29 July 1588: England defeats the Spanish Armada

On this day in 1588 the English navy and a favourable wind defeated the Spanish Armada at the Battle of Gravelines, with the Spanish ships fleeing northwards.

'Defeat of the Spanish Armada' (c1797) © Print Collector/Getty Images
(Image credit: © Print Collector/Getty Images)

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 Felicsima Armada. And on 28 April 1588, with 130 ships under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia carrying 8,000 sailors and 18,000 soldiers, the Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

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. And 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.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. As an early adopter of bitcoin, Ben bought when the price was under $200, but went on to spend it all on foolish fripperies.