The Players

The Armada Campaign was the result of complex geopolitical rivalries, religious differences, and Empire building. Whilst this was a battle between two Heads of State, Queen Elizabeth I and King Philip II, monarchs cannot fight a war single-handed and both relied on a number of individuals to act on their behalf.  

Click the names to find out more about the key players involved in the Armada Campaign: 

The English / Protestants

The Spanish / Catholics

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Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603)

Born from King Henry VIII’s second marriage to Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth grew up in uncertain circumstances, going from Princess to bastard and back again all under her father’s reign. A staunch Protestant, Elizabeth suppressed her religious beliefs during her older sister’s, Queen Mary I’s reign, and by all accounts Elizabeth and Philip got on quite well during this time. So much so that Philip, after Mary’s death, proposed marriage to Elizabeth under the pretence of helping to secure her claim to the throne.

Elizabeth refused his offer, and as it would transpire across her life any offer of marriage (earning her the moniker ‘the Virgin Queen’ later in life). Elizabeth wanted to cement Protestantism as primary English religion, and marriage to the Catholic Philip would 

prevent that. So fervent was Elizabeth’s beliefs that she also gave help to Dutch Protestants in what was then the Spanish Netherlands, only worsening religious tensions. The constant harrying of Spanish ships by Francis Drake, one of Elizabeth’s favourites, and the eventual execution of Elizabeth’s cousin, the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, all contributed to a spiraling political situation.

The Spanish Armada was not the only threat to Elizabeth’s reign during her life. Threats, both internal and abroad, dogged her reign but the Spanish Armada is arguably one of the most famous threats, not only to her but in the history of England. During the latter years of her reign Elizabeth transformed fully into the ‘Virgin Queen’, a totemic figure that is still predominant in her depictions to this day.

Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596)

Sir Francis Drake was born to modest beginnings, the eldest of 12 sons, with his father a farmer and Protestant preacher. However, from a young age Drake was raised in the household of William Hawkins. It was in this family of seafarers and merchants that Drake gained his taste for the sea and for profit.

A contentious figure, even for his contemporaries, Drake combined sea-farring skill with an unerring sense of how to make money. He was involved in the first slave trade voyages, organized by his second-cousin, Sir John Hawkins, in 1560. These voyages sailed from England to Africa and then on to the Caribbean, aiming to disrupt the Spanish slave trading route and make a tidy profit.

Drake is also famous for his circumnavigation of the globe between 1577 and 1580, the first by an Englishman. Whilst a hugely celebrated achievement, the voyage was also effectively a pirate venture against Spanish ships and settlements in the Americas. It was also hugely profitable and brought Elizabeth I a small fortune, earning Drake a knighthood and the Queen’s support.

Drake was Vice-Admiral of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588 and made the only capture of a Spanish ship, the Rosario, while abandoning his post leading the English fleet. He was still considered by some a hero until the failure of the counter-armada in 1589, which he led. Between 10,000 and 20,000 men were lost of this expedition.

Drake did not lead another naval expedition until 1595 during which he suffered a number of defeats in Spanish America. He died of dysentery while on that trip.

1st Earl of Nottingham, 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham, (1536 – 1624)

Cousin of Queen Elizabeth I, Howard was named Lord High Admiral in 1585. Howard was a steadfast supporter of Elizabeth and was also respected abroad, with the French ambassador stating “that the King [of France] has written to me by an express to thank [the Queen] for having elected so good an admiral, from whom he hopes great things for the peace of his subjects”.

In addition to this role Howard also had a seat on the Privy Council, and was very concerned with Elizabeth’s safety. He played an instrumental role in persuading her that Mary, Queen of Scots, should be executed, a decision that would play a great provocation for the Spanish invasion.

In December 1587 he was given full command of the army and navy at sea. Howard was very skeptical of the efforts made to secure a peaceful resolution before the Armada set sail, with little faith in the negotiations being carried out with representatives of the Kings of France, Spain and Scotland, and by May 1588, the English fleet was gathered at Plymouth.

Howard was always an advocate of resisting the Spanish with as strong a force as possible. On 29 July, he wrote to Walsingham (Elizabeth’s secretary and spymaster): “Their force is wonderful great and strong; and yet we pluck their feathers by little and little. I pray to God that the forces on the land be strong enough to answer so present a force.”

His career continued well after the success of the campaign against the Armada in 1588. He commissioned the tapestries of the Armada story, which hung in the House of Lords until their destruction by fire in 1834, these were immortalised in Pine’s engravings. The account of the Armada by Ubaldini was dedicated to him, he could well have been the source of the commission for the Armada Maps.

Sir Martin Frobisher (1535-1594)

Sir Martin Frobisher was born into a fairly modest family of merchants. After his father’s premature death, he was sent to live with a wealthy, well-connected, relative. It was through this connection that Frobisher was able to secure a place on an expedition to West Africa, trading and plundering down the gold coast. This launched his career as a pirate.

Despite all the skullduggery Frobisher’s main life’s work was to find the North West passage through to the Pacific. Three expeditions were launched, with funding from the Cathay Company, and with increasing support from Queen Elizabeth I. These expeditions would prove fruitless as they could not find a way through to the Pacific. Additionally, the large quantities of black ore brought back by these expeditions, in which they hoped to find gold, proved worthless.

This failure damaged Frobisher’s reputation as an adventurer-explorer but the war with Spain turned out to be a good use of his particular skillset. He was close to Sir Francis Drake, who himself had a checkered past, and was put in charge of one of the four squadrons formed by Lord High Admiral Howard. Frobisher led in the Triumph, the largest ship in the fleet. He had the opportunity to engage with the Spanish flagship, the San Martin, but was nearly trapped on the lee shore of the Isle of Wight by becalmed weather. He managed to maneuver out of trouble and was knighted the next day for his valour.

Frobisher had found his purpose in these skirmishes against Spain, which he continued after the defeat of the Armada, plundering any Spanish treasure ships he came across. Like his friend Drake, Frobisher came to an ignoble end when he received a gunshot wound to his thigh during the siege of a Spanish held fortress in 1594 and died of the subsequent infection.

Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595)

Sir John Hawkins, Treasurer of the navy and Admiral of the narrow seas, served as Vice-Admiral during the Spanish Armada campaign. A controversial figure, he was a ruthless slave trader, a skilled captain, and an effective naval figure, instrumental in forming the English navy that came to rule the seas.

Hawkins was born in Plymouth and brought up in the same Protestant household as his cousin, Francis Drake. Hawkins made his fortune in privateering, a form of state sponsored pirating, but it would seem that Hawkins was happy to work for whoever would pay him. Early in his career it is likely that he worked for the Spanish ambassador, being called ‘Juan Aquines’ by the Spanish. Hawkins even went as far as to refer to King Philip II as his “old master”.

Hawkins was involved in the Atlantic slave trade from the start, and might of been the first English merchant to profit from the Triangle Trade (enslaved people from the west coast of Africa being forcibly taken to the Spanish Americas and illegally traded for pearls, hides, and sugar, which were sold back in England). The huge profits, which were shared with the crown, made him a favourite with Elizabeth I, earning him knighthood and a coat of arms featuring an enslaved person.

His background in shipbuilding and his extensive seafaring experience led him to be an innovator in ship design. As treasurer of the navy he ensured the English fleet were updated with better mobility and long-range combat capabilities, with at least 25 of the English galleons that fought the Armada being refurbished to his specifications.

Despite his earlier duties on behalf of King Philip II, Hawkins became the scourge of Spain until his death off Puerto Rico, dying while on a mission to save his only son who had been captured by the Spanish.

King Philip II (1527 – 1598)

The deeply devout King Philip II married the equally devout Queen Mary I in 1554. Despite the Protestant faith being established by Mary’s father King Henry VIII, during the English Reformation, Mary was determined to return England to Catholicism. Their union, and any children it begat, was a means to this end.

The marriage was deeply unpopular with the English. Philip, now King of England (and later the newly created King of Ireland), also ruled the vast Spanish Empire and there were fears that England would be tied to the much larger, militantly Catholic superpower in Europe.

Philip’s control of England ended upon the death of Mary in 1558 as there had been no children born to the couple and by decree Philip could only use Mary’s titles whilst she lived, so Queen Elizabeth I became heir to the English throne. Philip would propose marriage to Elizabeth after Mary’s death, which she would decline.

Despite Elizabeth’s refusal to marry him, Spain and England remained on peaceful terms for a number of years. During this time the Spanish Empire expanded, stretching from Spain, the Netherlands, Naples, and Portugal, with an overseas empire that spanned the globe. However, this peace could not last forever and in retaliation against Elizabeth’s support Flemish Protestants Spanish and Papal force landed in Ireland.

The final blow in relations was the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, by Elizabeth. Mary was seen as the true Catholic successor to the English throne. After Mary’s death Pope Sixtus V renewed Elizabeth’s excommunication at the behest of Philip, who had vowed to invade England, remove Elizabeth from the throne, and rule England himself.

The disastrous end of the Spanish Armada was not the end of the war between England and Spain, with the fight between these two nations continuing even after both Philip and Elizabeth were dead.

Duke of Medina Sidonia (1550 – 1615)

Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia, was a Spanish aristocrat and leader of the Spanish Armada.

Medina Sidonia had no naval experience when he was appointed as leader of the venture after the sudden death of the original commander, the Marquis of Santa Cruz. King Philip II may have thought Medina Sidonia the right man for the job due to his very high social rank and his faithful Catholicism, but Philip may also have wanted a leader who would do what he ordered, rather than act with initiative.

Whatever Philip’s reasoning we do know that Medina Sidonia was not in favour of the invasion himself as there is evidence that he wrote to Philip advising that a peace be brokered. Medina Sidonia also did consider himself the right man for the job, pointing out his lack of military experience, his inability to contribute to the funds, as well as his poor health and tendency for seasickness. These, very valid, complaints were ignored by Philip.

Despite his misgivings Medina Sidonia, did do a good job of organising the Armada before its departure, reprovisioning after the attacks by the English the previous year and ensuring better supplies and ammunition. This could not make up for his lack of command and more importantly his inability to coordinate with the Duke of Parma to enable the meeting of navy and army, which was essential to the invasion.

Juan Martinez de Recalde (1540-1588)

Juan Martinez de Recalde was a Spanish naval officer, admiral of the fleet, and second in command of the Spanish Armada. Although He had form and experience of fighting at sea against the English, he was hampered by not being a noble, and although being second in command, he had little operational power. Medina Sidonia far preferred to follow orders from King Philip II than listen to his captains at sea, a position that would be difficult for Recalde.

Recalde and his ship, the San Juan de Portugal, were separated from the fleet after the Battle of Gravelines, where he lost a significant number of men and suffered severe damage to his ship, as well as himself. Although they managed to limp back to La Coruna Recalde died a few days after reaching port.

Alexander Farnese – Duke of Parma (1545-1592)

Alexander Farnese was Duke of Parma, Piacenza and Castro and Governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1578 to his death in 1592. He was considered by his contemporaries and military historians to be one of the foremost leaders and strategists of his age.

Farnese was the son of the Duke of Parma and Margaret of Austria, illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V and sister of King Philip II of Spain. This also made Farnese the great-grandson of Pope Paul III through his father’s line. Farnese’s mother was appointed governor general of the Netherlands and held the land for Spain, in return, Philip retained the young Farnese as a royal hostage at court.

When the Spanish Netherlands were in revolt, supported by the English, Farnese was able to show his military ability when he was asked to lead Italian reinforcements up through France and Belgium, winning battles along the way. He eventually replaced his uncle as Captain General of the powerful Army of Flanders and his mother as Governor General.

Farnese was the obvious choice to support Philip in his conquest of England and the Armada was sent in order to ferry his army of 30,000 men over from Flanders to carry out the invasion. Despite his aptitude Farnese was not a supporter of the plan, and he suggested that the only way for the invasion to be successful would be if the venture was secret, the Spanish Netherlands totally under his control, and if there was no intervention from the French.

Unfortunately for Farnese this was not the case in 1588, nor was it in line with Philip’s way of thinking. Poor communication between Medina Sidonia (leader of the Armada) and Farnese meant that the fleet and the army never met up. Farnese was blamed in part for the failure and fell out of favour. Farnese later died from pneumonia as Philip was trying to recall Farnese from his post.

Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590)

Pope Sixtus V, born Felice Piergentile, was head of the Catholic Church and of the Papal States from 1585 to 1590. He was a Fransiscan with large plans and huge energy but his ruthlessness made him many enemies.

He agreed to renew the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I but he distrusted King Philip II, with this feeling being mutual. Although Sixtus supported the Armada and promised a large subsidy to support the invasion, he stated in the terms that this would only be paid once the army had landed on English soil. Despite losing England Sixtus saved himself and the papacy a fortune through Philip’s failure.

The wind and the Gulf Stream

“I sent the Armada against men, not God’s winds and waves.”

During this time period there was a ‘mini ice-age’, whipping up stronger North Atlantic storms than expected and hindering the Spanish retreat. As the Armada sailed around the coast of Scotland they entered the North Atlantic.

The Armada thought they were sailing west, into the safety of the open seas, but the strong Gulf Stream ocean current pushed the ships northeast and dangerously close to land. When the Armada tried to turn to sail south, the ships were driven onto the rocks off the coast of Ireland by strong westerly winds, with many being shipwrecked.

Further complicating matters the ships were without their anchors, which had been cut before the Battle of Gravelines to flee the fire ships. This meant that the ships were unable to secure a position and wait out the stormy weather, leaving them at the mercy of the elements.

Such was the devastation brought on by the storms it was easy to personify the weather as an ‘act of God’, especially in a conflict so closely tied to religious faith.