Invincible Armada: How Was the Spanish Armada Defeated by England?

The Armada cost 4 million ducats, equivalent to half a year’s royal income, more than a hundred times the cost of Elizabeth’s defense.

England and Spain were allies rather than enemies for much of their history. Queen Mary, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII, cemented this alliance by marrying King Felipe II of Spain in 1554 (a childless marriage). When Mary’s Protestant sister Elizabeth succeeded her as queen of England in 1558, the old alliance began to break down. Elizabeth began to nurture English power and with it Protestantism, which Philip considered heresy.

When the Dutch rebelled against Spanish rule in 1566, Elizabeth encouraged them; when the rebel leader Prince William began to support Protestant pirate ships (known as “Sea Beggars” or Geuzen) to harass Spanish ships, English ports gave them shelter and English citizens joined them.

In 1567, John Hawkins, an English pirate, challenged the Spanish monopoly by selling African slaves in America. The following year he and his young lieutenant Francis Drake were expelled from New Spain (Mexico).

When Felipe ascended the Portuguese throne and united Spain and Portugal in 1580, rumors began to circulate in Europe about the threat of invasion. But it took time for Felipe to devote himself to his “divine mission”, which he defined as reclaiming the rights of his dead wife and reviving the Catholic faith in England. In 1586 he ordered the preparation of the Invincible Armada; it was to be fought.

Why did the Armada fail?

When Felipe II began to plan his invasion, he had only a few guides to follow. Until then, there had been no major clashes between fleets of sailing ships. A few boats were enough to protect treasure-laden ships from the New World. Spain never had a permanent navy until 1580 when it joined Portugal. An invasion by sea on this scale and distance was never planned by anyone, anywhere (except Spain).

Unfortunately, Felipe’s plan to use his navy to transport his army was a flawed idea. The main Spanish warship, the galleon, was essentially a floating fortress. Galleons were heavy and cumbersome ships. Victory depended on catching enemy ships with hooks and boarding them. The British had a completely different approach. They had a long-established navy, and a well-functioning maritime administration system, and had recently built better ships.

In 1573, John Hawkins, a former privateer who had recently made the Treasurer of the Navy Admiral changed the naval design by abandoning the bowsprit and building slimmer and faster ships. British warfare techniques were also different. British victory depended on sailors, not soldiers, defensive evasion and broadside fire from a safe distance.

The logistics of the Armada were also difficult, requiring 2.5 million gallons (11 1/4 million liters) of wine and water, 1000 tons of salted meat and similar quantities of rice, chickpeas, and beans. By the time the last supplies arrived, the previous ones were usually exhausted, the crews were sick and the ships had to be repaired.

Even for a king with resources like those of Felipe, the costs were extremely high. The Armada cost 4 million ducats, equivalent to half a year’s royal income, more than a hundred times the cost of Elizabeth’s defense. These difficulties and costs led to the final mistake: The assumption that the fleet and the army in the Netherlands could be united. In the end, this was not achieved, and in retrospect, the venture was doomed to fail from the start.

Invincible Armada’s defeat against the English

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The 120 ships that made up the Spanish Armada fleet were anchored off Calais. The English fleet was less than two miles away. It was the most nerve-wracking moment since the Spanish invasion force had been sighted off the coast of England just over a week earlier at the end of July 1588.

The British knew that the Spanish were in desperate need of rest, food, ammunition, and men. If they stayed where they were, the French could lend support to their struggle and they could take advantage of the weakening of the Spanish army that had occupied the Netherlands. Refreshed and strengthened, thus, they could easily reach the shores of England. The British admiral, Charles Howard, Baron of Effingham, knew he had to drive the Spanish away. For Howard, the world had never seen a fleet like the Spanish Armada.

However, the Baron’s solution was devastating: Flaming fireships filled with oil, tar, and explosives, with cannons loaded with shells that ignited when heated and burst into flames. Floating on the water, with a favorable current and wind, those floating bombs approached just after midnight, crackling with flames and their cannons firing random salvos. Panic-stricken Spaniards cut their anchors and the ships were damaged by crashing into each other as they fled in panic. At dawn, the Spanish fleet came into view and the disorder was prevailed and the fleet was vulnerable to attack. The British made their move.

King Felipe II of Spain, the creator of the Invincible Armada (La Armada Invencible), wanted to consolidate his position in Europe and the world. Spain recently united with Portugal, had estates in the Netherlands and Italy, and colonies across the Atlantic rich in gold. Felipe’s income was ten times that of Queen Elizabeth’s. But the Netherlands had rebelled against the Spanish, the English were supporting the rebels, and Englishmen like Sir Francis Drake, or El Draque (The Dragon) as the Spanish called him, who pirated with government permission, were plundering Spanish treasures in the New World.

At El Escorial, his palace near Madrid, Felipe sifted through many plans. The final decision was to move half the army to the English Channel, to be supported by the troops of the Duke of Parma, Felipe’s commander in the Netherlands, and to mount a joint land and sea campaign to carry the combined army by ship to England and victory.

Francis Drake’s confidence

The scenes behind the Queen depict the Armada.
The scenes behind the Queen depict the Armada.

In late April 1588, an invading fleet of 130 ships, more than 3,000 guns, 8,000 sailors, and 19,000 soldiers left Lisbon. It took Spanish Armada three months just to reach the English Channel. Storms drove the fleet into the port of Coruna in northern Spain. Ships fell apart, food rotted, and soldiers fell ill. The British, however, prepared as best they could. On Friday, July 29, a small scout ship arrived in Plymouth to report the long-awaited contact, while messengers on fast horses delivered the news to London within hours.

Drake was playing a game of ball at Plymouth Hoe when he received the news and knowing the sea currents well, he was reported to have said this, “There is time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards too”. When the tides turned, about 60 English ships sailed from Plymouth.

“If you fail, you fail; but the cause being the cause of God, you will not fail.”

Felipe II to Medina Sidonia

Medina Sidonia, the Spanish commander, had hoped the British would stay windward. But with a southerly wind, they appeared directly behind them on Sunday morning. In an extraordinary display of naval discipline, the remaining 120 Spanish boats slowly turned and formed an impenetrable half-moon. For nearly a week the two powers tried to outmaneuver each other. The Spanish ship San Salvador was blown up. Rosario’s bollard broke and fell victim to Drake who seized the opportunity. But the Armada held together, ready to meet the Duke of Parma.

Parma’s incompetence

Meanwhile, reserve forces from ports on the south coast joined British Howard’s fleet. Gunpowder and shells began to arrive from the coast at a time when the Spanish were running low on ammunition, food, and water. Late on Saturday, the Spanish Armada anchored off Calais, from where Medina Sidonia sent pleading letters to the Duke of Parma in Dunkirk, 30 miles away. But the Duke of Parma had no warships to put his men to sea, and barges were easy targets. He couldn’t even send reinforcements.

It was the English fireships tactic that sealed the fate of the Invincible Armada. No Spanish ships were burned down, but as dawn broke on Monday the Spanish ships were already seen scattering to the northeast. By the time the few Spanish ships that remained calm had gathered together, Drake’s Revenge had lined up a line of ships all of which had begun broadside firing. The other Spanish boats gradually gathered to form a final half-moon until each was out of ammunition.

Only then did the British get close enough to destroy the thick Spanish ship’s buttresses. One ship sank with its crew of 275 men. Again and again, the Spanish tried to catch the British ships with their broadside hooks to get their men on board. Each time the British changed course. Three Spanish ships ran aground and the others drifted with their masts broken. 600 Spaniards were killed and 800 were disabled. In contrast, the British ships were all operational and only 100 men were lost. Meanwhile, the rest of the Spanish fleet drifted north to an unknown fate.

In what conditions did the sailors live?

Elizabeth's beheading of her Catholic cousin and heiress Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 deepened Philip II's hostility towards England.
Elizabeth’s beheading of her Catholic cousin and heiress Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 deepened Philip II’s hostility towards England.

The scale of the Invincible Armada alone posed unique problems. All Europeans had a centuries-old tradition of seafaring, but it went no further than short voyages from port to port. To fulfill Felipe’s orders, thousands of sailors were crammed into tiny cabins for three months before the fleet even reached the English Channel. In midsummer, the food on the ships spoiled in a matter of days. The water stored in wooden barrels also developed a muddy layer of dirt. People living in crowds in damp conditions easily became ill.

The British had a crucial advantage: Because they fought from their home ports, they never had to board the ships for months. Even so, the disease was difficult to deal with. The British lost about 100 men during their attack against the Armada. But they had also lost about 3,000 people who died of food poisoning before reaching the harbor. Fewer people died in the battle from cannonballs and musket fire than from splinters of shattered ship wood.

At the Battle of Gravelines, when a Spanish ship turned on its side while changing direction, the British saw blood pouring from the deck holes.

How did the Spanish escape?


For four days, English ships pursued the northbound Armada for four days as it sailed around the British Isles, aiming to return home. Off the coast of Scotland, they turned back because the food was running low and the Spanish were no longer a threat. The Spanish continued on their way to the final destruction.

Their supplies were running low as well. Horses and mules were thrown into the sea to save water. The daily ration was reduced to 250 grams (8.8 ounces) of bread, half a liter of water, and half a liter of wine. Typhus was rampant. Ships were wrecked, their timbers splintered and the equipment badly damaged by cannon fire.

Only half of the Spanish Armada ships reached their ports with sick or dying men. Three out of every four people who set sail with the Spanish Armada died in battle or from wounds or diseases sustained during the battles.

The main consequences of the war

The defeat of the Spanish Armada was a sign that the balance of power in Europe was shifting from the Catholic south to the Protestant north. It also symbolized the transformation of Europe from a Europe of small dynastic states to a Europe of nations.

Protestantism in England was finally secured. Soon after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, England and Scotland were united by the Protestant King James I. The defeat of the Armada was also an experience for England that confirmed the benefits and advantages of a strong maritime policy and politics and the tradition of sea travel. Within 20 years, a great new empire began to take shape across the Atlantic.

Spain’s dominance in Europe up to that time was now coming to an end. The Dutch, supported by the English, was recognized as a nation by a treaty of truce that came into force in 1609. This nation would later establish its own empire in the East Indies, competing with its former masters.


August 20, 1585: Signature of the Treaty of Nonsuch

After Spanish troops took over Europe’s biggest port city, Antwerp, on August 20, 1585, England, which was at war with Spain, tried to get the rebels of the Netherlands to fight against its dominance. The Queen of England agreed to send a few hundred horsemen and foot soldiers to help the rebels. In response, Spain sent an army of ships called a “Armada” to attack Great Britain with the goal of taking it over.

April 19, 1587: Francis Drake destroys the Spanish fleet at Cadiz

In April 1587, when some English troops were gathering in Antwerp and the Queen of England decided to help the Dutch rebels, Spain got ready to invade the country with its powerful fleet, which was called the Armada. At the same time, Francis Drake, who had heard about the danger, led his first mission against Philip II of Spain and, on April 19, set fire to 37 Spanish ships in the port of Cadiz. This attack started up the Anglo-Spanish War again, and it didn’t end until the Treaty of London in 1604.

August 8, 1588: The defeat of the Invincible Armada

Off Gravelines, the 190 ships of the English fleet beat the 130 ships of the Spanish fleet (near Calais). The Spanish Armada was defeated by a storm and the better strategy of the English. So, Philip II of Spain fails in his plan to invade England and overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and bring back Catholicism. Lord Burghley, an advisor to the queen of England, will give the Spanish fleet the name “Invincible Armada” after the battle to make fun of them.

April 15, 1589: Departure of the Drake-Norreys Expedition

During the Anglo-Spanish War, Admiral Francis Drake and General John Norreys led the Drake-Norreys Expedition. Their goal was to fight against the Spanish Armada. This trip was called the Counter-Armada. Elizabeth I of England claimed the land after the English won the battle of Gravelines. However, the campaign failed because the Spanish navy was stronger. Spain could count on Portugal’s help, but the Queen of England wouldn’t help the English troops that were already in the area. Because of this, 13,000 people died.

By Hrothsige Frithowulf

Hrothsige works at Malevus as a history writer. His areas of historical interest include the ancient world and early Europe, as well as the history of modern culture.