I think the favorite lesson that I like to teach
is the Spanish Armada in 1588,
sent there by King Philip II of Spain,
and the defense against the Spanish Armada led by Queen Elizabeth I,
and what happened to the Spanish Armada in that situation.
The reason I like to teach it is
because Spain was the global superpower in that period.
Spain had conquered almost the entire new world.
Britain had not—England as it was at that time—
had not even begun to develop colonies.
And the issue, of course, was Catholicism,
and was Catholicism going to be brought back to England
after it had been kicked out
by Elizabeth ’ s father Henry VIII.
So this was what led Philip believing that
he was an agent of the Almighty
to send this largest of all naval forces
north into the English Channel.
as a launch pad for the reconquest
by Catholicism of England.
And that’s August of 1588.
Elizabeth ’ s strategy was not to attempt to
directly confront that fleet,
because she didn’t have a fleet that was capable of doing that.
She certainly could not have confronted directly a Spanish army,
because she had virtually no army of her own.
But she is thinking in terms of geography.
She ’ s thinking in terms of
what direction the winds blow in normally in the English Channel.
And she saw that if she just allowed the Spanish fleet
to advance slowly up the English Channel—
which it had to do because it was cumbersome—
with a few English ships pursuing it
and then pick them off as they pursue,
and then as they got up to
the border of what’s now Belgium and France
(where they were going to disembark their troops)
realized that taking advantage of the winds,
if you just set a few old English ships on fire
with explosives on them.
and send them into the middle of this huge Spanish fleet,
that’s going to cause terror
and that in itself will be enough to defeat the Spanish.
So it ’ s all happening on one evening
with the winds in the right direction,
with eight ships used,
and the Spanish completely panicked
to the extent of cutting their own anchor cables
so more than 100 ships self-destructed
in terms of losing control of the ability to navigate.
The only thing they could do then was to flee,
but because of the winds,
they had to flee around all of England, around Scotland,
down the Irish coast.
And by the time they staggered back into Spain
they were profoundly depleted.
That’s the turning point.
That ’ s the moment at which it can be said
the Spanish Empire reached its high point and then started descending.
the English began to become very gradually a superpower.
And I ’ m fascinated by the fact that
it all can be reduced to a single night in the English Channel,
and to the direction in which the winds blew.
So that testifies to the importance of seizing the moment.
It testifies to the importance of
not micromanaging but macromanaging
in the sense of delegating authority to the experts,
in this case, her own sea captains.
Trusting them to do the right thing.
Trusting them to take advantage of spontaneous moments.
They didn’t have time to consult Elizabeth about the fire ships.
They didn ’ t have time to wonder
if they sacrificed eight ships,
will she get mad and cut off their heads?
They figured no, it’s unlikely
because she’s a strategist herself.
She will understand what that sacrifice achieved.
And of course, that’s what happened.
So it’s her great triumph.
It ’ s Spain ’ s great failure,
and you can argue it leads to
the development of North America by the British
and to the fact that we are sitting here speaking English
and not Spanish now.