Naval Expansion During the Protestant Reformation

A map illustrating the historical sites of engagement between the English and the Spanish during the failed invasion attempt of England in 1588. It is covered in the iconography of the later British Empire who were considered the greatest naval power during this Enlightenment age.

In 1588, Spain sent out a fleet of around 130 ships that they called ‘la felícissima armada’ or ‘the most fortunate fleet,’ to attack Britain and transport troops to her shores. This failed attack took on a legendary place in British national history, though its impacts were relatively limited (Wiesner-Hanks, 195). But while this episode may be given an outsized position in the history books, the coming importance of naval warfare epitomized by the defeat of the Spanish Armada has not been overstated.

Navies had been increasing in importance and equipment since the late Middle Ages when merchants and traders began to be involved in arming trading vessels to protect shipping routes and communication lines as well as ports and towns (Wiesner-Hanks, 96). This necessity was increased by the ferocity of religious wars sparked by the Protestant Reformation that led to both international conflicts, and civil wars throughout Europe during the middle of the 16th century (Holt, 63). Navies were advantageous as they could be kept in active service during peacetime when it was expensive and infeasible to keep standing armies. Mariners could simply turn their hands toward maritime trade when there were no wars to be fought which led to greater experience in many skilled positions (Wiesner-Hanks, 96). These navies were expanded by the use of conscription during wartime (especially in Northern Europe) and the use of prisoners to work in galley fleets (ships that required men to row them) especially in Southern Europe (Wiesner-Hanks, 96). During the 17th century, many nations expanded their navies focusing on heavily armed warships instead of casually maintained merchant vessels with a few guns in response to the growing number and size of wars fought on the seas (Wiesner-Hanks, 325). This adaptation became most important for nations like England that relied almost entirely on their navy for protection and later expansion, giving way to the common epigraph that Britannia Ruled the Waves.

Much of the increase in naval power was in recognition of the need to protect maritime trade routes that were fast becoming an economic backbone of Europe (Wiesner-Hanks, 96). These lines of trade and communication had become far more valuable with the broadening of the known world and the increase in market