What if the Spanish Armada had succeeded?

The Spanish Armada and King Phillip II
Left: Painting of the Spanish Armada by an unknown painter. Right: Philip II of Spain | Wikimedia | Public Domain

Years of hostilities between the English and the Spanish culminated in King Philip II of Spain assembling the largest fleet ever seen in Europe. That flotilla, known as the ‘Invincible Armada’, was made up of 130 ships and around 25,000 men. It set sail from Lisbon, Portugal, in late May 1588 with the hopes of picking up 30,000 Spanish soldiers from Flanders, Belgium, before heading towards English shores to commence a land invasion.

Philip wished to dethrone Elizabeth I and re-install a Catholic monarchy in England. However, the invasion didn’t go to plan and the fleet never made it to Flanders let alone English soil. A combination of poor leadership and strategy, faster English ships and bad weather all culminated in the retreat of the Armada back to Spanish shores. When the fleet eventually made it back to Spain, nearly half of the 130 ships had been lost.

The English victory has been heralded as one of the greatest military triumphs in English history, a turning point in the nation’s rise to global supremacy. The defeat of Spain’s Armada was the pinnacle of Elizabeth I’s reign, which not only firmly established Protestantism in the country but also laid the foundation for England’s dominance of the seas. This in turn led to the rise of the British Empire.

But what if the invasion had gone Spain’s way? How might English or indeed world history look if the Armada had broken through? Let’s take a look…

How the Armada could have won

Before we dive into the historical ramifications of a Spanish win, let us first analyse just how Spain might have secured a victory over the English during the summer of 1588.

Spies for Elizabeth had long reported on the amassing of the Spanish invasion fleet, so the element of surprise for Spain was non-existent by 1588. Sir Francis Drake had also conducted a successful raid on Cádiz in 1587, which became known as 'Singeing the King of Spain's Beard'. The raid destroyed several ships and supplies, reportedly setting the Armada’s launch date back a full year. This gave the English time to make preparations of their own, which included building up their fleet and the creation of an early warning system of beacons spread across the south coast. The beacons were lit when the Spanish fleet came into view, rapidly reporting the news to London.

The Armada would have had a greater chance of success had it not taken so long to launch. An earlier invasion date would not only have seen England less prepared but also the Spanish fleet under the command of one of Spain’s greatest naval leaders, Álvaro de Bazán, the Marquis de Santa Cruz. In his fifty-year career, Álvaro de Bazán was never defeated. However, the experienced admiral died in February 1588, just a few months before the actual Armada launched. This led to Philip appointing the Duke of Medina to the role of commander, a man who had zero naval experience and was blamed for a multitude of strategic errors during the invasion. Had the Armada launched earlier, it might well have benefitted from the command of Álvaro de Bazán as well as an ill-prepared England.

So let us imagine the Spanish had launched earlier and successfully joined forces with the army camped at Flanders. They would have then had to tackle the logistically complicated task of transporting troops, artillery and horses across the English Channel, requiring a great deal of luck from the weather, tides and sea. If all that went to plan then it's likely the battle-hardened and well-trained Spanish troops would have advanced on London with relative ease.

At that time, the Spanish army was considered the best in Europe whilst the English army was poorly led, trained and supplied. The Spanish also hoped after they landed that uprisings would occur across the country as Catholic sympathisers looked to seize upon the opportunity to oust the Protestant regime.

That being said, a Spanish victory on land was by no means certain considering they were the ones fighting on foreign soil. Philip knew that an all-out victory was a hard push, which is why he hoped the Spanish presence alone on English soil would be enough to at least force Elizabeth to make concessions to his cause.

What next for England?

For this alternative take on history, let’s imagine the Spanish troops had made it to London and captured the Queen and her court. A Catholic ruler and ally to Philip would have been installed leading to the ousting of Elizabeth I. Where England would have gone from there is divided into two historical directions and opinions.

Some believe England would have found its way back to Protestantism due to the strength of the movement in the country at that time. The people, fed up with the persecutions of the previous Catholic monarchies, would have risen up and made it hard for Philip to keep his grip on the country. Spain was already embroiled in several conflicts; a drawn out guerrilla war in England might not have been one they could have sustained. If that were the case, the future of England might not look so different to the current one.

Then there are those that believe a change to the English monarchy in 1588 would have had monumental ramifications on world history. The loss of the Protestant regime, along with the defeat of any subsequent uprisings, would have meant that the English support for the Protestant Dutch rebels currently fighting for independence would have dried up. Without such support, it’s unlikely that Dutch independence would have come about. No Netherlands, no Dutch Empire.

Even greater still, with England now a part of the Spanish Empire there would likely no longer be a future British Empire. Although the defeat of the Armada has often been credited as the moment when England stamped its authority on the Seven Seas, this is not the case. It did, however, lay the groundwork and foundation for the country to realise its naval potential, which in turn led to the growth, development and rise of the British Empire over the coming centuries.

A Spanish Armada victory would almost certainly have destroyed any naval or imperial ambitions that England and its future trading companies might then have had. No British Empire, no East India Company, no imperial exploration and colonisation. The makeup of our world today would be drastically different.

There certainly wouldn't have been any Thirteen Colonies in North America. This would have given Spain the opportunity to spread its influence of the New World further northwards, significantly altering the geo-political landscape of North America.

In this altered timeline, Spain would have become the dominant global superpower with Spanish being the most widely spoken language, suggesting that the defeat of their Armada was truly one of history’s greatest turning points.