29 July 1588: England defeats the Spanish Armada

When Queen Mary I died, and with her England’s brief and bloody restoration of Catholicism, she was replaced with Elizabeth I, who reimposed Protestantism.

But Philip II of Spain, Mary’s widower, didn’t take too kindly to this outrageous heresy. So he built a vast fleet of ships, and assembled an army of 30,000 men in the Netherlands. The two would join up and after a swift and efficient invasion, England would be restored to the Catholic fold.

Pope Sixtus V, having assigned the plan the status of a Holy Crusade, blessed the Grande y Felicísima Armada. And on 28 April 1588, 130 ships under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, with 8,000 sailors and 18,000 soldiers, the Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon.

After a few delays for bad weather, they were sighted off Cornwall on 19 July, and soon after off Plymouth, where Sir Francis Drake was almost certainly not playing bowls.

The English fleet outnumbered them with smaller, nimbler ships, but the Armada had considerably more firepower. And the strict crescent formation they kept made inflicting damage on them very difficult. So the two fleets danced around each other, skirmishing up the English Channel until the Spanish anchored at Gravelines, now home to a French nuclear power station, but then part of the Spanish Netherlands.

On 28 July, the battle began in earnest. The English sent fireships – old ships loaded with pretty much anything that would burn – among the Spanish. The Armada broke formation, and was now vulnerable. On 29 July, the English attacked in the Battle of Gravelines.

English ships and an unfavourable wind made escape back down the English Channel impossible, so the Armada fled northwards and attempted to return round the tip of Scotland and back down the west coast of Ireland. But again the weather intervened, with storms dashing many ships on the rocky coasts. Less than half the ships that set out returned safely.

The victory was a huge boon for Elizabeth, England and the Protestant faith, and dealt a massive blow to Spain’s dreams of world domination.

Also on this day

29 July 1948: opening ceremony of the 1948 London Olympics

The XIV Olympiad, dubbed the ‘Austerity Games’, opened in London to 85,000 spectators on this day in 1948. Read more here.