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Why did the Armada fail?


This is a good example of an activity that works well in different ways at different levels. It can be used in primary schools to tell the story of the Armada and at GCSE or A level to develop a more complex explanation for the Armada’s failure than is usually achieved by less active methods. Quite a lot of historical information is built into the plan below but you can adapt this to suit your needs.

The genesis of the activity lay in a learning problem. One of my primary education students was writing an essay on why the Armada failed and correctly identified the major reasons - the impact of the weather, the limitations of the Spanish plan, the quality of English gunnery and tactics. However he was having difficulty deciding which factor was most significant overall. What he needed to do was identify which factors were significant at each stage of the campaign. This led to me devising this activity which, far from being suitable only for college students, turned out to be valuable right across the age-ranges – a good teaching activity is a good teaching activity no matter what the age of the students. Since then I’ve used the activity at several CPD session for primary teachers and it’s been greeted with enthusiasm and used in secondary schools too. And it’s not just about 1588 – it’s a good way in to work on interpretations at both primary and secondary level.

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This activity is based on the ’Simulation’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.

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Therefore the activity enables students to:

  1. develop a clear understanding of the Spanish plan and the course of the campaign
  2. develop a complex explanation of why the Armada failed
  3. help students to talk more clearly about the reasons why it failed
  4. provide the base for story-telling by pupils in role and understanding why interpretations of these events differ

Setting Up

As this activity requires lots of movement you need a large empty space, such as a gym or hall.

1) Create a map of the English Channel in the room by marking out the coastlines of the south of England and northern France with e.g. cones borrowed from the PE department and identify Plymouth, Portsmouth Dover and Calais with sheets of paper.

2) If you wish to include dates, map out the chronology simply by writing large dates (just the numbers - 20, 21 etc) on A3 sheets and placing them on the floor. The chronology below identifies roughly where to place these sheets.

(These dates accord with the Julian calendar in use in England. Spain was using the Gregorian calendar, which means all dates were 10 days later. Beware! Some books use English dates whereas others use the Spanish dates!

  • July 20th - Armada sighted off the Lizard
  • 21st - off Plymouth
  • 22/23 - west of the Isle of Wight
  • 24 - off the Isle of Wight
  • 25/26 - east of the Isle of Wight
  • 27 - off Calais
  • 28 - battle of Gravelines, north of Calais
  • 29 - Armada heading into North Sea

3) Allocate roles to individuals. You need to have more students as Spanish ships than as English ships. The Spanish had around 130 ships, the English slightly fewer but of their 120 only about 20 were real fighting ships. The rest were auxiliaries that took little part in the fighting. Then split the English in half, half to be Howard's ships at Plymouth and the other half to be Seymour's ships off Calais.

You can also allocate individual students to be Parma, a Dutch rebel ship and Elizabeth. If you don’t have enough students use stuffed toys to fill out these roles.

Finally allocate 4 students to be the reasons why the Armada failed:

  • the weather
  • the Spanish plan
  • the quality of the English guns and tactics
  • the quality of the Spanish guns and tactics.

These 4 students need to sit at the side of the room while the events get under way.

Use tabards to identify the factors and the key people - Medina Sedonia, Parma, the Dutch rebel ship, Seymour, Howard and other leaders in Howard's fleet - Drake, Frobisher and Hawkins.

Click here to download the full room plan in a new window

4. Place the students on the map that you have created, as shown in the plan. Now it is time to 'walk through' the events.

The Activity

1. Start by examining the Spanish plan and working out why the English force was divided. The focus is on the centrality of Parma’s army to Spanish success. This is done through a series of guided questions:

a) to the Spanish – you are going to invade England – what difficulties will you have? Why are you going to collect the Duke of Parma's army? (obvious problem - English opposition; less obvious - linking up with Parma - get students to think about how the Armada will communicate with Parma and why this would be difficult).

b) to the English - what are you trying to do? (stop the Armada, stop the Armada linking up with Parma), why are the English forces divided? ( Seymour's squadron is there to stop Parma's forces coming out to sea).

2. Now work though the events of July 1588. This is done by moving the students playing the Spanish Armada up the channel in stages, using the date sheets as markers, while explaining to them what is happening and asking them questions so they have to think about the developing situation.

Step: 20th July - The Armada comes into the Channel, so move the Spanish students up to Plymouth. They are sailing in a crescent formation with Medina Sedonia in the centre. Howard's squadron don't come out of Plymouth Harbour to meet the Spanish - why not? Any ideas? Answer - penned in by the wind. You could use a hairdryer to underline the direction of the wind! (Useful to have some bowls - golf balls? - for Drake and co to play with because they can't get out of harbour, a more prosaic explanation than the insouciant 'we've got time to finish our game then go and beat the Spanish' story) Therefore the Armada is able to sail past Plymouth without opposition.

Step: 21st - the English now sail out of Plymouth and attack the Armada - but what were their tactics? Ask English ships – is it better tactics to stay distant from the Spanish and fire your cannon at them or get in close, grapple their ships and try to board them and fight on the decks?

Answer - the Spanish ships had more soldiers on board their ships and so their preferred tactic was to close with the English, grapple and board. There were also more of them. Therefore the English tactics avoided close warfare and fired from a distance. Howard's tactics described the English tactics as 'plucking their feathers little by little' - the English concentrated on the vulnerable tips of the Armada's crescent formation.

Step: 22nd - 26th - this period can be taken in one movement with the Armada moving slowly ahead, harassed by the English but taking very few casualties. On 25th the English began to run low on both food and ammunition - ask how this would affect their tactics. Answer - they concentrated on just shadowing the Armada and conserving ammunition for a later stage.

Ask each side how confident they feel at this stage and why they feel this.

3. Time to pause and look at the factors for the first time if you want to focus on explanation as well as the story.

Ask who is achieving their objectives? i.e.

- ask the English - do they look like stopping the Armada linking up with Parma? (No, no significant damage has been done to the Armada. Emphasise that it was extremely unusual to sink a ship with gunfire at this time so how could they stop 130 ships?)

- ask the Spanish – are you on course to link up with Parma (yes, they don't need to defeat the English navy, they just need to sail on to their rendezvous).

So why are the Spanish successful so far? Which factors important? Ask the students acting as factors to comment on their importance so far:

  • Spanish plan is working so far
  • weather is helping the Spanish as wind is blowing them towards Parma
  • Spanish gunnery and tactics have been useful so far although largely passive
  • English gunnery and tactics have not made any impact.

Then create an “Olympic podium” to rank the factors in importance – ask the class to decide which factors were the most significant at this stage. Ask the less important to kneel down while the most important stand up, thus creating a physical hierarchy.

4. Back to the Armada campaign.

Step: 27th - the Armada reached Calais and anchored. Ask Spanish why they have chosen to anchor? Answer - to link-up with Parma and therefore had to wait for definite news of Parma's plans.

Ask why Parma can’t come out to meet the Armada in advance?

Answer - because his small boats would be attacked by the Dutch rebels and the Armada couldn't deal with the rebels because they operated in shallow waters.

At this stage Medina Sedonia sent the latest of many messages to Parma telling him of progress – which creates the problem of how to simulate sending the messages. One way is to get Medina Sedonia to try lobbing paper balls at Parma which can be intercepted by the Dutch rebel ship – or to send a Spanish messenger round a very long way to avoid the Dutch. Parma did finally receive a message on 29th but by then it was too late.

Step: 28th – now you need to lead the English towards their chosen tactic. The English need to stop the Spanish but they have not been able to do so while the Armada stays in formation.

Ask the English what they need to do? (break up formation)

But how? What scares sailors, especially in wooden ships - fire?

How might you try to set Spanish ships on fire? What about sacrificing some of your own ships?

Step: Midnight - the English send fireships in amidst the anchored Spanish ships. Simulate this in slow motion, by getting students as fireships to curl up like bowling balls and move between the Spanish ships. The Spanish scatter and leave their anchors behind. Ask what's the significance of scattering and losing anchors – bring out ends chances of linking with Parma.

5. Time to look at the factors for the second time.

Ask the students which of the factors has been the most important in the last two days. This time it is the Spanish plan (but now negatively as it required the Armada to stop, making itself vulnerable) and the English tactics. These are the key issues at this stage so they go to the top of the podium.

6. Now it’s the 29th. The Armada has scattered.

Ask Medina Sedonia what he'd like to do and whether there’d be any problems in achieving his objective?

Answer is to regroup - but without anchors this is virtually impossible. The wind and tide are against returning to their anchorage or meeting Parma so the Armada is now vulnerable to ..?

Answer - English guns because the formation is broken and also whatever the weather throws at them.

Step: Now you can tell the story of the battle of Gravelines on 29th, a gunnery battle in which the more manoeuvrable English ships were able to hit the Armada harder than before. The English gunnery was far more efficient - but even so only one Spanish ship was sunk and 3 ran aground - out of around 130! But the Armada could not get to Parma - who ironically began to embark his troops on 29th having received news from Medina Sedonia. The battle was ended as the English ran out of ammunition and a storm blew the Spanish north. The battle was a draw but that was good enough to give the English the advantage for the first time.

7. Time to look at the factors for the third time.

Which factor gets the credit for Gravelines? The key elements were the quality of English gunnery and seamanship but also the inadequacy of Spanish gunnery. You need to explain that Spanish naval tactics focussed on the soldiers on board firing a single salvo and then rushing off to board the enemy. They were not used to firing repeated shots and therefore the Spanish ships actually fired very few shots. Many of the ships which have been excavated still had much of their ammunition left, partly because of the nature of their tactics, partly because many cannon were unusable because their muzzles had been incorrectly bored. A lack of standardisation across Phillip's empire also meant that ships had the wrong size of shot for their cannon. Overall the Armada was not equipped for a sea battle but to act as a transport for Parma's force so it was unlikely to succeed at Gravelines.

8. Step: Now it’s 30th and after - strong winds forced the Armada north.

Ask the Spanish ships what they will do?

Answer – no choice - they had to run before the wind, making for the north of Scotland and then heading south round Ireland - a not unusual route. All hope of linking up with Parma had gone. Howard remained in pursuit as far north as Edinburgh.

Ask English why they pursued so far? - suggests continued anxiety.

Look at the factors for the final time - at this last stage the key factor has been the weather. All others are comparatively insignificant at this stage.


1. Recap the key stages and people – who were the commanders, what was the Spanish plan and how did the English try to stop it, who was succeeding at the start, was there a turning point, why did the Spanish scatter?

2. Reviewing the explanation - the strength of this exercise with older students lies in the physical representation of the explanation. Using students as factors shows that the pattern of significance of factors varies at each stage of the Armada and this has implications for any essay writing that students are undertaking. Previously they might have built their essay structure around the 4 factors, giving one paragraph to each but here they can see that such a structure would not bring out the complexity of the issue. Therefore we worked on structuring paragraphs, using the student-factors as models. We built up a structure around the chronology of the Armada, so that paragraph one was the first stage above and so on. The key activities were now:

  • to ask the students who acted as factors which of them would be in each paragraph in turn and
  • for those factors to explain aloud to the rest of the class how they affected events.

This thinking and talking aloud, aided by the rest of the group, was excellent preparation for writing, enabling students to clarify their thoughts before committing their ideas to paper.

3. One option is to look at how this story would be told by the different nationalities and participants, providing an effective way into thinking about historical interpretations. Pupils could work in groups on developing the story from the perspective of a character – Medina Sedonia, Howard, ordinary sailors, Parma etc. Guidance on what’s allowed is important – you can leave out things you didn’t see, you can put in your fears and attitudes, you don’t have to be fair-minded! Then the groups can then act out their story, their interpretation – but don’t tell the rest of the class who they are – let everyone else try to work out whose interpretation this is.

4. If you fancy yourself as a budding Cate Blanchett or Judi Dench this activity provides an effective context for acting out Elizabeth's famous Tilbury speech – it has far more impact once students are aware how dire the situation appeared for the English as the Armada sailed up the Channel and could not be stopped. It certainly has far more impact read aloud, if the reader/actor gets the intonation and emotion into the speech. It was reported that Elizabeth heard the news of Gravelines while out hunting in Epping Forest and was so excited that she galloped her horse up the stairway of the nearest hunting lodge.

Notes & Variations

Information on casualties - estimates vary but perhaps half of the Spanish forces never reached home. Over 30 ships sank around the Scottish and Irish coasts. Around half the English sailors died, almost all from disease which spread rapidly in the ships. The English government spent £400,000 on fighting the Armada - of that, only £180 was spent on helping the wounded and sick although many commanders helped their men out of their own pockets.

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From Kirsty Donaldson in Cambridgeshire

it was brilliant and SO much fun - the sight of year 8 pupils wiggling their fingers above their heads to be fireships was truly magical!!! They learnt lots and lots from the activity and had a complex understanding of the reasons for the Armada's failure - thankyou!!

From Carl Bennett in Fleetwood

I tried your Armada lesson with my top set year 8 and I found it generally went well. I did it on the school field and the pupils really enjoyed it and I hope they got a lot from it. It certainly made a change from the standard 'chalk and talk' lesson. I used party poppers to simulate cannon fire. The English ships got 4 poppers + reloads after going back to Plymouth, the Spanish got but one. The English could fire at 10 feet, the Spanish 5. This helped to cement the idea of gunnery. I made big labels the kids put round their necks to show who they were ie Elizabeth at Tilbury, Medina Sidonia and of course pictures of galleons (lifted from the old orange Aylett text book.) The kids were dead excited and I'm glad I did it, thanks for the advice. I work in a real school with tough kids and this was all a bit outside my comfort zone but I'd do it again. If this simulation can work here it can be done anywhere.


  1. How effective was your use of space and movement? Would you do anything differently in terms of organization next time? (and don’t be afraid to pat yourself on the back)
  2. How did tackling this topic through this physical activity affect students’ learning? e.g. was understanding of the patterns of events deeper? Did they have a better-developed sense of the possibilities for different interpretations?
  3. Did you and they enjoy the activity? If yes, why was this important?
  4. Should you just do this kind of activity once or repeat in different guises elsewhere in the course?


Elizabethan England

The Reign of Elizabeth

Notes on the Books

Andy's book, Elizabethan England is an SHP Depth Study for GCSE, built around the theme of ‘Was Elizabeth a successful ruler?’

Barbara's book, The Reign of Elizabeth is part of John Murray’s highly successful Advanced History Core Texts series, full of activities, diagrams and text that helps students bridge the gap from GCSE to A level.

A Summary of the Armada

The easiest good summary of the Armada to get hold of is an article by Colin Martin, 'Guns of the Armada' in British Archaeology, 64, April 2002. This can be found at

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Setting Up

The Activity


Notes & Variations

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