Top 10 myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada encounter of 1588 was undoubtedly an important and fascinating battle. However, even today it is frequently surrounded by common myths and confusions that date back to Victorian Era days. The battle itself was followed by 16 years of land and naval war between England and Spain in which the Spanish were mostly successful and renewed their control over the high seas, a basic fact that many texts and popular accounts often fail entirely to mention. Spain retooled its navy and shipped three times as much silver in the 1590s as before. The Spanish invasion force, moreover, was never referred to (by Philip or anyone else in Spain) as the “Invincible Armada”; medical resources on the Spanish coast were mobilized with surprising rapidity and effectiveness to tend to sick and wounded returning sailors in 1588, suggesting that the Spaniards very much were prepared for the potential failure of the Spanish Armada and run-ins with rough weather. These are just a few of the common myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada battle; a list of the “Top 10” myths is compiled and tackled below.

Please feel free to quote from, print, and cite the text below as, Top 10 myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada, history’s most confused and misunderstood battle,” by Wes Ulm, Harvard University personal website, © 2004.

(1a) Myth: The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was a decisive victory for the English that marked England’s triumph in its war with Spain. Spain never again tried to land forces in England after that, failed in its bid to end English buccaneering against Spanish treasure ships, and challenged England only on land, not at sea.
(1b) Fact: False on all counts. The Spanish Armada confrontation was not at all decisive; it was merely an early sea battle in a long, intermittent, but often grinding land and naval war between England and Spain that lasted from 1585 until 1604. As I’ll discuss below, Spain defeated England in most of the land and naval battles after the Armada and won a favorable treaty in 1604. Spain, in fact, dispatched three more Spanish Armadas in the 1590s that were dispersed by storms. Furthermore, in 1595, the Spanish, in fact, did succeed in landing troops in western England, where they attacked and burned several towns before disembarking, as will be detailed below (myth #10a). Of all the common Spanish Armada myths, this one—the failure to even acknowledge the most basic, incontrovertible fact of the war that was waged between England and Spain after the Armada—has always stricken me as the most puzzling. It’s akin to teaching the history of the US Civil War and halting at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, or discussing the Second World War and stopping at the Fall of France in 1940, without mentioning the Battles of Midway, El Alamein, Guadalcanal, or the D-Day Normandy invasion at all! A grossly misleading, terribly incorrect impression of the conflict is thereby imparted. The key here is to recognize that the Spanish Armada was merely one battle, an early one in a long war; this simple fact is often unrecognized and unacknowledged, contributing to many of the other common myths.

(2a) Myth: The defeat of the Spanish Armada was the beginning of England’s control of the high seas. Spain never recovered from the Spanish Armada fiasco and relinquished control of the ocean lanes to the English. England’s status as mistress of the seas would be unchallenged for centuries as the British Empire grew in size, and the vaunted English navy could trace its dominance of the sea lanes to the Spanish Armada’s defeat in 1588.
(2b) Fact: One of the most common statements about the Spanish Armada, and one that is totally false. Spain recovered quickly from the Armada debacle and defeated England on land and at sea in multiple military engagements in the decade following the Spanish Armada. (In fact, an English Armada sent in 1589, the year after the Spanish Armada, suffered a crushing defeat against Spain, just as its Spanish counterpart did against England in 1588.) One of the most important consequences of the Spanish Armada was that it altered assumptions about naval warfare, since the English at Gravelines had opted for smaller, rapidly reloading, more maneuverable light coastal defensive ships in place of the heavy ocean-going galleons with single-firing cannon (followed by seize-and-grapple tactics) used by Spain. The most eager students of the English naval innovations and tactics were… the Spaniards. Philip’s post-Armada squadrons were much more agile and nimble than those prior to it. The Spaniards developed and implemented an efficient convoy system that enabled them to ship three times as much gold and silver from the Americas after the Spanish Armada than before it—indeed, Spain transported more precious metals in the decade of the 1590s than in any other! England’s buccaneering sea dogs were no longer able to raid Spanish treasure transports effectively, a fact that was underscored by the complete failure of a privateering expedition by Sir John Hawkins and Sir Martin Frobisher in 1589-1590 against Spanish shipping. Furthermore, both John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake—the most famous of England’s privateering pirates—were killed in a disastrous raid against Spanish America in 1595, a multi-pronged attack against Spanish colonies in the Americas that was anticipated and utterly crushed by Spanish defenses, one of the worst defeats that the English navy would ever suffer. Spain’s post-Armada navy was retooled and expanded, and Spain ruled the waves for most of the 1600s; in contrast, by the last year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, England remained relatively weak as a sea power, and its maritime strength during the early years of the Stuart Dynasty (James I and Charles I in the early 1600s) grew only gradually and haltingly. When Spain was finally replaced as a naval bellwether in the late 17th century, it was the Dutch who assumed the mantle of dominant sea power, defeating England in several Anglo-Dutch Wars of the late 1600s. Only in the mid-1700s does England truly emerge as the naval power controlling the sea lanes, after victories in consecutive Anglo-French wars (including the famous French and Indian War with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the victory that finally enabled England to dominate North America and spread its empire on a global scale).

(3a) Myth: Spain was eclipsed as a great power following the Spanish Armada, sinking into insolvency and rapid decline, while England became rich, prosperous, and powerful.
(3b) Fact: Spain definitely did not slip into insignificance following the Armada defeat. As noted above, Spain in fact defeated England on land and at sea in numerous battles of the decade after the Spanish Armada and retained substantial influence over affairs in Europe and the Americas well into the 1600s. Crushing debt afflicted both Spain and England as a result of their war; by the close of Elizabeth I’s reign, the English were nearly £3,000,000 in debt and had sold offices and crown lands to avoid slipping further, and Spain’s Philip II had declared several bankruptcies in parallel. In addition to the exorbitant expenses in the conflict against Spain, the English were dragged into a draining, costly, inconclusive guerrilla war against Ireland from 1594-1603 led by an Irish lord named Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone. Late Elizabethan England also suffered crop failures, famines, and plagues that engendered severe poverty in much of the country. Most importantly, the continuation of the war with Spain drained English financial resources and hindered trade, leaving a severe financial burden for the Stuart kings of the early 1600s. This debt, in conjunction with the Stuarts’ profligacy, would contribute to the crisis between monarch and Parliament which caused the English Civil War of the mid-1600s, a particularly bitter and bloody conflict that would split the nation. As for Spain, the nation was eventually crippled in the late 1600s by internal corruption, failures in its monarchical system— marked by feeble rulers with a propensity to play favorites and indulge prodigally in festivities— and severe inflation caused in part by its precious metals shipments from the New World. However, in a military sense, the most decisive defeats it suffered were in the Battles of Rocroi and Passaro against the French in the 30 Years’ War (1618-1648), not the English. It was these land defeats that most severely enfeebled Spain as a European power, enabling the French to replace Spain as Europe’s dominant nation during the reign of Louis XIV.

(4a) Myth: The British Empire—in the sense of the long-term settlement and colonization of distant overseas territories—was initiated following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, since settlement was now finally opened up to the English and other northern Europeans.
(4b) Fact: Not by a longshot. Once again, we have to remember that the war dragged on unsuccessfully for England after the Spanish Armada, and the country’s resources and seafaring vessels had to be spared for the conflict against Spain. The failure of the English Armada in 1589, an English-led expedition to Spain and Portugal, frustrated attempts to break Spain’s naval power, and the material, financial, and human cost of this defeat prevented expeditions to North America—probably contributing to the failure of the Roanoke Colony in what is now Virginia in the United States, which had been attempted in the 1580s but from which there were no survivors. When the Treaty of London in 1604 officially ceased hostilities between Spain and England (the treaty having been signed by England’s King James I, who had succeeded Elizabeth in 1603), England lacked a permanent settlement in the Americas or anywhere else. It was only after this negotiated peace that England was finally freed to begin colonization, following on the heels of Spain, Portugal, and France.
(5a) Myth: Spain’s King Philip II craved nothing less than the wholesale conquest of England with the Spanish Armada, and the annexation of the island country as a colony of New Spain. England would have been converted into a Catholic nation and, had the Spanish Armada been successful, we’d all be speaking Spanish today.
(5b) Fact: Philip II had relatively modest goals with the Spanish Armada and never intended to “conquer England,” let alone convert the English populace to Catholicism en masse or compel them to speak Spanish. As I discuss in more detail below in this article’s main text, Philip’s center of attention was on the European Continent—in fact, his principal enemies were the Protestant rebels from the provinces of the Netherlands, then a part of Spain, as well as Protestant French Huguenots and Portuguese nationalists who opposed Philip’s annexation of Portugal in 1580. England was more peripheral to Philip’s scheme, and his objective with the Armada was chiefly to stop England from interfering with Philip’s central aims elsewhere—namely, to cease English military and financial support of the Dutch insurgents (whom the Protestant English had been assisting considerably) and to halt English buccaneer attacks on Spanish treasure ships. Philip certainly did seek to win tolerance for English Catholics and restore them to a more exalted status but, as discussed in the text, conditions in England since Henry VIII’s break with Rome had rendered it virtually impossible for Philip or anyone else to have forced England to convert back into a Catholic country. There was no viable Catholic replacement for the Protestant Elizabeth I since Mary Queen of Scots had been executed in 1587. Moreover, Spain’s problems in the Netherlands, the logistical issues posed by England’s location as an island nation, and the experience of Spain’s invading armies on the Continent clearly indicate that even an entirely successful Spanish Armada invasion in 1588 would have had little cultural effect on England.

(6a) Myth: In the Battle of Gravelines, the chief confrontation between the English defensive fleet and the Spanish Armada, the English won a stunning underdog victory, having been outnumbered and outgunned by the vastly more imposing Spanish Armada fleet.
(6b) Fact: The English were neither outnumbered nor outgunned at the Battle of Gravelines, as is so often claimed. There was a rough parity in the sizes of the fleets; Spain had more bulky galleons, but England had more total ships in the water.

(7a) Myth: The Battle of Gravelines was a titanic clash on the high seas, one of the largest and most extraordinary naval battles in history. The English ships inflicted heavy damage on the Spanish Armada vessels while suffering little of their own, sinking a large number of Spain’s ships and forcing the Spaniards to flee.
(7b) Fact: The Spanish Armada battle at Gravelines itself was definitely not a titanic naval clash, but a short, inconclusive, rather anticlimactic encounter between two large fleets, both of which committed major blunders and neither of which damaged each other significantly. It’s true that the Spanish Armada caused little damage to the English ships, but then, neither did the English ships cause much harm at all to the Spanish fleet, as discussed in the main text below. It was an unusually ferocious September Atlantic storm as the Spanish vessels were rounding the tip of Ireland, that damaged and/or sank most of the Spanish Armada ships that did not return to port, either directly or in compelling the vessels to beach on the rocky Irish coast. Most of Spain’s casualties from the Spanish Armada invasion resulted when sailors died of or were incapacitated from disease and exposure, not from battle wounds. In any case, most of the Spanish Armada ships did manage to return to port in Spain or Portugal. Many of the lost ships had already been in a state of disrepair, while Philip II’s crucial Atlantic class vessels—the most seaworthy in the Spanish Armada and designed for oceanic traversal, the key to Spain’s New World empire and the newly conquered Philippines archipelago in the Pacific Ocean—returned to the Iberian Peninsula largely intact. In fact, excellent seamanship was displayed by both the English and Spanish sides in their encounter, and it is quite remarkable that the Spaniards did not suffer greater losses considering the unremittingly powerful storm they had encountered.

(8a) Myth: The Spanish Armada was dubbed “the Invincible Armada” (La Armada Invencible) by an overconfident, swaggering King Philip II of Spain and his advisors, having been so nicknamed since they all assumed that the Armada was so strong that it could never be defeated by the English.
(8b) Fact: This tale is repeated with bewildering frequency—and it’s utterly, absolutely false. The Spanish Armada was never, ever referred to by King Philip or his Spanish ministers as “the Invincible Armada” (“La Armada Invencible”); this term was an English invention, not a Spanish one, used by English historians who later described the battle, yet the term is frequently attributed to the Spaniards incorrectly. In fact, the rapid mobilization of Spanish resources upon the return of the Armada ships to harbor in Spain lucidly demonstrates that the Spaniards had been very much prepared for the Armada’s potential failure. Populations in coastal towns were rapidly drafted and quickly responded to aid the often injured and seasick sailors; food supplies, hospital beds and equipment, and physicians were immediately and efficiently mustered for the Spanish Armada’s crews, saving hundreds of lives.

(9a) Myth: The English suffered barely any casualties at all in the Spanish Armada encounter, celebrating their victory with great revelry following the departure of the Armada fleet from England’s coastal waters.
(9b) Fact: The English themselves suffered thousands of casualties among their sailors in the Spanish Armada engagement due to exposure and outbreaks of infectious disease, and the battle’s aftermath was characterized not by celebration but by finger-pointing, infighting, and bitter protestations when many sailors were not compensated for months.

(10a) Myth: After the Spanish Armada’s failure to invade England, the Spaniards were never able to successfully land troops on English soil. This was a continuation of England’s long and remarkable defensive tradition, in which no hostile military force has ever succeeded in landing troops on the territory of the English island mainland since the Norman Conquest.
(10b) Fact: Not true! The claim that England has never suffered a hostile landing since 1066 is repeated with extreme frequency; and it also happens to be inaccurate. That’s because in 1595, a Spanish force led by Don Carlos de Amesquita managed to achieve just that, even though the Spanish soldiers had not intended such a landing initially. Amesquita’s small force had been patrolling the waters of the English Channel when they encountered a scarcity of potable water. Navigating the rough and fickle winds in the Channel, Amesquita’s troops were blown ashore near Cornwall on the western English coast. The Spaniards easily intimidated or defeated local militia resistance and set fire to much of Penzance and surrounding localities while plundering the hamlets for whatever victuals, nautical aids, and freshwater supplies that they could find. Eventually the English began to muster a professional army and summon naval forces under Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, but the Spanish managed to evade their adversaries when Amesquita’s force decamped and returned home to the Iberian Peninsula— after holding a traditional Catholic Mass on English soil.

The rest of this essay fleshes out the material summarized above with greater detail and a more in-depth picture of the conditions surrounding the Spanish Armada clash and its aftermath. Intended as a companion to the English Armada article, this piece cuts through the myths and lays out the facts of the Spanish Armada battle, still significant in numerous respects as discussed below, but in ways far more subtle and intricate than are generally appreciated.

Please feel free to quote from, print, and cite this essay as, Top 10 myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada, history’s most confused and misunderstood battle,” by Wes Ulm, Harvard University personal website, © 2004.


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