The Spanish Armada
Queen Elizabeth I
The Armada Portrait
The defeat of the Spanish Armada is one of the most famous events in English history. It was arguably Queen Elizabeth's finest hour. For years she had been hailed as the English Deborah, the saviour of the English people, and now it seemed that this is what she had really become. She was now Bellona, the goddess of war, and in triumph she had led her people to glory, defeating the greatest power in the 16th century world.
Spain was the most powerful country in the world. Philip II ruled vast territories of land, and had unparalleled wealth from the New World. England was a small country, with little wealth, few friends, and many enemies. If Queen Elizabeth ever felt nervous about challenging the greatest power in the known world, she never showed it, and appeared to believe completely in the devotion and loyalty of her people. By believing in them, they believed in her.
Although relations between Spain and England had began rather well, with Philip even proposing marriage to the English Queen, over the 30 years since the Queen's accession, relations had deteriorated. There were many reasons for this. To begin with, England was a Protestant country, and Spain was a Roman Catholic one. The Spanish made no secret of their hostility to the English Queen, who they believed was illegitimate and had no right to the English throne, and had been involved in plots to dethrone her. Elizabeth herself had encouraged the activities of the English pirates, who plundered Philip's ships as they made their way from the New World, seizing their treasures. This had angered Philip immensely, especially as the stolen treasure was used to help fund those people rebelling against his rule in the Netherlands.
As early as 1585, Philip had begun to prepare a great fleet that, under the Spanish commander Santa Cruz, would invade England. At first the aim of the Armada was to liberate the captive Queen of Scots, but when Mary was executed for conspiring Elizabeth's death in 1587, Philip planned to invade England in the name of his daughter, the Infanta Isabella. Philip believed he had a genuine claim to the English throne, both by descent from John of Gaunt, and as Queen Mary I's husband. The purpose of the mission was to depose Elizabeth, put Mary/Isabella on the throne, and make England Roman Catholic once again.
It was perhaps an omen, however, that from the start, the Spanish faced problems. Santa Cruz died, and his successor, the Duke of Medina Sedonia, was not at all suited to the post. He had little faith in the enterprise and little experience. He begged Philip to release him from the charge, but the King was adamant. The enterprise had received another set back when Francis Drake and his men had sailed to the coast of Spain and destroyed many of the Spanish ships at Cadiz.
Queen Elizabeth had heard mutterings of the intended invasion of England by Spain for some time. She was not, however, at first concerned about the rumours. She had heard such rumours for almost 30 years, and easily dismissed them. Her Councillors were not so dismissive. It eventually became clear to Elizabeth, however, that this time, the Spanish were really going to send a fleet against England. Although the Queen had spent considerable amounts of money funding the Netherlands campaign, she now employed all her efforts in raising funds to ensure that when the Spanish fleet came, England would be prepared.
Despite numerous setbacks the Spanish had received, they were determined to set a fleet against England, and in the May of 1588 at last the great fleet set out.
The plans of the Spanish were meticulous. It was planned that the Spanish fleet, consisting of over 100 ships, would sail up from Spain along the English Channel and meet with the forces of the Duke of Parma, Philip's nephew, making their way from the Netherlands. Together they would sail towards England. It was believed that this force would overwhelm the English. The English would be conquered, and the heretical Queen would be captured.
But the English were waiting. On the cliffs of England and Wales, men watched the seas day and night, waiting for the first sighting of the great Armada. When at last the great ships appeared on the horizon, beacons were lit on the hillsides, which sent the message over the cliffs and throughout the country, that the Spanish were coming. The beacons sent the message quicker than any horseman could ever ride, and by morning, London and the Queen knew that the day of reckoning had come. As soon as the ships began to make their way up the channel, the fighting began.