What do you think?

Question

In what way do interpretations of the Armada differ in England and in Spain?

For English commentators of the time, the defeat of the Armada was a wonderful victory. Petruccio Ubaldini (1590), an Italian living in England, claimed that God had defeated the Armada to save Protestantism. He wrote it for Lord Howard of Effingham, the Admiral in charge of the English fleet, so you can guess why it was biased.

English interpretations were influenced by 'Whig' historians who developed a 'myth' of the Armada, variously crediting Elizabeth, Drake, or the navy for the victory. They depicted the Armada as an event of world importance, a 'now or never' moment which:

  • saved English freedom
  • laid the cornerstone of the British Empire
  • shifted the world balance of power
  • even in 1920 J.Oliphant claimed that Though the English ships were smaller and fewer than those opposed to them, they were better built and better manned...their skilful use of artillery gave them a great advantage.

At the same time, Spanish historians came to the same conclusions! Trying to discover why the Spanish empire failed, they worked back and decided that the 'decline' of Spain started with the Armada.

Question

Was it a brilliant victory by England over the greatest power in the world, and the beginning of England's greatness or was it a lucky escape?

This question continues to irk historians and commentators. It is true that Philip did not help himself in his attack upon England in 1588. He ordered his ships to sail via the Netherlands rather than directly to England, thus the element of surprise was taken away as favoured by Spanish commanders like Medina Sidona. Recent research has also concluded that Spanish ships had been fitted with the wrong kind of cannon balls for their cannons, which therefore prevented them from firing upon the English. Therefore rather than fight against the English – which they couldn’t – they chose to retreat hoping to land in the Netherlands. High winds prevented them from reaching port and dashed the ships against the rocks of northern Scotland.

Additionally, tactics used by Drake such as fireships and concentrating all his resources at Plymouth to shield the south-west coast from a direct landing as against the straits of Dunkirk, also contributed to his success.

Question

How have the traditional interpretations been revised?

Since 1988, revisionist historians have rethought the Armada, suggesting that:

  • The Dutch played a significant part in the defeat of the Armada.
  • Philip was more worried by the Ottoman Empire and France.
  • Philip never intended to conquer England, only to 'teach her a lesson'.
  • In 1940 L.Ortiz Munoz said ...the Spanish fleet was conquered for the first time. But not by men, nor by the ships...It was defeated by the weather...Only against the hurricane and gales did we lose.
  • Spanish ships built on the Atlantic coast were every bit as good as the English ships.

As a result, the Catholic Spaniard historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (1988) challenged the idea that the English defeated the Armada.

Where next?

The Armada was a failed invasion of England, so you may wish to compare it to other failed invasions such as the Battle of Britain in World War Two, or to successful invasions such as the Norman Conquest.

Given the technology and communications available in 1588, you may decide that to mount a naval expedition the size of the Armada was an achievement in itself.

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