The English Armada – The Tudor Naval Disaster that you’ve never heard of

Oliver Toms

The story of the Spanish armada is one etched into the national memory

The story of the Spanish armada is one etched into the national memory. Taught in classrooms up and down the country for decades, everyone has a basic level of familiarity with how the plucky English underdogs bested the huge Spanish Armada in 1588. The disastrous English Armada, the counterattack in 1589 which utterly failed, is a comparatively unknown tale. The English Armada was first ordered in the immediate wake of the Spanish Armada. The majority of the 35 ships that the Spanish had lost in the year before were the smaller armed merchantmen. The galleons, the large modern battleship of the time, had returned to Spain requiring urgent repairs before they could be put out at sea again. Due to the size of the Spanish Armada the galleons that had survived had been split across various ports on the North of Spain, with most of the galleons in the port of Santander for repairs. The counterattack had two further objectives. The second was to land in Portugal and begin a rebellion. Portugal had been a long standing ally of England, but after the death of Henry I of Portugal in 1580 Phillip II of Spain took the Portuguese throne. Henry I was a Cardinal, so had not sired any children. The only possible heir, Antonio, was only distantly related to Henry and was noted to be uncharismatic so was not accepted as king by the Portuguese clergy or nobility.
<strong>The English Armada – The Tudor Naval Disaster that you’ve never heard of</strong>
Queen Elizabeth I

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<strong>The English Armada – The Tudor Naval Disaster that you’ve never heard of</strong>
Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth supported Antonio’s claim to the throne

Queen Elizabeth supported Antonio’s claim to the throne as a means of preserving the alliance with Portugal and preventing England’s enemy, Phillip II of Spain, from controlling the Portuguese empire. The English Armada was tasked with seizing Lisbon, which was hoped would encourage nobles loyal to Antonio to rise up in revolt. The final objective was to seize the Azores, where Antonio, the English friendly claimant to the throne was currently running his government in exile. Furthermore it was hoped that the Azores could serve as an English naval base to attack Spanish treasure fleets returning from the Americas. The combined English and Dutch fleet that set sail in 1589 was 126 ships strong, including 6 royal galleons. In addition to the sailors manning the ships there were over 18,000 soldiers to execute the sieges of Corunna and Lisbon. Right from the beginning the Armada suffered setbacks. They decided not to attack Santander, choosing instead Corunna where there was only one Spanish galleon under repair. Corunna itself was fortified with 13th century walls and housed 1,500 veteran Spanish troops. After 14 days the English had only managed to seize part of Corunna, and fled when the wind changed direction and news of an incoming Spanish relief force arrived. The Armada lost 3 large ships and 1,500 men in the fighting, with a further 3,000 soldiers and 24 boats leaving the Armada. The situation degraded even further when the Armada reached Lisbon. The Portuguese refused to revolt in favour of Antonio, and Lisbon was defended by 7,000 Spanish and Portuguese troops. With no siege artillery there was no hope for the city to be seized. One of the English commanders, the Earl Of Essex, still attempted a siege. As supplies dwindled, soldiers succumbed to disease and ships were picked off by Spanish galleys, the Armada fled back to England. Over the course of the Armada 40 English ships had been destroyed or captured, and around 13,000 English soldiers had died. None of the objectives were achieved and Spanish naval supremacy resumed the following year.
Ancestry UK

For many the defeat of the Spanish Armada was the beginning of English, later British, naval supremacy

For many the defeat of the Spanish Armada was the beginning of English, later British, naval supremacy up until the 20th Century. The defeat of the English armada proves this wrong, but also shows how much development was needed before a force resembling the Royal Navy would be created.The English Armada was in fact declared a joint stock company, and severely lacked a united or clear command structure. From Francis Drake’s decision to not attack Santander to the Dutch leaving the Armada after Corunna, a lack of proper leadership left the Armada split once it reached Spain. Additionally the objectives of the Armada were too numerous and too hopeful. The English did not have enough troops or siege guns to take Corunna, and the thousands of Portuguese soldiers that were expected to rise up in revolt did not show any signs of discontent. The English Armada only succeeded in undoing the gains made the year before. It would be another 50 years before English Naval power could challenge the Spanish.
<strong>The English Armada – The Tudor Naval Disaster that you’ve never heard of</strong>
Queen Elizabeth I in Coronation robes
<strong>The English Armada – The Tudor Naval Disaster that you’ve never heard of</strong>

Oliver Toms

Oliver is a History & Politics graduate from the University of Warwick. Oliver has a broad range of historical interests, but specialises in Eastern European history in the 20th century.
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