The defeat of the Gran Armada (1588) marks the culmination of the reign of Elizabeth I and the founding moment in British history. But the English version of this event, according to a documentary now released by the BBC, is “full of exaggerations, distortions and even gigantic lies, fake news.”

The defeat of the Great Spanish Armada (1588), which the English always mockingly refer to as the Invincible Armada, marks the culmination of the achievements of Elizabeth I of England and the founding moment in British history. The naval victory of England made Sir Francis Drake and especially Elizabeth I herself, the Virgin Queen, into icons.

The historian, curator of the British Royal palaces, and presenter Lucy Worsley (above in the video), in this BBC documentary called Royal History’s Biggest Fibs, amends the inaccuracies in the official version of British historiography. According to Lucy Worsley, it is “full of exaggerations, distortions, and even gigantic lies …, fake news”. In her documentary, he shows that people believe what they want to believe, that the victors write history as they please, and that the real failure was that of the Invincible English or Contraarmada, that is, the invasion fleet sent by Isabel I against Felipe II in the spring of 1589, in the framework of the operations of the Anglo-Spanish war (1585-1604).

Playing bowling

English children are told that the sea lion Sir Francis Drake was bowling with Elizabeth I at Plymouth when the Armada was first spotted. Drake turned to Lord Howard, the commander of the English fleet, and said, “We still have plenty of time to finish the game and then to beat up the Spanish.” Lucy Worsley adds: “It’s the classic British exit, the unconcern under fire.” However, “it is likely that it was a complete invention”. None of the early accounts about the Armada mentions anyone bowling. The first one that refers to bowling is 25 years after the event, that is, 25 years after the defeat of the Armada in 1588. That historical document tells of the sailors of Plymouth dancing, playing bowling, and celebrating it on the coast. About another 150 years later, local tales about Drake entered the history books, and around 1888, at the height of the British Empire, the tale of the crushing of the Spanish was found in every text. Drake became the perfect imperial hero to inspire future generations with his phlegm.

The fake news of Francis Drake playing bowling crosses the centuries and is reflected in this phrase by Winston Churchill, while the Nazis bombed London: “We have to see the next few weeks as… the days when the Spanish Armada approached the English Channel and Drake was finishing their bowling game. ”

Felipe II apoyó a Isabel I

Lucy Worsley emphasizes that the history of the Spanish Armada was manipulated from the beginning. It is presented as a personal battle between two staunch enemies: Felipe II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England. In 1588, Feliepe II, a devout Catholic, was 61 years old, and the king of a global empire. Elizabeth was 54 years old, single, childless, and the Protestant Queen of England. British historiography continues that Felipe could not bear to see Elizabeth on the throne. But in reality, in 1554, 34 years before the defeat of the Armada, Felipe II became part of the Tudor family by marrying María (daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon), Elizabeth’s Catholic stepsister (she was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn). Felipe II, “the great villain in the history of the Spanish Armada”, was also King of England for four years.

When she came to the throne in 1553, Mary Tudor reversed the Protestant Reformation and restored England to the Catholic faith. Maria thought Elizabeth was illegitimate, “the daughter of a whore”. He doubted his loyalty. He even locked her up for some time in the Tower of London. But, watch out, it was Felipe II who persuaded his wife to release Elizbeth.

If left without heir, as it happened, the alternatives to the English throne were first Elizabeth I, then Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, but “Mary Stuart was betrothed to the son of the King of France. England would have been absorbed into the French Empire if Mary of Scotland had become Queen of England; it would have brought England under the control of Felipe’s enemies, the French”, says Professor Susan Doran, a historian at the University of Oxford, in the documentary. Elizabeth was the best of the worst alternatives as far as Felipe was concerned. Also, according to Professor Susan Doran, “Felipe was convinced that he could make her a good Catholic. Elizabeth seemed submissive, she went to Catholic celebrations, including mass. If she had had the right husband, she would have settled or at least left the Church where it was”.

In November 1558, Maria Tudor was on her deathbed. Felipe knew that when she passed away, his influence over England would die as well. Thus he sent his ambassador just to remind Elizabeth how much he had supported her. The meeting did not go well. Elizabeth completely excluded the King of Spain from her life. Felipe tried for the last time to safeguard Catholic England. He asked Elizabeth to marry him, on the condition that she convert to the Roman Catholic faith. Months later, she rejected him. By then, Felipe was negotiating an alliance with France, and married a French princess (Isabel de Valois). Lucy Worsley comments: “Elizabeth laughed and joked. It was classic for Elizabeth to comment that Felipe could not have loved her so much if he had not been able to wait even a few months for her answer. But they didn’t quarrel about it. Their letters stayed in the zone of peace. He refers to her as his sister whom he loved. They resolved that they would remain as allies.”

Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England in 1558 and converted her country to the Protestant faith. The country was divided. For many in his court, Elizabeth was not sufficiently Protestant, for others, too much. The Pope encouraged Catholics to rebel and put pressure on Felipe II to get rid of the queen. But Felipe didn’t want to go to war with Isabel just for that.

Spain was attacked first

The legend says that it was Catholic Spain that was the aggressor, the one that wanted to invade England just because England was Protestant. Lucy Worsley points out: “But that is too simplistic a way of presenting events. To lead Felipe to war, more dimensions had to be included than religion. Felipe had a global empire. And the Pope had given him a monopoly on the routes to America. In the third decade of her reign, Elizabeth began to challenge Felipe’s global dominance. He encouraged English sailors like Francis Drake to plunder Spanish ships and ports in the New World. Their coffers were soon filled with Spanish gold. In 1580, Drake returned from a lucrative bypass around the globe. Isabel rewarded him with the knighthood. Drake’s knighthood investiture marked him as a national symbol. But not everyone liked it. For the Spanish, Drake was nothing more than a pirate, a thief who had stolen Hispanic gold. Elizabeth couldn’t afford a full-blown war against Felipe, but she was determined to curb Spanish power before it crushed Protestant Europe.”

Dressed in a flamenco costume in the documentary, Lucy Worsley adds: “England was not only determined to damage Spain’s interests in the New World, but it was also prodding Spain at its doorstep, in Europe. In Felipe’s territory, in the Netherlands, the Protestant population rebelled. Elizabeth sent an army of more than 6,000 men to help the Protestant revolt. The queen circulated a pamphlet throughout Europe to justify her action. She said that she was not attacking his brother and ally, Felipe, but was defending his neighbors. To make matters even worse, English ships were raiding ports on the Spanish coast at the same time.”

Ballads working like fake news

Given that, and after two years of preparation, the Spanish Armada finally set sail in May 1588 to invade England. Lucy Worsley relates: “In the usual history of the Spanish Armada it is presented as invincible, the largest fleet that had ever left to fight against England. Basically, the Armada was Goliath. Meanwhile, England was David, the heroic little homeless, fighting a cruel giant determined to fill the streets of London with blood.”

This image is quite exaggerated. It was not the largest fleet that had ever attacked England. The largest invading fleets had been that of the Normans in 1066, and that of the French in 1545. The Spanish fleet had about 130 ships. The Queen’s Navy had only 34 ships. But Isabel recruited an army of private ships that ultimately outnumbered the Spanish.”

The first two Armada’s biggest losses came from itself. A collision within the Spanish fleet allowed Francis Drake to capture one of the damaged ships, El Rosario. That caused them to lavish British folk ballads, as Professor Christopher Marsh (Queen’s University Belfast) recalls, that played the role of political news and commentary. A few days after the capture of El Rosario, Thomas Deloney had composed a song with these lyrics:

With mighty power
They came to our house
To invade our country,
To show off and boast,
To deflower
Our virgins in our sight,
And in the cradles, cruelly,
Annihilate the cuddly baby.

In the documentary there is a dialogue between Lucy Worsley and Christopher Marsh:

(Lucy Worsley) It seems that this type of ballads was common, but if you actually look at the words they are fake news, right?

– (Christopher Marsh) Yes, without a doubt … The emphasis is on the power of the Spanish, on the idea that they were an immense force, an immensely armed fleet, and the tiny and helpless England somehow survived. What is not known is the fact that El Rosario somehow fell by itself, colliding with another Spanish ship… But the ballad is more about the struggle between an imposing Catholic empire and a small Protestant nation.

– (LW) There is something in the language used in all that. We have virgins that will be deflowered and babies that will be annihilated. It’s the language of the tabloids, right?

– (CM) Undoubtedly. It stirs up hysteria against a dangerous foreign force. It would seem that people see through it but it is rather that people believe what they want to believe.

More fake news: “The heart and stomach of a king”

The Spanish Armada continued to navigate the English Channel for eight days. But when they reached Calais, there was no sign of the invading Spanish troops coming from Flanders in support. The Navy had to wait exposed to attack.

This is Elizabeth’s great moment. The queen visited her army at Tilbury, on the banks of the Thames, where it had gathered to protect the city of Essex. She delivered a shocking harangue to his troops. She claimed that she, herself, was in the midst of the soldiers and in the heat of battle to live and die with all of them. She said:

“I know I have the body of a weak and sickly woman, but the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England as well. I, myself, will take up arms. I, myself, will be your general, your judge and the one who rewards your virtues on the battlefield” (Elizabeth I of England).

In the traditional English version of the story, the queen’s speech triggered the attack. The English set eight of their own ships ablaze and launched them into the midst of the Armada. Panicking, the Spanish ships weighed anchor and were scattered. Three collided and one ran aground. In the battle that followed, four Spanish ships were lost. Then a strong wind blew the Armada north. To avoid further losses, the Spanish headed home via Scotland and Ireland.

The cinema is recreated with Elizabeth I in Tilbury, here the actress Cate Blanchett gives her body

The cinema world enjoys Elizabeth I in Tilbury, here played by the actress Cate Blanchett

But beware, says Lucy Worsley: “It seems as if Isabel’s rallying cry worked, but in fact, the story of her most famous speech is riddled with holes and the biggest lie of all is the chronology. When Isabel began planning her visit to Tilbury, the invasion seemed imminent. But when she actually delivered the speech, the battle had already passed. That show at Tilbury took place eleven days after those ships had been set on fire. By the time of the queen’s speech, the Spanish Armada was gone and was already on the shores of Scotland. Not only did the English soldiers not fight, but they were soon sent home. And that was because the queen could not afford to pay them.”

Where do these falsehoods come from, then? Lucy Worsley reveals: “A poet, James Aske, who claimed to have been in Tilbury, wrote epic verses on the ‘Elizabethan triumphs’, in November 1588. He mythologizes Elizabeth as a warrior queen and places her speech in Tilbury before the battle for a more dramatic effect. However, Aske does not mention the most famous line of his harangue. The reference “to the heart and stomach of a king” did not appear until 35 years after the event. It was introduced by a Protestant chaplain who would have also been to the Tilbury, and who was eager to glorify Elizabeth, long deceased. Historians still argue about the authenticity of the harangue.”

The Queen’s speech at Tilbury is now part of British history. Continue to inspire in the 21st century. Actress Cate Blanchett (pictured above) has portrayed her in the movies. During the 2019 women’s soccer world cup, an advertisement remembered it with famous faces.

God on our side: “He breathed and they were scattered”

Lucy Worsley recounts: “When the Navy embarked on its long journey back to Spain, at least 22 ships sank in storms along the coast of Scotland and Ireland. It was neither the queen nor her ships that delivered the decisive blow to the Spanish Armada, it was the weather. That factor was also apt for Isabel’s narrative. The storms that dispersed the Navy were storms of God, which meant that God had sided with the Protestant side and throughout Europe, the Protestants agreed to take advantage of the circumstance. Even Elizabeth herself wrote a verse in which she praised God who had made the winds and the waters rise to scatter all her enemies. In the Netherlands, commemorative medals were made“, like the one Worsley shows in the documentary, which says: “He blew” and they “were scattered” (dissipati, in Latin). England was transformed into a unified, victorious, Protestant nation.

God blew and they were scattered (dissipati)

God blew and they were scattered (dissipati)

“After the Armada – Lucy Worsley recounts – Protestant propaganda continued. A letter from a Catholic priest in England addressed to the Spanish ambassador in Paris, was published throughout Europe. The person who wrote it saw it very regrettable that Spain had tried to invade England, and stressed that even the Catholics in England considered it a bad idea, a mistake in the eyes of God. Those English Catholics were more loyal to the Queen than to the Pope. The word he uses is “addicted”. He says they were addicted to her, to the queen. And some copies add: ‘Here ends the story of the misfortune of the Spanish Armada, which was called Invincible. Invincible. Hahaha’. Invincible is written in capital letters, just to underline this delicious irony. The description of the Armada as invincible still appears today in our history books, but that adjective was never used by the Spanish to describe their Armada. But it is even worse. The letter was fake. It was a fake. It was made by the machiavellian William Cecil, a close advisor to Elizabeth. There are even drafts of that letter in his own handwriting. A brilliant success of fake news. People believed it and they thought that if even English Catholics were happy with the queen, then she should really rule over a unified nation.”

Pageant and death

In November 1588, Queen Elizabeth organized a procession through London. It was their victory parade. Yet her promises at Tilbury to reward his soldiers were actually hollow rhetoric. The war had emptied the royal coffers. The sailors who fought for England fell ill and were vainly claiming their pay. The Crown threatened prison with those who “slanderously” suggested that they had not been paid. William Cecil salted the wound. He said, “Well, if the soldiers die of disease, then at least the Crown won’t have to pay them”. By the end of 1588, more than half of the men who fought in the campaign against the Spanish Armada had died, and they had not been killed by the Spanish, but by disease and famine.

The reality of the post-Armada England was an economic crisis and an increasingly unpopular queen. But history set out to camouflage all that thanks to the sycophantic courtiers. They commissioned a painting celebrating the queen, her pearls, her virginity, and especially her victory over the Navy. It is known as The Portrait of the Armada. In the documentary, the art historian Allison Goudie comments it in depth.

Portrait of the Armada

Portrait of the Armada

In 1592 Lord Howard, the commander of the Navy who fought with Francis Drake against the Great Armada, commissioned ten tapestries for his London home. They reflected his account of the battle on a gigantic scale. In 1616, Howard sold his tapestries to King James. And they hung themselves in the heart of political power, in the House of Lords. By the end of the 18th century the tapestries had become an integral part of Westminster. They were not just a reminder of a great historical event. They were also used as propaganda in their own right. In 1834 Westminster burned down. But a plan quickly emerged to recreate the tapestries as paintings for the newly rebuilt Victorian Palace of Westminster.

It is significant that this historical episode was chosen, adds Lucy Worsley. It was as if Queen Victoria wished to “fall for a little of that past glory”. Historian Sileas Wood comments that in this way a “very clear line of continuity between Victoria herself and all the Tudor ancestors” was drawn, just when, in the 19th century, Britain ruled the seas.

About 400 years after the Armada, another leader was proud to align herself with warrior Elizabeth I. In January 1976, Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech called Britain Awake. It was a call to the British to oppose communism and Russian aggression. Responding to that speech, the Soviet newspaper Red Star gave a nickname to Margaret Thatcher who has made her fortune: Margaret Thatcher was the Iron Lady. She responded a week later with another speech that is interpreted as an allusion to Elizabeth I, that of the “heart and stomach of a king.”

In 1998, General Pinochet was held under house arrest in England. Spain wanted to extradite him to try him for crimes against humanity. Margaret Thatcher confronted Spain and was fully involved in his liberation. He got it. Before Pinochet left the UK capital, his friend Thatcher presented him with a plaque commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The last big little lie

In 1589, Sir Francis Drake launched an attack against Spain. His orders were to destroy all that was left of the Spanish fleet, to invade Portugal, which then belonged to Spain, and to put a Portuguese king on the throne. But the expedition failed. The English Contraarmada was a disaster.

Lucy Worsley, at this point in the documentary, almost at the end, interviews the Spanish historian Luis Gorrochategui Santos, author of Contra Armada. The greatest naval catastrophe in the history of England.

– (Lucy Worsley) Today, the English have forgotten the history of the Contraarmada. Was it well known at the time it happened, in the 16th century?

– (Luis Gorrochategui Santos) The catastrophe of the Contraarmada was well known in England. The catastrophe was horrible. More than 20,000 men, more than four-fifths of the men who participated in the expedition, lost their lives. Of course, it was known in England at that time. However, as early as the summer of 1589, exculpatory propaganda pamphlets were published to hide the catastrophe from the eyes of English public opinion and European public opinion.

– (LW) The pamphlets downplayed failure and charged against negative accounts of the expedition, described as malicious slander.

– (LGS) Elizabeth I knew how to handle propaganda very well, much better than Felipe II.

– (LW) Was our propaganda better?

– (LGS) Yes, of course. At that time Spain was a universal empire, the English Empire had not yet been born. For Felipe II the defeat of the Contraarmada was not important, as important as for England the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Spain was the first power and England a country that wanted to enter history. The opposite from today.

– (LW) So we, the English, like to think that England defeated Spain. We won. But it’s not that simple, is it?

– (LGS) No, it is not. The Spanish Armada returned to Spain and was repaired; the English Contraarmada the following year, suffered a catastrophe that was double that of the Spanish Armada the previous year. In such a way that it cannot be said that England won the war. It cannot be said that England sank the Spanish Armada. That was a myth created for the forging of national identity, a national pride. A nationalist, mythical, English, totally untouchable, a sacred story has been built on that myth. The Contraarmada would be a hindrance to that story. The Contraarmada has disappeared from English history books for that reason.


For more than 400 years, the mythical history of the defeat of the Spanish Armada has filled Britain with a sense of confidence, ambition, and smug independence. Recently, in the midst of the Brexit war, the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared: “No one in the last centuries has succeeded in betting against the courage, nerve, and ambition of this country.”

Lucy Worsley concludes: “The history of the Spanish Armada, as told by the Elizabethans and recounted for generations since then, is a very powerful legacy. It has been manipulated by monarchs, artists, and politicians for centuries. But it remains an inspiring national myth that reaffirms us in times of crisis. It is used to convince us that our little island can take on superpowers, that we come from a line with cool-headed and inspired leaders, in such a way that, small as we are, we can play a powerful role in the world stage. Even in a secular age like ours, it seems as if the English, the British people, feel especially marked for greatness. Thus, regardless of whether it is true or not, the drama or the defeat of the Armada gives us the confidence to believe in ourselves. Who knows where this mixture of facts, fantasy, and lies will take us next? ”

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On This Day

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