Philip II of Spain co-ruled England with his wife, Mary I, after the death of Mary’s half-brother, Edward VI, a Protestant. Mary was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and a devout Roman Catholic. Philip and Mary ruled from 1553-1558, persecuting and burning at the stake Protestants and religious dissenters in the name of restoring Roman Catholicism in England, earning her the title “Bloody Mary”.
Upon Mary’s death in 1558, Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was crowned Queen of England. Elizabeth had been imprisoned for almost a year under Mary’s reign, on suspicion of supporting the Protestant rebels. Upon ascending the throne, Elizabeth went about reversing the Roman Catholic spread under Philip and Mary, and established an English Protestant church with herself as the Supreme Commander. This church would go on to become the Church of England.
Philip held Elizabeth’s coronation as invalid, since she was declared illegitimate when Henry VIII had his marriage to Anne Boleyn nullified. He wanted to see his Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, ruling England instead of the heretic Protestant. Philip allegedly was involved in several plots to have Elizabeth overthrown and install Mary, but all were thwarted. Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned and eventually executed in 1587. Meanwhile, Elizabeth was supporting the Dutch in their revolt against Spain.
England and Spain had been in conflict since 1585, although formal war was never actually declared. With Elizabeth’s support of the Dutch and the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, Philip decided the best course of action was to invade England itself in order to stop their support of the regions rebelling against Spain and England’s interruptions in Spain’s trade and settlements in the New World. The decision was supported by Pope Sixtus V and viewed as a crusade, with the promise of subsidies if the armada successfully made landfall.
In 1587, Francis Drake attacked Cadiz, destroying around 30 ships and a large quantity of supplies, setting Spain back a year in preparations for invasion. Philip decided on a triple-prong attack – a raid on Scotland as a diversion with the main armada capturing the Isle of Wight or Southampton as a base for an attack by Parma and the Low Countries across the English Channel. The Duke of Parma was hesitant because of the lack of surprise that would be coming after the initial attack, as well as the enormous cost involved. He advised Philip to abandon that plan. Also, although the commander of the armada was the very experienced and capable Álvaro de Bazán, he died in February 1588 before the invasion started. He was replaced by a high-born courtier, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who also sent messages to advise Philip to devise a new battle strategy.
Philip ignored the advice of Parma and didn’t get the messages from Medina Sedonia and went forward with his campaign. The banners of the armada were blessed on April 25, 1588 and the ships set sail on May 28 from Lisbon toward the English Channel. The fleet was composed of 130 ships with 1,500 brass guns and 1,000 iron guns, 8,000 sailors, and 18,000 soldiers. Of the 130 ships, there were 28 warships built for the sole purpose of this campaign, along with 34 light ships and the remainder heavy ships. 30,000 more soldiers awaited the armada in the Spanish Netherlands, the plan to use them to be transported to a base near London. When the armada set sail, the British ambassador in the Netherlands met with Parma’s representatives to negotiate peace. Talks were abandoned on July 16 and the British prepared to meet the Spanish fleet. Although the English outnumbered the Spanish, 200 ships to 130, the Spanish fleet had far superior firepower.
The Spanish were delayed by bad weather, forcing four of the galleys and one galleon to break from the fleet, remaining separated until July 19. The English were well-prepared, having built signal stations along the entire south coast to notify everyone when the Spanish was sighted. Some of those signal stations still stand today. The English fleet was stuck in Plymouth Harbour in a low tide on the night of the 19th when the Spanish arrived. The Spanish convened a war council and decided to attack the fleet, anchor and launch the land campaign from there, but Medina Sidonia vetoed the plan as Philip explicitly forbade it. Instead, they sailed on toward the Isle of Wight as planned. The tide turned and the Spanish were pursued by 55 ships under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham with Sir Francis Drake as Vice Admiral and Sir John Hawkins as Rear Admiral.
Skirmishes and battles ensued all up and down the English coast from July to September between the Spanish Armada, the British Fleet, Dutch flyboats and Parma’s forces. On September 15, the Spanish fleet sailed around Scotland and Ireland, into the North Atlantic, having been repelled by the victorious British and Dutch. Miscalculating the gulf stream, navigational errors were made and the Spanish sailed far off course when trying to get back to Spain to regroup. Heavy storms also added to the difficulties the well-worn ships were trying to overcome. In the end only 67 ships returned to Spain with less than 10,000 men, many of those dying soon after from disease from the voyage.
Two notable quotes from the aftermath of the campaign were from Philip, who said “I sent the Armada against men, not God’s winds and waves” and from Elizabeth who remarked “God breathed and they were scattered”.