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The Spanish Armada

How did the English defeat Spain’s ‘invincible’ fleet, and how did it shape their naval supremacy in centuries to come? Julian Humphrys investigates...
ILLUSTRATION: ROCIO ESPIN, ALAMY X1

Across the water, a single burning light moved through the midnight darkness. Then another, and another. Eventually, eight were seen. For the lookouts of the sight they’d been dreading. The Spanish knew exactly what these flames were. The English had taken eight ships, packed them with pitch, rags and old timber, daubed the masts and decks with tar and silently sailed them towards the Armada, as it lay anchored offff Calais. They’d then set them alight before escaping in boats towed behind the vessels.

The Spanish intercepted two of the blazing ships, but the others drifted on, right into the heart of the fleet. Fear took hold of the Spaniards. Fear that the floating infernos would set their own vessels on fire or, worse still, that they were packed with gunpowder and may explode at any moment. The Spanish captains panicked. Cutting their anchor cables, they made for the safety of the open sea. When dawn broke, the Spanish Armada was scattered out to sea and the English were ready to move in for the kill.

“The blazing ships drifted on, right into the heart of the Spanish fleet”

On the face of it, Philip’s plan for the invasion of England had been a simple one. A large fleet packed with soldiers would sail up the English Channel, join forces with the Duke of Parma’s Spanish army, stationed at Flanders, which would be waiting for it at Calais, before sailing across to England together.Once ashore, parma's veteran soliders would have no trouble in sweeping aside the often shambolic English militia.

But it was a plan full of pitfalls. Not only did the Armada have the ships of their English and Dutch enemies to contend with, they were also at the mercy of the winds and weather – a dangerous state of affairs as they had no channel ports of their own to shelter in. Close co-operation between Parma and the Duke of Medina Sidonia, the fleet Commander, was essential, but this was an age when rapid communications were virtually impossible. To make matters worse, the Marquis of Santa Cruz, Spain’s best admiral and the one man who might have brought the enterprise to a successful conclusion, had died in the previous year. Medina Sidonia, his reluctant replacement, was a brave, conscientious man and a fine administrator but he was, by his own admission, no sailor. He told the Spanish King: “I know by the small experience I have had afloat that I soon become sea-sick.”

2 The number of days it took for all of the ships in the Armada to leave Lisbon port

SMOKE ON THE WATER An English fireship sails through the Channel, taking flames and fear right into the heart of the Armada
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The June 2016 issue of History Revealed