NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World: Gravelines

Something a bit closer to home this time with some of the most famous figures of the period.

Name: The (naval) Battle of Gravelines
The War: The Anglo-Spanish War
When: 8 August 1588
Where: The English Channel near the port of Gravelines, then part of the Netherlands, today French.
Type: Naval
Forces/Commanders: 227 ships (34 Warships) of the Kingdom of England and the United Provinces under Lord Howard of Effingham and Sir Francis Drake against 130 ships (22 Galleons) of the Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal under Alonso Perez de Guzman, the Duke of Medina Sidonia.


“Coming up to them, there has passed some common shot between some of our fleet and some of them; and as far as we perceive, they are determined to sell their lives with blows.”
-Sir Francis Drake, upon first engaging the Spanish Armada

“I sent the Armada against men, not God’s winds and waves”
-Philip II of Spain

What Happened:

Philip II had a lot of problems with England.

The Spanish King had been co-Monarch of England along with his wife, Mary I (better known to history as “Bloody Mary”) but with her death, the throne had passed to her Protestant sister Elizabeth. Philip, probably the staunchest Catholic Monarch at the time, was not happy with this.

His personal dislike of Elizabeth was exacerbated by a number of other disputes and confrontations with England. Spain’s colonies in the New World and their trade routes had been under constant attack by English pirates, most famously Francis Drake. England had supported revolt in the low countries, a province of Spain, and had an alliance with the “United Provinces” that portion of the area that was now independent. Meanwhile, the Pope, Sixtus V, was also expressing support for Philip’s position and calling for action to be taken against Protestant England.

Philip spent years planning and building. In 1588 he had constructed a massive fleet, 22 warships and over a hundred converted merchant vessels, in which to carry out his plans. The fleet, with over 20’000 men aboard, was to sail to Flanders and embark an additional 30’000 troops under the Duke of Parma, and from there, land in the south-east of England. Philip hoped that the subsequent fighting would be brief, as England’s meager land forces were swamped by the experienced Spanish tercios.

The overall command of the fleet fell to Alvaro De Bazan, the Marquis of Santa Cruz, but the experienced sailor died shortly before the Armada was due to leave. His place was taken by Alonso Perez de Guzman, the Duke of Medina Sidonia. Guzman was a high-ranking courtier, with little naval experience.

With Papal blessing, the Fleet left Lisbon on the 28 May, aiming for the port of Calais. It took nearly two days for the full force to leave the harbor.

England, realising the might of the force heading toward them, attempted diplomatic action, sending negotiators to the Duke of Parma. In the meantime, an unsuccesful effort was made to intercept the Spanish force in the Bay of Biscay.

By mid-July the negotiations had been abandoned and the English became resigned to fighting. Their fleet, stationed at Plymouth, actually outnumbered their Spanish foe in terms of ships, but they were severely outgunned. The English Navy was a mixture of the Royal Navy and numerous privateer vessels under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham and Sir Francis Drake.

Arriving off the coast of England on 19 July, the Armada missed an opportunity to strike at the English Fleet when it was trapped in port by strong tides. A week of inconclusive engagements throughout the Channel ensued, with neither side able to strike a decisive blow. Drake was able to capture large amounts of gunpowder and gold, but his fleet became scattered after a period of night fighting.

The Duke of Medina, faced with the agile English Navy, made for the port of Calais, there to meet with the Duke of Parma’s army. Once there, the immense difficulties – communication problems, disease, and Dutch blockades – all stared to greatly hamper the Spanish effort. It became clear that the succesful transport of the army would take some time.

Towards late July the English made their move. Setting alight eight of their own fireships, they towed these burning bombs and set them loose to sail into the Spanish Fleet.

The result was panic in the Armada, with only a handful of ships holding their positions. Despite the fact that not a single Spanish ship was burnt, the fleet was scattered. The Duke of Medina desperately tried to reorganise his fleet, choosing the small Flemish port of Gravelines as the place to do it.

Naval combat at the time was still in a state of flux: Lepanto had only occurred less than 20 years previously, a battle the Spanish had played a large part in. Gunpowder weapons were becoming the norm, but they were still not the defining element. Cannons took a large amount of time to load and fire in the best of conditions, and their ranges were not ideal.

For this reason, many of the Spanish ships were more interested in closing with their enemy and boarding their ships. The English, recognising the inherant deficiencies in the Spanish cannon, realised that they could beat their Catholic opponents despite their disadvantage in firepower.

In terms of powder, the English were, after the previous engagements, running out. Their leaders realised that would not be able to sustain a long fight and planned accordingly.

The English closed in on the Spanish, provoking fire. When the Armada’s crews were busy reloading, Drake and Howard got in close and gave intense broadside fire. With the English windward, the Spanish ships were dangerously exposed to damage below the waterline, making it easier to deal a blow that could sink a ship.

From here

The Spanish suffered huge casualties amongst their gunners, positions that were not easily replaceable. Forced to leave the devices in the hands of less capable sailors, they failed to effectively counter the English cannon.

In the eight hours of combat, the Spanish only lost five ships in total, but suffered heavy damage to many more. Much of the fleet would be run aground, intentionally, or unintentionally, in the coming days.

When the English finally started running out of ammunition, resorting to loading whatever was at hand into the cannons to fire at the Spanish, their commanders called a halt and withdrew. The English had lost only around 100 men and no ships, the Spanish over 600.

The back of the Armada was broken. The force was no longer capable of carrying the Duke of Parma’s army over the Channel. All that was left for the Duke of Medina was to plot a course home for his weary, undersupplied, and defeated fleet.

Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War

The Armada’s infamous voyage home ended up being far more damaging than the fights with the English had been. Due to the presence of the Anglo-Dutch fleet and the tides, the Armada was forced to plot a course north to the east of England and around Scotland, eventually heading south towards Spain travelling to the west of Ireland. The combined effects of terrible weather, disease, and a lack of supplies meant great hardships for the Armada which made it back to Spain with only 67 of the original ships.

England was saved from the threat of invasion, with Elizabeth giving one of her most famous addresses, the Tilbury Speech, the day after the battle. The English had suffered little loss during the battle, but this was soon overshadowed by appalling losses from disease and the lack of pay for the sailors: the state not having any capital to pay them with.

The war lasted another 17 years of stalemate. An English Armada launched in 1589 to raise revolt in Portugal achieved about as much success as the Spanish had, with Spain attempting two more similar attacks later in the century, both failures. The fighting became smaller-scale and mostly confined to the colonies. The notable exception was the Nine Years War in Ireland, which can be considered ancillary conflict, since the Irish rebels had Spanish support (much as the Dutch had English support).

The failure of the Spanish to threaten England (especially following the end of the Irish revolt) and England’s inability to really endanger Spain meant the result of the war could only be a truce, signed in 1605 by the two new monarchs, James I of England and Philip III of Spain.

Tactical/Technological Innovations

Cannon was still not quite the be all and end all of the waves, but it soon would be. Gravelines showed the advantages and defeciancies of cannon in equal measure, but the English had demonstrated how to successfully use it. Their tactics, from their smaller cannon to their ship models, which become copied as time went on, even by the Spanish. The Iberian’s favored style of Marine/Boarding Action fighting would not go out of style either but it was no longer the most important element.

In terms of tactics, the English had successfully utilised nearly every advantage they had – knowledge of the Channel, better communications, better leadership – to the full, while the Spanish had floundered. Gravelines shows how important knowledge of the local terrain and geography could be, especially against an inexperienced foe.

Macro-Historical Importance

While England’s Navy had first been constructed in Henry VIII’s day, it was only after Gravelines and the repulse of the Spanish Armada that its naval force truly became its defining feature. The victory gave England the impetus to continue its attacks on Spanish trade and to establish its own far-flung colonies. In all of the coming years of European strife, all the way up to the present day, England would be a nation marked by its dominance of the waves. This only really truly began at Gravelines.

If the result had been reversed, perhaps with a more competent leader at the helm, the historical effects would have been huge. Destruction of the English fleet would have allowed the crossing of the Duke of Parma’s army. Heavily outnumbered, the English land forces would have been little match and it seems unlikely that Elizabeth could have stopped them taking London.

The results of such action are difficult to forsee. At the most extreme, it would have involved the end of the traditional English monarchy in favor of a Spanish, Catholic one. Spain would have been the dominant power on the waves, and who knows where that could have taken them? The British Empire would have been little more than a dream, replaced by a Spanish hegemony over the New World and beyond.

In terms of religion, the defeat of England would have been a mighty blow to the Catholic cause. It’s probable that Philip would have tried to institute Catholic government, just as his wife had previously done, though how much success this would have had is hard to tell. Certainly, the result would have emboldened the Church and other Catholic countries in the fight against Protestantism.

And what of Ireland? Perhaps our small island nation would have been able to break free from a distracted and conquered England but its just as likely that we would have become another part of Spain’s overseas empire.

In National Consciousness

For England, it was huge. National pride lasted for years and the legend that was Queen Elizabeth grew and grew. It was considered to be the countries greatest victory since Agincourt. The Protestant cause received an enormous boost, commemorated in the phrase “Jehovah blew with His winds, and they were scattered” found on many coins and medals.

Physical commemoration of the battle can be found in the houses and buildings where Spanish prisoners were held after the battle such as the Spanish Barn in Torquay. Evidence of the voyage of the Armada can be found throughout the British Isles and Ireland where many ships were run aground by poor weather, such as at Spanish Point, County Clare.

In terms of more modern remembrance, the Armada and Gravelines has its place in books, graphic novels and films. Most recently the movie Elizabeth: The Golden Age, has Gravelines as its climax, albeit a somewhat fictional representation.

Gravelines saw the birth of England as a global power and shaped much of the worlds development for years to come.

For more of NFBs Decisive Battles, check out the index here.

This entry was posted in History, NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World, Religion, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World: Gravelines

  1. Pingback: NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Spanish Armada | Never Felt Better

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