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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

The word itself is merely the Spanish for 'armed'; the Armada of 1588 was called in full La Flota Armada Invencible, the armed invincible fleet. It was sent against England by *Philip II of Spain for several reasons: to restore Roman Catholicism to the country previously ruled by his ardently Catholic wife, *Mary I; to end English assistance to the rebels in the *Netherlands, who had been opposing Spanish rule there since 1567; and to keep English sailors away from his *American possessions.

In 1585–6 a fleet under *Drake had plundered the Spanish Caribbean. Drake then had the effrontery to attack the gathering Armada in Cadiz harbour in 1587 (an act which became known as 'singeing the king of Spain's beard'). The Spanish ships at Cadiz were mainly *galleys, the basic Spanish fighting ship, but this encounter convinced Philip that sails rather than oars were needed to match the agile English vessels. He rapidly assembled galleons, many of them converted merchant ships, and it was a somewhat unwieldy fleet of 130 vessels which sailed north in 1588 under the command of the duke of Medina Sidonia.

The plan was to pick up at Calais an army from the *Spanish Netherlands (roughly Belgium) for an invasion of England. The English fleet was under the overall command of Lord Howard of Effingham (1536–1624); Drake was his vice admiral, *Hawkins the rear admiral. They harried the Armada in the English Channel, but the Spanish fleet reached Calais virtually intact – only to find that the promised army was not there. The English then sent fireships towards the anchored Spaniards, who cut their cables and moved in great disorder some 16km/10m northeast to Gravelines, where the only real battle took place.

The more mobile English had destroyed at least three of the Armada and had severely battered the rest, without losing a single ship, when both sides ran out of ammunition. The wind then shifted from northwest to southwest and the Armada limped away into the North Sea; it continued round the tip of Scotland and into the Atlantic, losing almost half the fleet (51 ships went down or were wrecked) and thousands of men before reaching home. It was the first battle between fleets of sailing ships, inaugurating a form of warfare in which Britain excelled during the next two centuries, culminating in *Trafalgar.

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