English Armada

English Armada
Part of the Anglo–Spanish War (1585–1604) and the Eighty Years' War

Monument of the heroine Maria Pita in the Square of the Town Hall of A Coruña
LocationCorunnaLisbon, Iberian Coast
(present-day Spain (Galicia), and Portugal)

Decisive Spanish victory[1][2]

  • The Spanish Habsburg dynasty continues to occupy the Portuguese throne, with its empire (including the Portuguese fleet, such as the Lisbon based Ocean Sea Armada). Failed attempt to create a successful uprising within the capital, especially among its elites, in favor of Prior do Crato.[3]
  • The Spanish fleet retains the capability of waging war[1][2][4][5]
England Kingdom of England
Dutch Republic United Provinces
Portugal Portuguese loyal to Prior of Crato
Iberian Union (Habsburg Spain)[6]
Commanders and leaders
England Elizabeth I of England
England Robert Devereux
England Francis Drake
England John Norreys
England Edward Norreys
Portugal Prior of Crato

Philip II of Spain

  • SpainPortugal
Spain Marquis of Cerralbo
Spain Álvaro Troncoso
Spain María Pita
Spain Count of Fuentes
Spain Martín de Padilla
Spain Alonso de Bazán
Portugal Duke of Braganza
Six galleons
60 armed merchant vessels
60 Dutch flyboats
20 pinnaces
23,375 men
Four galleons
Unknown armed merchant vessels
15,000 men
Casualties and losses

11,000–15,000 killed, wounded or died of disease[7][8][9]

40 ships sunk or captured[9]
900 dead or wounded

The English Armada, also known as the Counter Armada or the Drake-Norris Expedition, was a fleet of warships sent to Iberia by Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1589, during the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604) and the Eighty Years' War. It was led by Sir Francis Drake as admiral and Sir John Norreys as general, and failed to drive home the advantage England had won upon the dispersal of the Spanish Armada in the previous year. The campaign resulted in the defeat of the English fleet and eventually to a withdrawal with heavy losses of both lives and ships. The Spanish victory marked a revival of Philip II's naval power through the next decade.[1]

Aims and planning

Queen Elizabeth's intentions were to capitalise upon Spain's temporary weakness at sea after the successful repulsion of the Spanish Armada and to compel Philip II to sue for peace. It was not a simple matter. The expedition had three distinct aims: to burn the Spanish Atlantic fleet, to make a landing at Lisbon and raise a revolt there against Philip II (Philip I of Portugal), and then to continue west and establish a permanent base in the Azores. A further aim was to seize the Spanish treasure fleet as it returned from America to Cádiz, although this depended largely on the success of the Azores campaign.

The critical consideration was the breaking of the trade embargo imposed across the Portuguese empire, which included Brazil and the East Indies, among other areas, and trading posts in India and China. By securing an allegiance with the Portuguese crown, Elizabeth hoped to curb Spanish Habsburg power in Europe and to free up the trade routes to these possessions.

It was a difficult proposition, because the domestic aristocracy and clergy of Portugal had accepted Philip as their King in 1581 at the Cortes of Tomar. The pretender to the throne, António, Prior of Crato — last surviving heir of the House of Aviz — failed to establish an effective government in exile in the Azores, and turned to the English for support. But he was not a charismatic figure, and with his cause compromised by his illegitimacy, he faced an opponent with perhaps the better claim, in the eyes of the Portuguese nobles of the Cortes, Catherine, Duchess of Braganza.

The complex politics were not the only drawback for the expedition. Like its Spanish predecessor, the English Armada suffered from overly optimistic planning, based on hopes of repeating Drake's successful raid on Cadiz in 1587. A critical contradiction lay between the separate plans, each of which was ambitious in its own right. But the most pressing need was the destruction of the Spanish Atlantic fleet lying at port in Corunna, San Sebastián and Santander along the northern coast of Spain, as directly ordered by the Queen.

The expedition was floated as a joint stock company, with capital of about £80,000 — one quarter to come from the Queen, and one eighth from the Dutch, the balance to be made up by various noblemen, merchants and guilds. Concerns over logistics and adverse weather delayed the departure of the fleet, and confusion grew as it waited in port. The Dutch failed to supply their promised warships, a third of the victuals had already been consumed, and the number of veteran soldiers was only 1,800 while the ranks of volunteers had increased the planned contingent of troops from 10,000 to 19,000. The fleet also lacked siege guns and cavalry — items that had been lavishly laid-on in the Spanish Armada expedition of the previous year — which raises serious doubts about the intentions of those in charge of the preparations.


When the fleet sailed, it was made up of six royal galleons, 60 English armed merchantmen, 60 Dutch flyboats and about 20 pinnaces. In addition to the troops, there were 4,000 sailors and 1,500 officers and gentlemen adventurers. Drake assigned his vessels to five squadrons, led respectively by himself in the Revenge, Sir John Norreys in the Nonpareil, Norreys' brother Edward in the Foresight, Thomas Fenner in the Dreadnought, and Roger Williams in the Swiftsure. Also sailing with them — against the Queen's express orders — was the Earl of Essex.

Most of the ships lost in Philip II's expedition of 1588 had been armed merchantmen, while the core of the armada — the galleons of the Spanish navy's Atlantic fleet — survived their voyage home and docked in Spain's Atlantic ports for a refit, where they lay for months, vulnerable to attack.

Unforeseen delays and a fear of becoming embayed in the Bay of Biscay led Drake to bypass Santander, where most of this refitting was underway, and attack Corunna in Galicia instead. Norreys took the lower town, killed 500 Spaniards, and plundered the wine cellars, while Drake destroyed 13 merchant ships in the harbour. For the next two weeks the wind blew westerly, and while waiting for a change the English occupied themselves in a siege of Corunna's fortified upper town. A pair of Spanish galleys slipped past the English fleet and repeatedly resupplied the defenders, and at length, with a favourable wind returning, the English abandoned the siege, having lost four captains and several hundred soldiers in the fighting, along with 3,000 other personnel in 24 of the transports, including many of the Dutch, who found reasons to return to England or put into La Rochelle. Those who remained then turned their attention, first to Puente del Burgo, where Norreys won a modest victory, then to Lisbon.

Lisbon was said to be defended by a disaffected garrison, but while the English bloodied themselves at Corunna, the Spaniards spent a crucial fortnight shoring up Portugal's defences. When Norreys invested the city, the expected uprising was not forthcoming and little was achieved. Drake did take the opportunity on 30 June of seizing a fleet of 20 French and 60 Hanseatic ships, which had broken the English blockade on trade with Spain by sailing all around the north of Scotland only to fetch up before the English cannon in the mouth of the Tagus. This seizure, notes R. B. Wernham, 'dealt a useful blow to Spanish preparations',[10] but later required a publicly printed justification, a Declaration of Causes, from the Queen's own printer, as, without booty, she and her fellow English investors faced considerable losses.

The English dealt a further blow to Spanish naval preparations and food supplies by destroying the Lisbon granaries, but despite the bravado of Essex, who thrust a sword in at the gates of the city with a challenge to the defenders, the English could not take Lisbon without artillery or attract Portuguese support.[11] The expected rising failed to occur, in part because of the absence of Drake, the land and naval forces having divided and lost contact after the landing at Peniche (in Portugal), and the defenders would not risk battle.[12]

Admiral Sir Francis Drake, commander of the English Armada
English galleon Ark Royal from 1587

Essex received orders from Elizabeth to return to court, along with a refusal to send reinforcements or a siege train, the queen having no desire to carry the main burden of a land war in Portugal. It was therefore decided to concentrate on the third aim of the expedition, the establishment of a permanent base in the Azores. But the campaign had taken its toll. Drake's forces had initially caught the Spanish authorities off guard but Spain had now prepared her defences and the English were wearing out and suffering increasingly from disease. Two armed merchantmen were caught off Lisbon by nine Spanish galleys, commanded by Alonso de Bazán. One of them, the William, was saved by HMS Revenge after being abandoned by her crew, but the ship did not have enough manpower to sail away after the battle and had to be scuttled. The other vessel was engulfed in flames after a long struggle and eventually sank along with her skipper, a Captain Minshaw. One of three boats carrying William's complement was sunk with all hands after being attacked by the Spanish warships.[13]

It was soon understood that any attempt to land in the Azores was out of the question, and Drake made a final attempt to retrieve the mission. At this point, most men were out of action and only 2,000 were fit to be mustered. Stormy weather had also damaged a number of ships. While Norreys sailed for home with the sick and wounded, Drake took his pick of what was left and set out with 20 ships to hunt for the treasure fleet. He was struck by another heavy storm and was unable to carry out even that task, and while Porto Santo in Madeira was plundered, his flagship, the Revenge, sprang a leak and almost foundered as she led the remainder of the fleet home to Plymouth.

Without counting the 18 launches destroyed or captured at Corunna and Lisbon, the English fleet lost about 40 ships. Fourteen of these were lost directly to the actions of Spanish naval forces: three at Corunna, six were lost to actions led by Padilla, three to Bazán and two to Aramburu. The rest were lost in storms as the fleet made its return voyage. The outbreak of disease on board was transmitted to the port town populations in England. None of the campaign's aims were accomplished and for many years the result discouraged further joint-stock adventures on such a scale.[14][15] The English sustained heavy losses of ships, men and resources, but only brought back 150 captured cannon and £30,000 of plunder. The only accomplishment was, perhaps, a temporary disruption to Spanish shipping and the induced diversion of Spanish resources that might have contributed to a mutiny of Spanish forces under Parma in Flanders that August.


With the opportunity to strike a decisive blow against the weakened Spanish navy lost, the failure of the expedition further depleted the crown treasury that had been so carefully restored during the long reign of Elizabeth I. The Anglo-Spanish war was very costly to both sides, and Spain itself, also fighting France and the United Provinces, had to default on its debt repayments in 1596, following another raid on Cadiz. In 1595 the Spanish raided Cornwall in the west of England. In 1596 and 1597 two more armadas were sent by Spain but both were scattered by storms.[16] But the failure of the English Armada was a turning point, and the fortunes of the various parties to this complicated conflict fluctuated until peace was agreed on the signing of the Treaty of London in 1604.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Elliott p.333
  2. 1 2 Morris, Terence Alan (1998). Europe and England in the sixteenth century. Routledge, p. 335. ISBN 0-415-15041-8
  3. Hannay, David McDowall (1911). "Antonio, Prior of Crato". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica 2 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Hannay, David McDowall (1911). "Antonio, Prior of Crato". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  4. Rowse, Alfred Leslie (1969). Tudor Cornwall: portrait of a society. C. Scribner, p. 400
  5. "One decisive action might have forced Philip II to the negotiating table and avoided fourteen years of continuing warfare. Instead the King was able to use the brief respite to rebuild his naval forces and by the end of 1589 Spain once again had an Atlantic fleet strong enough to escort the American treasure ships home." The Mariner's mirror, Volumes 76-77. Society for Nautical Research., 1990
  6. Oliveira Martins, (1972) História de Portugal p,442
  7. Bucholz/Key p.145
  8. Hampden p.254
  9. 1 2 Duro p.51
  10. R. B. Wernham, 'Queen Elizabeth and the Portugal Expedition of 1589: Part II', English Historical Review, 66/259 (April 1951), p. 204.
  11. Wernham, 'Part II', 214, 210–11.
  12. Wernham, 'Part II', 210–11.
  13. Cummins, John (1997). Francis Drake: Lives of a Hero. Palgrave Macmillan, p. 217. ISBN 0312163657
  14. Wernham, 'Part II', 214.
  15. John A. Wagner, Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World: Britain, Ireland, Europe, and America (New York: Checkmark Books, 2002), p. 242.
  16. Tenace 2003, pp. 855–882.


The most detailed account, written in the form of a letter by an anonymous participant (Anthony Wingfield), was published in 1589: A true Coppie of a Discourse written by a Gentleman, employed in the late Voyage of Spain and Portingale... which set out openly to restore the credit of the participants.

External links

Coordinates: 38°42′00″N 9°11′00″W / 38.7000°N 9.1833°W / 38.7000; -9.1833

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