Exactly what led Philip II of Spain to launch his ‘invincible Armada’ in the ‘Enterprise of England’ in 1588 is still a matter of scholarly dispute. The traditional view saw Philip as the secular arm of the Counter-Reformation and the 1588 invasion attempt as the most sustained attempt to date to re-impose Catholicism on a reluctant northern Europe. Recent scholarship has led to a drastic modification of this view. After all, Elizabeth I had been on the throne for thirty years at the time of the ‘Enterprise of England’, and it was eighteen years since she had been formally excommunicated by Pius V. 

The modern view locates the basic cause of Anglo-Spanish conflict in the late sixteenth century in the New World. The source of Spain’s power and wealth was the treasure of the Americas, especially the precious metals of the viceroyalty of Peru. It was the influx of bullion from South America that had led, among other things, to inflation in Europe, the ‘price revolution’. English buccaneering expeditions, led by Elizabeth’s ‘sea dogs’, had made a serious dent in the conduit of this revenue. With Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1577-81, the Manila galleon, Spain’s trade artery in the Pacific, also seemed under threat. Sometime in the 1580s Philip II decided that this threat could be dealt with only by striking at England itself. He was fond of quoting the adage of Mithridates of Pontus, that Rome could be defeated only in Rome.

But, as with most historical phenomena, it would be simplistic to give a monocausal explanation for the launching of the ‘invincible Armada’. The New World, though the basic factor, was not the only one. Following Professor Stone’s schematisation, we might simplify matters by saying that the challenge to Spanish power in the Americas constituted the basic cause of Philip II’s decision to send a mighty invasion fleet against England, but that the revolt in the Netherlands and the execution of Mary Queen of Scots by Elizabeth provided the precipitant and trigger respectively.

The revolt of the Netherlands from Spanish rule was in its twentieth year when Philip took the final decision to launch the Enterprise of England. Since 1585 the English had been actively involved in the war on the side of the rebellious Dutch. Although Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, was no great captain, the calibre of his fighting men impressed the Spanish commander, the duke of Parma. The presence of English reinforcements was one of the reasons why Parma’s 1586 campaign in Flanders was a comparative failure, even though Parma was everywhere recognised as the unquestioned military genius of the age. It was Parma’s very success earlier that prompted English intervention. Against enormous odds he had reconquered the southern ten of the seventeen revolted provinces (later to be the modern Belgium). It seemed likely he could go on to complete his task. If he were successful, this would mean that the mightiest military power in Europe controlled deep-water ports on the other side of the Channel from which an invasion of England could be mounted. And now, with English depredations in the Indies, there was a compelling motive for such an invasion. From Parma’s point of view – for his priority was always the Netherlands, not England – the conquest of the island power would mean the end of outside assistance to the Dutch. He could then exert a slow but sure stranglehold over them.

The factor of Mary Queen of Scots was also highly complex. While she lived, she was a heartbeat away from the English throne. If Elizabeth died, or was assassinated, the only feasible course for the avoidance of anarchy in England was the acceptance of Mary Stuart as monarch. With a friendly Catholic queen in London. Philip’s position both in the Americas and in the Netherlands would be secure. But in the meantime she was Elizabeth’s prisoner and had been so since the beginning of the Netherlands revolt itself. Spanish honour and the interests of the Counter-Reformation seemed to demand her rescue.

In 1577 Don John of Austria, the hero of Lepanto, the great Spanish victory over the Turks in 1571, had toyed with the idea of a quick dash across the Channel to free Mary. There would follow a triumphal march on London, Elizabeth would be dethroned, and the whole affair would be crowned by Don John’s marriage to the liberated Mary. At this stage a surprise raid across the Channel was still feasible. After all, in 1545 the French admiral d’Annebault had got close to seizing the Isle of Wight in just such a foray. But Don John’s sudden death in 1578, said to have been from typhoid, scotched the idea. Parma himself was not keen on a rescue attempt, because of the likelihood that Elizabeth would have Mary executed at the first sign of a Spanish incursion, before the tercios could reach her. Nevertheless, the captivity of the Stuart queen was an irritant to Parma. It was both a distraction to Spain and a standing invitation to England to meddle pre-emptively in the affairs of the Netherlands.

So, although Mary’s execution in 1587 seemed both a challenge and an affront to Spain, it actually clarified matters for both Parma and Philip. Since there was no longer any question of saving Mary’s life, a more leisurely invasion of England could be attempted. This was extremely important for Parma. To give Spain the mastery of the North Sea he had to take the ports of Brill and Flushing; otherwise his transports could be destroyed by the Dutch in mid-Channel. This was why the old Don John scheme of a lightning raid across the Channel by troops in barges under cover of darkness, and without the cover of warships, had long since been laid aside.

For Philip, the death of Mary Queen of Scots removed one psychological barrier to the launching of the Armada. His abiding fear had been that his armies might overthrow Elizabeth only to find that Mary favoured a union of her crown with France. In that case Spanish blood and treasure would have been spent to give France hegemony in Europe. That danger at least was now past.

But if by early 1587 the combination of motives for a descent on England by Spain was stronger than ever, Philip and Parma were very far from understanding each other. For Philip the conquest of England would entail the defeat of the Dutch. For Parma, however, the conquest of the Netherlands was itself the prerequisite for a successful invasion of England. Spain was involved in a vicious circle of choices, and it remains a mystery why Philip and Parma, both possessed of great lucidity and high analytical powers, failed to achieve real communication on this issue.

For in retrospect the Spanish Armada was doomed to failure from the start. It was difficult enough even on paper to assemble a fleet at an Atlantic port while the army was made ready on the shores of the North Sea more than a thousand miles away. Even if Spain had total control of the Netherlands ports, coordinating the two strands of the expedition would have been a tall order, especially given the slowness of communications between Philip and Parma. The Armada would still have to beat up the length of the Channel, in the teeth of the English fleet and possibly adverse weather, to embark Parma’s formidable veterans. But the incredible fact about 1588 was that the central problem of the invasion was never addressed. No one in Spain seemed to have realised that without control of the seas around the Netherlands – and it was surely well enough known that the Dutch admiral Justin of Nassau had these in a tight grip – the Enterprise of England could never succeed, even if the Spanish had scored a victory as great as Lepanto over the English fleet in the Channel. Philip had only two realistic choices. Either he had to subdue the Netherlands completely before sending out the Armada, assuming that he still clung to the misguided strategy of assembling the fleet at one port and his army invasion at another. Or, his best chance, he had to embark a complete army of invasion in Spain. As it was, it is no wonder that Garrett Mattingley concluded: ‘It is hard to believe that even Horatio Nelson could have led the Spanish Armada to victory in 1588.’

There are grounds for thinking that Philip’s undue deference to Parma in the early planning stages of the enterprise effectively ruined whatever chances the Armada might have had. The admiral Philip had originally chosen as commander of the fleet had the right idea. Don Alvarode Bazan, marquis of Santa Cruz, saw clearly that the venture could succeed only if the whole force sailed from Spain and if Philip II drained the empire of ships and money in order to make one supreme effort. According to Santa Cruz, the Enterprise of England was practicable only if he had a fleet of 150 great ships under his command, including all the galleons (battleships) available. The total Armada, including scouting and support vessels, would number over 550 ships, to be manned by 30,000 sailors; 64,000 soldiers would be embarked in Spain with arms, ammunition and provisions for an eight-month campaign.

Santa Cruz’s projections were realistic, but their cost was prohibitive. An awareness of the financial impossibility of mounting such a gigantic expedition may have underlain the curious ‘will to believe’ exhibited by Philip when he went on to read Parma’s counter-proposal. Parma purported to believe that there was no need for the navy. With favourable winds and tides he would throw 30,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry across the Channel in a single night, embarking them in barges at Nieuport and Dunkirk and using the element of surprise.

This was a truly amazing suggestion. Just how an experienced commander imagined secrecy for such a huge operation could be maintained, Parma never explained. Even if the English fleet could be decoyed away, he must have known his plans were impossible, given Dutch sea power. One is forced to the conclusion that Parma’s heart was never in the Enterprise of England, that he never believed in it, and that his counter-bid against Santa Cruz was simply a ploy to gain himself more reinforcements in the Netherlands. ‘The army of invasion’ could very quickly become Parma’s new force for the thrust against the seven northern provinces.

But Philip II was by now determined to launch the Armada, whatever the difficulties. Faced with two plans, both of which he considered impracticable (Santa Cruz’s for financial, Parma’s for logistical reasons), the king worked out a compromise solution of his own. If Parma could assemble the 34,000 men in the stated ports, Philip could save drastically on the expenses Santa Cruz had projected by effecting a junction of naval and land forces in the Channel. Santa Cruz could rendezvous with Parma somewhere near the Straits of Dover. The Armada would then escort the barges to landfall somewhere near the Thames estuary.

In effect Philip II opted for the worst possible scenario. He should either have left it to Parma’s undoubted genius to solve the pitfalls in his own barge scheme, or he should have accepted Santa Cruz’s logic. It was not the first time, nor was it to be the last, that a national leader, under pressure from two directions, was to choose a ludicrously unsatisfactory third way. Faced with countervailing pressure from his own Joint Chiefs and from the British for, respectively, a Pacific or Europe-first strategy, Franklin Roosevelt opted in 1942 for the militarily pointless Operation TORCH in North Africa. The difference between the two cases was that Roosevelt chose a soft military option with considerable political advantages. Philip II’s choice, by contrast, was the hardest conceivable military option which, if it failed – as in retrospect it was bound to – could have catastrophic political consequences.

By the end of 1587 the decision to mount a cross-Channel operation by Parma’s army, convoyed and supported by Santa Cruz’s fleet, was an open secret in Europe. 1587 was spent by both sides in careful preparations and counter-preparations. Drake’s famous raid on Cadiz at the end of April delayed the fitting out of the Armada but could not prevent it. Meanwhile the Spanish tightened their grip on the Netherlands with the capture of Sluys, and struck back at the English inroads in the Americas with economic warfare of their own. In a pre-echo of Napoleon’s ‘continental system’, they attempted to close German ports to British cloth. This was a serious threat, for cloths and woollens made up four-fifths of English exports at the time.

To the fury of her domestic critics, Elizabeth kept her ships at home during the winter of 1587 and did not allow further raids on the Spanish coast, so that preparations on the Armada proceeded unhindered. But the New Year brought bad news for Spain from two quarters. The first was the sudden death of Santa Cruz, just weeks before the Armada was due to sail. The second was the shrinking of Parma’s army. As a result of an epidemic of plague in his cantoned army, by July 1588 only 17,000 of the infantry who had been intact the year before now remained.

A more circumspect spirit or a less obsessed one than Philip II might have cancelled the enterprise at this point. But the Spanish king was determined to press on. In place of Santa Cruz he appointed the duke of Medina Sidonia. What Medina Sidonia found in Lisbon harbour appalled him. Instead of the fifty galleons Santa Cruz had asked for there were only thirteen, and the lesser ships amounted to just seventy in place of the four hundred the late admiral had requested. By working feverishly, redistributing guns and cargo and getting more guns and ammunition supplied, Medina Sidonia brought the materiel of the Armada up to respectable if not winning dimensions.

By May 1588 he was able to inspect a much-improved fleet. In his first battle line he would have twenty galleons, four galleases (part galley, part galleon), and four large armed merchantmen galleys. In the second line were forty armed merchantmen and some light ships. The total muster of the Armada was around 130 vessels large and small. Yet although the tonnage of the Spanish first line matched that of Elizabeth’s navy, it was greatly inferior in firepower, especially in long-range guns.

At the end of May the unwieldy fleet moved out of Lisbon harbour and stood away to the open sea. Medina Sidonia’s mariners made agonisingly slow progress up the Spanish coast in the teeth of unfavourable weather, with winds so volatile that they often boxed the compass in the course of a single day. While the Armada lolled impotently on the Atlantic swell, it was discovered that the ships were suffering from an acute shortage of food and fresh water. Medina Sidonia decided to put in to Corunna to remedy these deficiencies. But as the fleet steered for the shore it was caught by a violent storm. The ships were scattered in all directions. Medina Sidonia decided to wait for the dispersed ships to come into port before he proceeded. The result was that the Armada did not clear from Corunna until 21 July.

On 26 July, at the latitude of Ushant, the seas began to make up. By next day a full gale was blowing. Once again the treacherous weather around the British Isles was revealed. Even in high summer a Force Ten gale could be encountered. Again the Spanish fleet was scattered. When it reassembled, Medina Sidonia found he was without his four galleys and one of his galleons. They had run into safe harbourage in France.

Doggedly persevering, the Spanish admiral reached the western approaches of the Channel on 30 July. Within sight of the Lizard a council of war was held. Two decisions were taken. One was not to be sidetracked into an attack on Plymouth. The other was not to proceed beyond the Isle of Wight until a rendezvous with Parma had been arranged. Proceeding up the Channel, the Armada soon came in sight of its English opponents. The battle for the Channel had begun.

In view of the popular perception of the defeat of the Spanish Armada as being a kind of naval Rorke’s Drift, in which a tiny English navy defeated the Spanish hordes, it is worth pointing out that at this stage the English Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Howard of Effingham, held most of the cards. He had eighteen full galleons and seven smaller ones, plus an adequate number of pinnaces and scouting ships. His vessels were faster, more manoeuvrable, more heavily armed and in possession of more powerful long-range guns. He was fighting from a home base, and from the very first days of the encounter had worked round to windward of the Spaniards. The surprise of the running battle along the Channel from 31 July to 9 August 1588 was not that the Spanish were beaten but that they held up so well against a superior opponent.

The English tactics, then, were to stand at a distance and try to tear the Spanish ships to pieces with their superior long-range artillery. The Spanish had just one chance. Since they were outclassed by more weatherly and better-armed ships than their own, they had somehow to entice the English to come close in to grapple and board. If the English could be forced to fight at close quarters and a general mêlée ensued, this would play to the Spanish strength. It would be Lepanto all over again.

To encourage this to happen Medina Sidonia formed his ships into a crescent formation, with his strongest galleons placed on the protruding wings. This meant that the English could only attack the weak centre at risk of losing the weather gauge and then being enveloped from the horns of the crescent. If that happened, their comrades would presumably rush to their rescue. The fighting would be hand-to-hand with cold steel – exactly the sort of combat the Spanish relished.

The English refused to be drawn in this way. The first in the series of running fights, between Eddystone and Start Point on 31 July, ended inconclusively. Neither side had been able to impose its tactical plan. The Spanish could not close the range so as to get to grips with the English, while the long-range artillery bombardment had not yielded for the latter the expected results. The first Spanish losses were sustained either through incompetence or sheer bad luck. One of their ships collided with another, while a third blew up following a gunpowder explosion.

Two more Spanish ships were cut off from the main body on 2 August. Yet the basic situation was unaffected. The Spaniards had found that even when they had the weather gauge they could not grapple or board the English ships, which were fast and manoeuvrable enough to keep their distance. The English, on the other hand, though they had bigger guns with a longer range and better gunners (who could fire faster than their Spanish counterparts), had not been able to do much damage with their bombardment. Their expectation had been that the Spanish galleons would be successively crippled and so would have to drop out of formation.

During this inconclusive phase the nearest the Spanish came to disaster was on 4 August when the Armada came within an ace of running onto the rocks. Apart from this Medina Sidonia’s fleet remained relatively unscathed. Spanish discipline and seamanship were superb. By 6 August the Armada was at Calais Roads, ready to pick up Parma’s army. The English fleet was at its shoulder but it had been unable to prevent the supposed junction of Spanish forces.

It was at Calais that things first started going badly wrong for Medina Sidonia. The underlying innate implausibility of the Enterprise of England now revealed itself. Medina Sidonia sent Parma a message that he would ride at anchor in Calais roads while Parma brought his army out in barges from Dunkirk. In the meantime, he added, he would be grateful for the assistance of fifty fly boats-shallow-draught pocket warships. Not only did Parma have none to offer Medina Sidonia – all his shipping was in the form of barges – but most of the flyboats in the Netherlands were in the possession of the Dutch admiral Justin of Nassau. The reality was that the Dutch now had Dunkirk securely bottled up, so that nothing could emerge.

The result was stalemate. The Armada could not come close in to Dunkirk for fear of running aground in the shallows. Parma's barges could not come out to meet it since the Dutch had control of the shallows around the Netherlands coast and were blockading Dunkirk. The Armada would only have been in a position to protect Parma’s barges if he had already secured the deep-water port of Flushing. But since the Spanish galleons drew twenty-five or thirty feet of water, and for leagues around Dunkirk the sea was shallower than that, the Dutch could interpose themselves between Parma and the Armada and prevent the junction of Spanish army and navy without any help from the English. Spanish control of all the Netherlands was now at last seen to be the indispensable preliminary to an invasion of England. Given Dutch sea power, Parma’s position would have been untenable even if he had had a hundred flyboats. This was because of the narrow exit from Dunkirk. Sortying one at a time, the boats could have been picked off one by one by the Dutch flotilla until the exit was blocked by wrecks.

Calais was the moment of truth for the Spanish. For the first time it was clearly realised that without control of the seas around the Netherlands Philip II’s strategy had always been chimerical. But before Medina Sidonia had time to ponder all the implications of this fiasco, he was in danger himself. Howard of Effingham soon spotted that the Armada’s position at Calais, with a strong current running and the English to windward, made it peculiarly vulnerable to fireships.

When these were launched against the Armada on the night of 7 August, they proved spectacularly successful. The Spanish pinnaces were unable to stop the fireships’ deadly advance. They bore down on the Armada, scattering it in headlong rout.

The panic-stricken Spaniards cut their cables and ran before the wind. One of the premier galleons was stranded and lost. The English came in pursuit. Sensing victory – since for the first time the tight Spanish discipline had broken – the English caught up with Medina Sidonia at Gravelines. On 8 August the decisive engagement of the Armada campaign was fought. The English decided to come in to close range for the first time, at the precise moment that the Spaniards were running short of ammunition. Closing to within hailing distance, the faster, more heavily armed vessels in Effingham’s fleet raked the Armada mercilessly. The Spanish struggled desperately to board their tormentors but to no avail. At last, around 4 p.m., and after the battle had gone on since two hours after sunrise, a violent squall parted the combatants.

The Spanish stood away northwards, the English in pursuit. During the night the storm finished off one badly mauled galleon. Two more ran aground. On 9 August the Spanish survived their second near-calamity from natural hazards when they were minutes away from being driven on to Zealand sands before the wind changed.

The pursuit continued into the North Sea for four days as far as 56°N, when the English turned into the Firth of Forth (12 August). The Armada continued on a northerly bearing as far as latitude 60° 30’N, when the decision was taken to return to Spain westabout. Altering course to west-south-west, the Spanish descended to a point far to the west of the Irish coast at latitude 58°N before changing course to due south. The return home to Spain was a nightmare. It took nineteen days’ sailing from latitude 50° N to Santander. Shortage of water, sickness, mountainous seas, all took their toll. Many ships were wrecked on the Irish coast and several others limped into Irish ports only to have their men put to death by the locals, at the express order of the Lord Deputy.

Despite the ten-day battle with the English and the perils of the ocean, Medina Sidonia brought home two-thirds of his fleet, including seventeen of his twenty front-line galleons. Against this must be set the fact that half the surviving ships turned out to be unfit for further service. The ‘invincible Armada’ had been thoroughly defeated, beaten by superior ships and gunnery and then finished off by storms. The real achievement of the Enterprise of England was that the Spanish had done so well in the circumstances.

What lessons can be drawn from the great invasion attempt of 1588? The most obvious one is that Philip II had committed an egregious error in trying to launch an army of invasion and a protecting navy from separate ports over a thousand miles apart when two sets of enemies stood between the two forces. The second has to do with Parma’s half-heartedness and defeatism over the Enterprise of England. These were contingent lessons that Spain could absorb and correct. However, there were others of a more profound nature.

The first of these was a hardy perennial: that wind and waves give no comfort to invaders of the British Isles. The Spanish had had to endure two tempests on their way up the English Channel and continuing gales on their way home. And this was an invasion attempted in mid-summer! On the other hand, the factor of adverse weather should not be overstressed in the case of 1588. In the ten-days battle in the Channel the winds, if anything, favoured the Spanish. It was their own fault that they were unable, except for short periods, to gain the weather gauge.

The second conclusion to be drawn from 1588 was that nations had entered a new era of sea power. A battle like Lepanto, fought sixteen years before the Armada, seemed in retrospect the last of the old-style sea fights, the ultimate in a series of similar combats that began with Salamis and Actium. The rules of those engagements were clear. As yet, however, men did not understand the new epoch. With hindsight we can see the battles of 1588 as the beginning of the era of dominance by the battleship. The men o’ war sailed and deployed by Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher were not much inferior to those of Nelson’s time. From now on wooden, sail-driven warships, armed with smooth-bore cannon, would be supreme at sea. This situation would persist when the battleship became armour-plated and steam-powered and would come to an end only with World War Two and the clear advent of air power. In this respect the Spanish Armada marked an historical disjuncture as clear-cut as that of the Battle of Midway in 1942.

The other, allied point is that the effects of artillery at sea were as yet imperfectly understood. At the beginning of the Armada battles it was thought that a fleet with supremacy in long-range weapons could simply lie out of shot of the enemy and pound him to pieces. The Armada experience showed that this expectation was hopelessly optimistic. Not a single ship on either side was sunk by gunfire. It was not until later that the secret of fleet engagement was discovered. Only the heaviest possible broadsides from big guns at the shortest possible range could smash through the walls of the great battleships.

Although the defeat of the Armada is universally agreed to have been one of the decisive naval battles in world history – in that it ensured in the long term that the Counter-Reformation was not to triumph in Europe – its immediate consequences in the narrower context of sea power were less easy to see. It was no knock-out blow. Spain’s war with Elizabeth lasted until her death in 1603. During this time Spain regained the initiative lost in 1588. Philip rebuilt his fleet on English lines. Drake’s later forays in the West Indies were a failure. Indeed, in terms of the root cause for the launching of the Armada, Philip may be said to have achieved his objectives in some degree, since between 1588 and 1603 Spanish revenue from the treasure of the Americas increased. In the whole of Spanish history it was a record fifteen-year span for the import of precious metals. On the other hand, the defeat of the Armada ensured that the revolt of the Netherlands would succeed. After 1588 Parma had no real chance of bringing the rebel provinces to heel.

England seemed exhausted by the titantic effort involved in repelling the Armada. Spain, on the other hand, sprang back undaunted by the disaster. The Armada defeat did not spoil the Spanish taste for foreign adventure. In the 1590s, opposing Henry of Navarre's claim to the French throne, Spanish tercios invaded Normandy and Brittany. Calais and Amiens were also captured. Now England came under threat of an invasion from French ports. Sensing that the danger would become acute if the Spanish gained possession of the vital port of Brest, an army of men was dispatched from England to Brittany. In alliance with the French this force saved Brest.

Yet Spain was still for the moment ensconced on the French coast. A raid on the English coast from Blanet, in the kind of swift galleys that could not brave the Atlantic swells, caused consternation. The English navy was recalled from its foreign adventures to deal with the threat. Meanwhile Philip II was planning a second Armada that would not repeat the mistakes of the ‘invincible’ one of 1588. This time the Spanish fleet set sail in the winter, but now it was the winds and not English galleons that thwarted the attempt. Such was the Armada of 1596.

In the following year the limitations of English power were dramatically revealed when Elizabeth tried to send her own armada against Spain. A fleet of 100 ships and 6,000 troops were to descend on Ferrol to destroy Spanish naval preparations for another expedition. But the raising and equipping of such a large force proved beyond England’s capacity. Elizabeth had to fall back on a second-best strategy; keeping the pressure on Spain while preparing for the inevitable counterstroke.

In October 1597 it fell. This Spanish attempt was especially dangerous. Not only was much of the English fleet in foreign waters so that defence in the Channel was rudimentary; in addition the Spanish now made a two-pronged attack. Nine thousand troops sailed from Ferrol under the protection of the galleons. Meanwhile another 1,000 soldiers were embarked with the galleys in Brittany as though for a cross-Channel raid. In reality both forces were to rendezvous at Falmouth, where they would land and establish themselves prior to inspiring a Catholic rising in England. The galleons got as far as the Lizard before a violent storm scattered them.

Yet the tireless Spanish kings did not give up. By this time Henry IV was firmly in control in France. By the Peace of Venins in 1598 he had abandoned his support of England in return for the ports of Britanny and Normandy held by the Spanish. Now Philip's successor at the Escorial, Philip III, approached him and suggested a leaseback arrangement, whereby Spain could use the ports on the north and west of the French seaboard as a springboard for the invasion of England. The request was turned down: Henry IV had no wish to see the Spanish on French soil once more.

But Spain had not yet done with Elizabeth. In 1601 Spanish attention shifted to Ireland, where Tyrone and O’Donnell’s rebellion presented a splendid opportunity for Spain to turn the tables on England. They could now perhaps do to Elizabeth what she had done to them in the Netherlands. Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, proved more than a match for Elizabeth’s favourite, Essex. Essex’s failure in Ireland precipitated his downfall. The Spanish hastened to assist the Irish rebels. This time the invaders made landfall.

Forty ships and 5,000 troops sailed for the Irish coast. Once again they were battered by the wind and waves. Half of the ships gave up and returned home but the rest got through. Three thousand men landed at Kinsale in September 1601 but it was too little, too late. The rebellions in Munster and Connacht had already been defeated. The Spanish became bogged down around the original beachhead. They had still not broken out of this enclave when news came that Tyrone and O’Donnell, marching south from Ulster to meet them, had been crushed by the Lord Deputy, Mountjoy. The invaders began to be invested themselves in November. Finally, on 2 January 1602, they surrendered on honourable terms.

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603. his offer to negotiate a peace was eagerly accepted by Philip III. Honours had been even in the long war but both sides were exhausted. The Treaty of London (August 1604) in effect recognised the paramountcy of the Reformation settlement. England in return gave up attempts to prise Portugal (incorporated in a union with Spain since 1580) out of the Spanish grip or to destroy Spain’s monopoly in the Americas.

The ending of the long war confirmed that the defeat of the Armada had not been quite the crushing blow to Spain that later historians claimed it had been. The Tudor government had been forced to spend money on a costly system of defence and fortifications. Many places on the coast were provided with new defences against the possible incursions of a fresh Spanish fleet. A system of troop training had been implemented, though it did not go all the way to meet the far-sighted proposals of Sir Henry Knynett, who advocated a system of universal military service for all men between eighteen and fifty, plus a standing expeditionary force of 24,000 foot and 6,000 horse.

Most of all, the Armada experience had made Britons aware of their vulnerability. Before the Armada appeared in the Channel many Englishmen had scoffed at Spanish absolutism and the supposedly antiquated government of the ‘recluse of the Escorial’. The Armada demonstrated not only Spain’s military capability but Philip’s administrative talents. The invasion fleets of 1596 and 1597, destroyed by storms, underlined the point that the British Isles were seriously vulnerable to continental enemies. Far from disappearing as a result of 1588 (as some jingoistic historians have maintained), English fear of Spain persisted into the seventeenth century until the defeat of the tercios by the due de Conde at Rocroi in 1643 ended the myth of the invincibility of the Spanish infantry. Professor Parker indeed has gone so far as to speak of 1588 as a psychological victory for Spain, for thereafter Englishmen had to regard their country as ‘the beleaguered isle’. It was thanks to the much-maligned Stuarts that they did not have to face up to the full implications of this awareness for almost another hundred years.


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