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

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King Phillip II of Spain-mortal enemy of Elizabeth I

The defeat and destruction of the Spanish Armada (1588 is seen by many as the high point of Elizabeth I’s of England’s reign. If the Armada had been successful then it could have changed the course of English and indeed, world history. The defeat of the Armada was to have profound consequences for England. The first consequence of the English victory was that it secured the independence of that kingdom. The defeat of the Armada led to England becoming a naval power and this was to prove important in 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 very unpopular and seen as anti-English. The defeat of the Armada was an act of divine providence and it confirmed the opinion of many that England was a kingdom destined for greatness and this was to play a very important role in English national identity for many centuries.


In the sixteenth century, Europe was divided into two mutually hostile religious groups. The North of Europe was dominated by Protestantism and the south was mainly Catholic. England had become a Protestant realm by the mid-sixteenth century, but this was opposed by many Catholics. 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, I initially pursued a moderate religious policy to minimize religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant. However, Elizabeth soon found herself under pressure from the great Catholic power of the time, Spain. It was the dominant Catholic power in Europe because of its vast territories in Europe and the Americas.

The Spanish King Phillip II was an ardent Catholic and he had two ambitions, the first was to return the Protestants to the Catholic faith and to expand the power of Spain. The Spanish King had been married to Mary I of England and it seemed that for a time that England would become part of the Spanish dominions. However, the coronation of Elizabeth I had changed all of this and she was determined on a policy of independence from Spain. Spain wanted to force the English back into the Catholic fold and to end the attacks of English pirates on their shipping 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 the power of Spain and to secure some of the riches ‘of the America colonies for her subjects.’[2] The English Queen also supported the Dutch in their revolt against Phillip II. Relations between Spain and England began to deteriorate and by the mid-1580s the two countries were in an undeclared war, that was to last the rest of Elizabeth’s reign. Spain was the richest and the most powerful Empire in Europe and Phillip decided that he would invade England, believing that if he was successful it would help him to secure many of his strategic objectives in Europe. The Spanish presented the Armada as a Catholic crusade and it was partially funded by the Papacy.

The Spanish Armada

A contemporary painting of the Armada

The launch of the Armada 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 command of 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 aim of the invasion was to depose Elizabeth I and to reimpose Catholicism on the English people. The fleet was an impressive one and the Spanish were experienced, sailors and navigators. However, the commander Medina-Sidonia was old and relatively inexperienced and he was to commit mistake after mistake.

The Spanish fleet despite its numerical advantage 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 was to last over a week with both sides launching attacks. However, Medina-Sidonia decided to withdraw and this was decisive as it meant that the Spanish army was unable to rendezvous with the invasion army. Drake and the other English commanders were happy to let the Armada sail away from the invasion force. Then a strong wind from the southwest forced the fleet to sail to the north and into the North Sea.

Medina-Sidonia could regroup his ships and decided to withdraw to Spain and the attempt to invade England was over. Now the Armada sought only to survive and return to Spain. The inclement weather and a strong south-western meant that the Spanish could not return via the English Channel and this wind 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 all the while was harried by the English fleet. The weather was very unseasonable for that time of years and the fleet of Phillip II was battered by gales and storms. As the Armada made their way around Scotland the suffered many losses. 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 had been lost. The undeclared Anglo-Spanish War did not end with the defeat of the Armada but was to continue until 1604 and ended in a stalemate.

England’s salvation

The Spanish Armada is one of the great ‘ifs’ in history. If the Spanish ships had been able to rendezvous with the army of Flanders and transported it across the Channel, then it is quite likely that England would have been defeated. The Spanish army was considered to be the best in Europe at this time and it was composed not only of Spanish veterans but also German veterans. The English army was mainly composed of local militias and was poorly led and trained. In a set piece battle, on land, it seems likely that the Spanish would have overcome the English and deposed Elizabeth I. 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 and they would have been the ally and dependent of the Spanish. The defeat of the Armada prevented this from happening and it secured the independence of England and allowed her to become a world power by the eighteenth century.[6]

The Armada and Religion

English fireships attacking Spanish vessels at the Battle of Grevellines

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 be the state church and once again the Catholic Church would have been the only recognized religion in the realm. Phillip II believed that it was right for a monarch to ensure religious conformity in their kingdom. It seems most likely that the new Catholic monarch would have persecuted Protestants in much the same way as Mary I had during her reign. Now while Catholicism would have been made the state religion this would not have seen the end of 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. It seems likely that England would have suffered a series of Religious Wars similar to France in the sixteenth century. However, the failure of the Armada meant that the Church of England was now more secure than ever before. Increasingly, the English people began to see themselves as a 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 Catholicism was associated with autocracy, intolerance, and slavery. This anti-Catholicism was an important aspect of English political life for many years.[7] It is arguable that the main losers in the Armada apart from all those who died in the conflict were English Catholics.

After the Armada, Catholics known as ‘recusants’ because they refused to recognize the Church of England came under official and unofficial pressure to conform to the state religion[8]. Even loyal Catholics became suspect and as a result, more and Catholics converted to Protestantism. By the end of the reign of Elizabeth, England was a Protestant nation, with only a small and 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. The people of England began to see themselves in providential terms and in biblical terms as an ‘elect nation’ [9]. They believed that they were chosen by God to carry out his will and this gave them a new-found confidence. This sense of mission was one that was very important in later decades and was an important factor in the growth of English power, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.

England as a naval power

Sir Francis Drake

It has often been stated that the defeat of the Armada ended the Spanish superiority at sea and was the beginning of England’s rise as a global naval power. This was not the case. The year following the defeat of the Spanish Armada the English monarch launched the ‘English Armada.’[10] This was a naval attack on Spain but it was heavily defeated with great 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. The fact remains that Spain after the defeat of the Armada remained the premier maritime power outside China. However, the defeat of the Armada did lead to long-term changes that were to prove very important in the rise of England as a naval power. There was a recognition, after the attempted Spanish invasion that the English needed a strong navy and successive English administrations pursued policies that helped to expand the navy and develop new technologies and ‘modern shipyards.’ [11] As a result, in the wake of the Armada, the kingdom became an important naval power.

If the Spanish Armada had been a success then it seems likely that the English would not have been able to successfully plant colonies in North America. In the early seventeenth century, English colonies were found at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown. If the Spanish had placed one of their candidates on the throne of England then this may never have occurred. The defeat of the Armada saw England emerge as, if not a dominant naval power but an important one, that had the means to establish colonies and to trading companies such as the East India Company[12]. Its naval capability was in the long-term to directly to lead to the growth and development of the British Empire.


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 that were to lay the foundation for the British Empire.


  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