In the late 16th century, Spain was the most powerful empire in the known world. Spain's king, Philip II, ruled much of the New World and much of western Europe. England was helping Spain's Dutch rebels and English ships, under the command of Sir Francis Drake, to attack Spain's treasure fleet as they returned from the Caribbean.
Worst of all, England was now a Protestant nation. When Elizabeth I executed the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, Philip was personally angered and, wanting England for himself, decided to invade.
Philip's plan was that an armada of 130 ships would sail to the Netherlands, pick up 30,000 Spanish troops and invade England. However, the Armada was delayed by an English attack on Cadiz harbour in 1587 where Drake made off with gold treaures and destroyed over 100 Spanish ships.
In 1588, Philip's Armada finally set sail. When the Armada anchored at Calais, the English used fireships to scatter the Spanish fleet and then attack it at the Battle of Gravelines in July 1588. The Armada was forced to abandon its invasion attempt and was destroyed by storms, which Philip I called the
Protestant Wind, whilst trying to sail home round the north of Scotland.
Queen Elizabeth had a portrait painted to publicise her 'famous victory'.
The conflict with the Spanish Armada represented the height of the long struggle between Protestant England and Catholic Spain. Until recently, both English and Spanish historians believed that the Armada was the time when Spain's fortunes changed and England became great. Modern historians, however, think that the failure of the Armada – though a setback – was not the death-blow to Philip it was made out to be at the time although they agree that it did ‘make’ Elizabeth into a formidable queen.