Were the English lucky to defeat the Spanish Armada?

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1. The Spanish are coming

England's defeat of the Spanish Armada is feted as one of its greatest achievements and a defining moment for the nation. It had triumphed over King Philip II's fleet, which had been the largest ever put to sea.

Yet the glorious victory claimed by Elizabeth I is misleading. Although half of Philip's Armada never made it back home, the English navy only managed to directly sink one Spanish ship. They owed much to favourable weather conditions and a Spanish invasion plan that was riddled with problems.

2. Elizabeth vs Philip: How the sides matched up

How the English and Spanish forces matched up in 1588

Elizabeth I was a pragmatic monarch with a strong sense of survival. When it became clear that an Armada was coming, she trusted her most experienced naval leaders, including Lord Howard and Sir Francis Drake, to formulate her plan of defence. In contrast Philip II was an imperious commander who avoided direct contact with his military leaders. He never met Medina Sidonia and overruled the Duke of Parma, who wanted to control more of the Dutch coast before mounting an attack on England.

3. CLICKABLE: English ingenuity

Elizabeth knew that defeat was almost inevitable if the Spanish landed in England. Click on the hand below to see how her navy strove to keep the Spanish forces at bay in the English Channel.

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These illustrations were drawn by Robert Adams to accompany a history of the the Spanish Armada published in 1590.

4. The flaw in Philip's masterplan

When Philip II decided to invade England he based his plans on his own inexperienced ideas of how such a battle would be fought and won. He didn't ask the advice of his top naval commanders, who were unwilling to raise their concerns.

Where and when

The Spanish king decided that one half of his invasion force would cross from the Netherlands to England, and rendezvous with the other half carried by a great Armada. However, Philip was astonishingly vague about where and when these forces would meet. This meant when his fleet finally arrived near Calais, his army was at least a week from being ready to sail.

An impossible meeting

There was also a more fundamental problem with the plan. Even if Parma's troops had been ready, his forces were blockaded in Dunkirk by dozens of Dutch warships. His army only had undefended barges to take them out to sea and they needed an escort. However, the Armada's warships were too big to come in close to the port and they only had a handful of smaller warships that could do the job. There was therefore no way for the two forces to come together. The plan was doomed to failure.

The Spanish Armada was a costly defeat for Philip II. While Elizabeth's exchequer paid just over £160,000 to defend England, Philip spent in excess of £1.4m on the Armada.

5. Reputations won and lost

What happened to the main players of this era-defining conflict?

Elizabeth I

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Credit soars in Europe

The victory marked the high-point of Elizabeth's reign. At home Protestants believed God has saved England. Abroad, leaders were impressed by her navy.

Philip II

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Goes to ground

The Spanish nobility were highly critical of the defeat and Philip sank into a temporary depression. He concentrated on rebuilding and modernising his navy.

Sir Francis Drake

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Brief moment of glory

Sir Francis Drake was feted as a hero. However, he lost his credit with the queen after a disastrous English counter-Armada in 1589.

7th Duke of Medina Sidonia

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Humiliated but not destroyed

Philip recognised the Duke had not wanted to lead the Armada and allowed him to return home citing ill health. Students taunted him that 'Drake was coming'.