The Defeat of the Armada

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Defeat of the Armada

During the 1500s, England realized that Spain was beginning to reap enormous profits from the New World. The Spanish galleons carried home considerable prizes in money, jewels, and other treasures. This led to the beginnings of piracy on the high seas. An English ship would attack a homebound Spanish vessel, murder or capture its crew, and commandeer the treasure for the queen. The pirates were rewarded for their exploits with a fixed share of the proceeds. Elizabeth even knighted the fearless pirate Captain Francis Drake as a reward for his many successful ventures.

Hostility had existed between England and Spain for some time. After Queen Mary’s death, Philip had attempted to arrange a marriage with her younger sister, but Elizabeth rejected his offer. As a Catholic, Philip was a natural enemy of any Protestant nation; additionally, he resented Elizabeth’s support of Protestant uprisings in France and the Netherlands. On Elizabeth’s side, she was displeased over Philip’s support of Mary Queen of Scots, who had attempted to wrest the throne of England from her royal cousin. The queen’s encouragement of piracy against Spanish ships was what finally persuaded Philip to attack England and wipe out its navy.

In 1588, the Spanish armed fleet, called the Armada, sailed toward the English Channel. The Armada consisted of 130 ships and thousands of soldiers. The fleet looked very impressive and intimidating, but the English navy was more technologically advanced, with ships that were smaller, lighter, better armed, and easier to maneuver.

The English had set aside a number of ships that were no longer seaworthy, loaded them with explosives, and manned them with skeleton crews. In the darkness, the few sailors on board steered each of these ships directly toward the Armada, setting them on fire along the way, and only jumping overboard once the course was set and the ship was well alight. When the Spaniards saw these burning ships bearing down on them, apparently by magic, they panicked. The formation of the Armada descended into chaos and disorder as each captain ordered his crew to turn the ship and run away. When a fierce storm then came up, the English knew they had won. This battle marked the end of Spanish supremacy in European history.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Europe in 16th Century Practice Test

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