English Armada
Part of the Anglo–Spanish War (1585–1604)
Maria Pita, A Coruña 2.jpg

Monument of the heroine Maria Pita in the Square of the Town Hall of A Coruña

Spanish victory[2][3]

  • English withdrawal with heavy losses.[2]
  • Failure of Portuguese Uprising[4]
  • Spanish fleet retains capability to wage war[2][3][5][6]

Iberian Union

Commanders and leaders
  • Four galleons
  • Unknown armed merchant vessels
  • 15,000 men
Casualties and losses
900 dead or wounded

The English Armada, also known as the Counter Armada or the Drake–Norris Expedition, was an attack fleet sent against Spain by Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1589 during the undeclared Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604) and the Eighty Years' War. Led by Sir Francis Drake as admiral and Sir John Norreys as general, it failed to drive home the advantage that England had won upon the failure of the Spanish Armada in the previous year. The Spanish victory marked a revival of Philip II's naval power through the next decade.[2]


After the failure of the Spanish Armada, England's Queen Elizabeth I's intentions were to capitalize upon Spain's temporary weakness at sea and to compel King Philip II of Spain to sue for peace. The expedition had three main objectives: destroy the battered Spanish Atlantic fleet, which was being repaired in ports of northern Spain; make a landing at Lisbon and raise a revolt there against Philip II (Philip I of Portugal); and to continue west and establish a permanent base in the Azores. A further aim was to seize the Spanish treasure fleet as it returned from the Americas to Cádiz, but that depended largely on the success of the Azores campaign.[10]

Elizabeth I of England

The strategic objective of the military expedition was to break the trade embargo imposed across the Portuguese Empire, which included Brazil and the East Indies and trading posts in India and China. By securing an alliance with the Portuguese crown, Elizabeth hoped to curb Spanish Habsburg power in Europe and to free up the trade routes to these possessions. That was a difficult proposition because Philip had been accepted as king by the aristocracy, and the clergy of Portugal in 1581 at the Cortes of Tomar. The pretender to the throne, António, Prior of Crato, the last surviving heir of the House of Aviz, had failed to establish an effective government-in-exile in the Azores, and turned to the English for support. He was not a charismatic figure, and with his cause compromised by his illegitimacy, he faced an opponent with a relatively strong claim to the throne in the eyes of the Portuguese nobles of the Cortes, Duchess Catherine of Braganza.

There were obstacles for the enterprise besides the complex politics. Like its Spanish predecessor, the English expedition suffered from unduly optimistic planning, based on hopes of repeating Drake's successful raid on Cadiz in 1587. There was a contradiction between the separate plans, each of which was ambitious in its own right, but the most pressing need was the destruction of the Spanish Atlantic fleet lying at port in Corunna, San Sebastián and Santander along the northern coast of Spain, as was directly ordered by the Queen.

The expedition was floated as a joint stock company, with capital of about £80,000, one quarter to come from the Queen and one eighth from the Dutch, the balance to be made up by various noblemen, merchants and guilds. The treasurer was Sir James Hales, who died on the return journey, as is recorded on his monument in Canterbury Cathedral. Concerns over logistics and the adverse weather delayed the departure of the fleet, and confusion grew as it waited in port. The Dutch failed to supply their promised warships, a third of the victuals had already been consumed, and the ranks of volunteers had increased the planned contingent of troops from 10,000 to 19,000. Unlike the Spanish Armada expedition the previous year, the English fleet also lacked siege guns and cavalry, which could compromise its intended aims.


When the fleet sailed, it was made up of six royal galleons, 60 English armed merchantmen, 60 Dutch flyboats and about 20 pinnaces. Besides the troops, there were 4,000 sailors and 1,500 officers and gentlemen adventurers. Drake assigned his vessels to five squadrons, led respectively by himself in the Revenge, Sir John Norreys in the Nonpareil, Norreys' brother Edward in the Foresight, Thomas Fenner in the Dreadnought, and Roger Williams in the Swiftsure. Also sailing with them, against the Queen's express orders, was the Earl of Essex.


Main article: Siege of Coruña

Most of the ships lost in Philip II's expedition of 1588 had been armed merchantmen, and the core of the Armada, the galleons of the Squadron of Portugal of the Armada del Mar Oceano (Atlantic Fleet), survived their voyage home and docked in Spain's Atlantic ports for a refit, where they lay for months and were vulnerable to attack.[10]

Unforeseen delays, many of them related to Drake's own fear of becoming embayed in the Bay of Biscay, led Drake to bypass Santander, where most of this refitting was under way. He alleged unfavourable winds and turned to attack Corunna (Coruña) in Galicia for an unclear reason. He may have been motivated by a false contemporary legend that a tower in Corunna held a fabulous treasure of gold coins, or he may have been looking for supplies.[10]

Admiral Sir Francis Drake, commander of the English Armada
Admiral Sir Francis Drake, commander of the English Armada

Corunna was almost defenceless at the time of the attack. To face the English Armada's 150 ships plus boats and the soldiers in them, Corunna had one galleon undergoing repairs (San Juan, with 50 cannons), two galleys (Diana and Princesa, with 20 cannons each), and two other smaller ships (nao San Bartolomé with 20 cannons, and the unarmed urca Sansón and galeoncete (small galleon) San Bernardo). A combination of militia, hidalgos and the few available soldiers totalled 1,500 troops, most of them with little military training, except for seven companies of old tercios, who happened to be resting in the city after their return from war. It also had the medieval city walls, built in the 13th century.[11]

Norreys took the lower town, inflicted 500 casualties and plundered the wine cellars and fisheries there, and Drake destroyed thirteen merchant ships in the harbour. The Spanish set the unseaworthy San Juan on fire, not before dismounting her guns to use them against the English fleet and troops. For the next two weeks, the wind blew westerly, and while waiting for a change, the English occupied themselves in a siege of Corunna's fortified upper town. After dislodging a Spanish attempt to carry on reinforcement through O Burgo bridge, Norrey's troops launched three major assaults against the walls of the upper town and tried to breach them with mines, but the vigorous defence by the regular Spanish troops, militia, and women of the city, including Maria Pita and Inés de Ben,[12] forced the English back with severe losses.[13]

The Princesa and the Diana managed to avoid capture and slipped past the English fleet; according to English sources, they repeatedly resupplied the defenders unmolested.[14] On the 18th, after 14 days of siege and attempted assaults, the English heard news about a fresh Spanish relief force on their way to Corunna, and at length, with a favourable wind returning and painfully low morale, the English abandoned the siege and retreated to their ships after they had lost four captains, three large ships,[10] various boats[10] and more than 1,500 men in the fighting alone, along with 3,000 other personnel in 24 of the transports, including many of the Dutch who found reasons to return to England or put into La Rochelle.[15]


The next step in Elizabeth's plan was to stir a Portuguese uprising against Philip. The Portuguese aristocracy had recognised him as King of Portugal in 1580 and so added the Kingdom of Portugal to the Hispanic Monarchy. The pretender to the throne that England supported, the Prior of Crato, was not the best candidate. He did not have enough support even to establish a government-in-exile or much charisma to back his already-dubious claim. Elizabeth had agreed to help him in hopes of diminishing the power of the Spanish Empire in Europe and for a permanent military base in the strategic Azores, from which to attack merchant ships and to obtain ultimate control of the commercial routes to the New World.[16]

On May 6, Drake arrived at Peniche, in Portugal, which was handed to them by supporters of Crato. They then headed towards Lisbon with 11,000 men and 110 ships. Poor organisation and a lack of co-ordination caused the invading force to fail to take Lisbon from the garrison of 7,000 Portuguese and Spanish soldiers and the 40 ships guarding it. The expected uprising by the Portuguese loyal to Crato never materialised.[16]

English galleon Ark Royal from 1587
English galleon Ark Royal from 1587

Lisbon was rumoured to be guarded by a disaffected garrison. The English fruitlessly besieged Corunna, but the Spanish had spent a fortnight shoring up Portugal's military defences. When Norreys invaded Lisbon, the expected uprising was not forthcoming, and little was achieved. Drake took the opportunity on 30 June of seizing a fleet of 20 French and 60 Hanseatic ships, which had broken the English blockade on trade with Spain by sailing all around the north of Scotland, only to fetch up before the English cannon in the mouth of the Tagus. That seizure, notes R. B. Wernham, "dealt a useful blow to Spanish preparations",[16] but later required a publicly printed justification, a Declaration of Causes, from the Queen's own printer since, without booty, she and her fellow English investors faced considerable losses.

The English dealt a further blow to Spanish naval preparations and food supplies by destroying the Lisbon granaries, but despite the bravado of Essex, who thrust a sword in at the gates of the city with a challenge to the defenders, the English could not take the city without artillery and received no substantial support from the Portuguese.[16] The expected uprising failed to occur because of the absence of Drake since the land and naval forces had been divided and being out of contact after the landing at Peniche, and the defenders would not risk battle.[16]

Philip II of Spain

Essex received orders from Elizabeth to return to court, along with a refusal to send reinforcements or a siege train since she had no desire to carry the main burden of a land war in Portugal. Therefore, it was decided to concentrate on the third aim of the expedition: the establishment of a permanent military base in the Azores. However, the campaign had taken its toll. Drake's forces had initially caught the Spanish authorities off guard, but Spain had now marshalled its defences, and the English expedition's strength was wearing down and suffering increasingly from disease. Two armed merchantmen were caught off Lisbon by a squadron of nine Spanish galleys, commanded by Adelantado Martín Padilla.[17] One of the cargo ships, the William, was saved by Revenge after it had been abandoned by her crew, but the craft did not have enough manpower aboard to sail away after the battle and so had to be scuttled to prevent her falling into the hands of the Spanish again. The other vessel was engulfed in flames after a fight and sunk, her commander, Captain Minshaw, being lost with his ship. Further damage was sustained after one of three boats carrying the complement of William's had been lost with all hands after an attack by the Spanish warships.[18]

With the attack on the Azores becoming out of the question, Drake made a final attempt to retrieve the mission. Then, most of his men were out of action, with only 2,000 still fit to be mustered. Stormy weather had also damaged a number of the ships. While Norreys sailed for home with the sick and wounded, Drake took his pick of what was left and set out with 20 ships to hunt for the Spanish treasure fleet. While lying in wait for it his naval force was struck by another heavy storm which left him unable to continue and raiding and plundering Porto Santo in Madeira in compensation his flagship, the Revenge sprung a leak from storm damage and almost foundered as she led the remainder of the fleet home to Plymouth.


Map of the English Armada campaigns.
Map of the English Armada campaigns.

The English fleet lost about 40 ships and the 18 launches destroyed or captured at Corunna, Lisbon and during the English retreat. Fourteen of the ships were lost directly to the actions of Spanish naval forces: three at Corunna; six were sunk by the galleys led by Padilla and three seized by another galley's squadron commanded by Admiral Alonso de Bazán, all of them off Lisbon; two others were captured in the Bay of Biscay by a flotilla of zabras from Santander under Captain Diego de Aramburu, on their way back to England.[17][19] A 2021 environmental study carried out by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture at Corunna harbour claims to have found the remains of five English ships from Drake's fleet at the O Burgo estuary.[20] The rest were lost to a stormy sea as the fleet made its return voyage, checked and harassed by Aramburu's zabras as far as the English channel.[21] According to contemporary historian Fray Juan de Vitoria, the Spanish flotilla rounded up a good number of castaways during the pursuit.[22] The outbreak of disease on board the vessels was also transmitted to the port town populations in England on its return. None of the campaign's aims had been accomplished, and for a number of years, the expedition's results discouraged further joint stock adventures on such a scale.[16][23] The English expeditionary force had sustained a heavy loss of ships, troops and resources but brought back only 150 captured cannon and £30,000 of plunder and had not inflicted decisive damage on the Spanish forces.[citation needed]

The most detailed account (in English), written in the form of a letter by an anonymous participant, was published in 1589: A true Coppie of a Discourse written by a Gentleman, employed in the late Voyage of Spain and Portingale..., which set out openly to restore the credit of the participants. However, the English narrative has been shown to have been a highly-effective means to bury the magnitude of the disaster.[24]

With the opportunity to strike a decisive blow against the weakened Spanish Navy lost, the failure of the expedition depleted the financial resources of England's treasury, which had been carefully restored during the long reign of Elizabeth I. The war was financially costly to both of its protagonists, and the Spanish Empire, which was fighting France and the United Provinces at the same time, would be compelled in financial distress to default on its debt repayments in 1596 after the English Capture of Cádiz. Two more armadas in 1596 and 1597 were sent by Spain against England, but both were scattered en route by storms.[25] Peace was finally agreed at the signing of the Treaty of London in 1604.

See also


  1. ^
    Philip's spies in England reported losses exceeding 18,000 men.[24] No French or Italian report put the number at lower than 15,000 dead.[24]


  1. ^ Oliveira Martins (1972) História de Portugal p.442
  2. ^ a b c d John H, Elliott (2000). Europe Divided: 1559 - 1598. Wiley. p. 351. ISBN 9780631217800.
  3. ^ a b Morris, Terence Alan (1998). Europe and England in the sixteenth century. Routledge, p.335. ISBN 0-415-15041-8
  4. ^  Hannay, David McDowall (1911). "Antonio, Prior of Crato". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 2 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  5. ^ Rowse, A. L. (1969). Tudor Cornwall: portrait of a society. C. Scribner, p.400
  6. ^ "One decisive action might have forced Philip II to the negotiating table and avoided fourteen years of continuing warfare. Instead the King was able to use the brief respite to rebuild his naval forces and by the end of 1589 Spain once again had an Atlantic fleet strong enough to escort the American treasure ships home." The Mariner's Mirror, Volumes 76–77. Society for Nautical Research, 1990
  7. ^ Bucholz, R. O.; Key, Newton (2009). Early modern England 1485–1714: a narrative history. John Wiley and Sons. p. 145. ISBN 978-1-4051-6275-3.
  8. ^ John Hampden Francis Drake, privateer: contemporary narratives and documents (Taylor & Francis, 1972). ISBN 978-0-8173-5703-0 p. 254
  9. ^ a b Fernández Duro, Cesáreo (1972). Armada Española desde la Unión de los Reinos de Castilla y Aragón. Museo Naval de Madrid, Instituto de Historia y Cultura Naval, Tomo III, Capítulo III. Madrid. p. 51
  10. ^ a b c d e Rodríguez González, Agustín Ramón (2006).Victorias por mar de los españoles. Madrid: Biblioteca de Historia, Grafite Ediciones, pp. 60-62
  11. ^ Gorrochategui Santos, Luis (2018). English Armada: The Greatest Naval Disaster in English History. Oxford: Bloomsbury. pp. 43–52. ISBN 9781350016996.
  12. ^ Valcarcel, Isabel (2004) Mujeres De Armas Tomar (Women-At-Arms). Madrid: Algaba, p. 51-63.
  13. ^ Gorrochategui Santos, Luis (2018). English Armada: The Greatest Naval Disaster in English History. Oxford: Bloomsbury. pp. 77–97. ISBN 9781350016996.
  14. ^ Wernham, R. B. (2020). Expedition of Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake to Spain and Portugal, 1589. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-000-34165-2.
  15. ^ Gorrochategui Santos, Luis (2018). English Armada: The Greatest Naval Disaster in English History. Oxford: Bloomsbury. p. 112. ISBN 9781350016996.
  16. ^ a b c d e f R. B. Wernham (1951b), "Part II" The English Historical Review 66.259 (April 1951), pp. 194–218, especially 204–214. Wernham's articles are based on his work editing Calendar State Papers Foreign: eliz. xxiii (January–June 1589).
  17. ^ a b González, Rodríguez; Ramón, Agustín (19 September 2002). "Una derrota de Drake ante Lisboa". Circulo Naval Español (in Spanish).
  18. ^ Cummins, John (1997).Francis Drake: Lives of a Hero. Palgrave Macmillan, p. 217 ISBN 0312163657
  19. ^ Gonzalez-Arnao Conde-Luque, Mariano (1995). Derrota y muerte de Sir Francis Drake, a Coruña 1589-Portobelo 1596 (in Spanish). Xunta de Galicia, Servicio Central de Publicacións. p. 94. ISBN 9788445314630.
  20. ^ Olaya, Vicente G. (24 February 2021). "Francis Drake's lost fleet emerges in northwestern Spain". EL PAÍS English Edition. Retrieved 9 February 2022.
  21. ^ Gómez, José de Santiago y (1896). Historia de Vigo y su comarca (in Spanish). Impr. del Asilo de Huérfanos. p. 333.
  22. ^ Fernández Duro, Cesáreo (1972). Armada Española desde la unión de los Reinos de Castilla y Aragón (PDF) (in Spanish). Vol. III. Instituto de Historia y Cultura Naval. p. 52.
  23. ^ Wagner, John A. (2002). Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World: Britain, Ireland, Europe, and America. New York: Checkmark Books. p. 242.
  24. ^ a b c Gorrochategui Santos, Luis (2018). English Armada: The Greatest Naval Disaster in English History. Oxford: Bloomsbury. p. 245. ISBN 9781350016996.
  25. ^ Tenace, E. (2003), "A Strategy of Reactions: The Armadas of 1596 and 1597 and the Spanish Struggle for European Hegemony." English Historical Review, 118, pp. 855–882

Further reading