With 1588 the final crisis came. Philip — haughty, gloomy, and ambitious Philip, unskilled in arms, but persistent in his plans—sat in his palace at Madrid like a spider forever spinning webs that enemies tore down. Drake and the English had thrown the whole scheme of the Armada's mobilization completely out of gear. Philip's well-intentioned orders and counter-orders had made confusion worse confounded; and though the Spanish empire held half the riches of the world it felt the lack of ready money because English sea power had made it all parts and no whole for several months together. Then, when mobilization was resumed, Philip found himself distracted by expert advice from Santa Cruz, his admiral, and from Parma, Alva's successor in the Netherlands. The general idea was to send the Invincible Armada up the English Channel as far as the Netherlands, where Parma would be ready with a magnificent Spanish army waiting aboard troopships for safe conduct into England. The Spanish regulars could then hold London up to ransom or burn it to the ground. So far, so good. But Philip, to whom amphibious warfare remained an unsolved mystery, thought that the Armada and the Spanish army could conquer England without actually destroying the English fleet. He could not see where raids must end and conquest must begin. Most Spaniards agreed with him. Parma and Santa Cruz did not. Parma, as a very able general, wanted to know how his oversea communications could be made quite safe. Santa Cruz, as a very able admiral, knew that no such sea road could possibly be safe while the ubiquitous English navy was undefeated and at large. Some time or other a naval battle must be won, or Parma's troops, cut off from their base of supplies and surrounded like an island by an angry sea of enemies, must surely perish. Win first at sea and then on land, said the expert warriors, Santa Cruz and Parma. Get into hated England with the least possible fighting, risk, or loss, said the mere politician, Philip, and then crush Drake if he annoys you.
Early and late persistent Philip slaved away upon this 'Enterprize of England.' With incredible toil he spun his web anew. The ships were collected into squadrons; the squadrons at last began to wear the semblance of a fleet. But semblance only. There were far too many soldiers and not nearly enough sailors. Instead of sending the fighting fleet to try to clear the way for the troopships coming later on, Philip mixed army and navy together. The men-of-war were not bad of their kind; but the kind was bad. They were floating castles, high out of the water, crammed with soldiers, some other landsmen, and stores, and with only light ordnance, badly distributed so as to fire at rigging and superstructures only, not at the hulls as the English did. Yet this was not the worst. The worst was that the fighting fleet was cumbered with troopships which might have been useful in boarding, but which were perfectly useless in fighting of any other kind — and the English men-of-war were much too handy to be laid aboard by the lubberly Spanish troopships. Santa Cruz worked himself to death. In one of his last dispatches he begged for more and better guns. All Philip could do was to authorize the purchase of whatever guns the foreign merchantmen in Lisbon harbor could be induced to sell. Sixty second-rate pieces were obtained in this way.
Then, worn out by work and worry, Santa Cruz died, and Philip forced the command on a most reluctant landlubber, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a very great grandee of Spain, but wholly unfitted to lead a fleet. The death of Santa Cruz, in whom the fleet and army had great confidence, nearly upset the whole 'Enterprize of England.' The captains were as unwilling to serve under bandylegged, sea-sick Sidonia as he was unwilling to command them. Volunteering ceased. Compulsion failed to bring in the skilled ratings urgently required. The sailors were now not only fewer than ever—sickness and desertion had been thinning their ranks—but many of these few were unfit for the higher kinds of seamanship, while only the merest handful of them were qualified as seamen gunners. Philip, however, was determined; and so the doomed Armada struggled on, fitting its imperfect parts together into a still more imperfect whole until, in June, it was as ready as it ever could be made.
Meanwhile the English had their troubles too. These were also political. But the English navy was of such overwhelming strength that it could stand them with impunity. The Queen, after thirty years of wonderful, if tortuous, diplomacy, was still disinclined to drop the art in which she was supreme for that in which she counted for so much less and by which she was obliged to spend so very much more. There was still a little peace party also bent on diplomacy instead of war. Negotiations were opened with Parma at Flushing and diplomatic "feelers' went out towards Philip, who sent back some of his own. But the time had come for war. The stream was now too strong for either Elizabeth or Philip to stem or even divert into minor channels.
Lord Howard of Effingham, as Lord High Admiral of England, was charged with the defence at sea. It was impossible in those days to have any great force without some great nobleman in charge of it, because the people still looked on such men as their natural viceroys and commanders. But just as Sir John Norreys, the most expert professional soldier in England, was made Chief of the Staff to the Earl of Leicester ashore, so Drake was made Chief of the Staff to Howard afloat, which meant that he was the brain of the fleet.
A directing brain was sadly needed—not that brains were lacking, but that some one man of original and creative genius was required to bring the modern naval system into triumphant being. Like all political heads, Elizabeth was sensitive to public opinion; and public opinion was ignorant enough to clamor for protection by something that a man could see; besides which there were all those weaklings who have been described as the old women of both sexes and all ages, and who have always been the nuisance they are still. Adding together the old views of warfare, which nearly everybody held, and the human weaknesses we have always with us, there was a most dangerously strong public opinion in favor of dividing up the navy so as to let enough different places actually see that they had some visible means of divided defence.