#OTD in 1588 – The Spanish Armada is defeated by the English, with some Spaniards slain upon reaching the coasts of Ireland and some survivors remaining.

The English defeated the Spanish Armada in the Battle of Gravelines off the coast of France. The Spanish Armada was a powerful fleet of armed ships and transports that tried to invade England. The defeat at Gravelines ended Spain’s hopes of invasion. The failure of the Armada was a great blow to the prestige of Spain, then the world’s most powerful country. Spain remained a major power after the battle, but English merchants and sailors challenged the Spaniards with greater confidence throughout the world.

As Spain planned for invasion, England prepared to defeat the Armada at sea. The English armed many merchant vessels and added them to its fleet of warships. They gathered some 200 ships and nearly 16,000 men, most of them sailors rather than soldiers. Admiral Lord Howard of Effingham commanded the fleet, and his squadron leaders included the notable sailors Drake, John Hawkins, and Martin Frobisher.

The Armada left Lisbon on 30 May 1588. It entered the English Channel on 30 July and fought long-range gun duels with English warships during the next few days. On 6 August, the Armada anchored at Calais, France. Medina Sidonia had planned to meet barges carrying Spanish troops from nearby Dunkerque, a port then in the Netherlands. But Dutch gunboats prevented the barges from meeting the Armada. This act doomed the Armada to failure.

In the early hours of 8 August, the English sent eight fire ships (vessels filled with gunpowder and set on fire) toward the Armada. The Spanish ships sailed out to sea to escape the flames. Later that morning, about 60 English ships attacked an equal number of Spanish ships off the French port of Gravelines. The English sank several Spanish ships and damaged others.

The crippled Armada had attempted to return home through the North Atlantic, when it was driven from its course by violent storms, toward the west coast of Ireland. The prospect of a Spanish landing alarmed Queen Elizabeth I, which prescribed harsh measures for the Spanish invaders and any Irish who might assist them.

Up to 24 ships of the Armada were wrecked on a rocky coastline spanning 500 km, from Antrim in the north to Kerry in the south, and the threat to Crown authority was readily defeated. Many of the survivors of the multiple wrecks were put to death, and the remainder fled across the sea to Scotland. It is estimated that some 6,000 members of the fleet perished in Ireland or off its coasts, and only about two-thirds of the fleet safely returned to Spain.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588 (1796), oil on canvas by Philip James de Loutherbourg; National Maritime Museum

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