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Did God really help the English defeat the Spanish Armada?

Drawing of a Spanish frigate showing measurements and armament (SP 9/205/1)
Drawing of a Spanish frigate showing measurements and armament (SP 9/205/1)

In 1588, King Philip II of Spain sent an armada (a fleet of ships) to collect his army from the Netherlands, where they were fighting, and take them to invade England. This was done in the name of religion, because England had become Protestant and no longer accepted the Pope as the head of the Church; Spain was Catholic and the Pope had encouraged Philip to try to make England become Catholic again. He also had a political reason to go to war with England because Spain ruled the Netherlands, but the people there were rebelling against Spanish control and England had been helping them.

The English were worried about the threat of invasion and they attacked the Spanish ships as they sailed along the Channel, but the Armada was so strong that most of the ships reached Calais safely.

The Armada was difficult to attack because it sailed in a 'crescent' shape. While the Armada tried to get in touch with the Spanish army, the English ships attacked fiercely. However, an important reason why the English were able to defeat the Armada was that the wind blew the Spanish ships northwards. To many English people this proved that God wanted them to win and there were pictures and medals made to celebrate this fact.

Tasks

    1. This is an extract from a letter to the English government which gives details about the progress of the Armada.

    • How useful do you think this information would be to the English government?
    • Why were there more soldiers than sailors?

    2. This is a report from Lord Howard of Effingham, the Admiral of the English fleet.

    • How do you think the news that the Spanish Armada had been sighted was able to reach Lord Howard so quickly when he was at Plymouth, over a hundred miles away?
    • Why do you think Howard complained to Walsingham about the wind?
    • Howard says that the Spanish fleet was 'soe strong'. What made it strong?

    3. The dates mentioned in this account are based on an old calendar which is slightly different from the one we use now. These events took place at the end of July and first week of August according to our calendar.

    • According to Hawkins, what was the main problem for the English fleet in the battle near Portland?
    • Why was the 'fyring of ships' a turning point in the fighting?
    • Does Hawkins think that the English have a chance to beat the Spanish Armada?
    • What is causing the biggest problem to the Spanish ships?
    • Does Hawkins seem confident that the Spanish have been defeated?
    • Why did the English chase the Spanish as they sailed towards Scotland?

    4. An extract from a Spanish captain's account of the events. He had survived after being shipwrecked on the Irish coast and was then interrogated by the English, but eventually returned home to Spain.

    • The Spanish Armada fought the English fleet for two days without losing any ships. What happened next that changed this?
    • Why was it a good thing that the Spanish plans were stopped?
    • If you could change one thing to give the Spanish a better chance of winning what would it be and why?
    • The English celebrated their victory with a medal saying 'God Blew and they were Scattered' - how would the Spanish have explained their defeat?

    5. As this was an invasion in the name of religion, it was felt that any unexpected event was a sign from God; study the points below and decide which ones show God helped the English and which ones show other reasons for English success.

    • Santa Cruz, the Spanish admiral who was to lead the Armada, died and the man who took over, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, had very little experience.
    • The Armada set sail on 28 May but bad weather forced the ships to go back into port for repairs.
    • The Armada kept a very strong crescent shaped formation which protected the smaller ships as they sailed up the Channel and the English were unable to make a proper attack.
    • The Armada was supposed to sail up the channel to the Netherlands and collect the Duke of Parma with an army to invade England. However, the Spanish army was attacked and could not get to the ships in time.
    • The weather was very bad during the Battle of Gravelines and the storms got worse as the Spanish sailed towards the North Sea.
    • The English were constantly complaining that they were short of gunpowder, cannon balls, food etc.
    • Bad weather continued as the Spanish ships sailed up around the coast of Scotland and down the coast of Ireland on their way home, so that only half the Armada actually got back to Spain.

    6. Explain in a short paragraph why many people thought that God had helped the English defeat the Spanish Armada.

Background

When Mary I died in 1558, England and Spain were allies in a war against France. As the war ended, Philip II of Spain wanted to stay on good terms with the new queen, Elizabeth I, and even suggested that they marry but Elizabeth politely refused. However, Elizabeth also wanted to stay friends with Spain because there was an alliance between Scotland and France - a situation which was very dangerous for her. Until Elizabeth married and had children, the next in line for the throne was her relative, Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scotland. Many Catholics believed Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn had not been not lawful, which meant Elizabeth should not be queen at all and Mary, Queen of Scots, should take over immediately. To make matters worse, Mary was going to marry the French prince, so it was possible that French and Scottish armies would invade England to make Mary queen. Luckily for Elizabeth, Philip did not want to see France becoming so powerful and he was willing to protect her, even though she made England Protestant again.

When Philip had to deal with a rebellion in the Netherlands, it was even more important to him to be on good terms with England because his ships had to sail along the English Channel. However, England felt some sympathy with the people in the Netherlands because one of the reasons they were rebelling against Spain was that some of them wanted to be Protestant. On top of this, there was a lot of anger among English sailors and traders because Philip would not let other countries share in the wealth that had been found in the areas Spain controlled in Central and South America. Meanwhile, England was less threatened because Mary, Queen of Scots' husband had died, which ended the link with France and she had returned to Scotland. Also, two groups in France were fighting for control, which meant there was far less danger to England.

By the 1580s, the two countries were clearly enemies and Spain was supporting attempts to make England Catholic again. Plans for an invasion began in 1585 but had to be delayed when Francis Drake burned some ships and destroyed lots of water barrels. Drake called this 'singeing the King of Spain's beard' (burning the edges), but it wasn't enough to prevent the Armada which was ready to sail in 1588.

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Teachers Notes

It is hoped that some of this work will be accessible for key stage 2 work and 'The Terrible Tudors' in the Horrible History series has some good additional details that most children will appreciate. Some of the suggested activities have obvious links with art and craft work while the use of maps to study the route of the Armada could lead into geography, map coordinates, mathematics. An interactive, problem solving approach is needed for the 'Council Discussions' and there are also lots of opportunities for different styles of writing - stories based on English/Spanish sailors, formal reports, 'newspaper' accounts, diaries and letters, 'televised' news and interviews.

At key stage 3 this work would could be used as a straight account of events, illustrating English foreign relations but it could also be used to explore the role of propaganda in Elizabeth's reign, linking with work on portraits and another lesson on the Great Seal.

Sources

Illustration: Drawing of a Spanish frigate showing measurements and armament SP 9/205/1

Source 1: Extract from a letter to the English government (SP94/3 f.227r)

Source 2: Report from Admiral of the English fleet (SP12/212 f.167)

Source 3: Letter from John Hawkins to Sir Francis Walsingham (SP12/213 ff.164-5)

Source 4: A Spanish captain's account of events (SP63/137 f.5)

Extension Activities

1. Hold a Privy Council meeting to give Elizabeth advice on:

  • how to get sufficient supplies to the ships
  • where the army should meet
  • how to arrange sufficient food etc. to keep the army supplied
  • how to get news of the invasion from the coast to London
  • what to do about English Catholics

2. Draw or list items which could be included in a painting of Elizabeth intended to commemorate the English victory and explain the symbolism of each item. This could then be compared with the Armada portrait by George Gower.

3. Draw a strip cartoon showing at least four key events, e.g:

  • The first sighting of the Armada
  • The English sailing behind the Armada in its strong crescent formation
  • The use of fireships
  • The battle at Gravelines
  • The Spanish sailing towards Scotland
  • Spanish ships being shipwrecked on the coast of Ireland

4. After such a clear failure, when fewer than half the ships managed to get back to Spain, why did Philip send other armadas against England?

5. As the English troops waited at Tilbury to fight against an invasion, Elizabeth made a famous speech in which she said that even if she was a weak and feeble woman, the fact that she was the ruler of England made her strong. Do you think a female ruler would have been at a disadvantage if the invasion had taken place?

6. Find the text of Elizabeth's speech at Tilbury and write it out in modern English.

7. Write a newspaper report on the invasion of the Spanish Armada explaining the reasons for the Spanish defeat.

See a timeline of the Armada's key events.

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Armada Timeline

29 July 1588

Armada sighted out at sea. A fast ship went back to pass on the news; a series of beacons were lit to pass the news as quickly as possible along the coast.

30th July

Armada sighted off Cornwall's coast. English fleet sailed out of Plymouth.

31st July

Armada got into its fighting formation. English fleet behind the Armada.

1st August

Each ship in Armada given its instructions; messenger sent to Parma in the Netherlands to arrange to collect the army. English still unable to attack properly.

2nd-3rd August

The Spanish tried to get close to English ships so that their soldiers could board them. The English ships were more able to manoeuvre and they relied on firing their cannons at the Spanish as they quickly sailed past.

4th August

The Spanish were doing well until the wind changed. The Armada was now heading towards the Isle of Wight so they turned back to the Channel. The English divided into 4 squadrons to try to attack the Spanish ships.

5th August

Medina-Sidonia sent messages to the Duke of Parma telling him to be ready to meet the Armada at Dunkirk and asking him to bring lots of cannon balls because they had used so much ammunition. The English ships sent messages to the government asking for gunpowder and ammunition as well as food. (but nothing was sent).

6-7th August

The Armada anchored at the port of Calais. The Spanish began by pushing the fireships out of the way with long hooks but the guns that had been left on board began to explode and they panicked, all trying to get out of the way. Reinforcement ships had arrived to join the English and it was decided to act quickly before the Duke of Parma could arrive with his army. A number of old ships were stuffed full of things that would burn and then they were set alight and sent into Calais.

8th-9th August

The Spanish ships tried to regroup while the fighting continued but they were being blown along the coast towards the port of Gravelines in the Netherlands and the ships were almost wrecked on some sandbanks. The wind changed at the last moment and saved them. They also managed to get back into formation and agreed that if the wind changed, they would attack the English, but if the wind continued to blow them northwards, they would have to give up and sail around the coast of Scotland and then back to Spain. The English attacked fiercely, sailing close to the Spanish so that they didn't waste their ammunition. At this point it was not clear whether the Armada had been defeated and Hawkins continued to ask for more food and ammunition.

10th August

The wind continued to blow against the Armada, preventing them from sailing back to the English Channel. Eventually they began to sail up the coast to Scotland and around to go past Ireland to get back to Spain. Bad storms wrecked many ships on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland - only about half the ships managed to return to Spain. The English followed at a distance - they didn't really have enough ammunition to attack. Once it became clear the Spanish were leaving, the English returned to port.

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Related Resources

Links

  • The Armada
    This website gives you details of the opposing sides, and lets you trace the route of the Armada from that first sighting off Plymouth until the Spanish cause was lost.
  • Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada
    In this resource, you can explore the question: 'why did the English fleet defeat the Spanish Armada'? Consider the different historical interpretations and look at some contemporary images and documents from the British Library and other sources.

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