Spain’s Supposedly ‘Invincible Armada’,
Illustrating God’s Care in Providential History
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
Ye shall not fear them: for the LORD, your God, He shall fight for you. (Deuteronomy 3:22)
Spain’s Invincible Armada set sail, in A.D. 1588, aiming to invade and conquer England. Queen Elizabeth, though weak, says she has strength to die for her England. The most critical defense of England, however (humanly speaking), appeared to depend mostly upon Sir Francis Drake. It was summer in A.D. 1588—political tensions between Spain and England were about to explode in a naval fire-fight, beginning in late July.
The tension had been rising, with several catalytic dominoes triggering a chain-reaction that would lead to war on the high seas, between the two most prominent sea-powers of that generation. The fate of England, and thus of all English colonies (including, therefore, the fate of English-speaking parts of North America, such as present-day America and Canada), hung in the balances, as the “Invincible Armada”—an attack force of some 130 ships (and 30,000 men)—sailed from Lisbon (Portugal’s capital now, but then owned by Philip II), to a rendezvous point at Calais (opposite Dover) to join forces with, and to escort, a large land force of Spanish soldiers (“the Army of Flanders,” some 16,000 fighting men), commanded by Philip’s nephew (the Duke of Parma). Then, the plan was for both forces to join together on the edge of the English Channel, with Parma’s army in barges, to be escorted by the “Invincible Armada,” a short sail westward, across the English Channel, to land, invade, and overwhelm England—and to depose Elizabeth, and to replace her with a Spanish “puppet.” Queen Elizabeth feared foreseeable defeat, and she addressed her marshaled soldiers (who prepared for the anticipated invasion at Tilbury, near the western shores of the English Channel):
“I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation…, but being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too…”
However, before recounting what happened, to whom, and how, and why—the stage must be set, historically speaking, so that the contextual backdrop of this high-stakes drama can be seen in its panoramic framework.
The monarch ruling Spain then was King Philip II, who ruled Spain (and its territories) from AD1556 to AD1598. In England, the monarch was Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England from AD1558 to AD1603. Spain’s King Philip was born in 1527, into a very different Spain than that of AD1588. Philip’s father was Spain’s King Carlos I “Quint,” better remembered (to many) as King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor of the Hapsburg dynasty, whose career was dominated by reacting to the invading Muslims in his empire’s east, and the wildfire-like Protestant Reformation in his empire’s west. King Carlos (or Charles) was, at his career’s peak, ruler of Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, and much of the Western Hemisphere—arguably the most powerful ruler in all of Europe. Thereafter, his son (Philip II) would also reign as a global super-king.
During Philip’s reign, Philip would check the dominant power and presence of the Muslim Turks in the Mediterranean (in AD1571), and would later conquer Portugal (in AD1580). Philip also strove to maintain the status quo in the West, politically and culturally, so he promoted the 16th century “Inquisition” in his dominions (which dominions included Spanish territories in both hemispheres, such as Peru, Mexico, and his namesake in the Pacific, the “Philippine” Islands). However, Philip’s zeal sometimes produced popular reactions, which Philip’s forces could not thereafter contain.
For example, one of his empire’s crown jewels, the northern provinces of the Netherlands (which means “lowlands,” a geologically accurate label), would break away from Philip’s grasp, seeking political and religious independence (AD1581). It was the conflict in the “Spanish Netherlands,” to a large degree, that catalyzed Spain’s military decision to launch the “Invincible Armada” against England, since England was a strategic ally of Dutch independence (in the “united” northern provinces of the Netherlands), from the AD1560s, when many of the Dutch exerted efforts to obtain some kind of self-rule.
(Ironically, this Anglo-Dutch alliance, in time, would subsequently facilitate an independence-oriented pendulum-swingback in 17th century English politics.) King Philip began plans for the Armada attack on England, it appears in hindsight, from 1586. Philip appointed the Duke of Medina Sidonia, Alfonso de Guzman (“El Bueno”) as the fleet commander of King Philip’s “Invincible Armada.” (All of these geopolitical actions, and reactions to those actions, of course, had very direct consequences on the Caribbean colonies of those same European super-powers, as would be illustrated in that and later generations.)
Queen Elizabeth, born in AD1533, began her remarkable life in a very different England than the England of AD1588. That same year in France, Jean Calvin (a/k/a “John Calvin”) became a convinced Protestant. In AD1534, for example, the year after her birth, her father (King Henry VIII) broke with the Church of Rome, establishing the independence of the Church of England, by royal decree. In AD1541, Spain’s Hernando de Soto was discovering the Mississippi River. In AD1543, the English translation of the Bible was legalized in England. In AD1547, Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII, died, and the kingship passed to her half-brother, Edward VI (then only 9 years old), but he died in 1553 at age 15. Then Lady Jane Grey was crowned as Queen of England, but her refusal to share royal rule with her husband alienated the nobility (many of whom withdrew support from her), and she was impeached for “treason” and beheaded, within days by Mary Tudor’s allies—after only 9 days as England’s queen.
Thus, in AD1553, Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary Tudor became Queen of England, a Catholic queen ruling a mostly Protestant kingdom—a recipe for fireworks (and, in time, for about 300 Protestant martyrs). In July AD1553, Queen Mary Tudor married Philip of Spain (who would soon become king of Spain, at his own father’s abdication in 1556), with an arrangement that made Philip “king consort” of England—meaning that Philip was “king” of England so long as he was married to Queen Mary Tudor. (Thus, Philip was no longer England’s king when he sent the “Invincible Armada” to conquer it in the summer of AD1588, because his English “kingship” expired when his wife Mary Tudor died in AD1558.) Obviously, this royal marriage secured England to Spain’s sphere of influence and, to a certain degree, control—especially when Philip inherited his father’s abdicated empire in AD1556, about 1½ years after he married England’s queen. Since Philip was now King of Spain (as well as king-consort of England), this meant that Mary Tudor was now Queen (consort) of Spain, as well as Queen of England. Mary soon announced a royal pregnancy (imagine the ramifications!), with a due-date in JuneAD1555, but this proved to be a “phantom pregnancy”: no royal baby ever arrived.
During Mary Tudor’s reign (AD1553-AD1558), her cousin to the north, Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, ruled Scotland in an uneasy (and unstable) situation. Mary Stewart, like Mary Tudor, was a Roman Catholic queen ruling over a predominantly Protestant population. In late AD1554, Mary Tudor was informed that the pope decreed absolution of his earlier curse on England, but only if Queen Mary Tudor diligently prosecuted all “heretics” in England with death, by burning them at the stake. Mary Tudor promptly obeyed this directive, thus earning her nickname, “Bloody Mary.” Prominent Anglican churchmen like Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley met the flames as martyrs, as well as about 300 others. The judicial proceedings of these Inquisition prosecutions were documented with detail in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, soon to be a blockbuster bestseller. What Elizabeth Beecher Stowe’s fiction Uncle Tom’s Cabin did in America (in the AD1800s), John Foxe’s forensic non-fiction chronicles in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs did in Europe (in the 1500s) for civil rights-promoting Protestant “reformers.” The overall political (and popular culture) reaction which Bloody Mary’s discriminatory decrees produced in England is hard for historians to over-estimate.
Against this boiling-over cauldron of political volatility, Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister (Bloody Mary) in AD1558 as the new Queen of England. England began to change—immediately.
Meanwhile, politics in Scotland was at a boiling-point. In AD1560, the Calvinistic Church of Scotland was becoming a key political player, just as Elizabeth’s reign as Queen of England was budding. Elizabeth quietly backed the Scottish Kirk, to keep hostile French influences out of Scotland. (Elizabeth would one day learn that Mary Queen of Scots (her own cousin) had herself claimed to be the rightful and legitimate heir to England’s throne, deeming Elizabeth a “bastard” (and thus disqualified to sit on England’s throne), and had concurred in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth!
In AD1565, Spanish soldiers massacred the Huguenot settlement in Florida, enforcing Spain’s claimed geographic monopoly (yet legitimizing the act as punishing “heresy”). Providentially, that massacre would have a connection to England’s defense against the Spanish Armada, almost 2 dozen years later.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, under pressure triggered by Mary Stewart’s alleged role in murdering one of her several husbands, Mary Stewart abdicated her title “Queen of Scots,” in AD1567, leaving her 13-month-old son, James (i.e., King James VI of Scotland, and later also King James I of England—to be famous for the “King James Bible” of AD1611) as Scotland’s new king, with the actual rule of Scotland going to the baby king’s Scottish Presbyterian uncle, James Stewart, the Earl of Moray. Elizabeth’s reign began in turbulent times!
In AD1568, two adventurous English “monopoly-busters,” John Hawkins and his cousin Francis Drake, narrowly escaped death from Spanish ships while peacefully visiting a Mexican harbor, producing two lifetime adversaries of the Spanish navy (both of whom would participate later in England’s repulsion of the Spanish Armada in AD1588—more details on that to follow). During AD1570-AD1572, Drake was actively “privateering” in the greater Caribbean “world,” repeatedly raiding the Spanish Main. In AD1572, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre occurred, triggering massive immigrations of French Huguenots into Elizabethan England. In AD1577, Queen Elizabeth secretly provided support to Drake, for his “privateering” (i.e., government-licensed pirating) enterprises in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and elsewhere, against Spanish ships—wherever they might be found.
In AD1579, Drake captured a mega-fortune, by seizing Spain’s treasure-ship Cacafuego, delivering “half” of its treasure of gold, silver, and other commodities to Queen Elizabeth (assuming Drake completed his English version of the IRS Form 1040 “accurately”!). Francis Drake was heralded as a national hero, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in AD1581. Meanwhile, assassination threats continued to complicate Queen Elizabeth’s reign and the security of Great Britain’s realm.
Accordingly, in AD1584, the English Parliament enacted a statutory law authorizing vigilante action to be used by anyone, if need be, to defend Queen Elizabeth against any attempted assassination plot.
Meanwhile, in the highly flammable AD1580s—the sparks between Spain and England continued to multiply. Then, in the watershed year of AD1585, England openly joined the so-called “Eighty Years War” against Spain, by providing military aid to the revolting Dutch Protestant “United Provinces” (led by William I of Orange, ancestor of a later English king, King William III, champion of England’s “Glorious Revolution”). This irrevocably galvanized King Philip II of Spain—who had once been king-consort of England—to plan a retaliatory war against Elizabethan England, to punish England for contesting Philip’s authority in the ongoing “civil war” in the Spanish Netherlands. Obviously, the piracies by Drake (and other English privateers) continually added fuel to ignite the anticipated fires of war.
Meanwhile, political plotting and maneuvering accelerated change in England’s homeland. In February AD1587, Elizabeth consented to the execution of her cousin Mary, the former Queen of Scots (imprisoned for years in England), after a treason/assassination plot (the “Babington Plot” involving a “cover-up” by Mary) was discovered and thwarted. England’s (i.e., Elizabeth’s) reaction to this attempted coup d’état, motivated by information received about King Philip’s developing plans to attack England’s homeland, came quickly.
So, adding insult to injury, in April AD1587, privateer Francis Drake brazenly attacked—and successfully burned—Spanish ships in their own harbor, Cadiz. King Philip was humiliated and incensed. Queen Elizabeth must be stopped! Soon afterwards (July 29, AD1587), Spain’s King Philip obtained the pope’s blessing on Philip’s developing military plan to invade and conquer England—and to depose Queen Elizabeth—and to replace her with a Catholic monarch of Philip’s choosing (i.e., a Spanish “puppet”-king). So, in the summer of AD1588, a very-much-changed Spain and a very-much-changed England were about to clash: high stakes on the high seas!
But this clash would never have occurred—if the European “world” of AD1588 had not already been catalytically shaken by two history-changing “earthquakes.”
Perhaps the two greatest geo-cultural European earthquakes of their “world” were, chronologically:
(1) the New World discoveries of Spain’s Christopher Columbus; and
(2) the ecclesiastical-cultural revolution known as the Protestant Reformation.
Europe would never be the same (nor would the world, for that matter), after either—much less both—of those two historic “earthquakes.”
(QUALIFICATION: Although Vikings, led by Leif Eiriksson of Greenland, had discovered North America in AD1000, almost a half-millennium before Columbus reached the Caribbean islands, the Vikings’ travels to and from North America were short-lived, relatively unimpactful, and did not permanently connect the geopolitical “worlds” of the Western and Eastern Hemispheres, — however, Christopher Columbus’s exploits did the opposite, permanently connecting the Old and New “Worlds” — as Dr. John Eidsmoe has insightfully observed and documented in his authoritative historical study COLUMBUS AND CORTEZ, q.v.)
When Christopher Columbus sailed west from Spain in AD1492, he irrevocably closed a chapter in the ongoing story of Europe’s “world” of politics, economics and geography—and even agriculture and cuisine! Admiral Columbus ironically continued to believe (mistakenly) that he was discovering and exploring islands of the “Indies,” and even Japan! Hence, Columbus called the Caribs and other natives whom he met in the Caribbean, and on other lands nearby, “Indians.” This erroneous name for Western Hemisphere natives has stuck, so the name was eventually “corrected” to the “West Indies,” to distinguish the Caribbean native “Indians” from the real “Indians” (of eastern Asia), i.e., the natives of India, Indochina, and the “East Indies.”
But in AD1493, this corrected geographic view of the globe was lacking, so Portugal and Spain sought direction from the current pope (Alexander VI) regarding which nation should have (and colonize) the various “new lands” known as “the Indies.” The pope’s solution was a longitudinal “Line of Demarcation,” which roughly bisected the Eastern and Western Hemispheres by an imaginary line in the Atlantic, nearly touching what would eventually be discovered as the eastern edge of Brazil. However, this appeared unsatisfactory, so a revised deal was negotiated between Spain and Portugal, in 1AD494, called the Treaty of Tordesillas, which moved the “Line of Demarcation” to the west, providing Portugal with some of South America’s Brazilian territory, which bulges eastward into the Atlantic Ocean. This diplomatic solution to the imminent problem of colonial competition had one practical flaw: it was only a two-party deal, agreed to only by Spain and Portugal! Obviously, France, England, and the Dutch—just to name a few—did not consent to this two-headed “game of monopoly,” so geopolitical conflicts on this “partitioning” were certain to occur.
And they did!—again and again, and again. Monopoly busting, ironically, almost cost Francis Drake his life in AD1568, at age 29. That experience convinced Drake that there would be no peaceful co-existence in the Caribbean world for English adventurers who wanted wealth.
Ironically, it was Drake’s illustrious career of privateering after 1568 (i.e., piracy with a royal “letter of marque,” a license for commissioned acts of piracy—but sometimes Drake acted without a commission) that would prepare him with the naval experience needed in 1588 for preemptively striking and counter-attacking the Spanish Armada.
Meanwhile, many years before, in AD1517—while the European super-powers were strategically competing (and even sometimes battling) for the new lands in “the Indies,” a Dr. Martin Luther was hammering his indulgence-protesting “Ninety-Five Theses” on the church door in Wittenberg, and by doing so, Luther was closing a chapter in the ongoing story of Europe’s ecclesiastical, theological, and social world. Thus, back on the European continent, an ecclesiastical-theological tsunami erupted, cresting the geo-cultural horizon in AD1517, to become known as the Protestant Reformation—with ramifications much broader (and deeper) than just church doctrines, church life, and church politics. Although pre-Reformation “sparks” had ignited a few theological fires of European church reform, in prior generations (e.g., John Wycliffe and John Hus), it was the indulgence-protesting hammer of Dr. Martin Luther in AD1517 which carpentered the foundations of Europe’s (and the world’s) Reformation movement. Ultimately, the entire geo-political order of the European super-powers would be affected, as well as all colonial lands then or thereafter controlled (or even influenced) by those same European super-powers. Also, religious politics of the 1500s included incidents like the massacre of French Huguenot pirates (and English sympathizers), seeking to justify acts of piracy to Spanish ships and New World settlements.
So, when the Invincible Armada of Spain sailed to conquer England in AD1588, the turbulent world of that day—shaken by globally changed conditions traceable to Columbus and Luther—presented the challenge of a lifetime to Elizabeth’s #1 pirate, Sir Francis Drake.
Francis Drake was born in the seaport town of Plymouth, England, in AD1540; his family moved to another seaport, Rochester, where his father served as a minister at a naval shipyard. Drake lived (literally, as a boy) and thrived in the world of sailing ships—an old English tradition from the Viking era.
In AD1566 Drake had sailed with his cousin, John Hawkins, as profit-seeking “monopoly-busters,” conducting trade with Spanish colonists on Venezuela’s shores, despite an official Spanish embargo (ban) on such practices—prompting political protests from Spain and Portugal.
On one occasion, a Spanish colony governor agreed to trade with these English “monopoly-busters,” but only if they used a show of “force” first, so the Spanish governor could later excuse his unauthorized business deals (with the English “monopoly-busters”) by claiming he had only traded “under duress,” i.e., under the coercive threat of an English pirate raid.
What a scheming politician!
Portugal did not want English ships interfering with the slave trade from west Africa, and Spain did not want English ships in Caribbean waters, much less visiting the “Spanish main” (a phrase sometimes meaning the continental mainland holding of Spain in what today is called “Latin America” and sometimes used to mean whatever Spanish territories bordered the Atlantic, Caribbean, or Gulf of Mexico).
“In 1567, Drake commanded the Judith on Hawkins’ second [Caribbean basin] expedition. On the return trip, the [English ‘monopoly-buster’] ships stopped [for emergency repairs, after negotiating permission with the local Spanish port authorities] at the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua, later-named Veracruz. A fleet of Spanish ships approached the harbor, pretending to be friendly. But the Spaniards attacked the English, killing many English sailors and sinking several [of the 7] vessels. Only the Judith and Hawkins’ ship, the Minion, escaped” [Quoting pp. 265-266 from Vernon Snow’s “Sir Francis Drake,” In World Book Encyclopedia (1972), vol. 5].
Drake’s ship and Hawkins’ ship became separated in the desperate escape. Of Hawkins’ men, only fifteen survived the return trip to England.
Three of Hawkins’ crew—David Ingram, Richard Brown, and Richard Twide—walked for months, from Tampico, Mexico, to St. John, New Brunswick (then Acadia, now Canada). Other survivors who made land were captured (and tortured to death, Inquisition-style) or were simply not heard of again.
“Francis Drake and what remained of the crew of the Judith arrived at Plymouth. After listening to Drake’s report, Hawkins’ brother William wrote to Secretary of State William Cecil and the Privy Council, informing them of the disaster, and dispatched Drake to London with the letters so that the council could hear a firsthand account of the affair.” [Quoting John Todd, Jr., “Three Ships Sunk by Spaniards in Veracruz (Some Survivors Walked from Tampico to Canada)” in Francis Drake’s Disaster in Veracruz, pp. 8-9].
Drake vowed life-long revenge on the Spaniards, and Drake fulfilled his vow, religiously, earning his Spanish nicknames, “El Draque” and “El Drago” (the Dragon). Soon after Drake’s return to England, during AD1570 to AD1572, Drake pirated many Spanish ships in the West Indies, with Queen Elizabeth’s blessing.
Ironically, since Queen Elizabeth was the “governor” [not “head” — Ephesians 5:23] of the Church of England, this was ecclesiastically comparable (somewhat) to a papal blessing for a member of the Anglican church—comparable to King Philip II’s papal blessing, two decades later, on his quest to conquer England with his Invincible Armada and his nephew’s Army of Flanders.
Drake’s escapades in the West Indies swelled like Mt. Saint Helens, ready to erupt at any time. Now he no longer tried to negotiate embargo-circumventing “monopoly-busting” trade with Spanish colonists, he merely raided Spanish ships (and sometimes Spanish towns) as a pirate. While on Spanish-colonized coastland Colon (a major peninsula of Panama), Drake captured the town of Nombre de Dios, then ambushed a mule train of Spanish conquistadorean silver, bearing Peruvian silver to the Isthmus of Panama.
As a privateer for Queen Elizabeth, Drake owed her half of his pirated plunder, if he got it at sea. However, his “letter of marque” contract said nothing about the Queen getting any of the loot that he captured on land!
Drake’s ships did not remain in the West Indies, however.
In AD1577, Drake sailed from England to the Caribbean, and eventually sailed all the way south to the Strait of Magellan and sailed around South America’s tip, clockwise, along the Pacific coastline up to California, near San Francisco and beyond (up America’s northwest coastline, where he even spent a brief time trying to teach some natives about the Christian God, because they had tried to worship him), striking Spanish ships at every convenient opportunity, and even the Chilean seaport of Valparaiso (for 25,000 pesos of gold, among other loot). It was during AD1579, about his famed Golden Hind [see photo of replica ship], that he used trickery to capture the Spanish treasure-ship, Cacafuego (“Dung-fire”), in the Pacific, with a fortune (worth millions in today’s dollars). This was Drake’s characteristic pirate-style of “monopoly-busting,” disrupting Spain’s claim of monopolistic supremacy by looting the looters. (Unlike the legends of Robin Hood, though, Drake never returned the Peruvian silver he confiscated to the native Peruvians.)
Drake continued westward, challenging Spanish and Portuguese colonies—e.g., the Philippines, Moluccas, Celebes, Java—as he went.
As he surveyed the Pacific islands, Drake enjoyed opportunities for “monopoly-busting” trade, especially trading with native East Indies merchants who disliked the Portuguese traders, including a sultan in Ternate who disliked Portugal because his father had been killed by Portuguese merchants. Drake traded with the sultan for valuable East Indies spices—such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and pepper—all of which enhanced the taste of European food, and sometimes retarded spoilage, an important trait in that age of unrefrigerated food.
Eventually Drake returned to Plymouth, having been the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, returning to England as a national hero in late AD1580. Drake’s map accurately pictured the world’s two hemispheres, and he enthusiastically recounted his almost-3-year-long odyssey to Queen Elizabeth, for six hours!
Elizabeth had personally invested 1,000 crowns to finance Drake’s expedition, yet she received 47,000 crowns (with Drake keeping 10,000 crowns) as a return on her investment—more than enough to pay off all of England’s foreign debt at the time, as well as England’s national expenses for many years to follow! (And that was just the cash! There was much more wealth in other forms, brought back in Drake’s Golden Hind!).
England would not forget this, or the Pacific, ever. Elizabeth was enthusiastically impressed, but not so her ex-brother-in-law, Philip II, the king of Spain (and, as of AD1580, also of Portugal). King Philip II protested Drake’s raids as “piracy,” because England and Spain were not then officially “at war.” Elizabeth’s reply was to proclaim Drake as a Knight in AD1581—officially to honor Drake for being the first Englishman to sail full circle around the world, a feat previously accomplished by Magellan’s survivors. Drake’s knighthood enraged King Philip II.
Interestingly, Philip had earlier indicated interest in marrying Elizabeth, as he had previously married (though mostly ignored) Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary Tudor, England’s prior queen. But Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen (hence the name of her later-settled American colony, Virginia), was “married” only to her England.
Drake entered domestic politics. He served as mayor of Plymouth in AD1581 and AD1582. In AD1584 and in AD1585 he served in Parliament’s House of Commons. Had the old “sea-dog,” whom the Spaniards feared as “the Dragon,” quit the high seas for the life of a land-lubber? No.
In AD1585, King Philip ordered a trade embargo against all English goods, resulting in many contract breaches and general interruption in English trade worldwide.
Elizabeth called on Drake to respond to this world trade crisis: would he be willing to sail to the Caribbean, and to teach the Spanish another “monopoly-busting” lesson or two? Yes.
So, late in AD1585, Drake sailed from England to the Caribbean, with “monopoly-busting” on his Spaniard-targeted privateering agenda. En route to the West Indies, Drake harried the Spaniards’ seaport Vigo, then burned Sao Tiago. Drake landed on Hispaniola, and burned Santo Domingo. Then Drake “visited” Cartagena for 6 weeks, demanding ransom, or else. In AD1586 Drake also visited the Cayman Islands, to obtain sea-turtles, a valuable fresh meat source. On the return trip to England, Drake stopped in Florida at a Spanish fort (St. Augustine) and burned it, probably recalling how some of his old comrades in AD1568 had sought refuge in Florida, but had wandered through Florida without help, due to a recent Spanish massacre of Fort Caroline’s Huguenot settlers (in AD1565). After sailing northward from Florida, Sir Francis Drake visited the English colony of Virginia, and even picked up a few English passengers (who wanted to catch a trans-Atlantic “taxi” back to England).
Meanwhile, King Philip II was amassing his “Invincible Armada”.
When Elizabeth learned of the Spanish Armada’s approach, she quickly turned to Drake for help. Drake’s first response was to preemptively strike part of the Armada, before it could be strategically assembled to cross the English Channel.
It was in that context that Drake sneak-attacked Spanish warships at anchor in Cadiz, one of Spain’s most important seaports, seizing tons of ammunition. About 30 Spanish warships were destroyed.
On May 30, AD1588, Spain’s Invincible Armada launched from Lisbon, Portugal, with very specific orders from King Philip—on how the conquest of England was to be accomplished. Meanwhile, after the Cadiz attack, Drake had returned to England to organize England’s naval defenses for what would come next. The formal commander of England’s navy then was officially Admiral Lord Howard. However, Howard wisely deferred to Drake’s naval expertise and wisdom, so Vice-Admiral Francis Drake was then the de facto fleet commander of the English naval defenses. Assisting Drake as squadron leaders—to defend against the inevitable invasion—were Drake’s Plymouth-born cousin, Sir John Hawkins (knighted in AD1588 after the Armada’s defeat) and Martin Frobisher (also knighted after the Armada’s defeat), another ocean-experienced English explorer-adventurer. Then, Spain’s 130 warships sailed northward, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, an aristocrat without Drake’s “school-of-hard-knocks” experience. On July 30, the Armada entered the English Channel, engaging in some sporadic long-range gunfire with English ships for two days.
On August 6th, the Armada anchored at Calais, France, to await the arrival of (and then escort) the barges carrying the Spanish Army of Flanders, which was coming from nearby Dunkirk (“Dunkerque”), to constitute Spain’s main landing-force of invaders. (This crisis prompted Queen Elizabeth’s speech quoted on the first page of this paper.) The Flemish army never arrived; they were blocked by Dutch gunboats! On August 8th, the English sent five “fire-boats”—unmanned, gunpowder-loaded ships, set afire, with the wind directing them toward the anchored Armada!
The Armada panicked, and scattered helter-skelter to avoid colliding with fire-ships or any flying fire-debris spewed out by gunpowder explosions. The small, agile English ships chased the fleeing Spanish ships near Gravelines, a French port. The English sunk two Spanish ships, and seriously damaged, if not crippled, the other 128.
The Spanish fled, sailing counter-clockwise around the British Isles (hoping to reorganize with the help of Irish sympathizers/allies), only to lose half of their warships to freakish winds [!!!] off the Irish coast.
These “coincidental” ship-destroying storms at sea were interpreted by many (both British and Spanish) then, and by many since, as demonstrations of God’s providential care for and protection of the British nation, and thus also of God’s providential protection of Britain’s Protestant enterprises. Many gave thanks to God for his protective providence. Only 67 (about ½) of the Spanish Armada warships returned to Spain. It seems irrefutable that England was providentially spared from an otherwise certain Spanish invasion.
Spain eventually returned, with a second Armada, in AD1596, but this too was quashed by providential weather. Once again, unsurprisingly, this defeat-by-weather was recognized as God’s continuing providence, again defending Protestant England from the Inquisition-enforcing Spaniards.
So what was the end result? England remained a world super-power, in ways that secured furtherance of the Great Commission.
Dr. James J. S. Johnson, during AD2005 (when this was written) was variously lecturing aboard international cruise ships, teaching history (inter alia) at LeTourneau University and Dallas Christian College, and was daily appreciating God’s providences.
NOTE: the original version of this article first appeared as Short Paper #24 of the Northwood Review of Geography & International Studies (March 2005), and was used (with permission) aboard NCL’s NORWEGIAN MAJESTY later that year.