The story of the Spanish Armada is a fascinating part of the English Reformation. The mid 16th Century was a time of enormous religious change in England.  Beginning with Henry VIII’s notorious break with Rome and his subsequent divorce from the Catholic Catherine of Aragon the upheaval climaxed with the terribly bloody reign of their daughter Mary Tudor. Mary sent 260 people to the stake simply for being Protestant, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.

In an attempt to secure the succession to the throne and preserve Catholicism in  England, Mary married Philip II of Spain. Philip II saw himself as the self-proclaimed defender of the Catholic faith in Europe and was the ideal match for Mary. However, Philip and Mary’s plans with regards to Catholicism in England were thwarted by Mary’s death and the ascension of her decidedly Protestant sister Elizabeth.

The English Channel

Catholics in general and the Papacy, in particular, viewed Elizabeth as an illegitimate heir. This was because the church refused to acknowledge Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and therefore did not recognize his marriage to Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn as legitimate. In addition to this, Philipp II, being the widower of the late Queen saw himself as a contender for the throne of England as well.

Meanwhile, in France, the bloody and protracted religious wars had taken a new turn with what was known as the War of the Three Henries.

In desperation, Henry of Guise had turned to Philip for help in fighting a bloody civil war he was losing. With a Protestant monarch on the English throne and his Catholic Guise allies in danger of losing the French throne to Protestants as well, Philip decided to intervene.  He hatched a daring plot to take back both England and France on behalf of the Catholic cause. The plan involved the deployment of the Spanish Armada, a fleet of more than 130 warships, reportedly the largest ever assembled.

The plan was to set sail from Spain and weigh anchor in The Netherlands, where the fleet would pick up the army of the Duke of Parma. From there they would travel across the English channel to invade and conquer England. Following that victory they would then go back across the channel to invade France, defeating the Protestants there as well.

The Armada set sail in 1588 and was spotted on the 19th of July in Lizard, Cornwall. When the Armada entered the English Channel it was attacked by a considerably smaller English fleet of 8 fire ships commanded by Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher. The English ships were smaller and more agile with fewer guns on board than the Spanish ships. However, the English guns had a longer range and they fired on the Spanish Fleet from beyond the range of the Armada’s guns.

When the Armada finally docked in The Netherlands they discovered that Parma’s army was not there and the English, taking advantage of the situation, fired on the anchored fleet. The Armada was forced to retreat back into the channel in disarray where more English attacks and storms wreaked further havoc. The Armada limped home with less than half its ships.                

Unaware of the Armada’s fate the English army assembled in Tilbury, Essex where Elizabeth was invited to inspect the troops. Here she addressed the assembled army with the words – “My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourself to armed multitudes for fear of treachery; but I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people … I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.

Philip’s designs on England had been thwarted and the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Queen led a thanksgiving celebration to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the prevailing sentiment was that the defeat of the Armada cemented the inviolability and legitimacy of Elizabeth’s reign. To mark the occasion commemorative medals were minted which bore the inscription “1588. Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt” (He blew with His winds, and they were scattered.)

Further Reading

  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism

Recommended Listening 

  • The Great Courses – The Renaissance, The Reformation and The Rise of Nations – Professor Andrew C. Fix
  • The Great Courses – The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era – Professor Brad S. Gregory