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The Armada
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The Armada“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king”
Elizabeth I speaking to her army at Tilbury before the Armada's approach


ENGLAND HAD BEEN SLOW to join Europe's maritime adventure, begun in the 1400s by Portuguese and Spanish ships sailing to America and around Africa to India and China. Henry VII had sponsored the Cabots' voyages of exploration, and Henry VIII had delighted in bigger and better warships, like the Mary Rose. But it was Elizabeth's sea captains who from the 1560s poured riches into the royal coffers by a combination of trade and piracy. Many of the adventurers - among them Walter Raleigh, John Hawkins, Martin Frobisher and Francis Drake - were also those called to defend England against the Armada from Spain in 1588.

Philip of Spain, obsessed with a mission to restore England to the true Catholic faith, ordered the largest invasion fleet ever seen. He had hopes of a pro-Catholic uprising to welcome his ships, laden with battle-hardened troops ready to drive Elizabeth from her throne. Along the south coast of England, beacons were built to flame into life when lookouts signalled the first sail of the Spanish fleet.

Spain's captains were tough and experienced, but their huge galleons were slow and lumbering, unsuited to the Channel's tricky tides and currents. Smaller and faster, the English ships had much better gunnery; above all, English sailors knew their own winds, tides and shallows.

Commanding the English fleet was Lord Howard of Effingham, whose job was to control and coordinate the swashbuckling captains of his fighting ships. English vessels harried the Armada, sailing majestically up the Channel towards a rendezvous with the Duke of Parma's invasion army at Calais. The Spanish pushed on doggedly, desperate to tackle the English at close quarters but - anchored off the coast of France - were surprised by English fire-ships and almost driven on shore during a hectic skirmish off Gravelines. The Channel weather then took a hand as winds blew the Spanish ships back out to sea, but northwards. The tattered fleet made for home via Scotland and Ireland -suffering terrible losses from savage storms. Of 130 ships that left Spain, fewer than half returned; more than 10,000 Spanish perished. The English lost not a single ship.

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Drake plays bowls on Plymouth Hoe while the English fleet awaits the signal that the Armada is in sight.

The Armada


The Armada portrait
A painting of Queen Elizabeth, now at Woburn Abbey, known as the Armada'portrait. Through one window the Armada can be seen; through the other, the storm that scattered England's foes.

The Armada


The Spanish Armada at Gravelines
This painting in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich is thought to be a contemporary record. The Armada galleons are being attacked by smaller English ships, and one (top left), is sinking.

The Armada




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