Author’s Note: The defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English in 1588 was not the immediate disaster many British historians mistakenly assume. Spain was such a world power at the time that in a short-time it had constructed a number of further Armadas used to project its political and military Will toward England (and across the world). However, the English Navy was better commanded and controlled in its function to defend the British Mainland from attack and invasion, a process of defence aided by the unpredictable and deadly British weather and highly changeable tides and sea. The English fireships were relatively small and easily penetrated the defensive formation of the Spanish Armada in 1588 – causing unprecedented death and destruction amongst the Spanish gallions! English cannon could ‘out-reach’ the Spanish equivalent – causing destruction from afar – whilst the English ships quickly re-deployed from one defensive line to another with a graceful ease. The final disaster for the Spanish was sudden and tumultuous storms wish further tossed and destroyed a fleet trying desperately to ‘steady’ itself from this three-pincered attack! Although many hundreds of English sailors were killed and wounded, the lose of English shipping was light compared to that suffered by the Spanish! Whole ships were ripped apart by fireboats, English cannon and bad weather – killing thousands of horses and men, and depositing thousands more ‘unarmed’ Spanish men on British beaches, where many were hunted-down and brutally killed by defending Englishmen. ACW (5.10.2020)
After the death of the childless King of Portugal, Phillip II presented his dynastic claim to the vacant throne backed by an army under the Duke of Alva. The advance of the Spanish soldiers was paved beforehand by golden doubloons which Philip II’s agents handed out to prominent members of the Portuguese nobility and clergy. Asa result, Philip II annexed the country, where anti-Spanish (more precisely, anti-Castile) sentiments ran high, and, indeed, seized control over the rich Portuguese colonial empire which included Brazil, islands in the Atlantic Ocean, and trading factories in Africa and the Indian Peninsula, as well as the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) in Southwest Asia. Unlike Spain, where the trade with the New World was controlled by the merchant corporation, in Portugal’s case it was a monopoly of the Crown.
After the annexation, therefore, the profits from trading with the Portuguese possessions at once augmented the revenue of the Spanish treasury. The silver extracted in the Spanish overseas possessions in Mexico and Peru paid for the spices and other Asiatic goods that were resold at enormous profit in European markets, while the African slaves transported from the Portuguese colonies to the silver mines and plantations of the New World, increased the revenue still more enormously. The Portuguese ships, too, were a welcome addition to the already huge merchant fleet and navy of Spain. Spain’s colonial and trading monopoly seemed solid enough to stand through the ages, while Lisbon and the other Portuguese ports became the finest bases that Spain had for the fleets that set out to fight heretic England and various other opponents of Philip II’s universal empire. By the 1580s, the greater flow of bullion from the New World made the sealanes across the Atlantic still more important. In a certain sense, indeed, Philip II’s intervention against the Netherlands and England was a struggle for the Atlantic between the Counter-Reformation and Protestantism.
The Catholic attacks spurred the younger generation of Elizabethans, the generation of William Shakespeare, towards uncompromising war against Spain, which would yield them honour and profit (as attested in a special study by Anthony Esler published in 1966).
The ten years after Mary Stuart’s execution in 1587 were a time when Philip II endeavoured to resolve the ambient conflict in favour of the Catholic camp by a massive onslaught. The usually slow Phillip now began to hurry. To be sure, Mary’s dramatic death dwarfed the chances of a successful Catholic uprising. Few English Catholics were inclined to risk their lives for Mary’s Calvinist son James, King of Scotland, and still less for the Spanish King. The “English Affair”, as the Jesuits named the objective of converting England back to Catholicism, could no longer be accomplished other than by war. Yet, from the point of view of the Catholic world, Philip II had dynastic rights to the English throne, and should therefore tackle the matter for his own sake, not for that of anyone else. Indeed, Philip II could present his own claim to the throne or that of any other member of his family. (His claim, as I have already said, was based on Mary Tudor’s will and on the fact that Philip had been her husband.)
All the resources of Spain, which had been squandered for decades to pay its rulers’ policy of conquest that formed groundwork for the plans of the Counter-Reformation, were now mobilised for the capture of England – an enormous navy was gathered consisting of 130 warships with 2,500 guns and 27,000 soldiers and sailors. The undertaking was described as a crusade. Three hundred guns saluted the gorgeous procession that delivered a banner consecrated by the Pope of Rome aboard the San Martin, the flagship. As stated in a report drawn up at the King’s command by Pedro de Pax Salas, La Felicisima Amada, published in Lisbon in 1588, the great navy would “serve God, and returne unto the church a great many contrite souls that are oppressed by the heretics” (quoted from the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels). On May 29, 1588, the Invincible Armada raised sail for its destination. It was assumed that near the shores of the Southern Netherlands, it would take aboard the army of the Spanish viceroy, the Duke of Parma, and would then head for English shores.
We find a hardened opinion in history books that the Armada had been poorly fitted out, and that its commander, Duke of Medina-Sidonia, Alonso Perez de Guzman, appointed at the last moment, may have been an adroit courtier but was a poor admiral. This is wholly inaccurate. The man was in fact a cold-blooded and industrious commander whose crews had been well trained. The ships of the Armada were no larger in size than the English, therefore no more unwieldly though they carried fewer guns. True, the English were better skilled at manoeuvring. They abandoned the medieval linear tactics in favour of sudden attacks on Spanish bases in Cadiz and the Cape od Saint Vincent. All the same, the Armada had almost attained its strategic aim.
On reaching the English Channel at the end of July, it came under the attack of English ships, whose guns were of longer range, and was assailed by English fireships, that is, vessels loaded with combustibles and explosives which were used to set fire to the enemy fleet. The Armada suffered heavy losses, and its officers were more preoccupied with the thought of saving the warships that were still afloat rather than of conquering England. A military council decided to avoid an engagement with the English navy, and to sail due north, rounding the British Isles and returning to Spain. Unfavourable winds, treacherous banks and rocks, a shortage of potable water and food completed what the English shells had begun. All in all, just 44 warships returned to Spain.
Yefim Chemyak: Ambient Conflicts – Chapters from History of Relations between Countries with Different Social Systems, Progress, (1987) 154-155 – English Translation from the original Russian by Vic Schneierson – Russian-Language Edition (1986) – Printed in the USSR