Close your eyes and imagine you are a farmer living in England long ago. Your family is poor, but you all work hard to make sure you have enough food to eat everyday. Everyone is outside and working on the farm. Your dog is running around and playing. The land around you is green and beautiful. The ocean is nearby and the air is salty with its smell. Suddenly your dog begins to bark. You look up. He is running toward the ocean and barking. In the distance you see the white sails of a very big ship. You drop your tools and follow everyone to the water. More ships appear through the fog. Now there are dozens of ships and soon hundreds of ships. It’s the largest armada of ships you have ever seen and their sails have the red cross of Spain. Because it’s Spain, the enemy of England, you know this can’t be good! The Spanish Armada has come ready for an invasion.
In the 1800s Spain was one of the most powerful countries in the world. It was called “the empire on which the sun never sets,” because Spain had conquered and controlled many places across the globe including the Americas and the Caribbean. The Spanish Empire was one of the first world empires. It was ruled by King Phillip the 2nd, who wasn’t afraid to use his large navy of ships and his army to make Spain more powerful. But by the 1850s other countries in Europe were beginning to challenge Spain’s world power. One of those countries was England. England was a small island, but was beginning to strengthen its own navy and grow in power. It was led by Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry the 8th. She was a strong queen who wasn’t afraid to go up against King Phillip, even though in many ways Spain was bigger and stronger. Queen Elizabeth wanted to beat Spain, but couldn’t take them head on, because they’d lose in a traditional battle, so instead she worked with privateers to attack Spanish ships. “Privateers” were similar to pirates, but they usually had the permission of someone powerful like a king or queen. A daring sailor named Sir Francis Drake became Queen Elizabeth’s favorite privateer.
Sir Francis Drake was born in Plymouth, England in 1596. At a young age he started working with his relatives, the Hawkins Family, who were merchants, which means they shipped and traded goods by boat. During one of the voyages to San Juan their ships were attacked by Spain and Drake barely made it back to England alive. To get revenge, Drake began finding ways to get back at Spain by plundering its ships and attacking their settlements around the world — places like the Carribean, where Spain owned land and kept its money.
Sir Francis Drake was very adventurous and was determined to sail his ships all the way around the world. Ferdindand Megallan had done it first in 1519, but Drake believed he could do it again. With the help of Queen Elizabeth Drake set off with 5 ships and 200 sailors. From the start the journey did not go well. Many sailors died and they had to scuttle some of the ships, which means sink them and leave them behind. Some of his sailors also mutineed, which means they wanted to be in control of the voyage instead of him.
When Drake and his sailors reached South America, they took advantage of the situation to get back at Spain. They attacked Spanish settlements and ships and filled their ships with bars of gold and silver, pearls, Spanish silver coins and precious stones. But as they continued on they encountered more problems while crossing the Pacific Ocean. Drake and his sailors didn’t know if they would survive, but they kept going, against all odds, and after 2 years of sailing around the world returned to England with only 1 ship remaining and 56 sailors! In England Queen Elizabeth congratulated Drake for completing the voyage and made him a knight.
King Phillip of Spain was angry at Queen Elizabeth and Sir Francis Drake for attacking his settlements and ships. He was also upset because they were helping the Netherlands in his war with them. For this reason King Phillip decided to put them in their place by sending an armada of his ships to attack England. An armada is a large group (or fleet of warships). Once the armada landed its troops they would invade England, take control, and remove Queen Elizabeth from power. On May 28th 1588, the Spanish Armada set sail for England. The armada was HUGE! with 130 warships, 8,000 sailors and 13,000 soldiers. It took two full days for all of the ships to leave port.
Fortunately for the English, storms and other bad weather slowed the ships from attacking and some had to turn back to Spain. But by July the huge armada of Spanish ships could be seen off the coast of England. You can imagine what the people of England thought when they saw this armada coming to invade their country!
But England wasn’t going down without a fight! When the armada arrived the English ships were armed and ready for battle. Sir Francis Drake was captain of his ship called The Revenge. The English had more ships, but they were smaller with less firepower. In many ways it looked like they would lose to the bigger and more powerful Spain. The first cannon fired! Explosions thundered across the water. Black smoke and the smell of gunpowder filled the air. Sailors loaded the cannons with gunpowder and shoved a cannonball in the front. Then they aimed at the enemy ship and fired! To Spain’s surprise the English ships were smaller, but much faster!
They dodged around the huge Spanish galleons and took shots at them from all sides. The Spanish cannons couldn’t keep up with them. Spain’s tactic would be to get as close as they could, throw hooks onto the other ship, pull them close, and climb aboard and fight hand-to-hand. But the English knew they couldn’t win that battle, so they kept their distance and fired from afar. The English cannons shot much further, so they were able to hit the Spanish ships from far away.
During one battle two Spanish ships accidentally crashed into each other, so they were unusable. All of the sailors climbed onto another ship and left these ships behind. Drake noticed the abandoned ships, so that night he turned off all his lanterns on his ship and sailed past the enemy ships through the darkness. Then he snuck onto the abandoned ships and took all of the extra gunpowder and guns to be used in the next day’s battle.
The battle continued through the following days. Ships on each side fired their cannon. Sailors reloaded the cannons, waited for their captains word, and fired. More explosions and black smoke. Ships were damaged on both sides, but the English kept fighting. From the ocean they could see their island home they loved and would not back down. Soon their allies the Dutch joined in and fired their cannons at the Spanish armada, too.
After one day’s battle, the Spanish took a rest for the night and anchored their ships closely together. This gave Sir Francis Drake and the other captains an idea. They picked out eight of their ships and filled them with pitch, brimstone, gunpowder and tar. This made them very flammable. Then they lit the ships on fire and sailed them directly at the Spanish ships. When the Spanish saw the flaming ships sailing toward them they panicked and quickly got to work moving their own. Fortunately for the Spanish, none of their own ships were burned, but it did break their formation giving the English an advantage.
The next day was a long and dangerous battle. Throughout the day the English had the advantage with their small, quick ships which fired from long range and badly damaged the Spanish ships. During the battle, many sailors were lost on both sides.
A broadside is when a ship pulls alongside another ship and opens fire. The English did this all day long until the Spanish ships were badly damaged and couldn’t fight back. The Spanish knew they were beat and by the end of the day finally retreated. This famous battle became known as the Battle of Gravelines and went down in history as the day that the powerful Spanish Armada was defeated. No longer would Spain rule the seas and the world with its powerful navy.
After the battle was over, Queen Elizabeth dressed in armor and rode out to congratulate the sailors for their victory. She told them that the strength of England lie in its people, and that they would never bow down to an invading enemy. Instead they would take up arms and fight for their freedoms.
England won because of its faster, lighter ships and its long range cannons. Their ship engineers, called shipwrights, continued to design faster ships and better cannons. Over time they became the most powerful navy in the world and like Spain before, became a world-wde empire known as the British Empire.