The Royal Navy in the Age of Sail

According to the Act of Parliament, it is on the Navy that "under the good providence of God, the wealth, safety, and strength of the kingdom chiefly depend." The protection of society from foreign violence was a pre-requisite of the security that allowed civilization to flourish in England. It was English seamen who gave this protection. To the bravery and skill of the Navy, England owes her commanding position among the nations, and almost her existence. Only by the possession of maritime strength was the development of England, and the growth of Greater Britain, with its world-wide commerce, made possible. Without the existence or exercise of Naval Power the prosperity of the mother country could not be made sure, nor the stability of the Empire be maintained. England became a controlling force in the European system by virtue of her power upon the sea.

The whole of maritime warfare falls naturally into three periods, each sharply characterised by a generic difference in the "capital ship," as in the seventeenth century it was happily called - the ship, that is, which formed the backbone of a fighting fleet and which had a place in the fighting line. The first period is that of the galley, beginning in prehistoric times and culminating in the year 1571, at the battle of Lepanto; the second was that of the 'great-ship,' or ' ship-of-the-line,' which was established in 1588 with the campaign of the Great Armada, and reached its highest development at Trafalgar ; the third began with the period of the 'battleship.' Or, to state the classification in terms of its real basis, there is a period of oars, an Age of Sail, and a period of steam.

The conspicuous technical feature of the maritime revolution which in the sixteenth century transferred the focus of the naval art from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic is the transition from galley warfare to warfare under sail; and the history of that transition, of its causes, its development, and its results, is the history of the rise of the English naval supremacy.

The classification is no arbitrary device invented for the clearer exposition of naval history, but one that is natural and inevitable. Not only do the divisions lie between well defined chronological limits, but they are rooted in the essentials of the art. The essence of naval strategy is sea endurance, by which is meant the degree of a fleet's capability of keeping the sea. The essence of naval tactics is the nature of the motive power ; that is to say, tactics primarily depend upon how far the movements of the fleet or ship are under human control, and how far dependent upon conditions that lie beyond it, or, in other words, whether the units of the fleet are of free or of subservient movement.

To these essential elements of the art each of the three periods has its own distinct relation. Each of them is measurable and determined by the degree of sea endurance and the degree of mobility exhibited by its characteristic type of capital ship. The galley was a vessel of low sea endurance but of highly free movement. The great-ship, or ship-of-the-line, was of large sea endurance but entirely subservient to the wind for its power of movement. The steam battleship, while far surpassing the galley in mobility, approached the ship-of-the-line in sea endurance.

In the first period, the period of oars, when the focus of empire lay within the confined waters of the Mediterranean, we see mobility taking precedence of sea endurance; in the second, the period of sails, when the arena of history widens out into the ocean, sea endurance becomes of the first importance; in the third, the period of steam, when the area of naval action is greater and the demand for extreme mobility more pressing than ever, the effort to combine both qualities in one type of ship, and in this type the possibility of securing the one essential without sacrifice of the other, most nearly reached attainment.

Sea endurance depends mainly on two considerations : it depends on the degree of bad weather the vessel can support and on its capacity for carrying provisions and material of war. Sea endurance, therefore, has two limits, the limit of seaworthiness and the limit of supply. In the galley both limits were low. The weakness of its method of propulsion required lightness of construction, fine lines, and a low freeboard, all of which tended to unseaworthiness. The same inherent defect demanded that its tonnage should be small in relation to the number of the crew, so that the point of extreme mobility had to be sought in reducing storage space to a minimum and increasing to a maximum the number of mouths to feed. In the great-ship the conditions were reversed. The sacrifice of free movement gave a largely increased storage space with a largely diminished crew, and at the same time permitted construction on lines essentially seaworthy, so that in time the sea endurance of the line-of-battle ship for strategical calculations became practically limitless.

It must not be supposed, however, that sailing warships did not exist, or had no place in the naval art. From very early times they had been regarded as necessary adjuncts to a navy, and had reached a considerable degree of development even in the Mediterranean. During the Crusades ships of very large size were used. As early as the twelfth century there is notice of one capable of carrying 1,500 men and 100 horses. The 'Paradise,' in which St. Louis sailed on his last Crusade in 1269, was large enough to carry a mainmast forty-six cubits high and a mainsail measuring sixty-three cubits. By the end of the fourteenth century, Ancona had a number of vessels of 300 tons armed with bombards and Lighter guns. Indeed, it became a standing order of all the maritime republics that no merchant vessel must go to sea without an armament of guns in proportion to its tonnage.

In the Mediterranean sailing ships continued to be thought incapable of contending against galleys. The advantage which an oared vessel had in calms or light airs was deemed to outweigh every other consideration, and it became a fundamental rule of naval warfare that sailing vessels were unfit to take their place in the line of battle. For transport purposes, for hospital and supply ships, for use as a siege train, they came to be an essential part of a complete navy, but only as auxiliary to the galleys. But while in the Mediterranean they were thus abandoning as hopeless the problem of bringing sailing ships into the line of battle, on the Atlantic seaboard a new school was arising that was approaching the solution ; and the home and heart of that school was England.

The invention of sailing tactics was a purely English art. The Dutch themselves do not even claim the invention of the line. Indeed in no foreign authority, either Dutch, French or Spanish, can one discover a claim to the invention of any device in sailing tactics that had permanent value.

There were two things for which every admiral maneuvered. Of these the first was the "weather gauge." In the old sailing days a ship under sail naturally heeled over to the breeze, and could not use her lower tier of guns. Consequently the ship (or fleet) which got the weather gauge, ie, was able to use both tiers of guns, had an immense advantage over the enemy. The other old advantage was "cutting the line." This meant sailing down towards the enemy ; cutting some of them off and hammering them out, long before the rest could beat about and return.

England effectively countered Spanish naval superiority in the 16th and 17th centuries through the extensive use of privateersin the New World. Popularly known as "Sea Dogs", Francis Drake, and Walter Raleigh amongothers plundered Spanish ships in that region and extorted large sums of ransom from Spanish settlements. Privateers were granted their right to wage war through the issue of letters of marque andreprisal. On a larger scale than privateers, merchant or mercantile organizations like the English East India Company were European companies created in the 16th century with extraordinary powers to explore and exploit overseas territories. As a general rule, these companies were given a monopoly ontrade in a region. The chartering government then granted the companies broad powers toraise military forces, negotiate treaties, conduct war, and govern fellow nationals.

In the long history of British domination of the seas, it is safe to say that the Royal Navy fought as many engagements against shore objectives as it did on the high seas. Singularly it was the defeat by his shore batteries of a Royal Navy squadron off Toulon that gave Napoleon early in his career disdain for British seapower. It was this same British seapower, in the form of a tight blockade which denied world intercourse to him but assured it to his enemies, and in the victories of Copenhagen, the Nile and Trafalgar, which was the controlling factor in his eventual defeat. Also the great British strategic bastion of Gibraltar was captured in 1704 by a force of Royal Marines and seamen landed from a naval squadron which had first pounded the Spanish garrison into a state of confusion and despair.

The Board of Admiralty dates, properly from 1689, or, at the utmost, reaches back to 1673, but its forerunner, sprang full grown into life in 1546 when the outgrown mediaeval system ended. The Admiralty Board is in the place, and administers the duties, of the Lord Admiral, but that officer although the titular head of the Navy never had any very active or continuous part in administration, nor was the post itself a very ancient one. James, Duke of York, afterwards James II, was the first Lord Admiral who really took actual charge of domestic naval affairs and the Admiralty succeeded him, and to his powers, thus overshadowing the Navy Board. Between 1546 and 1618, the Navy was governed by the Principal Officers, controlling the various branches of naval work, who constituted the Navy Board; between 1618 and 1689 there was a transitional period when the Navy Officers, Commissioners of the Admiralty, Parliamentary Committees, Lord Admiral, and the King, were all at different times, and occasionally simultaneously, ruling and directing. The Admiralty now more nearly represents in function and composition the old Navy Board, abolished in ignominy in 1832, than the Board of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries with which, except in the power still retained by the First Lord, it has little in common but name.

In the l8th century, the French became the last nation to challenge England for command of the sea in the age of sail. The French faced a dilemma born if not of penury then at least of excess demand on finite resources. Forced by ambition, geography, and history to be a major land force on the continent while challenging England for sea power, France had to support an army and navy simultaneously. During much of the period, France even had ships of superior quality, but it could never match the seamanship or gunnery of the British. Ironically, it never matched their daring either. The French could afford to lose their fleet, for their army was still proof against invasion. England, in contrast, never dared lose its fleet, for fear of being defenseless against an invading French army. Nonetheless, the British repeatedly risked all in its naval wars with France, constantly seeking decisive engagement. The policy culminated in Nelson's tactics that crushed the French at Trafalgar.

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Page last modified: 16-11-2015 17:59:22 ZULU