Spanish Armada Conflict: 1586-1604

By: Emily Vetne, Camille Arnett, Maheera Siddique


On May 19, 1588, King Phlip II ordered the Spanish Armada to sail out with a goal to overthrow the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, ruler of England. The Armada was outfitted with 130 ships, 2500 guns, and 30,000 sailors and soldiers. It would sail from Spain to England and gather a massive land army from the Duke of Parma along the way. Despite Spanish maritime prowess; bad weather and the more maneuverable ships of the English fleet gave them a major defeat at the hands of a previously-thought-of weaker kingdom.

Root Causes

  • Religion
  • Desire for supremacy in trade and sea power
  • England's strategic position would give Spain access to the English Channel, France, and control of access to the Spanish Netherlands

Direct Cause

  • Execution of Catholic Queen Mary of Scots for treason against the Queen of England.

Course of the Conflict

1584—Philip II of Spain appoints the Marquis of Santa Cruz as Captain General of the Ocean Sea.

1586—Philip asks the Marquis of Santa Cruz to prepare an invasion plan.

1586—Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, nominates Philip II as her successor to the English throne.

1587 February—Mary Stuart is executed after being found guilty of plotting to overthrow Elizabeth I.

April-June—Sir Francis Drake raids ports in Spain, capturing 30 Spanish ships and destroying supplies, delaying the Armada preparations.

September—The Duke of Parma assembles an invading force in the Netherlands.

December—Philip II orders preparation of ships. Upon hearing this, Elizabeth mobilises the English fleet.

1588 January—The English fleet is reduced in strength after reports that the Armada is not yet ready to sail.

February—The Marquis of Santa Cruz dies. Philip appoints the Duke of Medina Sidonia as commander of the Armada.

May 28-30—The Spanish Armada sets sail from Lisbon.

June 2—Lord Admiral Howard's squadron joins Sir Francis Drake's ships at Plymouth.

June 19—The Armada heads for Corunna to take on supplies. During the night the Spanish fleet is scattered by storms.

July 4—English ships set off to locate the Armada.

July 21, 22—The Armada sets sail again. English ships return to Plymouth.

July 29—The Armada is sighted as it approaches Cornwall. That evening the Western squadron makes its way out of Plymouth Sound.

July 30—The Western squadron manages to get behind the Spanish Armada.

July 31—In the battle near Plymouth the Rosario loses her foremast in a collision and later the San Salvador catches fire and explodes.

August 1—The Rosario is captured by Sir Francis Drake. The badly damaged San Salvador is captured by the English and towed to Weymouth.

August 2—Battle near Portland Bill.

August 3—Sea fights off the Needles.

August 4—Battle near the Isle of Wight.

August 5—The Armada, closely followed by the Western squadron, sails towards the Straits of Dover.

August 6—Ships of the Spanish Armada and the Western squadron anchor near Calais. The Western squadron is joined by Lord Henry Seymour's Narrow Seas squadron.

August 7, 8—The English launch a night fireship attack against the anchored Spanish fleet. The Spanish cut their anchor cables and scatter.

August 8—The Battle of Gravelines. At least one ship is sunk and another is stranded at Calais. Three ships are later captured by the Dutch.

August 9—Spanish ships face danger as they are driven by wind and tide towards the Flemish sandbanks. Just after noon, the wind direction changes; the Armada sails northwards.

August 10, 11—English ships pursue the Armada. Hearing that the Duke of Parma's invasion force is ready to embark, Seymour's Narrow Seas squadron returns to the Channel.

August 12—English ships pursuing the Armada give up and return.

August 13—The Duke of Medina Sidonia orders his remaining ships to sail around Scotland and make for Spain.

August 18—The Armada breaks up as it enters the Atlantic.

September—Bad weather forces a number of Spanish ships on to the coast of Ireland; many are wrecked.

September 22-October 14—Surviving ships of the Armada reach Spain.

Key Figures


The Spanish were brutally defeated and had to retreat. Bad weather and less than ideal conditions also further battered the Armada during the retreat.

Main Significance

It cemented Queen Elizabeth's power and kept Catholicism out of England for good. Moreover, the Invincible Spanish Armada lost the power they had over the seas and English gained it.

Primary Sources

This first primary source is a speech given by Queen Elizabeth I. She spoke these words to her soldiers while they were preparing to fight the armada. It talks about her strength, resolve and willingness to fight as well the rewards the soldiers would reap for their virtues and services.

You can read the speech here

The second primary source is a letter written in haste from King Philip II to the Duke of Medina Sidonia regarding the English raids in Spanish harbors. It told the duke to gather forces to attack the English should they land. The letter also expressed gratitude for his defense of the town.

It can be accessed here

A third primary source is an excerpt from a letter written by Sir Thomas Fenner, a captain of a ship in the English fleet. He wrote it to Sir Francis Walsingham explaining why the English fleet didn't chase the Spanish Armada after it sailed past Newcastle.

It can be seen here