In the sixteenth century, the conquistadors were shipping gold to Spain in such enormous quantities that the Spanish ran out of storage space. On days when a large number of ships full of gold arrived, they would keep tons of gold in the open, outside their store houses. The avalanche of gold caused an economic boom in Spain. There was a surge in construction activity—new palaces, cathedrals, gardens, residences, roadways came up, changing the character of the cities. Works of art were commissioned not only by the nobility but also by the ordinary folks, whose fortune was made in the South American colonies.
The Spanish elite termed their age “Era Dorada”—the Age of Gold. They believed that the flood of gold would never end, because they had been chosen by God to be the recipient of this largesse. They believed that God was rewarding Spain for its Catholic faith, that He wanted the Spanish to be His policeman on earth and use the gold to build an army that would destroy the heathens. To ably perform the role of “Almighty’s Policeman,” the Spanish spent a significant part of their gold on enhancing their military and navy. The result was that by 1550, the Spanish possessed the most powerful fighting machine in Europe.
When Elizabeth I, a protestant, became the Queen of England in 1558, the Catholic establishment in Europe was outraged. Liberating Britain from her regime became their holy mission. In 1570, Pope Pius V issued the bull Regnans in Excelsis (Reigning on High), which called Elizabeth I “the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime.” The Pope threatened to excommunicate all Englishmen who were obeying her laws.
Elizabeth I was aware of the danger that she faced from her Catholic rivals in Europe (mainly Spain). She realized that her survival depended on building a navy that could match the strength of the Spanish navy. She hired the best shipbuilders in England to develop the design for a new generation of ships. These designs were quickly put into practice—the result was that the tonnage of English commercial and navy ships tripled between 1560 and 1580. There was a vast improvement in the maneuverability and speed of English ships.
The irony is that the progress of English shipping industry was partially funded by the activities of her rival, Spain. Part of the gold that the Spanish were hauling from South America was entering the English economy. The English privateers used to capture a number of Spanish ships coming from South America and bring their gold to England.
In the summer of 1588, the Spanish Armada (a fleet of 130 ships) sailed from Lisbon. The purpose of the Armada was to escort an army from Flanders to invade England and overthrow the monarchy of Elizabeth I. But the Armada was outmaneuvered and outgunned by the English navy and privateers like Sir Francis Drake. Many Spanish ships were lost in the sea—a few that survived were forced to flee to Spain. The new generation of ships commissioned by Elizabeth I had proved to be far superior than the ships that the Spanish possessed.