No one ever expects the Spanish Armada. Yet, somehow, in the year of our Lord 1588, England had survived. Perhaps the arrival of the Invincible Armada was predictable. After all, Phillip II, the Well-Chinned, His Most Catholic Majesty, king of Spain, etc. had a well demonstrated habit of oppressing Protestants, at least when he wasn’t indulging his primary passion of breeding the next generation of super-chinned Hapsburg superman with one of his cousins or maybe a niece. Of course it didn’t help that Elizabeth I, the Miser, Queen of England, had pursued a muddled strategy of extreme caution and provocation, which only infuriated a man laboring under the oppressive weight of a giant chin and living heretics.
From a strategic perspective, England had a problem. It’s largest source of economic growth since its conquest by Guillaume le Bâtard (known in English as William the Bastard) in 1066 had been revenues from French territories supplemented by the occasional plundering chevauchée. Extensive Continental holdings had given the English monarchy greater scope for its ambitions than it’s island possessions warranted by themselves. England itself was squeezed pretty effectively by an effective tax collection regime that dated from Anglo-Saxon times but it remained a poor territory by European standards and wool exports to the Low Countries only partly supplemented tax revenue. When, in 1453, the English were largely expelled from the Continent, the resources available to the English monarchy became much more modest. Yet their ambitions could remain large. Henry VIII, the Profligate, strained his treasury as much as his waistline in his pursuit of European relevance. He left the kingdom on the edge of bankruptcy in spite of his seizure and redistribution of Catholic property, and almost as irrelevant to the European balance of power as it was at the start of his reign.
His daughter, Bloody Mary, was little better. Henry VII had courted a Spanish alliance by marrying his son Arthur to Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter Catherine. Arthur inconveniently died, leaving Catherine a widow. As a cost-saving measure to keep Catherine’s large dowry, a motive that would be a recurring theme of the Tudor dynasty, she was married off to Henry, Duke of York, the future Henry VIII. The ultimate result of Henry VII’s thriftiness, Bloody Mary, was therefore inclined to seek an alliance with her Spanish relations after she came to the throne. She arranged a marriage with her much younger cousin, Phillip II, and proceeded to join him in a war on France. The end result was that England’s debts were even larger at Mary’s merciful death than they were at the beginning.
Elizabeth was her miserly grandfather reborn. After a short, disastrous war with France at the very beginning of her reign, Elizabeth followed a fairly conservative foreign policy as far as Continental entanglements went. Relations with Spain were decent at first. Phillip even proposed marriage to Elizabeth despite the fact that she 1) wasn’t a close relative 2) didn’t have a giant ponderous chin and 3) was a Protestant. However, this state of affairs didn’t last. Phillip succeeded his father Charles V Mega-Chin as king of Spain and developed an advanced allergy to Protestants. Every second of his life, he had this haunting fear that someone, somewhere was Protestant. Attempts to assuage this constant itch through the timely application of burning heretics were fruitless. Phillip II wanted to destroy every Protestant everywhere. When Elizabeth reinstated the Church settlement of her father and younger brother Edward VI, Phillip was seriously annoyed. He sat there in his cold, monastic office, grinding his giant jaw in frustration.
Elizabeth had more pressing problems than Phillip at first. Scotland, as always, was in turmoil and allied with the treacherous French. Her government was cash strapped. Elizabeth exercised extreme economy in spending and gradually rebuilt some of her grandfather’s massive stash of cash. Then, ever searching for new cash flows, Elizabeth discovered that selling human beings was highly profitable, even if it involved smuggling them into the Spanish New World over Spanish objections. Black globalization, as we’ll call it, was born.
Spain, intercepting a fleet of English smugglers, sunk several English merchant ships. The commander of the fleet, John Hawkins, his cousin Francis Drake, and their royal mistress, who had quietly invested in their voyages, were infuriated. Elizabeth’s wrath never burned brighter than when her cash flow was threatened. Elizabeth gave tacit approval to Hawkins and Drake to raid Spanish shipping as privateers. Hawkins was also given the resources to rework the English navy. This policy was profitable (the Queen’s share of Drake’s plunder following his voyage around the world was half of her revenue for that year) but dangerous. The Spanish began plotting with English Catholics to put Mary the Headless, Queen of Scots, a Catholic and Elizabeth’s captive, on the throne. Elizabeth retaliated by increasing depredations against Spanish commerce, sending aid to the Dutch Protestants rebelling against Phillip II, and by parting Mary, Queen of Scots from her head, starting something of a trend among Mary’s Stuart descendants. Phillip decided to end his English problem once and for all and dispatched the dreaded Spanish Armada.
Due to bad weather and some English harassment, the Spanish Armada was unable to achieve its objectives for that campaign season and was forced to circumnavigate the British Isles to return to Spain. In the meantime, Elizabeth, showing her miserly instinct for managing cash flow, stiffed the soldiers and sailors who had manned her forces of their pay. Up to 8,000 hard to replace seamen and soldiers, weakened by malnutrition, died as a result of a typhus outbreak, leaving a skilled manpower deficit that would have serious consequences for the English campaign the following year.
The core naval forces that Phillip had dispatched had survived the circumnavigation of the British Isles but had only found refuge in the exposed ports of northern Spain at Coruna, Santander, and San Sebastian. They were badly damaged and undergoing repairs. The English government decided to destroy the ships in harbor, sending Spain’s Atlantic fleet to the bottom of the sea and throwing Spain’s colonies open to the English and their Dutch allies.
Fine sentiment that. Unfortunately, the English high command also decided that the expedition should land in Lisbon to trigger a revolt against the Spanish crown by the Portuguese, seize the Azores, and, if possible, intercept that year’s Spanish treasure fleet fresh in from America loaded with Bolivian silver.
So began the English Armada of 1589, an ill-fated expedition that threw England into a decline from which it wouldn’t fully emerge until 1759, over one hundred and seventy years later. The expedition was organized as a profit seeking joint-stock company with Elizabeth fronting one quarter, the Dutch one-eighth, and the rest coming from various English noblemen and merchants. The rewards would be the rich pickings from sacking Lisbon, the Azores, and the Spanish treasure fleet. Whether these profit seeking goals conflicted with the major strategic goals was never properly clarified.
The expedition, already weighted down with a complex contradictory goals, had further ill-luck. Bad weather delayed sailing, the logistics were confused, 1/3 of the food supplies had already been eaten, the Dutch warships never showed up, and the number of trained soldiers was very small compared to untrained volunteers. Many of the needed veterans had been sent to their graves by Elizabethan parsimony and their absence would be felt. In addition, the English were short of artillery and cavalry.
When they finally sailed, Drake, who was in overall command and perhaps more focused on plunder, bypassed Santander, where most of the Spanish galleons were being refitted, and attacked Coruna instead. The English captured part of the town but were unable to capture its fortified center. While waiting for the winds to change, they wasted time besieging the upper town, which only caused English casualties. There was little plunder except for wine, which was as much an impediment as an advantage. The English then sailed to Lisbon where they found that the Spanish had used the time that the English had spent investing Coruna to buttress the defenses of Lisbon. The disaffected Portuguese failed to rise in rebellion when the English landed. The English managed to destroy some Spanish naval supplies but the Lisbon garrison refused to come out and fight, Elizabeth refused to send reinforcements, and there was a stalemate. Disease and fighting depleted English manpower so much that Lisbon and the attack on the Azores was abandoned and most of the fleet sailed home. Drake took twenty ships to try to intercept the treasure fleet but was caught in a bad storm and missed his quarry. His ships were so battered that his flagship, the Revenge, nearly sank.
None of the English Armada’s goals were achieved. Many men, ships, and doubloons had been spent for 3o,ooo pounds worth of plunder. The trip failed to hit its strategic targets and didn’t even make a profit.
Spain was soon able to build a new fleet of English style galleons and re-establish command of the sea. Multiple English attempts to seize the yearly treasure fleet were defeated and Spanish gold and silver shipments during the decade following the defeat of the English Armada were three times larger than during the 1580s. While an English raid on Cadiz destroyed the town, the Spanish torched the treasure fleet and sent their precious metals to the bottom of Cadiz harbor, leaving the English empty-handed and the Spanish able to salvage it later. Most English expeditions failed, including a spectacular failure off Panama in 1595 that killed off Drake and Hawkins. The Spanish were even able to send two more Armadas in 1596 and 1597 but they were defeated by bad weather. The Spanish also fed rebellions in Ireland against Elizabeth, which bogged down the English almost as badly in Ireland as the Spanish were bogged down in the Netherlands. Spain was drained by the ongoing war but were better able to afford it than the English with their more modest resources. The English continued to raid Spanish shipping and support the Dutch rebels, which hurt Spain, but, in a war of attrition, time favored the Spanish.
Phillip II died in 1598, never having relieved the world of the burden of heresy, and was succeeded by his son Phillip III. Elizabeth died in 1603 and was succeeded by James VI, the Wisest Fool in Christendom, King of Scots. James I quickly negotiated the Treaty of London that ended the long war with Spain. England pledged to stop helping the Dutch and refrain from attacking Spanish shipping. Spain recognized England as a Protestant state with a Protestant king. A modus vivendi was achieved among these fine gentlemen.
James I pursued a peaceful policy but was still weighed down from the debts from Elizabeth’s wars, coupled with his own financial incompetence. His son Charles I, the Headless, also found himself chronically short of funds, which led to a parting of the ways with his Parliament and, eventually, to a parting of his body from his head. England by that point was so pathetic that the decisive battle that destroyed Spain’s command of the seas, the Battle of the Downs, was fought by their former Dutch allies right off of England’s coast with England powerless to intervene. England had a burst of power under the enlightened Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s but was largely decrepit until the Dutch Invasion of 1688 brought about a reformation of English institutions along Dutch lines. The English also found a superior basis for their economy in the production and sale of various drugs, becoming the world’s most successful narco-state (in Niall Ferguson’s immortal words).
The Spanish had a resurgence of power. The Spanish Navy was able to control the seas, move treasure across the Atlantic and Pacific, and control trade with its colonies. As the most powerful military power in Europe, Spain was also able to intervene in the Thirty Years War on the side of their Austrian cousins. Spanish power began to ebb in the mid-sixteenth mid-seventeenth century but England was not the primary beneficiary. The Dutch emerged from their long war against Spain as the strongest naval power on Earth and successfully seized Portugal’s control of the Indian Ocean and the spice trade. The French defeated the Spanish on land and, with the Peace of the Pyrenees, became Europe’s dominant land power. This restored things to their proper balance, where England was able to focus on the real enemy: France.