Fire Ships Attack the Spanish Armada

Fire Ships Attack the Spanish Armada

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The True Story Of The Spanish Armada

The sun never set on the British Empire goes the saying, but the Empire nearly ended before its dawn when the Spanish king assembled a massive fleet to invade England and depose her queen.

England's Queen Elizabeth I is known today as one of the most important figures of her age. Daughter of the legendary Henry VIII, Elizabeth faced sexism, challengers to the throne, and one of the greatest invasion fleets England has ever faced. Spain's King Philip II was one of history's richest men, facilitating the greatest transfer of wealth between nations ever as Spanish treasure galleons returned from the New World.

The Spanish Armada is often the story of the underdog English, saved from certain destruction by gusty providence. The true story of the Spanish Armada — as with any event from centuries past where thousands of people die — is far more complicated than you may think.

Spanish Armada defeated

Off the coast of Gravelines, France, Spain’s so-called “Invincible Armada” is defeated by an English naval force under the command of Lord Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake. After eight hours of furious fighting, a change in wind direction prompted the Spanish to break off from the battle and retreat toward the North Sea. Its hopes of invasion crushed, the remnants of the Spanish Armada began a long and difficult journey back to Spain.

In the late 1580s, English raids against Spanish commerce and Queen Elizabeth I’s support of the Dutch rebels in the Spanish Netherlands led King Philip II of Spain to plan the conquest of England. Pope Sixtus V gave his blessing to what was called “The Enterprise of England,” which he hoped would bring the Protestant isle back into the fold of Rome. A giant Spanish invasion fleet was completed by 1587, but Sir Francis Drake’s daring raid on the Armada’s supplies in the port of Cadiz delayed the Armada’s departure until May 1588.

On May 19, the Invincible Armada set sail from Lisbon on a mission to secure control of the English Channel and transport a Spanish army to the British isle from Flanders. The fleet was under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia and consisted of 130 ships carrying 2,500 guns, 8,000 seamen, and almost 20,000 soldiers. The Spanish ships were slower and less well armed than their English counterparts, but they planned to force boarding actions if the English offered battle, and the superior Spanish infantry would undoubtedly prevail. Delayed by storms that temporarily forced it back to Spain, the Armada did not reach the southern coast of England until July 19. By that time, the British were ready.

On July 21, the English navy began bombarding the seven-mile-long line of Spanish ships from a safe distance, taking full advantage of their long-range heavy guns. The Spanish Armada continued to advance during the next few days, but its ranks were thinned by the English assault. On July 27, the Armada anchored in exposed position off Calais, France, and the Spanish army prepared to embark from Flanders. Without control of the Channel, however, their passage to England would be impossible.

Just after midnight on July 29, the English sent eight burning ships into the crowded harbor at Calais. The panicked Spanish ships were forced to cut their anchors and sail out to sea to avoid catching fire. The disorganized fleet, completely out of formation, was attacked by the English off Gravelines at dawn. In a decisive battle, the superior English guns won the day, and the devastated Armada was forced to retreat north to Scotland. The English navy pursued the Spanish as far as Scotland and then turned back for want of supplies.

Battered by storms and suffering from a dire lack of supplies, the Armada sailed on a hard journey back to Spain around Scotland and Ireland. Some of the damaged ships foundered in the sea while others were driven onto the coast of Ireland and wrecked. By the time the last of the surviving fleet reached Spain in October, half of the original Armada was lost and some 15,000 men had perished.

Queen Elizabeth’s decisive defeat of the Invincible Armada made England a world-class power and introduced effective long-range weapons into naval warfare for the first time, ending the era of boarding and close-quarter fighting.

History of the Spanish Armada

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 is often regarded as proof of England’s naval superiority during Elizabethan times, boosting the legend of Elizabeth herself along with her stirring speech at Tilbury docks a few years afterwards, and giving great heart to the Protestant causes across the continent of Europe. Sir Francis Drake and his reluctance to leave a game of bowls unfinished at Plymouth Hoe have helped cement the legend for generations of school children.

The Spanish Armada and English ships in August 1588 – Unknown artist

The reality, as so often, was not quite like that however, it is just as fascinating.

By 1587 the English, with the help of, through Spanish eyes, ‘pirates’ such as Sir Francis Drake, were causing considerable damage to Spain’s trade in silver from the Americas many ships had either been sunk or captured. In addition, what were then the Spanish Netherlands were causing the Spanish many problems, especially with the development of Protestant independence seekers, whom the English were giving considerable assistance.

When Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed under Elizabeth’s orders, the Spanish king Felipe II (Philip II), who had been married to Mary I of England and had later even tried to marry Elizabeth, decided Spain could take no more and should attack and invade.

The Spanish Armada was thus conceived. It was, however, beset by problems even before it left Spain.

For example, in 1587, Drake famously ‘singed the king of Spain’s beard’ when, in an audacious and brilliant attack, he sank between 20 and 30 Spanish ships in Cádiz harbour. Not only were ships destroyed, though many supplies destined for the armada were lost including, crucially, thousands of barrels. The replacement barrels subsequently used for the armada were made of new wood, which was still damp, which rotted and ruined the food and soured the water on board the ships, with catastrophic consequences.

The highly experienced Spanish admiral, Álvaro de Bazán Santa Cruz, had died in 1586 to be replaced by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a rich and successful general who, unfortunately, had never been to sea before and suffered from constant sea sickness. It was he who led the fleet of 22 Spanish Royal Navy warships and 108 converted merchant vessels on the mission to attack England. From the very start, the bad weather forced one galleon and four galleys to abandon the armada and return home.

Luck appeared, for once in this tale, to favour the Spaniards when they arrived at Plymouth with the English fleet trapped in the harbour by the incoming tide – that was why Drake would have found it pointless leaving his bowls. Medina Sidonia, though, ignored the advice given by his experienced admirals to ride into the harbour on the tide and incapacitate the English fleet there and then. A decision that was to prove more than a little costly.

The English fleet was commanded by Lord Howard of Effingham, a man astute enough to realise that experienced sailors such as Drake, Sir John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher should be allowed to make the key decisions and, after tacking upwind of the Spanish to gain a significant tactical advantage, the English were able to constantly snipe away at the Spanish in a series of minor skirmishes. Two Spanish ships were captured in this way, enabling the English to take enormous supplies of gunpowder to their own fleet.

The most decisive encounter took place off the small Flemish port of Gravelines, where Medina Sidonia was attempting to reform his fleet. The superior manoeuvrability of the English ships and the use of ‘Hell Burners’ – eight old ships used as floating bombs set off to drift into the Spanish fleet, caused panic far beyond the impact achieved just by destroying a single vessel – and meant that five ships were lost completely and many more very badly damaged. The Spanish plan to join up with the land forces of the Duke of Parma and then invade south east England was abandoned and the ships were forced up the North Sea coast.

The Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c.1588. Attributed to George Gower (c.1546-1596).

It was now that nature decided to really turn cruel towards the Spanish. The ships, many severely damaged and held together by cables, limped around Scotland and Ireland into the North Atlantic. Food and water were desperately short and the cavalry horses had long since been thrown overboard. Unprecedented Atlantic storms battered the damaged ships and, because so many of them had cut their anchor lines to escape the fire ships, they were unable to secure shelter in bays and were driven onto the rocks. Many more sailors and ships were lost than in the previous combat an estimated 5,000 men. The English belief that God was on their side in this Protestant success was embodied by the wording on the commemorative medals that were specially struck: He blew His winds, and they were scattered.

What was left of the Grande y Felicísima Armada- the Great and Most Fortunate Navy – 67 ships and a quarter of the men, returned to Lisbon but many of the survivors were later to die in Spain or on hospital ships in Spanish harbours as a result of diseases they had contacted on their journey.

Felipe sent another, smaller, armada the following year, but that met heavy storms south of Cornwall and was blown back to Spain. The navy then underwent significant reforms which meant that it was able to dominate European seas again, even after the seemingly irreversible damage inflicted in 1588.

The English fleet

The English fleet was under the command of Charles Howard, 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham he was no more experienced an admiral than Medina-Sidonia but was a more effective leader. His second in command was Sir Francis Drake. The English fleet at one time or another included nearly 200 ships, but during most of the subsequent fighting in the English Channel it numbered less than 100 ships, and at its largest it was about the same size as the Spanish fleet. No more than 40 or so were warships of the first rank, but the English ships were unencumbered by transports, and even their smallest vessels were fast and well armed for their size. The English placed great reliance on artillery their ships carried few soldiers but had many more and heavier guns than the Spanish ships. With these guns, mounted in faster and handier ships, they planned to stand off and bombard the Spanish ships at long range.


First actions

In July 1588, the English admirals Lord Howard of Effingham and Francis Drake planned to attack the massive Armada in the English Channel, but they faced inland winds and were forced to wait, bowling as they awaited better weather. The Spanish had the opportunity to attack the English fleet at Plymouth harbor, but King Philip had ordered the Spanish fleet not to engage the English unless it was absolutely necessary the Armada instead sailed on to Calais as planned. On 20 July, the English sailed out of Plymouth Sound to attack the Spanish fleet, splitting their forces. The two squadrons of the 55-strong English fleet zig-zagged with the wind to attack the 120-strong Spanish fleet (with 350 soldiers on each ship), which had formed a prearranged, crescent-shaped battle formation. The English launched a ferocious two-pronged attack on the Armada, with Drake commanding an 11-strong squadron from Revenge and Howard leading the bulk of the fleet from Ark Royal. Because the Spanish would have the advantage in close-quarter fighting, the more maneuverable English ships kept beyond grappling range and bombarded the Spanish ships from a distance. The Spanish ships Rosario and San Salvador had to be abandoned after colliding, and, at nightfall, Drake had the ships looted, stealing gunpowder and gold.

On 23 July, the two fleets met again off Portland, and the Armada decided to retreat to Calais as Martin Frobisher and Drake attacked them. On 27 July, the Armada anchored off Calais, where Parma's army, reduced by disease to 16,000, was expected to be waiting. However, Parma was forced to wait for six days as he prepared his army to move again, and Medina Sidonia's fleet was blockaded by a fleet of 30 Dutch flyboats under Justinus van Nassau. The Spanish had no deep-water port in which they could find shelter, and they did not divert any of their vital ships to fight off the Dutch blockade, leaving themselves vulnerable. At midnight on 28 July, the English set alight eight fireships and sent them into the Spanish fleet. The Spanish destroyed two of them, but the remainder surged into the Spanish fleet, forcing them to cut their cables and break their crescent formation. No Spanish ships were burnt, but their formation was broken and one ship was grounded, leaving them in a state of confusion.

Battle of Gravelines

The fire attack at Gravelines

On 7 August, Drake and Howard planned their main attack on the Spanish Armada off Gravelines. The next morning, following a fireship attack the night before, Howard and his ships looted the Spanish ship which had run aground, costing them valuable time. Drake decided to lead the rest of the fleet to attack the Spanish fleet, and Medina Sidonia held back the English fleet for an hour, giving the rest of the Armada time to reform. However, Howard returned with his fleet and joined in the attack. 50 Spanish ships formed their own defensive crescent, and Drake sailed on to attack it. Drake had his ships sail into the Spanish formation, and the ships were so close that the musketeers from both sides could fire at each other. The English were able to hit the Armada with several shots, doing terrible damage to their ships and crews. The Spanish suffered heavy casualties at close range they had intended to board the English ships rather than fire on them, and they used very little of their ammunition as the English ships pounded them. After eight hours of intense fighting, the English fleet ran low on ammunition at 4:00 PM, the English pulled back. The Spanish had lost 600 sailors and many hundreds more badly wounded, and 1 Spanish ship was sunk, 2 driven ashore, and the rest severely damaged. The wind then blew the Spanish towards the treacherous sound banks of Flanders, where San Lorenzo ran aground at Calais and was taken by the English after fighting Don Hugo de Moncada's crew San Mateo and San Felipe ran aground on Walcheren a day later and were plundered by the Dutch.

North Sea disaster

The Spanish fleet was blown away into the North Sea, saving it from destruction, but diverting it from the troops in Flanders. Drake and Howard celebrated their victory, while Queen Elizabeth I of England addressed the troops at Tilbury and promised to fight to the death if the Spanish came to land on English soil. However, this was not to be, as the Spanish fleet had sailed up the English coast, harried along the way by English ships. As the Channel was blocked off, the Armada decided to circle around Scotland and Ireland and retreat back to Spain. By the time the fleet arrived in Ireland, many soldiers were dying of thirst and hunger, as they had run out of supplies. Many of the surviving ships were caught in fierce storms off the west coast of Ireland, and dozens of Spanish ships were wrecked and 5,000 drowned or robbed and butchered by Irish locals or English soldiers when they reached the shore. Only the Spanish nobles were spared, kept prisoner for ransom. Medina Sidonia came close to dying of dysentery, while his second-in-command died of shame only days after arriving home. The Armada returned with only 67 ships and 10,000 soldiers in a national tragedy for the Spanish. The English soldiers fared little better, however, as typhus spread fast aboard the English vessels many English troops were left on their ships so that they would not have to be paid. Large numbers of English sailors died of disease or hunger, and, of the few who did survive, some died even after landing at Margate. Lord Howard paid his soldiers as best he could with his silver, but, by 1589, only half of the Royal Navy sailors had survived. The defeat of the Armada had become a turning point in the Anglo-Spanish War, becoming a naval legend England remained a Protestant state for centuries, and England would eventually surpass Spain as one of Europe's main powers.

Fire Ships Attack the Spanish Armada - History

What you are about to read was decreed a Secret by the queen
and strangely it was kept a secret! Events were significantly
different than you were told in history class. Genius is what Sir Francis Drake
used to break the Spanish Armada. If either a modern day captain (or a creative writer)
came up with these kinds of plans it would awe mankind.
I can't take responsibility for his brilliant ides though. You won't find
much of this information anywhere else.

The Fire Ships weren't fire ships, they were IED's.

At least some of them were IED's. However, it is recorded in history that no English and no Spanish sailors in the Spanish Armada were killed.

The name 'fire ship' is a misnomer. A few of them were filled with about 500 pounds of gunpowder each so they were IED's or improvised explosive devices. They were boat bombs.

Notice how the ship in the center of the etching is exploding, not burning. Notice that men are being blown into the air. This etching found here However, as the records show nobody was killed on either side. This painting is your proof that somethings were not as you were taught. It was also at night and moonless.

The whole intent was to make it appear as though the Spanish were running away from nothing so the existence of gunpowder had been kept secret (even to this day). They almost ran away from nothing because none of the ships filled with explosive were ever used. Drake was only going to use them after about 12 English ships were sent against the Spanish but they all ran away after only the 8th English ship was set afire. He invented a kind of one sided 'Russian Roulette' using fire ships instead of a revolver.

You can see a 'fire ship' exploding in this engraving.

Over 1000 Spanish had been killed by an 'exploding' fire ship several years earlier when it blew up near Antwerp.* So this was not a new form of warfare at all and fire ships were not simply a ship that was set on fire.

This is what the Spanish expected each of the English fire ships to do.

Only two of the English ships were loaded with gunpowder. However the Spanish did not know which ones they were. The y could not know which one's would explode in their face and which ones would just burn up if they simply pushed them off with oars. The Spanish did not want any of those burning ships anywhere near them. **

Had there not been the threat of an IED doing to half of the Spanish ships what al Qaeda did to the side of the USS Cole then the English never would have been able to scatter the Spanish.

Literally two dozen men with oars can fend off a slow moving fire ship weighing about 50 tons. However, the Spanish were afraid the English ships would explode and did not want to get near them.

There were several Englishmen on each of those fire ships for a number of reasons including to pilot them and to keep away Spanish boarders in rowboats.

What happened to those Englishmen?

At first it was thought they were killed in the fire or lost at sea because only one Englishman was captured and none came back to England. That is why several of the paintings (and the above engraving) shows many Englishmen being killed.

So what happened to the Englishmen that were on those fire ships?

They all simply swam to shore, except for the one man who got captured, where they were met by 400 single French women who got scantily clad when they gave the Englishmen their clothes so they would not catch cold. Then they got to arguing over who got to hide the Englishmen from the Spanish and which women got to show their appreciation for saving them from the Spanish.

So to be fair they finally decided to share the men and the men got to chose which one of the 400 scantily clad French women they first wanted to be hidden and thanked by. These women had been raped and their possessions plundered for supplies by the Spanish who had been anchored there so their appreciation was very real.

These men were all hidden away in beds in France being thanked by marvellous French women for weeks and they had absolutely no desire to go back to England. Some of them had been destitute men and they all had volunteered because they didn't have much going for them in England. The English didn't care about them as people or they would not have let them go to an almost certain death. There was not a single aristocrat among them. They did their job and were assumed to be dead and so they just stayed hidden in the beds of single French women as the glorious etchings were made of them being killed in exploding ships.

The French women did not want them to leave either. My last girlfriend was a French model and for an entire two and a half years it was theoretically possible for me to leave but it was impossible since if a French woman wants you to stay then you will stay. It was just one long pleasure cruise so watch out if she wants you to stay because you probably won't have the will power or want to leave any more than I did.

Each of the thirty men had a line of women wanting to thank them and convince them to stay (and to hopefully marry them). The single women were not the only ones. Young or old, man or woman the residents of Calias all wanted these young men, who had saved them from the Spanish, to stay in Calias. Frenchmen love it when Englishmen are willing to die for them. They write songs about them. In fact the Frenchmen wanted them so much that they made two of them mayors (or aldermen) and they offered each of the many men a free tavern if they would stay. (English taverns were money makers and of course you had to have English men and those with strong moral bearings to run them.) About a dozen opened up along the coast on the French side of the channel.

The English authorities, having thought dozens of these young men were certainly dead or captured gave them all the most wonderful posthumous awards ceremony on the coast. It was very nice, I went to it. I recall that they even commissioned some nice engravings and paintings to honor their sacrifices. One etching of course is the one I keep referring to at the top of this page.

Then there were the individual funeral services of which I attended three. These were expensive for their parents so often a friend went to Calais and tried to bring them back. (The sailors knew the men were in Calias but they never told on them.)

One man's appearance at his own funeral was not a celebration. Like so many others his relatives did not want the man in the first place (that is why he had volunteered). Now the man was going to ruin their relatives dramatic funeral and that was unforgivable. So everyone got upset at him. They said they were upset at him for causing them so much distress. That was BS so the man turned around and went back to France. This time he stayed.

Many of these men stayed in France. (This part I could not figure out how to get into a play. I so badly wanted to because it speaks so clearly of something few address and that is the general abuse and parental betrayal of these brave men.)

When the British found out that their men were in bed with French women they were also upset. The queen was shocked at first, then livid. Initially she wanted them all brought back in irons. The one wise admiral or general became horrified at the suggestion and asked 'What for?' but she had no idea or even a clue herself of how her jealousy was beginning to take over her life and had even started to destroy the empire itself. Then after an hour she laughed and thought the whole thing was funny.

There was little that the Admiralty could do since the men had followed their orders and were now in France. The men had been told only to wait until right before they crashed into the Spanish ships to light the fires or explosives and then dive overboard and swim to shore (if they could). It was just assumed they would all perish either in the explosion, by sniper fire or by torture when they were captured so they were never told what to do after that.

Technically they were still following orders as a sailors duty was to stay with his ship in emergencies and most of the ships were still in the bay, even though they were burned down to the waterline and sunk.

Many of the Englishmen decided to stay with a French woman and not go back to English women and that was the real reason it was a scandal and nobody knew how to handle it. So the queen finally said 'there were never any men on those ships'.

That decreed 'truth' hid the biggest English Scandal in over 100 years and so this is what you read about in your history books.

It appears that the queen managed to get all the paintings in England changed since I can't find any with ships exploding. The paintings were simple to change but engravings were impossible to change and still do a good job at it so they left me the one black and white engraving (at teh top of this page) to use as my evidence. Now you know why I appreciate a good engraving.

If it wasn't for this one engraving then you would probably think that I was making this all this up, wouldn't you? After all without this one engraving it sounds either impossible or like it was the ultimate male fantasy. Well it does sound like it, doesn't it? Man saves England and is taken to bed endlessly by beautiful grateful women.

*Since writing this page I have found numerous short references to the fire ships having been loaded with gunpowder including this one::..the great fleet was now forced to anchor off Calais. The Spanish knew that the Italian engineer, Giambelli, had made fireships laden with explosives for the English. These "Hell burners" were the most fearful weapons for a fleet at anchor. The Spanish began to prepare..Here. This is proof that not only did the English have gunpowder filled ships but there is the name of the Italian engineer that made the exploding ships for the English! Well you know that they did not send those ships in without pilots at least part of the way and I see no mention of their names anywhere. They were without question the heroes of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. 100% bonified personifications of the type of man the crown always honors either alive or posthumously. unless those men are shacked up in Calais with the local French women getting thanked. See more about 'Giambelli' below. He was the man who made the IED that killed over 1000 Spanish at Antwerp.

The Spanish were afraid of fireships from experiences they had with the Dutch rebels called the Sea Beggars. I managed to find this drawing that shows what the Sea Beggars called fire ships from the Bibloteque National Paris. Several years before the Spanish Armada sailed against England one of these ships were set off at Antwerp and destroyed a bridge on the Scheldt River as well as killed over 1000 Spanish soldiers. England were their friends so the information certainly got back to the English Admiralty and perhaps was what inspired the English to hire Giambelli..

GIAMBELLI (or GIANIBELLI), FEDERIGO, Italian military engineer, was born at Mantua about the middle of the I6th century. Having had some experience as a military engineer in Italy, he went to Spain to offer his services to Philip II. His proposals were, however, lukewarmly received, and as he could obtain from the king no immediate employment, he took up his residence at Antwerp, where he soon gained considerable reputation for his knowledge in various departments of science. He is said to have vowed to be revenged for his rebuff at the Spanish court and when Antwerp was besieged by the duke of Parma in 1584, he put himself in communication with Queen Elizabeth, who, having satisfied herself of his abilities, engaged him to aid by his counsels in its defence. His plans for provisioning the town were rejected by the senate, but they agreed to a modification of his scheme for destroying the famous bridge which closed the entrance to the town from the side of the sea, by the conversion of two ships of 60 and 70 tons into infernal machines. One of these exploded, and, besides destroying more than 1000 soldiers, effected a breach in the structure of more than 200 ft. in width, by which, but for the hesitation of Admiral Jacobzoon, the town might at once have been relieved. After the surrender of Antwerp Giambelli went to England, where he was engaged for some time in fortifying the river Thames and when the Spanish Armada was attacked by fireships in the Calais roads, the panic which ensued was Yery largely due to the conviction among the Spaniards that the fireships were infernal machines constructed by Giambelli. He is said to have died in London, but the year of his death is unknown.

See Motleys History of the United Netherlands, vols. i. and ii. Encyclopedia Briticannica 1911

** Details of the attack. The Armada ships were sweetly lined up in rows. Each of the fire ships had a big lit lamp up in the riggings. There must have been a strict rules against taking oil lamps aloft in the Spanish Navy because all the Spanish really reacted to it as if it were an offense punishable by whipping. So Drake hung lamps from the riggings on three foot ropes so the lamps would swing about madly and to make sure they did he had strings attached to them so the men down below could pull on them. That made the lamps look 'as if they were about to fall at any second' and set off the bomb which would then blow up everyone.

Drake sent the fire ships one at a time and quite a few yards apart along the best ships of the Spanish line (and it was the longest of the lines). He delayed each ship progressively so it took a bit more time with each fire ship and that made it become the most exquisite torture. (That was also Sir Francis Drakes idea. He loved to torment the Spanish. In 'The Tempest' I made him Ariel who liked to torment the monster Caliban (the Spanish King) into delivering firewood for Prospero (Queen Elizabeth).)

Every time a fire ship went down that line it was like a panther walking near a herd of cornered antelope, walking along trying to decide which one to make his victim. The fire ships passed as close as 15 feet from the line of Spanish ships. The Spanish could not even fire on them because they did not know which ones were loaded with gunpowder. At 15 feet it might explode and kill them too.

The English fire ships would go by at least 20 Spanish ships and up to 40 Spanish ships before they turned and tried to ram the ships. Then the Englishmen lit their ships on fire and dove into the water so they could swim to shore which was not far away. That way the Spanish could only push the fire ships back and forth in the hopes they would blow up on their 'neighbors property'. Drake was a genius.

With each fire ship that passed down the Spanish line the Spaniards optimism fell a bit until after only four ships it was completely gone. The English had another 38 fire ships and they were all lined up with a lamp high on each one. The ships in the back had two lamps up high and far apart so it looked liked there were at least 40-50 fire ships! Need I say more. The Spanish broke and ran. Only 8 English ships were ever set a fire. And yes some of the ships were loaded with gunpowder but none of them got set afire. Drake thought the Spanish would never leave after only about 8 ships were set afire so he was holding back those with the explosives. Drake was a genius and so was most of the admiralty.

It was a order of the Queen to 'get those Spanish out of Calais immediately'.

Spain rented a lot of those ships from other countries. That was very important to our winning. They had to take 'a half crew' with them when they rented the ships. The rented ships were supposed to just transport Spanish troops across the channel afterthe beach was secured by men from Spanish war ships that were to have gone earlier.

It was a cheap rental since the Spanish told them it was completely safe for their ships and the brave Spanish Armada would protect them at all cost from the English pirates even if one got past the Spanish defense. So can you guess what Drake did?

Ever loan your car to a friend and have this happen?

The rentals became the number one targets of the English and the Spanish actually put them in front of their own ships. And the Spanish didn't have any insurance on those rentals. Hundreds of claims were filed against the Spanish.

For years afterwards the rented ships that got away were considered fair game for the English. Whenever the English saw one of them on the open sea they would board it and take whatever they wanted. Often everything.

This all happened very close to the shore at Calais and all except one person got to shore safely.

Before they had sailed the English Captains were told by the Admiralty to ask for volunteers to sail the fire ships into the Spanish command ships and then light the fires and/or gunpowder at the last seconds. There were two to seven men on each of the fire ships. The only requirement was that they could swim a good distance.

It was considered a suicide mission and only single men with nothing to live for were accepted. So about 35 men who were willing to give their lives piloted those ships to what was considered almost certain death. However, no Englishmen died. Also, there were no Spanish ships even sunk during that attack so you know that those men in the engraving that are being blown into the air were never killed.

What happened was that the Spanish were so frightened because of the prospect that the English ships might blow up that they completely forgot about the Englishmen and only one English sailor got caught.

The Mega-Bomb That Nearly Vaporized the Spanish Navy

This bomb likely produced the loudest man-made sound in human history, at the time.

Here's What You Need To Remember: To begin with, think of a hellburner as a really big and exceptionally dangerous fire ship.

Some of the largest non-nuclear explosions on record — in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1917, Port Chicago, California in 1944 and Texas City, Texas in 1947 — involved huge accidental blasts at harbors and aboard ships.

But what if a similar explosion occurred by intent rather than accident? A really powerful bomb, as big as a ship, could change history.

A bomb disguised as a shipping container — mixed in with the great volume of traffic and cargo passing through a major seaport — makes for a scenario that keeps U.S. Homeland Security officials awake at night. An entire ship converted into a floating bomb makes for nightmare fuel.

The really scary part? It wouldn’t be unprecedented.

Hundreds of years before the Manhattan Project, an Italian weapons expert in the pay of the English government created the 16th century equivalent of a tactical nuclear weapon. After Federigo Giambelli’s offer of services to the Spanish court received a lukewarm reception, he moved to Antwerp and settled down.

In 1584, Dutch separatists began a bloody 80-year-long war of independence from the Spanish Empire that England was only too happy to encourage. The Duke of Parma besieged the rebel city Antwerp with all the might of a superpower. Imperial troops lashed together ships to make an 800-foot-long wooden bridge barricading the Scheldt river.

Antwerp would have starved, but Giambelli determined otherwise. As he prepared the city’s defenses, he offered his talents to Queen Elizabeth I and came to the attention of her spymaster and private secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham.

To break the siege of Antwerp, Giambelli needed to destroy Spain’s wooden ship-barrier. His genius combined two newer technologies — clockwork and gunpowder — with a vessel into a terrifying new weapon.

Huge Bomb, High Tech:

To begin with, think of a hellburner as a really big and exceptionally dangerous fire ship. Since ancient times, combustible wooden vessels feared the fire ship like no other weapon. Fire ships — worked by skeleton crews, set aflame like giant torches and set adrift upon wind and tide — could burn entire fleets and waterfronts.

But the hellburners were more than that.

The city fathers of Antwerp gave Giambelli some 32 vessels to work with. Thirty of them became conventional fire ships. The final two became the biggest bombs Europe had ever seen to that point.

Within the holds of the ships Fortyn (“Fortune”) and Hoop (“Hope”) Giambelli built giant, massive bunkers — forty feet long with brick floors and walls one to five feet thick. After filling them with two and a half tons of the finest gunpowder Holland could make, Giambelli’s workers roofed the structures with rows of recycled tombstones.

On top of that, they packed millstones and scrap around around the bunkers, decked over the giant bomb and disguised the vessels as “regular” fire ships.

The Fortyn used a conventional chemical trigger and timer — a slow-match which burned at a steady rate. The other hellburner, the Hoop, introduced a quantum leap in technology. An Antwerp clockmaker named Bory created a mechanical timer which triggered a wheelock firing mechanism. The Hoopbecame the first known pre-programmed and remotely-triggered weapon of mass destruction.

On the night of April 4, 1584, the Antwerp separatists released their fire ships into the Scheldt’s current. The Spanish troops showed little concern for the vessels approaching their positions. As the burning ships drifted onto the riverbanks and bumped into the great barricade, soldiers fended them away with pikes.

The Fortyn ran aground short of the barricade and failed to explode completely. Mistaking it for merely a noisy, unsuccessful fire ship, the Spanish forces jeered the Dutch attack. But the Hoop collided with the barrier near where it connected to the shore. Soldiers, not knowing the danger inside, boarded the vessel to put out its fires.

Then the clockwork reached its set time … and triggered the wheelock firing device. Boom.

The gigantic explosion instantly vaporized a quarter of the barricade and nearly 1,000 Spanish troops. Timber, shrapnel, rocks and body parts rained down for miles, the river surged out of its banks and the noise woke people 50 miles away. It was likely the loudest man-made bang in history up to that time.

Tactically, the hellburners had limited effect. The Dutch were so stunned by the explosion they failed to capitalize on the Spaniards’ disarray. Within months the Spanish Empire rebuilt the great wooden barricade and stepped up its siege. Antwerp fell the following year in 1585.

Incinerated in One Blow:

Strategically, though, the hellburners changed history. Giambelli escaped to Britain, likely with the help of English forces fighting with the Dutch. In a letter to Sir Francis Walsingham, English army Col. Henry Norreys extolled Giambelli and his art:

As I know you esteem men of rare gifts, I pray you to afford him your favour and to despatch him hither again if you so think good, as we may have occasion to use his service in these parts.

It’s unknown whether Walsingham and Giambelli ever met. Three years later in 1588, as Giambelli worked on a wooden barricade to defend the Thames, Walsingham received reports of a second Dutch floating bomb that destroyed ships at dock in Dunkirk. The knowledge that Europe’s master weaponeer now worked for Elizabeth unsettled the Spanish military.

The year 1588 saw Spain mount the greatest naval assault against England in history. An armada of galleons under the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, with 20,000 troops and cavalry aboard, sailed up the English Channel to meet up with the Duke of Parma’s armies in the Low Countries. The armada would escort the imperial troops across the Channel and reinforce the invasion of England.

On the night of Aug. 7, 1588, as the armada sheltered at Calais, the English launched eight fire ships into the anchorage. This time the Spanish were anything but blasé. Ships and crews swiftly cut anchor cables and hoisted sail to avoid the incoming pyres.

The vast fleet scattered and never really regrouped. The rattled armada, now shorn of anchors and tackle, failed to bring its might to bear on the English attackers. The fleet never connected with the Duke of Parma’s invasion force and wound up returning home the long way around the British Isles. Spain’s invasion of Britain never happened, with all the failure’s consequences for history.

Why did a mere eight burning ships disrupt a huge invasion? Simple — a hellburner might have incinerated Spain’s naval might in one blow. Though Giambelli apparently never built another hellburner for the British or anyone else, the knowledge that he could, and was in England, bent the arc of history.

Although the hellburner captivated 16th century military imagination, it never saw widespread use. One hellburner used as much gunpowder as an entire army or a fleet, all in order to strike one hellacious blow. Few opportunities justified such tremendous costs.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoing here several years ago.

Fire Ships Attack the Spanish Armada - History

Jordan Clark Brereton

In the late 1500’s the Spanish empire was starting to become the world’s largest super power. They began to dominate every land around the Caribbean, all the way down to North and South America. They even had the largest concentration of naval power ever assembled. Many European countries were very afraid of Spain’s constant growth and wealth. With this growth and power many countries were intimidated by Spain and even claimed that Spain was cruel to other European natives, especially those from England. Spain during the 16 th century was a dominating new world power expanding territories all over the globe. They conquered territories in Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean, and even into the Philippines. With this large expansion of empire King Philip II had his eyes set on Europe, and especially England. Spain was Catholic and wanted a Catholic World. Philip was a man driven by religious obsession, he was trying to extend the Catholic Church and standing in his way was Protestant England.

In the early 1500’s Spain and England had a very good relationship from the beginning, which begs the question, what were the reasons for the Spanish Armada? “Why did Spain want to over throw Queen Elizabeth of England? Also, if Spain was such a strong and vast empire, “Why did the Spanish Armada fail so miserably? The reasons to be proven in this paper are that the Spanish were overly confident and under prepared. There were also many bad discussions made on King Philip II’s part when it came to preparing an attack on England.

In the beginning Spain and England had there quarrels but for the most part they were very cordial and friendly with each other on a political level. They also had a common enemy, France. With this common enemy they remained natural allies. [1] However this would soon change when the English started seeing the Anglo-Spanish as an “undesirable” race, and sought out for the best interests of their sovereigns, in this cause Queen Elizabeth I. [2]

Philip II was married to Mary I, Elizabeth’s half-sister, and during that time England was Catholic. This gave Philip II control of all of England, and easy access for his Spanish ships to travel to the Spanish Netherlands. With the control of the English channels now, Philip could station and supply his troops when he wanted. [3] However in 1558 Mary I Queen of England died, and Queen Elizabeth I took the throne. Philip II still wanted ties to England, so he proposed to Elizabeth I. However, things didn’t go how Philip had imagined them. Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII, and their family was from a strictly Protestant family. Elizabeth I didn’t respond to Philips proposal. This upset Philip greatly because he believed that Elizabeth was not even a legitimate heir to the throne, and that Mary Queen of Scots, the great catholic granddaughter of Henry VII should have been Queen. [4]

The fact that Philip II had no direct connection to the throne of England now made him worried for his potential control of England. To make matters worse, King Philip II of Spain had defeated Dom Antonio, the King of Portugal for the throne. Antonio fled to England, and when he arrived, Queen Elizabeth received him with open arms, giving him all the supplies, military and financial support that he needed. Philip was furious over this decision of hers. This had now jeopardized the friendship between both countries. This also made Philip mad because now there is a potential threat of Spain’s security and impedance of Spanish domination of Europe. [5]

Then just a year after Antonio finding refuge with Queen Elizabeth, there was another man that was a thorn in Philips side, namely Sir Frances Drake. Drake was a sea Captain and privateer in the Elizabethan period. Drake went about attacking Spanish shipping off of the West Indies. Spain had lost many ships to these attacks which were carrying large amounts of silver by Drakes pirates. To the English Drake was considered to be a valiant hero, but to the Spanish he was nothing but a pirate. These raids were also done under the awareness of Queen Elizabeth I. Not only did she condone the raids, but she had Knighted Sir Francis Drake for his loyalty and bravery on behalf of England. The Spanish could not accept this, which made them even more enraged. [6] These raids continued to persist on, even to the harassment of the ships aiding Spain’s Dutch rebels in the Spanish Netherlands by boarding and raiding their ships as well. [7] Sir Frances Drake began to be a real problem for Spain as his personal vendetta against the Spanish empire grew to be an ongoing course of aggression.

In July 1581, Philip ran into even more problems. There began to be more tension rising in the Low Countries (The Dutch). The States General of the Dutch Low countries had enough of the control and taxation that Philip was imposing on them and decided to declare a declaration of independence called the Act of Abjuration. As an added insult, Queen Elizabeth I started courting The Duke of Anjou, who was offered sovereignty by the Dutch, and who also was conspiring against Spanish troops in Flanders. [8]

This was a major problem for Philip now because not only did Elizabeth I start courting Anjou, but she supported him financially by giving him “thirty thousand pounds,” in which he decided to besiege and capture the City of Cambrai, which he successfully did. [9] If there had not been enough problems already for Philip II, what would follow next would throw Philip over the edge. In 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots, who was supposedly to be the true heir to the throne of England, was accused of threatening the life of Queen Elizabeth, so Elizabeth had her executed for it. [10]

To top it all off, Philip II had got news that Queen Elizabeth signed a treaty with the Dutch, and that Sir Frances Drake would sailed to the Indies attacking Spanish territories such as Vigo and Bayona on his way. He also robbed places such as San Cristobal and capturing Santo Domingo in the Caribbean. His rampage didn’t stop there either. He also took Cartagena and burned down St. Augustine for fun. This was the breaking point of King Philip II he could not handle the fact of losing his vast Catholic empire or seeing more Catholics be killed, so he decided to take matters into his own hands.

The first time that anything was said about a possible retaliation against England was in December of 1581. There began to be talk amongst friends and allies to raise an army to fight against England, but nothing was official. At this time though Philip had done nothing to prepare such an armada against England, but after all that had conspired against him it was definitely something that he was considering. [11] King Philip II’s intension was to keep any potential talk about attacking England quiet, however the King had a big mouth when it came to gossip, this was his first mistake. There were already others that were conspiring against England such as the Scottish Catholics. Word of hostility towards England spread fast, and by 1583 talk about a possible invasion by a “Spanish Armada” on England was airborne. [12] The problem with talk about a possible invasion gave the English a red flag and was made aware of Spain’s potential invasion. Talk went on for years about the possible threat of invasion, but nothing had happened. However in 1586, England started to take the treat of an invasion more seriously. Queen Elizabeth began to send out many secret agents or spy’s to investigate whether or not the Spanish were making these preparations to invade. Elizabeth had a hunch that this invasion was to happen to Scotland and not necessarily on England. Either way the Queen was not at all worried yet that the Spanish were to invade either country. [13] While King Philip II at first rejected his naval officer, Santa Cruz’s idea to move against England for catholic liberation, however in the end he thought it be better that “the war be fought than avoided.” [14] In the eyes of King Philip II, Spain was God’s country, and it was by God’s design that they conquer England. With this great religious mission that Philip was bound for, he needed a strong military commander to lead his forces into battle against England. This man was Santa Cruz. [15]

Santa Cruz was a very intelligent commander, and had great ideas and plans on how to orchestrate this vast armada that the Spanish was planning. It was Santa Cruz’s idea to gather one hundred and fifty ships together including all their battleships that were available, heavily armed merchantmen, forty large freight-liners, and an additional three hundred and twenty auxiliary craft. This was a total of five hundred and ten ships, with and estimated thirty thousand mariners, and sixty four thousand soldiers. This is what Santa Cruz estimated it would take if Philip wanted to take England. However, with King Philips bad track record of debt and bankruptcies, this was nearly impossible for him to afford. So because of the Kings inability to control politics and his finances, this had cause delays in the planning of the armada, and gave Santa Cruz no time to act. [16] On top of these financial problems Philip had, it made matters worse when Sir Francis Drake attacked the harbor of Cadiz in 1587, which destroyed and damaged a number of ships that were being prepared for the armada. [17]

Now Santa Cruz was a very independent man and had experience in military matters. He knew what needed to be done to accomplish a successful naval mission. However Philip would get offended by Santa Cruz at times, then Philip would blame Santa Cruz for the delays and failures, when in reality it was just bad judgment calls from Philip. In the end though, Santa Cruz was about sixty two years old and was not in the best of health. He died in Lisbon in 1588, some say it was because of old age, others that it may have been by the order of the King. [18] To replace him, Philip already had someone in mind, a rich nobleman by the name of Medina Sedonia. This Medina character was chosen mainly because of his wealth and statues. He was a most unlikely candidate for the job. Medina Sidonia was a landsman, “with no previous experience of war afloat.” This means that Medina had no naval war experience, and had no idea on how to command a naval force of thousands of men on how to fight on the sea. This was a bad decision on Philip’s part. [19] It has been said that maybe it was an “Omen” that from the beginning the Spanish Armada faced problems, and Santa Cruz dying was one thing, and Making someone else in charge that was less suited for the job, Duke of Medina Sidonia was another. [20] This General Medina Sidonia not only had never been aboard a ship, it was said that he would also get seasick. Why King Philip would ever select a man like this to lead the largest naval fleet of all time is unfathomable. [21] The only reason the Medina Sidonia even got the position of being commander was that he outranked everyone in nobility and he a highly elevated social status that no one could compete with. This social status was a very important thing to Spaniard, however this decision may have cost them Spanish lives in the end. [22]

With this so called bureaucratic commander now in charge, there was still much to be learned and prepared for before embarking on this naval voyage. This had caused many delays and the Spanish Armada took longer to set sail. This gave England an even better advantage and time to prepare to defend against an attack. Even though nothing had taken place yet for several months, the English spy’s still had no word as to when a Spanish Armada may embark. [23] This didn’t stop the English however from keeping a constant eye on the English Channel.

It seemed as though King Philip II had a very hard time making decisions, and good ones at that. He was also unwilling to have anyone make a decision for him. The King in his earlier years seemed to be a man of cautiousness, tentative, and slow to act. But then leading up to the Armada he became very impulsive, stubborn, and irrational. Philip had been so focused on his religious endeavors of creating a Catholic world that he started to place his war preparations on faith in God. He believed that God would prepare a way for him to accomplish his work. [24]

The Armada at this point had delayed long enough. Regardless of all the mayor setbacks, Philip II was compelled to set sail to the English Channel and flex to England Spanish muscle. With the Spanish Armadas one hundred and thirty ships, the armada’s plan was to sail Flanders to meet up with the Duke of Parma, who was Philip’s nephew. Then they would sail together to England, which they believed England would be overwhelmed by their forces, and eventually capture heretical Queen. [25] What the Spanish failed to understand was that, first, there was no secret that the English had no idea about the Spanish Armada, which they did. Second England not only had Spy’s round about, but watchman on the cliffs of England and wales. Thirdly, how did they expect to sail one-hundred and thirty ships passed England, travel through the narrow pass of England and France to Flanders and not be seen by anyone?

As the Spanish Armada set sail through the English Channel, the sailed in a crescent formation, almost a half moon shape, and were traveling very close together.

With the English constantly watching their coasts, the second the Spanish Armada came barreling through the English channel they were spotted and beacons were lit all along the coast sending a message throughout the country. [26] This had caused Drake and his forces to prepare to set sail against the armada. However, that day the tide from the river Tamar was blowing northeast towards them in Plymouth, so they were unable to get their ships out of Davenport. So they decided to wait the tide out and finish a game of bowls. [27] This would have been the most opportune moment to strike at the English ships while they were venerable and stuck in Plymouth harbor, it might have even won them a victory, but Philip II told his forces to not attempt to strike unless absolutely necessary. Plus Philip more focused on meeting up with his other forces in Flanders that he didn’t seize the opportunity. Yet another crucial decision that Philip made, that may have cost him the war, if he would have taken that opportunity.

The tide eventually had turned, and the English ships headed out of Plymouth to face the enemy. Since the tide was still against them, the English had to tack into the wind and sail against it, they had a technique to split up, drakes groups went along the coast while the other part of the group sailed out to sea. Their technique was to sail around the Spanish ships and get behind them. They had smaller ships and fewer men, so they would sail swiftly around the Spanish enemy and beat them into submission with their guns. [28]

These two forces traveled in different formations and had different fighting techniques. The Spanish used a crescent formation that was tight together which made it hard to maneuver. The English however used a technique called line stern formation, which meant they followed each other one after the other allowing the commander to lead the way. Spain would use grappling hooks to latch onto the other ships and draw the ships together to board them. The English would keep a distance from the Spanish and try to attack them with their guns. The English seemed to have better formation, but neither of the fighting techniques worked from either side. The Spanish were too far away from the English for them to use their grappling hooks. The English were too far from the Spanish to hit them with their guns. The English ships were more advanced, smaller, and more maneuverable. While the Spanish ships were built very top heavy, out of the water, and very cumbersome. However, the Spanish Armada was still unscathed, intact, and more vast than ever.

More bad news came for the Spanish though, they had still not heard anything from their troops in Flanders, and whether or not they were ready to help fight against England. After the first failed attempt to attach the armada, the English regrouped and got the wind to pick up in their favor behind the armada. Drake ordered his forces to break off into four groups to give his forces maximum freedom to fight independently. Drake took his group south and the other from the North, and the other two groups remaining aimed for the center to attack. Drake had distracted the Spanish commander at a critical moment in the battle, and instead of turning into the sheltered waters of the Solent, now the Spanish looked to be heading toward the most fearsome waters of the English Channel and English sand banks which forced the Spanish to turn back towards the open sea. However the Spanish still headed toward flounders to meet up with Parma’s Army without the knowledge of their help or readiness. [29]

The Spanish Armada then found itself in a predicament. There was no place in the Low Countries were the ships could find shelter, so they were in open waters and the night fell. Then at midnight of July 28, with the Spanish formation still strong and numerous, Drake decided to attack the armada with a weapon that struck fear into every Spanish sailor on a wooden ship, “FIRE.” English sailors put together eight full-sized ships for sacrifice they loaded these ships with barrels of tar, gunpowder, and loaded two cannon balls in each canon so that when the flames reached the powder they would explode at random. That night there was a full moon which meant the tide would run strong. That night the English pushing these fire-breathing ships right in the middle of the closely-anchored Spanish Armada’s fleet. [30]

The Spanish started to sound the alarm. The Spanish were so fearful that they started turning into each other crashing ships together, sailors abandoning their ships. Even though only one Spanish ship even caught fire, that was all it took, and it was enough fear to scatter the Spanish formation by morning putting the armada into complete disarray. Eventually the English ships were amongst the armada firing back and forth this was the Battle of Gravelines. It was a complete massacre of the Spanish Armada. The English with their faster ships and extreme fire power caused extreme damage to many Spanish ships and caused many casualties.

In Conclusion, we can see that the Spanish Armada was more of an attempt to prove that Spain was a powerful country and that it was going to attempt to rule England, but the Spanish Rule Philip II got to impatient and greedy with his power to conquer, thus being overly confident with his ability to conquer, the unpreparedness, and the lack of naval preparation and coordination. Not to mention his lack in the ability to choose the right commander for the job. The Spanish not only underestimated England’s naval power, but also overestimated Spanish naval abilities to fight.

In 1588, King Philip II of Spain sent an armada (a fleet of ships) to collect his army from the Netherlands, where they were fighting, and take them to invade England. This was done in the name of religion, because England had become Protestant and no longer accepted the Pope as the head of the Church Spain was Catholic and the Pope had encouraged Philip to try to make England become Catholic again. He also had a political reason to go to war with England because Spain ruled the Netherlands, but the people there were rebelling against Spanish control and England had been helping them.

The English were worried about the threat of invasion and they attacked the Spanish ships as they sailed along the Channel, but the Armada was so strong that most of the ships reached Calais safely.

The Armada was difficult to attack because it sailed in a ‘crescent’ shape. While the Armada tried to get in touch with the Spanish army, the English ships attacked fiercely. However, an important reason why the English were able to defeat the Armada was that the wind blew the Spanish ships northwards. To many English people this proved that God wanted them to win and there were pictures and medals made to celebrate this fact.


1. This is an extract from a letter to the English government which gives details about the progress of the Armada.

  • How useful do you think this information would be to the English government?
  • Why were there more soldiers than sailors?

2. This is a report from Lord Howard of Effingham, the Admiral of the English fleet.

  • How do you think the news that the Spanish Armada had been sighted was able to reach Lord Howard so quickly when he was at Plymouth, over a hundred miles away?
  • Why do you think Howard complained to Walsingham about the wind?
  • Howard says that the Spanish fleet was ‘soe strong’. What made it strong?

3. The dates mentioned in this account are based on an old calendar which is slightly different from the one we use now. These events took place at the end of July and first week of August according to our calendar.

  • According to Hawkins, what was the main problem for the English fleet in the battle near Portland?
  • Why was the ‘fyring of ships’ a turning point in the fighting?
  • Does Hawkins think that the English have a chance to beat the Spanish Armada?
  • What is causing the biggest problem to the Spanish ships?
  • Does Hawkins seem confident that the Spanish have been defeated?
  • Why did the English chase the Spanish as they sailed towards Scotland?

4. An extract from a Spanish captain’s account of the events. He had survived after being shipwrecked on the Irish coast and was then interrogated by the English, but eventually returned home to Spain.

  • The Spanish Armada fought the English fleet for two days without losing any ships. What happened next that changed this?
  • Why was it a good thing that the Spanish plans were stopped?
  • If you could change one thing to give the Spanish a better chance of winning what would it be and why?
  • The English celebrated their victory with a medal saying ‘God Blew and they were Scattered’ – how would the Spanish have explained their defeat?

5. As this was an invasion in the name of religion, it was felt that any unexpected event was a sign from God study the points below and decide which ones show God helped the English and which ones show other reasons for English success.

  • Santa Cruz, the Spanish admiral who was to lead the Armada, died and the man who took over, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, had very little experience
  • The Armada set sail on 28 May but bad weather forced the ships to go back into port for repairs
  • The Armada kept a very strong crescent shaped formation which protected the smaller ships as they sailed up the Channel and the English were unable to make a proper attack
  • The Armada was supposed to sail up the channel to the Netherlands and collect the Duke of Parma with an army to invade England. However, the Spanish army was attacked and could not get to the ships in time
  • The weather was very bad during the Battle of Gravelines and the storms got worse as the Spanish sailed towards the North Sea
  • The English were constantly complaining that they were short of gunpowder, cannon balls, food etc.
  • Bad weather continued as the Spanish ships sailed up around the coast of Scotland and down the coast of Ireland on their way home, so that only half the Armada actually got back to Spain

6. Explain in a short paragraph why many people thought that God had helped the English defeat the Spanish Armada.


When Mary I died in 1558, England and Spain were allies in a war against France. As the war ended, Philip II of Spain wanted to stay on good terms with the new queen, Elizabeth I, and even suggested that they marry but Elizabeth politely refused. However, Elizabeth also wanted to stay friends with Spain because there was an alliance between Scotland and France – a situation which was very dangerous for her. Until Elizabeth married and had children, the next in line for the throne was her relative, Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scotland. Many Catholics believed Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn had not been not lawful, which meant Elizabeth should not be queen at all and Mary, Queen of Scots, should take over immediately. To make matters worse, Mary was going to marry the French prince, so it was possible that French and Scottish armies would invade England to make Mary queen. Luckily for Elizabeth, Philip did not want to see France becoming so powerful and he was willing to protect her, even though she made England Protestant again.

When Philip had to deal with a rebellion in the Netherlands, it was even more important to him to be on good terms with England because his ships had to sail along the English Channel. However, England felt some sympathy with the people in the Netherlands because one of the reasons they were rebelling against Spain was that some of them wanted to be Protestant. On top of this, there was a lot of anger among English sailors and traders because Philip would not let other countries share in the wealth that had been found in the areas Spain controlled in Central and South America. Meanwhile, England was less threatened because Mary, Queen of Scots’ husband had died, which ended the link with France and she had returned to Scotland. Also, two groups in France were fighting for control, which meant there was far less danger to England.

By the 1580s, the two countries were clearly enemies and Spain was supporting attempts to make England Catholic again. Plans for an invasion began in 1585 but had to be delayed when Francis Drake burned some ships and destroyed lots of water barrels. Drake called this ‘singeing the King of Spain’s beard’ (burning the edges), but it wasn’t enough to prevent the Armada which was ready to sail in 1588.

Teachers' notes

It is hoped that some of this work will be accessible for key stage 2 work and ‘The Terrible Tudors’ in the Horrible History series has some good additional details that most children will appreciate. Some of the suggested activities have obvious links with art and craft work while the use of maps to study the route of the Armada could lead into geography, map coordinates, mathematics. An interactive, problem solving approach is needed for the ‘Council Discussions’ and there are also lots of opportunities for different styles of writing – stories based on English/Spanish sailors, formal reports, ‘newspaper’ accounts, diaries and letters, ‘televised’ news and interviews.

At key stage 3 this work would could be used as a straight account of events, illustrating English foreign relations but it could also be used to explore the role of propaganda in Elizabeth’s reign, linking with work on portraits and another lesson on the Great Seal.

This lesson may also prove useful to teachers of the AQA GCSE Historic Environment 1568-1603 course for which the named site in 2020 is the ‘Spanish Armada.’ These eyewitness accounts of the invasion provide details of the environmental factors faced by the Armada as well as some context for both sides.


Illustration: Drawing of a Spanish frigate showing measurements and armament SP 9/205/1

Source 1: Extract from a letter to the English government (SP94/3 f.227r)

Source 2: Report from Admiral of the English fleet (SP12/212 f.167)

Source 3: Letter from John Hawkins to Sir Francis Walsingham (SP12/213 ff.164-5)

Source 4: A Spanish captain’s account of events (SP63/137 f.5)

Extension Activities

1. Hold a Privy Council meeting to give Elizabeth advice on:

  • how to get sufficient supplies to the ships
  • where the army should meet
  • how to arrange sufficient food etc. to keep the army supplied
  • how to get news of the invasion from the coast to London
  • what to do about English Catholics

2. Draw or list items which could be included in a painting of Elizabeth intended to commemorate the English victory and explain the symbolism of each item. This could then be compared with the Armada portrait by George Gower.

3. Draw a strip cartoon showing at least four key events, e.g:

  • the first sighting of the Armada
  • the English sailing behind the Armada in its strong crescent formation
  • the use of fireships
  • the battle at Gravelines
  • the Spanish sailing towards Scotland
  • Spanish ships being shipwrecked on the coast of Ireland

4. After such a clear failure, when fewer than half the ships managed to get back to Spain, why did Philip send other armadas against England?

5. As the English troops waited at Tilbury to fight against an invasion, Elizabeth made a famous speech in which she said that even if she was a weak and feeble woman, the fact that she was the ruler of England made her strong. Do you think a female ruler would have been at a disadvantage if the invasion had taken place?

6. Find the text of Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury and write it out in modern English.

7. Write a newspaper report on the invasion of the Spanish Armada explaining the reasons for the Spanish defeat.

See a timeline of the Armada’s key events below.

External links

Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada
In this resource, you can explore the question: ‘why did the English fleet defeat the Spanish Armada’? Consider the different historical interpretations and look at some contemporary images and documents from the British Library and other sources.

Watch the video: Από τη Θήβα πέρασε κομβόι με Πολωνούς Πυροσβέστες με προορισμό τα Βίλια


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