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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Shakespeare and the Spanish Armada


I love “what if’s” of history.

What if Queen Elizabeth I did not inherit the throne from Mary?

What if King James did not inherit Queen Elizabeth I’s throne?

What if Shakespeare was never born?

I think we all suffer from hindsight bias, the belief that things that have happened could not have turned out any other way than how they did.

I see it all the time when I read about history. Scholars and historians often take it for granted that King James succeeded Elizabeth, for example, as if the other claimants to her throne didn’t have a chance.

So the “what if” game is a fun and interesting way to challenge our assumptions about history, and explore what might have happened.


I have been reading about the Spanish Armada in 1588, and I came across a great "what if."

On 29 July, the Spanish Armada sailed within view of the English coast, south of Plymouth Harbour.

The Armada was a fleet of 130 ships, sent by King Philip II of Spain to invade and conquer England. The Armada was under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia.

There had been a cold war between England and Spain for many years, and King Philip wanted to turn it into a very hot war.

King Philip II of Spain, ca 1580

Philip’s personal motto was non sufficit orbis, which translates to “The world is not enough.” He clearly wanted to conquer as much land as possible during his lifetime, and England was his next target.

At the same time that the Armada was coming within view of England, Queen Elizabeth’s fleet was in the harbour at Plymouth. Under the command of Lord Admiral Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake, the ships of the Queen’s fleet were loading provisions on the ships, to prepare for the coming Spanish Armada.

Lord Admiral Howard
Sir Francis Drake

Little did Howard and Drake know that the Armada was already preying upon their shores.

On board Medina-Sidonia’s flagship, the San Martin, there was a council of war. Some of the captains of the Armada argued to immediately go to Plymouth harbour in search of the English fleet.

If the English fleet was there, they wanted to launch a surprise attack.

Little did Medina-Sidonia know that even if Howard and Drake wanted to leave the harbour, they could not. The wind and the tides were keeping the English fleet trapped in the harbour.

The Spanish didn’t know that the English ships were in fact there, and they were trapped by the weather. The English fleet were sitting ducks.

What if the Spanish Armada had attacked the English fleet on 29 July 1588?


If they had attacked right there and then, it is very possible that Howard and Drake, and many more Englishmen, would have lost their lives. No matter how valiantly they would have fought, it would probably have been a terrible loss for England and a terrific victory for Spain.

Once the English fleet was defeated, ships sunk in the harbour, or crippled and no longer sea-worthy, the Spanish Armada could have sailed on up the coast of England without anyone to stop them.

The Armada could have proceeded with their plan, to take a Spanish army across the Channel and land them at Margate, where the invasion of England would have begun.

Could Spain have really invaded England? Could Spain have really invaded and conquered the England? I think the answer is yes. It certainly had the navy and army to do it. And it certainly had the desire. 


No doubt Englishmen would have rallied to fight the Spanish, and there would have been victories and losses on both sides. But it is entirely within the realm of possibility that London could have fallen, and Queen Elizabeth I removed from power.

Spain was the only superpower in the world at the time. England was much poorer and weaker, and was struggling to assert itself as a power to rival Spain.

But in July 1588, Spain could well have won this war, and could have conquered England.


But none of that happened. Medina-Sidonia decided against attacking the English fleet at Plymouth.

Soon after he made this very fateful decision, Howard and Drake received word that the Armada had arrived.

As soon as the wind changed, and the tide turned, Howard and Drake sailed from Plymouth. They would battle the Armada over several days in some of the toughest and bloodiest battles in the history of the world.

These bravest of Englishmen turned the tide of war, and made history. They saved England in one of her darkest times, and saved Elizabeth's throne.

Queen Elizabeth, in her Armada Portrait

What does this have to do with Shakespeare?

Well, Shakespeare had probably arrived in London by this time, and was just beginning to perform as an actor, and write his plays.

It is very doubtful that he would have had any success if a Spanish king had taken the English throne. I doubt very much that any English poet or playwright would be remembered at all, under a Spanish monarch.

We probably wouldn’t know Shakespeare’s name, and there would be no plays of his performed today.

What if there were no Shakespeare?

We have Howard and Drake and their band of brothers to thank for Shakespeare, too.

Cheers,




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