Military Wiki
3rd Spanish Armada
Part of the Anglo-Spanish War
Chart of Falmouth.jpg
Falmouth at the time of invasion
Date18 October - 15th November 1597
LocationCornwall, Wales, English Channel

Spanish failure[1][2][3]

  • Storm scattered Armada[4][5]
  • Safe passage of English fleet[6][7]
  • English defeat Armada remnants[8][9]
Flag of New Spain.svg Spain England England
Commanders and leaders
Spain Philip II
Spain Juan del Águila
Spain Diego Brochero
Spain Martín de Padilla
Spain Carlos de Amésquita
Spain Pedro de Zubiaur
England Elizabeth I
England Charles Howard
England Charles Blount
England Walter Raleigh
England Robert Devereux
England Ferdinando Gorges
44 galleons
16 merchant galleons
52 hulks
24 small craft[10][11][12]
9,634 soldiers
4,000 sailors[11]
140 ships[13]
13,000[14]- 14,000 men[15]
Fleet:12 ships rising to 120 ships (23rd October)[16]
Troops: 500 (October) rising to 8,000 (November)[17]
Casualties and losses
6 ships captured,
400 captured[9][16]
22 ships sunk or destroyed
1,000 dead[15]
28 ships,[18]
1,500 killed or captured[8][16]
1 bark sunk[19]

The 3rd Spanish Armada also known as the Spanish Armada of 1597 was a major naval event that took place between October and November 1597 as part of the Anglo–Spanish War.[20][21] The armada which was the third attempt by Spain to invade or raid the British Isles during the war was ordered by King Philip II of Spain in revenge for the attack on Cadiz by English forces the year previously, and also the failure of the 2nd Spanish Armada months later due to storms.[22] The Armada was executed by the Adelantado; Martín de Padilla who was hoping to intercept and destroy the returning English fleet under Robert Devereux the 2nd Earl of Essex from the failed Azores expedition.[4][23] When this was achieved the armada would go on to capture either the important port of Falmouth or Milford Haven and use those places as a base for invasion.[24]

Whilst the Spanish arrived in the English channel however they were dispersed by a storm which scattered their fleet.[25] Unlike the Spanish armada in 1588 the storm did not inflict significant damage although many of the smaller ships were lost.[22] As a result, some ships did push on, and troops were even landed on the English and Welsh coasts.[26] In addition the English fleet, which had also been scattered by the same storm unaware that the Spanish had come to intercept them arrived safely in England with loss of only one ship.[6][21]

With the rest of the Armada scattered and having failed to intercept any major English ship Padilla finally ordered a retreat to Spain.[27][28] A number of Spanish ships were captured in action by returning English ships from which valuable information was given about the Armada.[28][29] Panic in England then ensued partly because the English fleet had been out to sea with the English coast virtually undefended.[15] This further depleted the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex even though initially he was put in charge of the fleet to face the Spanish threat.[10] Instead Charles Howard, the 1st Earl of Nottingham took charge of and immediately sent the English fleet out to hunt the Spanish who by this stage had largely made it back to port.[30] In the end the invasion attempt ended in defeat.[2][31] Any remaining Spanish ships that still hugged the English and Welsh coastline were rounded up and captured along with their soldiers and crew.[9][28] Philip took much of the blame for the failure by the Armada commanders particularly Padilla.[27][32] The Armada was the last of its kind that the Spanish would execute under Philip II before his death.[3]


The war with Spain and England had been going on for nearly twelve years and both sides had achieved little in their goals.[33] The result of the intervention of Philip II in the religious war in France in support of the Catholic League, meant that the Spanish had established coastal garrisons along the French and Flemish coast by the 1580s.[34] These bases had a huge strategic value because they allowed England to be threatened by the Spanish fleet and troops.[33] Meanwhile, England also intervened in France, but in support of King Henry IV of France, by the Treaty of Greenwich.[35] The Spaniards had captured Calais in 1596 which meant that an invasion of England could be more achievable.[36] As a result, after desperate French demands to keep her from signing peace with Spain, the English signed the Triple Alliance with the Dutch republic and France.[37] England had sent an armada the next year under the Earl of Essex and Charles Howard to Cadiz which was captured and sacked.[38] An angered Philip soon after took into consideration the defence of the peninsula.[11]

In a wave of revenge after the defeat at Cadiz, Philip II sent out orders for a large armada to do the same to England by way of taking the French port of Brest.[39] Just after they set off however the fleet was obliterated in autumn storms off Cape Finisterre causing severe losses in ships (including a few galleons known as the Apostles), men, supplies and money.[40] The cost was ruinous; the two ships carrying the pay-chests disappeared below the waves.[22] The Spanish King not to be disheartened ordered another invasion despite the Cortes Generales claiming funds would not be available in time.[41] As a result, the Cortes was asked to be dissolved by Philip and a financial crisis loomed. The Cadiz defeat, the failure of the Armada as well as the war in France and the Netherlands that year meant that Philip's nation went into bankruptcy; the third of his reign.[23] Adding to the kings and Spain's woes, a poor harvest began to take effect in Spain; thousands were affected.[41] This caused many to protest as they were unable to pay their taxes.[42] The formation of the triple alliance meant that grain from abroad was harder to obtain.[41] Despite this, the fleet albeit with great difficulty was mustered and men were pressed into service across the empire.[41] There was a heavy reliance on the Italian holdings to make up the losses from the previous year's failed armada as well as funds and supplies.[23][43]

The Armada

Juan del Aguila - Field master general of the Armada

Pedro Lopez de Soto, the Secretary of the Adelantado, of Castile, was to command the fleet.[44] The whole force, according to Lopez de Soto's estimate was huge in terms of men ship and supplies.[41] The primary original objective was Ireland to support the rise of the rebels under the Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone but the senior Spanish commanders wanted to attack England instead.[45] The Spanish King however intervened and ordered an attack on Brest to divert troops from the garrison in the Low Countries.[46] When news came however that the English had sailed in force again under Essex, and were first on the coasts of the Peninsula, and then cruising round the Azores to capture the treasure fleets, there was shock at the Spanish court.[41] This news would put difficulties which Philip's system had created for himself.[18] The King was swept away by a passion for revenge so much so he resolved to carry out his objective as swiftly as possible even at the expense of preparation.[22][44]

At Coruña the fleet was assembled under the command of Juan del Aguila as field master general, and Martín de Padilla the Adelantado, commander of the invading troops.[12] The plan had now switched from Ireland with the objective of the Port of Falmouth in Cornwall.[46] The Spanish were to hold the town and port and force Elizabeth into a peace or hoping to attract the Catholic followers and rise up in support.[21] It was estimated that this would be far larger than that of the 1588 invasion attempt.[44] The troopships were to take Falmouth, while the warships would also intercept and destroy Essex's returning fleet from the Azores.[47] The other target as a failsafe as well as a strategic diversion was Milford Haven in Wales, a good landing ground from which Henry VII had landed his men to defeat King Richard III in 1485.[48] A Spanish observer had noted that Milford contained many Catholics who were hostile to the English.[49] The true intentions of the Armada however were confusing to the captains and officers, as they didn't really know whether this was an invasion, raid or naval interception.[44] Only the high command knew for fear of spies & deserters in the fleet as they were taking no chances and all would only be revealed as they approached the English channel.[11]

Location of Milford Haven in Wales

The taking and holding of Falmouth or Milford was a strategy the Spanish would use to hold a piece of England in retaliation for the seizure of Cadiz.[12] In turn this would be used as bargaining chip in which English troops would withdraw from the continent both in France and the United provinces.[44] If not then the captured places would also be used as a forward base for the harassment of English and Dutch trade.[21][23]

In all 108 ships were at La Coruna, most others would join after departing from other ports.[21] By October 1 the fleet consisted of 136 ships of 34,080 tons,[12][32] of these were 44 royal galleons,[10] of an aggregate tonnage of 12,686 tons; 16 merchantmen, of 5880 tons, 52 German and Flemish hulks for stores, of 15,514 tons, and 24 caravels, pinnaces and barks.[10] 8,634 soldiers, 4,000 sailors, a total of 12,634 men and 300 horses.[11][18] In this squadron of 32 Andalusia troopships included Carlos de Amésquita who had raided Cornwall two years earlier.[12] These carried the elite Spanish military units known as tercios, many were from the Spanish domains in Italy such as Naples and Lombardy and had rarely been beaten in battle.[23]

The Spanish Armada of 1597, as incomplete as it was, put to sea from Corunna on the 18th October; but with a military force very different from that foreshadowed by Lopez de Soto's estimate.[12]


The Armada left Coruña and Ferrol after which a fleet under Admiral Diego Brochero was to meet another from Blavet in Brittany (under Spanish rule) with a thousand men under Pedro de Zubiaur.[23] Zubiaur joined them for a council of war which was made as to settle the final details of the landing.[50]

On October 17, 1597, after three days of sailing in good weather, the fleet arrived in the Channel, after advancing towards the English coast without opposition.[51] As they sailed on an English bark was intercepted and sunk, with what was left of the crew being taken prisoner.[19]


Spanish ships in a storm

Events changed otherwise, the weather turned; an easterly wind turned into a gale and for a few days the storm would continue.[7] This time however there were no catastrophic results of 1588 and the Spanish were more organised in ship to ship communication.[50]

At first, the Adelantado tried to ride out the storm in the hope that the weather would relent; but at dawn the next day, the winds only intensified.[50] For three days the storm blew, Spanish ship losses increased, the San Lucas ran aground off the Lizard casting away their horses and mules.[52] The galleon carrying Don Pedro Guevera - General of artillery, caught fire, blew up in a tremendous explosion and was never seen again.[50] Another large vessel with siege equipment and flammables (for burning English ships in Falmouth) also suffered a catastrophic explosion which took with her a chartered French ship full of soldiers.[52] Only one of the large galleons sank; the San Bartolemo when it was dashed on rocks near the Isles of Scilly.[16] In the San Pedro, Brochero had to drop out of the station to a Biscay port as the ship was so badly damaged, but put to sea again in a flyboat and rejoined the armada.[7] He attempted to rally them in one last effort to make a landing at Milford Haven, Waterford, Cork or Brest.[50] In the night of 25 October seeing that the currents were unrelenting he reluctantly ordered the remaining ships to start to part company and to scatter, each one thinking of their own safety.[51]

Interceptions and landings

One Spanish ship dismasted by the storm was captured off the Scilly isles by an English pinnace.[51] Even though it sunk on its way to Penzance, the prisoners including its captain, master and purser were brought in and sent to Falmouth. Here the English captain reported what he saw describing the Spanish fleet some thirty leagues off the Scilly isles.[51] In addition the Spanish prisoners had with them letters and plans on their rendezvous at Falmouth.[51] This was the first indication of the Armada off the Cornish shores and immediately the Privy council met.[7] The evidence from only one ship however was not enough - also the English could only send orders, pay and supplies to an English fleet that had not yet arrived.[16] The only ships in the area which included the Vanguard were immediately sent, and the Queen's cousin the Earl of Ormond was given command of all military forces in Ireland in case the Spanish ships decided on landfall there.[51] Elizabeth herself was told of the Spanish fleets presence on the 26th October two days after opening Parliament.[53]

The scattering had a huge effect on the Spanish fleet; several ships were swept up much further north of Cornwall to the Welsh coast.[9] The captains of the Spanish ships then rendezvoused here as instructed to do so.[52] Three Spanish ships came within the vicinity of Pembrokeshire and headed towards Milford Haven the secondary objective.[54] Off Caldey Island a Spanish treasure ship from Dunkirk had came ashore but disorder from the locals allowed the ship to escape.[54] In the Cleddau estuary the Spanish landed 400 elite soldiers on a beach and dug in waiting for reinforcements.[7] After a few days of waiting Welsh and English militia began to arrive in large numbers (although poorly armed) but the Spanish fleet was hopelessly dispersed.[16] Realizing their situation was not going to improve the soldiers retreated and embarked on their ships in the dark after barely being ashore for two days.[26][52]

One of the ships, a forty-ton caravel Nuestra Senora Buenviage which had been damaged in the storm attempted to flee but was boarded and captured by six Welsh boats and thus pillaged.[9] The cargo included gold and silver, and as a result a fight broke out amongst the pillagers in which one man was wounded.[54]

Panoramic of Sandy Haven beach near Milford Haven - a few Spanish ships ended up around here

There were reported rumours of landings by the Spanish near Falmouth and in the creeks of Helford River.[7][55] The Spanish however did not stay long and thus retreated for want of relief, reinforcements as well as the disorder of their fleet.[7]

English preparations

The rumours caused confusion and as a result Plymouth and the surrounding area were put on alert.[32] Sir Ferdinand Gorges the Governor of the Fort at Plymouth put a 500-man guard on the town and a pinnace was sent out to feedback sightings of the Spanish fleet.[45] Gorges was fed reports of the landings in Cornwall and Wales and sightings of Spanish ships and immediately sent the information to parliament and the Queen in London in the quickest possible time.[50] As a result, an excited panic set in motion across much for England.[26] Troops were being recalled from Amiens in France (it had recently been captured by the Anglo French force the previous month) and mobilization of troops in the West Country.[7] Charles Blount, the 8th Baron Mountjoy was put in command of the English land forces while the few galleons from Chatham were sent to the Cornish and Devon coasts.[51] Although dispersed by a storm reached they Falmouth a few days later, but on arrival had not seen any Spanish ships.[45]

At the same time some of the Spanish ships were still a presence off the coast of England; milling about in confusion without being able to make any harbour.[7] Eventually with a wind astern, the order was given by Brochero to head back to Spain and they sailed back in disorder to Corunna.[48]

English fleet arrives

The Earl of Essex

On the 23rd the day after the Spanish had ordered a dispersal, leading elements of the English fleet had started to return to Falmouth, Plymouth and Dartmouth but amazingly had completely missed the retreating Spanish fleet.[16] At one point both fleets English and Spanish were on converging lines with one another.[25] Essex on arrival soon learned from Mountjoy of the situation and both were surprised as each other as to how the English fleet had missed the Spanish.[7] Essex immediately wrote letter to letter to parliament and the Queen in order to salvage the situation.[51] Initially he was invested by the Queen with full powers sent down to him; the channel squadron was ordered to join his fag.[45] The government soon after were impressed by his actions and understandings of the intentions of the Spanish fleet; the capture of Falmouth or Milford Haven or the interception of the English fleet from the Azores.[50] However soon after in one spirited letter by the Queen he was given a back hand by her for his failings in the Azores and the addition of England having been left unguarded.[45] Essex immediately went to Court to explain his actions but was to be met by an icy disapproval from the Queen after which he went home to Wanstead to nurse his misery.[7] Howard of Effingham in Essex's absence were given the command of the fleet to make sure the threat was alleviated.[16][45]

A few days later the last of the English had arrived which included Vice Admiral of the fleet Sir Walter Raleigh in the galleon Warspite under commander Sir Arthur Gorges who was swept up round to St Ives.[56] Warspite was heading into the port for repairs but soon sighted a Spanish bark and a pinnace.[9] Gorges intercepted them and after a very brief action captured them both along with the soldiers and crew and then took the prizes into St Ives.[16] Juan Triego the captain of the pinnace was interrogated by Gorges and Raleigh; he was forced to give away Spanish plans and dispositions.[57] They also learnt that the Spanish had previously gathered intelligence on the English coast a year before.[57] The captain of the Bark, Perez also confirmed the same information.[7] All the other prisoner officers and captains both from St Ives and Milford Haven were interrogated.[9] Detailed information of the strength and organisation of the fleet was obtained, and its formidable size for the first time was clearly understood.[58] The Spanish fleet had come as close as ten leagues from the The Lizard, although the danger at this time was still real.[7] Reports from returning English ships from the Azores voyage had seen Spanish ships albeit at long range.[16]


Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham

Raleigh having been made Lieutenant General went overland from St Ives and joined Howard in Plymouth.[30] They hurriedly put to sea a small fleet (many of the crew were exhausted from the Azores cruise) to pursue the Spanish.[56] Mountjoy took command on land organising the troops and militia of Plymouth and the surrounding area, and would soon be reinforced by troops from the Low Countries.[7] By the time the English had put to sea the lead elements of the Spanish had already arrived safely at La Coruna although the English knew nothing of this. The English scouted as far as the Bay of Biscay even heading to Western French ports for any evidence of Spanish arrivals.[45]

On the 30th a warship under the command of Captain Bowden from Howard's fleet had intercepted and captured a ship from the Spanish fleet off Cape Finisterre.[59] The prize was a flyboat carrying an army captain and 40 soldiers besides sailors, and Bowden had boarded and taken her with a crew of only 28 men and boys.[30] The captain and officers were again interrogated and the same evidence of the Spanish invasion was given, but the news this time was that the captain had only seen one of his consorts, heading some 30 leagues to the coast of Spain.[7][16] Further evidence of the Spanish retreat was given by Sir George Carew in the Adventure who after a storm had driven his squadron further south, saw and immediately pursued eleven ships bearing the flag of Castile hastening back home to Spain.[60] The Spanish ships were too far ahead to be intercepted however so Carew joined Howard with the main fleet to give the news.[9] These two reports meant that the invasion was effectively over; Howard and Raleigh sent the fleet back to Plymouth to report the news to Parliament and court.[45]


The only Spanish ship in the area left from the Armada; the 120 ton Bear of Amsterdam had not seen any of her fellow cohorts.[61] Poor navigation meant that she had missed Milford Haven and landed as far North at Aberdyfi via the Dyfi Estuary on the 26th October.[29] They landed men ashore but were ambushed by the Merionethshire Militia losing two killed and four captured and retreated back to their ship.[54] The Bear was unable to leave for ten days because of a lack of wind but at the same time could not be boarded by the militia as there was no suitable boats.[29] An attempt to burn the ship was thwarted by the wind and the Bear of Amsterdam eventually left.[54] She was driven around the Cornish peninsula & swept up the channel by an easterly gale suffering some damage.[9] Hoping to see the Spanish already at Falmouth, the ship was captured not far off from there on 10 November by a waiting English squadron.[62] She was led into Dartmouth with 70 Spaniards taken prisoner, and this being the last ship from the Armada to be captured.[9][62]


By the middle of November it was clear that the Spanish Armada invasion had obviously failed and some floating remains of Spanish ships were coming ashore on the English coast.[7] The fleet, militias and troops were kept on alert but it was realized that the danger had passed and were thus disbanded for winter quarters.[63] Troops that had arrived from the continent either returned to Holland or France once the situation had abated.[15]

Overall seven ships[8] and around 15 other vessels were sunk; six Spanish ships in total from the armada were captured by the English all over the South West of England & West Wales.[52] Only one large galleon was lost, while a merchant hulk was captured by the French in which its 300 crew were imprisoned.[45] In all between 1,500 and 2,000 troops, sailors and civilians were lost, captured or were sick to disease.[9][16] A muster on 21 November put the number of ships at La Coruna at 108 vessels with many in need of repairs, while the entire fleet required new provisions, especially victuals.[47] With these losses, the failure of the campaign ended any hope of making an attack for the remainder of the year.[63] In addition the core of the English Catholics did not rise up in rebellion even when the Spanish fleet offshore was known to them, in fact many had even spoken out in support of fighting them.[45] King Philip according to the Spanish commanders had more trust in God than in preparation; Padilla was so angered at the lack of preparation that he said to the Spanish King:[4]

If your majesty decides on an attempt on England, take care to make preparations in good quantity and in good time and if not then it is better to make peace.

— Martín de Padilla to the King[18][23]

Philip II of Spain

Elizabeth I of England

The Spanish king was distraught by the news and he knew there was no possibility a third armada could be attempted.[14] He afterwards fell ill, went into a palsy and shut himself away in his palace.[52] Bonfires and processions all over Spain were lit in the hope of his health returning.[52] Before he had taken ill, Philip had decided that he only wanted peace.[40] His health did not improve and he resultingly died the following year.[64]

For the English and in particular Queen Elizabeth it was more about luck as to how England had been saved.[40] However she was displeased with Essex for the fact that the Azores expedition was a failure as well as leaving England's coastline defenceless.[7] The English had obtained vital information from the captured Spanish ships and prisoners.[52] They were able to learn what was happening; the objectives and overall strategy of the Spanish armada as a whole within a few days, whilst the ships were off the English and Welsh coasts.[16][29] Howard on his return was rewarded soon after by the Queen and was created Earl of Nottingham.[65]

Lessons were learned however, in particular at Falmouth, where Mountjoy's consultant military engineer Paul Ivey was responsible for strengthening St Mawes and Pendennis.[64] It was put into immediate effect - information from prisoners claimed that an invasion would be attempted the following summer but only if the taking of Falmouth or Milford had succeeded.[66] This was confirmed by an English spy in Spain who commented on the Spanish confusion and misfortune in the aftermath but bragged about what they would do next Spring.[8] Plymouth and Milford Haven's defences were also improved as well as militia units trained in the art of war.[64] In all two companies of English foot soldiers from the Low countries had been in place in Cornwall, English troops from France on standby returned there to fight with Henry IV in Brittany at the closing of the Franco-Spanish war before the Peace of Vervins was signed.[67]

The Spanish would never again try a large naval armada directed at England.[7] The cost had almost been ruinous to Spain and nearly bankrupted the country's finance again.[14] It was not as bad as the previous years failure however since gold and silver bullion was still arriving in numbers from the Americas.[4] The insurmountable debt rose and soon after the campaign there was a further arrangement to clear it.[23]

The failure of the Armada effectively ceded the naval initiative to England who were still able to launch expeditions to Spain without much hindrance.[3] For the first time in English naval history, effective offshore blockades were launched with expeditions such as one led by William Monson and Richard Leveson most notably off Sesimbra in 1602.[68] They could also defend the Channel when some months later a Spanish fleet of Galleys was defeated by an Anglo Dutch force.[18] It was only until peace was settled that Spain could spare any harm on its colonies and its merchant ships from England's seas dogs.[27][69]

The new King Philip III in 1598 would be more cautious, and under the advisement of the Don Duke of Lerma would try one more attempt.[70] This time at Ireland in 1601 in support of Irish clans under Hugh O'Neill against English rule.[71] This time the Armada succeeded in landing a much smaller force under Juan del Águila and Pedro de Zubiaur, after a severe storm again nearly put paid to the operation.[70] This venture too however ended in disaster when the entire Spanish force capitulated after their defeat at the Battle of Kinsale.[72]


  • The events are the plot of the historical novel, The Grove of Eagles by Winston Graham


  1. Wilson p 162
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