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Old December 15th, 2012, 08:10 AM   #1
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The Armada Campaign - Military Aspects

There have been a number of Elizabethan topics recently, including the Spanish capacity to subdue England in 1588. Many opinions have been shared, as always, but let's look at the military resources and the actual operational aspects of the campaign.

I. The military manpower theoretically available:

a. Spain: The Army of Flanders in April, 1588 - 63,455 professional veterans. This included 3,650 cavalry (mostly light horse). Also from 16 - 20,000 troops embarked on ships from Spain and Portugal, not all veterans.

b. England: Trained bands, April, 1588 - 48,127 spread across England and Wales; 4,716 cavalry. Also about 6,000 veterans in the Low Countries (2,000 were recalled by the Queen).

The numbers look more impressive than they actually were.

II. Actual available manpower:

a. Philip II (ever the optimist) assumed Parma would have 30,000 troops available to transport to England. In the event, because of financial difficulties, Parma had about 17,000 foot and about 500 horse available in summer, 1588.

The troops embarked with the Armada were about 16,000 of which 6,000 could be "immediately" disembarked. (This proved problematic as the shallow draft galleys Spain planned to use for amphibious operations along the coast were not able to make it across the stormy Bay of Biscay.)

b. The Queen, due to inadequate finances, could muster at Tilbury (north of the Thames between the Thames estuary and London) about 16,500 foot and 1,050 horse. More were en route, but 21,150 were ordered to return home due to lack of money to pay and provide for them. That was after the result of the actions at Calais and Gravelines. Of the 48,000 or so in Trained bands, no more than about 10,000 were mobilized.


Had Parma been able to land his entire force, he probably would have had 23,000 foot and 500 horse - as opposed to 37,650 f. and 1050 h. The disparity would be mitigated because of both professionalism and experience in the Spanish ranks.

I am not aware of numbers of guns available to either side, but the Spanish guns and men would have been disembarked from their ships. I have not seen artillery numbers for the English at Tilbury. (Both these governments were meticulous record keepers, so this information must be in the respective archives somewhere.) Any information here would be helpful.

c. Naval manpower with the two fleets, English seamen (including gunners) was 15,551; Spanish sailors + soldiers was 29,522, with gunners included in the soldiers embarked.

Sources: Geoffrey Parker (The Army of Flanders); John Tincey (The Armada Campaign), Paul Hammer (Elizabeth's Wars). Parker uses Spanish archives at Simancas and other official records along the route of the Spanish Road, as well as in the Spanish Netherlands. Tincey and Hammer use multiple English archives - H.M. State Papers, manuscripts at the British Library and other primary source papers.

Any comments or observations? Next let's look at the two fleets, and discuss the differences in ship types and tactics.

Fascinating stuff!

Last edited by pikeshot1600; December 15th, 2012 at 08:27 AM.
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Old December 15th, 2012, 08:28 AM   #2

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Parma had the same problems that besets all overseas invaders. Winning is not enough, he has to win big in order to subdue the English and takeover the entire country. The Spanish army arrived bent on occupation With the numbers available as outlined in the OP this will be no easy matter.
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Old December 15th, 2012, 08:39 AM   #3

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Aside from numbers, quality is also a factor of course... David Howarth in his own book mentions cannonbalks retrieved from the English Channel which seem to suggest poorly executed metalurgy on the part of the Spanish leading to ordnance which might well have broken up on firing or impact. Although given the tactics of the day, it might be debatable how much difference this would have made.

He also talks about a sealed letter which travelled with Medina and seems to show that Phillip himself, optimist though he might be, had clear doubts about the likelihood of success. I can find this and post some of it later.

I've heard it suggested that the difference in fleets has been exaggerated, that although the British had some race built galleons the fleet also contained many of the old 'floating castle' design. I'd welcome some comments on that.

It is indeed a fascinating topic with many of the ingredients for a great story. Not least the apparently callous treatment of the British sailors post-armada.
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Old December 15th, 2012, 08:51 AM   #4

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Another aspect to point out, is that the Italian Engineer, Federigo Giambelli (Who had fought against Duke of Parma at the siege of Antwerp) and he was fortifying the river Thames.

Also, aswell as Tilsbury, there was Gravesend, which was also heavily fortified. The following is an interesting passage on some of the English preperations:

Meantime the muster throughout the kingdom had brought together 130,000 men. True, the greater part of them were raw recruits without discipline and experience, and could not have stood for a moment before the veterans of Parma, had he landed; but they were instructed to lay waste the country before him, to harass his march day and night by hanging on his skirts, and obstructing his way; and as not a town would have surrendered without a violent struggle, the event, with the dogged courage and perseverance of an English population, could only have been one of destruction to the invaders.

This great but irregular force was dispersed in a number of camps on the east, west, and southern coasts. At Milford Haven were stationed 2,200 horse; 5,000 men of Cornwall and Devon defended Plymouth; the men of Dorset and Wiltshire garrisoned Portland; the Isle of Wight swarmed with soldiers, and was fortified at all points.

The banks of the Thames were fortified under the direction of a celebrated Italian engineer, Federico Giambelli, who had deserted from the Spaniards. Gravesend was not only fortified, but was defended by a vast assemblage of boats, and had a bridge of them, which at once cut off the passage of the river, and opened a constant passage for troops betwixt Essex and Kent.

At Tilbury, opposite to Gravesend, there was a camp of 22,000 foot and 2,000 horse, under the command of the Earl of Leicester, and Lord Hunsdon defended the capital with an. army of 28,000 men, supported by 10,000 Londoners.

Source: Chapter XVI, The Reign of Elizabeth. (Continued) p.7
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Old December 15th, 2012, 09:08 AM   #5

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Cheers Mangekyou, excellent information . I cant help but feel that his most Carholic Majesty was puttting just a little too much faith in God, instead of making sure that Parma had enough men for the job. IMHO the Empresa was doomed from the start.
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Old December 15th, 2012, 09:45 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by funakison View Post
Cheers Mangekyou, excellent information . I cant help but feel that his most Carholic Majesty was puttting just a little too much faith in God, instead of making sure that Parma had enough men for the job. IMHO the Empresa was doomed from the start.
Prominent Spaniards themselves understood the effects (if not in the exact words) of strategic overstretch. The later commander of the unsuccessful "Armadas" of 1596 and 1597 wrote to the King that

"No power exists that can maintain continuous wars, and even for the geatest monarch it is important to conclude wars rapidly." - Don Martin de Padilla.

To the King's successor, he wrote:

"...for reasons of economy, expeditions are undertaken with such small forces that they principally serve to irritate our enemies, rather than to punish them. The worst of it is that wars thus become chronic, and the expense and trouble resulting from long continued wars are endless."

One of Spain's principal ministers wrote:

"We flit so rapidly from one area to another, without making a major effort in one... I do not know why we eat so many snacks but never a real meal! I would like to join everything together, so that we could perhaps do something worthwhile - either in Ireland or in North Africa - but I fear that, as usual, we shall do both and thus only lose time, men, money and reputation." - Antonio Fernandez de Cordoba

Philip II saw God's hand in the repeated defeats of the Empresa. Had God willed its success, it would have succeeded. The Enterprise of England became a cancer that caused Spain's king to spread his monarchy's finite resources over important conflicts in the Netherlands, France and against England all at once.

In his earlier years, Philip and his commanders had applied adequate force to one major objective at a time - the Low Countries more than once, Portugal, the Azores. Trying to mount three major wars at once against the Dutch, the French Protestants and England - and control a world wide imperial presence proved to be too much.

So, grand strategy aside, let's discuss the fleets of the Armada Campaign.

Last edited by pikeshot1600; December 15th, 2012 at 09:51 AM.
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Old December 15th, 2012, 10:04 AM   #7

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The Armada sailed on July 19th 1588. The fleet of 130 ships - including 22 fighting galleons - sailed in a crescent shape. This was not unusual as most fleets sailed in this shape as it offered the ships in that fleet the most protection. The larger but slower galleons were in the middle of the crescent and they were protected by faster but smaller boats surrounding them. Smaller ships known as zabras and pataches supplied the galleons. The Armada faced little opposition as it approached the coast of Cornwall on July 29th, 1588.
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Old December 15th, 2012, 10:24 AM   #8

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Originally Posted by pikeshot1600 View Post
Had Parma been able to land his entire force, he probably would have had 23,000 foot and 500 horse - as opposed to 37,650 f. and 1050 h. The disparity would be mitigated because of both professionalism and experience in the Spanish ranks.
History channel attitude right there - "oh, numbers don't matter!". Yes, they do. A lot. Especially in this case, where the Spaniards absolutely have to attack, and are surrounded by hostile territory. They have to force the Britishers to do battle, which is far from being a given, as pitched battles were rare and not liked by generals - especially not in the late 1500's. Add to that the fact that even if the English don't mobilize their trained bands into one army, it doesn't mean they can't take part in the war. They can defend their locales, frustrate Spanish logistics, recon and movement, and just be a royal pain in the ***.

I don't see how Parma could have feasibly staged a campaign of conquest with the force he had.
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Old December 15th, 2012, 10:34 AM   #9

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In my opinion, the main source of missinformation and confusion regarding the Armada campaign is the lack of original sources on the subject from the English side. Or to be more precise, the lack of published original sources: where are the inventory of the English Navy?, the reports on casualties and damage on ships? (I know they exist), Accounts of main characters involved?
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Old December 15th, 2012, 11:19 AM   #10
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The fleets of the Armada Campaign:

Spain's fleet assembled for the 1588 Armada consisted of 128 ships (some sources differ). From lists in John Tincey's small monograph, it shows that the fleet was organized in six "armadas" of warships, one of transports and victualing ships, one of smaller, swift coastal vessels, and two four-ship flotillas of shallow draft warships for amphibious operations.

Each armada of galleons had from 10-12 ships (one had 14) and from 1-4 dispatch vessels (pataches or zabras). Listing by name is tedious, so here are the various armadas by strength:

Armada of Portugal: 10 galleons; two zabras

Armada of Biscay: 10 galleons; four pataches.

Armada of Castile: 14 galleons; two pataches.

Armada of Andalusia: 10 galleons; one patax (singular).

Armada of Guipuzcoa: 10 galleons; two pataches.

Armada of Levantine ships: 10 ships (it seems Mediterranean types; not sure).

Armada of Hulks: 23 ships of all sizes (transports and cargo).

Small vessels - 22 pataches and zabras (for coastal operations; virtually all under 180 T).

Galleasses of Naples: 4 Oared ships of 50 guns (one or more made it across open sea).

Galleys: 4 Oared ships for amphibious operations (evidently none could make it across the Bay of Biscay).

The numbers look impressive. I do not know the ages or condition of the Spanish vessels. On the whole, they carried fewer guns than the English ships.

English iron ore quality was better, and casting techniques were somewhat in advance of the Spanish. Some of the Spanish guns were little different (if at all) from field pieces or smaller siege weapons. A critical issue when it did come to a close range exchange of naval gunfire, was that the Spanish ships carried much less shot than the English ships. Few of the Spanish warships had been designed as purpose-built naval vessels, and what they could carry reflected their "cargo ship split personality."


The Royal Navy: Elizabeth had personal control of 34 ships.

17 were "race built" galleons; seven built keel-up and 10 rebuilt from suitable hulls.

4 were older large ships.

There was one galley, and the rest were fast pinnaces for miscellaneous duties and communication (dispatches).

There were 82 armed merchant ships, evidently in three squadrons, Francis Drake commanding one; Lord Howard another. I can't place Martin Frobisher in the mix, and I believe Hawkins was in command of the RN at sea. (Any helpful comments?)

In addition, there were 43 coastal vessels for inshore work, 15 "victuallers," and 23 voluntary ships, whatever they were.

Total ships per J. Tincey: 197.

The disparity in heavy guns (mostly culverins - 17lbr. and demi-culverins - 10 lbr.) was not that great throughout the fleets. Spain's ships carried 212 guns of these weights, and the English having 245 in the first engagements. English gunners, as sailors, tended to be more efficient than their Spanish soldier counterparts. The English guns were also easier to serve and to reload.

So - manpower and ships. Next let's discuss the naval tactics. Maybe its best to do one post for each fleet, and then discuss.

Last edited by pikeshot1600; December 15th, 2012 at 11:56 AM.
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