Outbreak and Invasion

The Anglo-Spanish War broke out in 1585. In August, England joined the Eighty Years’ War on the side of the Dutch Protestant United Provinces, who had declared their independence from Spain. Drake sailed for the West Indies and sacked Santo Domingo, captured Cartagena de Indias, and St. Augustine in Florida. Early in October the English landed in Galicia and sacked Vigo and Baiona.

Philip II planned an invasion of England, but in April 1587 his preparations suffered a setback when Drake burned 37 Spanish ships in harbour at Cádiz. In the same year, the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots on 8 February outraged Catholics in Europe, and her claim on the English throne passed (by her own deed of will) to Philip. On 29 July, he obtained Papal authority to overthrow Elizabeth, who had been excommunicated by Pope Pius V, and place whomever he chose on the throne of England.


Spanish Armada

The Invincible Armada, National Maritime Museum, London
In retaliation for the execution of Mary, Philip vowed to invade England to place a Catholic monarch on its throne. He assembled a fleet of about 130 ships, containing 8,000 soldiers and 18,000 sailors. To finance this endeavour, Pope Sixtus V had permitted Philip to collect crusade taxes. Sixtus had promised a further subsidy to the Spanish should they reach English soil.

On 28 May 1588, the Armada set sail for the Netherlands, where it was to pick up additional troops for the invasion of England. However, the English navy inflicted a defeat on the Armada in the Battle of Gravelines before this could be accomplished, and forced the Armada to sail northward. It sailed around Scotland, where it suffered severe damage and loss of life from stormy weather.

The defeat of the Armada revolutionised naval warfare and provided valuable seafaring experience for English oceanic mariners. While the English were able to persist in their privateering against the Spanish and continue sending troops to assist Philip II’s enemies in the Netherlands and France, these efforts brought few tangible rewards. One of the most important effects of the event was that the Armada’s failure was seen as a “sign” that God supported the Protestant Reformation in England. One of the medals struck to celebrate the English victory bore the Latin inscription Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt (He blew with His winds, and they were scattered.)

English Armada

Sculpture of Maria Pita at Coruna
An “English Armada” under the command of Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norreys was dispatched in 1589 to torch the Spanish Atlantic navy, which was refitting in Santander, Corunna and San Sebastián in northern Spain. It was also intended to capture the incoming Spanish treasure fleet and expel the Spanish from Portugal – ruled by Philip since 1580 – in favour of the Prior of Crato. The English Armada was arguably misconceived and ended overall in failure. Had the expedition succeeded in its objectives, Spain might have been compelled to sue for peace, which would present England with a chance to demand territory from the vast Empire. Some merchant ships were captured at Corunna but when the English force, while waiting for a fair wind, pressed its attack on the citadel, they were repulsed and a number of English ships were captured by Spanish naval forces. Owing to poor organisation and lack of co-ordination with the Portuguese and Spanish reinforcements, the invading force also failed to take Lisbon. Sickness then struck the expedition, and finally a portion of the fleet led by Drake towards the Azores was scattered in a storm. In the end, Elizabeth sustained a severe loss to her treasury.