Lady Luck played a curious role in defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory. Philip II of Spain believed he had no alternative to crushing Elizabeth I. He already controlled the Spanish Netherlands which were often referred to as the low country; however Protestant influence was spreading as a direct consequence of sponsorship from the virgin Queen. With England also under his control he could rule the English Channel. He believed that Scotia and Hibernia would at the very least assume neutral status, more because of their hatred of the English than any love for Iberia. There was also much Catholic support in these bordering domains. There was, in addition, the small matter of Sir Francis Drake’s attack the previous year on the harbour of Cadiz, where many ships destined for the Armada were being built. Considerable losses were sustained in sea power and naval personnel. This home defeat rankled with Philip to the point of obsession. Even when the fleet was, in his opinion up to strength again in 1588, he made quite an incredible decision by filling the position left by the loss of Admiral Santa Cruz, who died in 1586. Medina Sidonia, a very accomplished army heavyweight and nobleman, was bestowed with the dubious honour.
Exactly what the rank and file crews made of this is not well documented, but the entire plan seemed to be sinking in terms of credibility. A key part of the strategy was to navigate the Channel and pick up soldiers currently occupying the Spanish Netherlands.
They had however underestimated Sidonia, and even Philip confessed, but only to himself, that it was an inadvertent stroke of genius to appoint the army man as Admiral of the fleet. One of the first things he did was to abandon the plan to pick up the land forces and risk losing them aboard sinking vessels. He did not however disclose this intention to anyone. He knew that there was no port in these Netherlands deep enough to conduct such an operation safely even without Drake breathing down his neck. The solution he had inherited was to march the army to Normandie. He knew it would be a bitter debate to try to countermand Philip’s death trap, so he apparently went along with it, and crucially so did all of the spies who would report such stupidity back to Elizabeth. In a clandestine agreement with Danish noblemen he decided to feign flight from Drake’s fleet into what would be realised too late as a trap. The renowned Drake ‘floating bomb’ tactic of sending flaming vessels into collision with the Spanish galleons never got off the ground. These ‘Hell Burners’ depended on the enemy being sluggish or clustered without much room for manoeuvre. Sidonia’s crescent formation allowed speed and defensive protection. When Drake eventually felt the Spanish were cornered in some God-forsaken Nordic harbour, the entire naval manpower of both sides was exhausted. The English spirit however was briefly rekindled when their prey was apparently in a predicament worse than the anticipated location in France. The Danish mercenaries, who had no religious leaning, were brimming with energy, spoiling for a fight, and well equipped with vessels designed specifically for the tidal turmoil in the region. The crowning factor was the short, deep but narrow strait access to the inner calm of the real harbour. Only two ships at a time could traverse this channel, and of his 130 vessels, Sidonia sent his 22 galleons through first to then volte-face and fire upon the eager pursuers. The last four Spanish ships in the channel were halted and offered as sacrificial gambits as their crew took to the rescue boats awaiting them. With the channel effectively blocked, the Danes closing in from behind, Sidonia taking aim from calm water, and the appearance of catapults despatching fireballs from both banks of the channel, Drake’s fate was sealed. His temporary upsurge in morale had been replaced by the sudden realisation that his navy would be totally eradicated. And so it was. After resting with his co-conspirators, Sidonia sailed back to Normandie to collect a fresh, well preserved land invasion force. This had been his thinking all along. Unless the transfer of his army could be achieved with little or no loss, the naval battle would have been of little relevance.