English Elizabethan Army

Trayned Band drilling

Taunton Garrison take on the Armada!

Queen Elizabeth I, was feeling stretched: she had one army guarding the Scottish frontier and another she could ill-afford in Flanders. Unbeknownst, her ambassador in Paris, Sir Edward Stafford, was actually a spy for Philip and fed him much accurate information. Her spies were similarly well-placed— one delivered an exact copy of Philip’s plans. But the sheer disparity of forces was truly intimidating. Elizabeth knew she could not stop Parma’s veterans on land with her ill-equipped and outnumbered trained bands.

The English commander waiting to meet the Invincible Armada was Admiral Lord Howard of Effingham. His top captains were all once and future privateers: John Hawkyns, Francis Drake, and Martin Frobisher. They set sail with Elizabeth’s fleet on July 29. The next night, Saturday, having weathered a second storm in which four galleys were lost along with another ship, the Armada moved into the Channel. It was spotted from shore and beacon fires lighted. Quickly, a line of fires hopscotched from hilltop to hilltop until the entire south coast of England was awake and warned from Plymouth to Dover. A second string of signal fires raced inland faster than man or horse or ship, to London, York, and as far north as Durham. The queen and militia were alerted and England readied to repel invasion.

For all the dash and daring of experienced English captains, however, nothing they did stopped the slow progress of the Armada. When it hove to at the safe harbor of Calais on August 6 it looked like the ‘‘Enterprise of England’’ might well succeed despite English skill. Fortunately for England, Sidonia was still 30 miles from Dunkirk where the invasion army and its 200 barges were blockaded by small but deadly warships of the Sea Beggars, then allied to England. Parma refused to load men on the barges without Sidonia dealing with the Dutch ships. He might have walked his men to Calais but he could not get the barges there, unescorted through the Dutch blockade. This was a major flaw in Philip’s grand design all along. As so often, Philip had trusted to God to find a way that he could not see yet. Now it was God’s favor the Spanish could not find.

Michael Roberts excluded English armies from his consideration of the revolution in military affairs, suggesting that there was virtually no progress made toward military modernization during the Wars of the Roses, which saw little to no adoption of continental weapons or tactical advances. More recently, Mark Fissel argued that the English military system actually showed high levels of flexibility and absorbed numerous foreign military ideas, though giving them a unique English character in practice. A major difference from the continent was that military development in England relied far more on private interests than the state, and was more closely tied to naval warfare. From 1588 to the start of the English Civil Wars (1639–1651) most English soldiers were raised through conscription.


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