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1588 A.D. : God's Weather: The Spanish Armada of Phillip II Attacks England

 

 

 Phillip II, called Phillip the Prudent, a devout Catholic and the King of Spain

Phillip II of Spain was a religiously devout ruler - of that there is little doubt. And he had a hand to play, as they say. He was the sovereign of a nation that was militarily mighty at that time - perhaps the most mighty. Spain had gained a great deal of wealth from the New World, it controlled a vast world empire, and it had been victorious in its recent military endeavors such as incorporating Portugal into their nation, and in fighting they had engaged in in the Azores Islands, which lay about 850 miles west of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean.  Phillip was a king with extensive impact.  The Philippine Islands are named after this king! 

It then came into Phillip's heart that Protestant England should be returned to the Catholic faith, that this was God's will, and that he, Phillip, was the sovereign who could accomplish this for God. He was the King consort (meaning husband of a reigning monarch) to Mary, Queen Elizabeth's cousin, and had no liking for the events that had allowed Elizabeth to supersede his Mary. Also, he had proposed to Elizabeth for reasons of political advantage after his wife Mary's death, and had been rejected.  (A person can't help but see that as somewhat odd given Elizabeth's role in having her cousin Mary beheaded for treason!)  But yes, there was some long standing ill will...there was history between the two nations.  And England had been aiding some of Spain's enemies, and various political and military interventions of this sort.  So, determined to act, Phillip made his plans.  And soon enough a mighty fleet was ready for the attempt to teach impudent England its lesson.  They left with 8000 sailors and 18,000 soldiers on 130 ships (22 were true warships and 108 were converted merchant vessels.)

With Phillip fervently praying for the success of his mighty fleet (and he did pray fervently) they sailed from Lisbon to launch their attack upon England, moving northward up towards the English Channel. The Duke of Parma was to meet them in Flanders with 30,000 more soldiers who would assist in invading England once the Spanish picked them up and ferried them there.  England land forces were not seen as being the equal of these hardened and battle tested Spanish soldiers.   

  But from the first, it seemed God was against Phillip's effort.  The weather was severely punishing them even as they sailed towards England. Their ships were tossed about so badly in the storm that there was a considerable loss of morale among the crews.

As they finally reached England they were met by determined resistance from the smaller English war fleet. Being familiar with the North Sea storms, these English were practiced rough water sailors. Their English ships were smaller in size than the Spanish ships and lighter, and so somewhat less imposing.  But they were also more maneuverable.

  The English ships carried more iron cannon, which had some advantages over the predominantly brass cannon carried by the Spanish. Iron cannons could be loaded to fire a little more quickly, and they were stronger and less likely to explode, so more range was possible. They could strike their target from further away.

  Yet really, the advantage should have lay with the Spanish fleet. There were a lot of Spanish ships to contend with, and they were well armed. It was an age of 'ramming and boarding' in naval warfare, however. So the Spanish had the unfortunate habit of firing their cannons only once, then racing topside to be ready to board the English ships. They left much of their munitions unfired.

The English, on the other hand, were employing a somewhat new tactic of avoiding this grappling together of ships. It was more their tactic in this conflict to try to stay upwind, then shoot the Spanish ships below the waterline as they leaned over in the wind as sailing ships do. And this basically stymied the Spanish.

As several different battles were enjoined in the English Channel and off France's coast it was the Spanish who kept getting the worst of it. The seas were rough, as mentioned. And they liked to configure their fleet into a sort of floating crescent shape when they layed over in port. This configuration was actually pretty tough to effectively attack. But when they ported, waiting to pick up allied soldiers, they were forced out of this geometric array that they were familiar with by British tactics such as blazing 'hell burner' fire ships (burning ships steered by the English into the ranks of the anchored Spanish, causing confusion, collision, and damage to sail, ship, and rope.) The fire ships used at Calais, for instance, caused the Spanish to disperse from their crescent shaped defensive posture, and leave their safe little cove. Once out, the winds prevented them from ever regaining that harborage. In short, the British harrying tactics were able to prevent the Spanish from picking up the 30,000 soldiers that were supposed to help them invade England. Also, the soldiers and Spanish had communication problems, and so the soldiers weren't ready to board when the Spanish reached harbor.

 

Alonzo Guzman,  Duke of Medina Sidonia, and Commander of the Spanish Fleet

The Commander of the Spanish fleet (the Duke of Medina Sidonia) decided to flee northward in the English channel, and then turn westward to circle around the coast of Scotland and then past Ireland as well. He had lost many ships already. The English ships gave chase; unbeknownst to the Spanish they were pretty well out of gun powder, and it was largely a bluff. The English had been poorly provisioned for this battle, but had gaurded their secret from Spain's Armada (called Armada Envencible: hint - don't ever name a ship 'unsinkable' or an Armada 'invincible'. God may sometimes see such things as a personal challenge.) The British Commanders were led by Lord Howard of Effingham, and Sir John Hawkins, but included Sir Francis Drake.  Drake was actually a subordinate officer, but was so renowned as a Captain and skilled sailor that he was given much deference and latitude to act in these sea battles by his practical minded superiors.  He had been on the second expedition which successfully circumnavigated the globe, the first to do it while being the captain the entire time.  He had once sailed into a Spanish harbor and attacked with some success!  He had 'singed the beard' of the Spanish king, it was said.  He was a sailors sailor, and a danger in any fray at sea.  If he lacked a truly royal pedigree, this was not the time to press the 'social status' issues.  He was appointed as a Vice Admiral.  All was at stake!

 

Sir Francis Drake, a sailing and exploration legend, who participated in this battle for his country!

These encounters lasted for more than a week. The actual clashes at sea were not entirely one sided in their outcome, though the Spanish were damaged more severely.  But the English did prevent the Spanish from picking up the 30,000 infantry soldiers and bring them to the English shores, so a land invasion was prevented, and this was a tremendous victory in its own right for the English.  Queen Elizabeth went to the sea side to stand ready among her soldiers, saying they would pray for God's favor, and that she would meet her fate with them. Here is her Tilbury speech, given to her gathered and seemingly imperiled troops, as recorded.  And I can't help feeling it would have made me feel I had quite a queen were I an English soldier at that moment!  We must remember that Elizabeth was not unanimously loved or supported among her people.  She had displaced her cousin Mary, and had her executed when there were attempts at a coup detected that reportedly led back to Mary, who was a devout Catholic, where as Queen Elizabeth was a Protestant.  So she addressed a people that, though facing an invasion, were themselves greatly divided. :

My loving people,

         We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you in the word of prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean time, my lieutenant general2 shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.

End Quote

Queen Elizabeth was

This greatly cheered and invigorated them all.  As America would one day face the 'invincible British Army', England was now facing the renowned 'Spanish Armada', and the English must have been praying throughout the land.

 

It seemed that all was at stake.  The Queen herself went to the sea's edge to await the outcome of the great battle.

 

 

When the battered Spanish fleet broke out of the north end of the English Channel their luck got even worse. They encountered a particularly savage series of the storms and gales prevalent in the vicinity of the Hebrides Islands. It was such fierce weather that they found sailing in it to be nearly impossible, yet they had to try. The British were pressuring them. Around 23 of the remaining Spanish ships met their fate here, crashing into the rocky coasts or sinking.

Weather did about as much damage in total as the fighting. Many ships had gotten rid of their anchors to save the weight, and could not successfully moor their ships when they needed to. Some of the Spanish sailors made it to shore on Ireland, but fierce threats were made to the Catholic Irish against helping them, and most of these ship wrecked sailors were apprehended and killed as invaders by the Irish, shared religious denomination not withstanding. Apparently it was a combination of things with the Irish:  England's threats against the Irish if they helped probably influenced them, but also, the way they saw it, a foreign invader was an invader.

The remaining Spanish ships made it back with great hardship. They suffered from hunger and sickness. Disease broke out. Around half the ships were lost altogether, and the rest made it home in a wretched state. Many were lashed together by ropes around the hull because the weather had beat them so badly. Phillip's great Armada had failed, though it should have succeeded. And its failing was such that it seriously hurt the maritime power of Spain for a time. Spain reacted quickly over the next years by beefing up its Navy, so it remained dominate in the short term, and would actually be dealt its most serious blow by the Dutch in the middle of the next century, 60 some years later.

But in England, these encounters with Spain's Armada left them buoyantly confident, even a little cocky!  There were national prayers of thanks to God.  Medals were given out commemorating this huge victory over a dominant empire.  One of the medals said "Jehovah blew with His wind and they were scattered."  The English did indeed give much credit to God for this rather surprising victory over mighty Spain.  And England was now viewed in some circles as an up and coming power upon the seas. Any Spanish plans to fight them again at sea contained a new element of respect for their adversary.

The far-flung British Empire was subsequently formed (in the mid 1600's) using this new found maritime muscle, and those forced to become part of that Empire became an English speaking and Protestant leaning group of nations as the years went by. The subjugated and incorporated peoples of the British Empire were allowed and ultimately even encouraged to own and read the Bible. The Bible became available in their local languages in many instances. Churches and missions sprang up.

While there is no reason to ascribe entirely noble motives to Britain's Imperialism of that day - it was based on profit and power, like all imperialist expansions - there were none the less many great benefits for the Kingdom of God which sprang from Britain's growth. Many souls came to know of Jesus.

While weather can always be explained away by the non-believers, the Bible's narratives, New Testament and Old, make it plain that the weather is in the hand of God and that it obeys His commands. The people of the Protestant Reformation were given the nod of approval very clearly during this sequence of events, it seemed to those at the time, for the Catholic Monarch Phillip II was praying with great fervency that God would give Spain victory in this battle and bring Britain back into the Catholic fold. And to give an example of the amount of genuine piety Phillip was capable of, consider this statement attributed to Phillip around a year after his armada was defeated by the English:

"It is impiety, and almost blasphemy to presume to know the will of God. It comes from the sin of pride. Even kings, Brother Nicholas, must submit to being used by God's will without knowing what it is. They must never seek to use it."

But given a chance to favor either nation, since it is true that Britain prayed to Him no less fervently for victory, God's weather favored England.

What has not yet been mentioned is that England was finding it useful to ally with the Dutch at this point in time, and this gave the Dutch needed protection from the Spanish, who already ruled a portion of the Netherlands. Attacking the Dutch now meant contending with the English as well, and this was a consideration suggesting restraint. A little group that would one day become America's Pilgrims were thus protected from Spanish rule by the outcome of this battle. In 1620, having lived for a time in both England and Holland, they would take the Mayflower across the ocean and land at Plymouth Harbor. It probably couldn't have happened the same way if Spain had won this battle. God allowed the ascendant empire, for the time being, to be largely anti-Catholic Britain. A so, for reasons that our Maker alone knows, a Protestant wind had been sent.

©2017 Daniel Curry & 'Deeds of God' Website