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Erased by Elizabeth I: The Disaster of the English Armada 1589

As an author focusing on British royal history, I find it interesting to look at the figures who made a difference to the country.

Elizabeth I in The Armada Portrait celebrating the Spanish Armada.

Elizabeth I in The Armada Portrait celebrating the Spanish Armada.

The P.R. Coup of the Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada’s legendary defeat in 1588 off English shores has been well documented. In contrast, the English Armada was long ago buried by Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603), a queen protective of her reputation and power.

England’s naval victory as it “singed the King of Spain’s beard” led to increased national pride and confidence. This was excellent for Elizabeth I’s image as a female ruler able to withstand threats. The tale of Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-1596), nicknamed by the Spanish “El Draque” (the dragon), casually finishing his game of bowls in Plymouth as the enemy ships approached has survived the centuries even though it is a falsehood.

Elizabeth gave her “I have the heart and stomach of a king...” speech at Tilbury a week after the armada and not prior to its arrival. Elizabeth’s version of events was great P.R. However, over-optimistic plans by the Spanish and the inclement weather played a large part in the Spanish defeat.

Sir Francis Drake by Nicholas Hillyard circa 1581.

Sir Francis Drake by Nicholas Hillyard circa 1581.

The story of this ill-starred expedition is usually disposed of in a few lines by English historians, although it success would have completely changed the status of England on the Continent.’

— Martin A. S. Hume, The Year After the Armada (1896.)

The English Armada: A Good Idea?

Unfortunately for Elizabeth I, although she enjoyed embellishing the facts of the Spanish Armada she felt that only one course of action was appropriate after the disastrous 1589 English Armada, also known as the Counter Armada and the Drake-Norris (or Norreys) Expedition. Elizabeth strove to erase it from the pages of history and largely succeeded. Many British people don’t know that the English Armada ever occurred.

Buoyed by the Spanish Armada’s lack of success, plans were prepared for the English fleet to set sail in spring 1589. It was thought that by securing another victory over the already wounded Spain the English would force a Spanish surrender concerning long-disputed trade routes. The royal coffers only permitted a smaller armada than Phillip of Spain (1527-1598) had sent in 1588 and no cavalry presence, unlike its predecessor. The English incursion was funded by Elizabeth I and an array of noblemen and merchants. The Dutch also pledged finance, warships and men for the campaign.


Sir Francis Drake - Hero of the Spanish Armada Recalled to Action

Devon-born adventurer and admiral Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-1596) and the naval fleet were hampered by the erratic spring weather, so their departure was delayed. Supplies of food dwindled as the days passed. Confusion and impatience mounted. The promised Dutch warships never arrived. Five squadrons of ships eventually set off on the 17th or 18th April 1589. The navy was under Drake’s command and the soldiers fell under Sir John Norreys' leadership (c.1547-1597.) From the English Channel, the fleet sped towards the Atlantic and the allies of Portugal’s pretender to the throne Dom Antonio, Prior of Crato (1531-1595) who saw this armada as his last chance to seize the Portuguese throne from Spain.

Drake sailed in the Revenge and the other lead ships were named Dreadnought, Nonpareil, the Foresight and Swiftsure. 4000 sailors, 1500 soldiers, 60 armed merchants, 6 royal galleons, 60 Dutch fly ships and 20 pinnace ships presented an intimidating sight.

Sir John Norreys by an unknown artist.

Sir John Norreys by an unknown artist.

Drake's Error and Spain's Revenge

Many of the enemy ships that survived the 1588 Spanish Armada were in Spain's Santander docks in various states of disrepair. As Drake and Norreys argued about the best course of action, Drake made the decision to bypass Santander and hopefully avoid another delay in the Bay of Biscay if the weather turned. This allowed the English fleet to make up some of the time lost when stuck in Plymouth but was in defiance of Elizabeth I’s orders to damage or destroy Spanish ships.

Westerly winds stalled the fleet’s transit and Drake, perhaps tempted by the tales of gold in Corunna in Galicia, now in Spain, commanded the sailors and soldiers to lay siege to the town. They arrived on the 4th May and remained there until the 19th May. The army in Corunna defended themselves well and the incursion did not bring the rewards that Drake had imagined.

This diversion cost the English over a thousand men including four captains and three ships. Some of the Dutch deserted, unhappy with the way the expedition had gone thus far. Morale among the English fighting force was low. On the 19th May, the wind returned to a helpful direction and they set sail again for Portugal. The Portuguese who were loyal to Dom Antonio failed to raise an army to fight Spain. Very little was achieved in Lisbon.

King Phillip II of Spain. He presumably preferred to remember the English Armada instead of the Spanish Armada.

King Phillip II of Spain. He presumably preferred to remember the English Armada instead of the Spanish Armada.

Post Armada, Spain Laughed, England Wept

The English hoped to secure the Azores, a group of islands off Portugal, but the Spanish heard that the English were advancing. By the time the fleet reached Spanish shores and ports, Spain’s defences were in place. Drake’s men, falling prey to illness, drunkenness and a lack of morale, were overpowered by the stronger Spanish who, rather like the English the previous year were assisted by stormy seas.

English ships were scuttled, lost with all hands on deck or set alight by the enemy. Drake survived but was left with significant losses. Whilst the Nonpareil travelled back to England with the injured and sick, Drake, always fond of looting, took twenty ships to Madeira in pursuit of the Spanish treasure ships. After securing approximately £30000 of treasure, he was forced to concede that none of the initial objectives of the English Armada had been realised and over 15000 men had died and approximately 40 ships were lost. The remaining ships travelled home. The Revenge sprang a leak on route.

As a final twist of fate, the sick from the Nonpareil infected the people of Plymouth which led to further deaths.

Elizabeth I Rewrote History

Elizabeth I learned the full extent of the expensive and demoralising defeat and determined that the events should be strategically scratched from English history. As Martin Hume has written, 'Not more than 5,000 of them ever came home; but their story was so dismal a one that all England rang with reprobation of the bad management and parsimony that had brought the expedition to so inglorious a conclusion' (1896.)

This horror had no place in her 'Gloriana' story. She banned the publication of all records of the English or Counter Armada. The Spanish felt no such qualms and today the event is widely known and celebrated as a Spanish victory. Drake was sidelined as a commander in Devon. His glory days were over. Norreys fared better and continued his army career.

Spain sent two armadas to England in the 1590s but these achieved little, again thanks to poor weather. War was too expensive for both countries to pursue so in August 1604 peace was negotiated between Spain and England and the Treaty of London was signed by James I (1566-1625), Elizabeth’s successor and Spain’s ruler since 1598, Phillip III (1571-1621.)


© 2021 Joanne Hayle


Joanne Hayle (author) from Wiltshire, U.K. on September 07, 2021:

Thanks for reading...I look forward to reading your articles!

Nell Rose from England on September 06, 2021:

Fascinating. I never heard the whole story before, just snippets, but yes we English were good at 'canceling' history even back then! I recently wrote about the White slavery, especially Cornwall and Cork being slaves to the Barbary coast arabs. Not just taken from ships but thousands taken from land, and parts of cornwall burnt to the ground. And also in Cork. Even Oliver Cromwell was stated as saying, what are we going to do about those damn Arabs? 1600-1800, thousands taken along with thousands of black slaves too. but canceled again! Thanks for the history, something to think about.