The late 16th century saw Spain and their dominions at the strongest position that would hold in recorded history. Their empire had expanded throughout the known and new worlds, being boosted by the gold and silver from their new American possessions. Ferdinand and Isabella had united the Spanish kingdom in the late 1400s, and successive monarchs had expanded their power-base, including the reign of Charles V (1516-1556) and then that of his son Philip II (1556-1598). During the later half of the 16th Century Philip had engulfed the impressive Portuguese empire, thereby beefing up Spain as the world’s superpower; whilst they held land across Europe including in Italy and the Low Countries.

By comparison, England during this period was distinctly second-rate. Their later exploits in creating a British Empire lay in the distant future, and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) the English kingdom could merely react to unfolding European events rather than dictate the tempo. Therefore, by the reign of Philip II they were mere underdogs to the Spanish titan. So, it must be asked, why did Elizabeth and the English want war with such a power?

There are a few key factors:

  • Firstly, religion played a vital role, particularly as Spain was leading the charge of Catholicism against the heathen Protestants. Elizabethan England was placed in opposition to Rome, and Elizabeth was hailed by many as the dominant leader of Protestant Europe (whether or not she wanted such a tag). As such, the rebellious Protestant Netherlands sought help from Elizabeth in their war against their Catholic Spanish rulers.
  • Secondly, as well as the religious dimension, the position in the Netherlands also highlighted a basic tenant of English foreign policy for centuries: that no continental power should dominate the lowlands areas due to its proximity to English shores (only twenty miles away from England in some places!). Such a central policy would lead to British involvement against Louis XIV in the early 18th Century, as well as added to the mix in reasons for getting involved against Germany in the First World War.
  • Thirdly, to add to the mix is the conflict in the expansion of empire within the New World, particularly in the shape of Elizabeth’s seadogs plundering Spanish ships laden with treasure. Drake became known as a Spanish pest, particularly in the singeing of Philip’s beard! All of this led to a breakdown in relations by 1585.

Sanchez Coello, Alonso, c.1531-1588; Philip II of Spain (1527-1598)

In the early years of Elizabeth’s reign the situation between England and Spain was frosty but peaceful. However, this all changed come the end of the 1560s when Elizabeth’s opposed position to the Catholic Reformation was exposed; the excommunication from the Pope in 1570 sealed her fate as a heretic. From that point onward tensions between the two countries began to escalate, with Elizabeth able to utilise her “marriage-card” to prospective French princes to ward off the danger of Spanish aggression (for the Spanish were not foolish enough to engage in a two-front war… yes, pay attention Napoleon and Adolf). However, by the 1580s this card had been well and truly spent, with Elizabeth beyond child bearing age and no longer such an attractive match to younger candidates. In 1584 the unthinkable happened: the Spanish and the French allied with the Treaty of Joinville. This exposed Elizabeth’s lonely position.

Desperate for friends, the natural alliance proved to be with the Dutch rebels: they shared a common religion, common goals (in the cloth trade), and a common enemy: the Spanish. The 1585 Treaty of Nonsuch was an unofficial declaration of war, with the respective ambassadors recalled and the relationship truly severed. Philip’s response was to create the greatest naval force on the planet in order to invade England and dispose of Elizabeth once and for all.


1588 was the key date in this war between the two countries, when the Spanish Armada sailed into English waters and when Drake finished his game of bowls before taking the fight to the enemy (of course, the story of the playing of bowls has been disputed ever since, but it adds a nice touch to the narrative). Although the Elizabethan seadogs played their part, many historians have now highlighted the impact of the terrible English weather on forcing the Spanish ships into choppy waters. Harassed and confused, the Spanish ships were unable to meet up with a waiting invasion army in the Netherlands and the ending result was the complete failure and humiliation of the Armada.

The Spanish attempted yet another armada, but they would never come as close to victory as in 1588. During the 1590s both countries reaped havoc on a small scale on opposing sea-side towns, with poor Cornwall playing host to vengeful Spanish sailors (such as in Mousehole). But each “invasion” was of no direct threat to bringing down either government, and took the form of mere raids that caused nothing more than regional panic. However, the war dragged onward with no clear conclusion in sight; neither Queen Elizabeth nor King Philip could stomach a peace agreement.

It would take the deaths of Philip II and Elizabeth I before the Spanish and English could come to agreement. On the death of Elizabeth came a new king – James I – who sought out fresh relations with the Spanish. Peace was reached in 1604, with the two nations attempting to put the past behind them. Of course, this being the early modern period, we would not be too far away from another conflict between both states. However, the relationship of England being the underdog would not suffice into the 17th and 18th centuries. The Spanish had peaked and a scare such as that as 1588 would never happen again.