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Why, despite their fearsome reputation, did the Spanish Armada fail in their attack on England

Although England and Spain had been allies for much of the early sixteenth century, war broke out between them in 1585. King Phillip II commissioned the construction of a huge naval taskforce, with the intention of invading England, restoring the Catholic faith, and placing a compliant ruler on the throne. Effectively making it part of the Spanish Empire. After nearly two years’ preparation and prolonged delays, what was arguably the most impressive fleet of maritime vessels ever assembled, finally set sail from Lisbon in the summer of 1588.The ships were first sighted by the English watchers off Lizard Point, in Cornwall on July 29th. Consisting of 130 ships (including 22 huge galleons), the Armada was widely expected to succeed in its aims. When these ships were placed in a line, bow to stern, they stretched out to sea for some two miles. King Phillip was rightly proud of his ‘armada invincible’. However, what should have been a splendid victory, ended in catastrophic defeat. Spain, then the most powerful and wealthy country in the world, had been beaten, and was now in decline. The course of European history had been changed forever. In this essay, I intend to look at a number of factors, and investigate why, against the odds, England emerged victorious from this conflict.Briefly, I wish to summarise the reasons why two friendly countries became enemies and why war broke out between them. As I have already mentioned, when Elizabeth I succeeded her sister Mary I as Queen, the relationship between the England and Spain was fairly amicable. Indeed, Mary and Phillip had been married. To maintain this alliance, Phillip proposed to Elizabeth after Mary died young in 1558. Phillip was annoyed by the amount of time she procrastinated over giving him an answer, which was eventually a refusal. With his ego bruised, this was the first of many disagreements that Phillip and Elizabeth experienced during their conflicting reigns.Perhaps the largest reason for Phillip’s resentment of the English administration was religious differences between the two countries. Although there is evidence that Elizabeth was tolerant towards Catholicism, she was most certainly a Protestant. Phillip was very disappointed when, early in Elizabeth’s reign, the Protestant faith was formalised and the Church of England was set-up. Phillip was a strong Roman Catholic, and the Spanish inquisition treated Protestants and other religious groups such as Jews very harshly.More of a short-term cause for Spain’s hostility was Elizabeth’s help for Dutch rebels during the Dutch revolt. The Dutch had converted to Protestantism before Henry VIII introduced it to England. However, the Spanish Netherlands as modern-day Belgium and Holland were then known, was an integral part of the Spanish Empire, ruled directly from Madrid. The Spanish were very oppressive towards the Dutch Protestants and subjected them to the wrath of the inquisition. Starting in 1576, Elizabeth sent money, weapons and soldiers to aid the revolt. In reality, English and Spanish troops had been fighting each other in the Spanish Netherlands for some sixteen years before the deployment of the Armada.By the time that Catholic Mary Queen of Scots was executed in 1587, after becoming embroiled in numerous plots to overthrow Elizabeth, England and Spain were already at war. Although it is unlikely that Phillip ever wanted Mary to be Queen of England, as due to her French ancestry she would have been friendlier with France (Mary’s mother – Mary of Guise was French), he seized the opportunity as another excuse to overthrow Elizabeth. Phillip was angry that Elizabeth had had the nerve to execute a fellow monarch who was also happened to be a Catholic.English piracies against Spanish trade and possessions offered Phillip further provocation, and most particularly damaging were raids by Sir Francis Drake against Spanish commerce in the Caribbean.The role of chance was instrumental in England’s defeat of the Armada. This was recognised by Elizabeth and her Privy Council and used as propaganda to depict God as on the side of Protestant England. By the time the Armada eventually set sail for England in 1588, the man who was planned to command it, Alvaro de Bazan, Marquis de Santa Cruz had died. Therefore, a man who had proved to be an excellent tactician on the land, the Duke of Medina Sidonia (a Spanish aristocrat and fanatical Catholic) was drafted in, despite his own protestations. These reservations are apparent in an extract from a letter written by Medina Sidonia to King Phillip, which I have chosen to quote below.”I wish I possessed the talents and strengths necessary to it, But Sir, I have not the health for the sea. I soon become seasick. It would not be right for a person like myself, possessing no experience of seafaring or war to take charge of it”Against his own fears, however, Medina Sidonia proved to be capable and resolute in combat. It is unlikely that there was anything that he could have done to change the outcome of the invasion attempt.The plan was for the Armada to rendezvous with an army from Flanders in the Spanish Netherlands, commanded by the Duke of Parma and consisting of some 30,000 troops. This was to occur at Calais. Unbeknown to Medina Sidonia, however, this army had been decimated by disease and many of the soldiers were dead. The force certainly was not in a fit state to carry out an invasion and was weeks behind schedule. This is significant as it means that even if the rendezvous had taken place, the army would probably have been defeated if it had landed in England and would not have been able to march on London and seize power. This gave added force to the Protestant belief (and propaganda) that the Armada failed by the will of God.Throughout the entirety of the Armada campaign, the weather was consistently in opposition to the Spanish and in favour of the English. The first few times the Armada tried to reach England, it was driven back by storms in the Bay of Biscay. On one occasion, the fleet was badly damaged by a hurricane, and limped into the port of La Coru�a on Spain’s northern coast for repairs and resupply. These repairs were rushed in order that the Armada could get back to sea, and there were instances of ropes/rigging fraying and timbers cracking because of this. It also meant that some of the Spanish ships were less robust and less able to weather-out storms than they may have been able to otherwise. This may be a reason why so many were wrecked of the coasts of Scotland and Ireland as they made their way back to Spain.By the morning of August 9th, the prevailing westerly winds were driving the Spaniards toward the shoals of the Zeeland banks (on the coast of modern-day Germany). At the last minute, however, the wind shifted and allowed them to shape a safer course to the northward. Both the west wind and the English fleet now prevented the Armada from rejoining Parma, and it was forced to make the passage back to Spain around the northern tip of Scotland, where many of the Armada’s ships were wrecked. The English fleet chased the Spanish past the Scottish border, further than the Firth of Forth – sinking several in the process. Only 60 out of 130 ships are thought to have made it back to Spain, many of them too badly damaged to be repaired. An estimated 15,000 men perished.The English seamanship was certainly of a very high standard. A pre-emptive strike on Cadiz by Drake resulted in the invasion attempt being delayed by 12 – 18 months. Unfortunately for the Spanish, Drake targeted the barrels of provisions being stored at the port. The Spanish were unable to replace these, as wood for coopering must be seasoned for a long period of time before it is used. In the end, the Spaniards were forced to use unseasoned wood, which rotted very easily and resulted in the provisions being spoiled. This doubtless had an extremely negative effect on the morale of the Spanish sailors and made conditions on board ship very difficult.At midnight on August 7th, the English launched eight fire ships before the wind and tide into the Spanish fleet, forcing the Spanish ships to cut or slip their cables (thus losing their anchors) and stand out to sea to avoid catching fire. The Spanish ships’ formation was thus completely broken. At dawn on the 8th the English attacked the disorganised Spanish ships off Gravelines, and a decisive battle ensued The sending of fire ships ‘hell burners’ into Calais (Francis Drake’s idea) was another tactical victory. Although this was an important accomplishment, the story has descended into legend (as happens so often in history), and this has resulted in Drake sometimes being accredited with single-handedly defeating the Spanish Armada. Fire ships were probably the most potent naval weapon of the day. When weighed down with loaded cannon and gunpowder, these ships exploded with the violence of a small nuclear explosion, and were capable of decimating an entire navy if they lay at anchor. Indeed, Drake had used this method against the Spanish before 1588. Understandably they were fearful of it.The English ships were unencumbered by transports, and even their smallest vessels were fast and well armed for their size. Although the Spanish ships were undisputedly very large, the largest ship overall ‘HMS Triumph’ was English. The English cannon/naval gunnery was superior as it had a larger range. This meant that the English could fire on the Spanish before they could fire on them, thus enjoying a major advantage in battle. There is even evidence that the Spanish cannonballs were the incorrect size for the weapons – a terrible blunder considering the importance of the Armada conflict for Spain.In conclusion, it was only due to an unfortunate series events, coupled with superior English tactics that the Armada failed in its aims. The defeat was only narrow and had the Spanish won, then their Empire would have been able to expand unchallenged. We would be speaking Spanish today in England, we would all be Roman Catholics and we would be subservient to a King in Madrid. The whole course of world history would have been changed. The British Empire would never have existed – the English language would probably be dead. Spanish power might still dominate the world today.

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