On May 28, 1588, the ill-fated Spanish Armada started sailing out of Lisbon, heading for the English Channel. The fleet, which consisted of 151 ships, 8,000 sailors, and 18,000 soldiers, was so huge it took two days for the whole thing to make its way out of Lisbon. The English attempted some last-minute diplomacy, but when that failed they battened down the hatches and sent their own, less well equipped fleet, to wait for the Spanish to arrive in Plymouth. Although the English had more ships, they had only half the firepower of the Spanish.
The Armada hit bad weather that forced five of its larger ships to leave the fleet, and they didn’t come within sight of England until July 19, when the Armada was sighted off Cornwall. The news was quickly relayed to London through a series of beacons, but the English fleet was trapped in Plymouth by the tide and couldn’t leave to engage the Spanish. Some of the Spanish commanders hoped to ride into Plymouth on the tide and incapacitate the English ships while they rode at anchor, but King Philip of Spain had forbidden such an action, so the fleet continued toward the Isle of Wight. As the tide turned, 55 English ships left Plymouth under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham and Sir Francis Drake.
The English engaged the Armada on July 21 near the Eddystone Rocks. The Spanish, with their superior firepower, would have the advantage in close-quarter fighting, but the English ships were faster and more agile, a fact they used to their advantage as they bombarded the Spanish from a distance. The day resulted in a draw, although the Spanish were forced to abandon two ships after they collided. Drake looted them for gunpowder and gold, but while doing so, he failed to guide the rest of the English fleet, which ended up scattered and in complete disarray by daybreak. It took them an entire day to regroup, but their speed allowed them to catch up with the Spanish relatively quickly. The two fleets engaged again on July 23, but once again nothing was decided.
The Spanish made their way to Calais in an attempt to pick up an army of 16,000 men led by the Duke of Parma. The army was not prepared to depart, so the Armada was forced to wait for them, leaving the fleet vulnerable. The English took advantage of this by sending eight fireships in amongst the tightly packed Armada vessels. Most of the ships scattered in a panic, and the English closed in, ready for battle.
The two fleets meet again near Gravelines, part of Flanders in the Spanish Netherlands. The English managed to provoke the Spanish into firing, even though the English ships were still out of range. The English fleet then closed in, firing away and damaging many of the Spanish ships. The Spanish lost many of their gunners, and the other soldiers didn’t know how to operate the complex cannons, effectively taking most of them out of the conflict. After eight hours of fierce fighting, the English ships began to run out of ammunition. By 4 p.m., they were forced to pull back. The Spanish lost five ships, and several others were severely damaged.
Despite having almost no ammunition, the English pursued the Armada all the way up to the Firth of Forth in Scotland. By then, the Spanish were suffering from exhaustion and thirst and had no choice but to return to Spain by a very hazardous route.
By September, the Armanda had managed to sail around Scotland and was in the North Atlantic, near Ireland. The ships were battered after their long journey—some only made it because their hulls were literally tied together with cables. The Gulf Stream carried the fleet closer to the coast than they planned, and they were caught in powerful gales that drove many of the ships onto the coastal rocks. Many sailors who weren’t killed by the ships hitting the rocks died of cold in the unusually chilly storms. More than 5,000 men were lost during the gales, and only half of the Armada made it back to Spain. A mere 10,000 men returned to Spain, and many of them were near death from disease, so casualties were even higher after their return home. The English lost a grand total of 50-100 men, with 400 wounded. Not a single one of their ships were sunk.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada marked the rise of England and the beginning of the decline of the mighty Spanish empire. It was also a significant turning point in the history of naval warfare, as gunnery became more important. The Armada’s defeat fed the legend of Queen Elizabeth, who was on hand to bolster the spirits of her troops waiting on shore for a Spanish land invasion that never came, and it’s thought that the defeat also gave heart to the Protestant movement across Europe, as many Protestants believed God himself had intervened to scatter the Armada and save England.