The Tudor Society

May 28 – The Spanish Armada sets sail

On this day in Tudor history, 28th May 1588, the Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon in Portugal bound for the Spanish Netherlands.

With the Pope's blessing, King Philip II was going to invade England and depose the heretic, Queen Elizabeth I. The stop at the Netherlands was simply to pick up the Spanish forces there.

What happened next and why did the Spanish Armada fail?

Find out all about the Spanish Armada and how England was victorious in today's talk.

Book recommendation - Garrett Mattingly’s “The Defeat of the Spanish Armada”.

You can also read all about the Spanish Armada in our Tudor Society ebook - click here to browse our ebooks.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 28th May 1582, Roman Catholic priests Thomas Forde, John Shert and Robert Johnson suffered full traitors' deaths at Tyburn for their alleged implication in the Rome and Reims Plot. However, many believe that this plot wasn't actually real. Find out more in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1509 – Death of Edward Courtenay, 1st Earl of Devon. He was buried at Tiverton.
  • 1535 – Birth of Sir Thomas North, translator, in London.
  • 1611 – Funeral of Thomas Sutton, founder of the London Charterhouse.


On this day in Tudor history, 28th May 1588, the Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon in Portugal bound for the Spanish Netherlands.

King Philip II of Spain had set about planning his “Enterprise of England”, an invasion of England to depose Queen Elizabeth I, in 1587 following the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in the February. His plan was to send a huge fleet, or armada, from Spain to the Netherlands, where he had an army under the control of the Governor of the Netherlands, the Duke or Parma. The fleet would pick up the army and then sail to invade England.

However, Philip’s plan had to be postponed following Sir Francis Drake’s attack on the fleet in the harbour of Cádiz in southern Spain in April 1587. Drake managed to capture or destroy thirty ships and their supplies. This postponement gave Elizabeth I time to get her navy organised under the control of Lord Admiral Baron Howard of Effingham and Sir Francis Drake.

On 25th April 1588, the Spanish Armada’s banner, which displayed images of the Virgin Mary and Crucified Christ either side of the arms of Spain and with a Latin motto which translated to “Arise, O Lord, and vindicate thy cause”, was blessed in a special ceremony at Lisbon Cathedral. It was then carried out to the fleet and papal crusader absolution was given to the soldiers and sailors. It was seen as a holy mission against heresy. Garret Mattingly, in The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, explains how all the sailors and soldiers went to confession before they sailed and were warned against bad behaviour such as blasphemous swearing. The ships were also searched to make sure that no women were on board.

Then, on this day in 1588, the fleet of 130 ships left Lisbon harbour for their journey to the Spanish Netherlands. Victorian historian Agnes Strickland wrote that the fleet carried ““19,290 soldiers, 8350 mariners, 2080 galley slaves, besides a numerous company of priests to stir up religious fervour in the host.” In the Netherlands, 30,000 foot soldiers and 1800 horses awaited them.

In June, the fleet put in at A Coruña in north-west Spain for provisions and water, but a storm scattered some of the ships and around 6,000 men were lost. There was damage to some of the remaining ships and many of the men were suffering with dysentery and scurvy. They set off once again on 12th July and were spotted by the English just off The Lizard in Cornwall on 19th July 1588. The English fleet set sail on 21st July 1588 and there was a skirmish which saw the Armada having to abandon two of its ships. An inconclusive battle took place between the two fleets on 23rd July, just off the Isle of Portland, and on 25th July 1588, the Battle of the Isle of Wight took place. The Spaniards had planned on taking the island to use it as a base to launch invasions, but a five hour battle put a stop to their plans and the Armada was forced to carry on to Calais.

On 28th July 1588, the English fleet sent eight hell-burners amongst the Spanish Armada anchored just off Calais. . Hell-burners were fire-ships, ships that were packed with wood and pitch and set alight. The high winds at Calais caused an inferno which resulted in complete chaos, and the Armada’s crescent formation was wrecked as galleons scattered in panic. The next day, the English fleet attacked the remaining Spanish Armada in a battle known as the Battle of Gravelines. England was victorious and Spain lost at least five ships and several others were severely damaged.

On 30th July, the wind changed and the remaining Spanish ships were forced northwards and scattered. Then, terrible storms caused further damage to the Armada. This wind that saw the end of Spanish hopes of invasion became known as the Protestant Wind, for it was believed that God had helped Protestant England drive off Catholic Spain – God blew and they were scattered, is the translation of the Latin motto inscribed on a special medal which was struck.

Although the Armada had been defeated, Queen Elizabeth I still expected an invasion from the Spanish Netherlands and so visited her troops at Tilbury Fort to give a rousing speech to raise morale, but by 20th August 1588, it became clear that England was safe for now, and a thanksgiving service was held at St Paul’s. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was commemorated in the famous Elizabeth I Armada portrait.

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May 28 – The Spanish Armada sets sail