Let Tyrants Fear: The Spanish Armada

Portrait of the Spanish Armada

“The Spanish Armada off the English Coast.” Historical painting by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen (1620-1625). Public domain via wikimedia commons. 


    130 ships: galleons, galleasses, converted merchantmen.

            2431 guns (meaning cannons etc., not pistols and revolvers.)

            30,000 men—including 180 priests.

            May 1588: the Spanish Armada sets sail for England. An English witness describes it as “the greatest and strongest combination that was ever gathered in all Christendom.”[1]

The English have a larger fleet; English ships are faster and more maneuverable; English guns shoot further. The Spanish know this, but consider themselves on a mission from God.   “We are sailing against England in the confident hope of a miracle,” an officer declares. [2]

By August, the Spanish Armada assembles in the English Channel by way of Gravelines (now France), then a port in the Spanish Netherlands. The miracle does not manifest. August 7-8, in the Battle of Gravelines, the English scatter the Spanish with fireships, and sink, damage, or capture at least four major Spanish ships. The Spanish prepare to retreat. The English, low on ammunition (and food—and beer), do not pursue.

map of the route of the Spanish Armada

1590, Route of the Armada. Public domain via wikimedia commons

On land, the English army prepares to fight the expected invaders. In Tilbury, County Essex, on the East coast of England, along the estuary of the Thames, the army amasses. Departing London, the Commandress-in-Chief, Queen Elizabeth I, arrives to fortify the troops.

Astride a white horse, clad in white velvet with a silver breastplate, bearing a silver truncheon, she rides bareheaded beside her escorts, wearing feathers, pearls, and diamonds in her memorable red hair (or wig). She appears as a mythological figure among men, like “Judith and Esther, Gloriana and Belphoebe, Diana the virgin huntress and Minerva the wise protectress and, best of all, their own beloved queen and mistress, come in this hour of danger. . . to trust herself among [the common soldiers].” [3]

Queen Elizabeth; the Armada portrait

Queen Elizabeth and the Armada. Copy of a contemporary painting. Courtesy http://www.Elizabethan-portraits.com

Queen Elizabeth, we should note, was a strong supporter of the Protestant Reformation throughout her reign and worried constantly that Catholic Ireland would unite with Catholic Spain. She continued the Plantation system of taking Irish lands and giving them to her supporters. A decade after the Armada, Hugh O’Neill would rally the Irish against her. She may be England’s most beloved monarch, but the same cannot be said of Ireland.

As a feminist, I admire her spunk–her ability to reign on her own terms.

On August 19, 1588, she made her famous speech, her words remaining noteworthy even today:

“Let tyrants fear; I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects. . . I am come amongst you at this time . . . in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom and for my people, my honor and my blood, even in the dust.

“I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma* or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. . . ”[4]


Coming soon: wrecks of the Spanish Armada along the Irish coast.

Look also for the tale of Grace O’Malley, the legendary Irish pirate queen who once met with Queen Elizabeth.


[1] This quotation and the statistics above from Colin Martin’s Full Fathom Five: Wrecks of the Spanish Armada. NY: Viking Press, 1975, 11-15.

[2] Ibid., p. 17.

[3] Mattingly, Garrett. The Armada. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959, p. 349.

* Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, commander of the Spanish army.

[4] Ibid, p. 349-350. Also quoted, with slight variation, in Terry Golway’s Words That Ring Through Time. NY: Overlook Press, 2009.