Invincibile Armata, before 1700


During the “siglo de oro” the Spanish empire extended from America, from where galleons loaded with gold arrived, to Europe. The Netherlands, Flanders, Lombardy and southern Italy were, in addition to Portugal, under the control of the Spanish empire. The alliance between the Habsburg families extended the influence of Spain also on Austria-Hungary. The most important city of this empire was Seville, at the center of all trade. The second city of the empire was considered Naples, which possessed a superior fleet even to the Spanish one. It was the metropolis of the world with its traffic and the number of its inhabitants. Naples was more main point than Madrid. The military force of Spain, which could count on the large contribution of the territories of its empire, presented itself with the army and fleet most powerful in the world.

Philip 2nd of Hapsburg ascended the Spanish throne in 1556. In 1553 he had already become king of Naples, Sicily and Sardinia. The following year he married the Queen of England Mary 1st Tudor (Bloody Mary), becoming king consort of England, while Mary Tudor became in turn queen consort of Spain. In 1558 Mary died. She, who had not children, was succeeded by Elizabeth 1st, Mary’s half-sister, on the throne of England. Philip maintained his claim on the English throne by virtue of his marriage. It was claim without a legal basis in consequence of the fact that he was never proclaimed king of England but only king consort, therefore without rights on the crown.

Philip 2nd had proclaimed himself defender of the Catholic faith and of the pope. In this regard, he had tried to eradicate the Islamic religion and the uses of the large Moor population that lived in the southern provinces of Spain. rebellion took place against the measures of Philip. The Islamic rebels received the support of the African peoples who faced the sea in front of Spain. Two years were necessary to defeat the rebels. After the defeat, the Moors were dispersed in the various provinces of the kingdom. After the war against the Muslims, Philip focused his attention on the population of the Netherlands and Flanders, most of whom were Lutherans or Calvinists. The revolt of the Protestants against the Spanish occupation, that persecuted those who did not convert to Catholicism, was supported by the British.

In 1530 Henry 8th, King of England, had asked the Pope to dissolve his marriage relationship with Catherine of Aragon from whom he had only a female daughter, Mary, and not the male heir to the throne. He also asked the Pope to marry Anne Boleyn, a dispensation necessary because Henry had been a lover of Anne’s sister. Pope Clement 7th, who at first was in favor of declaring null the marriage between Henry and Catherine, was negatively influenced by the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain Charles 5th, who had imperialist aims on England and, therefore, he preferred no male heir in England. The refusal to cancel the marriage was not accepted by Henry 8th. This contrast resulted in the schism of the Anglican Church, which escaped from papal authority. The Anglican detachment allowed the dissolution of the marriage of Henry with Catherine of Aragon and the subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. The pope, due to this, issued a bull of excommunication against Henry 8th. In 1547, on the death of Henry, his son Edward took over the throne, but he died of smallpox 6 years later. Jane Gray, a great-niece of Henry 8th, succeeded him for only two weeks. After exactly nine days of reign she was removed by Mary, daughter of Henry 8th and Catherine of Aragon. She was imprisoned, along with her husband, in the Tower of London. Mary (Bloody Mary), who was married to the King of Spain Philip 2nd, reigned for a few years distinguishing herself for the ruthlessness towards her enemies.

In 1558, Elizabeth Tudor, daughter of Henry 8th and her second wife, Anne Boleyn, became Queen of England, after her half-sister had died without heirs. Elizabeth, who had received a Protestant education, was cultured and intelligent. Her first years of reign were spent consolidating the Anglican church, after the restoration of the Catholic rite promoted by Queen Mary, who was a fervent papist. Elizabeth became head of the Anglican Church and named her confessor Matthew Parker as the archbishop of Canterbury, the highest spiritual authority. She had the “Book of Common Prayer” adopted by the church, a missal and prayer book that uniformed religious rites throughout England. There was a break in the good relations with Elizabeth 1st between the Irish population and the “Upper Class” of English origin in Ireland. The British crown had reaffirmed with renewed severity the statutes of Kilkenny, where a series of discriminations were provided to the detriment of the native Irish: prohibition of mixed marriages, use of the English language, use of the Common Law in the courts.

The Pope wanted to bring England and his church back under his control. In order to achieve it he did not hesitate to attempt the murder of Elizabeth at the hands of a monk who disembarked illegally on the English coast. The monk managed to reach a few steps from the queen, inside the royal palace. He did not succeed in his intent. After this failed attempt to regicide Elizabeth did not hesitate to imprison and execute the nobles and the notables who were suspected of complicity with the papists. Pope Gregory 13th then urged Spain to invade England to bring it back to the Roman church. There were other reasons why Spain was waging war against Elizabeth: the failed marriage between the son of Philip II and the Queen of England, the constant attacks on the Spanish navy carrying gold from America in a low-intensity race war, carried on by English corsairs, protected by the crown to which a significant part of their booties went.

In 1587 Philip 2nd decided to prepare a fleet to attack England. He wanted to put an end to the growing power on the seas of the English navy and wanted to reaffirm his prerogative of “Defender of the Faith”, supporting the Pope’s desire to put an end to the Anglican schism. Initially it was decided to form a fleet of 500 ships that from Portugal had to bring to Holland where it would have to embark the Spanish army to transfer it on the English coasts. The Iberian military was deployed in the United Provinces of Flanders and the Netherlands to fight against Protestants in the “Eighty years’ war”.

In 1587 the British navy consisted of only 34 vessels. England would have been easy prey for the Spaniards. Sir Francis Drake, one of the most feared English corsairs, was aware of the danger his home ran. Returning from the Americas where he had repeatedly defeated the Spaniards, he aimed his ships at the port of Cadiz where he succeeded in sinking 37 Spanish boats which were part of the fleet under construction. This raid delayed a year the Spanish fleet’s departure to England, also because the battles won in the Americas by English vessels against Iberian ships and the sudden death of the commander of the fleet, Marquis of Santa Cruz. Elizabeth mobilized the whole country in the construction of military ships. Even private shipowners set up their own vessels at their expense to be used against the enemy. In the end, one hundred vessels were ready to oppose the Spaniards. The English fleet consisted of ships smaller than Iberian, armed with cannons built specifically for the navy, easier and faster to recharge. The commander of the English fleet was Lord Howard of Effingham, the deputy commander Sir Francis Drake.

The “Grande y Felicisima Armada” or “Invencible Armada” had managed to put together only 130 ships, several vessels had been supplied by Naples and Sicily, three were from Genoa. The “Grande y Felicisima Armada” sailed from the port of Lisbon commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia with 24,000 men on board. It had to immediately repair in the port of La Coruña because of a storm that damaged several ships. On May 28, 1587 the fleet left the port heading for Calais where it had to embark the Spanish land forces to be used for the invasion of England. The deployment of the fleet followed the canons of land battles, a tactic that had proved successful in 1571 in the battle of Lepanto. In the front row were 22 galleons, the most powerful ships in the fleet, followed by the other smaller and less armed vessels.

When the Spanish fleet was all into the English Channel, the best English ships departed which were waiting at Plymouth. The British attacked the rear of the invincible army, with the tactics of “hit and run”. The Spaniards, on the contrary, were equipped for boarding, where their men were winners in hand-to-hand combat. The British hit the enemy vessels with cannon bursts that repeated every four minutes. The Spanish cannons, which were resting on terrestrial stems, were slower to recharge. The responses to the enemy fire were not timely, and the agile English ships, smaller than the Spanish, were able to settle readily in the stern so as not to offer the sides to enemy blows. The British damaged several boats, sinking a galleon while another galleon was captured. After each attack the English ships moved away quickly to avoid being approached by the Spaniards.

Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth had assembled an army gathering all the soldiers available in the various fiefdoms of England. Elizabeth placed herself at the head of her army on a white horse, lined up on the shores of the Channel, ready to move to the place where the Spanish landing would take place. The English land forces were less numerous than the Spanish ones, but the great determination of the British who defended their homes must be considered, if the Spaniards had managed to invade London all would have been lost.

Despite the losses, the Spanish fleet managed to reach the ports of Calais and Graveniles, a few kilometers to the east, to embark the army. It would have had to take 30,000 soldiers on board, but things got bad. The British, who at this juncture were helped by Dutch ships, prevented the boats loaded with soldiers from reaching the Spanish ships that, due to the shallow waters, could not approach the sandy shores. Francis Drake succeeded in bringing eight incendiary boats into the port of Calais, who headed for the large galleons standing in the harbor, with a courageous blitz. The Spanish ships maneuvered in a hurry to escape the fire of the boats. At that moment the ships of Francis Drake intervened taking advantage of the situation of disorder in the Spanish formation caused by the fires. English managed to sink three galleons, the flagship ships of the fleet (Battle of Gravelinga).

The Spanish commander had to take note of the impossibility of completing the invasion plan because of the difficulty in getting the army men to embark, the losses suffered and the constant surprise attacks by the English who had greatly reduced the offensive capabilities of the “Invincible armada”. He also acknowledged that a return to Spain by re-crossing the Channel would have mortally exposed the rest of the fleet to attacks by the British navy. He therefore decided to travel the longest route through the North Sea, passing off Scotland, Ireland and then reaching La Coruna, in northern Spain. The return trip of the Spanish fleet, whose nickname of “Invincible Armata” now seemed a hoax, was a long ordeal. There were three storms that the Spanish sailors had to face on their return journey. On August 12, a violent storm devastated the cold waters of the Orkney Islands. The Spanish fleet managed to resist and double Scotland. On 12 September and a few days later, two more violent storms surprised ships off Ireland. The attempted invasion of England caused to Spain 10,000 dead out of a total of 24,000 men and 45 ships, many of them galleons, sunk or captured by the British.

A partial revenge of the Spaniards occurred two years later, in 1589. England decided to attack the Spaniards in their ports to prevent the reconstruction of the fleet in the shipyards of Santander, La Coruña, and San Sebastian. It was also Elizabeth’s intention to conquer Portugal and replace Philip 2nd, who also reigned over the Lusitanian country, with Antonio, Prior of Crato, aspiring to the throne as the nephew of Manuel 1st of Portugal. The English expedition, commanded by Sir Francis Drake, did not succeed in its intent. The planned conquest of Lisbon failed due to the relentless defense of the Portuguese. A violent storm off the Azores put the British fleet out of action which had to abandon the expedition definitively and return home.

Spain was able to reinforce its fleet by launching 12 new formidable galleons, who were nicknamed the 12 apostles, as their task was to escort the boats loaded with gold coming from South America headed to the motherland. The escort of these powerful galleons, built with the modern criteria that the English fleet had already adopted, effectively protected the Spanish transports from the boarding of the English ships. The “eighty years’ war” continued between Spain and England. France managed to conquer all the northern cities of the country still under English control with the help of the Iberian army. Orleans and Calais were released. In 1598 England, also involved in a war in Ireland where the local population had risen against the British occupation, entered into a peace treaty with Philip 3rd, successor to Philip 2nd, which put an end to the clashes between the two countries.

Spain managed to maintain its dominance over the Atlantic, which allowed it to continue its naval traffic with the colonies of the Americas. The northern Atlantic and the North Sea were under the control of the English navy, which was increasingly considered a seafaring power, until it failed to conquer the dominance of the seas with the decline of the Spanish empire.