How the Spanish Armada Was Really Defeated

By Robert Hutchinson

The Spanish Armada campaign of 1588 changed the course of European history. If the Duke of Parma’s 27,000 strong invasion force had safely crossed the narrow seas from Flanders, the survival of Elizabeth I’s government and Protestant England would have looked doubtful indeed. If those battle-hardened Spanish troops had landed, as planned, near Margate on the Kent coast, it is likely that they would have been in the poorly defended streets of London within a week and the queen and her ministers captured or killed. England would have reverted to the Catholic faith and there may have not been a British Empire to come.

It was bad luck, bad tactics and bad weather that defeated the Spanish Armada—not the derring-do displayed on the high seas by Elizabeth’s intrepid sea dogs.

But it was a near run thing.


The Spanish Armada off the English coast, historical painting by Cornelis Claesz. van Wieringen (1620-1625) via Wikimedia Commons.

Because of Elizabeth’s parsimony, driven by an embarrassingly empty exchequer, the English ships were starved of gunpowder and ammunition and so failed to land a killer blow on the ‘Great and Most Fortunate Navy’ during nine days of skirmishing up the English Channel in July–August 1588.

Only six Spanish ships out of the 129 that sailed against England were destroyed as a direct result of naval combat. A minimum of fifty Armada ships (probably as many as sixty-four) were lost through accident or during the Atlantic storms that scattered the fleet en route to England and as it limped, badly battered, back to northern Spain. More than 13,500 sailors and soldiers did not come home— the vast majority victims not of English cannon fire, but of lack of food and water, virulent disease and incompetent organisation.

Thirty years before, when Philip II of Spain had been such an unenthusiastic husband to Mary I, he had observed: “The kingdom of England is and must always remain strong at sea, since upon this the safety of the realm depends.”

Elizabeth knew this full well and gambled that her navy, reinforced by hired armed merchantmen and volunteer ships, could destroy the invasion force at sea. Her warships, she maintained, were the walls of her realm and they became the first, and arguably her last, line of defense. Decades of neglect had rendered most of England’s land defenses almost useless against an experienced and determined enemy. In March 1587, the counties along the English Channel had just six cannon each.

England had no standing army of fully armed and trained soldiers, other than small garrisons in Berwick on the Scottish borders, and in Dover Castle on the Channel coast. Moreover, Elizabeth’s nation was divided by religious dissent—almost half were still Catholic and fears of them rebelling in support of the Spanish haunted her government.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was appointed to command Elizabeth’s armies “in the south parts” to fight not only the invaders but any “rebels and traitors and other offenders and their adherents attempting anything against us, our crown and dignity.” and to “repress and subdue, slay or kill and put to death by all ways and means” any such insurgents “for the conservation of our person and peace.”

Some among Elizabeth’s subjects placed profit ahead of patriotism. In 1587, twelve English merchants—mostly from Bristol—were discovered supplying the Armada “to the hurt of her majesty and undoing of the realm, if not redressed.” Nine cargoes of contraband, valued between £300 and £2,000, were not just provisions but also ammunition, gunpowder, muskets, and ordnance. What happened to these traitors (were they Catholics?) is unknown, but in those edgy times, they would be unlikely to have enjoyed the queen’s mercy.

Elsewhere, Sir John Gilbert, half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh, refused permission for his ships to join Drake’s western squadron and allowed them to sail on their planned voyage in March 1588 in defiance of naval orders.

Unaware that Parma planned to land on the Kent coast, Elizabeth’s military advisers decided on Essex as the most likely spot where the Spanish would storm ashore. The Thames estuary had a wide channel leading straight to the heart of the capital, bordered by mud flats that posed a major obstacle to a vessel of any draught. Therefore, defensive plans included the installation of an iron chain across the river’s fairway at Gravesend in Kent. This boom, supported by 120 ship’s masts (costing £6 each) driven into the riverbed and attached to anchored lighters, was intended to stop enemy ships penetrating upriver to London.

The first flood tide broke the barrier.

Routes of the Spanish Armada
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A detailed survey of potential invasion beaches along the English Channel produced an alarming catalogue of vulnerability. In Dorset alone, eleven bays were listed, with comments such as: “Chideock and Charmouth are two beaches to land boats but it must be very fair weather and the wind northerly.” Swanage Bay could “hold one hundred ships and [the anchorage is able] to land men with two hundred boats and to retire again without danger of low water at any time.”

Lacking time, money and resources, Elizabeth’s government could only defend the most dangerous beaches by ramming wooden stakes into the sand and shingle as boat obstacles, or by digging deep trenches above the high water mark. Mud ramparts were thrown up to protect the few cannon available or troops armed with arquebuses (an early type of musket) or bows and arrows. Fortifications on the strategically-vital Isle of Wight were to be at least four feet high and eight feet thick, with sharpened poles driven into their face and a wide ditch dug in front. But its governor, Sir George Carey had just four guns and gunpowder enough for only one day’s use.

Portsmouth’s freshly-built ramparts protecting its land approaches had been severely criticized by Raleigh and were demolished, much to Elizabeth’s chagrin. New earth walls were built in just four months, bolstered by five stone arrow-head shaped bastions behind a flooded ditch. Yet, more than half Portsmouth’s garrison were rated “by age and impotency by no way serviceable” and the Earl of Sussex escaped unhurt when an old iron gun (supposedly one of his best cannon), blew into smithereens.

The network of warning beacons located throughout southern England since at least the early fourteenth-century was overhauled. The iron fire baskets, mounted atop a tall wooden structure on earth mounds, were set around fifteen miles apart. Kent and Devon had forty-three beacon sites; and there were twenty-four each in Sussex and Hampshire. These were normally manned during the kinder weather of March to October by two “wise, vigilant and discreet” men in twelve-hour shifts. Surprise inspections ensured their diligence, and they were prohibited from having dogs with them, for fear of distraction. Not everyone spent their time scanning the horizon for enemy ships: two watchers at Stanway beacon in Essex preferred catching partridges in a cornfield and were hauled up in court.

A census in 1588 revealed only one hundred experienced “martial men” were available for military service and, as some had fought in Henry VIII’s French and Scottish wars of forty years before, these old sweats were considered hors d’ combat. Infantry and cavalry were drawn from the trained bands and county militia. One thousand unpaid veterans from the English army in the Netherlands were hurriedly recalled but they soon deserted to hide in the tenements of Kent’s Cinque Ports.

Militia officers were noblemen and gentry whose motivation was not only defence of their country, but protection of their own property too. Many living near the coast believed it more prudent to move their households inland than stay and fight on the beaches but were ordered to return “on pain of her majesty’s indignation, besides forfeiture of [their] lands and goods.”

The main army was divided into two groups. The first, under Leicester, with 27,000 infantry and 2,418 cavalry, would engage the enemy once he had landed in force. The second and larger formation, commanded by the queen’s cousin, Lord Hunsdon, totalled 28,900 infantry and 4,400 cavalry. They were recruited solely to defend the sacred person of Elizabeth herself, who probably planned to remain in London, with Windsor Castle as a handy bolt hole if the capital fell.

Despite strenuous efforts to buy weapons in Germany and arquebuses from Holland, many militiamen were armed only with bows and arrows. A large proportion was unarmed and untrained.

To avoid the dangers of fifth-columnist recusants in the militia ranks, every man had to swear an oath of loyalty to Elizabeth in front of their muster-masters.

The county of Hampshire eventually raised 9,088 men but “many… [were] very poorly furnished; some lack a head-piece [helmet], some a sword, some one thing or other that is evil, unfit or unseemly about him.”

The Spanish Armada portrait of Elizabeth I
The Spanish Armada portrait of Elizabeth I, painted in 1588 to commemorate their defeat, via Wikimedia Commons.

Discipline was also problematic: the commander of the 3,159-strong Dorset militia (1,800 totally untrained) firmly believed they would “sooner kill one another than annoy the enemy.”

When the Armada eventually cleared Cornwall, some of the Cornish militia, ordered to reinforce neighboring counties, thought they had done more than enough to serve Queen and country. Their minds were on the harvest and these reluctant soldiers decided to slink away from their commanders and their colors.

The Spanish were now someone else’s problem.


ROBERT HUTCHINSON has a doctorate in archaeology and spent his career as a journalist and publishing director before becoming a critically-acclaimed Tudor historian whose books have been translated into nine languages. His latest book is The Spanish Armada.

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