Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604)


The Anglo-Spanish War of 1585 to 1604 was fought in particular as a naval war. The causes were the growing religious, economic and political antagonisms. These manifested themselves in Spain”s support of English Catholics and, conversely, in English aid to the rebellious Dutch in the first phase of the Eighty Years” War. The penetration of English merchants and pirates into the Spanish sphere of interest in the West Indies contributed to the intensification of antagonisms. The beginning of the war, which was never officially declared, is considered to have been the support of the rebellious Dutch in 1585 by English troops and the English raid on Spanish possessions in the West Indies. The climax of the war was the failed invasion attempt by the Spanish Armada in 1588. An English Armada counterattacked Lisbon in 1589 with a comparable effort of ships and soldiers, but this too was unsuccessful. There were other similar English ventures against Spanish colonies overseas (West Indies in 1595) or against the Iberian Peninsula (conquest of Cadiz in 1596) itself. For their part, the Spanish tried several times to land troops in Ireland to support the rebels there against the English. This was not accomplished until 1601, at the end of the Nine Years” War, without the enterprise being successful. During the entire course of the war, in addition to the larger undertakings, privateering of small units or individual ships played an important role. The war ended with the Treaty of London in 1604.

Religious and economic differences of interest

There had been good relations, even alliances, between England and Spain for a long time in the first half of the 16th century. Thus Henry VIII had been married to Catherine of Aragon. Mary I had been married to Philip II. There were also intensive, if ultimately futile, efforts to bind Elizabeth I to the House of Habsburg through marriage.

The relationship was strained by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The remaining Catholics in England were supported from Spain. As early as 1559, Philip II toyed with the idea of occupying England. In the years 1569-1572 Spain supported uprisings in England itself.

In economic terms, English, Dutch and, in some cases, ships from Hanseatic cities dominated trade between the Iberian Peninsula and northern Europe. Even in the West Indies, the Spanish were no longer without competition. John Hawkins undertook in 1562

English privateers

There had long been state-sanctioned privateering operations in England in addition to normal piracy, some of which were co-financed by the Crown. Francis Drake raided in 1572

Way to war

At first, England secretly helped the rebels against Spain in the Netherlands. The country granted refuge to religious refugees. Blockades and counter-blockades largely prevented important trade between England and the Netherlands. In 1574, an Anglo-Spanish agreement was reached. Trade between the two countries was resumed. At the same time, Dutch ships no longer found refuge in English ports. In addition, opponents of Elizabeth I were expelled from the Spanish dominion. In 1570, the Pope issued a bull against Elizabeth I. This was followed by Papal-Spanish attempts to further stir up unrest in Ireland, and there were even invasion attempts in 1579 and 1580. During this time, a widespread notion developed in England that Spain was an enemy of the country. This was reinforced by a confessionalization of politics and the growing influence of the Puritans and economic competition in maritime trade.

In the European power structure, England became Spain”s main opponent. If England were defeated, this would have meant the collapse of the rebellious Dutch. It would also have neutralized a France that might have become Protestant. Since Spain had ended its war with the Ottomans and united with Portugal, its fleet was strong enough for a strike against England. In the Netherlands, the Spanish under Farnese were successful at this time. Since 1582

England began to prepare for defense on land as well. A considerable number of troops were raised. Walter Raleigh, in particular, advocated strengthening the fleet.

Relations between the two countries broke down in 1584 when the Spanish ambassador was expelled. The accusation was that he had been involved in an assassination attempt on Elizabeth I with the aim of bringing Mary Stuart to the English throne.

English landing in the Netherlands

In 1585, Elizabeth I openly promised her support to the rebellious Dutch in the Treaty of Nonsuch. The English promised to support the rebels with troops and material. The costs were to be reimbursed after the war. Failure to fulfill this condition was one reason for the Anglo-Dutch War of 1652. Conversely, the Dutch undertook to provide ships on request.

A military expedition under Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester was sent to the Netherlands. The Spanish then interned English and Dutch vessels and Hanseatic ships in Spanish ports. Leicester, as governor-general in the Netherlands, pursued a policy less in the interests of the English government than in his own favor. He tried in vain to take the position of the late William of Orange and made enemies among the Dutch. He had to return to England and Elizabeth I tried in vain to make peace.

West Indies raid

The English-Spanish antagonism was not settled, but open hostilities soon ensued, and Elizabeth I sent Drake to attack the Spanish colonies and capture Spanish ships in retaliation for Spanish incursions. The latter undertook a large-scale raid on the Spanish possessions in the West Indies in 1585.

This attack was no longer a private privateering venture, but an official fleet operation ordered by Elizabeth I. At least 25 ships were involved. On board were 2300 soldiers as well as sailors. The fleet failed to intercept the Spanish silver fleet. Instead, it attacked Vigo on the coast of Galicia and sacked Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands. The fleet sailed to the Caribbean and sacked Santo Domingo and Cartagena. Further plans failed due to a fever epidemic on the ships. The fleet set course for Virginia and there took aboard the failed first settlers and returned to England.

The expedition had cost the lives of 750 men and was a losing proposition for the shareholders. However, the action reduced the Spanish prestige. In particular, however, it strengthened Philip II”s resolve to invade.

Invasion preparations and raid on Cadiz

Philip II planned a broad military action against England. This plan was sanctioned by the pope. Philip wanted to recatholicize England on the one hand and to assert his claims to the English throne on the other. The execution of Mary Stuart in 1587 further intensified the opposition.

In order to hinder the other side”s preparations for war, Admiral Drake planned to attack the Bay of Cadiz in April 1587 with about 30 to 40 ships, including some newly built warships. In addition to Crown warships, well-armed ones from the London merchant class were also involved. A consortium financed the venture and expected profits. The English ships succeeded in surprising their opponents. Apart from a few galleys, there was little resistance and they managed to destroy a large number of ships. Among them were some of the strongest Spanish warships.

The fleet captured Sagres to establish a base. Drake”s second-in-command, William Borough, criticized this as well as Drake”s high-handed actions in Cadiz. Fierce conflicts arose between the two commanders. From Sagres, the British significantly disrupted Spanish shipping.

The English ships set out for the Azores to capture a Spanish ship loaded with valuable cargo. The booty, which was personal property of Philip II, was so high that the enterprise was financially profitable.

Drake later spoke of singeing the King of Spain”s beard. The English succeeded in repelling the Spanish armament effort with the venture. In addition, the Spanish fleet, which tried to track Drake during the action, had been so badly affected by bad weather that it could not immediately sail again. In June 1587, the English fleet returned to England.

Spanish Armada

Philip II”s attempt to secure a possible invasion of England diplomatically through negotiations with the Ottomans, Scots and French failed, but did not change the decision to attack. The Spanish estimated the cost at seven million ducats. The Pope pledged one million ducats after the conquest of the island.

On May 9, 1588, the Armada left Lisbon with the goal of landing in England. The fleet consisted of about 63 galleons and comparable large warships, plus four galleasses and 32 smaller ships. In addition, there were supply ships and other support units. On board were about 19,000 soldiers and 8,000 sailors. The company was commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia. The fleet was to board Farnese”s army in the Netherlands and land the troops in England.

The English fleet consisted of 62 galleons and similar units. In addition, there were 43 smaller ships. The crew consisted of 1,500 soldiers and 14,000 sailors. The commander of the English was Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham. His deputies were Drake and Hawkins.

The English ships were mostly smaller than the Spanish ones. Only eight of them were larger than 600 tons. In terms of maneuverability, they were superior. On both sides, although the royal warships formed the core of the fleet, most of the ships were merchantmen or privateers” vessels.

The battle with the English fleet began on July 21 and lasted, with interruptions, until July 30. In the English Channel, the English attacked the Spanish and caused considerable damage. They relied on long-range combat with naval artillery, while the Spanish were set up for boarding combat, which had been their custom up to that point. However, the firepower of the English at long range proved to be too low to break the hulls of the enemy ships. A closer approach would have put them at risk of coming within range of the Spanish guns themselves. As a result, the fighting in the Channel, which lasted for days, was of little consequence. The Spanish lost only a few ships and none of them to enemy action.

When the Spanish Armada arrived off Calais, it soon became clear that for various reasons it was impossible for the soldiers to board. The English had received reinforcements in the meantime, which made them outnumber the Spanish. In addition, the Spanish fleet was by now suffering from a shortage of ammunition, while the English were able to get supplies. Although relatively few Spanish ships were sunk, the damage and losses suffered by the Spanish in the battle off Calais were great.

The Spaniards fled to the north. In the process, numerous ships sank in the storm or ran onto reefs. In total, about a quarter of the fleet was lost. Others say that only about half of the ships reached Spain again. Thus the intention of an invasion had failed. On the English side, the victory was interpreted as God”s work. On the Spanish side, the plan for a radical defeat of England was now abandoned. On the English side, the losses due to direct war effects were low, but epidemics killed thousands.

English Armada

As a result of the defeat, the Spanish lost the battle for Europe-wide public opinion. It was widely believed that their power had been permanently weakened. The event also showed that the Counter-Reformation could be stopped. It was no longer possible to recatholicize Europe by military force. However, with the defeat of the Armada, Spanish naval supremacy was not yet seriously threatened. In England, there was concern about another invasion.

On the English side, a counter-armada was gathered shortly after the repulse of the Spanish invasion attempt. This was commanded by Drake and John Norreys. Originally, only an attack to destroy warships was planned. Through the influence of the Portuguese Prince António of Crato, the goal was expanded. The latter assured that if he landed in Portugal supported by the English and French, there would be an uprising against the Spanish occupiers. Elizabeth I and others had considerable doubts about this. Drake, supported by a war party around Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, saw it differently. In the end, Elizabeth I gave in to their urging. She ordered that the Spanish warships be destroyed first. Then the fleet was to conquer an island in the Azores to establish a base there. An attack on Lisbon was not planned.

The Crown was unable to finance the expedition due to the high cost of repelling the Armada. Elizabeth I granted only 20,000 pounds and provided six warships. The rest of the fleet was financed by the two commanders and a consortium of merchants. In total, about 80 ships participated in the enterprise. In addition, there was a landing force. This was between 11,000 and 20,000 strong. However, many of them were volunteers with little experience who hoped for booty. In addition, food and ammunition supplies were low.

The fleet left England in April 1589. It occurred after the crossing the sacking of the lower city of Coruña. However, the English did not succeed in capturing the citadel. After epidemics spread, the English fleet left after two weeks. This gave the Spanish time to prepare the defense of Lisbon. The fleet did not attempt to destroy the Spanish warships anchored at Santander and elsewhere, but instead put troops ashore at Peniche, far north of Lisbon. The fleet itself planned to attack the city from the south.

The landing troops were led by the Earl of Sussex. It took the troops seven days before they reached Lisbon. Many soldiers deserted or died on the way. Contrary to hopes, the English were supported by few Portuguese. When they arrived, they found Lisbon ready to defend. Without guns, the English could do nothing against the fortifications and the fleet did not enter the harbor to attack the city from the sea. After a few weeks, the soldiers embarked again. In the meantime, the fleet had brought up numerous supply ships. The sacking of Vigo still occurred, but unfavorable wind conditions prevented it from sailing to the Azores. The fleet then disbanded. The company had not achieved any of its objectives. Thousands of men had died, mainly from disease, and financially the expedition was a disaster. As a result, Drake fell out of favor with the Queen for years.

Privateer War

The cost of naval warfare was high, amounting to £1.7 million in England by 1592. After the failure of the expedition to Portugal, major ventures on the English side were largely avoided at first. Naval warfare was largely left to privateers. This was by no means limited to the English and Dutch sides. The freebooters from Dunkirk fought for the Spanish. These were particularly disruptive to English and Dutch fisheries.  The lack of major operations gave the Spanish an opportunity to recover from the defeat of the Armada. The increased English privateering soon met reorganized Spanish convoys better protected by fast frigates.

Nevertheless, this period was a heyday of English privateers. Examples include the ventures of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, Frobisher or Raleigh. Cumberland had already undertaken two privateering voyages before the attack of the Spanish Armada. In 1589 he made a voyage to Portugal and the Azores with seven ships, brought up a number of ships, and sacked the city of St. Michael. Partly with, partly without the support of Elizabeth I, similar ventures by Cumberland followed almost annually. The eleventh and final voyage was made in 1598 with a total of twenty ships of his own. He extended his radius of action to the West Indies and, by his presence in these waters, prevented the Silver Fleet from leaving and returning home, with serious economic consequences for Spain These privateering voyages remained an important part of the war until peace was concluded. The privateers were not limited to the northern Atlantic. For example, the Brazilian towns of Bahia (1586), Santos (1591) or Recife (1595) were also raided and plundered.

The voyages brought high profits and increased the available capital. London merchants were the main beneficiaries of the privateering. Many of these had dominated trade with Spain before the war and now increasingly invested the profits in trade with overseas territories. Trade with Brazil, West Africa and the Mediterranean increased in volume. Later, the East Indies, the Caribbean and North America were added to the list.

West Indian Expedition

During this period, the English supported the Dutch with money and soldiers in their fight against the Spanish in the Land War. They also helped the French Huguenots, while the Catholic counterpart was supported by the Spanish in the civil war-like Huguenot Wars.

In 1590, two English fleets under Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk and Martin Frobisher operated in the Atlantic. Therefore, the Spanish silver fleet from America could not cross the Atlantic. This greatly worsened the financial situation of the Spanish government.

Drake and Hawkins had been appointed commanders of a venture against the West Indies. One of Drake”s ideas was the capture of Panama to disrupt treasure shipments. Initial planning fell into 1594, and the commanders and Elizabeth I argued for months over the objectives and financing of the enterprise. Preparations were interrupted by a Spanish raid on Cornwall in 1595, and rumors of imminent invasions of England and Ireland made the rounds.

Only when the news came that a Spanish treasure ship with an extremely valuable cargo had been wrecked in the harbor of Puerto Rico did the plan start to move. Capturing the cargo became the primary goal of the expedition. This was to be followed by the raid on Panama. The plan did not remain secret, so the Spanish in the West Indies learned of the threat.

The English fleet sailed on August 28, 1595. It consisted of six royal warships. These were among the best of the fleet. In addition, there were about 20 heavily armed merchant ships. On board were 1500 sailors and 1000 soldiers. The two commanders-in-chief were deeply at odds. Against Hawkins, Drake prevailed: Instead of heading directly for Puerto Rico, Las Palmas in the Canary Islands was to be plundered beforehand. This plan failed.

Through prisoners, the Spanish learned of the destination Puerto Rico and informed the authorities there. The English had apparently assumed that the Spanish colonies were hardly defended, as they still were in 1585. In the meantime, the Spanish not only had a fleet there, but had also fortified the cities.

When the English arrived off Puerto Rico, they found the city heavily fortified and in a state of defense. Hawkins was probably dying of fever at the time. Drake made several attempts to take the city, with heavy losses, but eventually had to withdraw. The fleet now sailed toward Panama. On the way Riohacha and Santa Marta were sacked. Nombre de Dios was taken and set on fire.

On December 29, the troops were put ashore to conquer Panama. They were ambushed and thus the conquest of the city failed. An epidemic of fever raged in the fleet on the way to Nicaragua, and Drake died of it. On the return voyage, the fleet defended itself in the Battle of Pinos against a superior Spanish fleet before the ships arrived back in England.

Further course

Spanish measures to defend its colonies in the Caribbean, South and Central America proved successful. Despite the war, traffic between Spain and America was safer than twenty years earlier. In the long run, it had not succeeded in weakening the Spanish fleet permanently. The lost ships had been replaced and England feared a new invasion. In fact, Philip II made another large-scale invasion attempt in 1596, but it failed because of bad weather.

The Spanish had been at war with Henry IV of France for some time and were besieging Calais. Elizabeth I was ready to contribute to the defense if she was assured of the possession of the once English city. This did not happen. Before an agreement could be reached, the Spanish captured the city. Nevertheless, in 1596, a further expansion of the conflict seemed imminent when England, France and the Dutch concluded a Triple Alliance. This meant the official recognition of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces by major powers under international law. However, France broke away from the alliance only two years later.

Against the backdrop of an impending Spanish invasion, a major new fleet venture was undertaken against Cadiz in 1596 under Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, Walter Raleigh and Thomas Howard, and the Dutch admiral Jan van Duijvenvoorde.

Involved were 17 English and 24 Dutch warships and numerous armed merchant ships. In total, the fleet consisted of 150 ships with almost 6800 sailors and 7400 soldiers. It succeeded in penetrating the largely undefended harbor and destroying numerous ships lying there. The city itself was also taken and looted. The damage on the Spanish side is said to have amounted to two million ducats. Some commanders wanted to take possession of the city, but could not get their way in the war council. Therefore, the fleet sailed away again. The fleet sailed to the Azores. Some islands were plundered and temporarily occupied. The commanders hoped to intercept a Spanish treasure fleet. However, the latter was able to escape to a harbor. The ships returned to England. Financially, this expedition also proved to be a failure. While the population celebrated Essex as a conqueror, the queen had him imprisoned because of the poor results of the enterprise and because she envied his popularity.

In the spring of 1597, a Spanish fleet attempted to sail to Ireland to land troops. This enterprise was carried out so secretly that it went unnoticed by the English. Only a storm prevented its success. The English and Dutch responded with a fleet expedition to Spain. It was to attack Coruña and Ferrol and then occupy an Azores island to intercept the treasure fleet. Failing to surprise the enemy, the fleet sailed to the Azores to intercept the silver fleet from there. Taking advantage of the absence of the English ships, the Spanish in turn captured a western English port to use as a base for their operations in Ireland and as a base against the returning English fleet. This too failed, due to a strong storm.

In 1599, the Spanish assembled a large fleet of sailing ships and galleys. However, these were used against the Dutch, contrary to initial plans. The English, on the other hand, had assembled one of the strongest fleets of the time, but it was not used. In 1600 and 1601, due to initial peace negotiations, the English fleet was mainly limited to patrolling the Spanish coast. In addition, some large privateering operations took place. The surveillance could not prevent a Spanish fleet from bringing soldiers to support the rebel Earl of Tyrone in 1601. The Spanish were blockaded by the English in Ireland and eventually forced to surrender. In 1602, the Anglo-Dutch blockading fleet was able to muster numerous enemy ships and also took booty ashore. It also succeeded in intercepting a galley fleet sailing toward the Netherlands.

Last but not least, the warlike conflicts with England and the Netherlands on the one hand and declining revenues from the American colonies on the other led to Spain”s national bankruptcy again in 1596. Philip II died in 1598 and his son and successor Philip III wanted to end the long war, also against the background of the economic situation. The English side was also tired of war. Initial negotiations between the two sides failed because of excessive demands by the English. Against the background of the imminent death of Elizabeth I, no more English fleets sailed against Spain in 1603.

After his accession to the throne, James I considered it his most urgent task to end the war with Spain. He promulgated an anti-piracy law as early as 1603. Negotiations for a peace agreement took place at Somerset House on the Strand in London. They lasted from May to August 1604, and a breakthrough was achieved as early as July. Among other things, it was agreed to return looted goods or to pay compensation for them. Furthermore, Spain renounced support for the Counter-Reformation in England. In return, England agreed not to support the rebels in the Netherlands any further. Also English privateering actions were forbidden. In return, the English Channel was opened for Spanish ships. The Spanish had not succeeded in prohibiting the English from trading in the West and East Indies. The latter now recognized the ownership of the settled territories. The English took the absence of such regulations as permission to trade. The Spanish, on the other hand, regarded unauthorized trade as piracy. After that, the treaties still had to be approved by the two governments. The signing of the treaty took place on August 28, 1604.


  1. Englisch-Spanischer Krieg (1585–1604)
  2. Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604)
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