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Battle of the Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada was an attack starting in Spain that sought to attack England. It, however, went around Scotland, to Ireland, and back to Spain. Approximately 50 Spanish Ships were lost, out of the 130, and 80 remained.

The Armada was delayed by bad weather, forcing the four galleys and one of the galleons to leave the fleet, and was not sighted in England until 19 July, when it appeared off The Lizard in Cornwall. The news was conveyed to London by a system of beacons that had been constructed all the way along the south coast. On that evening the English fleet was trapped in Plymouth Harbour by the incoming tide. 


The Spanish convened a council of war, where it was proposed to ride into the harbour on the tide and incapacitate the defending ships at anchor and from there to attack England; but Medina Sidonia declined to act because this had been explicitly forbidden by Philip, and decided to sail on to the east and towards the Isle of Wight. As the tide turned, 55 English ships set out to confront them from Plymouth under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham, with Sir Francis Drake as Vice Admiral. Howard gave some control to Drake, given his experience in battle.




At daybreak on 21 July the English fleet engaged the Armada off Plymouth near the Eddystone rocks. The Armada was in a crescent-shaped defensive formation, convex towards the east. The galleons and great ships were concentrated in the centre and at the tips of the crescent's horns, giving cover to the transports and supply ships in between. Opposing them the English were in two sections, Drake to the north in Revenge with 11 ships, and Howard to the south in Ark Royal with the bulk of the fleet. 

Given the Spanish advantage in close-quarter fighting, the English ships used their superior speed and manoeuvrability to keep beyond grappling range and bombarded the Spanish ships from a distance with cannon fire. However the distance was too great for this to be effective, and at the end of the first day's fighting neither fleet had lost a ship in action, although the Spanish carrack Rosario and galleon San Salvador were abandoned after they collided. When night fell, Francis Drake turned his ship back to loot the Spanish ships, capturing supplies of much-needed gunpowder, and gold. 

However, Drake had been guiding the English fleet by means of a lantern. Because he snuffed out the lantern and slipped away for the abandoned Spanish ships, the rest of his fleet became scattered and was in complete disarray by dawn. It took an entire day for the English fleet to regroup and the Armada gained a day's grace. The English ships then used their superior speed and maneuverability to catch up with the Spanish fleet after a day of sailing.

On 23 July the English fleet and the Armada fought once more, near Portland. This time a change of wind gave the Spanish the weather lead, and they sought to close with the English, but were frustrated by the smaller ships' greater maneuverability

On 27 July the Armada anchored off Calais in a tight crescent formation, not far from Dunkirk, where Parma's army, killed and reduced by disease to 16,000, was expected to be waiting, ready to join the fleet in barges sent from ports along the Flemish coast.

Communication had proven to be far more difficult than anticipated, and it only now became known that this army had yet to be equipped with sufficient transport or assembled in the port, a process which would take at least six days. Dunkirk was blockaded by a Dutch fleet of thirty flyboats under Lieutenant-Admiral Justin of Nassau. 

Parma wanted the Armada to send its light petaches to drive away the Dutch, but Medina Sidonia could not do this because he feared that he might need these ships for his own protection. There was no deep-water port where the fleet might shelter – always acknowledged as a major difficulty for the expedition – and the Spanish found themselves vulnerable as night drew on. 

The Dutch flyboats mainly operated in the shallow waters off Zeeland and Flanders that larger warships with a deeper draught, like the Spanish and English galleons, could not safely enter. The Dutch therefore enjoyed unchallenged naval superiority in these waters, even though their navy was inferior in naval armament. An essential element of the plan of invasion, as it was eventually implemented, was the transportation of a large part of Parma's Army of Flanders as the main invasion force in unarmed barges across the English Channel. These barges would be protected by the large ships of the Armada. However, to get to the Armada, they would have to cross the zone dominated by the Dutch navy, where the Armada could not go. This problem seems to have been overlooked by the Spanish planners, but it was insurmountable. Because of this obstacle, England never was in any real danger.

Many Spanish ships were severely damaged, especially the Spanish and Portuguese Atlantic-class galleons which had to bear the brunt of the fighting during the early hours of the battle in desperate individual actions against groups of English ships. The Spanish plan to join with Parma's army had been defeated and the English had gained some breathing space, but the Armada's presence in northern waters still posed a great threat to England.

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