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The Spanish Armada—A Voyage to Tragedy

The Spanish Armada—A Voyage to Tragedy

 The Spanish Armada​—A Voyage to Tragedy


OVER four centuries ago, two fleets fought in the narrow waters of the English Channel. The battle pitched Protestants against Catholics and was part of the 16th-century struggle between the armies of Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England and Roman Catholic King Philip II of Spain. “To them the clash of the English and Spanish fleets in the Channel was,” explains the book The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, “a final struggle to the death between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.”

English observers of the time described the Spanish Armada, or great fleet, as “the greatest naval force they had ever seen on the open seas.” But the expedition the Armada was on proved to be a tragic mistake​—especially for the many thousands who lost their lives. What was its objective, and why did it fail?

Why the Attempted Invasion?

English pirates had plundered Spanish ships for years, and England’s Queen Elizabeth actively supported Dutch rebellion against Spanish rule. In addition, Catholic Philip II felt duty-bound to help English Catholics rid their country of the growing Protestant “heresy.” To that end, the Armada carried some 180 priests and religious advisers. Even as the crews of the Armada assembled, each man had to confess his sins to a priest and receive Communion.

The religious mood of Spain and of its king was personified by the eminent Spanish Jesuit Pedro de  Ribadeneyra, who said: “God our Lord, whose cause and most holy faith we are defending, will go before us​—and with such a captain we have nothing to fear.” As for the English, they hoped that a decisive victory would pave the way for Protestant ideas to sweep across Europe.

The Spanish king’s invasion plan seemed straightforward. He instructed the Armada to sail up the English Channel and pick up the Duke of Parma and his 30,000 veteran soldiers stationed in Flanders. * The combined forces would then cross the Channel, land on the Essex coast, and march on London. Philip assumed that English Catholics would abandon their Protestant queen and swell the ranks of his army.

Philip’s scheme, however, had serious flaws. While he presumed to have the backing of divine providence, he overlooked two main obstacles​—the strength of the English navy and the difficulty of picking up the Duke of Parma’s troops without a suitable deepwater port where they could meet.

A Huge but Unwieldy Fleet

Philip appointed the Duke of Medina-Sidonia to command the Armada. Although the duke had little naval experience, he was an efficient organizer who quickly won the cooperation of his veteran captains. Together they fashioned a fighting force and provisioned the huge fleet as best they could. They meticulously laid out the signals, sailing orders, and formations that would unify their multinational force.

The 130 ships, nearly 20,000 soldiers, and 8,000 sailors that made up the Armada finally left Lisbon harbor on May 29, 1588. But adverse winds and a storm obliged them to stop at La Coruña, in northwest Spain, for repairs and more supplies. Concerned about insufficient provisions and sickness among his men, the Duke of Medina-Sidonia frankly wrote to the king concerning his misgivings about the whole enterprise. But Philip insisted that his admiral adhere to the plan. So the unwieldy fleet continued its voyage and finally reached the English Channel two months after leaving Lisbon.

 Battles in the English Channel

When the Spanish fleet reached the coast of Plymouth, in southwest England, the English were waiting. Both sides had a similar number of ships, but their design differed. The Spanish vessels stood high out of the water, and their decks bristled with short-range guns. With large turrets built at prow and stern, they resembled floating fortresses. Spanish naval tactics required their men to board and overwhelm the enemy. The English ships were lower and faster, with more long-range cannons. Their captains planned to avoid close contact with the enemy and to destroy Spanish ships from a distance.

To counteract the greater mobility and firepower of the English fleet, the Spanish admiral devised a defensive formation in the shape of a crescent, or half-moon. The strongest ships with the longest-range guns would guard each end. Regardless of the direction from which the enemy approached, the Armada could wheel and face it like a buffalo presenting its horns to an approaching lion.

The two fleets skirmished throughout the length of the English Channel and fought two minor battles. The Spanish defensive formation proved effective, and the long-range shooting of the English failed to sink any Spanish ships. The English captains concluded that they must somehow break up the formation and close the range. Their opportunity came on August 7.

The Duke of Medina-Sidonia had stuck to his orders and led the Armada to a rendezvous with the Duke of Parma and his troops. While awaiting word from the Duke of Parma, the Duke of Medina-Sidonia ordered the fleet to drop anchor off Calais, on the French coast. With the Spanish ships moored and vulnerable, the English sent in eight ships, which they had loaded with combustibles and set on fire. Most of the Spanish captains frantically sought sea room to escape the danger. Then the strong wind and current pushed them north.

At daybreak the following day, the final battle was fought. The English fleet fired on the Spanish ships at close range, destroying at least three ships and damaging many more. Since the Spanish had little ammunition, they had to endure the onslaught helplessly.

A violent storm led the English to suspend their attack until the next day. That morning, reorganized into the crescent formation, with little ammunition left, the Armada turned toward the enemy and prepared to fight. But before the English could open fire, the Spanish ships found themselves on a lee shore, driven by the wind and currents inexorably toward  disaster on the Zeeland sands off the Dutch coast.

When all seemed lost, the wind changed direction and drove the Armada north to the safety of open sea. But the route back to Calais was blocked by the English fleet, and the winds were still pushing the embattled Spanish ships northward. The Duke of Medina-Sidonia decided that he had little option but to call off the mission and save as many ships and men as possible. He decided to return to Spain by circumnavigating Scotland and Ireland.

Storms and Shipwrecks

The Armada’s battered ships had a grueling journey home. Food was scarce, and because of leaky barrels, there was little water. The English attacks had badly damaged many of the ships, and few were seaworthy. Then, off the northwest coast of Ireland, the Armada ran into severe storms that lasted for two weeks. Some ships disappeared without a trace! Others were shipwrecked off the Irish coast.

Finally, the first ships of the Armada limped into Santander, northern Spain, on September 23. Some 60 ships and only about half the men that left Lisbon made it home. Thousands drowned at sea. Many others died from their wounds or from disease during the homeward voyage. Even for the survivors who reached the Spanish coast, the ordeal continued.

The book The Defeat of the Spanish Armada notes: “Several [ships’ companies] had no food at all and went on dying of sheer starvation,” though they were anchored in a Spanish port. The book says that in the Spanish harbor of Laredo, one ship ran aground “because there were not enough men left able to lower the sails and drop the anchor.”

Significance of the Defeat

The defeat of the Armada instilled confidence in the Protestants of Northern Europe, even though religious wars continued unabated. That Protestants believed their triumph to be proof of divine favor is evidenced by a Dutch medal that commemorates the event. Its inscription reads, Flavit יהוה et dissipati sunt 1588, that is, “Jehovah blew and they were scattered 1588.”

In time, Great Britain assumed the role of a world power, as the book Modern Europe to 1870 notes: “Great Britain emerged in 1763 as the foremost commercial and colonial power in the world.” Indeed, “in 1763 the British Empire bestrode the world like some revived and enlarged Rome,” observes the book Navy and Empire. Later, Great Britain united with its former colony the United States of America to form the Anglo-American world power.

Bible students find the rise and fall of the political world powers fascinating. This is because the Holy Scriptures deal extensively with the successive world governments, namely, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, and eventually the Anglo-American world power. In fact, the Bible foretold long in advance the rise and fall of several of these powers.​—Daniel 8:3-8, 20-22; Revelation 17:1-6, 9-11.

Looking back, it is evident that what happened in the summer of 1588, when efforts at conquest by the Spanish Armada proved unsuccessful, is very significant. Nearly 200 years after the defeat of the Armada, Great Britain rose to world prominence and, in time, came to have a key position in fulfillment of Bible prophecy.


^ par. 8 This area was part of the Spanish Netherlands, which Spain ruled during the 16th century. It included coastal regions of northern France, Belgium, and Holland.

[Diagram/​Map on page 26, 27]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)

Voyage of the Spanish Armada

​——​ Campaign route

–– Return journey

X Battles



La Coruña










[Picture on page 24]

King Philip II

[Credit Line]

Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

[Picture on page 24]

Queen Elizabeth I

[Picture on page 24, 25]

The Duke of Medina-Sidonia was the commander of the Spanish Armada

[Credit Line]

Cortesía de Fundación Casa de Medina Sidonia

[Picture Credit Line on page 25]

Museo Naval, Madrid