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Spanish Armada 1588

Spanish Armada 1588 (Gravelines 29th July 1588)

Protagonists: England and Spain

Result: English victory.

This was the most significant confrontation of the Anglo-Spanish War 1585-1604.

The Spanish plan was to sail a fleet up the English Channel to pick up their army in Flanders and invade England.

The Spanish fleet sailed from Lisbon in Portugal (then occupied by Spain) on 19th July 1588 and by the 29th July had been sighted off the coast of England.

The Spanish fleet sailed in a large crescent formation which proved very effective at repelling the attacks of the English fleet and as a result the Spanish fleet only lost two ships on its journey up the English Channel. While the Spanish fleet maintained its crescent formation it was safe. However, their plan was not to destroy the English fleet but rather to transport their army from Flanders to invade England. As a result once the Spanish fleet anchored off Gravelines in anticipation of picking up their army they lost formation.

The Spanish Armada’s formation was further compromised when the English launched a number of fireboats at the Spanish causing many of them to cut their anchors in an attempt to escape (an action which would prove fatal for many of them on their voyage home).

The Armada was forced to wait for their army and the barges that had been assembled to transport it. In the meantime the English fleet had been reinforced and resupplied to some extent and attacked the Spanish Armada on 8th August.

The Spanish were at a disadvantage as their tactics although tried and tested were outmoded. They entailed sailing alongside an enemy vessel firing a broadside and then boarding the enemy ship and engaging in hand to hand combat. The English on the other hand had started to use the tactics that would define naval warfare over the coming centuries, namely firing repeated broadsides at an enemy ship until it either sank or surrendered.

As a result the Spanish ships were unable to close with the English ships and during the course of the battle the English did not lose a single ship. Spanish casualties were relatively minor with five ships lost and 600 men killed and a further 800 wounded. Worsening weather and a lack of supplies compromised the English fleet and the Armada was able to escape.

However, they were unable to sail back down the English Channel as their way was blocked by the English fleet and so the Armada was forced to sail north along the east coast of England around the north tip of Scotland and then south along the west coast of Ireland in the face of terrible storms.
It was during this voyage that the Spanish Armada lost nearly half its ships and 20,000 men.

While the Spanish Armada of 1588 did little to alter the course of the Anglo-Spanish war, which was to drag on until 1604, it showed the rest of Europe, in particular the Protestants, that Spain could be defeated. It also preserved England’s independence as a Protestant country and allowed them to sow the seeds of what would become the British Empire.

The consequences

If the Spanish Armada had successfully transported the Spanish army across the English Channel then there is little doubt that the invasion would have been a success.

Elizabeth I would have been deposed and a pro Spanish Catholic monarch installed. England would have been forcibly returned to the Catholic fold and certainly never been allowed to establish its colonies in the New World. North America would have been divided up between Spain and France. The map of North America would look very different today. Canada and the United States of America would not exist and although the French and Spanish colonies would no doubt have broken from their mother countries it is French and Spanish that would be spoken not English.


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