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Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604)

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Anglo-Spanish War

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

The English enjoyed victories at Cádiz in 1587, and over the Spanish Armada in 1588, but lost the initiative upon the failure of the Drake Norris Expedition in 1589. 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 able to safeguard its trade routes of precious metals from the Americas. The war became deadlocked around the turn of the 17th 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 king of England, James I, and was very favorable to Spain. Spain and England agreed to cease their military interventions in Ireland and the Spanish Netherlands, respectively, and the English renounced high seas privateering. 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, the 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 the Church of England the official church in the Kingdom. The English also tended to support the Protestant cause in the Netherlands, 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 favour 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 Atlantic 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 Indies constituted smuggling.

In September 1568, a slaving expedition led by Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake was surprised by the Spanish, and several ships were captured or sunk, at San Juan de Ulúa, near Veracruz, Mexico. 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 them with men, horses, and a subsidy. Philip II 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 Domingo, Cartagena de Indias, and Saint Augustine in Florida. 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 Cádiz. 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 invade England to place a proper Catholic monarch on its throne. He assembled a fleet of about 130 ships, containing 8,000 soldiers and 18,000 sailors. To finance this endeavour, Pope Sixtus V had permitted Philip to collect crusade taxes. Sixtus had promised a further subsidy to the Spanish should they reach English soil.

On 28 May 1588, the Armada set sail for 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 France but these efforts brought few tangible rewards for England. One of the most important effects of the event was that the Armada's failure was seen as a "sign" that God supported the Protestant Reformation in England. (See He blew with His winds, and they were scattered.)

English Armada

Main article: English Armada

The defeat of the Spanish Armada was not a decisive victory and the so called "Protestant Wind" did little to 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 adventure, and was refitting in Santander, Corunna and San Sebastián in northern Spain. It was also intended to capture the incoming Spanish treasure fleet and expel the Spanish from Portugal - ruled by Philip since 1580 - in favour of the Prior of Crato. The English Armada was doomed from the start and was a complete failure. Had the expedition succeeded in its objectives, Spain may have been compelled to sue for peace, but owing to poor organisation and utter incompetence, 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.

Later War

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 named The Twelve Apostles - twelve massive new galleons - and the navy proved itself to be far more effective than it had been before 1588. A sophisticated convoy system and improved intelligence networks frustrated and broke up the 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 stubborn resistance by its captain, Sir Richard Grenville. Throughout the 1590s, enormous convoy escorts enabled the Spanish to ship three times as much silver than in the previous decade.

In 1590, the Spanish landed a considerable force of tercios in Brittany to assist the French Catholic League, expelling the English and French Protestant forces from the area. However, Anglo-French forces retained Brest.

Both Drake and Hawkins died of disease during a disastrous expedition against Puerto Rico, Panama, and other targets in the Spanish Main in 1595–1596, a severe setback in which the English suffered heavy losses in soldiers and ships. In 1595, a Spanish force, under Don Carlos de Amesquita, raided Penzance and several surrounding villages.

In 1596, an Anglo-Dutch expedition managed to sack Cádiz, 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, sending the treasure to the bottom from where it was recovered later.

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 Henri IV's conversion to Catholicism won him widespread French support for his claim to the throne; the French civil war had turned against the hardliners of the Catholic League and finally France and Spain signed the Peace of Vervins, ending the last of the Wars of Religion and Spanish intervention with it.

The English suffered a setback in the Islands Voyage against the Azores in 1597. The Habsburgs also struck back with the Dunkirkers, who took an increasing toll of Dutch and English 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 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 Queen Elizabeth I died.

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 crisis, the Irish war grinding on with Spanish material support, and English trade under increasing attack, the conflict was turning into a war of attrition in which England was continually being drained of men and treasure. English settlement in North America was delayed until after the signing of the peace with Spain in the immediate post Tudor period. This enabled Spain to consolidate its New World territories. Spain had been able to effectively deny the Atlantic sea lanes to English colonial and trading efforts until England had agreed to most Spanish conditions. Furthermore, Spanish support helped the French Catholic League force Henry IV to convert to Catholicism, ensuring that France would remain Catholic - a major success for the Counter-Reformation. However, England also accomplished some of its war aims: it had successfully defended its Protestant revolution; it maintained control of Ireland; by supporting the Protestant Dutch, albeit with limited forces and very little success, and by the diversion of substantial Spanish resources, it had played a part in averting a complete Spanish reconquest of the Netherlands (seen as a threat); and by supporting Henry IV, had ensured that France would remain friendly.