History for the Rest of Us

The Spanish Armada 1588 – ‘Invincible Fleet’?

The Spanish Armada 1588 – ‘Invincible Fleet’?

May 28, 2012

On May 28, 1588 the Spanish Armada with 151 ships, 8,000 sailors and 18,000 soldiers set sail from Lisbon Portugal. Under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a rich and successful general who had no experience at sea, the Armada sailed for the English Channel. Since the Spanish Armada was also known as the ‘Invincible Fleet’ perhaps the assumption was that no experience was necessary.

The fleet’s intention was to overthrow Elizabeth I of England. This would help stop privateering in the Atlantic and Pacific, bring Catholic rule to England, and end English involvement in the Spanish Netherlands.

Duke of Medina Sidonia

Duke of Medina Sidonia, Commander of the Spanish Armada

Fire Ships
As planned, the Spanish Armada stopped in Flanders to add additional troops. While awaiting the troops, the English sent eight fire ships into the congested Spanish ranks. The fire ships themselves didn’t cause any material damage to the Spanish fleet, but they still were a resounding success. The fire ships caused the Spanish Armada to break formation which made it extremely vulnerable. One of the major strengths of the Armada had been the crescent formation it used while sailing. Many ships sailed straight into the gunfire of English ships to escape the blaze.

Forced Northward
After a fierce battle, the Spanish were forced northward. The wind assisted, blowing the Armada out of the range of the English, and causing Medina Sidonia to remark that the Armada was “saved by the weather, by God’s mercy…”. The English didn’t pursue, convinced that the Spanish ships were so badly damaged they would sink before reaching a safe port. With the Channel blocked by the English, the Armada would have to sail around the east coast of England, around Scotland, and along the western Irish coast to return to Spain.

Additional Challenges
Spanish supplies weren’t adequate for the lengthy voyage that lay ahead and the sailors would suffer because of it. Fresh water quickly disappeared, and with food supplies running out, sailors were forced to eat rope for survival. The Armada would hit one of the worst storms in Scotland’s history which damaged many ships. Hoping they might get help from the Irish, they landed south of Galway, at a location which is now known as Armada Bay. To the disappointment of the Spanish, the Irish saw them not as fellow Catholics, with a common Protestant enemy, but as an invading army. Those that went ashore were attacked and killed. As the Armada continued its return to Spain, many were killed by disease.

Arrival in Spain
Only 65 of the 151 ships that originally sailed in the Spanish Armada from Lisbon returned to Spain. Over 20,000 Spanish sailors and soldiers had lost their lives. Many in Spain blamed the Duke of Medina Sidonia for the defeat, but King Phillip II would blame the failure on the weather. He said “I sent you out to war with men, not with the wind and the waves.” The English would agree, at least in part, inscribing a victory medal with the words “God blew and they were scattered.” Keys to the English victory over the Spanish Armada also included their faster more maneuverable ships, and most importantly breakdown of the protective crescent shape of the Armada caused by the fire ships while the Armada waited for troops in Flanders.