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Invincible Armada

In 1580, Philip II had annexed Portugal and added the ships from her splendid navy to the Spanish fleet. Silver from the mines in the New World was bringing in immense wealth. Now Philip, with his Lord High Admiral, Santa Cruz, began to plan the invasion of England, but in 1586 Santa Cruz died and the Duke of Medina Sidonia took his place. He was neither a soldier nor a sailor, but was chosen by Philip as one of the greatest noblemen in Spain. Wisely, he took advice from the experienced commanders.

Phillip ordered the Duke of Medina to prepare the great fleet to sail up the English Channel to link up with the Duke of Parma's army from the (Spanish) Netherlands. The main task of the Armada would be to transport these soldiers from the Netherlands to fight in England. The organization of the "Great Enterprise" was a colossal task. Philip sent agents to Germany and Italy to buy cannon, armor, gunpowder, shot, swords and all the weapons of war. He chartered vessels from many European nations. Apart from the 22 great Portuguese and Spanish fighting galleons, there were merchant ships converted for battle. Smaller ships were used as messengers and also for picket or guard duty.

The great unwieldy, lumbering "urca" transport ships carried siege guns and equipment intended for land battles. They were filled to bursting point with guns, horses, mules and ammunition. Collecting the stores and equipment for the Great Armada was a prodigious task. Enough food had to be supplied for six months. 11 million pounds of ships biscuit, 600,000 pounds of salt pork, 40,000 gallons of olive oil, 14,000 barrels of wine were but a part of the necessities for a force of over 30,000 men. The great transport "urcas" were to be filled with 5000 extra pairs of shoes, 11,000 pairs of sandals, as well as equipment to repair ships, and axes, spades and shovels for digging trenches and sieges.

With the fleet went six surgeons and six physicians, 180 priests as spiritual advisers, 19 justices and 50 administrators, carefully selected to set up government in England, and 146 young gallants who volunteered for the adventure, and took with them 728 servants.


The traditional style of sea battle was for ships to come within close range of each other, grappling irons were slung from ship to ship, soldiers swung themselves onto the enemy ships and fought hand-to-hand. The ships were built with high fore and aft castles which were defended like castles on land. Sir Francis Drake, who had just returned from his plundering of Spanish ships in the New World, changed this method completely. He trained his sailors to fight by handling their ships expertly, and, by using long range guns, they could out-gun and out-maneuver the enemy. John Hawkins' new English ships went into battle "line ahead", or one following the other, sailing by the enemy while firing lethal broadsides into their ships.

The Spanish had been ordered, should they engage the English ships, to bear down on them and use the old style of grappling and boarding, but the faster English vessels with their long range guns kept out of range. The battles of the Armada were the first in which the English used this method of fighting. From that time it became the normal style of encounter in sea battles.

The Battle

In July, 1588, one hundred and thirty ships carrying 30,000 men set out to conquer England. Every ship, indeed every man, had been blessed by their priests.

On Friday, July 29, the Armada reached off the Lizard, a point fifty miles from Plymouth, England. During the next 4 days two battles took place with little result except a huge waste of ammunition by the English. The fragile rigging and castles of the Spanish ships were easily penetrated, but not their solid hulls.

The Spanish, on the other hand, could not get close enough to grapple and board the English vessels.

On August 4, as the Isle of Wight came into view, the Duke of Medina, with the English hard on his heels, had many things on his mind. His ammunition was also running low. He had sent messages to the Duke of Parma who was waiting in the Netherlands, but with no response.

For hours the great ships pounded each other, watched by their fleets. Then the wind rose to the Spaniards' advantage, but again the nimble English got away. With a south-west wind the Great Armada continued towards the Straits of Dover, in the hope of meeting Parma at Dunkirk. As he sailed, Medina was given the appalling news that there was no anchorage deep enough for the fleet on the Flemish shore.

Although little damage could be done to the Great Armada on the move, the great fleet was now forced to anchor off Calais.

The Spanish knew that the Italian engineer, Giambelli, had made fireships laden with explosives for the English. These "Hell burners" were the most fearful weapons for a fleet at anchor. The Spanish began to prepare. Pinnaces stood guard with long grapnels to tow the fire ships away from the main fleet. Medina ordered the ships to be ready to weigh anchor for a quick getaway. As it was a lengthy business hauling up heavy sea anchors, the tactic was to attach them to buoys. If the fire ships came, then the ships cut their cables and escaped, leaving the heavy anchors attached to the buoys. When the danger was over the ships could return to pick up the anchors. The English recognized their advantage. They filled eight old ships with inflammable material and waited for the wind and tide. After midnight, the waiting Spaniards saw the glow from the fire ships approaching on the tide. As they came closer, their guns heated and exploded, making a terrifying sight. The Spanish hastily cut their cables. In the pitch darkness they collided with each other in their effort to escape, but no ship was set on fire.

The Battle of Gravelines

At daylight on August 8, Medina realized many of his ships were in danger of running on the shoals of the Flemish coast, an easy target for the pursuing English. Using only four of his great ships he decided to stand and fight, desperately determined to hold off the English while the rest of the Armada collected and made ready for the coming assault.

Drake, in the Revenge, led the attack. One by one his squadron followed, opening fire at a hundred yards range. Frobisher's squadron followed Drake's. The Spaniards were outnumbered by about ten to one. The English had the wind behind them, and at close range their culverins made huge holes in the Spanish hulls. Spanish sails, rigging and castles were shattered. The pumps of one Spanish ship worked desperately to keep her afloat.

In the noise, smoke and confusion it was impossible to see what was happening. Other ships joined into the fight, but the main battle was between Drake's ships and the big galleons of the Portuguese and Seville squadrons. Three great Spanish ships sank that day, a dozen more were badly damaged. 600 Spaniards were killed and at least 800 wounded. The decks ran with their blood.

Towards evening after nine grueling hours, heavy rain and wind brought the battle to an end. But worse was to come. Amid the wreckage and blood and the screams of wounded men, the winds blew the helpless Spanish ships towards the treacherous sand banks. When dawn came the English moved in and the exhausted Spaniards prepared themselves for death. But the English were almost out of ammunition. No attack came.

Slowly the Spaniards sounded their way through the shallow waters. At any moment they might feel the terrible lurch of a ship grounded on the sands. Then in the afternoon the wind changed and blew them away from the deadly sand banks. The Duke of Medina wrote: "We were saved by the wind, by God's mercy, it shifted to the south-west."

The Spanish cannon balls were so badly cast that they splintered when fired. Also, the merchant ships were not built to take either the weight or the recoil of heavy cannon. Continual pounding from their own guns put an immense strain on the ships' timbers. Their carpenters had the never-ending task of caulking the leaks. Sometimes the guns were not properly lashed to the gundecks. When fired, the recoil sent the guns bounding across the decks, severely damaging both ships and men. For these reasons, the English ships received little damage. Scarcely one hundred Englishmen had died since the first encounter.

Pursuit and Confusion

After the encounter at Gravelines, Lord Howard sent frantic messages ashore for more ammunition. He did not know that the Spanish were equally short of powder and had no great shot left. The Great Armada ran north before the wind which had blown it off the Flemish sand banks. The English followed all the way to the Firth of Forth where they gave the order to give up the chase. Only gradually did it become clear to the English that they had won a great victory and the Spanish would not return.

The End of the Armada

When the English fleet turned back, Medina and his captains held a council of war. Now their task was to get the Armada safely back to Spain. However, the Armada was in no condition to turn back and fight its way through the Channel. Besides the wind was still taking it north. They decided to sail around Scotland and southward in the Atlantic, keeping well away from Ireland, back to Spain. However, another terrible storm arose. Spanish accounts of this storm describe the scattering of the fleet. But the Armada held on course. On August 19, in a moderate wind they sailed safely through the Fair Isle channel between Shetland and the Orkneys, where Scottish fishermen sold them fish. Food was running out. Only a little slimy green water was left in the unseasoned wooden casks. Most of the ships biscuit, salt beef and salt fish had gone bad. Medina had to ration the food giving each man a daily allowance of eight ounces of biscuit, and a pint of half wine half water. Horses and mules were thrown overboard. Of the 130 ships which had set sail from Lisbon, eight great ships had been sunk and many pinnaces and small craft had been swept away. Half the remaining ships needed drastic repairs.

Off the Orkneys, Medina sent a message to the King to say that the Armada was still together, and capable of getting back to Spain, although, besides the wounded, there were 3000 sick on board. But soon the moderate weather changed and in the terrible seas off Cape Wrath the Armada began to break up. In gale force winds, the fleet was swept backwards and forwards around the north of Scotland, facing a fiercer enemy than the English: the cruel sea. The groaning, leaking ships were kept afloat by tired, hungry men working non-stop at the pumps. Scurvy, dysentery and fever were rife. Many ships sought land looking for food and water. Because they had abandoned their sea anchors at Calais and had only small anchors, they were often driven onto the rocks. As the weather worsened ships were swept away from the main body of the fleet. Many sank with all hands. Four great ships were blown back towards Shetland. About September l8, one of the worst storms in history hit the Atlantic.

Despite the damage to the Armada at the Battle of Gravelines, only a few Spanish ships were put out of action, both to fleets had run out of ammunition and the English badly needed to replenish their food and water. On August 11, the English Captains, Lord Howard and Sir Francis Drake wrote to the Privy Council saving that, because food and ammunition were "in extreme scarcity", they would pursue the Armada only until it was clear of the English coast. On August 22, Howard wrote saying "the fleet is grievously infected, and men die daily." Dysentery, typhus and, some thought, plague swept the fleet. The English ships staggered back into Harwich, Margate, Chatham and Dover. Sir John Hawkins had hoped to organize a general discharge, but the sick were let go little by little: some with no more than a ticket to buy food for the journey home; some with only part of the money due to them. Howard beseeched the government: "before God, I would rather have never a penny in the world, than that they should lack", and dipped into his own pocket to pay off many poor sailors. Gradually the English realized that the Great Armada would not return. The jubilant Queen Elizabeth turned it into a personal triumph. In December 1588, she rode, like a conquering Caesar, to give thanks at St Paul's Cathedral.