Smaller English ships on the right face the Spanish galleons.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada remains the most glorious event remembered of Elizabeth's reign: the forces of Europe's mightiest Catholic power were confounded by English sea dogs and "Protestant gales."

Spain and England were at daggers drawn almost from the time of Elizabeth's accession, with her rejection of Philip II's proposal of marriage. The two states were ideologically and commercially opposed--England's trade with the Spanish-controlled Netherlands increasingly challenged Philip's colonial empire.

Provocation to war

Spain was the strongest European power and chief supporter of the Counter- Reformation. Philip increasingly asserted his power in the Netherlands, sending an army to oppress Protestantism.

Elizabeth unofficially supported Dutch rebels from the outset of their struggle for independence but maintained a pretence of goodwill towards Spain until 1585, when she first openly sent troops to the Netherlands (under the command of her favourite, the Earl of Leicester).

With the Queen's tacit approval, English privateers such as Francis Drake and John Hawkins plundered Spanish galleons returning from the Americas; in 1580, Elizabeth ceremoniously knighted Drake on board his ship the Golden Hind--he was then the second captain to circumnavigate the globe, and had returned with Spanish treasure worth twice the annual revenue of the crown.