King Philip II of Spain regarded himself as the principal defender of the Catholic faith in 16th-century Europe. Provoked by England’s support, under Protestant Queen Elizabeth, for the Dutch independence struggle against their Spanish overlords, and also by English looting raids on his treasure galleons arriving World, Philip began in 1586 to make plans for an invasion – the so-called ‘Enterprise of England’ – as much to protect his dominions as to restore Catholic rule to England. Persisting a the advice of his senior commanders, who always doubted that such an invasion could succeed, the Spanish monarch’s resolve was strengthened the following year when Elizabeth executed her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, and Francis Drake brazenly attacked the Spanish fleet at Cadiz.
After numerous delays, the enormous Armada fleet, comprising 122 ships and some 30,000 men, set sail from Lisbon in July 1588. It made its stately way up the English Channel, largely unaffected by the harrying sorties of the smaller English fleet. At the heart of the Spanish plan was a rendezvous off the coast north of Calais with the Duke of Parma’s invasion army from Flanders; the ships were to ferry the army across the Channel. It was always an ambitious undertaking and it failed thanks to unfavorable winds and the havoc wrought when Drake sent fire ships into the moored Spanish fleet.
Even now the Armada remained a formidable force, but following an inconclusive naval engagement and with supplies running low, the Spanish commander decided to escape into the North Sea and return home by sailing around the British Isles. The weather sealed the Armada’s fate. Buffeted by savage storms off the Scottish and Irish coasts, one-third of the Spanish ships foundered on the return voyage and at least 21 were destroyed altogether.
When: July to September 1588
Where: The seas around the British Isles
Death toll: An estimated 20,000 Spaniards perished in the Armada, it was said that there was no noble family in Spain that had not lost a son.
You should know: There is no reliable evidence to support the famous story of Drake’s insouciance when told the Armada had been sighted in the English Channel. Playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe, he is supposed to have reacted by insisting on finishing his game.