The Virgin Queen and the Spanish Armada in Full
Queen Elizabeth the First, one of Britain’s finest monarchs of history, is well known for several achievements. One of these notable achievements is her defeat of the Spanish Armada. Even her enemies doted upon her victory as well as her leadership skill. The Count of Feria remarked upon her Elizabeth’s leadership skill by noting: ”Not only was she “a young lass who, although sharp, is without prudence,” he later wrote Philip that her impetuosity was all the more dangerous because she was “incomparably more feared than her sister, and gives her orders and has her way as absolutely as her father did. (Thomas 85 i.e.)”” Throughout Europe Elizabeth was well respected as a ruler and more so as a woman.
To fully understand the Battle of the Spanish Armada in its entirety there has to be an understanding of how it began. Many things contributed to the Spanish incursion of British waters. These would include, but are not limited to: Queen Elizabeth being unmarried, the “French alliance,” and Elizabeth’s personal association with King Philip of Spain (Robinson 227).
Early in life Elizabeth went through much adversity considering she was “the bastard daughter of the whore, Anne Boleyn” as well as a potential heir to the throne of Great Britain (Delderfield 74). A life with such potential for greatness also meant potential for much hardship and thusly led Elizabeth to have many interesting experiences that helped shape her as a leader. This gained experience was shown plainly later in her life as it was commented upon in this way: “Due to her early experiences, where she was often saved by caution, circumspection helped her perfect a technique which was to hold her in good stead throughout her reign: the technique of giving answerless answers.”” (Jackson 63) Elizabeth used this to keep in good graces with neighboring countries and those of further expanse while at the same time keeping herself unmarried. One man in particular, however, was especially stubborn, King Philip of Spain.
King Philip was Mary Tudor’s husband making him Elizabeth’s brother in law (Thomas 154). Philip recognized and respected Elizabeth’s leadership talents. In fact, he respected it so much that he copied some of her strategies. These strategies included making his own final decisions in private where he could not be influenced by exterior forces, acquiring written reports from advisors, not second guessing his own decisions, and having private, face-to-face interviews to avoid being ganged up on by all his advisors. He, however, took this to the extreme when paranoia set in during his Holy War for Roman Catholicism. Another blunder of Philip’s was that he never held a war meeting with a proper council. He simply pilfered through countless strategies and suggestions submitted by his allies. Due to this, he overlooked several important, albeit minuscule, details that would have otherwise been pointed out in a proper meeting. For that reason he forgot that he did not readily provide a way for his invading forces to attain sustenance or rest along the shore line. A major point that is always associated with the Spanish Armada is the size of their ships (Thomas 155, 156). “The Ark Royal, flagship of Lord Admiral Howard at the time of the Armada. She was a four-master of 800 tons and carried 425 men.” (Halliday 98) In contrast, the English used smaller but faster ships. However, they could do little to penetrate the crescent shape of the Armada even though they had powerful cannons on board. The Spanish ships were large and slow relying on the power of galleons. Ship for ship the Spanish had the advantage in power but the English had speed and strategic standing.
By not marrying, Elizabeth was able to stay focused on business at hand without the distractions of having to raise children or look after a family. Being single also allowed her to hold a more powerful role; without the influence of a King by her side Elizabeth maintained a sovereign monarchy. It has been reasoned that leaving herself 'eligible' as a wife may also have kept foreign powers from attacking England considering distant Kings would not want to attack a nation ruled by a woman that they would possibly one day pursue (Delderfield 74, 75). Queen Elizabeth was very smart, she flirted with her suitors to get what she wanted but never got to the point of marriage. Remaining unmarried earned Queen Elizabeth the name “Virgin Queen,” whether or not she was actually a virgin is a matter of debate (Thomas 83).
One thing that made the Spanish really hesitant to assault the British was Elizabeth’s underhanded alliance with the French. Elizabeth made many great decisions throughout the span of her rule but even the greatest leaders need supporters and advisors. It was actually her advisors who suggested getting in cahoots with the French at the time. “It was an age of great adventurers and the Queen had undoubtedly a genius for the selection of capable advisors.” (Delderfield 75 i.e.) Some of the Queen’s key advisors of the time were not well known but that does not make them any less important: the Cecils, Leicester, Drake, Raleigh, the Gilberts, and Essex (Delderfield 75). In the year 1572 Elizabeth had a defense alliance secured with the crown of France. This coalition alone kept them safe from the Spanish for nearly a decade (Robinson 226).
Tensions began to rise in 1579 in spite of the fact that England was still technically at peace despite the ever continuing war between the Catholics and Protestants. Officially Elizabeth took no part in publically undermining King Philip by supporting the Huguenots openly (Robinson 227). Philip was smart enough to know that he would not be able to take on both the British Empire and the French at the same time. The alliance of France and Great Britain proved to be an invaluable asset against the Spaniard vagabond King Philip.
The enabler of the ever impeding rift came to Elizabeth under the guise of pleasantry when the Netherlands successfully gained their liberty from Spain in 1579 (Robinson 227). Losing to the Netherlands, which Philip was convinced he had under his heel, discouraged Philip all the more. Thinking of his throne Philip had hoped to quietly quell the rebels but was unaware of the British assistance and how the Queen had personally furnished the necessary equipment for the rebels. This was Elizabeth’s foremost strike to the heart of Spain.
Over the next few years Elizabeth was slowly stripped of her excuses to remain “neutral” and became obligated to take her stand for Protestantism against the Catholic King (Robinson 229). A major change came in 1584. The “push” came when Queen Elizabeth dismissed her Spanish ambassador, Mendoza. Around this time the Queen was on edge due to having caught an Englishman named Throgmorton in a plot to end her life. In his possession a letter was found, written in cipher, addressed to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.
Even though England was in theory at peace with Spain it was later discovered that Mendoza was privy to the scheme (Robinson 228). At this point in time the English-French alliance was very strong so King Philip was less than enthusiastic to start a war and thusly refused to receive Mendoza at his court in an effort to save face. In lieu of this Spain remained nominally at a ceasefire with England. This was only the tip of the unavoidable iceberg that awaited the neighboring countries. At this point it was obvious that the alliance alone had made Philip hesitate. However, six months after the Throgmorton incident a crisis occurred. The Duck of Anjou died and the leader of the Huguenots, Henry Bourbon, became leader of the corner of France just beyond the Pyrenees called Navarre. This threw the Catholics into an outrage and France suddenly found itself in a civil war. For Elizabeth the situational standing became perilous when her French asset, the Huguenots, became deeply involved in their own war. Queen Elizabeth, at this point, was forced to resort to Cecil’s old policy of alliance with the Protestant enemies of Spain (Robinson 229). Unbeknownst to Elizabeth when the Duke of Anjou dies in 1584 it was by the hand of a Spanish assassin. Assassination was nothing new to politics, “But the Queen, for all here apparent insouciance, was human; and, seeing a fellow prince thus fall victim to her enemies, she quailed.” (Robinson 229) This, supposedly, enraged the Queen and she became resolved to go into war and thusly the “Spanish Armada” began. The challenge from Spain came swiftly considering they had been planning for quite some time. The preparation of the Armada, which began more or less from scratch early in 1586, took over two years. Elizabeth, however, was up in arms and fully prepared to do what was necessary. “When Elizabeth went to see the Spanish Armada she headed to the Thames on horseback and said to her troops.”…and I am come amongst you…not for recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people…” (Jackson 63) Her little speech inspired them so much that Drake got his pitifully small fleet en route for the Spaniards. Credit for the delay was given to Drake's Raid on Cadiz in April 1587 and the ensuing pursuit of his fleet, but even without this diversion it is doubtful whether the Armada would have been ready to sail by the summer of 1587 (Delderfield 76). The old strategic dilemmas had not been resolved. The Duke of Parma, Philip's governor in the Netherlands, was unhappy about mounting an attack on England before he had regained a large enough port on the Dutch coast for a more probable well standing. Philip over-ruled his doubts by deciding that a fleet from Spain would secure a landing area on the Kentish coast and then ferry Parma's army across (Thomas 155).When Philip made this decision it may have sounded grand but it was a horridly planned course of action. The Armada invasion was not done with its hardships there; it was further delayed in 1588 and did not arrived at the planned place, Land’s End, until late July. By this time the Duke of Parma had surrendered any hope of the arrival of the Spanish fleet and he sent his own crew of ships on to work on inland canals. Contrary to popular belief the English had some problems too. At this time, circa April 1588, the English failed to intercept the Spanish twice in Iberian waters due to storms (McDermott 128). At that point they became somewhat skeptical themselves; their fleet of sixty-six ships were caught by surprise in Plymouth when the Armada appeared. Although they were able to escape from Plymouth successfully, they were faced with a chase up the Channel. Many bullets were spent, but the Spanish formation held together surprisingly well, and only two ships were lost, both by accidents. The Spanish admiral, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, then took the unexpected decision to anchor off Calais on 6 August (White 162). The docking of the Spanish off Calais allowed the English to disperse their fleet by an attack and strong winds blew it into the North Sea. Four Spanish ships were lost at this point, but the great majority escaped northwards (Whiting 164). However, there were no alternatives to the risky voyage to get home except around Scotland and Ireland. In the course of this a further thirty-four or thirty-five ships, mostly weaker built transports, filled with water and sank or ran aground (Spanish Armada Timeline, Internet). On August 7th reinforcement ships arrived to join the English and it was decided that the English must act quickly before Parma’s army arrived as well. Old ships were packed full of things that would burn, set alight and sent in the direction of Calais. The Spanish tried to push back the burning ships but the guns on the burning ships began exploding, frightening the Spanish soldiers who struggled to get out of the way. Drake’s fleet continued to attack through to the 8th of August vigorously while at the same time sailing towards the Armada to avoid wasting ammunition. Here the Spanish ships fail to escape and regroup and are blown close to the port of Gravelines by the strong storm winds and find themselves at risk of being wrecked on sandbanks. Eventually, the winds changed direction pushing them back out to sea (Whiting 164, 165). They managed to regroup back in open waters and came to the agreement that if the wind changed direction they would attack again or if the wind continued they would head back to Spain. The English were not sure if they had defeated the Spanish so they pleaded with the government for more food, ammunition, and reinforcements. The English fleets followed the Spanish out to sea from a distance but were unable to attack due to lack of firepower (McDermott 134). When it was fairly obvious that the Spanish were quitting they returned to port victorious. At this point the Spanish were fleeing around Scotland, past the Irish, and on to Spain. Along the journey back to Spain many bad storms wrecked the majority of the ships on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland so less than half of the ships returned to Spain. This victory marked a special milestone in the life of Queen Elizabeth but it also did something for the Spanish. It made them think. When the question resurfaces “Who is to blame for the defeat?” many would say Medina Sidonia but King Philip did not share their sentiment. He blamed the failure on the weather saying, “I sent you out to war with men, not the wind an waves.” (Whiting 212) The English, in a way, agreed. A new medal was created to honor the victory and on it were the words “God blew and they scattered.” The battle of the Spanish Armada is one of shortcomings in its entirety. Even before the Armada sailed, serious problems arose. The first problem came about in 1587 when Drake attacked the ships at Cadiz that were being readied by the Spanish. The next problem was food. The food storage on board of the new ships rotted because they were made of new wood that was still damp. Therefore when the water turned sour and the food rotted the crew and soldiers became sick with scurvy. One major issue was the original plan. King Philip wanted them to get to the Spanish Netherlands to pick up Spanish soldiers who were stationed to England’s south coast. However, there was no port to retrieve the soldiers in the Netherlands. The last problem, and maybe the largest, was the Admiral. The original Admiral for the Spanish was the famous Santa Cruz. Tragedy befell him in 1586 and he died. The admiral chose to succeed him was a very wealthy and successful general, the Duck of Medina Sidonia. Although he was a good general Medina had never been to sea before and thusly became sick often (McDermott 137). It often leads many to wonder why King Philip selected a man who had never been to sea before to lead the world’s currently largest naval fleet. All in all, the Spanish Armada was a victory for Queen Elizabeth. This would help Elizabeth mark her place in history. No one argues that England won this skirmish of thirteen days, not even the quantitative data. In this battle England lost roughly 8,100 men while Spain lost nearly 21,000 men (Whiting 225). For years after she had been hailed as the “English Deborah”, the “savior of the English people”, and it appeared that that is what she had actually become. She was now “Bellona”, the goddess of war, and in victory she had led her nation to magnificence, defeating the utmost power in the 16th century world. Even though King Philip sent other fleets to oppose England in the 1590's, none were as noteworthy, or as intimidating, as that of the great Armada of 1588, and none have captured the imagination of successive generations as much.
Delderfield, Eric R. Kings and Queens of England. New York: Stein and Day, 1972. Halliday, F.E. A Concise History of England from Stonehenge to the Atomic Age. New York: Viking Press, 1964. Jackson, Guida M. Women Who Ruled. California: ABC-CLIO, 1990. McDermott, James. England and the Spanish Armada: The Necessary Quarrel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005 Robinson, Cyril E. A History of Early British Progress from the Early Ages to the Present Day. New York: Crowell Company, 1928. “Spanish Armada Timeline” Plymouth City Council. 13 Feb. 2013 <http://www.plymouth.gov.uk/7._resource_no._7_spanish_armada_timeline.pdf>
Thomas, Jane R. Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth 1. New York: Clarion Books, 1998. Whiting, Roger. The Spanish Armada. Minnesota: The History Press, 2004.