The History of the Royal Navy - Part 1 (882 - 1660)
Created | Updated Jul 15, 2013
History of the Royal Navy
Part One - 882-1660 | Part Two - 1660-1815 | Part Three - 1815-1914 | Part Four - 1914-1945 | Part Five - 1945-2005
Although the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom now forms the oldest branch of the Armed Forces of the Crown, its roots are generally more muddied than those of the British Army and the Royal Air Force. As an island nation, Great Britain has long been the subject of invasions by and sea battles with many different nations, leading to the need through the years for a sometimes overwhelmingly large navy. For this reason, the history of the Royal Navy is inevitably tied to the history of the British Isles. This series of entries looks at the interactions between the two.
The Saxon Navy
The first recorded battle in British waters took place in 719 as part of a civil war between the ruling Scottish families of the time, the Dalriata. This would have been just one of many taking place around the island, with fighting generally consisting of boarding the opposition's boats and killing their crew. Despite the prevalence of this form of warfare, no proper navy existed anywhere in Britain until the reign of Alfred the Great, the Saxon king of Wessex who ruled from 871 to 901.
Alfred's reign came at a time when there were increasing raids on the country by the Danes1. The invaders would sail up estuaries or approach the coast in their longboats and then come ashore. Alfred responded to the threat by constructing a fleet of large longboats, each of which could carry a hundred men, to meet and fight off the invaders before they landed. This navy's first battle was against four Danish ships in the Stour Estuary in 882, but it was his victory over the invading forces in the Thames estuary and off the coast of Essex in 897 that won Alfred the epithet 'the Great'. King Alfred is now considered to be, in a way, the founder of the Royal Navy.
After a long series of seaborne raids and the receipt of many tributes2 from the English kings, the Danes finally decided to invade England in August, 1013. Sweyn Forkbeard mounted a successful attack on the naval and ground forces of Æthelred the Unready, but died shortly after in 1014. Sweyn's son Canute returned with another fleet the following year and forced Æthelred into joint rule of England. Canute eventually took over upon Æthelred's death. With a Viking in charge, the navy grew into an almost professional force, but it would be the largest the country would see for the next half a century.
Upon the death of his Danish half-brother Harthacanute in 1042, Edward the Confessor became king and the monarchy was once again restored to the Saxons. However, great problems arose as Edward abolished the navy during his reign and then died childless in early 1066, leaving the way open for the invasions leading ultimately to the Battle of Hastings and the deposition of Harold Godwinson by the Norman invader William I. The Norman kings took little interest in maintaining the navy, as there was now little need for such a force.
Although Normandy passed back to France with William's death in 1087, it was seized by his son Henry I in 1106 and held subsequently by Stephen and then the Plantagenet Henry II, both filling the role of the Duke of Normandy. The need for both trade and transportation between Normandy and the south coast of England led to the creation of the 'Cinque Ports' at Dover, Hastings, Hythe, New Romney and Sandwich in 1155. The ports were also used to allow the rapid formation of a naval force from merchant vessels to fight off pirates and enemy attacks. In 1190, Henry II's son Richard I3 established the first basic maritime laws, known as the Laws of Oleron, which dealt with the fundamental rights and responsibilities of ship's captains.
Trading at the ports thrived until 1204, when King John4 lost Normandy to Philip II of France. This led to a sudden renewal of the need for a navy, and by 1212 a naval base had sprung up at Portsmouth. The wooden ships built at the time were mainly designed for boarding others and usually supported large battlements at the front and back, known as the forecastle and aftercastle, while also mounting catapults and other weapons of siege. The force was soon strong enough to perform raids on the French. One major success was the sinking of many of the enemy fleet at Damme in Flanders5. However, the navy's first important victory was soon to come.
The First Barons' War
In 1215, a group of barons forced King John into signing the Magna Carta, an important charter forcing the monarch to obey 'the law of the land' and so forth. However, it also contained 'unacceptable' clauses that would make the king effectively powerless and soon the barons and King John were at war for the throne. Louis, the son of King Philip II, was invited over to fight for the barons and he landed in Kent in May 1216. John was forced to flee to the old Saxon capital of Winchester. Louis took London and was proclaimed king.
While Louis was forced to lay siege to Dover and Windsor castles, he still held control over south-east England. The major turning point came with the death of King John in 1216, when many of the barons started to switch sides to attack the French on behalf of John's young son, Henry III. A series of English victories followed and in 1217 a large fleet of French reinforcements under Eustace the Monk had to set sail across the Straits of Dover. Dover's constable, Hubert de Burgh, put together a force from the ships of the British fleet and sailed to meet them. The Battle of Sandwich ensued, in which de Burgh sailed past the enemy and then used the wind to approach them from behind. The French ships were boarded and captured one by one until they were forced to flee and no reinforcements reached the ailing Louis. The battle proved vital in stopping the French from taking over and Louis soon revoked his claim to the English throne. Henry III went on to sign a revised Magna Carta with the 'unfair' clauses removed.
More Monarchs, More Wars, More Ships
Ships went on to become more important in the wars that followed, with fleets supporting many campaigns abroad. The navy's first attempt to blockade another country came in 1314, when Edward II tried unsuccessfully to surround Scotland with his fleet. The Hundred Years War (1337 - 1453) between France and Edward III's England required many crossings of the Channel, but unlike Eustace the Monk's misadventure, these were mostly unopposed due to lack of communication. In 1338, the French entered the almost impenetrable Portsmouth while flying English flags and sacked the city, returning to prevent its rebuilding several times in the next forty years. Many audacious raids on English merchants occurred around the Isle of Wight, leaving plenty of shipwrecks.
However, some important sea battles still occurred, including the Battle of Sluys and the Battle of L'Espagnols-sur-Mer, these being English victories against the French and Spanish fleets, respectively. The Battle of Sluys took place in 1340 off the coast of Belgium and Denmark and was the first battle in which large ships were used, while L'Espagnols-sur-Mer took place in 1350 in the channel near Winchelsea. The position of Clerk of the King's Ships had to be created to manage the growing English navy, which by the midpoint of the Hundred Years War consisted of over 700 ships.
However, by the 1370s things had begun to change. Taxes were too high and merchants disliked having their boats taken by the king. Both factors meant that by the end of King Richard II's reign only four ships remained. During his reign Richard appointed the Earl of Rutland as the first Lord High Admiral, but the lull was countered by the actions of Henry V (1413 - 1422), who revived the navy and built many new ships. These included the Jesus, the navy's first 1,000-ton ship, and the famous Grace Dieu, a 1,400-ton boat with a massive four-deck forecastle that was later struck by lightning, leading to the ship's demise near its mooring in the Hamble Estuary. This large new fleet's most important action was to carry 8,000 men in 300 boats across the channel to fight in the Battle of Agincourt.
The navy shrank once again with Henry V's death in 1422, when his son Henry VI sold off most of the dead king's boats. The English fleet remained at a level of around a dozen boats throughout the Wars of the Roses, although Henry VII can be credited with both an increase in ship size and an investment in dockyards during the end of that century, including the construction of Europe's first dry-dock in Portsmouth in 1495.
Henry VIII - Father of the English Navy
Ironically, it was actually the Scottish and not England's continental enemies that first led Henry VIII to found the Navy Royal after his coronation in 1509. James IV of Scotland had already constructed a large fleet to control the Western Isles and an arms race ensued as Henry tried to maintain dominance of the seas. Expecting a war with both Scotland and France, Henry built many great ships, large wooden boats which used the new technology of gunports to allow more cannons to be fired, ablating the need for forecastles and aftercastles. The most famous of these was the Mary Rose, which was purpose-built for the navy around 1510 and had an esteemed career up until her sinking in 1545 (see the Battle of the Solent below). In 1512, the newly appointed Lord Admiral Sir Edward Howard led an attack on France which proved unsuccessful, despite a protracted battle between the Regent and the Cordeliére in which both boats sank.
Continued fighting with the French and the Scots in 1513 led to the decision to have a standby force of thirty ships during peacetime. In 1514, the Henry Grace-a-Dieu was launched, its two decks of large guns signalling the end of archery and hand-to-hand combat onboard ships. Trinity House was created that year to develop lighthouses, buoys and signalling beacons to aid in the control of the navy, while the first royal shipwright appeared in 1538. By 1540, the navy consisted of 45 ships and Henry had finished the construction of the docks at Portsmouth. In 1546 Henry established the Council of the Marine, the forerunner of the Navy Board, and commissioned the Anthony Roll, a survey of all his ships at the time. Partly using the money from the dissolution of the monasteries6, Henry reinforced Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, building Southsea Castle in 1527, while continuing to increase the size of the Navy Royal. By the time of his death in 1547, Henry controlled 58 ships and is now sometimes referred to as 'the Father of the English Navy'.
The Battle of the Solent
In 1542, France allied itself with the Ottoman Empire, a region centred around modern-day Turkey, and invaded Italy in the last of many attempts to take the country. After the failure of the French advance in 1544, England, Italy and Spain invaded the north of France, but this failed due to lack of coordination and continued attacks from the Ottoman Empire. However, the war led to a battle that is perhaps more famous than the war itself.
In July 1545, the French sent an invasion fleet of 130 ships across the channel and into the Solent to land troops on the Isle of Wight and in Sussex. The English fleet soon set out of Portsmouth to meet them and long-range cannon fire was exchanged, to little effect. The next day there was no wind and the French attacked the English in oar-propelled galleys, but by the evening the breeze returned again. It was at this point that Henry VIII watched from Southsea Castle as his pride and joy, the Mary Rose, capsized, possibly due to the crew forgetting to shut the lower gunports after fending off the galleys. The battle was inconclusive, but the French were soon defeated on land and the invasion came to nothing.
The Spanish Armada
After Henry VIII's death came his son Edward VI (1547 - 1553) and his daughter Mary I (1553 - 1558)7, both of whom maintained the Navy Royal without making many new additions, allowing it to slowly shrink in size. The navy performed reasonably well during this time, although the fleet could not prevent the loss of Calais to the French in 1558. When Elizabeth I came to the throne later that year, she inherited a much smaller navy than what Henry VIII had initially left his children.
Elizabeth went about solving this problem through private enterprise, enlisting privateers such as Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake to attack the Spanish fleets bringing silver back from the Andes. Drake made his fortune in 1573 by ambushing a treasure convoy and was later commissioned by the Queen to circumnavigate the globe. Unsurprisingly, war broke out with Spain in 1585 due to Elizabeth's support for the privateers. Drake sailed to the West Indies and stormed the Spanish settlements there and soon the Spanish could take no more. Philip II of Spain began building a force with the intent of invading England.
In 1587, Drake sailed straight into the Spanish port of Cadiz, his men having spiked the defenders' guns, and destroyed 26 of the enemy fleet. He held the town for three days before leaving and it is said that he well and truly 'singed the King's beard'. The departure of the Spanish Armada was thus delayed until 1588, with 130 ships eventually sailing towards the Solent. Elizabeth I sent the entire 'Navy of England' to meet them, leading to the Battle of the Isle of Wight, in which the 80 English boats outnumbered the escorts of the Armada, which was forced to head for Calais. At the Battle of Gravelines, the English sent fireboats into the moored Spanish fleet at Calais and then attacked. The Spanish fled and were blown into the North Sea, having to return home by passing around the entire British Isles. Only 77 Spanish ships made it back to Lisbon, making the whole affair a great English victory.
Elizabeth countered in 1589 by sending the English Armada under the control of Drake to wipe out the remaining Spanish fleet. The expedition was a failure and Drake was disgraced, while the Anglo-Spanish War continued until 1604, a year after Elizabeth's death.
The Stuarts and the Commonwealth
The navy remained more or less the same during the reign of James I and his son Charles I, although the former built the 1,200-ton Prince Royal, the first ship to have three decks of cannons, while the latter constructed the Sovereign of the Seas, a huge ship with 102 cannons. Operations against pirates and the Spanish did not go well under either king and the navy soon shrank due to financial difficulties. This all started to change with the English Civil War of 1640 - 1642, when the Navy Royal sided with Parliament against Charles I. The fleet was renamed the British Navy as Oliver Cromwell took control.
The Commonwealth proved to be beneficial for the development of the navy, as the death of Charles I multiplied England's enemies. The fleet expanded from 35 to 102 vessels in just ten years. The ships formed three squadrons, each controlled by an Admiral, Vice-Admiral and Rear Admiral. The newly-organised force proved successful during the Anglo-Dutch War, which began in 1652. General-at-Sea Robert Blake fought a series of battles against the Dutch admiral Marten Tromp and won repeatedly in the Battles of Kentish Knock and Gabbard, leading to his compilation of improved naval tactics being adopted by the fleet as the Fighting Instructions in 1653. As the First Anglo-Dutch war ended, war with the Spanish began, leading Blake to blockade Spain and pursue their bullion fleet to Santa Cruz where it was destroyed, depriving the Spanish of their gold. Blake died in sight of Plymouth on his return to England, but he had contributed greatly to the British Navy.
By the time the monarchy retained control in 1660 the British Navy was a permanent professional fleet, which was renamed the Royal Navy with the coronation of Charles II.