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The Spanish Armada Part I: A 30 Year Road to Battle…

Episode 39 of the Renaissance English History Podcast was on the foreign policy that led to the Spanish Armada. Listen, or read the transcript below.


Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition.  Just for fun.

Philip II by William Thomas Walsh
The Spanish Armada by Robert Hutchinson
The Spanish Armada by Colin Martin & Geoffrey Parker
Pirate Nation: Elizabeth I and Her Royal Sea Rovers by David Childs

1588 – Music from the Spanish Armada

Mary Tudor and Philip of Spain - King and Queen of England

Mary Tudor and Philip of Spain – King and Queen of England


The fabulous Dan Snow did a series for BBC2 on the Armada: 12 Days to Save England which is available to purchase from the BBC store in the UK.

Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen series from David Starkey


Philip and Mary with the joint crown



Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!

Hello, and welcome to Episode Thirty Nine of the Renaissance English History Podcast: The Strong Current Towards the Armada (get the water reference?). I’m your host, Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are and our place in the universe.

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So let’s talk about the Spanish Armada, shall we? I’m going to be doing two episodes on the Armada this month. This one will focus on the foreign policy issues that led up to the actual week and a half of fighting, and then in about 2 weeks I’ll look at the battle, and the fallout.

So let’s look at where we are in the mid 1580’s.

Elizabeth is past 50, and England still doesn’t have an official heir. Mary Queen of Scots had been executed in 1587 ­ the culmination of years of paranoia over the perceived Catholic threat. We’ve talked in other episodes about how in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign she tried to be lenient and accepting of Catholics as long as they still kept up the appearance of belonging to the Church of England ­ she famously didn’t want to make windows into men’s souls.

But that all changed with the first northern Catholic rebellion, and then the subsequent papal bull excommunicating her.

The papal bull not only excommunicated her, but it also advised her subjects that they no longer had to obey her, and in fact, if they killed her, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. This means that her Catholic subjects are in the position of having to jeopardize either their immortal soul or their mortal lives. And in the eyes of Elizabeth’s advisors like Walsingham, it made every Catholic a potential traitor.

Things got very difficult for Catholics after that Papal bull. Remember from the episode on Catholics in England that torture was used during this period in English history more than at any other time, and over 200 people were killed because of their religious beliefs, including Jesuit priests who had been missionaries sent back to England to perform the mass. By 1575 there was a group of 200 English exiles in the Spanish army commanded by an English captiain, in the Netherlands, having sworn allegiance to Philip.

The Catholic response to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris in 1572, in which over 70,000 Protestants were murdered in a span of about 2 months, starting in Paris with 3000 killed, and spreading to the countryside to Orleans, Rouen, Lyon and Toulouse, was to celebrate.

The Pope had a te Deum sung to celebrate this victory over the heretics. He struck a medal to commemmorate it, and commissioned the painter Vasari to paint a series of frescoes portraying the destruction of the protestants in the Vatican.

The relationship with Phillip and Spain had always been sketchy. Elizabeth first met Phillip, the great grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, in the 1550s when she was a young princess, and he was marrying her sister Mary Tudor. Under the terms of their marriage contract, Philip was to have all of Mary’s titles and landholdings for as long as she was alive, and so, for a while, Philip was actually the king of england. He was not a consort.

Coins from the time period show Mary and Philip with one crown hanging over them both. Mary and Philip were joint signers of royal documents, and since he could not read English, important state documents during this time are in both English and Spanish. An act of Parliament actually gave him the title of King.

They had this joint dream that England would be reunited with the Catholic faith and reconciled with the Pope, and Philip, who was an incredibly devout man, kept nurturing that dream even after Mary’s death. Upon Elizabeth’s rise, the Count of Feria said:​“The Kingdom is entirely in the hands of young folks, heretics, and traitors, and the Queen does not favour a single man whom her majesty (referring to Mary) now in heaven would have received.”​Immediately after Elizabeth was crowned he proposed marriage to her, wanting to keep his ties to England, and perhaps be able to force some religious concessions and protections for Catholics.

She kept him waiting for a response for weeks, and wound up saying no, ironically enough quoting the same Bible verse from Leviticus that her father used to justify the annullment of his marriage from Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother. You know, the one about how a man shouldn’t marry his brother’s widow.

One thing to keep in mind here is that, in the mind of many Catholics, Elizabeth was not a legitimate heir. She was born when Catherine of Aragon was still alive. So if you didn’t recognize the divorce, which Catholics didn’t, she would have been the product of an affair, and so was not considered legitimate.

For a while, even after he was jilted, Philip stayed on fairly peaceable terms. He even stuck up for Elizabeth when the pope excommunicated her. This was actually a strategic decision ­ he wasn’t on peaceful terms with the French, and so he needed to have England balancing things out.

But then Elizabeth sided with the Protestant rebels in the Netherlands. The Netherlands were under the control of the Hapsburgs ­ namely, Philip and Spain ­ and the Protestants were rebelling against this Catholic ruler. Protestantism had taken hold in Northern Europe more than in the South, and so there were many Protestants in the Netherlands who lived in fear of their lives. Plus, the Spanish Inquisition was going strong, the secret police force rooting out all protestant threats.

I really want to do a Monty Python quote in here about Nobody Expecting the Spanish Inquisition. I really really really want to. But I will refrain. If you don’t know that skit, you must youtube it. I think I’ll put it up in the show notes. It’s comedy gold.

Anyway In 1584 Philip signed a treaty with the French Catholic league promising to support France in fighting the Protestant Huguenots.

In 1585 Elizabeth signed the Treaty of Nonsuch which promised troops and support to the rebels. And this support was real ­ not just nominal. She promised 6400 foot soldiers and 1000 cavalry and a subsidy of about 600,000 florins a year. We heard in the episode on Tudor poets how Sir Philip Sidney died in the Spanish Netherlands fighting the Spanish.

Add to this the fact that for years Elizabeth had not just turned a blind eye, but had actually encouraged the piracy against Spanish ships coming back from the New world loaded with gold and silver. At the time, Spain was the largest empire in the world, and the exchequer in Madrid was filling up with gold mined in South America. English pirates ­ namely Francis Drake among them ­ were attacking the ships and filling up Elizabeth’s own coffers with this pirated money.

Philip had been annoyed by that for some time, but it was when England finally seriously started sending troops to fight him in the Netherlands that he considered it an act of war.

Then, in 1587, Mary Queen of Scots was killed. Philip hadn’t been thrilled with the idea of Mary being the Queen of England early on because of her ties to France. Her mother was French, and she had been the Queen of France before her husband died and she returned to Scotland.

But, he was supportive of her simply because she was a Catholic, and his devotion to the pope was stronger than his suspicion of Mary. And he wrote that her accession would be agreeable to all Christians and would be contested by none. She had also hinted that Philip would be her heir if she was made Queen. So her execution ended his dreams of returning England to Catholicism.

So he started brooding on 3 decades worth of insults. The Armada was his answer.

English advisors knew something was up almost immediately. In fact, Philip didn’t really want it to be a secret ­ he wanted England to know he was coming, for the Catholics to get ready to fight, and for the Protestants to be fearful. In 1587 England was beginning to prepare, but it was really a hodgepodge of preparation.

Elizabeth famously didn’t want to spend money on defense and weapons or supplies, and she had no standing army ­ just a garrison in the North on the border with Scotland, and one in Dover. She did not have well trained soldiers. It was thought the Dorset troops were more likely to fight each other than the Spanish, for example. No, England was not well prepared for this threat.

Her advisors wanted to strike first, and attack the Spanish when they would least expect it. Walsingham, in particular, was hawkish. As was Francis Drake. Elizabeth gave the Ok for a raid, and soon Drake was on his way to the Iberian Peninsula. Drake managed to raid the port of Cadiz where a group of supply ships were gathering, which was incredibly daring. He gathered intelligence, took hostages, raided towns all along the coast, and generally pissed off the Spanish.

They called the raid The King of Spain’s Beard. And a reminder that if you sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get a more complete overview of that next week when I send out the video of my trip there. Essentially, it bought England another year to prepare for the invasion, a greater understanding of the threat they were facing, and much more intelligence on how to defend against it.

Philip, of course, was even angrier and more ready to invade and fight. He brushed off the raid, and moved ahead with his preparations. And an armada sailed the next year, planning to meet with the Spanish army in the Netherlands and launch a huge invasion of England with both armies combined.

So let’s leave it there for this week… a fleet of 125 ships. 60,000 soldiers. 7000 sailors. A crescent shape line that exteded for over 2 miles. Dedicated to the eradication of Elizabeth, Protestants, and even England. Not a pleasant thought if you were living on the south coast anywhere.

So, for the book recommendation which is, The Spanish Armada by Robert Hutchinson. I’ll put a link up on the site and facebook page, which again is facebook.com/englandcast, where you can again contact me, send me show ideas, or just say nice things. And again, you can get all the book recommendations, show notes, sign up for the mailing list, etc at https://www.englandcast.com.​

I’ve also started doing regular quick segments on different aspects of Tudor history on youtube, called the Tudor Minute. There’s a link on the site and facebook page. Next time, I’ll be talking to you about the actual battle itself, and how (spoiler alert!) england beat back this invasion.

Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!