England And The Spanish Armada

The Necessary Quarrel
McDermott, James
Date published: 
February 2005

The Anglo-Spanish War of 1585–1603 was, to most contemporary Englishmen, a conflict for the soul of the nation. To their descendants, the Armada campaign of 1588, the most dramatic phase of the struggle, represented a watershed in European history comparable to Waterloo, the Marne or Dunkirk. Like those battles, its outcome both preserved English freedoms and halted the momentum of an ambitious and alien empire.

Yet the victorious nation had contributed much to the conflict. This book examines the process by which the Spaniard, a long-term ally and friend, became in English eyes the epitome of human depravity, and how resistance to his imagined goals helped shaped an emerging sense of nationhood. Moulded by envy, antipathy and growing anxiety in the face of an enemy they had done much to create, the English bore a great deal of the responsibility for inciting a conflict that was by no means inevitable, and which Elizabeth I and Philip II would certainly have avoided had they not been effectively imprisoned by circumstance.
The Armada campaign pitted Europe’s mightiest military power against Christendom’s most powerful navy in a battle for different ideals of civilization. Both protagonists expected the clash to be decisive; neither, as it soon became apparent, knew how to fight a battle whose scale and character were beyond the experience of anyone in the two fleets. What ensued was not the heroic encounter of legend, but an inconclusive affair, redeemed – for England – by atrocious weather and poor Spanish understanding of the coastlines of western Scotland and Ireland.

James McDermott is the author of Martin Frobisher: Elizabethan Privateer (2001), published by Yale University Press.