The Spanish Armada (Spanish: Grande y Felicísima Armada, literally “Great and Most Fortunate Navy”) was a Spanish fleet of 130 ships that sailed from A Coruña in late May 1588, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, with the purpose of escorting an army from Flanders to invade England. The strategic aim was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and her establishment of Protestantism in England, with the expectation that this would put a stop to English interference in the Spanish Netherlands and to the harm caused to Spanish interests by English and Dutch privateering.
Prior to the undertaking, Pope Sixtus V allowed Philip II of Spain to collect crusade taxes and granted his men indulgences. The blessing of the Armada’s banner on 25 April 1588, was similar to the ceremony used prior to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. On 28 May 1588, the Armada set sail from A Coruña and headed for the English Channel. The fleet was composed of 130 ships, 8,000 sailors and 18,000 soldiers, and bore 1,500 brass guns and 1,000 iron guns. The full body of the fleet took two days to leave port. It included twenty eight purpose-built warships, of which twenty were galleons, four galleys and four (Neapolitan) galleasses. The remainder of the heavy vessels were mostly armed carracks and hulks together with thirty-four light ships.
In the Spanish Netherlands, 30,000 soldiers awaited the arrival of the Armada, the plan being to use the cover of the warships to convey the army on barges to a place near London. All told, 55,000 men were to have been mustered, a huge army for that time. On the day the Armada set sail, Elizabeth’s ambassador in the Netherlands, Valentine Dale, met Parma‘s representatives in peace negotiations. The English made a vain effort to intercept the Armada in the Bay of Biscay. On 6 July negotiations were abandoned, and the English fleet stood prepared, if ill-supplied, at Plymouth, awaiting news of Spanish movements. The English fleet outnumbered the Spanish, 200 ships to 130, while the Spanish fleet outgunned the English – its available firepower was 50% more than that of the English.
The Armada chose not to attack the English fleet at Plymouth, then failed to establish a temporary anchorage in the Solent, after one Spanish ship had been captured by Francis Drake in the English Channel. The Armada finally dropped anchor off Calais. While awaiting communications from the Duke of Parma’s army, the Armada was scattered by an English fireship attack. In the ensuing Battle of Gravelines the Spanish fleet was damaged and forced to abandon its rendezvous with Parma’s army, who were blockaded in harbour by Dutch flyboats. The Armada managed to regroup and, driven by southwest winds, withdrew north, with the English fleet harrying it up the east coast of England. The commander ordered a return to Spain, but the Armada was disrupted during severe storms in the North Atlantic and a large number of the vessels were wrecked on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Of the initial 130 ships over a third failed to return. As Martin and Parker explain, “Philip II attempted to invade England, but his plans miscarried, partly because of his own mismanagement, unfortunate weather, and partly because the opportunistic defensive naval efforts of the English and their Dutch allies (the use of ships set afire and sailed into the anchored Armada to create panic) prevailed.”
The expedition was the largest engagement of the undeclared Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604). The following year, England organized a similar large-scale campaign against Spain, the Drake–Norris Expedition or “counter-Armada of 1589“, which was also unsuccessful.