Why did the Spanish Armada fail?

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Main topic: Humanities
Other topics: Spain
Short answer: There were multiple reasons for the armada's failure. The English had better weapons, better ammunition, and better commanders. In addition, the lack of secrecy about the impending Spanish attack allowed the English to take several preparatory steps which hindered the Spaniards.

The main reasons for the Spanish armada being defeated can be broken down into several areas. First, the lack of secrecy of the impending Spanish attack. Second, the equipment used by both sides. Third, the personnel of the opposing fleets. And fourth, the weather. Nicholas Hilliard, The Battle of Gravelines, 1588

Lack of Secrecy[edit]

The plans of the Spanish were well known, which allowed the English to prepare for the attack. One of the major effects of this planning was the English raid on the Spanish port of Cadiz, led by Sir Francis Drake in 1587. This raid caused huge disruption to the Spanish effort to outfit and supply their ships, and forced them to delay their attack, which had been scheduled for the winter of 1587, until summer of the following year. It also created huge supply issues for the Spanish.[1] Once the armada set sail, they were met with long-range bombardment by the English fleet when they reached the southern coast of England, which began whittling down their numbers.[2]

The Equipment[edit]

The ammunition used by Spain was inferior to that used by the English. Although they had more ammunition, the ore used to make the ammunition was inferior in Spain to its English counterparts. In addition, due to supply issues, exacerbated by Drake's raid, Spain also loaded stone balls as ammunition, which broke apart easily. The English also had the better cannons, due to better metallurgical practices, which allowed for shorter cannons, while retaining their range, and allowed them to be fired and re-loaded at a faster rate than the Spanish guns.[3] The Spanish also had issues with the barrels they had procured for storing their food and water supplies, again due to Drake's raid. Inferior wood led to the food spoiling much more quickly than normal. The English ships were quicker and more maneuverable.[4][1] The English use of fireships, preceding the decisive Battle of Gravelines, contributed to the final outcome.[2]

The Personnel[edit]

The English had better commanding officers. The biggest issue with their commanders was the death of their best admiral, The Marquis of Santa Cruz, the architect of the planned attack. Drake's raid caused the armada not to sail in the winter of 1587, and Santa Cruz died in February 1588, depriving the Spanish of their best commander.[1][3] The tactics used by the English commanders did not give the Spanish the time they needed to have their battle plans coalesce properly. [4] Santa Cruz' replacement, Medina Sidonia, missed a chance to badly damage the English fleet while it lay in port in Plymouth harbor. Instead he bypassed the fleet in order to make it to Calais and pick up the Spanish soldiers waiting there.[1]

The English commanders exercised a brilliant military tactic of using fireships. Very early on the morning of July 28, England sent eight fireships, ships which had been set on fire, into the massed Spanish armada, which was at port off the coast of Calais. This caused panic among the Spanish commanders, and scattered their ships, which had been in a very defensible crescent shape.[4][2] The disorganized Spanish were routed by the faster, more maneuverable English ships in the Battle of Gravelines the following day. [5]

The Spanish were also deficient in the sailors and gunners. The Spanish had very few experienced gunners, which meant that most gun crews had no experience in battle. The English however, had many experienced gunners amongst their crews.[3]

The Weather[edit]

The Spanish ships were not well designed, and they were forced to sail with the wind. During the Battle of Gravelines, a strong south-westerly wind began, forcing the Spanish to withdraw to the north. Still disorganized, this allowed the more maneuverable English ships to harass the retreating Spanish, sinking many of their ships.[5] Even after the English ships gave up pursuit near the coast of Scotland, as the armada rounded Scotland and headed south, they ran into one of the worst storms that coast had seen in years, and many ships were lost. By the time they returned to Spain, they had lost approximately half of the 130 ships which had set sail, and between 15,000-20,000. In comparison, the English lost no ships, and only about 100 sailors were killed during the naval action.[5][2]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "Why Did the Spanish Armada Fail?". History Hit. Retrieved 2022-10-10.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Editors, History com. "Spanish Armada defeated". HISTORY. Retrieved 2022-10-10.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "How The Spanish Armada Failed To Conquer Against The English". warhistoryonline. 2016-09-13. Retrieved 2022-10-10.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 "Reasons for English Victory in the Spanish Armada". www.tutor2u.net. Retrieved 2022-10-10.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 "The Spanish Armada, 1588". Historic UK. Retrieved 2022-10-10.