Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Spanish Armada

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From volume 1 of the work.

95267Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) — Spanish ArmadaJohn Hungerford Pollen (1858-1925)

The Spanish Armada, also called the Invincible Armada (infra), and more correctly La Armada Grande, was a fleet (I) intended to invade England and to put an end to the long series of English aggressions against the colonies and possessions of the Spanish Crown; (II) it was however all but destroyed by a week's fighting and a disastrous cruise; (III) this led to the gradual decadence of the maritime power of Spain; (IV) Catholics on the whole supported the Armada, but with some notable exceptions.


At the commencement of Elizabeth's reign (1558) Philip had been her best friend. His intercession helped to save her life after Wycliffe's rebellion (1554). He facilitated her accession, supported her against the claims of Mary Stuart, and intervened powerfully in her favor to prevent French aid from being sent to Scotland. When England had emerged triumphant at the treaty of Edinburgh (1560), Elizabeth sent him a special mission of thanks, with the Catholic Lord Montague at its head, to whom she gave a dispensation from the laws of England in order that he might practice Catholicism during the embassy.

The victory of Protestantism now being complete, greater coolness was shown. As time went on the Spanish ambassador was treated with disrespect, his house beset, visitors to his chapel imprisoned; Spanish ships were robbed with impunity in the Channel. In 1562, Hawkins forced his way by violence into the forbidden markets of the West Indies, his trade being chiefly in slaves, whom he had captured in West Africa. In 1564 and 1567 the same violent measures were repeated, but the last ended in disaster for him. Meanwhile the Protestant party in the Netherlands began to rebel in 1566, and was subsidized by England.

In 1568, a Spanish ship having put into Plymouth with pay for the whole of the Spanish army in Flanders, the money was seized by the English government. Here ensued reprisals on both sides, trade was paralyzed, and war was on the point of breaking out, both on the occasion of the Northern rising (1569) and at the time of the Ridolfi conspiracy in 1571. The imprudent Spanish ambassador, Don Gerau Despes, was then expelled from England, Philip having previously dismissed from Spain the Spanish ambassador, Dr. Mann, an apostate priest, whose selection was naturally considered an insult. Whilst the Spanish fleet was fighting the cause of Christianity against the Turks at Lepanto (1572), Drake thrice sacked the almost defenseless colonies on the Spanish Main, from which he returned with enormous booty (1570, 1571, 1572-73).

Slightly better relations between the two countries ensued toward the close of this decade, when Elizabeth feared that, with the decay of Spanish power in the Netherlands, France might conquer the country for herself. So in 1578 a Spanish ambassador was received in London, though at the same time Drake was allowed to sail on his great buccaneering voyage around the world. On his return public opinion began to condemn aloud the "master-robber of the New World", but Elizabeth exerted herself warmly in his favor, gave him the honor of knighthood, and three years later, immediately before sending her army to fight the Spaniards in the Netherlands, she dispatched him once more to spoil the West Indies. It was then that Drake "convinced Spain that in self-defense she must crush England" (J.R. Seeley, Growth of British Policy).

Mr. Froude and the older panegyrists of Queen Elizabeth frequently justify the English piracies as acts of retaliation against the cruelties of the Inquisition, and maintain that Philip had given cause for war by encouraging plots against Elizabeth's throne and life. The prime motive of the Armada, they say, was to overthrow Protestantism. But these statements cannot be substantiated and are misleading (see Laughton, p. xxii; Pollen, The Month, February, March, April, 1902). It is true that the ineffective attempts of Spain to shut out the rest of Europe from traffic with her colonies were unwise, perhaps unjust, and acted as an incentive to secret and unwarranted traffic. But it must also be remembered that trade monopolies flourished in England to such an extent that her pirates may have taken to that profession because honorable trading was so much impeded (Dascent, Acts of Privy Council, VII, p. xviii). On the other hand, one must unreservedly blame the cruelties of Alva and of the Spanish Inquisitors, which much embittered the struggle when it had once begun.


Since July, 1580, Philip had begun to regard the English freebooters in a new light. He had then made good by the force of arms his claim to the crown of Portugal, by which he became lord over the rich and widely-stretching Portuguese colonies. If he did not soon bestir himself to defend them, they would be lost as well as robbed. He was, moreover, now the master of a considerable fleet. The danger from the Turk had been greatly diminished. The religious wars had sapped the powers of France. James of Scotland had broken the trammels with which Elizabeth had bound him during his boyhood, and he showed some desire to help his mother, Queen Mary, and she might persuade the English Catholics to support the army that should be sent to liberate her. But Philip arrived at his conclusion so very slowly and silently that it is hard to say when he passed from speculative approbation of war to the actual determination to fight.

In April,and May, and June, 1587, Drake cruised off the coast of Spain, and, contrary to Elizabeth's wish, attacked the Spanish shipping, burnt the half-finished and unmanned ships at Cadiz, and did enormous damage to the Spanish navy. Philip, at last convinced that fight he must, began to exert himself to the utmost. But his inefficiency as an organizer was never more evident. Slow, inactive, and not only ignorant of the secret of sea power, but unwilling to admit that there was any need for special advice and direction, he wasted months on making plans of campaign while the building and vitualling of the fleet was neglected.

The Spaniards of that day were reputed the best soldiers in the world, but in naval maneuvers and in the use of heavy artillery they were far behind their rivals. The worst blunder of all was committed after the death of the Marquess of Santa Cruz, Don Alvaro de Bazan the elder, a veteran sailor, the only naval commander of repute that Spain possessed. Philip after long consideration appointed the Duke of Medina Sidonia to succeed him. In vain did the Duke express his lack of ability and his inexperience in naval matters. The king insisted, and the great nobleman loyally left his splendid castle to attempt the impossible, and to make in good faith the most disastrous errors of leadership.

A striking comment on the inefficiency of the vast preparations is afforded by the letters of the papal nuncio at Philip's court. He reports at the end of February, 1588, that he had been talking with the other envoys from Germany, France, and Venice, and that none of them could make out for certain that the fleet was intended to attack England after all, for which they all thought it far too weak. Next month he was reassured by one of Philip's own councillors — they felt sure all would go well, if they once got a footing in England (Vatican Archives, Germania, CX sq., 58, 60).

The Armada left Lisbon on the 20th of May, 1588. It consisted of about 130 ships, and 30,493 men; but at least half of the ships were transports, and two-thirds of the men were soldiers. It was bound for Flanders, where it was to join the Prince of Parma, who had built a number of pontoons and transports to carry over his army. But the fleet found it necessary to put back in the harbor of Corunna almost immediately, in order to refit. The admiral was already suggesting that the expedition should be given up, but Philip continued to insist, and it sailed on the 12th of July, according to the old style then observed in England. This time the voyage prospered, and a week later the Armada had reassembled at the Lizard and proceeded next day, Saturday, 20 July, eastward towards Flanders.

Beacon lights gave notice of their arrival to the English, who hurriedly put out from Plymouth and managed to slip past the Spaniards in the night, thus gaining the weather gauge, an advantage they never afterwards lost. The fighting ships of the Armada were now arranged in a crescent, the transports keeping between the horns, and in this formation, they slowly advanced up the channel, the English cannonading the rearmost, and causing the loss of three of the chief vessels. Still on Saturday afternoon, 27 July, the Spaniards were anchored in Calais roads, in sore need of refitting indeed, but with numbers still almost intact.

According to the best modern authorities, these numbers, which had been at first slightly in favor of Spain, now that the English had received reinforcements and the Spaniards had met with losses, were in favor of the English. There were about sixty warships in either fleet, but in number and weight of guns, the advantage was with the English, and in gunnery and naval tactics there was no comparison at all.

Howard did not allow his enemy any time to refit. The next night some fireships were drifted into the Armada as the tide flowed. The Spaniards, ready for this danger, slipped their cables, but nonetheless suffered some losses from collisions. On the Monday following, the great battle took place off Gravelines, in which the Spaniards were entirely outclassed and defeated. It says much for their heroism that only one ship was reported captured; but three sank, four or five ran ashore, and the Duke of Medina Sidonia took the resolution of leading the much damaged remnant around the north of Scotland and Ireland, and so back to Spain. But for that very difficult voyage they had neither a chart nor a pilot in the whole fleet. More and more ships were now lost in every storm, and at every point of danger. Eventually on the 13th of September, the duke returned to Santander, having lost about half his fleet and about three-quarters of his men.


Great as were the effects of the failure of the Armada, they are nevertheless often exaggerated. The defeat no doubt set bounds on the expansion of Spain, and secured the power of her rival. Yet it is a mistake to suppose that this change was immediate, obvious, or uniform. The wars of religion in France, promoted by Elizabeth, ended in weakening that country to such an extent that Spain seemed within two years of the Armada to be nearer to universal domination than ever before, and this consummation was averted by the reconciliation of Henry IV to Catholicism, which, by reuniting France, restored the balance of power in Europe, as was acknowledged by Spain at the peace of Vervius in 1598.

Even the change of sea power was not immediate or obvious. In reality England had always been the superior at sea, as the history of Drake and his colleagues clearly shows. Her weakness lay in the smallness of her standing navy, and her want of adequate ammunition. Spain took so long to attempt a readjustment of sea-power, that England had ample time to organize and arm a superior fleet. But Spain, though she failed at sea, remained the chief power on land, and, having recognized her naval inferiority, strengthened her land defenses with such success that the depredation of England in her colonies after her defeat were incomparably less than those which had occurred before. Her decline ensued because the causes of the defeat were not remedied. Slave labor, with its attendant corruptions, in the colonies, want of organization, and free government at home, joined with grasping at power abroad—these, and not any single defeat, however great, were the causes of the decline of the great world-power of the sixteenth century.


Among the many side-issues which meet the student of the history of the Armada, that of the cooperation or favor of the Pope, and of the Catholic party among the English, is naturally important for Catholics. There can be no doubt, then, that though the Spanish predominance was not at all desired for its own sake by the Catholics of England, France, and Germany, or of Rome, yet the widespread suffering and irritation caused by the religious wars Elizabeth fomented, and the indignation caused by her religious persecution, and the execution of Mary Stuart, caused Catholics everywhere to sympathize with Spain, and to regard the Armada as a crusade against the most dangerous enemy of the Faith.

Pope Sixtus V agreed to renew the excommunication of the queen, and to grant a large subsidy to the Armada, but, knowing the slowness of Spain, would give nothing till the expedition should actually land in England. In this way he was saved his million crowns, and spared the reproach of having taken futile proceedings against the heretic queen. This excommunication had of course been richly deserved, and there is extant a proclamation to justify it, which was to have been published in England if the invasion had been successful. It was signed by Cardinal Allen, and is entitled "An Admonition to the Nobility and Laity of England". It was intended to comprise all that could be said against the queen, and the indictment is therefore fuller and more forcible than any other put forward by the religious exiles, who were generally very reticent in their complaints. Allen also carefully consigned his publication to the fire, and we only know of it through one of Elizabeth's ubiquitous spies, who had previously stolen a copy.

There is no doubt that all the exiles for religion at that time shared Allen's sentiments, but not so the Catholics in England. They had always been the most conservative of English parties. The resentment they felt at being persecuted led them to blame the queen's ministers, but not to question her right to rule. To them the great power of Elizabeth was evident, the forces and intentions of Spain were unknown quantities. They might, should, and did resist until complete justification was set before them, and this was in fact never attempted. Much, for instance, as we know of the Catholic clergy then laboring in England, we cannot find that any of them used religion to advance the cause of the Armada. Protestant and Catholic contemporaries alike agree that the English Catholics were energetic in their preparations against it.

This being so, it was inevitable that the leaders of the Catholics abroad should lose influence, through having sided with Spain. On the other hand, as the pope and all among whom they lived had been of the same mind, it was evidently unjust to blame their want of political insight too harshly. It point of fact the change did not come until near the end of Elizabeth's reign, when, during the appeals against the archpriest, the old leaders, especially the Jesuit Father Robert Persons, were freely blamed for the Spanish alliance. The terms of the blame were exaggerated, but the reason for complaint cannot be denied.

The literature that has been gathered round the Armada is voluminous, and of course has been largely influenced by the national and religious prejudices of the contending nations. A trifle may suffice to indicate how the wind has been blowing. Almost all writers hitherto have written of the "Invincible" Armada, thinking that they were using an epithet applied to their fleet by the Spaniards themselves, and one that confessedly betrayed Spanish pride. Now it appears that it was only one of the insults that contemporary English pamphleteers, and is not found in any contemporary Spanish writer (Laughton, p. xix). On the English side, the most representative of the old school are J. L. Motley, Rise of the Dutch Republic, and J. A. Froude, History of England, XII, and English Seamen of the Sixteenth century. The last writer is notoriously inaccurate, but the worst fault of both is their reliance on colored, and even grossly prejudiced evidence. The older Spanish view is given by F. Strada, De Bello Belico, and L. Carrera de Cordoba, Felipe Segudo, 1619. But all these writers have been superseded by the publication of English and Spanish state papers, especially by J. K. Laughton and J. S. Corbett, in the publications of the Navy Record Society (London, 1892-93), I, II, and the Spanish collections of Captain C. Fernandez Duro, La Armada Invencible (Madrid, 1884), and Armada Espanola, II, III (Madrid, 1896); and Martin Hume, Spanish Calendars. Still the chief desideratum at present is a more ample collection of Spanish papers illustrating the whole naval war from the beginning. D. de Alcedo y Herrera, Piraterias y aggressiones de los Ingleses en la America espanola (Madrid, 1882) conatins little about the period under review. The most scholarly account of the fighting yet published is that of a American student, W. F. Tilton, Die Katastrophe der spanischen Armada (Freiburg, 1894). J. S. Corbett, Drake and the Tudor Navy, endeavors to reconcile the old English traditions with modern discoveries, and not always scientifically. For Papal and Catholic views see J. A. v. Hubner, Sixte Quint (Paris, 1870, best edition); T.F. Knox, Letters of Cardinal Allen (London 1882).