Why was there Conflict with Spain?

Key Terms

  1. Foreign Policy_: _The actions taken by a country towards other countries, and lands beyond their borders.
  2. Philip II: The King of Spain, who had been married to Bloody Mary (Mary I, not Mary Queen of Scots). He also tried to marry Elizabeth.
  3. Navy: The armed forces of the sea – the boats that fought.
  4. Empire: Territories owned by a country beyond their borders. Britain and Spain were both gathering empires in America.
  5. Heretic: Somebody who goes against the accepted religion.

Why was there Conflict with Spain?, figure 1

This is one of Elizabeth’s most famous portraits, called the Armada Portrait. It shows the defeat of the Spanish Armada behind Elizabeth, one the left is the British Navy lit nicely, and on the right is the Spanish Armada, darkened and in trouble. Elizabeth’s hand lingers on the globe, her fingers pointing to America. This suggests Elizabeth might press her advantage against Spain to expand her influence in America.

Causes of the Conflict with Spain

Religious Differences

Since Elizabeth came to the throne, relationships between Spain and England had been tense. An uneasy peace existed between the two countries. Philip was a Catholic had been married to Mary Tudor. After Mary died, he proposed to Elizabeth and was not happy that Elizabeth rejected his marriage proposal as he wanted to continue his influence over the English throne. Philip wanted England to be Catholic and he was furious with Elizabeth after her religious settlement. He saw Elizabeth as a heretic who should not be on the throne. So he saw conquering England as a just cause. Philip had attempted to do this through supporting several plots; however, these failed and Mary was executed, so he turned to war.

Rebellion in the Netherlands

The Spanish controlled the Netherlands and this was very difficult for Philip, as the Netherlands were mainly Protestant and they did not like being controlled by Catholic Spain. In 1566 Civil War broke out and the Duke of Alba was sent by Philip and 10,000 troops to deal with the rebels in a brutal manner. This brutality in the Netherlands made the people of England hate Spain even more.

As well as religious matters, Elizabeth was angry about the rebellion as the English economy relied on the cloth trade that was based in Antwerp in the Netherlands. Various trade restrictions were brought in which restricted England’s business.

It was in England’s interest for the rebellion to be solved and for the Protestants in the Netherlands to overthrow Spanish rule. Spain was Europe’s most powerful and most wealthy country. Elizabeth did not want the Netherlands to be ruled by Spain when the Netherlands were so close to England. If Elizabeth was too open to support the Dutch Protestants then she would risk a war with Spain.

A solution to this problem was called the ‘peace party’. The Privy Council gave indirect help to the rebels. It was a difficult balancing act. Unofficially, England helped the Protestant cause by allowing rebel ships to stay in English ports and by allowing English pirates to attack and disrupt the Spanish supply lines to the Netherlands. From 1581 Elizabeth also sent the rebels funds to help their fight against Spanish rule.

Why was there Conflict with Spain?, figure 1

This painting shows Elizabeth feeding a cow, and Philip II riding it (with another Spanish man milking it). The cow represents the Netherlands. This shows how the English believed that they were supporting the Netherlands whilst the Spanish were taking advantage of it.

Privateers, Plots and Persecution

There were several other factors which increases tensions between the English and the Spanish. English privateers who stole goods from the Spanish and attacked their ships, such as Sir Francis Drake, angered the Spanish. Philip was also being encouraged by the Pope to plot against Elizabeth. The Spanish Ambassador had been involved in a plot to kill Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. Elizabeth’s reaction to the plots had been to persecute Catholics. This made Philip more determined that he needed to do something about England.

Why did the Spanish Armada Fail?

Leadership of the Two Sides

Philip had appointed the Duke of Medina Sidonia to lead the Armada. A senior Spanish nobleman, he was chosen more because of his rank than his ability. He was actually a very poor choice. He had no experience of being at sea. It is commonly believed that he actually suffered from seasickness. It was clear he would be of no use at least until the Spanish landed in Britain.

The English were led by the Queen’s cousin, Lord Howard who was a Lord High Admiral, and Sir Francis Drake was his second in command. Both of these were very experienced. They were hated by the Spanish and very experienced in raiding ships and using ‘hit and run tactics’. Sir Francis Drake had been responsible for the attack on the Spanish port of Cadiz, and had successfully raided Spanish ports in the Caribbean too.

Why was there Conflict with Spain?, figure 1

Drake was extremely experienced in fighting Spanish ships, and a naval genius. Many of the Spanish officers knew that they stood very little chance of defeating Drake, but the King insisted on his plan.

Resources of the Two Sides

Philip had a lot of soldiers and an army ready to fight. Elizabeth’s position was weak in comparison. She didn’t have a full time army but had plans in place for one. Her army were not as trained as Philip’s and they did not have the professional equipment or training. As she did not know where the Spanish would land, Elizabeth had to position her men along the south coast. There were only 34 battleships in the English Navy, but Privateers and trading companies were ordered to make their ships ready for war, so they had 200 ships ready for use.

The Launch of the Armada

The Armada left Lisbon in May __1588 __but early events did not suggest that things would go well. The fleet ran quickly into storms and lost supplies, forcing the ships to go back for repairs. They set sail again, this time entering the English Channel successfully in a defensive crescent formation. The slower, unarmed Galleons and the store-ships were well protected in the middle and the heavily armed ships were on the outside.

Philip’s plan was to pick up troops in the Netherlands, so the Armada had to go through the English Channel and pass the English South Coast in order to do this. Given the size of the Armada, this could not go unnoticed. The English first spotted the Spanish off the coast of Cornwall as beacons were list along the south coast to warn them of the Spanish arrival. Church bells were also used to warn people.

As the Spanish sailed up the Channel they were followed by the English fleet. The Armada still managed to stay in formation. Three Spanish ships were lost. However the Armada was in trouble. A key part of Philip’s plan relied on Communication between the ships which was impossible in those conditions with the technology of the day. The plan was not well thought out.

Ship Design

The English explorer and naval commander, John Hawkins had spent years making improvements to the design of the English ships and they were superior to the Spanish ones. The English were also careful to keep their distance from the Spanish using light and accurate long range guns called ‘culverins’ to attack whilst at a safe distance. This was a good tactical move, frustrating the Spanish by making it impossible to employ their usual naval tactics. The Spanish relied on getting close to the enemy, using short range guns and grappling hooks to take over enemy ships. The English tactics made it very difficult for them to do this.


When the winds were rising sharply, the Armada anchored at Calais (in France). Drake then covered eight old English ships in tar and oil and set them on fire. These fire ships were the allowed to drift into the anchored Spanish fleet. Although no Spanish ships were actually burned, this terrified the Spanish. The crews panicked and cut their anchor ropes and jumped into the sea. Some crashed into each other and others ran aground. In all the panic, the Spanish ships were scattered by the wind and were blown to the sandbanks off the coast of the Netherlands.

Why was there Conflict with Spain?, figure 2

This is an artist’s representation of the fireships used to send the Spanish fleet into panic.

Why did Tension Turn to War?

Courtiers, including Walsingham and Dudley, called for military action. Both sides made formal alliances. Spain signed the Treaty of Joinville with the French in__ 1584__, boosting Spanish confidence and raising English fears of a Spanish invasion.

Meanwhile, the Protestant cause in the Netherlands was struggling. The Spanish governor the Duke of Parma was successfully crushing the rebellion and the rebel leader William ‘the silent’ was assassinated. This pushed England into stepping up the help they had ‘informally’ been giving the Protestant rebels.

In 1585, the Treaty of Nonsuch was signed between England and the Dutch rebels. England agreed to send 7000 troops, under Dudley’s command to support the rebellion in the Netherlands. After years of tension and unofficial conflict, England and Spain were formally at war.

Philip had already been considering an invasion of England before Mary Queen of Scots was executed. Catholic Europe were outraged by her death and for Philip this was the final straw.

The Spanish Plan for Invasion

Plans for a Spanish invasion of England were delayed for more than a year by Francis Drake’s raid on Spanish ships in Cadiz. This raid destroyed most of the Spanish fleet and their supplies. This did not stop Philip. He prepared a huge fleet of 130 new ships armed with 2500 guns. The plan was for the Armada to sail across the English Channel in order to meet up with the Spanish Army in the Netherlands. This army, numbering 300,000 men, was under the command of the Duke of Parma. Once the troops had been picked up, the plan was to cross the English Channel and capture ports on the South Coast of England. They the planned to march to London when they had landed and gather support from English Catholics.

The Battle of Gravelines

The next day, the two fleets engaged in combat at the Battle of Gravelines off the coast of Flanders. The English now had the advantage. They had broken the Spanish formation and forced the Armada to sail into the wind. The Spanish struggled to use their long range guns. The battle was a disaster for the Spanish and they lost 1000 soldiers and five ships. Many more were badly damaged.

The Spanish Defeated

The winds blew the Spanish off course and into the direction of the North Sea. The only way back to Spain without risking another attack from the English was to sail round the North Coast of Scotland. The Spanish ships were battered by storms, were running short of supplies and did not have maps of these areas. Many of the sailors were ill and the ships damaged.

Only 60 ships made it back to Spain and 20,000 men had been killed. For the Spanish it was a huge loss of life and a military failure. There were counter attacks after the Armada, but most were driven back by storms.

Why was there Conflict with Spain?, figure 1

This map shows the route that the Spanish Armada had to take to escape - they could not turn around after the Battle of Gravelines as the British Navy was hot on their tails. You can see where many Spanish ships sank on the return leg of the journey.

Define the following key terms:

Spanish Armada
Your answer should include: 130 ships / Spanish navy / invade / England / 1588
The Battle of Gravelines
Your answer should include: naval battle / England / win / 5 ships
Francis Drake
Your answer should include: England / commandcnavy
Fire Ships
Your answer should include: England / tactic / attack / Spain