How did the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) change England

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English fireships attacking Spanish vessels at the Battle of Grevellines

The defeat and destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588 are seen by many as the high point of Elizabeth I’s of England’s reign. If the Armada had been successful, it could have changed the course of English and world history. The defeat of the Armada had profound consequences for England. The first consequence of the English victory was that it secured its independence.

With the defeat of the Armada, England becomes a serious European naval power. Britain's navy was the foundation of the future British Empire. As a result of the failed invasion by Catholic Spain, England became more self-consciously Protestant, and Catholicism became increasingly unpopular and was viewed as anti-English. The English also saw the defeat of the Armada as an act of divine providence. It confirmed to them that England was a kingdom destined for greatness.

Why did Spain send the Spanish Armada to invade England?

King Phillip II of Spain-mortal enemy of Elizabeth I
In the sixteenth century, Europe was divided into two mutually hostile religious groups. Protestants' regimes dominated northern Europe, and the south was mainly Catholic. England had become an increasing Protestant state in the mid-sixteenth century. Contrary to popular belief, Catholicism had been popular in England before the Reformation, and many people still sympathized with what they called the ‘old religion.’[1] Queen Elizabeth the First initially pursued a moderate religious policy to minimize religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant. However, Elizabeth soon found herself under pressure from Spain - the preeminent Catholic power in the world. Spain's influence reaches stretched across Europe and into the Americas.

The Spanish King Phillip II was an ardent Catholic, and he had two primary ambitions. First, he wanted to return all Protestants to the Catholic faith. Second, he hoped to expand the growing power of Spain. The Spanish King had been married to Mary I of England, and it seemed that England would fall under Spanish influence for a time. However, Elizabeth I's coronation had fundamentally altered this dynamic because she was determined to maintain England's independence from Spain. On the other hand, Spain wanted to force the English back into the Catholic fold and end the English pirates' attacks on their ships and colonies in the Americas.

Elizabeth, I had encouraged English privateers, such as Sir Francis Drake, to mount attacks on Spanish targets. Elizabeth sought to limit Spain's power and secure some of the riches ‘of the american colonies for her subjects.’[2] The English Queen also supported the Dutch in their revolt against Phillip II. Relations between Spain and England deteriorated rapidly, and by the mid-1580s, the two countries were in an undeclared war. A war that was to last until the end of Elizabeth’s reign. Spain was the richest and the most powerful Empire in Europe, and Phillip decided to invade England. He believed that it would help him secure many of Europe's strategic objectives if he were successful. The Spanish presented the Armada as a Catholic crusade, and the Papacy partially funded it.

How did England defeat the Spanish Armada?

A contemporary painting of the Armada

The Armada launch had been delayed several times, including once because of a raid by the English on Cadiz. The Spanish Armada was a fleet of 130 ships, and it first left the port of Coruna in August 1588, under the Duke of Medina Sidonia, the most powerful noble in Spain.[3] The fleet was ordered to sail to the English Channel and transport a large army in Flanders into England. The invasion aimed to depose Elizabeth I and to reimpose Catholicism on the English people. The fleet was impressive, and the Spanish were experienced, sailors and navigators. However, the commander Medina-Sidonia was old and relatively inexperienced, and he committed mistake after mistake throughout the campaign.

Despite its numerical advantage, the Spanish fleet did not attack the English fleet based at Portsmouth and instead sailed to Calais. The Spanish army under the Duke of Parma was advancing to Calais to be transported to England. However, the English navy under Drake and Howard attacked the Armada with fireships, and this was the start of what became known as the Battle of Grave lines. The English tactic of using fire-ships created panic among the Spaniards, and the fleet was broken up into small groups of ships. The battle lasted over a week, with both sides launching attacks. However, Medina-Sidonia decided to withdraw. This decision was decisive as it meant that the Spanish army could not rendezvous with the invasion army. Drake and the other English commanders were happy to let the Armada sail away from the invasion force. A strong wind from the southwest forced the fleet to sail to the north and into the North Sea.

How was the Spanish Armada destroyed?

Medina-Sidonia tried to regroup his ships and withdraw to Spain. This ended Spain's attempt to invade England, but it did not end the Armada's problems. At this point, the Armada sought only to survive and return to Spain. Unfortunately, inclement weather and a strong south-western wind meant that the Spanish could not return via the English Channel. This wind later became known in England as a ‘Protestant Wind.’[4]

The Spanish Command, which could not communicate with Madrid, decided to round the British Isles. The Armada sailed around Scotland, but the English navy continued to harry the Spanish fleet. The weather was very unseasonable for that time of year, and strong gales and massive storms battered Phillip's fleet. As the Armada made their way around Scotland, they began to lose ships. Many more ships were wrecked on the west coast of Ireland, and the survivors were hunted down and killed by natives loyal to the English crown.[5] By the time that the remnants of the Spanish invasion fleet made it to Spain, over two-thirds of the original Armada was lost. While the Spanish Armada's defeat did not end the undeclared Anglo-Spanish War, which would continue until 1604, it made it difficult for Spain to get the upper hand. Eventually, the conflict ended in a stalemate.

Could Spain have taken England it had successfully landed its invasion force?

The Spanish Armada is one of the great ‘ifs’ in history. If the Spanish ships had been able to rendezvous with Flanders' army and transported it across the Channel, England may have been defeated. The Spanish army was considered the best in Europe at this time, and it was composed not only of Spanish but also German veterans. The English army was mainly composed of local militias and was poorly led and trained. In a set-piece battle, the Spanish forces would most likely have been victorious and deposed Elizabeth I on land. The kingdom of England would have become part of the Spanish Empire. Phillip II did not plan to rule it directly but planned to place a Catholic on the throne. Philip wanted an ally that would become dependent on Spain. The defeat of the Armada prevented this from happening and secured the independence of England. England's victory allowed her to become a major world power by the eighteenth century.[6]

What impact did the defeat of the Spanish Armada have on Catholics in England?

Phillip II wanted to return England to Catholicism. If the Armada had been successful, then it seems likely that a Catholic king or queen would have been placed on the throne. They would have had the power to overturn the Protestant establishment in the country. No longer would the Church of England by the state church, and once again, the Catholic Church would have been the only recognized religion. Phillip II believed that it was right for a monarch to ensure religious conformity in their kingdom. The new Catholic monarch probably would have persecuted Protestants in much the same way as Mary I had during her reign. With Catholicism re-established, this could have hobbled Protestantism in England.

By the 1580s, the Church of England was supported by most English people, and they would have resisted any attempt to reimpose the Catholic faith. Still, England would likely have suffered a series of Religious Wars similar to France in the sixteenth century. However, the Armada's failure meant that the Church of England was now more secure than ever before. Increasingly, the English people began to see themselves as Protestant people. They saw Protestantism as an integral part of Englishness and important for their freedom. Many English people became even more anti-Catholic after the Armada. ‘Popery’ as they referred to as Catholicism, was associated with autocracy, intolerance, and slavery. This anti-Catholicism was an important aspect of English political life for many years.[7]

On the other hand, English Catholics faced an increasingly difficult life in England after the Armada's destruction. Catholics, known as ‘recusants,’ refused to recognize the Church of England. They came under official and unofficial pressure to conform to the state religion and give up their faith.[8] Even loyal English Catholics became suspect, and as a result, more and Catholics converted to Protestantism. By the end of Elizabeth's reign, England was a Protestant nation, with only a small oppressed Catholic minority. The Armada had played an important role in this process. Phillip II had attempted to overturn the religious settlement in England, but his attempted invasion only strengthened it. England's people began to see themselves in providential terms and biblical terms as an ‘elect nation.’ [9] The English began to believe that they were chosen by God to carry out his will. This sense of mission was crucial in later decades and was an important factor in the growth of English power, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Did the defeat of the Spanish Armada turn England into a naval power?

Sir Francis Drake

It has often been stated that the Armada's defeat ended the Spanish superiority at sea and began England’s rise as a global naval power. This was not the case. The year following the Spanish Armada defeat, the English monarch launched the ‘English Armada.’[10]

This was a naval attack on Spain was heavily defeated with substantial English losses. Madrid changed its strategy, and a series of fortifications were built in the Americas that gave greater protection against English and other privateers. Spain, after the defeat of the Armada, remained the premier maritime power outside China.

However, the Armada defeat did lead to long-term changes that proved to be very important in England's rise as a naval power. After the attempted Spanish invasion, there was a recognition that the English needed a strong navy, and successive English administrations pursued policies that helped to expand the navy. England focused on developing new technologies and building ‘modern shipyards.’ [11] These changes laid the groundwork for England's naval power.

Additionally, if the Spanish Armada had been a success, it is improbable that England would have successfully plant colonies in North America. In the early seventeenth century, English colonies were founded at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown. If the Spanish had placed one of their candidates on England's throne, this might never have occurred. The Armada's defeat saw England emerge as, if not a dominant naval power but an important one, and the principal colonizer of North America. Additionally, English trading companies such as the East India Company expanded across the globe.[12] England's naval capability directly led to the British Empire's growth and development.


The defeat of the Armada was a major turning point in English history. It saved the throne of Elizabeth I and guaranteed English independence from Spain. The Spanish saw the invasion as a crusade and one that would stamp out the heresy of Protestantism in England. The failure of the invasion meant that Protestantism became more entrenched and less sympathetic to Catholicism. Indeed, in the aftermath of the Armada, Protestantism became part of the national identity. To be English was to be a Protestant and to reject Catholicism.

The attempted Spanish invasion led to the adoption of an anti-Catholic discourse, known as Popery, and this was an important factor in English political life for over two centuries. The Armada did not end Spanish maritime supremacy, but it did lead to England becoming a formidable naval power. This allowed it to found colonies and trading companies in the early seventeenth century to lay the British Empire's foundation.


  1. Duffy, E. Stripping of the Altars (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 113
  2. Holmes, Richard. The Oxford Companion to Military History (Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2001), p. 214
  3. Holmes, p. 215
  4. McDermott, James. England and the Spanish Armada: The Necessary Quarrel. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), P. 215
  5. T. P. Kilfeather. Ireland: Graveyard of the Spanish Armada (Anvil Books, 1967), p. 167
  6. Holmes, p. 257
  7. Bridgen, Susan. New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485–1603. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2001), p. 115
  8. Bridgen, p. 234
  9. Krishan Kumar. The Making of English national identity (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 45
  10. Bridgen, p. 135
  11. Holmes, p. 217
  12. Holmes, p. 256

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