Why did the Spanish Armada fail to successfully invade England?

How did Elizabeth prepare for war?

When the tense relationship between Spain and England was at its highest, Spain was preparing to launch an armada (a fleet of ships) to successfully invade England.

  • In June 1585, Dutch Protestant representatives came to England offering Elizabeth I the sovereignty of the Netherlands. She refused, as it would mean deposing an anointed King. She did not want her war viewed as such.

  • August 1585, Elizabeth I signed the Treaty of Nonsuch with the Dutch protestants. This meant that she agreed England would actively intervene on the side of the Dutch rebels.

  • In October 1585 Elizabeth sent Sir Francis Drake to raid Spanish New World Settlements with the aim of disrupting Philip II’s flow of resources and finance.

  • In 1586 Elizabeth signs the Treaty of Berwick with Scotland. This made England’s northern borders much more secure.

  • In March 1587 Elizabeth ordered Francis Drake to attack Spain’s navy in the midst of their preparation for the Armada. Over 3 days Drake destroyed 30 ships in Cadiz harbour. This is known as ‘singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’. This disruption delayed the Armada by a year.

Why did the Spanish Armada fail to successfully invade England?, figure 1

Why did the Spanish Armada fail?

Quality of Leadership: Spanish vs. English


  • Philip appointed the Duke of Medina Sidonia as his commander of the Armada. He did not have a naval background and asked to not be involved as he suffered from seasickness. Once at sea, he proved to be a brave leader, but was hampered throughout by Philip’s meddling. He did not have the backbone to stand up to Philip. When the Spanish commander ordered his fleet to anchor off at Calais in a final effort to meet up with Parma, the Armada was an easy target.


- Sir John Hawkins was the commander against the Armada. He was appointed Treasurer and Comptroller of the English navy. His famous ship was known as the Victory.

- Sir Francis Drake was the Vice Admiral of the fleet.

- Lord Charles Howard commanded all the forces at sea against the Armada with Sir Francis Drake. He was made Lord High Admiral by Elizabeth in 1585. He had previously been involved in commanding a squadron of ships that escorted the Queen of Spain on a state visit in 1570.


  • Philip had instructed his commander to get close enough to the enemy’s ships for the Spanish sailors to board them, but this was not possible because the English kept their distance.

  • The English preferred to engage the enemy at long range, using their cannons. The Spanish were not used to this tactic as they preferred close quarter fighting and hand-to-hand combat.

  • Philip II’s plan required Medina-Sidonia to join with Parma, who was to command a fleet from the Netherlands. This was a weakness as the Duke of Parma did not control any deep sea ports. Instead he used lots of small ships. This meant it would take roughly 48 hours to set sail once word came from the Duke.

  • Communications between Medina-Sidonia and Parma had to go by sea and were therefore unreliable. It took a week for a message to reach Parma that Medina-Sidonia was in the Channel. By this time, Medina-Sidonia was off Calais waiting to engage the Ehglish. Although his message got through to Parma eventually, it was far too late.

  • The Spanish Armada attempted to draw up into a defensive, crescent (moon) shaped formation. This allowed the fighting ships in the ‘horns’ of the crescent to defend the weaker transportation ships in the middle. However, the weather quickly destroyed this formation.

  • Lord Howard ordered that eight unmanned English ships be filed with inflammable materials such as gunpowder. The winds carried the unmanned ships towards the Spanish ships. The sight of these fireships coming towards them caused panic among the Spanish sailors, who cut their anchors, losing their tight battle formation. The Armada was blown towards the coast of the Netherlands. The Armada was now scattered and now no longer in a position to link up with Parma’s army.

The Weather

  • The battle of Gravelines lasted for most of the day and was fought in very poor weather conditions, with rough seas and bad visibility. Many of the Spanish ships were damaged or lost. 1,000 sailors were killed. No English ships were lost and only 50 English sailors lost their lives.

  • The day after the battle of Gravelines, the wind changed direction, forcing the Spanish fleet out into the North Sea. They tried to make their way back to Spain around Scotland and Ireland. Over 40 Spanish ships were wrecked off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland due to the poor weather. Thousands of sailors drowned. Only 80 ships managed to return to the Spanish.


  • The English had 14,000 sailors, whereas the Spanish had 30,000 men, of which 8,000 were experienced sailors and 19,000 were trained soldiers. However the leaders on the English side were more experienced sea captains. The Spanish captains were not used to the rough seas they faced.

  • The English and Spanish had the equal amount of ‘land forces’. They each had 20,000 soldiers. England’s soldiers were not part of a permanent regular army, but they were able-bodied men who received annual training. Parma’s army were stronger, but they was a week’s march away when they were needed…

  • The English had 54 battleships and 140 merchant ships that had been converted. The Spanish had 64 battle chips including 22 galleons, 45 converted merchant ships and 20 store ships. The Spanish ships were slower and harder to manoeuvre than the English ones.

  • The English had nearly 2,000 cannons and smaller guns, whereas the Spanish only had 2,000 cannons. The Spanish cannons were heavier than the English and with shorter range.

How many sailors did the English have?
What formation did the Spanish sail in?
Who was the vice-admiral of the English fleet?
Francis Drake