Why the Armada failed

It was one of the greatest disasters in Spain’s history, yet it came within hours of success. Here, Geoffrey Parker, co-author of a major new history, draws on unseen archives and vital new evidence from Armada shipwrecks to explain what really happened in 1588.


The Armada – and in English history there is only one – set sail from Lisbon on 28 May 1588, tasked with eliminating the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and restoring Catholic worship throughout England. Its creator, Philip II, ruler of Spain and Portugal, as well as much of Italy and America, hoped that the taskforce would also solve a strategic problem in another of his possessions: the Low Countries. A group of northern provinces, predominantly Protestant, had rebelled against his authority, and in 1581 declared themselves an independent state, soon known as the Dutch Republic (now the kingdom of the Netherlands). In 1585, Elizabeth signed a treaty with the Dutch that guaranteed the regular supply of troops and money to stiffen their resistance. Philip hoped that the Armada’s success against England would also weaken the Dutch, so that they would surrender to his troops in the southern provinces (now Belgium), commanded by his nephew Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma.

This miniature painting, believed to be by a Flemish artist, shows the combined narratives of several key episodes associated with the Armada campaign, including the fight between the English and the Spanish fleet, the launch of the English fireships, the battle off Gravelines, and the involvement of Dutch ships in harrying the Armada. It also shows troops assembled on the southern coast of England, and Elizabeth I’s famous visit to Tilbury. Image: National Museums NI.

The Armada was probably (as an English admiral nervously described it) ‘the greatest and strongest combination that was ever gathered in all Christendom’, for it consisted of 130 ships, 2,431 guns, and 30,000 men. And yet, despite the title of ‘Felicíssima’ (most fortunate) bestowed by its creator, the Armada’s story was one of almost constant misfortune. The fleet had only got level with Cape Finisterre, in north-west Spain, when storms and tempests in late June compelled it to seek shelter in Corunna. Eventually, in late July, the Armada set off again and entered the English Channel, only to be attacked off Calais by eight fireships, which caused the Armada to scatter. This gave the English a tactical advantage, and they drove the Armada into the North Sea, chasing it as far as the Firth of Forth. The only viable option now was for the great fleet, although it still numbered over 100 vessels, to sail back to Spain around Scotland and Ireland. In the six weeks that followed (thanks in part to the onset of a tropical typhoon), one-third of its ships were wrecked off the coast of Ireland and (thanks to hunger, thirst and the massacre of almost all prisoners by the English) one-half of its men died.

The Armada campaign remains one of the greatest naval disasters in Spanish history. How, precisely, had it happened?

Thanks to the publication of nearly all the major Elizabethan documents, we know a great deal about why England avoided invasion. On the basis of these sources, apparently so comprehensive, it is tempting to ascribe the outcome almost entirely to the genius of Queen Elizabeth, her gallant captains, and her brave men. But a wealth of new Spanish material now available presents complementary and equally compelling information on why the Armada failed.

The famous Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I shows the queen surrounded by symbols of royal majesty against a backdrop representing the Armada’s defeat in 1588. There are three surviving versions of the portrait, painted by an unknown 16th-century artist; this version is at Woburn Abbey. Image: Alamy.

The new data come in two varieties. We have the archaeological evidence from eight Armada ships excavated (or partially excavated) around the British Isles. We also have new documentary evidence from archives in Spain, Belgium, and Italy that sheds light on Philip’s campaign strategy, including the fatal decision that the invasion of England could take place only after the Armada from Spain had collected an army of veterans in the Low Countries, 1,000 sea miles away. It reveals in detail how Philip and his lieutenants assembled the various components of ‘The Enterprise of England’, as Catholics called it, so that they came within a few hours of success.

Hostile intent

To begin with, it is now clear that the decision to mount a full-scale invasion of England was taken suddenly and irrevocably in October 1585, and not before. It is true that Philip had received repeated requests from the Pope and English Catholic exiles to overthrow the Tudor state; but he almost always refused. In September 1585, Elizabeth in effect declared war on him. She authorised Sir Francis Drake to lead a fleet of 33 warships from Plymouth to pillage Spanish ports and goods. Drake headed first for Galicia in north-west Spain, where his men looted and destroyed property, desecrated churches, and took hostages. Within a week of hearing of these outrages, Philip informed the Pope that he intended to invade England, and requested a contribution towards the costs of the operation, on the grounds that it would regain England for the Catholic faith.

In the course of the next few weeks, reports poured into the Spanish Court concerning the trail of desolation left by Drake and his ships, first in the Canaries and then in the Caribbean. The king therefore turned to his two most senior serving officers, the Marquis of Santa Cruz (distinguished in numerous naval engagements) and the Duke of Parma (commander of the king’s forces in the Low Countries), and ordered them to submit a strategy for the conquest of England.

Santa Cruz sent in his plan in March 1586. It called for a full-scale invasion from Spain in the summer of 1587, and recommended two strikes: first against a point in southern Ireland, to draw Elizabeth’s forces away from the English Channel, and then (some two months later) a second surprise attack on a point on England’s south coast, now (so the marquis hoped) denuded of defenders.

Philip II is portrayed with a rosary in his left hand and the Order of the Golden Fleece on his chest in this 1573 portrait by the Italian painter Sofonisba Anguissola. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The king was clearly impressed, and in April 1586 started to collect the ships, soldiers, and munitions envisaged by Santa Cruz. Three months later, a courier arrived from Flanders bearing details of the invasion plan devised by the Duke of Parma. This was quite different: it proposed, in effect, a blitzkrieg. Some 30,000 troops led by Parma in person would board a fleet of barges assembled in the ports of Flanders and sail in secret to the coast of Kent, whence they would march to London and capture the queen and her ministers unawares. Since Parma thought the crossing would take only 12 hours, and the march on London only a week, he devoted just a paragraph to help from Spain. If his invasion army became bogged down in Kent, Santa Cruz and his fleet might be sent to bail them out.

So Philip now had two excellent conquest strategies: both carefully researched, both apparently feasible. Which should he choose?

Surely only an armchair strategist could have hit upon the solution actually adopted: to attempt both strategies simultaneously. In July 1586, Philip ordered the mobilisation of an enormous fleet in Spain to continue so that the following summer it could strike first at Ireland and then at south-east England. Then, as the Armada entered the ‘Narrow Seas’ between England and France (and not before), the Army of Flanders would embark in its barges and be shepherded across the Channel to a landing-zone in Kent. It would receive from the fleet both reinforcements and also a siege train (something that Parma himself lacked) for the reduction of any English towns that offered resistance on the way to London.

By April 1587, the plans were well advanced. Parma stationed 27,000 men near to the Flemish coast; Santa Cruz commanded a strike-force of 50 fighting ships at Lisbon; a convoy of ships, men and munitions from Italy assembled in Cadiz, ready to join the marquis.

A pre-emptive strike

Needless to say, these heroic preparations did not pass unnoticed. Elizabeth’s government regularly received intelligence reports of Philip’s preparations, both from Portuguese exiles in London and from English spies abroad. But these alone did not justify spending valuable resources on counter-measures: after all, the preparations in Lisbon and Cadiz might not be directed against England at all, but against the Dutch Republic or (less probably) France or Morocco. However, news from (of all places) Rome left no room for doubt, for the source was the king himself.

After protracted and bitter negotiations, Philip had eventually extracted from Pope Sixtus V a promise to pay one-third of the costs of conquering England. But he then began to worry that if Sixtus died, his successor might not honour that promise. The king therefore insisted that the entire College of Cardinals, from whom the next pope would certainly be drawn, should also swear to make the agreed payment. The Cardinals obliged; but, having done so, some of them promptly leaked details of the purpose for which the money was intended – and therefore the target of the fleets in Lisbon and Cadiz.

Acting on the basis of this and other information, Elizabeth decided to launch a preemptive strike. In March 1587, she authorised Drake to attack all ships and supplies in Cadiz, a venture that he later called ‘singeing of the king of Spain’s beard’. It was not damaging in quite the way that historians once thought. True, the loss of 24 ships, the destruction of supplies, and the disruption of traffic between Andalusia and Lisbon for six weeks was tiresome – but it was not critical. The real damage resulted from Drake’s flamboyant subsequent departure to the Azores, with the avowed aim of intercepting and capturing the rich galleons returning from India and America; for that forced Santa Cruz to lead the Armada from Lisbon in pursuit.

The route taken by the Armada around Britain and Ireland, including the locations of some shipwrecks. The compasses show the wind directions at various stages of the journey. A hand-coloured engraving by Augustine Ryther of a chart by Robert Adams, made in 1590. Image: National Maritime Museum

As it happened, Drake only took one Portuguese East Indiaman, São Filipe (worth almost £1m); but his menacing presence in the mid-Atlantic forced Santa Cruz to stay at sea until 25 September, despite storm damage to his vessels and serious losses of men and munitions, lest the English capture or destroy more. At least the battered royal fleet brought the treasure ships home intact; but it was clear that the Armada could not now sail against England in 1587. Drake had given his country another year to prepare.

Recognising that a surprise attack was no longer possible, Philip now devised a new strategy. On the one hand, he decided to increase the size of his Armada still further, by commandeering more ships and men. On the other, he dropped the diversionary attack on Ireland. The fleet in Lisbon would now sail in an unwieldy but overwhelmingly powerful unit directly to the Channel, there to join forces with Parma and his veterans.

The task of implementing the new strategy proved too much for Santa Cruz, who died in February 1588 of typhus, and was replaced by the Duke of Medina Sidonia. Historians have now come to appreciate Medina Sidonia’s remarkable success in supervising the vast work of assembling more ships, more troops and more munitions than had ever been collected in a single European port. A mere three months after the duke assumed command, everything was ready, and on 28 May his great fleet set to sea without the loss of a single vessel. As it turned north towards England, the world held its breath.

Unsound strategy

Perhaps the duke had been too successful. To facilitate communication with the numerous units under his command, he took over a printing press at Lisbon and ran off all his orders in multiple copies, leaving blanks for variable data. He thus invented the modern bureaucratic ‘form’. He also oversaw the mass production of detailed charts of the Channel for at least the principal ships. But not all the Armada’s problems could be solved by pushing paper. Before long, rations were being consumed faster than they could be replaced and the daily allowance had to be cut by a third; and some of the guns, powder and stores produced in the spring of 1588 turned out to be unfit for use.

Nevertheless, that was not what caused failure. If the Armada had managed to ‘join hands’ with Parma and his army, and if together they had secured a beachhead in Kent, it is hard to see how the Tudor state could have prevented them from marching on London. The Enterprise of England did not fail through defective or insufficient resources, but through unsound strategy and faulty tactics.

A detail of Ryther’s engraving shows the two fleets as they continued up the Channel, with the English fleet sailing in four squadrons, conserving its ammunition but ready for a more coordinated attack. Image: National Maritime Museum

In the immediate aftermath of the campaign, many blamed the Duke of Parma for this failure on the grounds that his forces were not ready to join the fleet from Spain when it arrived. Yet the records of the ‘Flanders Armada’ tell a different story: the duke had hired 16 ships in Hamburg in 1587 and brought them to Dunkirk and Nieuwpoort; he also embargoed 13 French and 17 Flemish ships; and he chartered 170 barges. All received rigging, artillery and even special ‘campaign pennants’ ready for the Channel crossing, and all were maintained in constant readiness from September 1587 until 31 August 1588. Ready, that is, except for final embarkation because the boats were clearly too small for either men or stores to be left aboard for long. As Parma repeatedly pointed out, his ‘little ships’ (like those of Dunkirk in 1940) were fit only to transport troops, not to fight. He put it particularly crisply in a letter to the king on 31 January 1588: ‘These craft are so light and small that four warships could sink every boat we have.’ In the teeth of the blockade of the Flemish ports maintained by heavily gunned shallow-draft Dutch warships, Parma’s men and ships would perforce remain confined to port until the Armada could render the seas safe. But thanks to constant drills, the troops managed to embark in Nieuwpoort and Dunkirk in just 48 hours. The problem was that, when the Armada finally reached the Narrow Seas, Parma did not have 48 hours.

It is easy to underestimate the obstacles inherent in coordinating two huge military undertakings separated by 1,000 miles of sea in the age of sail. Between 31 July (after the Armada entered the Channel) and 6 August (when it arrived off Calais), Medina Sidonia sent seven messengers to advise Parma of his progress, expecting each of them to deliver their message safely in record time, despite the fact that English ships filled the Channel, while France was sinking into civil war. Instead, the courier sent by Medina Sidonia on 31 July did not manage to reach Parma until early on 6 August, and the messenger sent on 6 August did not arrive until the evening of the following day. By then, the Armada faced attack by eight English fireships. So by the time Parma knew for certain of the fleet’s arrival and started embarking his army, it was already too late.

But why was it too late? Why could the Armada not wait? It took Medina Sidonia just ten days to get his 130 ships from Corunna to the Channel approaches, and another six days to drop anchor off Calais, with the loss of only three sailing warships (none of them due to the English). Despite repeated attacks, the English had failed to prevent its progress to a location only 25 miles from Dunkirk. But now, anchored amid the powerful tides of the Narrow Seas, Medina Sidonia lost the strategic initiative. He simply did not know what to do next. He waited for one night and one whole day, unaware that Parma had no idea of his proximity.

Nevertheless, the Enterprise of England did not depend for success upon surprise but upon Spanish command of the sea lasting at least as long as it took Parma’s men to embark and sail out to the fleet; yet unless the English and Dutch navies were decisively defeated, such a long period of security could not be vouchsafed.

A painting from c.1590 by an artist of the Netherlandish school shows the launch of eight English fireships against the Spanish Armada off Calais on 7 August 1588. Image: Alamy

This was an eventuality that Philip had failed to foresee. To be sure, he had recognised that his new plan, lacking the advantage of surprise, required a decisive battle to be fought; and he also recognised the possibility of defeat on the day – that God, in his inscrutable wisdom, might permit an English victory (although he naturally hoped not). But it never seems to have occurred to him that his great fleet might reach the straits of Calais without gaining effective command of the sea. That, of course, is precisely what happened, condemning the Armada to remain in the Narrow Seas for as long as possible, taking the worst England could throw against it; for Medina Sidonia still hoped that Parma would get his soldiers through the blockade and join the fleet.

Deadly effect

Instead, the two navies fought a battle from which the English emerged victorious. It was a close-run thing. Admittedly, John Hawkins, Treasurer of the Navy for the previous decade, had overseen the rebuilding of a fleet of warships that were probably the best afloat anywhere in the world: sleek and fast, their reinforced gundecks carried up to a dozen guns that could fire 30- and 40-pound roundshot to deadly effect. But in 1588, only 24 of the English warships were of the new ‘race-built’ design: the rest were still of the traditional design with high ‘castles’ at stem and stern. Perhaps this explains why the initial reaction of the English fleet to the Armada was strikingly cautious. ‘Our first onset,’ complained Henry Whyte, a gentleman volunteer, was ‘more coldly done than became the value of our nation and the credit of the English navy.’ Howard of Effingham, commander of the English fleet, admitted that, at first, ‘We pluck their feathers little by little’; and apart from the fortuitous capture of two warships on the first day’s fight, his feather-plucking achieved little because it was conducted in the main at long range. Nothing the English tried seemed able to prevent the Armada’s orderly progress up the Channel. Indeed, after an engagement off the Isle of Wight on 4 August, they did not even try. Their next assault only came four days later, off the Flemish coast at Gravelines – but that attack, when it came, was of an entirely different nature. The English had, by now, evidently got the measure of the enemy; and Howard’s galleons launched an aggressive close-range gunnery assault on the Spanish fleet, only temporarily disordered by the fireship attack. ‘Out of my ship the Vanguard,’ according to Sir William Winter (one of the squadron commanders), ‘there was shot 500 rounds of demi-cannon, culverin, and demi-culverin, and when I was furthest off in discharging any of the pieces, I was not out of shot of the harquebus, and most time within speech of one another.’ Now, if the protagonists were within hailing distance (which, amid the noise and chaos of battle, must have been very close indeed), then really serious damage could be inflicted by the heavy artillery – and it was. Although only one Armada ship was sunk outright, English artillery damaged several others so seriously that they were soon in difficulties. The Portuguese galleon San Mateo was ‘riddled with shot like a sieve’ and ran aground shortly afterwards; the Ragusan merchantman San Juan de Sicilia (better known as ‘the Tobermory wreck’) was described as ‘completely shattered… with shots above and below the waterline, from the prow to the stern’. She sought refuge in Tobermory Bay, off the Inner Hebridean island of Mull, because she was sinking.

A six-man Portsmouth gun crew in 1988 working a replica culverin from Mary Rose on a replica Spanish sea-carriage based on one from Trinidad Valencera. Photo: Colin Martin

Two of the excavated Armada wrecks, Trinidad Valencera from Venice and Gran Grifón from Rostock, also sustained hull damage so severe that their crews eventually ran them ashore (in Donegal and Fair Isle, respectively). Even Medina Sidonia’s flagship got back home only because she was, quite literally, tied together with string. ‘We were shipping water at so many points,’ claimed one survivor, ‘that we cinched one great hawser round the hull at the poop, and another before the main mast’ to keep the ship in one piece. One month later, with their pumps working flat out, and straining on the hawsers, they just made it back to Spain.

So if the range was close enough for the English to inflict such serious damage on the Spanish hulls, what punishment had the Armada been able to mete out in return? Fortunately, we possess the accounts for 1588 submitted by Sir John Hawkins as Treasurer of the Navy. They show the purchase of 85 loads of oak and elm timber, and a total expenditure of £3,500 on ‘the grounding, repairing and preparing at Chatham of all her highness’s ships’ after the Armada campaign. But it is important to see these figures in context: building a new warship required 500 loads of timber, and cost over £4,000. Clearly the Armada had failed to inflict the sort of structural damage sustained by its own ships.

The same gun mounted on a replica four-wheeled truck carriage based on one from Mary Rose. Only four members of the Portsmouth team were needed to operate it, and they performed the drills in half the time. Photo: Colin Martin

Why was this so? We know that the Armada carried almost 100 guns of nine-pounder calibre or more, and all evidence suggests that at close range they should have achieved a devastating bombardment. Admittedly, some pieces were sub­standard, especially those cast over the winter of 1587-58 (‘con mucha furia’ as the records significantly state): one found on the wreck of Gran Grifón and another found in 1986 on the Juliana were horribly defective. But that was not true of the majority of the Armada’s guns. Historians used to believe that by the time the Armada reached Calais it had almost completely run out of powder and shot. Medina Sidonia himself stated as much. His most powerful ships, he noted in his journal, were finally rendered ineffective ‘on account of the cannon fire to which they had been exposed, and their own lack of ammunition.’ After the battle off Gravelines, his flagship, San Martín, supplied munitions to several other ships that claimed to have run out. And perhaps some of the principal Spanish ships really did run out of shot, just as the duke claimed; but many did not. Two sources prove this.

Substantial stocks of roundshot were recovered from the wrecks of some Armada ships, although all of them had been heavily engaged in the Channel. Exactly the same picture emerges from the detailed administrative accounts concerning the ships that eventually returned safely to Spain. Thus the 22-gun Trinidad de Escala, for example, fired only 35 shots on 2 August (1.6 rounds per gun), and 38 shots during the crucial battle off Gravelines on 8 August (1.7 rounds per gun). Santa Bárbara, with 20 guns, fired a mere 22 shots on 31 July (1.1 rounds per gun) and 47 on 2-3 August (2.35 rounds per gun). Over the full period of fighting, the 21 guns aboard San Francisco fired 241 rounds, an average of 11.5 per gun, or one shot per gun per day. None of the guns fired a round larger than 20 pounds. Each ship brought back to Spain carried vast quantities of unused munitions. Concepción Menor received 1,521 projectiles at Lisbon and handed back 1,256 (83%); San Francisco received the exceptionally large quota of 8,731 rounds and returned 8,489 (97%).

Loaded questions

An archaeologist recording a gun on the site of the wreck of Gran Grifón off Fair Isle. Image: Colin Martin

What, then, went wrong on the Spanish gundecks in battle? Why could the Armada not fire more frequently and to better effect? We know from Medina Sidonia’s instructions to the fleet, and from actual examples of Armada artillery recovered from the wrecks, that the big guns were always kept loaded; so that when battle was joined one salvo was available for immediate use. This is exactly how a galley operated: it loosed off its big guns just before it rammed its foe; there would be neither opportunity nor need for a second round, and so no procedure existed for reloading as a battle-drill. Medina Sidonia also envisaged using his big guns as a device for crippling and confusing an adversary as an immediate prelude to boarding, whereas, during the battle off Gravelines, for several hours the English maintained a close-range bombardment intended to destroy the enemy by attrition of gunfire alone. Since inferior sailing qualities prevented the Spaniards from closing and boarding as they would have liked, their only counter to such tactics was to attempt to reply in kind. To do this, however, they would have had to reload their big guns time and again during the course of an engagement. Not only was this practice outside the tactical experience of the Spanish commanders and their crews: it was also one for which their equipment was fundamentally unsuited.

There were only two ways to reload muzzle-loading artillery at sea in the 16th century. The guns could either be brought inboard and the necessary operations carried out within the ship, or they could be left in the fully run-out position and loaded outboard. The much more efficient process of allowing a gun’s own recoil to bring it inboard under the restraint of a breeching rope was not developed until well into the 17th century, although it was possible, after firing, to unhitch the piece and haul it back manually. This process would have been laborious but reasonably efficient, and during the course of it the crew would be covered from the view, and to some extent from the fire, of the enemy. Outboard loading was far more awkward and dangerous, though it required a much smaller crew, for the loader had to straddle the barrel outside the port and carry out all the clearing and charging operations from this exposed and difficult position.

Which of these procedures the Spanish gunners used in 1588 is not known for certain; but the inefficient design of their gun carriages and the lack of working space on the gundecks would have made it impractical to load the big guns inboard while a ship was closely engaged. Even the largest ships in the fleet were no more than nine metres in the beam. At the same time, it would have been little short of suicidal for the crews to have attempted outboard loading while they were within small-arms range of an enemy. Probably, therefore, once close action was joined, most Spanish ships fired off their previously prepared salvo, after which sustained gunfire ceased. This does not necessarily mean that no further firing was possible. Every ship carried a number of breech-loading and anti-personnel cannon, aptly known as ‘murderers’; and these were no doubt fired as often as possible. But they could not sink ships. It seems certain that the 100 ship-killing guns aboard the Armada never managed to apply a continuous close-range cannonade against the enemy, although this was the only way to win.

So it was not, as some historians have suggested, a spectacular inequality of guns that explains Spain’s defeat at Gravelines, but rather a more prosaic inequality of gun carriages. Compact four-wheeled truck carriages had been in service with the Royal Navy for at least half a century, but they might still be regarded as England’s decisive secret weapon in 1588. In contrast to the clumsy and inefficient gun mountings on the Spanish ships, which made reloading in action difficult if not impossible, the English truck carriages allowed gun muzzles to protrude much further through the gun-ports, with no awkward trail or wide wheels to obstruct the sides or rear. Even the heaviest guns could therefore be repeatedly fired and reloaded during the course of a fight, range being dictated by the superior sailing qualities of the English ships.

Crucial explanation

Philip II had always known that, somehow, a real danger lay here. ‘The enemy’s objective will be to fight at long distance, to get the advantage of his artillery and shot (said to be in great quantity),’ he warned Medina Sidonia. He even added to the draft in his own hand a warning ‘of the way they have of firing low’ – but he offered no advice on how to avoid these pitfalls. Rather, he chose a strategy that made his fleet a sitting target for precisely the tactics he knew the English favoured.

Philip was thus not only an armchair strategist, but an armchair tactician too. Although he gathered and consulted maps and reports, he never summoned his senior commanders for face-to-face meetings to discuss how best to carry out the Enterprise of England, nor did he invite them to voice their doubts and queries about the strategy he intended to force upon them. Instead, he did everything he could to stifle their criticisms with assurances that God would intervene, if necessary, to bridge any gap between means and ends. None of his plans corresponded to the proposals made by his military and naval experts, and his own masterplan depended for success upon a tactical edge that Spain’s ships simply did not possess. The crucial explanation of the Armada’s fate thus lies in this disharmony between strategy and tactics. As Sir Walter Raleigh wrote tersely somewhat later: ‘To invade by sea upon a perilous coast, being neither in possession of any port, nor succored by any party, may better fit a prince presuming on his fortune than enriched with understanding.’ Philip II created the Armada, and in the end Philip II destroyed it.

Geoffrey Parker teaches history at The Ohio State University and has published 40 books. Along with Colin Martin, he served as historical consultant on the BBC documentary Armada.

Armada: the Spanish enterprise and England’s deliverance in 1588 by Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker is published by Yale University Press on 25 October; £30 hardback.