European History: The Invincible Armada

About the naval battle between the Spanish Armada aka the Invincible Armada and the English fleet in 1588.

ARMADA, 1588

In 1588 Philip II of Spain sent his invincible Armada to force England back into the Catholic fold, since the execution of Mary Queen of Scots had dashed the last hope for a Catholic succession to the English throne. The Armada included 130 ships of war, 8,000 sailors and 20,000 soldiers. Its mission was to coordinate an invasion of England with the Duke of Parma's soldiers in the Netherlands.

England, ruled by Elizabeth I, had collected 180 ships to meet the Armada. The fleet was commanded by famous naval heroes--Drake, Howard, Hawkins, Raleigh, and Frobisher.

Late in July the 2 fleets met in the English Channel in a running series of battles that lasted several days. This action has often been described as a harassment conducted by tiny, skillful English ships against lumbering Spanish giants manned by incompetent sailors. This is untrue. Although the total Spanish tonnage exceeded the English fleet, the English 1st line matched the largest Spanish ships in size. In fact the English Triumph was the largest ship on either side.

Tactics were dictated by the strong points of the 2 opponents. The better constructed, more maneuverable English ships were armed with accurate long-range guns. The Spanish ships were loaded with short-range heavy cannon. The Spanish ships, therefore, formed a tight, defensive crescent formation, hoping to draw the English into grappling range where the Spanish could use their heavy weapons, followed by boarding soldiers. The English line refused to cooperate and pounded the Armada with their long-range guns. Great quantities of shot and powder were expended at 1st by both fleets with minimal effectiveness--the only losses suffered by either side were due to internal accidents. The English gunners constantly missed their targets, yet succeeded in keeping the Spaniards at a safe distance. Finally the English broke the Spanish crescent defense with fire ships and were able to close in on their own terms, sending many of Philip's vessels to the bottom. A changing wind allowed the Spanish remnants to escape to the north, but on the homeward journey, while rounding Scotland, they lost more ships--this time to the weather. The final tally was 51 ships lost, with over 9,000 men. The English lost little more than 100 men.

The defeat of the Armada did not immediately change the balance of power on the seas, but the path was cleared for eventual English control.

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