barges of Parma. The Armada ships had assumed a classic, tightly packed, crescent-shaped defensive formation at anchor. On July 28 at night, Drake and Howard dispatched fireships-old hulks filled with tar and pitch and set ablaze-downwind into the Spanish formation. In panic, the Spanish ships cut anchor. The Armada very nearly suffered a total catastrophe when unusually strong winds almost beached the fleet on the French and Flemish shorelines. The winds finally changed, however, sparing the Spanish an unmitigated disaster. They were able to rapidly resume formation, though in a more scattered pattern than before. The next day, the English attacked the Spanish fleet off Gravelines, France, in the only significant engagement of the confrontation. The Spaniards had been trained for seize-and-grapple tactics, which they had used effectively against a Turkish fleet in the 1571 Mediterranean Battle of Lepanto, in which the Spanish galleons were expected to pull alongside an enemy ship, grapple onto it, and then board and overwhelm the defenders. But the English ships employed their long-range guns to strike the Spanish ships from a distance, avoiding battle close-in. Both sides were able to fire salvos and damage the vessels of the other, but the English ships were able to do so faster and more accurately.

The Storm

In spite of English advantages, the Battle of Gravelines itself was rather inconclusive. Both sides committed errors and wasted substantial ordnance; furthermore, the English exhausted their ammunition stores early and were unable to pursue the Armada ships as they regrouped. Ten or eleven Spanish vessels were damaged or sunken in the engagement, but many of these were among the least seaworthy in the Armada to begin with, and Medina-Sidonia's still generally intact squadrons were able to quickly resume their battle formations. Thousands of Spanish sailors had died, mostly of disease and exposure, but the Armada still posed a threat. Nevertheless, Medina-Sidonia decided that conditions were simply not conducive for a rendezvous with Parma at this point. The ships had already cut anchor at Calais and the tenuous lines of communication with Parma had been severed. He was not aware of the English lack of ammunition, and presumed that any further attempts to reassemble the Spanish fleet-in the absence of an effective port-would be too vulnerable to further English attack. Medina Sidonia therefore decided to call off further attempts at joining with Parma, and return to Spain by rounding the northern tip of Scotland. Leicester had assembled a land defensive force of 4-5,000 English soldiers at Tilbury Fort in the case of a landing by Parma, to whom Elizabeth had delivered a rousing speech. In any case, Parma's feared landing never materialized once Medina Sidonia decamped for Spain, and Leicester's army was duly dissolved once the threat had passed.

It was here that the Spanish Armada encountered its most dangerous foe. An unusually severe September Atlantic storm had formed off the Scottish coast, and the returning Armada fleet was caught in its fury. Many Spanish ships left formation and straggled away. Some beached on the Irish coast, with the Spanish sailors being captured or deserting and melting into the Irish population. Other stragglers managed to rejoin their squadrons, or wander back to Spain on their own. It was this storm that caused nearly all the damage and loss-both shipwrecks and casualties-that we associate with the Armada. 15-20,000 Spanish sailors perished, and close to 60 ships were lost or damaged beyond repair before the remnant of the force finally succeeded in returning to Spanish ports, mostly in cities like Santander that fronted the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain.

While the English had of course been spared the lethal fury of the Atlantic storm, they themselves were felled in large numbers by a deadly enemy of their own: a concurrent outbreak of dysentery and typhus which raged rapidly throughout the English fleet, killing perhaps 6-8,000 sailors and sickening many more. There was ironically little celebration on the English side, since financial difficulties had also frustrated attempts at timely compensation for the English coastal defenders, many of whom complained bitterly of the seeming disrespect shown them until funds were finally secured for their remuneration. In any case, despite the losses, the English had achieved an important victory and the crisis had passed. England was spared the menace of an invasion in 1588, although the Spanish succeeded later in launching three more Armadas to Spain and Ireland which were scattered by storms.

Next Section: Aftermath of the Spanish Armada