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The Early Modern Period

16th - 18th century


The smooth transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is conventionally fixed on such events as the Reformation and the discovery of the "New World," which brought about the emergence of a new image of man and his world. Humanism, which spread out of Italy, also made an essential contribution to this with its promotion of a critical awareness of Christianity and the Church. The Reformation eventually broke the all-embracing power of the Church. After the Thirty Years' War, the concept of a universal empire was also nullified. The era of the nation-state began, bringing with it the desire to build up political and economic power far beyond Europe. The Americas, Africa, and Asia provided regions of expansion for the Europeans.

Proportions of the Human Figure by Leonardo da Vinci (drawing, ca. 1490)
is a prime example of the new approach of Renaissance
artists and scientists to the anatomy of the human body.



Spain and Portugal



Voyages of discovery and merchant shipping made Portugal and Spain the leading sea powers of Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Under  Philip II, Spain also became the major force behind the Counter-Reformation. A rapid economic and political decline took place in Portugal after 1580 and in Spain after 1600, accelerated by the often weak and conservative governments. This decline lasted until around 1750, when reforms associated with enlightened absolutism elsewhere were carried out in both countries. In the wake of the French Revolution, both countries fell under Napoleon's control.



Philip II

Portrait of king Felipe II of Spain and his second spouse
Queen Maria I of England
by Hans Eworth or Ewoutsz

king of Spain and Portugal

born , May 21, 1527, Valladolid, Spain
died Sept. 13, 1598, El Escorial, Spain

king of the Spaniards (1556–98) and king of the Portuguese (as Philip I, 1580–98), champion of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. During his reign the Spanish Empire attained its greatest power, extent, and influence, though he failed to suppress the revolt of the Netherlands (beginning in 1566) and lost the “Invincible Armada” in the attempted invasion of England (1588).

Early life and marriages
Philip was the son of the Holy Roman emperor Charles V and Isabella of Portugal. From time to time, the emperor wrote Philip secret memoranda, impressing on him the high duties to which God had called him and warning him against trusting any of his advisers too much. Philip, a very dutiful son, took this advice to heart. From 1543 Charles conferred on his son the regency of Spain whenever he himself was abroad. From 1548 until 1551, Philip traveled in Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, but his great reserve and his inability to speak fluently any language except Castilian made him unpopular with the German and Flemish nobility.

Philip contracted four marriages. The first was with his cousin Maria of Portugal in 1543. She died in 1545, giving birth to the ill-fated Don Carlos. In 1554 Philip married Mary I of England and became joint sovereign of England until Mary’s death, without issue, in 1558. Philip’s third marriage, with Elizabeth of Valois, daughter of Henry II of France, in 1559, was the result of the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559), which, for a generation, ended the open wars between Spain and France. Elizabeth bore Philip two daughters, Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566–1633) and Catherine Micaela (1567–97). Elizabeth died in 1568, and in 1570 Philip married Anna of Austria, daughter of his first cousin the emperor Maximilian II. She died in 1580, her only surviving son being the later Philip III.

King of Spain
Philip had received the Duchy of Milan from Charles V in 1540 and the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily in 1554 on the occasion of his marriage to Mary of England. On October 25, 1555, Charles resigned the Netherlands in Philip’s favour and, on January 16, 1556, the kingdoms of Spain and the Spanish overseas empire. Shortly afterward Philip also received the Franche-Comté. The Habsburg dominions in Germany and the imperial title went to his uncle Ferdinand I. At this time Philip was in the Netherlands. After the victory over the French at St. Quentin (1557), the sight of the battlefield gave him a permanent distaste for war, though he did not shrink from it when he judged it necessary.

After his return to Spain from the Netherlands in 1559, Philip never again left the Iberian Peninsula. From Madrid he ruled his empire through his personal control of official appointments and all forms of patronage. Philip’s subjects outside Castile, thus, never saw him, and they gradually turned not only against his ministers but also against him. This happened particularly in the Netherlands, in Granada, and in Aragon.

Method of government
By sheer hard work Philip tried to overcome the defects of this system. His methods have become famous. All work was done on paper, on the basis of consultas (that is, memoranda, reports, and advice presented him by his ministers). In Madrid, or in the gloomy magnificence of his monastic palace of El Escorial, which he built (1563–84) on the slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the king worked alone in his small office, giving his decisions or, as often, deferring them. Nothing is known of his order of work, but all his contemporaries agreed that his methods dangerously, and sometimes fatally, slowed down a system of government already notorious for its dilatoriness. Philip was painstaking and conscientious in his cravings for ever more information, hiding an inability to distinguish between the important and the trivial and a temperamental unwillingness to make decisions.

This was coupled with an almost pathological suspicion of even his most able and faithful servants. Margaret of Parma; the Duke of Alba; Don John of Austria; Antonio Pérez; and Alessandro Farnese—to name only the most distinguished—suffered disgrace. “His smile and his dagger were very close,” wrote his official court historian, Cabrera de Córdoba. It was no exaggeration, for, in the case of Juan de Escobedo, the secretary of Don John of Austria, Philip even consented to murder. As a result, Philip’s court became notorious for the bitterness of its faction fights. The atmosphere of the Spanish court did much to poison the whole Spanish system of government, and this played no small part in causing the rebellions of the Netherlanders (1568–1609), of the Moriscos of Granada (1568–70), and of the Aragonese (1591–92).

Yet the “black legend” that, in Protestant countries, represented Philip II as a monster of bigotry, ambition, lust, and cruelty is certainly false. Philip’s spare and elegant appearance is known from the famous portraits by Titian and by Anthonis Mor (Sir Anthony More). He was a lover of books and pictures, and Spain’s literary Golden Age began in his reign. An affectionate father to his daughters, he lived an austere and dedicated life. “You may assure His Holiness,” Philip wrote to his ambassador in Rome, in 1566, “that rather than suffer the least damage to religion and the service of God, I would lose all my states and an hundred lives, if I had them; for I do not propose nor desire to be the ruler of heretics.” This remark may be regarded as the motto of his reign. To accomplish the task set him by God of preserving his subjects in the true Catholic religion, Philip felt in duty bound to use his royal powers, if need be, to the point of the most ruthless political tyranny, as he did in the Netherlands. Even the popes found it sometimes difficult to distinguish between Philip’s views as to what was the service of God and what the service of the Spanish monarchy.

Foreign policy
For the first 20 years of his reign, Philip sought to preserve peace with his neighbours in western Europe. He was fighting a major naval war with the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean and, from 1568, he was faced with rebellion and war in the Netherlands. From the late 1570s, his policy gradually changed. The death (August 1578) without heirs of his nephew, King Sebastian of Portugal, opened up the prospect of Philip’s succession to Portugal. He had to conquer (1580) by force what he regarded as his just, hereditary rights, but the rest of Europe was alarmed at this growth in Spanish power.

Both England and France gave increasing support to the rebellious provinces of the Netherlands. Gradually, in the 1580s, Philip became convinced that the Catholic religion in western Europe, and his own authority in the Netherlands, could be saved only by open intervention against England and France. To this end he fitted out the Armada that, with the help of the Spanish Army in the Netherlands, was intended to conquer England (1588). He sent money and troops to support the League, the ultra-Catholic party in France, against Henry of Navarre and the Huguenots. He even claimed the throne of France for his daughter, Isabella Clara Eugenia, after the murder of Henry III in 1589. Again, even his Catholic allies found it difficult to distinguish between Philip’s championship of the Catholic church and the interests of Spain.

All these plans failed. Henry of Navarre became a Catholic (1593) and Philip had to accept (Peace of Vervins, 1598) his succession as Henry IV of France. England and the northern Netherlands remained Protestant and unconquered. Yet Philip’s reign as a whole was not a failure. He had defeated the great Ottoman offensive in the Mediterranean at the Battle of Lepanto (1571). In the Iberian Peninsula he had completed the work of unification begun by the “Catholic Monarchs,” Ferdinand and Isabella. Most important of all, in his own eyes, he had won great victories for the Catholic church. If England, Scotland, and the northern Netherlands were lost, the southern Netherlands (modern Belgium) had been preserved. In Spain and Italy he had prevented the spread of heresy, and his intervention in France was one of the factors that forced Henry IV to become a Catholic.

When Philip II died of cancer at El Escorial in 1598, Spain was still at the height of its power; it took almost 50 years before it was clear that the Counter-Reformation would make no further major conquests.

Helmut Georg Koenigsberger

Encyclopaedia Britannica



See collection:
El Greco


El Greco: The Burial of Count Orgaz, 1586

Two saints bury the munificent donor



The Burial of the Count of Orgaz
Oil on canvas, 480 x 360 cm
Santo Tome, Toledo


The canvas, 4.8 metres high and 3.6 metres wide, covers the entire wall of a chapel, reaching from the arch of the ceiling almost to the ground. The figures are life-sized, painted in 1586 for the Santo Tome church in Toledo by the Cretan artist Domenikos Theotokopulos, known in Spain as El Greco, the Greek.
El Greco's painting shows a miracle, said to have occurred in the Santo Tome church at the burial of Don Gonzalo Ruiz in 1312. According to legend, St. Stephan and St. Augustine appeared and laid the mortal remains of Gonzalo Ruiz in the grave.
Ruiz, erstwhile Chancellor of Castile and governor of Orgaz, was a man of great wealth and influence, whose beni-ficence had been especially apparent towards institutions of the church. Through his good offices, the Augustiman Order acquired a developable site within the Toledo town walls. He gave financial support to the construction of a monastery, too, and to the building of the church of Santo Tome. He even made provision that the town of Orgaz should, after his death, make an annual donation to both church and monastery of two lambs, sixteen chickens, two skins of wine, two loads of firewoood and 800 coins. According to the testimony of the saints who attended his funeral, their presence there conferred high distinction upon one who had "served his God and saints". On vanishing, they are said to have left a divine fragrance on the air.
El Greco made no attempt to clothe his figures in medieval dress. Social or political change was little understood at the time, and attention to detail of this kind would, in any case, have conflicted with his patron's wishes: the painting was not intended to recall an historical event, but to encourage contemporary spectators to follow the worthy example it honoured.
Emphasis on the contemporary relevance of the subject probably contributed to the artist's realistic rendering of many details in the lower, more worldly half of the painting: ruffs, lace cuffs, the transparent supplice. Furthermore, the Toledans would have recognized, among the gentlemen in black, several of their most well-known citizens.
El Greco gives to the two returned saints the appearance of ordinary persons (showing them without the nimbus which typically invested such figures). He portrays Augustine, the great church father, as a venerable greybeard in a bishop's mitre, while Stephan, reputed to be the first Christian martyr, appears as a young man. A further painting is inset in his mantle: the lapidation of St. Stephan. Stephan was the patron saint of the monastery to which Gonzalo Ruiz had given his support. The robe of the priest standing at the right edge of the painting carries a series of emblems referring to St. Thomas, patron saint of the church and also of architects, whose attribute was usually a builder's square.
It seems the artist chose the theme of the miracle in order to deliver a lesson in ha-giology. This may explain why, confronted with such an extraordinary event, the figures maintain their composure: not one is shown throwing up his hands in fright, or sinking in a state of shock to his knees. On the contrary, the monks on the left are engaged in discussion, while others calmly point to the event, as if illustrating a tenet of doctrine.
Indeed, to 16th-century Toledans that was exactly what the painting meant. The legend was part of general religious knowledge, related and reinterpreted each year in a service held on St. Stephan's day at the church of Santo Tome. The artist's vision conflated past and present, simultaneously showing the miracle and its incorporation into ecclesiastical doctrine.
El Greco's Heaven comes in muted tones; only the Virgin Mary is somewhat brighter in colour. The figure behind her is Peter with his keys; further down are the Old Testament "saints": King David with his harp, Moses and the stone tablets of the decalogue, Noah and his ark. John the Baptist kneels opposite Mary, while Jesus Christ is enthroned on high. El Greco depicts the soul of the dead Gonzalo Ruiz as the transparent figure of a child borne up in the arms of an angel. The soul's progress appears obstructed, however, or restricted to a narrow strait between two converging clouds.
This might seem surprising, given the high distinction conferred upon the pious man at the burial of his mortal remains. An inconsistency perhaps? In fact, the artist had good reason not to take for granted the soul's unimpeded progress to heaven. The reason lay in the political predicament of the church at the close of 16th century.




The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (detail)




Fighting for the Holy Virgin

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (detail)


El Greco painted in the century of the Reformation. Protestant thought had found few followers on the Iberian peninsula, but the Netherlands, where it had spread very quickly, and where Spaniards and Netherlandish mercenaries fought each other over towns, ports and the true faith, was part of the Spanish empire.
News from their northern province filled pious Spanish souls with terror: church statues of saints had been cast down from their pedestals, paintings of the Virgin pierced by lances - satanic forces were at work. That the events had less to do with the revival of the church than with the work of the Devil was confirmed by reports of iconoclasts tearing the saints to shreds and leaving the demons at their feet intact.
It was the demotion of their most highly venerated Virgin Mary that disturbed the Spaniards most. Luther, so it was reported, had said Mary was no holier than any other Christian believer, while yet another Reformer had said that if Mary had been a purse full of gold before Christ's birth, she was an empty purse afterwards, and that anybody who prayed to the Virgin was committing blasphemy by exalting a woman to the rank of a god.
The great respect commanded by the Holy Virgin south of the Pyrenees stood in peculiar contrast to the disregard shown to women in Spanish society. Their status was far below that of women in Italy, Germany or France. One explanation may lie in the fact that large tracts of Spain, including Toledo itself, had been under Moorish rule for many centuries. The Moors thought of women as base creatures who, easily tempted, required constant surveillance. Although there were famous nuns in Spain, the mistress of a king, by contrast with her French peer, had no influence whatsoever. Women had no place in the public sphere, as El Greco's painting so ably demonstrates: Mary is the only large-scale female figure among countless men in Heaven and on earth.
In the 16th and 17th centuries the Virgin Mary was the most significant religious and cultural figure in Spanish life: many works by Lope de Vega and Calderon are dedicated to her.
The militant adoration of the Virgin climaxed in the dispute surrounding her Immaculate Conception. This did not, as might be imagined, refer to the begetting of Jesus Christ, but to Mary's own procreation. Her mother was said to have conceived her either without male contribution, or, if a man's presence at the event were conceded, without original sin, for the man was merely God's instrument. Although the pope did not raise the Immaculate Conception to a dogma until the 19th century, it had been tantamount to a dogma in Spain long before. In 1618 the Spanish universities were put under obligation to teach and actively defend the Immaculate Conception.
From a Spanish point of view, however, the Protestants had not only debased the Holy Virgin, they had also got rid of the saints, who were tremendously important to the Catholic faith. To say that El Greco underlines the integral function of the saints in this painting would be an understatement. Together with the Virgin, it is they who intercede with the distant, enthroned figure of Christ on behalf of the souls of the dead; only through their supplication can the barrier of clouds dissolve and the soul find its way to paradise unhindered. The painting's theological intervention demonstrates the rupture of the vital dynamic suggested in the brightly lit undersides of the clouds: the upward surge through the vortex of light to Jesus Christ is obstructed. Since the Reformation had degraded the Virgin and the saints, it was now the task of the Counter-Reformation to effectively demonstrate their significance.




The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (detail)




A king among saints


The painting also contains a portrait of Philip II of Spain, who, in 1586, was still on the throne. He is shown sitting among the saints who, gathered behind John, are interceding for the soul of Ruiz. Philip's empire was the largest of all European states. It not only included the Netherlands and Naples with southern Italy, but colonies in Central and South America, some of which "were literally borderless. This was the empire on -which - in the words of the well-known dictum - the sun never set.
Of course, his life was as remote from his many subjects as any god. Furthermore, the court etiquette he had inherited from his father ensured that court and government officials kept their distance. Only a small elite was ever admitted to his presence, and anybody who handed something to him in person was obliged to do so on his knees. However, there was one important element of his father's etiquette which, characteristically, Philip altered: priests were no longer obliged to genuflect before him. He gave to the ambassadors of the kingdom of God, though appointed by himself, a status far greater than that accorded to the representatives of worldly affairs.
This was altogether typical of Philip's rule. He set greater store by defending his faith than his empire. No personal loss could hurt him more deeply, he wrote upon receiving news of the Netherlandish iconoclasts, than the slightest insult or disrespect to the Lord and his effigies. Even "the ruin" of all his lands could not hinder him from "doing what a Christian and God-fearing sovereign must do in the service of God and in testimony to his Catholic faith and the power and honour of the Apostolic See."
Philip II had a powerful instrument at his disposal: the Inquisition. In other countries the authorities who condemned apostates, unbelievers and witches were purely clerical; afterwards, offenders were handed over to the state authorities, who would then enforce the penalty. In Spain even the trial was subordinate to the throne. The king appointed the Grand Inquisitor, and the persecution of non-Catholics served interests of state. For over 700 years the Moors, finally defeated in 1492, had ruled over almost the whole Iberian peninsula. Only families who converted from Islam to Christinity were permitted to remain in Spain. The same applied to Jews. They, too, suffered enforced baptism.
Though hundreds of thousands of Jews and Muslims had left the country, or were in the process of doing so, Philip still saw Catholic Spain threatened by unbelievers who merely paid lip-service to Christ, or by heretics secretly plotting insurrection. The Inquisition acted as a secret police force, defending the status quo and transferring to the state the wealth and property of those it condemned.
Combined religious and racial persecution was one of the chief factors leading to the decline of the Spanish empire. The Jews had been specialists in foreign trade and finance; the country's best physicians were Jews, and they constituted the cream of its university teachers. It was thanks to Jewish scholars and translators that forgotten manuscripts by antique philosophers "were translated from Arabic into Latin, thus becoming available to Christian theologians.
For their part, the Muslims had farmed vast areas of the country, and the success of agriculture depended on Moorish irrigation systems. Now that they were gone, the fields were bare, the villages depopulated, and the businesses of the merchants collapsed. For Philip, however, as for the clergy, the Spanish grandees and a large section of the Spanish population, this was less important than defending the faith.


The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (detail)


Monument to a priest

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (detail)

Yet Philip's unrealistic religious zeal was not the only factor that earned him a place among the saints in Heaven in El Greco's painting. Other artists, too, for example Durer in his All Saints' Altarpiece of 1511, gave a place in Heaven to their most prominent contemporaries. In so doing, they enjoyed the support of St. Augustine's "City of God", in which the domains of Heaven and earth were interwoven, providing theological justification for the depiction of mortals as the inhabitants of Heaven.
The priest portrayed reading is Andres Nunez, who, at the time in question, was responsible for the parish of Santo Tome. It is to him that we owe the existence of this painting. Commissioning El Greco to execute the work was the final act in a campaign Nunez had conducted for decades in an attempt to bring just renown to Gonzalo Ruiz and -lest it be forgot - himself.
His first undertaking of this kind had been the attempt to move Gonzalo's grave. The pious Castilian chancellor had chosen an inconspicuous corner of the church of Santo Tome as the resting place of his earthly remains — apparently a sign of his modesty. Nunez wanted his bones moved to a more auspicious place, but his superiors rejected the request, for "the hands of sinners" should not touch the body of one who had been "touched by the hands of saints".
Consequently, Nunez decided to build a chapel with a high dome over the immured coffin. Soon after this demonstrative deed in memory of the lord of Orgaz (it was his descendents who received the title of count), the citizens of Orgaz decided to annul the 250-year-old legacy of two lambs, 16 chickens, two skins of wine, two loads of firewood and 800 coins. Nunez instituted legal proceedings, winning the case in 1569. In order to record his triumph he had a Latin text mounted above the grave, recounting the legend and referring to the rebuttal of the town of Orgaz through "the vigorous efforts of Andres Nunez".
The smart priest thus created a monument to himself. After applying to the archbishopric in 1584, he was granted permission to commission a painting of the miracle of the interment. El Greco was commissioned in 1586 and delivered the painting in the same year. Whatever the work may owe to the personal ambition of a priest, it has to be said that propagation of the miracle of the burial was also fully in keeping with Counter-Reformation church policy. It was seen as important not only to exalt the Virgin and saints, but to defend the need for charitable donations and the worship of relics. According to Catholic belief, the route to Heaven was paved with "good deeds", a view rejected by Reformers, for whom faith and divine mercy were all that counted. The Reformers also vehemently opposed the veneration of relics, a cult of considerable significance in Catholic countries. It was at this time, too, that Gaspar de Quiroga, appointed archbishop in 1577, brought the bones of St. Leocadia and St. Ildefonso to Toledo, thereby greatly adding to the status of its cathedral. Santo Tome's painting of the burial extolled the piety of charitable donations, at the same time defending the worship of relics. For had not two saints touched, and thereby honoured, the mortal frame? Was it not therefore correct to infer that all Christians should honour the mortal remains of the pious, the saints and the martyrs?
The painting's gigantic format complied with Counter-Reformation propaganda in yet another sense: its stunning visual impact. The Protestants, by contrast, wished to see their churches purified of all ornamentation. Places of worship were to be free of graven images, or at least not crowded with visual distractions from God's word. But the Catholics thought otherwise: since the church was God's house, why not use every means possible to decorate it in His honour? The exuberant splendour of Baroque churches was, not least, a reaction against the plain churches of the Reformation.




The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (detail)




Reality as a stage set


The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (detail)


The boy pointing so meaningfully at the saint was El Greco's son; his year of birth, 1578, can be deciphered on his handkerchief. When his father painted the miracle, he was eight years old. The contract was concluded on 18th March. El Greco finished the work, whose value was estimated by two experts at 1200 ducats, by Ghristmas. Since the price was too steep for the parish council of Santo Tome, it appointed two experts of its own, only to find that they arrived at a value of 1600 ducats. It was not until July 1588 that the parties agreed - on the lower sum.
El Greco was dogged by financial problems almost all his life. He was not a prince among painters, like Titian, in whose Venice studio he had trained. "The Greek" was born in 1541 on Crete, which, at that time, was under Venetian rule. He learned icon painting, left for Venice where he became a master of spatial representation and architectonic perspective, then moved to Rome. When Pius V, disturbed by the nudity of some of the figures in Michelangelo's Last Judgement, wanted some of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel painted over, El Greco is reputed to have offered to paint an equally good, but more decent, work if the original were destroyed.
It is not known when, or why, El Greco settled in Spain. It is possible he felt ill at ease with the Italian artists' exaltation of corporeal and architectural beauty; perhaps he hoped his celebrations of the afterlife would find greater recognition in Spain. Spanish cardinals, resident in Rome, are likely to have spoken of the Escorial, Philip II's palatial monastery, and El Greco may have hoped to find work there. Instead he settled in the old religious capital of Toledo, the seat of the archbishop. In 1579 the king commissioned a painting from him - the only order he received from that source. Philip apparently disliked the Greek's paintings.
Spiritually they had much in common. For both, the afterlife was more important than this life. Philip longed to rule from the Escorial in the company of monks, and to be able to see an altar even from his bed. This view meant more to him than his empire: his Armada was defeated in 1588; in 1598, the year of his death, financial pressures forced him to give up his war against France, and the northern provinces of the Netherlands were already as good as lost.
El Greco's whole life's work, and this painting in particular, bears witness to his belief that the kingdom of heaven was more important and more real than the world in which we live. Though he is painstakingly exact in his detailed rendering of the lower, worldly half of the painting, the realistic heads and dress have the effect of drawing the burial scene into the foreground, while the isocephalic arrangement of onlookers' heads gives the appearance of the top of a stage set. It is only here, behind this dividing line, that the true life begins. Only the upper half is dynamic, vital through and through, an effect achieved with the help of lighting and a use of depth and line that draws the eye upward.
It remains to be said that not all Spaniards ceded to the uncritical renunciation of reality. The writer Miguel de Cervantes, for example, a contemporary of El Greco and Philip II, took a different point of view. Though he did not attack the religious zeal of his compatriots, his character Don Quixote, a chivalrous and deluded idealist, illustrates the dangers that may befall a person who inhabits a world of fantasy rather than facts, someone who, in pursuit of ideals, loses sight of the ground beneath his feet.

Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen


See collection:
El Greco




Philip II,
on the Defeat of the Spanish Armada
Sent to Invade England:

"We must praise God for all that He does. And I thank Him for the mercy shown.

In the storms which the Armada had to sail through, they could have suffered a worse fate, [and] that their misfortune was not greater is thanks to the pious and ceaseless prayers sent to heaven for their successful return(...)"

Extract from a letter to the Spanish bishops, 1588

English naval victory over the Spanish Armada, engraving, 17th ñ




Map of the route taken by the
Spanish Armada

Spanish Armada

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Spanish Armada (Spanish: Grande y Felicísima Armada, "Great and Most Merry Navy" or Armada Invencible, "Invincible Navy") was the Spanish fleet that sailed against England under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia in 1588, leading to the Drake–Norris Expedition of 1589, also known as the English Armada against Spanish possessions in the New World and against the Atlantic treasure fleets.

King Philip II of Spain had been co-monarch of England until the death of his wife, Queen Mary I, and he took exception to the policies pursued by her successor, his sister-in-law Elizabeth I. The aim of his expedition was to invade and conquer England, thereby suppressing support for the United Provinces—that part of the Low Countries not under Spanish domination—and cutting off attacks by the English against Spanish possessions in the New World and against the Atlantic treasure fleets. The king was supported by Pope Sixtus V, who treated the invasion as a crusade, with the promise of a further subsidy should the Armada make land.

The Armada's appointed commander was the highly experienced Álvaro de Bazán, but he died in February 1588, and Medina Sidonia took his place. The fleet set out with 22 warships of the Spanish Royal Navy and 108 converted merchant vessels, with the intention of sailing through the English Channel to anchor off the coast of Flanders, where the Duke of Parma's army of tercios would stand ready for an invasion of the south-east of England.

The Armada achieved its first goal and anchored outside Gravelines, at the coastal border area between France and the Spanish Netherlands. While awaiting communications from Parma's army, it was driven from its anchorage by an English fire ship attack, and in the ensuing battle at Gravelines the Spanish were forced to abandon their rendezvous with Parma's army.

The Armada managed to regroup and withdraw north, with the English fleet harrying it for some distance up the east coast of England. A return voyage to Spain was plotted, and the fleet sailed into the Atlantic, past Ireland. But severe storms disrupted the fleet's course, and more than 24 vessels were wrecked on the north and western coasts of Ireland, with the survivors having to seek refuge in Scotland. Of the fleet's initial complement, about 50 vessels failed to make it back to Spain. The expedition was the largest engagement of the undeclared Anglo–Spanish War (1585–1604).


Planned invasion of England

Prior to the undertaking, Pope Sixtus V allowed Philip II of Spain to collect crusade taxes and granted his men indulgences. The blessing of the Armada's banner on 25 April 1588 was similar to the ceremony used prior to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. On 28 May 1588, the Armada set sail from Lisbon (occupied Portugal), headed for the English Channel. The fleet was composed of around 130 ships, 8,000 sailors and 18,000 soldiers, and bore 1,500 brass guns and 1,000 iron guns. The full body of the fleet took two days to leave port. It contained 28 purpose-built warships: 20 galleons, 4 galleys and 4 galleasses. The remainder of the heavy vessels consisted mostly of armed carracks and hulks; there were also 34 light ships present.

In the Spanish Netherlands 30,000 soldiers[9] awaited the arrival of the armada, the plan being to use the cover of the warships to convey the army on barges to a place near London. The Spanish had probably planned to land the soldiers that sailed with the fleet in the west of England, though this had been explicitly forbidden by Philip. All told, 55,000 men were to have been mustered, a huge army for that time. On the day the Armada set sail, Elizabeth's ambassador in the Netherlands, Dr Valentine Dale, met Parma's representatives in peace negotiations, and the English made a vain effort to intercept the Armada in the Bay of Biscay.

On 16 July negotiations were abandoned, and the English fleet stood prepared (although ill-supplied) at Plymouth, awaiting news of Spanish movements. The Spanish fleet outnumbered the English both in absolute numbers, with over 200 ships to 130 ships, and in armament as well: its available firepower was 50% more than that of the English. The English fleet consisted of the 34 ships of the royal fleet, 24 of which were 200 to 400 tons, and 163 other ships, 30 of which were 200 to 400 tons and carried up to 42 guns each; 12 of these were privateers owned by Lord Howard of Effingham, Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake.

The Armada was delayed by bad weather, forcing the four galleys and one galleon to leave the fleet, and was not sighted in England until 19 July, when it appeared off St Michael's Mount in Cornwall. The news was conveyed to London by a system of beacons that had been constructed all the way along the south coast. On that evening the English fleet was trapped in Plymouth harbour by the incoming tide. The Spanish convened a council of war, where it was proposed to ride into the harbour on the tide and incapacitate the defending ships at anchor and from there to attack England; but Medina Sidonia declined to act, choosing to sail to the east and toward the Isle of Wight. Soon afterwards, 55 English ships set out in pursuit from Plymouth under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham, with Sir Francis Drake as Vice Admiral. Howard ceded some control to Drake, given his experience in battle, and the rear admiral was Sir John Hawkins.

The next night, in order to execute their "line ahead" attack, the English tacked upwind of the Armada, thus gaining the weather gage, a significant advantage. Over the next week there followed two inconclusive engagements, at Eddystone and the Isle of Portland. Two Spanish ships, the carrack Rosario and the galleon San Salvador, were abandoned after having been severely damaged by accidents; they were taken by the English who thereby captured a large supply of much-needed gunpowder. At the Isle of Wight the Armada had the opportunity to create a temporary base in protected waters and wait for word from Parma's army. In a full-scale attack, the English fleet broke into four groups — Martin Frobisher now also being given command over a squadron — with Drake coming in with a large force from the south. At the critical moment Medina Sidonia sent reinforcements south and ordered the Armada back to open sea to avoid sandbanks. There were no secure harbours nearby, so the Armada was compelled to make for Calais, without regard to the readiness of Parma's army.

On 27 July, the Armada anchored off Calais in a tightly packed defensive crescent formation, not far from Dunkirk, where Parma's army, reduced by disease to 16,000, was expected to be waiting, ready to join the fleet in barges sent from ports along the Flemish coast. Communications had proven to be far more difficult than anticipated, and it only now became clear that this army had yet to be equipped with sufficient transport or assembled in port, a process which would take at least six days, while Medina Sidonia waited at anchor; and that Dunkirk was blockaded by a Dutch fleet of thirty flyboats under Lieutenant-Admiral Justin of Nassau. Parma desired that the Armada send its light petaches to drive away the Dutch, but Medina Sidonia could not do this because he feared that he might need these ships for his own protection. There was no deep-water port where the fleet might shelter — always acknowledged as a major difficulty for the expedition — and the Spanish found themselves vulnerable as night drew on. At midnight on 28 July, the English set alight eight fireships, sacrificing regular warships by filling them with pitch, brimstone, some gunpowder and tar, and cast them downwind among the closely anchored vessels of the Armada. The Spanish feared that these uncommonly large fireships were "hellburners", specialised fireships filled with large gunpowder charges, which had been used to deadly effect at the Siege of Antwerp. Two were intercepted and towed away, but the remainder bore down on the fleet. Medina Sidonia's flagship and the principal warships held their positions, but the rest of the fleet cut their anchor cables and scattered in confusion. No Spanish ships were burnt, but the crescent formation had been broken, and the fleet now found itself too far to leeward of Calais in the rising south-westerly wind to recover its position. The English closed in for battle.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588 by Loutherbourg d. J., Philipp Jakob

Battle of Gravelines

The small port of Gravelines was then part of Flanders in the Spanish Netherlands, close to the border with France and the closest Spanish territory to England. Medina Sidonia tried to re-form his fleet there and was reluctant to sail further east knowing the danger from the shoals off Flanders, from which his Dutch enemies had removed the sea-marks.

The English had learned more of the Armada's strengths and weaknesses during the skirmishes in the English Channel and had concluded it was necessary to close within 100 metres to penetrate the oak hulls of the Spanish ships. They had spent most of their gunpowder in the first engagements and had after Wight been forced to conserve their heavy shot and powder for a final decisive attack near Gravelines. During all the engagements, the Spanish heavy guns proved unwieldy, and their gunners had not been trained to reload — in contrast to their English counterparts, they fired once and then jumped to the rigging to attend to their main task as marines ready to board enemy ships. In fact, evidence from Armada wrecks in Ireland shows that much of the fleet's ammunition was never spent. Their determination to thrash out a victory in hand-to-hand fighting proved a weakness for the Spanish; it had been effective on occasions such as the Battle of Lepanto and the Battle of Ponta Delgada (1582), but the English were aware of this strength and sought to avoid it by keeping their distance.

With its superior maneuverability, the English fleet provoked Spanish fire while staying out of range. The English then closed, firing repeated and damaging broadsides into the enemy ships. This also enabled them to maintain a position to windward so that the heeling Armada hulls were exposed to damage below the water line.

Five Spanish ships were lost. The galleass San Lorenzo ran aground at Calais and was taken by Howard after murderous fighting between the crew, the galley slaves, the English and the French who ultimately took possession of the wreck. The galleons San Mateo and San Felipe drifted away in a sinking condition, ran aground on the island of Walcheren the next day, and were taken by the Dutch. One carrack ran aground near Blankenberge; another foundered. Many other Spanish ships were severely damaged, especially the Spanish and Portuguese Atlantic-class galleons which had to bear the brunt of the fighting during the early hours of the battle in desperate individual actions against groups of English ships. The Spanish plan to join with Parma's army had been defeated, and the English had afforded themselves some breathing space. But the Armada's presence in northern waters still posed a great threat to England.

The Armada in battle with the English Fleet

Tilbury speech

On the day after the battle of Gravelines, the wind had backed southerly, enabling Medina Sidonia to move his fleet northward away from the French coast. Although their shot lockers were almost empty, the English pursued in an attempt to prevent the enemy from returning to escort Parma. On 2 August Old Style (12 August New Style) Howard called a halt to the pursuit in the latitude of the Firth of Forth off Scotland. By that point, the Spanish were suffering from thirst and exhaustion, and the only option left to Medina Sidonia was to chart a course home to Spain, by a very hazardous route.

The threat of invasion from the Netherlands had not yet been discounted by the English, and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester maintained a force of 4,000 soldiers at West Tilbury, Essex, to defend the estuary of the River Thames against any incursion up river towards London.

On 8 August Old Style (18 August New Style) Queen Elizabeth went to Tilbury to encourage her forces, and the next day gave to them what is probably her most famous speech:

My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that we are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes for fear of treachery; but, I do assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself, that under God I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of my subjects; and, therefore, I am come amongst you as you see at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live or die amongst you all — to lay down for my God, and for my kingdoms, and for my people, my honour and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king — and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which, rather than any dishonour should grow by me, I myself will take up arms — I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, for your forwardness, you have deserved rewards and crowns, and, we do assure you, on the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you.

Spanish Armada

Return to Spain

The Armada sailed around Scotland and Ireland into the North Atlantic. The ships were beginning to show wear from the long voyage, and some were kept together by having their hulls bundled up with cables. Supplies of food and water ran short, and the cavalry horses were cast overboard into the sea. The intention would have been to keep well to the west of the coast of Scotland and Ireland, in the relative safety of the open sea. However, there being at that time no way of accurately measuring longitude, the Spanish were not aware that the Gulf Stream was carrying them north and east as they tried to move west, and they eventually turned south much further to the east than planned, a devastating navigational error. Off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland the fleet ran into a series of powerful westerly gales, which drove many of the damaged ships further towards the lee shore. Because so many anchors had been abandoned during the escape from the English fireships off Calais, many of the ships were incapable of securing shelter as they reached the coast of Ireland and were driven onto the rocks. The late 1500s, and especially 1588, were marked by unusually strong North Atlantic storms, perhaps associated with a high accumulation of polar ice off the coast of Greenland, a characteristic phenomenon of the "Little Ice Age." As a result many more ships and sailors were lost to cold and stormy weather than in combat.

Following the gales it is reckoned that 5,000 men died, whether by drowning and starvation or by slaughter at the hands of English forces after they were driven ashore in Ireland; only half of the Spanish Armada fleet returned back home to Spain. Reports of the passage around Ireland abound with strange accounts of brutality and survival and attest to the qualities of the Spanish seamanship. Some survivors were concealed by Irish people, but few shipwrecked Spanish survived to be taken into Irish service, fewer still to return home. In the end, 67 ships and around 10,000 men survived. Many of the men were near death from disease, as the conditions were very cramped and most of the ships ran out of food and water. Many more died in Spain, or on hospital ships in Spanish harbours, from diseases contracted during the voyage. It was reported that, when Philip II learned of the result of the expedition, he declared, "I sent the Armada against men, not God's winds and waves". Greatly disappointed, he still forgave the Duke of Medina Sidonia.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada


English losses were comparatively few, and none of their ships were sunk. But after the victory, typhus, dysentery and hunger killed many sailors and troops (estimated at 6,000–8,000) as they were discharged without pay: a demoralising dispute occasioned by the government's fiscal shortfalls left many of the English defenders unpaid for months, which was in contrast to the assistance given by the Spanish government to its surviving men.

Although the English fleet was unable to prevent the regrouping of the Armada at the Battle of Gravelines, requiring it to remain on duty even as thousands of its sailors died, the outcome vindicated the strategy adopted, resulting in a revolution in naval warfare with the promotion of gunnery, which until then had played a supporting role to the tasks of ramming and boarding. The battle of Gravelines is regarded by specialists in military history as reflecting a lasting shift in the naval balance in favour of the English, in part because of the gap in naval technology and armament it confirmed between the two nations, which continued into the next century. In the words of Geoffrey Parker, by 1588 'the capital ships of the Elizabethan navy constituted the most powerful battle fleet afloat anywhere in the world.' However after its defeat in the Armada campaign the Spanish Navy also underwent a major organisational reform that helped it to maintain control over its own home waters and ocean routes well into the next century.

In England, the boost to national pride lasted for years, and Elizabeth's legend persisted and grew long after her death. The repulse of Spanish naval might gave heart to the Protestant cause across Europe, and the belief that God was behind the Protestant cause was shown by the striking of commemorative medals that bore the inscription, He blew with His winds, and they were scattered. There were also more lighthearted medals struck, such as the one with the play on Julius Caesar's words: Venit, Vidit, Fugit (he came, he saw, he fled). The victory was acclaimed by the English as their greatest since Agincourt.

However, an attempt to press home the English advantage failed the following year, when a comparable English fleet sailed for Portugal and the Azores in 1589. The Norris–Drake Expedition or English Armada limped home after failing to co-ordinate its strategy effectively with the Portuguese.

High seas buccaneering and the supply of troops to Philip II's enemies in the Netherlands and France continued, but brought few tangible rewards for England. The Anglo-Spanish War dragged on to a stalemate that left Spanish power in Europe and the Americas largely intact.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



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