On the 30th of July 1588, sudden gale-force winds drove the Spanish Armada northwards and scattered the remaining ships across the North Sea. The abrupt change in winds occurred only a day after the defeat of Philip II of Spain’s “Invincible Armada” at the Battle of Gravelines, marking the final battle between English and Spanish battle fleets, resulting in a loss of no fewer than five ships (galleys) and 2,000 men for the Spanish.
Risking running aground on enemy territory along the Dutch coast, the Armada was forced to alter its course and return to Spain via Scotland and Ireland. Sir Francis Drake wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham about this remarkable turn of events, saying: ‘there was never anything pleased me better than seeing the enemy flying with a southerly wind northward. We have the Spaniards before us, and the mind, with the grace of God, to wrestle a pull with them.’
Charles Howard, the English Lord High Admiral who led England’s fleet against the Spanish Armada, believed that the majority of the Spanish ships were so severely damaged that they would likely sink before reaching a safe harbor, and did not consider it necessary to follow what was left of the battered battle fleet. At least a third of the Spanish fleet either sank or suffered damage.
The incident earned the name ‘Protestant Wind’ as it was believed that God had sent it to protect Queen Elizabeth I’s England from Catholic forces. Celebratory medals were struck bearing the inscription Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt, meaning ‘Jehovah blew with His wind and they were scattered.’
To add insult to injury, on the perilous journey back to Spain, the Armada was struck by ferocious thunderstorms, causing more than 20 Spanish vessels to wreck or capsize in hostile British waters.
The ‘Protestant Wind’ and its ‘destruction’ of the Armada was later promoted as manifestation of God’s wrath over Catholics and protection of Protestants. However, in actuality, the defeated Spanish fleet was already limping back to Spain when its remaining ships were wrecked by the sudden tempests.
Initially dispatched by Philip II in May of 1588, the enormous Armada originally consisted of 130 vessels commanded by well-armed soldiers mustered in Flanders expecting to invade England and overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. Boarded by 180 Catholic priests, the grand plan was to sail up the Channel and unite with the Duke of Parma’s forces from across the Spanish Netherlands, enabling Philip to resume his reign as King of England, a title acquired by his marriage to Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary Tudor, and restore Catholicism in the country.
However, the slow-moving Armada was delayed by inclement weather and later quashed by Elizabeth I’s growing forces. The defeat rankled throughout Spain, marking a pinnacle of triumph for England and signaling the ‘beginning of the end’ for Spain as a global power. Three subsequent attempts were made to launch armadas against England and Ireland in 1596, 1597, and 1601, though these endeavours also proved futile, largely attributed to adverse weather conditions. In 1589, Elizabeth launched a failed Counter Armada against Spain.
The “cold-war” between England and Spain continued until 1604, over 15 years after the original Spanish Armada set sail for Elizabeth’s misty isle.