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1488 to 1604 Tudor Times

'Whosoever commands the sea commands the trade;
whosoever commands the trade of the world
commands the riches of the world, and
consequently the world itself.'
- Sir Walter Raleigh.

The creation of the modern Royal Navy has been variously attributed to Henry VII, to Henry VIII, and to Elizabeth. Whichever sovereign may be considered entitled to the honor, the statement, as applied to either monarch, really means that modification of mediaeval conditions, and adoption of improvements in construction and administration, which brought the Navy into the form familiar until the introduction of steam and iron. And in that sense no one sovereign can be accredited with its formation.

The introduction of portholes in, or perhaps before the reign of Henry VII, differentiated the man-of-war, involved radical alterations in build and armament, and made the future line-of-battle ship possible ; the establishment of the Navy Board by Henry VIII, made the organisation of fleets feasible and ensured a certain, if slow, progress because henceforward cumulative and, in the long run, independent of the energy and foresight of any one man under whom, as under Henry V, the Navy might largely advance, to sink back at his death into decay. Under Elizabeth the improvements in building and rigging constituted a step longer than had yet been taken towards the modern type, the Navy Board became an effectively working and flourishing institution, and the wars and voyages of her reign founded the school of successful seamanship of which was born the confidence, daring and self-reliance still prescriptive in the royal and merchant services.

A description of the commercial navy to the close of the fifteenth century is a description of the navy of the state : for the latter was only called together for particular service on the breaking out of war, and consisted, as must be remembered, partly of ships furnished by the sea-ports, partly of ships bought or hired by the crown. To embark a body of troops and cover their landing on the enemy's shore was the usual object of a naval expedition, so that an English fleet must be considered rather as a collection of armed transports than an array of line-of-battle ships. With similar armament, and ready alike for roving incursions on their neighbours' coast, the fleets of England and France often met in the narrow seas. The skill and seamanship of the captains were displayed in the manner of coming to close quarters with the enemy ; to grapple and to board, was the aim of each; the battle was decided by the archers and men-at- arms ;1 and could scarcely be called a naval engagement according to the present system of tactics.

Henry VII, guided by his ruling passion, avarice, promoted manufactures and commerce with unremitting zeal: magnificent in his designs, he was very limited in his rewards, so that his liberality was rather upon his own state, and memory," than on the deserts of others.2 Personally engaged in trade, he calculated his returns with all the greed of an adventurer. Sharpened in appetite by the taste of gain, he well knew how, and where to augment his revenue: with one hand he encouraged the merchant in every promising scheme, with the other he wrung the wealth from his coffers by the most arbitrary acts of oppression.

Prompted by that strange mixture of sagacity, prudence, and penuriousness which marked his character, he seems to have devised the project of a standing navy, as well to avoid the inconvenience and expense of raising and hiring ships on sudden conjunctures, as to provide a permanent protection for the extending commerce of the country.

The King, as vigorous in execution as in conception, forwarded this measure on a princely scale, by ordering the construction of the "Great Harry" at a cost of 14,000, a wonderful work for the shipwrights of that day. For this vessel had three masts, and two decks, and was of dimensions formerly unknown in the service. She was, properly speaking, the first man-of-war in the English navy. Other ships were quickly fitted out, and when these were not employed or likely to be employed by the State, the King, to obtain some return for his expenditure, turned the tables on the traders, and instead of hiring himself, let his vessels on hire to the merchants.

The naval force of England, which had consisted of hired ships and but few vessels belonging to the crown, was reduced to a very low state at the accession of Henry VII; but circumstances soon followed, which gave a great impulse to navigation. Columbus sailed from Spain, on his first voyage, in the year 1492, in search of a continent beyond the Atlantic, which he discovered in his third voyage in 1498. Vasco de Oama left the Tagus on the 20th of June, 1497; and pursuing his voyage round the south promontory of Africa, which he named the Cape of Good Hope, he reached Calicut, on the coast of Malabar, on the 22nd of May in the following year. Newfoundland was discovered in the year 1492. These discoveries roused a spirit of enterprize in England, and naval affairs received an attention commensurate to their importance to this maritime nation.

Henry VII was the first king, since Alfred, who constructed ships expressly for naval warfare ; he laid down a memorable ship, the Great Harry, which, however, was not completed till the succeeding reign. This ship measured 138 feet in length, and 36 feet in breadth, and carried 80 guns of different calibre. The Great Harry had four tower masts and a bowsprit, a round bow, and projecting prow; she had castles forwards, amidship, and abaft, making four on each side.

Henry VIII

The English navy was established by Henry VIII. Before his time, ships were gathered together from any quarter when war was to be carried on, without provision being made for their maintenance afterwards. Henry, with his usual sagacity, saw the advantage of having a fleet of ships exclusively fitted for war, instead of drawing off those which might be well calculated for the purposes of commerce, but were not, from their construction, suited to stand the brunt of battle. He could not but perceive, besides this, that by employing the merchant-vessels, as had before been done, for the purposes of fighting, he crippled the merchants in their commercial pursuits, and prevented them from supplying him with the sinews of war. He desired also to have a permanent fleet ready, should war break out, to protect the coasts of his kingdom from foreign invasion.

If there is any one man to whom the revolution at sea is to be attributed it is above all the great sea-king, Henry VIII. As by his religious policy he definitely cut himself free from the mediaeval dream of a European system, he seems to have felt that henceforward the greatness of his kingdom must rest upon the sea. While the continental princes were absorbed with the problems of establishing standing armies, Henry devoted himself to the creation of a standing Navy. It was thus that under his guidance the English genius for maritime warfare took possession of the new idea, and without a pause worked it out until it developed a type of galleon peculiarly its own and a Navy such as the world had never seen before.

Henry built dockyards at Deptford, Woolwich, and Portsmouth; he made laws for planting and preserving trees suitable for ship timber; he established the Trinity House Corporation, for the improvement of the science and art of navigation; he instituted the Commissions of the Admiralty and Navy; he made the navy a distinct and recognised branch of the public service; and he organised the relation between the several grades of officers and seamen. It could not but be that many improvements in ship-building would flow out of such an application of system to that which had before been unsystematic.

Henry VIII, by his incessant and watchful care for the navy, had opened the paths of the great waters. To turn from vague 'rides through France' to the development of the natural heritage of an island realm was the aim of the nation; and it was thoroughly grasped by the first great sailor King. As for military history, there is none in his reign; his land wars are a poor business, and in his thirty-eight years he was hardly at war as many months. But the fisherman or the merchant-sailor, when impressed on board the royal navy, was of another temper ; he was on his natural element. Under Henry the Navy became a department of State, and the Lord High Admiral the second person in the kingdom. The King himself was a first-class pilot, and often steered his own yacht, though, being fond of fine clothes and liking to show off his big calves, he was apt to wear breeches of cloth of gold, which must have got spoiled by the tar.

Henry VIII gave enormous sums towards the deepening of the channels of all navigable estuaries, especially those of Plymouth, Portsmouth and Bristol. He founded the royal arsenals at Deptford and Woolwich. He refounded the lost rope-making industries of Brid- port, Lyme, Charmouth and other Dorset towns; he encouraged by every possible means the growth of flax and hemp for this purpose. Above all, he chartered the Thames pilots and founded the Trinity House as the centre of all the science and art of the coastwise trade and defence of England.

In naval gunnery Henry from his earliest years displayed the greatest interest; the first English gun foundry dates from 1520. He was the actual inventor of the mortar or short bombard, and of shells tilled with explosives. In the early part of Henry VIII's reign, the Navy was armed mainly with small breech- loading pieces for use as mankillers in repelling boarders or preparing an enemy's decks for a counter attack. In Elizabeth's time such pieces were regarded as merely a secondary armament. A few only of the newer vessels carried heavy ordnance, and that in little higher proportion than galleys. The real secret of the great-ship's power was yet undiscovered.

There is no doubt that Henry employed Italian and perhaps Spanish shipwrights; and, before the end of the reign - e.g. in the fighting off the Isle of Wight in 1544 - England had swift pinnaces worked both by sails and oars, which entirely outpaced the French galleys. As early as 1512 the King had in his navy fifteen sail of one kind and another ; when he died there were seventy, of which thirty might rank as ' ships of the line.' Besides the King, the Howards were great and hereditary sailors ; two sons of the victor of Flodden were successively Lords High Admirals, and next to them in fame came Fitz- William and Lisle. In view of the isolation and dangers of England during the last half of the reign, not one of these naval precautions was wasted.

At the death of Henry VIII in 1547, the royal navy consisted of about 50 ships and vessels of different sizes, the former from 1000 to 150 tons, and the latter down to 20 tons, making in the whole about 12,000 tons, and manned by about 8000 mariners, soldiers, and gunners. Thus, as has been well said, "everything was leading up to a time when the perils of the seas should claim all that was most heroic in England's most heroic age."


In the short reign of his son Edward little alteration seems to have taken place in the state and condition of the royal navy. But the regulations which had been made in the reign of his father for the civil government of naval affairs were revised, arranged, and turned into ordinances, which form the basis of all the subsequent instructions given to the commissioners for the management of tue civil affairs of the navy.


In the reign of Mary the tonnage of the navy was reduced to about 7000 tons ; but her lord high admiral nobly maintained the title assumed by England of Sovereign of the Seas, by compelling Philip of Spain to strike his flag that was flying at the main-top-mast head, though on his way to England to marry Queen Mary, by firing a shot at the Spanish admiral. He abo demanded that the wholo fleet, consisting of 1GO sail, should strike their colors and lower their top-sails, as a homage to the English flag, before he would permit his own squadron to salute the Spanish monarch.


The age of English maritime adventure only began in the reign of Elizabeth. England had then no colonies, no foreign possessions whatever. The first of her extensive colonial possessions was established in this reign. "Ships, colonies, and commerce" began to be the national motto-not that colonies make ships and commerce, but that ships and commerce make colonies.

England was hardly a second rate power. Fifty years of civil war had drained her of her life blood. The early reigns of the Tudors had been weakened by a doubtful title, and disturbed by religious divisions. So when Queen Bess climbed to a tottering throne, and looked around, she saw what might well have daunted a heart less stout. Her treasury was empty. Her army had no existence. Her navy was a little collection of worn-out hulks." Only one hundred and thirty-five vessels, public and private, in all England over a hundred tons," - such is the record.

At the time of Queen Elizabeth the number of royal ships was only thirteen, the rest of the navy consisting of merchant ships, which were hired, and discharged when their purpose was served. At the accession of the queen, there were not more than four ships belonging to the river Thames, excepting those of the royal navy, which were over one hundred and twenty tons in burden; and after forty years, the whole of the merchant ships of England over one hundred tons amounted to one hundred and thirty- five, only a few of these being of five hundred tons. In 1588 the number had increased to one hundred and fifty, "of about one hundred and fifty tons one with another, employed in trading voyages to all parts and countries." The principal shipping which frequented the English ports still continued to be foreign-Italian, Flemish, and German.

Elizabeth not only increased the numerical force of the regular navy, but established many wise regulations for its preservation, and for securing adequate supplies of timber and other naval stores. She placed her naval officers on a more respectable footing, and encouraged foreign trade and geographical discovery, so that she acquired justly the title of the Restorer of Naval Power, and Sovereign of the Northern Seas.

Elizabeth was equally as attentive as her father had been to naval affairs ; she ordered that guns of the same calibre should be carried on the same deck in all ships ; she also founded the dockyard at Chatham. During her reign the chain-pumps, capstans, and other improvements were introduced.

With the rapid strides made during the sixteenth century in the art of ship-building and science of navigation, there was no corresponding change in the government of the fleet, and administration of naval affairs. These were still under the direction of the Lord High Admiral ; and remarkable as was the efficiency of the royal officers, they were far surpassed by the boldness and enterprise of private adventurers.

No fighting instructions known to have been issued in the reign of Elizabeth have been found, nor is there any indication that a regular order of battle was ever laid down by the seamen-admirals of her time. Even Howard's great fleet of 1588 had twice been in action with the Armada before it was so much as organised into squadrons. The domination of the seamen's idea of naval warfare, the increasing handiness of ships, the improved design of their batteries, the special progress made by Englishmen in guns and gunnery led rapidly to the preference of broadside gunfire over boarding, and to an exaggeration of the value of individual mobility ; and the old semi-military formations based on small-arm fighting were abandoned. It is not till the close of the West Indian Expedition of 1596, when, after Hawkins and Drake were both dead, Colonel-General Sir Thomas Baskerville, the commander of the landing force, was left in charge of the retreating fleet, that there is any trace of a definite battle formation.

For the English the year 1558 had opened with the humiliation of losing their last territory on the mainland of Europe -- Calais. the English still hankered after European possessions. In 1562-1563, by taking advantage of France's first War of Religion, they tried to hold Le Havre (which they called Newhaven), as though it could replace Calais, and failed. Later, when troops had to be sent to the Low Countries in 1585, strategists toyed with the idea of taking the Dutch at their word, and really making Elizabeth Sovereign of the Netherlands as well. But both attempts to become a continental power again were nearly disastrous for those involved in them. As a consequence the English lost enthusiasm for these costly, self-consuming struggles: by the time the Queen died in 1603 English foreign policy (conceived in the broadest sense of the term) had shifted decisively into new channels. Although the British Army undertook many campaigns on the continent of Europe during the next three centuries, in almost every case, unless it was acting in concert with powerful allies, it confined itself to amphibious operations in which the Navy was an essential and equal partner.

In 1561 the Spaniard Martin Cortes' work on navigation over oceans was translated by Richard Eden and published in London. For the first time the islanders learn, in their own tongue, how fleets carried the wealth of all the Indies across the sea to Spain and Portugal. As the Spanish commitment in the Low Countries builds up, it dawns on the English that Spain is entirely dependent upon maritime skill to keep in touch with her most highly valued dominions -- the Netherlands and the Indies. The English are gradually to perceive that with similar skill, the English could themselves reach out to overseas dominions as easily as did the Spaniards, and drain the arteries of the Spanish empire. He who masters the sea also commands entire liberty of action. Besides being able to control a great part of the wealth of the world, a maritime power can exert influence that may prove decisive in the affairs of any country in the world that also possesses a seaboard.

As the Queen's reign went on, the English ceased to look upon it as a cold unfriendly barrier that hindered their policies, lengthened their trade routes and separated them from their friends and clients abroad. The sea came to represent an element that was natural to them -- a part and parcel of the realm. It was recognized that the sea gave them sustenance, access and communication: it challenged them to produce the vehicle that would make it yield them profit. For the sea offered security and opportunity in one: if England maintained herself as a maritime power her statesmen would have freedom of action in their policies. They could choose whether to remain aloof, sheltered by the Navy from the tempestuous politics of the continent, or whether, after calculating the advantage that might accrue, they should intervene in them, while still remaining protected. 'He that commands the sea is at great liberty, and may take as much and as little of the war as he will; whereas those that be strongest by land are many times nevertheless in great straits,' wrote Francis Bacon. It was accepted that those who first mastered the sea could strike effective blows, even against a predominantly land power, at relatively small cost to themselves in men, munitions or money. The technique especially recommended itself to Englishmen as a realization of one of the eternal axioms of the military art: that in all cases one's strategy should aim to export the war, so that as much as possible of the danger, expense and damage inherent in the conflict will fall like a flail across somebody else's country -- preferably the enemy's.

They entered into possession of commodities through a process of plunder (by contemporaries euphemistically called 'purchase') from the frequent and opulent, but poorly defended Spanish cargoes, instead of through one of equal commercial exchange. Ships venturing to the Baltic and Muscovy, to Italy and the Levant, to Newfoundland and America, to Guinea, or to the Eastern and Western Indies were the essential vehicles of England's commercial wealth. With these ships and their crews, the English contrived to make war come near to paying for itself -- by using them to prey upon the enemy's more vulnerable traffic. "That the war with Spain hath been profitable no man with reason can gainsay; and how many millions we have taken from the Spaniard is a thing notorious," wrote Sir Richard Hawkins -- son of Drake's colleague Sir John Hawkins -- in 1598.

War with Spain was the signal that drew together all the gallant and ambitious spirits of the time. Descents on the coast of Spain, expeditions to intercept and capture the Spanish galleons, attacks on the South American settlements, were among the projects designed and carried out by- associations of individuals1. The commanders, many of them men of birth and wealth, staked their fortunes on the venture ; and they were supported by subscriptions from the great merchants in London. Drake, Hawkins, Erobisher, and Ealeigh, made the name of the English sailor a word of fear throughout the Spanish Main.

The Spaniards continued their desperate struggle in the Netherlands and so far from molesting England were not even able to retaliate for the injuries inflicted by English pirates or the encouragement which Elizabeth gave to Philip's rebellions subjects. Elizabeth, however, still had no wish for open war with Spain, and in 1575 declined the sovereignty of Holland and Zealand, which was offered her by the Netherlanders. In retaliation for English piracy, Philip offered assistance to the Irish, who were as usual in arms against England.

The relations of Spain and England during these years were often strained to the point of war. Elizabeth secretly assisted the Dutch, and Philip encouraged her subjects to rebellion. Spaniards killed Englishmen wherever they met them, and Englishmen hunted Spaniards up and down the high seas. Yet the two countries were nominally at peace; and the two monarchs were constantly exchanging fair words and large promises. Elizabeth, however, continued to encourage her seamen to prey upon Spanish commerce; her eyes glistened with pleasure at tales of adventure in the Spanish seas, where English pirates boarded the great galleons and turned their tons of precious metal towards English ports. In this half legalized piracy the people also took a deep patriotic interest; the names of Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher, were honored at every English fireside. In 1577 Drake sailed for the Pacific, sacked towns and cities along the coast of South America, seized and scuttled Spanish ships, and at last, after planting the English flag in California and sailing clear round the world, entered Plymouth in 1580 with his ship heavily loaded with gold, silver, and precious stones. The Spanish ambassador demanded justice, and Elizabeth protested that he should have it, while Drake sunned himself in the wrath of the great queen, divided his treasure with her, and laughed at the vengeance of the Spaniard. It was piracy, pure and simple; but it was a great school for the training of a navy, and it cost nothing.

Queen Elizabeth knighted Captain Drake on board his own ship on his return from his famous voyage round the world, and thereby stamped her approval of the reprisals made on the American coasts, and the plunder of Spanish commerce, at a time when the two countries were nominally at peace. Though the English inveighed against the faithlessness of the Spaniards, yet it may well be doubted whether maritime glory was not dearly purchased by the breach of treaties and lawlessness of the buccaneers.

All these great captains joined the royal forces, and distinguished themselves under the command of the Lord High Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, in the memorable running fight with the Invincible Armada, on its passage up the English Channel. Though the most energetic- efforts had been made in the royal dockyards to meet the threatened descent of the Armada, the The Spanish Queen's men-of-war were far inferior in number to those equipped by private adventurers and the vessels hired of the merchants. This disproportion is most prominent throughout the naval annals of her reign.

The maritime force that held conflict at arm's length from the realm itself replaced trading by the taking of rich prizes from a relentless enemy who proved to be unable to defend what he had to lose. In 1598 this reached a point at which observers remarked upon "the cheapness that all Spanish commodities do now bear in England, having no trade with Spain, that they be for the most part of less price in England than in Spain or the Indias."

The number actually belonging to the navy was stated by the commissioners of 1618 in their report (several manuscript copies of which exist) to have been 34 ships of 12,190 tons, carrying 6225 men. Sir Edward Coke (4 Inst 50) "thinks it matter of boast that the royal navy of England then consisted of 33 (Blackstone). At the end of Elizabeth's reign, however, the navy had greatly increased, the list in 1603 consisting of 42 ships of various descriptions, amounting to 17,000 tons, and manned with 8346 men. Of these, two were of the burden of 1000 tons each, three of 900 tons, and ten of from 600 to 800 tons.

Invincible Armada

The greatest naval force that had till then been called together was that which was assembled to oppose the Invincible Armada, and which, according to the notes of Pepys, consisted of 176 ships, with 14,992 men; but these were not all "Shippes Royall," but consisted largely of the contributions of the Cinque Ports and private persons.

Philip was in financial difficulties and facing simultaneously the tasks of suppressing a dangerous rebellion among the Moors of Granada and of countering the menace of Turkish power in the Mediterranean (dispelled in 1571 at the battle of Lepanto). Philip II was determined to put down those English adventurers who had swept the waters of Spain and plundered his galleons on the high seas. The English sailors knew that the sword of Philip was forged in the gold-mines of South America, and that the only way to defend their country was to intercept the plunder on its voyage home to Spain. But the sailors and their captains - Drake, Hawkins, ^Elia. Howard, Grenville, Raleigh, and the rest-could not altogether interrupt the enterprise of the King of Spain. The Armada sailed, and came in sight of the English coast on 20 July 1588.

The struggle was of an extraordinary character. On the one side was the most powerful naval armament that had ever put to sea. It consisted of six squadrons of sixty fine large ships, the smallest being of seven hundred tons. Besides these were four gigantic galleasses, each carrying fifty guns, four large armed galleys, fifty - six armed merchant ships, and twenty caravels-in all, one hundred and forty-nine vessels. On board were eight thousand sailors, twenty thousand soldiers, and a large number of galley-slaves. The ships carried provisions enough for six months' consumption, and the supply of ammunition was enormous.

On the other side was the small English fleet under Hawkins and Drake. The royal ships were only thirteen in number; the rest were contributed by private enterprise, there being only thirty-eight vessels of all sorts and sizes, including cutters and pinnaces, carrying the queen's flag. The principal armed merchant ships were provided by London, Southampton, Bristol, and the other southern ports. Drake was followed by some privateers; Hawkins had four or five ships, and Howard of Effingham two.

The success of the defence was due to tact, courage, and seamanship. At the first contact of the fleets, the Spanish towering galleons wished to close, to grapple with their contemptuous enemies, and crush them to death. The English tacked, returned, fired again, riddled the Spaniards, and shot away in the eye of the wind. To the astonishment of the Spanish admiral, the English ships approached him or left him just as they chose. "The enemy pursue me," wrote the Spanish admiral to the Prince of Parma; "they fire upon me most days from morning till nightfall, but they will not close and grapple, though I have given them every opportunity." And so it happened throughout, until the Spanish fleet was driven to wreck and ruin, and the remaining ships were scattered by the tempests of the north.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:39 ZULU