Britannia's cadet years

Fleet Battle and Blockade - A Political Tour through Rochester, Chatham, Maidstone, Gravesend - The Safeguard of the Sea - Nelson's Battles
December 26, 1997

It is a tribute to the N. A. M. Rodger's breadth of scholarship that the reader is left after 500 pages of deeply layered argument with a satisfying grasp of exactly why Europe's offshore islanders, after many false starts, launched themselves into the hegemony of the oceans. Some cherished myths go by the board as The Safeguard of the Sea offers us a stimulating fresh interpretation on evidence garnered from a truly awe-inspiring range of sources.

For instance, neither Alfred nor Henry VIII can be proposed as father of the navy. Alfred's ships were too big to engage the Danes effectively in shallow estuaries which they favoured as landing places. Edgar, in the 10th century, first established the scip-soke and the scip-fyrd by which great landowners each provided the king with a warship and the men to crew and fight her.

The year 1066 might have proved far more of a close-run thing if the Saxon fleet had been moved round from the Thames and caught the land-lubberly Normans in disorder on the Hastings beaches. William the Conqueror and his successors relinquished the Saxon naval hegemony of our islands and in concentrating on expanding their French possessions relegated their naval power to a ferry service and to protecting the Bordeaux wine trade, the duty on which alone exceeded the entire customs revenue of England.

Rodger is damning on medieval naval decline. Edward III had to concede that his purse could no longer fund a navy and he had to bribe his wealthier subjects by offering them "letters of marque," thus licensing piracy. From such unsavoury beginnings sprang, two centuries later, our first recognisable navy. With the Tudors this superb narrative history really hits its stride. Henry VIII, keen to emulate Henry V's imperialistic adventures in France, which had depended in part on a unique (for the Middle Ages) grasp of naval strategy, Henry VIII had neither an appreciation of how the balance of power had changed in Europe in a century, nor, at first, of developments in naval and gunnery technology, which had allowed James IV of Scotland to outstrip him with the first "big ship", the 1,000-ton Michael, which carried 12 cannon on each broadside. The first use of large-bore naval gunfire, by French galleys firing forwards, terrified their English opponents - but the lesson of firepower plus mobility was lost on Henry. He countered the threat of a swift, galley-borne invasion from France with unwieldy battleships like the Great Harry and Mary Rose.

Despite an outlay of Pounds 265,000 on his new fleet, met by despoiling the monasteries and borrowing heavily from Flemish banks, Henry gained only the illusion of power. Rodger saves one of his choicest barbs for the bluff king's revolution: "England had always been unstable; the price of a breach with Rome was permanent instability and weakness." Though perhaps he overstates his point, given the heroic and expansionist period ahead.

Elizabeth I, says Rodger, "inherited from her sister a situation where naval aggression was identified with Protestantism, patriotism and profit". Spain's exclusionist trading policy in the New World provoked a massive retaliation from English privateers despite, as Rodger reveals, their singular lack of preparation. In the early 16th century only one English captain was capable of navigating to and around the West Indies and only in 1555 did an English ship sail south of the equator. Few English navigators were capable of fixing their ship's position by the sun and stars. Philip of Spain, when he was Bloody Mary's consort, was so concerned about this widespread ignorance that he paid for promising young English skippers to study at the school of navigation in Cadiz. They proved apt pupils and all too familiar with the route to the Indies, as Philip later in the century ruefully counted the cost to his treasury in plunder as at least Pounds 200,000 a year.

Drake's circumnavigation was the turning point - his feat of sailing where none but Magellan had ventured and plundering the Spanish preserve to the tune of Pounds 600,000, thus allowing his queen and financial backer to pay off her complete foreign debt at a stroke, won all Europe's admiration. The war, which was the inevitable consequence of these joint-stock initiatives, was desired by neither England nor Spain. For once England held the technological advantage. From having to import cannon, she moved, within a generation, to becoming a mass producer of cheap iron guns, affordable by the average privateer, and which also became the standard armament of the manoeuvrable new galleons which Sir John Hawkins, the navy's treasurer, was despatching down the slip-ways.

Rodger disembarks at the point where the "Navy Royal", having helped launch an empire on the back of the joint-stock companies - and as the author states quite frankly, its own piracy - and preventing foreign interference during the civil war, is about to emerge as the major instrument of state policy. One of the nuggets in the social history section is that seamen in the 16th century enjoyed a fairly democratic regime. A captain had the right to "a single strike" if a seaman was in a rebellious mood (as they often were). After that the man could hit back. Elizabethan seamen, says Rodger, "were heirs to a tradition of rule by consensus. They expected a hearing and mutinied if they didn't get it."

This year has seen the 200th anniversary of the great naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, on the Medway, where poor abused Jack Tar did strike back against pay rates which had not changed since Cromwell, abominable food, lack of shore leave, and above all, inhumane officers. Did they do more than strike though, particularly at the Nore?

Philip MacDougall has been responsible for the first reprinting in two centuries of a diary kept by John Gale Jones, a member of the radical London Corresponding Society, on a tour of North Kent in the year before the mutinies. Jones was guarded in his observations, aware that he was being watched by government agents. There are nine missing days from the journal, which MacDougall sees as evidence for E. P. Thompson's claim that Jones and his fellow "democrat" John Binns at Portsmouth were both in touch with the ringleaders of the subsequent mutiny. Perhaps Jones's reaction to meeting French prisoners of war on a new warship at Chatham puts the paranoia about revolutionary activity among the democrats in perspective. "I addressed myself to them," says Jones, "... I told them there were not wanting many who loved and respected the bravery exhibited by the French republic but from the pressure of present circumstances felt it impolitic publicly to avow it." Jones felt the ship, the 110-gun Ville de Paris, would make a splendid vessel for a people's state, but did not dare to say so.

Fleet, Battle and Blockade is an attractively presented reference work that puts the mutinies and sea-fighting of the French revolutionary war in context. The illustrations, contemporary watercolours, prints, ship models and charts are from the National Maritime Museum's collection and the short accompanying commentaries cover every aspect of life afloat. A valuable accompanying volume by Nicholas Tracey, Nelson's Battles, dissects the Nelson legend, describing the development of tactics in the 18th-century navy and showing how he pushed the application of sea power to the complete triumph of Trafalgar. There has been a stream of Nelsonia, largely biographical, in anticipation of this 200th anniversary of his great victories. This will tell you all you need to know about how he won them.

John Crossland is a freelance writer on naval history.

Fleet Battle and Blockade

Editor - Robert Gardiner
ISBN - 1 86 176 018 3
Publisher - Chatham
Price - £30.00
Pages - 192

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