Elizabethan propaganda

Court of King’s Bench: Plea and Crown Sides: Coram Rege Rolls 1589 (KB 27/1309/2)
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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

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How did England try to show Spain planned to invade in 1588?

In the 1580s, relations between England and Spain had been getting worse and worse. By May 1588, King Philip II of Spain had finished preparing a fleet, the Spanish Armada, to invade England. His plan was for the fleet of 130 ships, carrying 30,000 sailors and soldiers, to sail up the English Channel. They would link up with the Spanish army based in the Low Countries, and together they would invade England. The Protestant Queen Elizabeth I would be removed from the throne and replaced with a Catholic ruler. The Catholic religion would be restored in England.

The arrival of the Armada on 29 July 1588 was no surprise. The English had known about its preparation for several years and had been making their own preparations to face the attack. The government had been building new ships, forts and warning beacons. They made efforts to disrupt the Spanish preparations. Francis Drake attacked the Spanish fleet in Cadiz harbour in 1587. They had also been trying to win the war of words – the propaganda battle between the two countries.


1. This is an extract taken from a draft proclamation by the government of Elizabeth I. This was sent with a letter on 24th June 1588 by Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I’s chief minister, to Sir Francis Walsingham. They were clearly discussing how to make their case most persuasive and to blame the war on others.

  • Elizabeth I had clearly been blamed by the Spanish for starting the war by building up her armed forces, her army and her navy. What reasons did the writer give to explain Elizabeth’s actions?
  • Why were there more soldiers than sailors?
  • How did the writer try to appeal to as many English people as possible?

2. Elizabeth’s ministers accused Catholic English rebels of trying to make her ‘honorable actions’ look bad.

  • In this document they use the following writer’s tricks, can you find them?
    • strong adjectives
    • alliteration
  • What evidence can you find to support the view that the English knew about Philip II’s preparations well in advance?

3. Elizabeth I’s ministers tried to shift the blame for the war on to others. Again they used writer’s tricks.

  • Can you find a strong adjective and a strong verb?
  • Which religious leader did the English Government blame for encouraging the invasion?
  • What did Elizabeth I’s ministers say that leader’s motive was?
  • What did they say would happen to ordinary English people?


The proclamation was part of the propaganda war between Elizabeth I and her Catholic enemies led by Philip II of Spain.

King Philip II of Spain was hostile to Queen Elizabeth’s England for several reasons:

  • England had become a Protestant country and as a devout Catholic himself Philip II wanted to change it back to a Catholic country
  • Elizabeth I was helping the rebels fighting against Philip II in the Low Countries
  • Elizabeth I had had the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots executed in 1587 and Philip wanted to avenge her death
  • English sailors were attacking Spanish ships and cities in the New World (in 1587 Drake had attacked Cadiz)

Queen Elizabeth I was unhappy with Philip II’s Spain because:

  • English ships were barred from trading with the Spanish Empire
  • Philip II was encouraging her Catholic subjects to plot and rebel against her and that is one reason why she had to execute Mary, Queen of Scots

The hostility between England and Spain can be traced back to much earlier in Elizabeth’s reign.

  • 1570 Pope Pius V ordered English Catholics not to obey Elizabeth I
  • 1571 The Ridolfi Plot intended to use a Spanish army to overthrow Elizabeth I
  • 1583 The Throckmorton Plot planned to put Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne with Spanish support
  • 1585 Philip II put an embargo on all English goods in Spain
  • An English army was sent to the Low Countries to help the Dutch rebels against the Spanish
  • Drake occupied Spanish ports in Galicia for ten days in October and then went on to sack islands in the Canaries and in the Caribbean
  • Philip II began planning an invasion of England
  • 1586 The Babington Plot planned to assassinate Elizabeth I and put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne
  • Nine new warships were built for Elizabeth I’s navy
  • 1587 Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots
  • Drake’s raid on Cadiz
  • 1588 Anglo-Spanish peace talks began in the Low Countries on 8 March
  • Peace talks moved to Bourbourg 23 May
  • Armada sailed from Lisbon 28 May

Teachers' notes

The level of this activity is key stage 3.

This lesson is intended for use either as part of a study of the use of propaganda over time, or within the context of work on Elizabethan England and the Spanish Armada.


Illustration : KB 27/1309/2

Source 1 – 3 : SP 12/211

External links

The Tudors
Explore Tudor Britain with our interactive exhibition.

The face of Royalty
View a selection of Royal Seals and plea rolls held by The National Archives on our Pinterest board.

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Download: Lesson pack