In 1588, King Philip II of Spain sent an armada (a fleet of ships) to collect his army from the Netherlands, where they were fighting, and take them to invade England. This was done in the name of religion, because England had become Protestant and no longer accepted the Pope as the head of the Church; Spain was Catholic and the Pope had encouraged Philip to try to make England become Catholic again. He also had a political reason to go to war with England because Spain ruled the Netherlands, but the people there were rebelling against Spanish control and England had been helping them.
The English were worried about the threat of invasion and they attacked the Spanish ships as they sailed along the Channel, but the Armada was so strong that most of the ships reached Calais safely.
The Armada was difficult to attack because it sailed in a ‘crescent’ shape. While the Armada tried to get in touch with the Spanish army, the English ships attacked fiercely. However, an important reason why the English were able to defeat the Armada was that the wind blew the Spanish ships northwards. To many English people this proved that God wanted them to win and there were pictures and medals made to celebrate this fact.
When Mary I died in 1558, England and Spain were allies in a war against France. As the war ended, Philip II of Spain wanted to stay on good terms with the new queen, Elizabeth I, and even suggested that they marry but Elizabeth politely refused. However, Elizabeth also wanted to stay friends with Spain because there was an alliance between Scotland and France – a situation which was very dangerous for her. Until Elizabeth married and had children, the next in line for the throne was her relative, Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scotland. Many Catholics believed Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn had not been not lawful, which meant Elizabeth should not be queen at all and Mary, Queen of Scots, should take over immediately. To make matters worse, Mary was going to marry the French prince, so it was possible that French and Scottish armies would invade England to make Mary queen. Luckily for Elizabeth, Philip did not want to see France becoming so powerful and he was willing to protect her, even though she made England Protestant again.
When Philip had to deal with a rebellion in the Netherlands, it was even more important to him to be on good terms with England because his ships had to sail along the English Channel. However, England felt some sympathy with the people in the Netherlands because one of the reasons they were rebelling against Spain was that some of them wanted to be Protestant. On top of this, there was a lot of anger among English sailors and traders because Philip would not let other countries share in the wealth that had been found in the areas Spain controlled in Central and South America. Meanwhile, England was less threatened because Mary, Queen of Scots’ husband had died, which ended the link with France and she had returned to Scotland. Also, two groups in France were fighting for control, which meant there was far less danger to England.
By the 1580s, the two countries were clearly enemies and Spain was supporting attempts to make England Catholic again. Plans for an invasion began in 1585 but had to be delayed when Francis Drake burned some ships and destroyed lots of water barrels. Drake called this ‘singeing the King of Spain’s beard’ (burning the edges), but it wasn’t enough to prevent the Armada which was ready to sail in 1588.
It is hoped that some of this work will be accessible for key stage 2 work and ‘The Terrible Tudors’ in the Horrible History series has some good additional details that most children will appreciate. Some of the suggested activities have obvious links with art and craft work while the use of maps to study the route of the Armada could lead into geography, map coordinates, mathematics. An interactive, problem solving approach is needed for the ‘Council Discussions’ and there are also lots of opportunities for different styles of writing – stories based on English/Spanish sailors, formal reports, ‘newspaper’ accounts, diaries and letters, ‘televised’ news and interviews.
At key stage 3 this work would could be used as a straight account of events, illustrating English foreign relations but it could also be used to explore the role of propaganda in Elizabeth’s reign, linking with work on portraits and another lesson on the Great Seal.
Illustration: Drawing of a Spanish frigate showing measurements and armament SP 9/205/1
Source 1: Extract from a letter to the English government (SP94/3 f.227r)
Source 2: Report from Admiral of the English fleet (SP12/212 f.167)
Source 3: Letter from John Hawkins to Sir Francis Walsingham (SP12/213 ff.164-5)
Source 4: A Spanish captain’s account of events (SP63/137 f.5)
1. Hold a Privy Council meeting to give Elizabeth advice on:
- how to get sufficient supplies to the ships
- where the army should meet
- how to arrange sufficient food etc. to keep the army supplied
- how to get news of the invasion from the coast to London
- what to do about English Catholics
2. Draw or list items which could be included in a painting of Elizabeth intended to commemorate the English victory and explain the symbolism of each item. This could then be compared with the Armada portrait by George Gower.
3. Draw a strip cartoon showing at least four key events, e.g:
- the first sighting of the Armada
- the English sailing behind the Armada in its strong crescent formation
- the use of fireships
- the battle at Gravelines
- the Spanish sailing towards Scotland
- Spanish ships being shipwrecked on the coast of Ireland
4. After such a clear failure, when fewer than half the ships managed to get back to Spain, why did Philip send other armadas against England?
5. As the English troops waited at Tilbury to fight against an invasion, Elizabeth made a famous speech in which she said that even if she was a weak and feeble woman, the fact that she was the ruler of England made her strong. Do you think a female ruler would have been at a disadvantage if the invasion had taken place?
6. Find the text of Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury and write it out in modern English.
7. Write a newspaper report on the invasion of the Spanish Armada explaining the reasons for the Spanish defeat.
See a timeline of the Armada’s key events below.
Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada
In this resource, you can explore the question: ‘why did the English fleet defeat the Spanish Armada’? Consider the different historical interpretations and look at some contemporary images and documents from the British Library and other sources.