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1154 to 1585 - Plantagenet / Angevin Kings

Under the Plantagenet Kings land fights at sea were the only possible form of engagement between fleets, and great-ships were attended by fighting vessels of the galley type. The proposal of Parliament to Henry VI in 1442 for a permanent naval force for the defence of the Narrow Seas suggests eight great-ships with castles, eight barges, eight balyngers, and four spynes or pinnaces. The policy of the succeeding reigns, which tended towards the abandonment of Henry V's idea of a Koyal Navy in favor of securing warships by contract with private citizens, showed no signs of change.

The navy of England, as appears from continual petitions of Parliament, was synonymous with the English marine. The royal navy was merely that part of it which belonged to the king, and which was used by him in time of peace as his subjects used theirs. When a fleet was required for national purposes, it necessarily was composed mainly of merchantmen, and the fact that it was usually required for transporting a land force to the Continent, and that the most serious danger it had to encounter was bad weather, made a fleet so composed the best that could be had.

The King of England drew his fleets from three sources. To begin with, he had his own ships, which were his personal property, like his horses or the suits of armour he supplied to his own immediate following. These he used in war, or hired to the merchants in peace, according to circumstances. The purely administrative and financial management of these vessels was entrusted to some member of his house-hold. In earlier ages it fell to one of the "king's clerks" the permanent civil servants of the time, who, when all learning was the province of the Church, were naturally ecclesiastics, and for whom the king provided by securing their nomination to benefices. William of Wrotham, Archdeacon of Taunton, was "keeper of the king's ships, galleys, and seaports" to King John. There is a mention, though not continuous record, of other "clerks" who had charge of the king's ships till the reign of Henry VIII. The number of these ships would vary according to the interest the king took in them, the need he had for them, and his merits as a husband of his money. In the troubled times of the Lancastrian line the king's ships were few, but it does not seem that at any period he was wholly without some of his own.

The second source from which the fleets were recruited was the trading craft of London and the outports. The kings of England claimed, and exercised from the beginning, the right of impressing all ships for the defence of the realm. Every port was assessed according to its supposed resources in so many vessels properly found. They were, however, maintained by the king on service.

There was a certain difference in the method of manning these two classes. In the king's own ships all alike were his servants. When a merchant ship was impressed, her crew would, when possible, be taken with her. The king then put an officer of his own, with a body of soldiers, into her. In both there was a distinction between the military officer whose business it was to fight, and the shipman whose business it was to sail. Thus arose that distinction between the captain and the master of an English man-of-war, which lasted far into the 19th century. The practice was universal as late as the seventeenth century. Every Spanish ship had two captains - the "capitan de guerra" (of war) and the "capitan de mar" (sea captain). But whereas in the Spanish ships the two officers were co-ordinate, with England there was no question that the master was subordinate to the captain. The Kings of England, from the Conqueror downwards, have had no love for divided authority.

The third source from which the king drew his ships was the most picturesque of all. The towns, with their dependent townships, Hastings, Winchelsea, Rye, Romney, Hythe, Dover, and Sandwich, forming the ancient corporation of the Cinque Ports, were bound by the terms of their charters to supply the king in any one year with 57 ships, 1,140 men, and 87 hoys for fifteen days at their own charges, and after that for as long as he chose to retain them at his own expense. For this they were repaid by privileges and honors. Every ancient institution is respectable, and the Cinque Ports men won such immortal honor by the defeat of Eustace the Monk, that the English were naturally tempted to treat them tenderly. Yet it may be doubted whether they have not enjoyed an historical reputation much in excess of their merits. It is the defect of every privileged body that it is apt to be jealous. The Cinque Ports men were no exception to the rule. Many instances might be quoted of their savage feuds with rival towns, notably with Yarmouth. Although they no doubt supplied some kings with stout shipmen and useful vessels, it may be doubted whether they did not on the whole do as much in the way of fighting and plundering their own countrymen as against the national enemy. In the later Middle Ages the ports had already begun to silt up. They sank into insignificance, and in their last stage were chiefly known as nests of smugglers and pirates.

The crews of war vessels were divided into mariners and soldiers in unequal proportions. There were always more of the second than of the first. Thirty seamen were considered the full complement even of a large vessel ; and when it is remembered that two hundred or two hundred and fifty tons was the size of a "great ship" and that the rigging was simple, the number will appear amply sufficient. It must always, too, be kept in mind that, though the relative number of sailors and soldiers in ships has varied, this distinction between the two elements constituting the crews of fighting craft has prevailed to our own time.

No man-of-war was ever manned entirely by seamen, nor was it necessary that she should be. The number of men required to fight or to do work only on the decks, or between the decks, was at all times much in excess of what was needed for the purpose of sailing the ship. The steersmen and mariners of the Middle Ages, and the prime seamen of the eighteenth century, were highly trained men, whom it would have been folly to employ on such work as could be sufficiently well done by less skilful hands.

From the earliest time of which there is any record, the great and arbitrary power of impressment was used to find crews for the king's ships. In 1208 King John ordered the seamen of Wales to cease making trading voyages, and to repair to Ilfracombe for the purpose of transporting soldiers to Ireland. He bade them " know for certain that if you act contrary to this, we will cause you and the masters of your vessels to be hanged, and all your goods to be seized for our use." In later times this would have been called a "hot press." The forms used might vary, and the penalties grow more humane, but the king's ships continued to be supplied with crews, down to the end of the war with Napoleon, after exactly the fashion in which King John provided for the transport of his soldiers to Ireland in 1208.

All the elements of the crews of later times are found in the ships of the Middle Ages. The mariners and "grometes" are the able seamen and ordinary seamen. There were boys then also. The archers were the predecessors of the marines, and of those drafts from the line regiments which were frequently used to make up tlie complement of men-of-war. The modern officers, too, have their representatives in the vessels of the Plantagenet kings. The Rector afterwards called in official Latin Magister is the master, the constable is the ancestor of the gunner, there was a carpenter, a "clerk" who was renamed the purser later on, and the boatswain. The nature of the work to be done would dictate the formation of these different offices. So soon as regular ships' companies began to be formed, it would be found indispensable to have someone to conduct the navigation - the master ; someone to supervise the arms - the constable ; someone to serve out the stores - the clerk. As ships' companies grew larger and Ships more complicated, it would be necessary to increase the number of officers, and little by little the staff of a modem warship was formed.

The title of captain appears at first to have been given to an officer who held what we should call flag rank. In the fifteenth century it began to be applied to the commander of a single ship. He was primarily a military officer, who might or might not be a seaman, but who in either case had a master under his command whose function it was to navigate the ship. The growth of what came afterwards to be called flag rank may easily be traced. At first the king appointed some knight or noble to commstnd his sea forces, and the soldiers in his ships, for some definite service. Then we hear of officers commanding in a given district for a specified time. These were first known as " captains and governors," justices or constables. 'In the early years of the fourteenth century the title of " Admiral " began to come into use. Captain and Admiral is the rank of the officer who Commands the North and the Western Fleets. The first included the coast and sea from Dover to Berwick; the second, from Dover to the duchy of Cornwall inclusive. There was occasionally a third officer, who commanded in the Isle of Mart and the Irish Sea. Of him we hear little. His chief duty was to assist in the work of subduing the Scots, atid he was once at least chosen from among those chiefs of the Isles and the Western Highlands who were the worst enemies of the King of the Scots in the Lowlands. These captains and admirals were at first simple knights. Some of them were seamen of the Cinque Ports.

In the early part of the reign of Edward the Third [r. 1327-1377], the French introduced cannon on board their ships, chiefly in consequence of which his fleet, under the young Earl of Pembroke, was defeated before Rochelle. He took care, however, that this should not again occur, and by the year 1338 he appears to have introduced them on board most of his ships, and by the end of his reign no ships of war were without them. It is probable that the Great-Harry [1488] was the first ship belonging to the nation; but there is reason to believe that Richard III owned a few of the ships which he employed. The remainder, as it appears, were either hired of the merchants, or supplied, under a law of the state, by the Cinque Ports.

The Alards, a family of Winchelsea, produced more than one holder of the post. The first admiral for all the seas was Sir John Beauchamp, K.G. ; he was appointed by Edward III in 1360, for a year. But it was not till later that it became the rule to have one admiral superior to all the others. In the fourteenth century a considerable change began to appear in the character, though not in formal rank or power, of these officers. In 1345 it was found necessary to appoint the Earl of Arundel to command the Western Fleet, "for no one can chastise or rule them unless he be a great man," to quote the candid confession of the King's Council. The royal authority, in fact, was growing weaker. It fell to its lowest depths in the later times of the Lancastrian line. The inevitable consequence was, that the barons seized upon the command of the ships, and used them for their own purposes. Warwick the king-maker, who among his many other offices held that of Captain of Calais and Admiral, was practically master of the whole naval forces of the country.

The office of Lord High Admiral, which dates from the Lancastrian dynasty, was, in fact, a result of the aggression of the baronage. The king's authority being no longer sure of obedience, it was necessary to call in the power of the nobles, with the inevitable result. Those who knew that they were indispensable made their own terms. By the end of the Middle Ages the office of Lord High Admiral had become permanent. The old captains and admirals of the Northern and Western Fleets had disappeared, or were represented by subordinate officials, who received their commission from the Lord High Admiral. When the great Royalist reaction of the later fifteenth century had restored the authority of the Crown, the office survived. On the military side of his office the Lord High Admiral was the king's lieutenant for the fleet, exercising immense delegated powers in complete subjection to the Crown. But during the anarchy of the Wars of the Roses, such a man as Warwick, who garrisoned Calais with his own followers, and had the command of the ships, of which many were his own property, was practically master of the Channel, and rendered as much obedience to the king - or as little - as he pleased.

While the King of England possessed dominions on the Continent, he drew part of his naval forces from them. There is occasional mention of the king's ships and galleys of Aquitaine. The great reputation of the Italian seamen of the Middle Ages led to their employment now and then, and one, Nicholas Ususmaris of Genoa, was for a time in the service of Edward III, though only to command the ships belonging to Aquitaine. The Mediterranean seamen were employed very largely by the King of France, who was driven to use them by the want of skilful men among his own subjects. In the Middle Ages the English king appears only to have had recourse to them when he wished to make use of that typical Mediterranean craft, the galley. Under Henry VIII. Italians were brought in largely to serve both as seamen and shipbuilders, but by that time a larger class of vessel and a more extensive art of seamanship had begun to prevail. The galley had never been found to answer in the Channel, and its brief appearances there have been of little note. For the classes of vessels he mainly used, that is, ships which might take to the oar as a subsidiary resource, but relied chiefly on the sail, the king could find men in abundance among his own subjects.

Even a brief sketch of the English navy in the Middle Ages would be incomplete without some mention of the famous claim to the sovereignty of the seas. That the King of England did make this haughty profession of superiority is within the knowledge of everybody, and it was advanced, in form at least, till late in the reign of George III. Attempts had been made to carry it back to the reign of King John, and have been supported by the inveterate mediaeval practice of forging documents to bolster up supposed rights. But the so-called ordinance of King John, issued at Hastings in 1200, has been long given up. It was unquestionably a mere forgery, concocted at a later time to give the authority of antiquity to a more recent pretension. Yet about a hundred years later the sovereignty of Edward II over the seas was fully recognised by the Flemish towns. Edward III asserted his right to be sovereign of the four seas of Britain without qualification.

It must be remembered that this claim, which later times found intolerably arrogant, had in the Middle Ages the justification that it was supported by effective power. Not only was the King of England by far the most powerful sovereign on the seas in the west, but the possession of Calais gave him the command of the Straits of Dover on both sides. At a time when trade was conducted by coasting voyages, this enabled him to throttle the maritime commerce of the south with the north at will. The Venetian and Basque ships which came up to Antwerp in the early summer and went south again before autumn, were not only liable to attack by English vessels coming out of Dover or Calais, but they had constant need to use the roadsteads of these ports. It was consistent with all the ideas and practice of the Middle Ages that this power to injure should have been held to imply a right to assert superiority, and compel the recognition of it. Sir Harris Nicolas states that the first admission of this right on the part of foreigners is found in 1320, when certain Flemish envoys appealed to Edward II to put a stop to piracies committed on their vessels by English evil-doers, prayuig him "of his lordship and royal power to cause right to be done, and punishment awarded, as he is Lord of the Sea, and the robbery was, committed on the sea within his power, as is above said." It may be pointed out that the offences complained of were committed upon the English coast, and that an astute diplomatist of a later date might have argued that this admission did not amount to a recognition of English sovereignty over the whole North Sea.

No serious resistance was, however, made to this claim till the reign of Louis XIV, which we may account for by the fact that nobody was strong enough to resist. The Venetian and Basque traders submitted to the claim much as an African caravan might recognise the right of a chief to extort backsheesh. The kings of France were too weak and too much occupied elsewhere to fight on this point of honor. The Flemings were generally English allies, and the northern powers were not concerned. England's pretension was the more easily borne because the King of England did not insist upon levying dues on all who passed through the four seas, but only on a salute as a formal recognition of superiority. This outward sign of deference, the lowering of sails, and in later times the firing of guns, was insisted upon punctiliously till far into the seventeenth century, and there are isolated cases in which it was extorted even in the eighteenth. The space of sea over which the sovereignty of England was held to extend was counted to stretch from Finisterre to the coast of Norway.

When the words "sovereignty of the sea" are used as meaning the king's effective superiority to any force which could be brought against him, there can be no question as to its reality. Throughout the Middle Ages, a king of England who was master of his own dominions was rarely hampered by the naval force of any enemy. When he marched to subdue his kingdom of Scotland, his fleets kept pace with his army as it advanced through the Lothians. On the rare occasions on which he visited his lordship of Ireland, there was nobody to say him nay. He passed and repassed at will to and from his kingdom of France. Pirates, Scotch, Flemish, and Scandinavian, might infest the coast. Now and then an expedition met with disaster. French and Spanish adventurers sometimes harried the coast, and burned small towns. But these failures of our power were comparatively rare. They occurred only when the king was weak, and the country exhausted or disturbed. The rule was, that when the monarchy exerted its strength it could sweep the seas. If the king was careless, Parliament was at hand to exhort him to action. Englishmen were keenly alive to the importance of "guarding the narrow seas round about." Nor were the English ever in doubt as to how best to employ their navy. Even in the bad times of Edward II, when wisdom did not preside in the Council, a threat of invasion from France was met by the preparation of a fleet which was to attack, so that the enemy might first feel the evil. Centuries of experience taught no better way of using the sea power.

A detailed account of the naval enterprises of the Middle Ages is not a story one which can be told without monotony. In spite of the many improvements in the construction of ships and the advance of seamanship, the means of conducting a regular naval campaign were wanting. Vessels were still unable to keep the sea during long periods of cruising and blockade. They were not strong enough to stand the strain, nor could they carry the water and provisions required for the large fighting crews crowded into vessels ranging from fifty to three hundred tons. It followed from this double disability that warfare on sea was conducted by expeditions of brief duration. A fleet was collected, and sailed to attack the enemy's ships or harry his coast When successful, it gathered all the plunder it could find, and returned home to be laid up for repair, while its crews were disbanded. Thus it not infrequently happened that, immediately after a striking victory, a raiding expedition of the enemy was able to pounce on some part of our coast, and retaliate by murder and ravage for what he had just suflfered at home. England had a prevailing superiority, due to the greater number and eiiiciency of English seamen, and the greater average faculty of the English kings; but it would be futile to look for examples of coherent, orderly war conducted through months, or even years, of effort by permanent forces.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:34 ZULU