The History of the Americans

The History of the Americans

The Defeat of the Spanish Armada and the Survival of Protestant England Part 1

October 28, 2021

On August 28, 1587, John White, the leader of the last Roanoke Colony, climbed on board Edward Spicer’s flyboat and returned to England. His mandate was to secure supplies and more settlers to reinforce the people he had left behind, who included his own daughter and granddaughter, Eleanor and Virginia Dare.  He would not in fact be able to return for almost three years, by which time the roughly 116 colonists back in North Carolina had vanished completely, leaving behind only scant clues.

White would take three years to return because an undeclared but existential war had broken out between England and Spain, known to history as the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604. The war was existential not for England the country – had Philip II and Spain won the war, England would have continued to exist as a country, and in their daily lives most English people would have seen very little change. Philip II would have become King of England, as he had already been years before during his marriage to Mary Tudor, and the liturgy at church on Sunday would have changed in ways that we moderns would have regarded as hilariously trivial.  However, the war was existential for Elizabeth I and her Protestant elite who, among other things, sustained English naval power and supported North American colonization. It is very hard to imagine that an England ruled by Philip II and an entirely different batch of nobles, Catholic “recusants” emerged from the political shadows, would have settled North America.  Nor would there have been successful Protestant Dutch settlement, because the defeat of Elizabeth would also have meant the end of Dutch Protestantism as a political force. The city in that harbor discovered by Verrazzano more than sixty years before would more likely have been New Seville or New Lisbon than New Amsterdam or New York.

Fortunately, the English had Sir Francis Drake, who in the spring of 1587 would raid the Spanish port of Cadiz and occupy Sagres roadstead off Cape St. Vincent, destroying more than 100 Spanish and Portuguese ships and boats and much of the supplies for the Spanish Armada. And then he would go on to grab a Portuguese treasure ship that would substantially bolster Elizabeth's finances just when she needed it most.

Selected references for this episode

Garrett Mattingly, The Armada

Robert Hutchinson, The Spanish Armada: A History

John Sugden, Sir Francis Drake

Andrew Shepherd, "The Spanish Armada in Lisbon: preparing to invade England"