The Spanish Armada of 1588


In 1588 the Armada set sail on what would become one of the biggest naval mistakes known throughout history. Philip II of Spain had intentions of reviving Catholicism and in doing so he believed that England must undergo reform along with other Protestant areas. The Armada was an integral piece in solving this puzzle for Philip. His intentions were to use the Armada as a shield for invading England. Alexander Parma was to take Philip’s army and unite with the Armada for the invasion. In this union came a flaw in Philip’s plan and the eventual loss of the Armada and Spain’s power at sea fell with it.


The plans for the Armada had been in progress since the early 1580’s. Planning was under the command of the Marquis of Santa Cruz. He was an ideal person for this invasion and had prepared the Armada in Lisbon to follow through with the invasion plans. He was a more than adequate seaman and knew much about naval warfare. As the Armada was being prepared for leave the first problem arose. Santa Cruz was overtaken by death on February 9, 1588.[1] This was a major setback for Philip. He not only lost the one person that fully understood the purpose of the Armada, but he also lost his most able leader at sea. Philip did, however, gain more control over the Armada through his death. The Marquis was an independent person and in knowing the art of naval warfare would have been less apt to strictly follow the orders of the king. In his place the king appointed to chief command of the fleet the Duke of Medina Sidonia.[2]


The Duke was not adequately suited for this position as his forte was administration rather than seamanship.[3] His appointment was not for knowledge or experience; it was done because of his riches and title. Philip understood that others would listen to the Duke because of his title, and he also knew that the Duke would adhere strictly to Philip’s orders. The Duke, however, protested plaintively, and truly, that he was entirely unfit for the task.[4] Philip insisted and eventually had his way. The formal appointment as ‘captain-general of the Ocean Sea’ was issued on March 21.[5] The mission had then been given its leader, but it wasn’t ready to get underway yet.


The provisions that the Marquis had prepared had long been spoiled or rotten. This situation had to be resolved before the Armada could attempt to leave. Even more alarming than the food supply was the shortage of munitions. This was a problem that could not be easily resolved. Philip was timid when the issue of money was brought before him. He was unwilling to spend much more than he had already. The Armada alone is said to have cost him 10,000,000 ducats.[6] This problem, along with the forthcoming instructions from Philip, utterly confused the Duke.


In April he received instructions from Philip for the upcoming campaign.[7] Most importantly was the junction with Parma and his transportation to England. The Armada was to remain in close formation, and never to separate in pursuit of a fleeing foe. Also, they were to battle at close range, though the English would undoubtedly attack from a distance.[8] These instructions from Philip and the total commitment to adhere to them by the Duke helped secure the total failure of the Armada and the loss of many Spanish lives as well.


In total the Armada consisted of more than one hundred and thirty ships that were divided into ten squadrons.[9] This was less than the estimate of Santa Cruz.[10] Each squadron was led by a different commander, but their individual importance will not be discussed in this paper. The squadrons were: of Portugal- consisting of ten galleons, Castile- fourteen ships of various sizes, Andalusia- ten galleons and other vessels, Biscay- ten galleons and lesser ships, Guipuzcoa- ten galleons, Italy- ten ships, Urcas- twenty-three store-ships, and three squadrons of lesser importantance.[11] The ships were larger and more overwhelming in stature to those of the British, but they would not prove to be formidable opponents in the upcoming battles. On May 14 Medina Sidonia reported to the king that the fleet had begun to drop