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The Battle Against the Spanish Armada

Peter and Dan Snow take a look at the battles that shaped our nation. Drake's unlikely sea victory against the huge Spanish fleet in 1588.


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In the summer of 1588, England stood alone against the greatest superpower the world had ever seen.

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A vast Spanish invasion fleet, the mightiest ever assembled,

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was sweeping towards the Channel,

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and the only thing that stood between the invaders and the conquest of England

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were the ships of the Royal Navy.

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Together with my son Dan I'll be tracing day by day

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the massive struggle that took place in these very waters.

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For a week the future of the British Isles depended on the bravery and skill of the English sailors.

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None of them had ever fought a battle on this scale before.

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Faced with this overwhelming force,

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they had to use new tactics and new technologies to outwit the Spanish.

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They pushed themselves and their ships to the limit.

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I'll be exploring how the opposing commanders used very different strategies,

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and how chance played a key role in deciding the fate of both sides.

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And I'll be finding out just how effective their weapons were.

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And trying out the revolutionary sailing techniques that swung the battle.

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The skill of the English, the agility of the boats - we had never encountered anything like that.

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For the Spanish, it was a religious crusade against an island of heretics and pirates.

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For the English, it was a battle for survival against the might of a Spanish armada.

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In 1588,

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Spain was busy assembling a vast fleet, an armada.

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Spain was the largest superpower on Earth,

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and this armada would be the greatest concentration of naval power ever assembled.

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Its purpose - to invade and conquer England.

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Spain was Catholic and wanted a Catholic world.

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Spain's King Philip II was a man driven by religious obsession.

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For him, empire building was about extending the power of the Catholic Church.

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Standing in his way was Protestant England, led by heretic Queen Elizabeth.

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It is the duty of every Catholic to make sure that Queen Elizabeth is killed.

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They are a barbarous, savage race...

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..who need to be brought into line,

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who need the grace of God.

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And God willing, we will drive them into the seas and show them that grace.

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But the conflict between England and Spain wasn't just about religion.

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Spain's empire spanned half the globe

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and it controlled all the riches of the New World.

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England wanted a share, but was kept out by force.

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For years, Elizabeth had fought back,

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sending out her sailors to raid Spanish treasure ships.

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Then relations between the two countries edged even closer to all-out conflict.

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Here, in Flanders, the Spanish army was already fighting its own religious war.

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30,000 troops were scattered throughout the region,

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defending fortified towns like this one from the Protestant rebels.

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To the fury of the Spanish, England sent troops to help the Dutch rebels.

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To the Spanish king this was the final straw.

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England was now taking Spanish gold,

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insulting its religion and interfering with its wars.

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Enough was enough.

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It was time to sort out this irritating little country once and for all.

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Philip's plan was to mount an ambitious combined operation

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using his army in Flanders and the fleet he was assembling.

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This massive armada would sail all the way from Spain

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packed with soldiers and naval firepower.

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Its task would be to sail right up the English Channel to its narrowest point here between Dover and Calais,

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and there it would meet up with that Spanish army in Flanders

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and escort it across to England.

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Philip hoped that this combined force would be unstoppable.

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This was to be a military operation on an unprecedented scale.

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The Armada would have to carry over 20,000 men and their weapons and supplies 1,000 miles

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and then launch an invasion.

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Philip had to find the right man to lead the Armada,

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but he chose a most unlikely candidate.

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The man he picked was the Duke of Medina Sidonia.

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From the little that's known, this is what he might have looked like.

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He was one of the richest noblemen in Europe but he was not an experienced naval commander.

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In fact, he had never fought at sea.

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Even Medina Sidonia's own mother didn't think he was up to the job.

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He did everything he could to get out of it.

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He even complained to the king he got seasick and caught colds at sea.

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But Philip wouldn't hear of it.

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To him, more important than experience was social standing,

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and Medina Sidonia had plenty of that.

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Anyone who doubted that Medina Sidonia was the right man was soon silenced.

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In no time at all, every port in Spain was buzzing with activity.

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People were galvanised into action by their new commander's efficient organisation.

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In a few months, supplies were stockpiled, weapons were issued and crews assembled.

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On board the ships, the men were blessed

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to make sure that God would smile on this enterprise.

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People were not allowed blasphemy or gambling on board.

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We were all confessed and absolved before leaving.

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We were prepared for death, to fight for what was right.

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I was happy to do God's work,

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to serve my country.

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To the Spanish, this wasn't just an invasion force.

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It was a religious crusade.

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The Spanish Armada was now a reality. All that was needed was the order to sail to England.

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Queen Elizabeth had got word from her spies that an attack was imminent.

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She knew that England's only hope lay in her navy.

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So in May 1588 she scraped together every ship she could find

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and ordered the main force here to Plymouth.

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Just as well.

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Even as the ships were assembling, the Armada set sail from Spain.

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The Spanish Armada was a breathtaking military force.

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Medina Sidonia had gathered 130 ships.

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The fleet carried 7,000 sailors and nearly three times as many soldiers.

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Never before had the world seen such a concentration of naval power.

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And it was heading straight for England.

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Along the southern coast of England, people waited nervously for the arrival of the Spanish invaders.

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In the villages, men prepared to fight with any weapons they could lay their hands on.

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In huts like this, and all along the Cornish coast,

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lookouts stared out to sea, waiting for the first signs of the invasion fleet.

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Then on Friday 29th of July,

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the watchers spotted a forest of masts and sails looming on the horizon.

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The Spanish Armada had reached the British coast.

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The only thing that now blocked the path of the Armada were the ships of the Royal Navy.

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And the man in charge, on his flagship Ark Royal,

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was Admiral Lord Howard.

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Lord Howard was a natural-born leader,

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but like his counterpart Medina Sidonia,

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he'd got the job more through family connections than through experience.

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He was the Queen's cousin.

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But the English were not exactly short on seamanship. Second in command was Sir Francis Drake.

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Drake was very different from Howard.

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Born the humble son of a farmer,

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he had become the greatest sailor in England.

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He was deeply feared by the Spanish

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for his frequent raids on their ships and ports,

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but his own men respected, even loved him.

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One of the great things about Drake is all men are equal on his ship.

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He's willing to put himself shoulder to shoulder with the next man,

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to stand next to you and burn his hands on the rope.

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Sir Francis Drake, er, rightly... gets my respect, every bloody time.

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The country's future now depended on these two commanders and the men they led.

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They were eager to set out to sea to fight the Spanish,

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but there was something that stood in their way.

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When the Armada was spotted,

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the wind was blowing inland and the tide was flooding in.

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I'm in the middle of the narrowest point of Plymouth harbour at the moment,

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straining away against about a 2- or 3-knot tide.

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It must have been incredibly frustrating for them

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knowing that just a few miles away at sea was the Spanish Armada

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and they couldn't get to grips with them, because they were stuck here.

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There was nothing Drake or Howard could do

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but calmly finish their famous game of bowls and wait for the tide to turn.

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But their calm belied the danger of the situation.

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The English ships were trapped while the enemy drew nearer.

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The Spanish now had an extraordinary opportunity - to launch an attack on the English

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while they were still vulnerable here in Plymouth harbour.

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It might have won them a quick victory, and some Spanish officers argued fiercely for it.

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But Philip's orders had been clear -

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do not engage the enemy unless absolutely necessary.

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The fleet's task was to keep heading for Calais to meet up with that Spanish army in the Netherlands.

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So the Armada sailed on,

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ignoring what might have been an opportunity to strike a decisive blow.

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They weren't intent on causing damage while we were anchored.

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Indeed they waited while the tides became more favourable to ourselves.

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And that is something I shall never understand to this day,

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other than being a man of faith, I suppose that God smiled on us that day.

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It was only as the tide turned that evening that the English had their chance to take the initiative.

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They headed out of Plymouth Sound here to face the enemy.

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Here is the English coast,

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from Plymouth right the way along into Cornwall.

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The westerly wind was blowing the Armada, here, steadily eastwards.

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Drake and Howard, coming out of Plymouth harbour here,

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decided to split their forces.

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Howard's plan was to take the main body of the fleet out to sea,

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whilst Drake was to head westwards along the coast.

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Their aim was to get to the west of the Spanish Armada.

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This was critical because the wind was blowing from the west,

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and if they could get round to this side,

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then they would have the all-important advantage of having the wind behind them.

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But to get to that position they had to sail into the wind,

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and sailing into the wind was very tricky, and it still is.

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Now the trouble about sailing into the wind - the wind's coming almost straight off my bow now -

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is that you can't go straight at it.

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If you do, the sail just flaps helplessly and you stop.

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So, you go off the wind, each side of the wind,

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and you zigzag, you tack, as it's called into the wind.

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So here we go now, we're on one tack...

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and to go up there into the wind, I've got to go through like this.

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Imagine this in a great big square-rigged sailing ship -

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it would take a long time to get the yards and sails around.

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Sailing with the wind behind you is much easier.

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There's two major advantages to going downwind.

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It's pretty much the quickest way of sailing, you're going very fast,

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and you've got a lot of control over the direction of the boat.

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You can go that way, you can go that way, you can go any way you want. It's a very flexible way of sailing.

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The advantage of having the wind behind you becomes clear in a race.

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I'm heading into the wind.

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Dan is sailing with the wind.

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First to the buoy wins and I've got a head start.

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Hooray, we're off! And the big race has begun.

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I've the wind behind me so technically I can go straight from A to B.

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I can head straight for the mark. Dad's got to zigzag the whole way.

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Zigzagging to windward.

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Come on, Dan, I'm going to beat you yet!

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No, you won't, Dad. Even with that head start you can't beat me.

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Well, I'm going to have to try another tack, that's all.

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There you go. Zigzagging into the wind is a terrible way of having to race someone.

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-And look at him - he's almost at the buoy already. ..All right, you win!

-Ha-ha-ha!

-Ha-ha(!)

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Oh, dear.

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It's clear the boat going downwind can go faster and straighter.

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You zigzagging all around and going slowly, it wasn't fair.

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The whole strategy of every battle at sea was to fight for the position on the windward side of your enemy.

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That way you had what they call the weather gauge of it, you were actually able to control the battle.

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Sailing into the wind is hard work, even on a modern sailboat.

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On the huge square-rigged galleons of the time it required great skill and co-ordination.

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But if the English were to gain that vital position, they would have to use their expertise

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to tack westwards into the wind and slip past the Spanish fleet.

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All the next day the Spanish continued heading east towards the meeting point with their army.

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The lookouts strained to catch sight of the English fleet,

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expecting them to appear somewhere in front of them.

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Then at dawn on Sunday 31st, two days after they'd arrived,

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they finally spotted them,

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but to their shock and amazement the English ships were now behind them,

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and worse still, they were getting ready to attack.

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The scene was now set for the first battle of the conflict.

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The wind was blowing steadily from over here, from the west,

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and the two squadrons of the English fleet

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had zigzagged into the wind to get it behind them, giving them an advantage over the Spanish.

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The English fleet numbered just 55 ships, including the 11 in Drake's squadron.

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The Spanish fleet was more than twice that size, over 120 ships.

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They'd now formed into a prearranged battle formation,

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a huge crescent two miles across.

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At each haul of the crescent were two big fighting squadrons,

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huge galleons, these, of up to 50 guns each.

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In the centre, Medina Sidonia himself,

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commanding more big fighting ships,

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whilst all around them, the less well armed supply ships, protected within that close-packed crescent.

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It was an effective defensive formation,

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almost impossible to break up.

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And the Armada had another advantage -

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each vessel was loaded with soldiers,

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as many as 350 on a single ship.

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The Spanish fought in the age-old traditional way -

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they took grappling hooks like this, then they hurled them across at enemy ships,

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dragged the ships together and then would leap across and fight it out hand-to-hand on the enemy decks.

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In this kind of fighting the Spanish had a massive advantage - their huge ships bristling with soldiers.

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The English, with their smaller ships and smaller crews, liked to keep their distance,

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and instead battered their enemy into submission with their guns.

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The two sides weren't only using different tactics,

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they also sailed in very different formations.

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This is like the Armada would have been -

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tightly packed, difficult for the British to get in and fire broadsides -

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but equally very difficult for US to fire broadsides because we only shoot each other up.

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Also not very manoeuvrable, because if I turn or they turn

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we'll hit each other, and a lot of collision went on inside the Armada.

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The English had to be manoeuvrable to keep clear of the Spanish grappling hooks,

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so they tried something new.

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They went in line astern, one after the other, so the leader could control where everybody went.

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It also meant that the guns, which are all down the sides of the ships,

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could all fire at once against the Spanish, much more effective.

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The English hoped that their line formation would enable them to run rings around the Armada,

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whilst the Spanish hoped that their defensive formation

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would enable them to withstand any attacks.

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The English commanders were about to find out if their new battle plan would outwit the Spanish.

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Now with the wind behind them, the English could put this new strategy into action

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in a ferocious two-pronged attack on the Armada.

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Howard now swung around,

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aiming to attack the southern haul of the crescent

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using the English line astern formation.

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Meanwhile Drake was going to concentrate his attack on the northern tip.

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The two commanders knew the fate of England was in their hands.

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As each ship turned to face the Armada,

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the English sailors hoisted up every sail they could

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and used the favourable wind to carry them headlong into battle.

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Heave! Heave! Heave!

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As they approached the giant Spanish ships for the first time,

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they realised just how powerful their adversary was.

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MEN SHOUT

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But this was an enemy they had to defeat or England would fall.

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Below decks the gunners loaded the cannons ready for firing.

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At last the Armada was just a quarter of a mile away.

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The Ark Royal was leading the attack

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and the Spanish ships were now within range of its cannons.

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The order was given to fire.

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Down here on the cramped gun decks the noise would have been unbelievable.

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The well-trained English fired broadside after broadside,

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firing and reloading continuously.

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No amount of preparation prepares you for the noise and the sweat

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and the fear and the sound.

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You're more an animal than a man,

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you just keep going, you keep going...

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until someone tells you to stop.

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Following one after another, the English were able to outmanoeuvre the Spanish

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and bring their guns to bear on the ships of the Armada.

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And all the while,

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the English kept their distance to avoid being boarded.

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Their strategy was working.

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For the Spanish this was a major blow.

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They couldn't get close enough to use their grappling hooks,

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and whilst most of the Spanish ships were protected by their tight formation,

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the ships at the tip were on the receiving end

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of wave upon wave of English cannon fire.

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What was amazing was the...

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..the skill of the English, the...agility of the boats.

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We had never encountered anything like that before.

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Finally the English pulled back,

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triumphant that not a single one of their ships had been boarded.

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But despite firing over 2,000 cannonballs,

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they failed to sink a single Spanish ship.

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We'd as yet been unable to cause any real damage to the Spanish Armada ourselves.

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We HAD hit them, of course, but not hard enough.

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The Armada was still intact and as powerful as ever.

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The English had done nothing that day to dent the invasion plan.

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For some reason the English cannons simply weren't doing enough damage.

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Right, let's load this thing.

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OK, here's the charge... nice and gently.

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-I'm going to ram it down.

-How long would this take on a ship?

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They could do it pretty quickly with a trained crew.

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-I think you'd get a round away in a minute.

-About a round a minute?

-Yeah.

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Then the next thing to go in would be the shot.

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-Weighs about 3lb?

-3lb of cast iron.

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And they went up to, oh, ten times that size.

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-There she goes.

-There it is.

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To stop it falling out we put in the top wad, which on a ship would be old rope. Here we're going to use straw.

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-Because when the ship rolls, we don't want the ball...

-The shot falling out, it keeps it in.

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You give that a good tap home.

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Get ready for priming. I'm pricking a little hole in the cartridge inside.

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That releases the powder so that when you light it, the powder goes off and the ball spurts out the end?

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-That right.

-There you go - physics.

-But the gun hasn't yet been aimed.

0:28:000:28:04

Right, OK, let's go left a bit...

0:28:040:28:07

ah, a little more...

0:28:070:28:09

Too much, back a tiny shade... yeah, that's it, that's spot-on.

0:28:090:28:13

'For safety, we went to set the cannon off remotely from a very reinforced bunker.'

0:28:130:28:18

See the thickness of the roof which we'll be under?

0:28:180:28:22

Right, now, I'm going to take money on this hitting the very, very centre of the target.

0:28:220:28:28

I'll offer you 5-1 on. How about that?

0:28:280:28:31

No, I'm not a betting man, but I think you're going to hit it.

0:28:310:28:35

Five, four,

0:28:350:28:37

three, two,

0:28:370:28:39

one, fire.

0:28:390:28:42

-Whoa! Nice! Straight through.

-We hit it.

0:28:460:28:49

-We aimed well, Dan.

-Yeah, well done, Dad.

0:28:490:28:52

-Let's go and have a look.

-Good.

0:28:520:28:55

If we can manage this here, why didn't the English do more damage?

0:29:020:29:07

You can make a 3-inch-diameter hole in the side of a ship

0:29:070:29:10

but that won't sink a ship because it's easily fixable. It'll cause casualties and may disable it,

0:29:100:29:16

but to actually sink a ship you have to pepper the side of the boat.

0:29:160:29:20

-The Spanish running around with a big plug, shoving it in...

-Taking casualties but plugging the holes.

0:29:200:29:26

And ships not sinking, even though peppered with holes like this.

0:29:260:29:30

No. We imagine shells that rip the side out of a ship, but all that's doing is making a little hole.

0:29:300:29:36

On that first day of battle the English sailors kept their distance.

0:29:390:29:44

But that meant only the occasional cannonball hit its mark,

0:29:440:29:49

and so at the end of that day

0:29:490:29:52

the Armada sailed on virtually unscathed.

0:29:520:29:56

After seven hours of fighting, neither side had done decisive damage to the other.

0:29:580:30:03

The worst damage the Spanish suffered, they'd done themselves.

0:30:030:30:07

In the chaos of battle, two of their ships had collided.

0:30:070:30:11

Rather than break up its formation, the Armada continued towards its ultimate goal.

0:30:140:30:21

One of the disabled ships was left behind.

0:30:210:30:24

At night, Drake was charged with following the Spanish ships

0:30:250:30:30

with his lantern lit to guide the fleet.

0:30:300:30:32

But then he did something quite outrageous.

0:30:320:30:35

He couldn't resist the lure of Spanish treasure.

0:30:350:30:39

So he snuffed out the lantern

0:30:390:30:41

and slipped off to loot the crippled ship.

0:30:410:30:45

And that was something to be proud of.

0:30:450:30:48

We kept a ship from the Spanish

0:30:480:30:50

and it was laden with gold, let me tell you.

0:30:500:30:54

It was a profitable night for Drake, but the rest of the English fleet paid a heavy price.

0:30:540:30:59

Without his lantern to guide them, they got scattered, and by dawn they were in complete disarray.

0:30:590:31:05

It took them a day to re-form

0:31:050:31:08

and the Armada continued its relentless voyage eastwards.

0:31:080:31:13

The English had to catch up with the Spanish or else all was lost.

0:31:150:31:20

Fortunately they had something that would help them -

0:31:200:31:25

the design of their ships.

0:31:250:31:28

It's the shape of a ship that determines how effective it is at sailing -

0:31:280:31:32

the sleeker the vessel, the more manoeuvrable it is.

0:31:320:31:36

Spanish ships were built very high out of the water. They were very top-heavy and cumbersome.

0:31:420:31:48

They were ready to take lots of men and supplies - floating fortresses.

0:31:480:31:52

The English ships were faster, more manoeuvrable.

0:31:520:31:55

They'd taken the traditional galleon design and made it sleeker.

0:31:550:31:58

With their faster ships, the English set off in pursuit of the Armada,

0:32:020:32:07

and after a day of hard sailing, they caught up with them.

0:32:070:32:11

It was now Tuesday 2nd August, five days after the Armada had arrived.

0:32:150:32:20

Medina Sidonia had led his ships as far as this - Portland Bill in Dorset.

0:32:200:32:26

People watching here would have seen the ships clearly out to sea there.

0:32:260:32:30

This was the scene of a second fierce battle.

0:32:320:32:35

Once again the Spanish formation held firm.

0:32:440:32:48

Once again the English failed to make any impact.

0:32:480:32:52

I do remember at that time feeling frustrated and somewhat concerned,

0:32:550:32:59

because we had done our damnedest to get in there and have a go

0:32:590:33:03

but still that bloody armada kept sailing on.

0:33:030:33:06

Hardly troubled it, it appeared.

0:33:060:33:09

But in fact Medina Sidonia was very concerned.

0:33:090:33:12

He'd been expecting to get word from the Spanish troops in Flanders

0:33:120:33:16

to confirm that they were prepared for the invasion,

0:33:160:33:21

but he'd heard nothing. He was now at a critical point in the voyage.

0:33:210:33:25

He was approaching the Isle of Wight

0:33:250:33:27

and he still didn't know whether the army in Flanders was ready.

0:33:270:33:31

It's a quirk of English geography that there are many big harbours west of the Isle of Wight

0:33:310:33:37

but none at all beyond it to the east on this stretch of coast.

0:33:370:33:41

So once past this point, there was no place for the Armada to shelter,

0:33:410:33:45

not even in Flanders itself.

0:33:450:33:47

If the Spanish sailed on,

0:33:470:33:49

they'd be taking a gamble that the army was all set to go.

0:33:490:33:54

Medina Sidonia's safest option

0:33:560:33:59

was to occupy the Isle of Wight and make it a temporary base.

0:33:590:34:03

This would be an easy task for his troops,

0:34:070:34:11

and he could then wait there, safe in the shelter in the Solent,

0:34:110:34:15

until he got word that the army was ready.

0:34:150:34:18

The English knew they had to stop the Spanish from getting into the Solent at all costs,

0:34:250:34:31

but that day, unlike today, there was another problem - there was no wind at all.

0:34:310:34:36

The English didn't let that deter them.

0:34:360:34:38

They put small boats like this into the water and dragged their big galleons into battle.

0:34:380:34:44

Go for it, Dan, come on, heave-ho!

0:34:440:34:47

That's it, you're pulling us along.

0:34:470:34:49

-I'm not sure I'm going too fast here.

-She's moving.

0:34:500:34:54

I can see why the rowers are on a high carbohydrate diet. I feel like the need for a doughnut.

0:34:540:35:00

-I don't want to break it to you, but I think we're going slightly backwards.

-I know.

0:35:000:35:06

Later that morning, the wind at last picked up.

0:35:070:35:11

Now the real battle could commence.

0:35:110:35:14

The two fleets were here, just south of the Isle of Wight.

0:35:140:35:18

The Armada seemed to be heading for the sheltered waters just around the corner in the Solent, here,

0:35:180:35:24

where they could seize the Isle of Wight.

0:35:240:35:27

The English had just hours in which to stop them.

0:35:270:35:31

Howard and Drake had decided

0:35:320:35:34

to split the English fleet into four separate squadrons

0:35:340:35:38

to give them maximum freedom to fight independently.

0:35:380:35:42

Drake took his squadron south.

0:35:420:35:44

Another squadron attacked the Armada from the north.

0:35:440:35:48

But this attack did little damage to the Spanish.

0:35:500:35:53

The two remaining squadrons then joined the fierce melee heading for the centre of the Spanish crescent.

0:35:530:36:00

But through the dense gun smoke the English could see the Armada

0:36:020:36:07

drifting ever closer to the vulnerable entrance to the Solent.

0:36:070:36:12

The campaign was now to take a decisive turn.

0:36:120:36:15

Drake made a brilliant move.

0:36:150:36:17

He'd already led his ships out to sea.

0:36:170:36:20

He now appeared from the open sea

0:36:200:36:22

and brought his firepower to bear

0:36:220:36:25

on the ships of the southern tip of the Spanish formation.

0:36:250:36:29

Medina Sidonia saw this and sent reinforcements southwards to their defence.

0:36:290:36:34

Drake had distracted the Spanish commander at the critical moment.

0:36:360:36:40

Instead of turning into the sheltered waters of the Solent, the Spanish Armada found itself heading

0:36:440:36:51

for one of the most treacherous hazards of the English Channel -

0:36:510:36:55

the dreaded sandbanks of the Owers.

0:36:550:36:58

English sailors had left the Armada with no choice.

0:36:590:37:03

To avoid running aground on the Owers,

0:37:050:37:07

the Spanish had to turn away from the Isle of Wight into the open sea.

0:37:070:37:11

For the time being, the Spanish had been prevented from setting foot on British soil.

0:37:130:37:20

For Medina Sidonia the die was now cast.

0:37:200:37:23

For better or worse, the Armada was set on a one-way course towards Flanders to meet up with the army.

0:37:230:37:31

It all went according to the Spanish plan.

0:37:310:37:34

They could still launch a joint invasion in a matter of days.

0:37:340:37:39

Here in Flanders the army of Spain was still fighting Dutch Protestant rebels.

0:37:560:38:01

They were ready to break off their land war and gather together for the invasion of England

0:38:010:38:07

as soon as they heard that the Armada was getting close.

0:38:070:38:11

But they would need at least a week to complete their preparations,

0:38:110:38:15

so it was vital that they got advanced warning of the Armada's arrival.

0:38:150:38:20

In fact, Medina Sidonia had been desperately trying to get a message to the army

0:38:300:38:36

ever since he arrived off Cornwall eight days earlier.

0:38:360:38:39

But communication at sea was very unreliable.

0:38:390:38:43

He had no idea whether his messages had actually got through.

0:38:440:38:49

On Saturday 6th of August,

0:38:490:38:51

the Armada was finally nearing its destination.

0:38:510:38:54

Despite all the best efforts of Drake and Howard, it had sailed the entire length of the English Channel

0:38:540:39:00

without losing a single ship to those English guns,

0:39:000:39:04

and now it was in the Straits of Dover, the narrowest part of the Channel,

0:39:040:39:09

and within 25 miles of that Spanish army in Flanders.

0:39:090:39:13

Medina Sidonia was still hoping

0:39:130:39:16

that the 30,000 Spanish troops would be ready and waiting on the coast.

0:39:160:39:21

But they were nowhere near ready.

0:39:250:39:27

In fact, word had only just reached the troops of the Armada's progress.

0:39:270:39:33

They started gathering as fast as they could,

0:39:330:39:36

but the preparations would still take days.

0:39:360:39:40

This was disastrous news for Medina Sidonia.

0:39:400:39:43

It would mean the Armada waiting around in the open sea at the mercy of the elements and the English.

0:39:430:39:50

It was a naval commander's worst nightmare.

0:39:500:39:53

But from the point of view of the English sailors, the situation looked equally desperate.

0:39:530:40:00

For all they knew, the Armada was about to be joined by the troops

0:40:000:40:04

for the final assault on England.

0:40:040:40:06

We were all completely and utterly exhausted.

0:40:060:40:10

We'd all been awake for near enough a week,

0:40:100:40:14

with hard sailing and fighting on a daily basis,

0:40:140:40:19

and now the Armada had reached its destination,

0:40:190:40:23

and it seemed we had but hours to achieve...

0:40:230:40:27

what we hadn't been able to achieve in a week.

0:40:270:40:32

It was their last chance to destroy the Spanish fleet.

0:40:320:40:36

So far the Armada's tight formation had proved immune to attack

0:40:360:40:40

and somehow the English had to find a way to break it up.

0:40:400:40:44

So on Sunday 7th of August,

0:40:440:40:47

Drake and Howard met to plan their attack.

0:40:470:40:50

And they decided to use a weapon that struck fear into every sailor on a wooden ship -

0:40:500:40:57

fire.

0:40:570:40:58

On the night of August 7th,

0:41:060:41:09

English sailors prepared eight full-sized ships for sacrifice.

0:41:090:41:13

They loaded them with barrels of tar.

0:41:130:41:16

They even put two cannonballs in each cannon

0:41:160:41:19

so that when the flames reached the powder they would explode at random.

0:41:190:41:23

The moon was full that night, which meant the tide would run strong.

0:41:230:41:27

At midnight, the English sailors set the ships alight

0:41:280:41:32

and let the wind and tide carry them right into the middle of the Spanish fleet.

0:41:320:41:37

As the fire ships drifted towards the Armada, the Spanish raised the alarm.

0:41:400:41:45

It was like a storm of fire coming towards us. You could feel the heat and it was coming closer and closer.

0:42:020:42:08

The terrified soldiers desperately tried to haul the burning boats out of the way.

0:42:110:42:17

We would...clear one boat...

0:42:170:42:20

divert it away from the Armada, and another would follow.

0:42:200:42:24

We would clear that and another would follow and we'd clear that one,

0:42:240:42:28

and another would follow and another behind that. It was relentless.

0:42:280:42:31

Most of the ships simply cut their cables and abandoned their anchors in the mad rush to escape.

0:42:390:42:45

In the confusion the Spanish ships were scattered far and wide.

0:42:450:42:49

There were several collisions and one even ended up grounded.

0:42:490:42:53

Even though not a single Spanish ship actually caught on fire,

0:42:530:42:57

the fear was enough to achieve the required objective.

0:42:570:43:00

By the morning, the Spanish Armada was in disarray.

0:43:000:43:04

At last the Spanish formation was broken,

0:43:070:43:10

its ships spread along the coast of Gravelines, north of Calais,

0:43:100:43:15

an area of treacherous sandbanks and shallow waters.

0:43:150:43:20

The Spanish were now in a perilous position.

0:43:200:43:23

Their armada was scattered

0:43:230:43:25

and it was the ideal time for the English to strike.

0:43:250:43:29

But Drake suddenly discovered that Howard and more than 20 English ships had completely disappeared.

0:43:290:43:36

Incredibly, at this critical moment,

0:43:360:43:38

Howard had shown that he too had a deep piratical streak

0:43:380:43:43

and they'd gone off to loot a Spanish ship that had gone aground.

0:43:430:43:47

Once again, the greed of the English cost them valuable time.

0:43:500:43:55

While Howard chased after Spanish booty, Drake led the rest of the English fleet

0:43:550:44:01

into a conflict unlike any that had been fought before, the Battle of Gravelines.

0:44:010:44:08

What followed was a frantic struggle which both sides knew would decide the fate of the Armada.

0:44:080:44:15

The Armada had been scattered by the fire ships and was spread out along the coast,

0:44:150:44:20

only Medina Sidonia's flagship and four others

0:44:200:44:24

had managed to stand their ground here.

0:44:240:44:28

They bore the brunt of Drake's first attack.

0:44:280:44:31

For over an hour, Medina Sidonia held back the English onslaught,

0:44:440:44:49

giving the rest of the Armada time to reform.

0:44:490:44:52

Finally, Howard returned from his private looting expedition and joined in the attack,

0:44:570:45:03

but, by now, 50 of the Spanish ships had formed their own defensive crescent

0:45:030:45:09

and Drake sailed on to attack it, realising this main body of Spanish ships had to be broken.

0:45:090:45:16

Drake decided to take an enormous risk - he led his ships much closer than in any of the previous battles.

0:45:180:45:25

Soon, they were in amongst the ships of the Armada.

0:45:250:45:29

The experience for those on board would have been different from the other battles.

0:46:030:46:08

The ships were so close either side could fire muskets and even hurl abuse at each other.

0:46:080:46:14

One English ship came so close to a Spanish ship, an English sailor jumped aboard, but was killed.

0:46:140:46:21

We were so close we could hear the Spanish talking, and then we knew we were in musket range.

0:46:290:46:35

But, by getting near, the English were at last able to hit the Armada

0:46:450:46:50

with shot after shot, doing terrible damage to the ships and their crews.

0:46:500:46:55

The Spanish were suffering huge numbers of casualties as the English ships pounded them from close range.

0:46:580:47:05

Below decks on the Spanish ships, cannonballs smashed through the hull meaning death for anyone in the way,

0:47:100:47:16

and sending splinters the size of daggers flying through the air.

0:47:160:47:20

The deck just ran red with blood,

0:47:390:47:42

every...every moment

0:47:420:47:45

it seemed that someone was crying with pain,

0:47:450:47:50

screaming with agony.

0:47:500:47:53

Whilst the English were blasting away, the Spanish guns were only managing to fire about once an hour,

0:47:570:48:03

but what slowed them down was lack of experience.

0:48:030:48:07

These guns are complicated to fire and the Spanish ships had more priests on board than gunners.

0:48:100:48:16

Instead, it was the job of the soldiers to fire the guns, but they had no experience fighting at sea.

0:48:160:48:22

So, for most of the battle, the Spanish couldn't even fight back.

0:48:220:48:26

It was...horrific

0:48:280:48:30

and...

0:48:300:48:33

I remember praying to God

0:48:330:48:35

and thinking that would be my last moment.

0:48:350:48:39

After eight hours of fighting, the English were running out ammunition.

0:49:250:49:31

We'd fired so much and done so much damage

0:49:340:49:38

that, by the end of the battle, we were grabbing anything - using chain instead of cannonballs,

0:49:380:49:44

loading anything we could get our hands on.

0:49:440:49:47

Around four in the afternoon, the English fired their last shots

0:49:550:50:00

and were forced to pull back, hoping they'd inflicted fatal damage on the Spanish.

0:50:000:50:05

The Spanish fleet was in tatters.

0:50:140:50:17

Over 600 Spanish were dead, many hundreds more were badly wounded.

0:50:170:50:23

One Spanish ship had been sunk, two driven ashore and the rest severely damaged.

0:50:230:50:29

And now the wind was blowing them helplessly towards the treacherous sandbanks of Flanders.

0:50:290:50:35

With the English fleet hovering out to sea and the wind pushing the Armada onto the sandbanks,

0:50:410:50:47

there was a hush on the ships and everyone's attention was on one man.

0:50:470:50:52

He was in charge of throwing a line into the water to measure the depth.

0:50:520:50:56

If the ships went aground, it would be certain death, either by drowning

0:50:590:51:04

as the ship broke up in the surf or at the hands of the English.

0:51:040:51:08

As the sandbanks drew nearer, the depths got more threatening.

0:51:080:51:12

60 feet, 50 feet

0:51:120:51:15

and then 40 feet. The biggest Armada ships needed about 30 feet of water. Destruction was moments away.

0:51:150:51:23

On board ship, the priests took final confessions.

0:51:290:51:33

Most of the sailors couldn't even swim. Death seemed inevitable.

0:51:330:51:38

Just as the ships were on the point of being wrecked, the wind changed - it came round to the south west

0:51:410:51:47

and blew the Armada out into the North Sea.

0:51:470:51:50

They believed they'd been saved by the will of God.

0:51:500:51:53

The wind may have saved the Spanish from the sandbanks,

0:52:000:52:03

but it drove them away from their army.

0:52:030:52:06

Philip's plan to conquer England and return it to the Catholic fold had failed.

0:52:060:52:11

For the Royal Navy, it was an astonishing achievement.

0:52:140:52:17

Drake and Howard had taken on the most powerful nation on Earth and won.

0:52:190:52:24

But for the Spanish, the story was to take a final devastating turn.

0:52:260:52:31

The Spanish sailors now had only one aim - to get home.

0:52:360:52:42

The English were blocking the Channel, so the Armada's only route home was round Scotland and Ireland,

0:52:420:52:48

and circling back to Spain. It was a long and arduous journey.

0:52:480:52:53

Soon supplies were running low.

0:52:530:52:55

By the time the fleet arrived off Ireland, men were dying from hunger and thirst.

0:52:550:53:01

Conditions on board must have been horrific.

0:53:010:53:04

You would hear moaning, people dying around you all the time,

0:53:040:53:08

the stink of sweat, of death - there was a smell of death in the air.

0:53:080:53:13

Some of the ships,

0:53:130:53:16

one in particular, had no water, no food - nothing.

0:53:160:53:19

It was a terrible disaster.

0:53:210:53:23

It was the weather that dealt the final blow to the Armada.

0:53:360:53:41

Many of the surviving ships were caught by fierce storms

0:53:410:53:45

as they crawled down the west coast of Ireland.

0:53:450:53:48

The broken ships and weakened men were no match for the elements -

0:53:500:53:55

they were too poorly equipped to cope.

0:53:550:53:58

Dozens of ships were wrecked, thousands of sailors were drowned and, of those who did get ashore,

0:54:010:54:09

many were robbed by the locals, and the rest were captured, and then butchered by English soldiers.

0:54:090:54:15

Only the nobles were spared, kept prisoner until they could be sold back to Spain.

0:54:220:54:29

Everything I once owned is gone.

0:54:300:54:33

I...I look at myself now... I look around this room and I feel I have lost everything.

0:54:370:54:45

Only a third of the men came back alive.

0:54:550:54:59

Medina Sidonia himself almost died of dysentery,

0:54:590:55:03

his second-in-command died of shame only days after he arrived home.

0:55:030:55:08

The Armada was worse than a failure - it was a national tragedy.

0:55:080:55:14

The English sailors fared little better.

0:55:240:55:28

They'd risked everything, fighting heroically for England and suffering less than 100 deaths.

0:55:300:55:37

But now that they'd served their purpose, the English Crown seemed to lose interest in them.

0:55:400:55:46

Instead of being rewarded as England's saviours, they were kept on board where disease spread fast.

0:55:460:55:54

Officially, they were there in case the Spanish returned,

0:55:540:55:58

but many suspected it was so they didn't have to be paid.

0:55:580:56:02

Weakened by hunger and illness, the English sailors were dying by the day.

0:56:020:56:08

I heard that the Lord Chancellor is happy for us to die,

0:56:080:56:13

because the more of us die, the less he'll have to pay.

0:56:130:56:17

I've been willing to give my life

0:56:170:56:22

and now I'm told that my life is worth little or next to nothing.

0:56:220:56:27

The men's commanders, Drake and Howard, did what they could -

0:56:280:56:33

Howard even pawned his silver, but it wasn't enough.

0:56:330:56:36

It is said that, of the men who fought the Spanish Armada, only half were alive a year later.

0:56:360:56:43

It was a tragic end for the men of the Royal Navy,

0:56:450:56:48

but, for England, the defeat of the Armada was a turning point,

0:56:480:56:53

a triumph that will become legendary.

0:56:530:56:58

England had defended its faith, and to this day Britain remains a Protestant state.

0:56:580:57:05

The coming centuries would see Spain decline and Britain taking a turn as Europe's leading power.

0:57:050:57:12

The Royal Navy would play a central role

0:57:120:57:15

in winning Britain an empire greater than any the world had ever seen,

0:57:150:57:20

and it all began with the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

0:57:200:57:25

In the next programme, 350 years ago,

0:57:420:57:45

a battle was fought that would shake the British monarchy to its core.

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It was a turning point in a civil war

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that had ripped the country apart for three years.

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The battle is seen by many as the birthplace of British democracy,

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but it was a birth that was drenched in blood -

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blood shed on the battlefield of Naseby.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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Peter and Dan Snow relive the first great sea battle in British history. Both experienced sailors, the father and son team show how the English navy tried to fend off the much bigger, much more heavily-armed ships of the Spanish Armada for 11 days in 1588. They see for themselves why, despite hitting their mark, the English guns failed to sink many Spanish ships.