The great naval battle between Spain and England in 1588- one of the most important battles in the history of the world- is known as the Battle of the Invincible Armada. But in a sense, this is a misnomer. An invincible armada is one that cannot be defeated, yet the mighty fleet of warships that Spain sent to invade England, was defeated so badly that Spain could never again rule the oceans. How was it possible that this armada, which had awed all of Europe with its size and strength, was unable to stand up against the forces of a much smaller and less powerful enemy? The answer lies in the differences between these two countries and their rulers, Elizabeth I of England and Philip II of Spain.
During the 16th century, Spain was at the height of her power. Newly discovered worlds and conquests of different peoples had yielded Spain an abundance of precious metals and gems, which made Spain the envy of all the other European nations. By 1580, King Philip II was ruling over an empire that covered three-fourths of the known world. Even the ancient Romans would have been envious of its size. (Walker 15-19)
Religion was one of the compelling motives behind the actions and ambitions of Spain. Philip's father, Emperor Charles V, had established himself as the guardian of Christendom. He also had the dream of uniting all of the Christian European nations against the Turks and the Moors, who had been terrorizing Catholicism from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. However, his dreams were hindered with the coming of the Protestant Reformation, which split Christendom into two parts.(Marx 22-25)
Philip II continued in his father's footsteps as the defender of Catholicism. After the Turks were defeated in a decisive sea battle in 1571, Philip turned his attention to another serious threat to Christendom: his Protestant neighbors. Devoutly religious and good friends with Pope Sixtus V, he was willing to use all of his resources, including his treasures from the New World, his large army, and his huge fleet of warships, just to unite Europe under a common Catholic faith. (Marx 28-33)
He probably would have accomplished his goal too, if it weren't for the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England. England at this time, however, was not nearly as powerful or as wealthy as Spain. Her tax revenues were so small that monarchs were forced to sell their jewels and lands just to keep food on the table. As for a military power, England had a few men and arms, and a fleet of ships better equipped for trading goods than fighting. (McKee 45)
England was also experiencing other problems during this time. The other parts of her kingdom- Scotland, Wales, and Ireland- were often in an open revolt against England over the matter of religion. Even the people of England herself were divided between Catholicism and Protestantism. Furthermore, a woman, who was thought to be a weak ruler, occupied the throne.
There were a few major reasons why Philip II needed to conquer England, or at least befriend her. First, he was a leader in the Catholic movement to wipe out the heresy of Protestantism. The longer Elizabeth stayed on the throne, the more difficult this task became. She not only was the most important Protestant ruler but also provided the Protestants in northern Europe with support for their resistance against the Church of Rome. In addition, English Catholics were being persecuted more and more severely, mainly because Elizabeth feared that they were not loyal to her. For a long time, Philip was forced to endure this because Spain and the other main Catholic country, France, were fighting each other, and Philip needed to keep England neutral. But alliances were never permanent in Europe; countries that were bitter enemies one day became close allies the next. In 1572, the French decided to join Spain in a Cath-olic alliance against the Protestants. (Howarth 17-22)