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The Anglo–Spanish War (1585–1604) was an intermittent conflict between the kingdoms of Spainmarker and England that was never formally declared. The war was punctuated by widely separated battles, and began with England's military expedition in 1585 to the Netherlandsmarker under the command of the Earl of Leicester in support of the resistance of the Estates General to Habsburg rule.

The English enjoyed victories at Cádizmarker in 1587, and over the Spanish Armada in 1588, but lost the initiative upon the repulse of the English Armada in 1589 before La Coruña and Lisbon. Two further Spanish armadas were sent but were frustrated in their objectives owing to adverse weather.

In the decade following the defeat of the Armada, Spain strengthened its navy and was thereafter very successful in defending its transport of precious metals from the Americas. England was on the losing end of most of the subsequent battles, but the war became deadlocked around the turn of the century during campaigns in Brittany and Ireland. The war was brought to an end with the Treaty of London, negotiated in 1604 between representatives of Philip III and the new Scottish king of England, James I. Spain and England agreed to cease their military interventions in Ireland and the Spanish Netherlands, respectively, and the English renounced high seas piracy. Both parties had achieved some of their aims, but each of their treasuries had almost been exhausted in the process.


In the 1560s, Philip II of Spain, a champion of the Roman Catholic cause, sought to frustrate English crown policy for both religious and commercial reasons. The Protestant Elizabeth I of England, whom the Catholic Church did not recognise as the rightful English monarch, had antagonised Catholics by making attendance at Church of England services compulsory and punishing the saying of or attendance at Mass with imprisonment. The English also tended to support the Protestant cause in the Netherlandsmarker, which was increasingly hostile to Spanish government.

Philip and the Catholic Church considered Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic cousin of Elizabeth's, to be the rightful Queen of England. In 1567, Mary was imprisoned and forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favor of her infant son, James. Thereafter she fled to England, where Elizabeth had her imprisoned. Over the next two decades, opponents of Elizabeth and James continually plotted to have Mary placed on the throne of one or both kingdoms.

The activities of English privateers (considered pirates by the Spanish) on the Spanish Main and in the Atlanticmarker seriously affected Spain's royal revenues. The English trans-Atlantic slave trade - started by Sir John Hawkins in 1562 - gained the support of Elizabeth, even though the Spanish government complained that Hawkins' trade with their colonies in the West Indiesmarker constituted smuggling.

In September 1568, a slaving expedition led by Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake was surprised by the Spanish, and several ships were sunk, at San Juan de Ulúa, near Veracruzmarker, Mexicomarker. This engagement soured Anglo-Spanish relations, and in the following year the English detained several treasure ships sent by the Spanish to supply their army in the Netherlands. Drake and Hawkins, amongst others, intensified their privateering as a way to break the Spanish monopoly on Atlantic trade.

Seeing the Protestant cause as central to her survival, Elizabeth provided assistance to the Protestant forces in the French Wars of Religion and in the Dutch Revolt against Spain. Philip, meanwhile, was fiercely opposed to the spread of Protestantism, and in addition to financing the Catholic League in the French wars, supported the Second Desmond Rebellion in Ireland, in which Irish Catholics revolted against Elizabeth, from 1579 to 1583.

In 1585, Elizabeth signed the Treaty of Nonsuch with the Dutch, agreeing to provide men, horses, and a subsidy. Philip took this to be a declaration of war against his government.


War broke out in 1585. Drake sailed for the West Indies and sacked Santo Domingomarker, Cartagena de Indiasmarker, and Saint Augustinemarker in Floridamarker. England joined the Eighty Years' War on the side of the Dutch Protestant United Provinces, who had declared their independence from Spain. Philip II planned an invasion of England, but in April 1587 his preparations suffered a setback when Drake burned 37 Spanish ships in harbour at Cádizmarker. In the same year, the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots on 8 February outraged Catholics in Europe, and her claim on the English throne passed (by her own deed of will) to Philip. On 29 July, he obtained Papal authority to overthrow Elizabeth, who had been excommunicated by Pope Pius V, and place whomever he chose on the throne of England.


Spanish Armada

Main articles: Spanish Armada, Spanish Armada in Ireland

In retaliation for the execution of Mary, Philip vowed to conquer England and place a Catholic monarch on its throne. He assembled a fleet of about 130 ships, containing 8,000 soldiers and 18,000 sailors. To finance this endeavor, Pope Sixtus V had permitted Philip to collect crusade taxes. Sixtus had promised a further subsidy to the Spanish should they reach English soil.

The Armada was to arrive in the Netherlands, where it was to pick up additional troops for the invasion of England. However, the English navy inflicted a defeat on the Armada in the Battle of Gravelines before this could be accomplished, and forced the Armada to sail northward. It sailed around Scotland, where it suffered severe damage and loss of life from stormy weather.

The defeat of the Armada revolutionised naval warfare and provided valuable seafaring experience for English oceanic mariners. Furthermore, the English were able to persist in their privateering against the Spanish and continue sending troops to assist Philip II's enemies in the Netherlands and Francemarker. Protestants viewed the failure of the Armada as a sign that God supported their cause. (See He blew with His winds, and they were scattered.)

English Armada

The defeat of the Spanish Armada was not a decisive battle, and the "Protestant Wind" did not finish the war. An "English Armada" under the command of Drake and Sir John Norreys was dispatched in 1589 to torch the Spanish Atlantic navy, which had largely survived the Armada encounter and was refitting in Santandermarker, Corunnamarker and San Sebastiánmarker in northern Spain. It was also intended to capture the incoming Spanish treasure fleet and expel the Spanish from Portugalmarker - ruled by Philip since 1580 - in favour of the Prior of Crato. Had the expedition succeeded in its objectives, Spain may have been compelled to sue for peace, but owing to poor organisation and excessive caution, the invading force was repelled with heavy casualties on the English side and failed to take Lisbon. Sickness then struck the expedition, and finally a portion of the fleet led by Drake towards the Azores was scattered in a storm. In the end, Elizabeth sustained a severe loss to her treasury, for she had been compelled into a joint venture in order to finance the expedition, and was first among the stockholders.

The Invincible Armada, National Maritime Museum, London.
In this period of respite, the Spanish were able to refit and retool their navy, partly along English lines. The pride of the fleet were the Twelve Apostles - a dozen enormous new galleons - and the navy proved itself far more effective than it had been before 1588. A sophisticated convoy system and improved intelligence networks frustrated English privateering on the Spanish treasure fleet during the 1590s. This was best demonstrated in the failures of expeditions by Sir Martin Frobisher, John Hawkins and the Earl of Cumberland in the early part of the decade, as well as in the repulse of the squadron that was led by Effingham in 1591 near the Azores, who had intended to ambush the treasure fleet. It was in this battle that the Spanish captured the English flagship, the Revenge, after a courageous last stand by its captain, Sir Richard Grenville. Throughout the 1590s, the convoy escorts enabled the Spanish to ship three times as much gold and silver than in the previous decade.

Both Drake and Hawkins died of disease during a naval expedition against Puerto Rico, Panamamarker, and other targets in the Spanish Main in 1595–1596, a severe setback in which the English suffered heavy losses in soldiers and ships. Also in 1595, a Spanish force under Don Carlos de Amesquita, which had been patrolling the channel, opportunistically landed troops in Cornwallmarker, western England. Amesquita's force seized supplies, raided and burned Penzancemarker and surrounding villages, held a mass, and sailed away before it could be confronted.

In 1596, an Anglo-Dutch expedition managed to sack Cádizmarker, causing significant loss to the Spanish fleet, and leaving the city in ruins. But the Spanish commander had been allowed the opportunity to torch the treasure ships in port, and 12 million ducats went to the bottom, where it was recovered later by the Spanish, leaving the raiders almost empty handed.

The Spanish landed a considerable force of tercios in Brittany, expelling the English (though Anglo-French forces managed to retain Brest). Normandy added a new front in the war, and the threat of another invasion attempt across the channel. Elizabeth sent a further 2,000 troops to France after the Spanish took Calais. Further battles continued until 1598, when France and Spain finally signed the Peace of Vervins, ending the last of the Wars of Religion and Spanish intervention with it. The English suffered a further setback in the Islands Voyage against the Azores in 1597. The Habsburgs also struck with the Dunkirkers, who took an increasing toll of English and Dutch shipping.

In 1595, the Nine Years War in Ireland had begun, when Ulster lords Hugh O'Neill and Red Hugh O'Donnell rose up against English rule with fitful Spanish support, mirroring the English support of the Dutch rebellion. While England struggled to contain the rebels in Ireland, the Spanish attempted two further Armadas, in 1596 and 1597: the first was destroyed in a storm off northern Spain, and the second was frustrated by adverse weather as it approached the English coast undetected. King Philip II died in 1598, and his successor, Philip III, continued the war, but in a much less determined manner.

At the end of 1601, a final armada was sent north, this time a limited expedition intended to land troops in southern Ireland to assist the rebels. The Spanish entered the town of Kinsale with 3,000 troops and were immediately besieged by the English. In time, their Irish allies arrived to surround the besieging force, but poor coordination with the rebels led to an English victory at the Battle of Kinsale. Rather than attempt to hold Kinsale as a base to harry English shipping, the Spanish accepted terms of surrender and returned home, while the Irish rebels hung on, only to surrender in 1603, just after the death of Elizabeth.

When James I came to the English throne, his first order of business was to negotiate a peace with Philip III of Spain, which was concluded in the Treaty of London, 1604.


With the Spanish successfully defending their rapidly expanding colonial trade and thereby overcoming their financial crises, the Irish war grinding on with Spanish materiel support, and English trade under attack, the conflict was turning into a draining war of attrition for England. English settlement in North America was delayed until the early Stuart period. This enabled Spain to consolidate its hold on its New World territories, which was to last another two centuries, during which it would continue as the most important overseas empire. Spain had been able to effectively deny the Atlantic sea lanes to English colonial efforts until England had agreed to most Spanish conditions. However, England remained true to the Protestant revolution and the Dutch rebellion had benefited much from the diversion of Spanish resources.

Spain remained Europe's dominant power well into the 17th century, when its decline began decades later with defeats on land against France in the Thirty Years' War and at sea with the rise of Dutch naval power. While the Armada defeat did not enable England to supplant Spain as the pre-eminent naval power, nor to engage in substantial American colonization, it did serve as an inspiration to later generations, particularly during the Anglo-French naval clashes of the 18th century, when Britain emerged as Europe's leading sea power and colonizing nations after the Seven Years' War (1756-1763).


  1. ".... the widespread suffering and irritation caused by the religious wars Elizabeth fomented, and the indignation caused by her religious persecution, and the execution of Mary Stuart, caused Catholics everywhere to sympathize with Spain, and to regard the Armada as a crusade against the most dangerous enemy of the Faith." and "Pope Sixtus V agreed to renew the excommunication of the queen, and to grant a large subsidy to the Armada, but, knowing the slowness of Spain, would give nothing till the expedition should actually land in England. In this way he was saved his million crowns, and spared the reproach of having taken futile proceedings against the heretic queen."


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