Ancient history

"Offensive and defensive warfare by sea". Atlantic naval hegemony in the Eighty Years' War

This was because industry, government and the state economy were not fully prepared to bear the enormous cost of creating and continuously maintaining such a navy. However, with the expansion across the Atlantic and the Pacific, it became necessary to create a force that could guarantee the defense of the extensive Spanish possessions in the world and of the trade routes that held them together, because although there were protection squads near the coasts for the ships coming from the Indies, these were not enough.

Philip II:Growth and consolidation

It would be during the reign of Felipe II when a greater concern arose to defend the Atlantic, so the idea of ​​having a permanent oceanic navy took on enough strength to be able to put it into practice. The main catalysts for the importance of the Atlantic scenario for the Crown were the rebellion of the Netherlands in 1568 –which seriously endangered maritime communications with these territories–, as well as the increase in corsair activity by the rebels and, subsequently, , of the English. In addition, to this was added the annexation of Portugal in 1580 with all its overseas possessions, so it was convenient for the Monarchy to make its naval power felt in the waters of the North Sea, where the danger that the Dutch rebels represented arose. for your interests.

The bitter experience obtained after the Company of England in 1588 served as a shock for Madrid to take seriously the strengthening of maritime power in the Atlantic. If already from the time of the expeditions to the Azores in 1582 and 1583 there was an oceanic fleet – with the presence of some Crown ships, although mostly made up of privately owned ships –, as a result of the Anglo-Spanish conflict the Navy of the Ocean Sea , thus named after 1594, did nothing but increase in number of units and in tonnage throughout the 1590s, reaching historical maximums for Hispanic naval power in the Atlantic in 1597, since it doubled what they could possess at that time. England and Holland.

Philip III:Decline and frustration

However, with the change of reign and the progressive signing of peace with France (1598) and England (1604), as well as the Twelve Years Truce with the Dutch rebels (1609), the subsequent diversion of Hispanic geostrategic interests from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean to deal with the Turkish threat and Barbary piracy once that theater of operations was "pacified", had the consequence that the Navy of the Ocean Sea, and therefore, the Spanish naval hegemony in the ocean scene would be seriously diminished. In the end, this would prove fatal for the resolution of the confrontation against the Netherlands, since, while the Hispanic naval presence in the Atlantic weakened in favor of the Mediterranean scenario, the Dutch did nothing but considerably increase their navy and their merchant fleet.; in 1618 its relative naval power tripled that of the Spanish, which had done nothing but gradually decrease during the first two decades of the 17th century.

During the 1610s, the Navy of the Ocean Sea, already dwarfed in numbers and budget in the preceding years, continued to lament neglect. If the budget for the years 1609-1610 was already small –350,000 ducats per year–, in 1614 it was reduced to 300,000 ducats, with few new ships being launched. By 1616, the total number of ships in the Armada was less than twenty, of which only eight were galleons, but this situation would begin to change as the end of the truce with the Dutch drew near.

Philip IV:New impulse, reinforcement and defeat

Between 1617 and 1623, a progressive reconstitution of the Navy of the Ocean Sea was carried out, following the old axiom of the importance of maritime power, which never ceased to be present in memorials and letters that were written throughout the reign of Felipe III, as well as during the first decades of Felipe IV. Basically, what was recommended, in addition to increasing the number of ships in service again, was to use the Monarchy's maritime force to harass the Dutch enemy at the very source of his power, that is, "wage defensive warfare by land." and offensive and defensive by sea”, attacking its merchant fleet and its fisheries – herring fishing was an important source of income for the Netherlands. However, no matter how much the financial endowments for the Navy of the Ocean Sea and the squadrons that made it up were increased, after the reactivation of the war with Holland in the framework of the Thirty Years' War, the budget rarely exceeded one million. of ducats. For the Monarchy, even knowing that the maritime trump card was vital to be able to defeat the Netherlands, the main scenario to take into account was the land one, given the situation that existed in the lands of the Empire with the fight against the Protestant princes and the progressive continental turn that the contest was taking with the successive Danish, Swedish and French interventions.

Despite what has been stated in the previous lines, one should not fall into the error of thinking that during the reign of Felipe IV there was no concern to reinforce the navy, Well, the same Olivares reflected in his writings the need to have a powerful navy. For Spain, it was vital to keep communications and routes with its possessions secure, especially the maritime connection with Flanders, since this route was much faster and, on many occasions, safer than the land route –the famous Spanish Way–, in addition to embarrassing in terms of management, accommodation and other aspects. For this reason, in the second half of the 1630s, an extremely ambitious program of naval construction and reinforcement of the Navy of the Ocean Sea was carried out. The need for this would be spurred on by the entry of France into the conflict in 1635 and the threat that this posed to the different strongholds that formed the Spanish Way, which would materialize with the taking in 1638 by the Protestant forces of the strategic city of Breisach, a vital link in this route, de facto cutting off the possibility of duly sending reinforcements overland to Flanders from Italy. In this way, the sea route became the best tool to sustain the war effort in Flanders, as well as to harass the Dutch on their own shores, as the feared Dunkirk squadron had been doing for years in the service of the Monarchy.

However, all efforts to reaffirm the Spanish naval presence in North Sea waters ended in failure. The defeat suffered by Don Antonio de Oquendo's navy at the Battle of Las Dunas (1639) would mean the definitive loss for Spain of its naval hegemony, confirming de facto the new and formidable European naval power that was Holland. To reinforce even more, if possible, the importance of this reality, it can be affirmed that in this naval day Spain made use of its last energies.


In the long run, it became clear that the failure to maintain a strong naval presence in the Atlantic –especially in the North Sea– was decisive for the failure of the Spanish attempts to subdue the Dutch rebels. The importance given to the land aspect of the conflict, although justified, could not ignore the fact that with the changes in the organizational, technical and methodological aspects of the military field, it was almost impossible to achieve a rapid land victory against a thalassocracy like the Dutch if It neglected what was related to the maintenance of an effective naval power that could end up giving forcefulness, validity and practicality to the successes achieved on the continent.


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File Documentation

  • Report given in Madrid on the increase in the navy, means for it and its distribution in the seas, Madrid, September 18, 1622, Archivo del Museo Naval de Madrid ( A. M. N. M.), Fernández de Navarrete Collection, vol. 8, no. 45.
  • Id. Project to promote trade and the maritime Navy, 1617, Archive of the Naval Museum of Madrid (A.M.N.M.), Fernández de Navarrete Collection, vol. 8, no. 41.