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The History of the Royal Navy - Part 2 (1660 - 1815)

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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

In the first Entry (882 - 1660) we looked at how a series of early navies rose and fell over time and how Henry VIII's Navy Royal went on to become the British Navy at the end of the English Civil War. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Royal Navy finally received its current name, but it was still a very different entity from the one we know today. The strict regime of Oliver Cromwell had made the fleet into a professional force at an astounding cost, one which Charles II would have to continue to pay if he was to retain the 154 ships he had inherited.

Pepys and the Dutch

Charles soon needed some help managing the new force. Samuel Pepys, famous for his writings about the Plague and the Great Fire of London, decided that he was the man for the job. Working for the Navy Board, Pepys helped found the navy upon an official constitution and also established the Naval Discipline Act, which included the Articles of War. The Navy became even more organised than during the Commonwealth, with the establishment of the highly-trained Royal Marines in 1664.

The Second Anglo-Dutch War

The restoration of Charles II brought a new-found vigour to privateers, leading to many attacks on Dutch merchants despite the peace made in 1654. After the capture of several of their colonies, the Dutch retaliated, forcing Charles II to declare war in 1665. At the Battle of Lowestoft the highly organised Royal Navy provided the Dutch with their worst defeat in known history, but failed to take advantage of their victory, and allowed the remainder of the Dutch fleet to return home from the West Indies with money and supplies.

The Navy was soon desperate to destroy the Dutch fleet, and the Four Days Battle took place between the English and Flemish coasts1. The battle proved inconclusive, but was costly for the British; many of their boats had to be repaired at great expense in the Chatham docks. The docks became the site of the St James's Day Battle when the Dutch sailed up the Medway in an attempt to press their advantage, but their attack failed, and the bankrupt British called for peace. Before ending the war the Dutch returned to the Medway in 1667 and in the resulting battle effortlessly captured the flagship HMS Royal Charles, making it the most embarrassing British defeat since the Norman invasion.

The Third Anglo-Dutch War

Despite making peace with the Dutch in 1668, Charles II signed the secret Treaty of Dover with the French in 1670, requiring the Royal Navy to support the French when they invaded the Netherlands in 1672. The inconclusive Battle of Solebay occurred when the Dutch surprised the Anglo-French fleet off the coast of Suffolk, forcing the Allies to abandon their plans to blockade the Dutch. A year later the Dutch headed for the Thames, where they planned to sink ships in order to trap the British fleet; they arrived to find that the British had already set sail. The Dutch fleet then returned to Schooneveld off the coast of Holland where they defeated the Allied fleet twice, dealing the final blow as the Anglo-French fleet pulled back to Texel, and forcing the British to leave a war they had never really wished to enter.

The Glorious Revolution and War with the French

After the death of Charles II in 1685, his Catholic son James II came to the throne of a Protestant Britain. This led many dismayed politicians to befriend James's Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange2. William was sent an invitation to invade and take the throne in 1688, which he did with a force of 500 ships despite being practically unopposed by the Navy. With the fall of James II came the end of both Samuel Pepys's career and the wars with the Dutch. The so-called Glorious Revolution also led to a complete rearrangement of Europe's political map, with the French king Louis XIV soon declaring the first of a series of wars that would last for over a century.

The Nine Years War

The Nine Years War (1688 - 1697) took place as France attempted to expand along the Rhine and seize other countries' colonies, so the war saw much fighting between French and British colonies, along with half-hearted attempts by the French to take control of Irish Sea. Louis XIV also intended to reinstate the Catholic James II as king of England; his main campaign began in 1690 with a French victory over the Anglo-Dutch fleet at the Battle of Beachy Head off the Sussex coast. However, the French failed to destroy their opponents, because the Navy surprised the French at Le Havre in 1692 as they prepared to invade England. The fleets met near the Barfleur peninsula, where the numerical advantage of the combined Royal Navy and Dutch fleet proved too much for the French. Defeated, Louis XIV's navy fled towards La Hougue, where it was finally dispersed, permanently ending Louis's designs. By the end of the Nine Years War, the corruption and poor occupational health regimes of the French fleet in the West Indies had practically destroyed Louis XIV's navy.

War with the Spanish

The death of the king of Spain in 1701 led to renewed problems in Europe when Louis XIV placed his grandson Philip in control of the Spanish Empire. Although various treaties were agreed upon, giving some land to Austria to provide a buffer between France and the Netherlands, the death of James II3 led Louis to call for the deposition of William III and the placing of James' son on the British throne. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701 - 1714) was now inevitable; England sided with Holland, Austria and most of the German states against France and Spain.

The navy's first action came as Admiral George Rooke led the Anglo-Dutch fleet to attack Cadiz. Soon defeated, Rooke pulled back to Portugal where he heard news that the Spanish bullion fleet from Cuba was heading for the Spanish port of Vigo. The Anglo-Dutch fleet arrived to find that the bullion ships were busy unloading, protected by a 30-strong Franco-Spanish fleet. The Battle of Vigo Bay inevitably followed, with Rooke's navy destroying the entire enemy force and capturing the forts surrounding the bay. Further British victories followed with the capture of Gibraltar in 1704, to date the only official battle honour of the Royal Marines, and the successful invasion of Minorca in 1708. Although these new acquisitions allowed the Navy to fight from a base in the Mediterranean, the war continued until 1714 when Philip V was recognised as king of Spain on the condition that the French and Spanish crowns would remain separate. Gibraltar has remained a British Overseas Territory ever since.

Progress and More War with the Spanish

In 1714, the Board of Longitude was set up to award £20,000 to anyone who could design a timepiece that would be accurate at sea, thus allowing a ship's longitude to be accurately measured. The challenge was taken up by John Harrison, who spent the next half-century designing timepieces of increasing accuracy until he was awarded the prize in 1765.

Meanwhile, a period of relative peace ensued, although during the War of the Quadruple Alliance4 (1718 - 1720) against Spain the Royal Navy was involved in the fight to remove the Spanish from Sicily and Sardinia. The Battle of Cape Passaro took place off the coast of Sicily in 1718 when the Royal Navy destroyed a fleet of Spanish reinforcements heading for the island, and the capture of Spanish ports and an invasion of Spain over the next two years ended the war.

Severed Ears and Austrians

The next set of naval campaigns in Europe were confused by the simultaneous onset of two completely different wars. The War of Jenkins's Ear5 (1739 - 1748) took place due to disputes over British and Spanish territories in the Americas, while the War of the Austrian Succession6 (1740 - 1748) took place between Austria, Britain and the Netherlands on one side, and France and Spain on the other, with the whole of Europe soon being drawn into the ensuing mess.

Battles with the Spanish

The British campaign in the Americas proved less than successful, with Admiral Vernon capturing a weakly defended Spanish harbour in 1739 while completely failing to stop the Spanish convoys from reaching Europe. Two years later, Vernon showed his incompetence again by waiting for reinforcements before attacking Cartagena7, thus allowing the Spanish time to prepare so that Vernon was thoroughly defeated. Meanwhile, Commodore George Anson sailed round Cape Horn to attack the Spanish ports on the Pacific coast and in the Philippines, returning with just one ship and a large quantity of Spanish bullion in 1744.

Battles with the French

For the rest of the war, the navy concentrated on the war in Europe instead. In 1741, Admiral Nicholas Haddock8 was blockading the Spanish fleet at Cadiz when a French squadron arrived and threatened to attack if the British opened fire on the Spanish. Haddock was forced to leave, and war between England and France was avoided until 1744. By this time, the French had reinvented their perennial plan to invade Britain and reinstate the Stuarts, this time with the help of the Jacobites9. The invading fleet sailed out of Dunkirk but turned back due to both the weather and the threat of nearby British ships, only to be followed by the Royal Navy to the southern French port of Toulon where the French and Spanish fleets were forced to repel the English.

After this defeat the Royal Navy took little major interest in events, although they did keep a close watch on the French coast, detecting several convoys heading for French colonies. In 1747, Admiral Anson successfully captured several French ships heading for the West Indies when he attacked a convoy in the Bay of Biscay. It was at this battle that the French ship L'Invincible was captured, thus becoming the first ever HMS Invincible. Admiral Hawke repeated the feat the next year, and the two victories, known as the First and Second Battles of Cape Finisterre, effectively ended France's naval campaigns. War in Europe ended the following year due to a general exhaustion of supplies, and fighting in the Americas ended as soon as news reached the English and Spanish fleets there.


Scurvy had long been a problem during extended voyages; sailors frequently became ill due to a lack of ascorbate (Vitamin C) in their diets. The symptoms included swollen and bleeding gums, loss of teeth, ulcers, joint pain, blackened skin and thinning hair. The disease was first noted as a seafaring issue when Anson returned from fighting the Spanish in 1740 with a third of his men and all but one ship lost in the process. The ship's chaplain noted that many had died after displaying identical symptoms of scurvy.

The first groundbreaking experiment took place in 1747 when James Lind gave different treatments to a group of twelve sailors, who were all similarly affected by scurvy. The men were divided into pairs and given cider, vinegar, seawater, oranges and lemons, an elixir or a combination of mustard, horseradish and garlic. The sailors given cider showed mild improvements, but those given fruit began a complete recovery. These findings were soon verified, and when Captain Cook sailed around the world in the 1760s, his crew was supplied with fruit. As a result, none of them showed any signs of scurvy.

The Seven Years War

In 1754, Major George Washington was sent to remove the French from a British colony in Ohio. Washington was eventually defeated and forced to sign a document admitting that he had assassinated the French commander, Jumonville. Washington didn't know what he was signing and the resulting affair led to another war in Europe. The Seven Years War (1756 - 1763) saw fighting between Britain and most of Europe, beginning with a French invasion of Minorca. Admiral John Byng arrived with a small fleet of reinforcements after the French had already landed, but he was still court martialled and executed for losing the island in the ensuing Battle of Minorca because he failed to pursue the French after the battle had ended.

While the decision to execute Byng was designed to discourage other Admirals from making the same mistakes, subsequent improvements in Navy battling were due to better organisation by the government itself. Among the successful fighting was a campaign against the French in the East Indies, as well as the invasion of French America between 1758 and 1760. Also notable were the efforts of James Wolfe to take over French Canada, including a successful amphibious assault on Quebec in 1759 (during which Wolfe was fatally wounded) that allowed the British to conquer eventually the whole of Canada.

French Plans to Invade Britain

In 1759, Louis XV planned his own scheme to invade Britain by combining two fleets that were accumulating on the northern and southern coasts of France. However, the fleet from Toulon in the south was spotted by Admiral Sir Edward Boscawen as it passed Gibraltar, and Boscawen hurried out to meet and disperse the French at what became the Battle of Lagos. This ruined the plans to invade England, but this didn't stop the French fleet from trying to escape the navy's blockade in an attempt to escort some transport ships north to invade Scotland instead. Admiral Sir Edward Hawke on board the Royal George caught up with the French just as they entered an area of dangerous waters in the Bay of Biscay. Hawke carefully followed the French fleet's path until the Battle of Quiberon Bay took place, where Hawke seriously wounded the French fleet.

Although the French had been deterred from invading England, they did not give up. In 1779, a joint Franco-Spanish armada set sail for the Isle of Wight, but was continually blown into the Atlantic until the fleet had run out of provisions and had to return home. The cost of this failed campaign would lead to a rise in taxes and ultimately the French Revolution, but in the meantime the French were still able to influence events around the world.

The American Revolution

The Seven Years War ended in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, which permitted Britain to keep French America and Minorca while giving France back other colonies, such as Guadeloupe. The lack of a French threat in North America actually proved disastrous for England as it helped spark the American War of Independence (1775 - 1783). The Royal Navy was able to handle the Continental Navy raised by the Americans, but soon enough France entered the war and sent a fleet to fight off the British. Though the force heading for the Americas had to turn back due to bad weather, the navy still spotted and attacked another part of the French navy at the Battle of Ushant in the Bay of Biscay. A much more important fight occurred at the Battle of Chesapeake, where the French prevented British supplies from reaching their forces in Virginia. Although the actual sea battle was inconclusive, the lack of supplies on land led to the eventual defeat of the British at the Battle of Yorktown in 1783. Meanwhile, the French had taken advantage of the war to recapture Minorca in the Mediterranean.

Captain Cook

Despite the many battles taking place, the 1760s and 1770s also saw a series of important peaceful voyages that led to the rediscovery of New Zealand10 and the discovery of many previously unknown Pacific islands. The man responsible was Captain James Cook, a lieutenant in the Navy who was given command of the Endeavour in 1768 so that he could observe the transit of Venus at Tahiti. Cook went on to search for a 'southern continent' in the Pacific, returning to England in 1771 only to set sail again on the Resolution the following year. Cook's voyages dispelled the myth of a large landmass in the Pacific; he also came to the correct conclusion that the Antarctic was a continent. He failed, however, to find the 'Northwest Passage' between the North Atlantic and the Pacific. Cook never returned from his second voyage: he was killed in a skirmish with the native inhabitants of Hawaii.

The French Revolution

In January 1793, Louis XVI was executed, and revolutionaries took complete control of France. The French Navy had provided the British Navy with a worthy opponent since 1688, but now it went into decline. This did not stop France from declaring war on Britain. The first naval battle of the French Revolutionary Wars (1792 - 1802) took place in 1794 when Admiral Richard Howe intercepted a grain convoy from America heading for the French port of Brest. Although he failed to stop the convoy, Howe destroyed several of the French fleet and the battle became known as the Glorious First of June.

The Spanish joined France in 1796, thus outnumbering the British fleet in the Mediterranean and forcing them from both Corsica and Elba. The following year, the Spanish set sail from Cartagena to meet the French at Cadiz, but were blown astray by bad weather. It was at this point that the frigate Minerve, commanded by Commodore Horatio Nelson, managed to sneak through the Spanish formation under the cover of fog and pass the Spanish fleet's location to Admiral Sir John Jervis aboard HMS Victory. Jervis attacked the Spanish at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, destroyed several Spanish ships, and proved the Royal Navy's superiority. Jervis spent the rest of the war blockading the Spanish fleet at Cadiz, thereby preventing any Spanish actions until the Peace of Amiens in 1802.

Horatio Nelson was made Rear-Admiral for his efforts against the Spanish and was soon sent to find the French ships supporting Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt. Nelson found the French anchored together near shallow water and used the wind to attack the ships one by one the following night. The Battle of the Nile thus proved a decisive victory for the Royal Navy, who remained superior to the French for the rest of the French Revolutionary Wars. The wars also saw the recapture of Minorca by the British, although this was ceded to Spain in the Treaty of Amiens due to the fact that Nelson preferred Malta11.


Although the Royal Navy proved itself efficient and effective during the 1790s, its excellence in battle was not the result of good working conditions for the crews. Though reasonable in 1658, the seamen's rates had devalued over the years and by 1797 the low rate of pay led to 16 ships mutineering at Spithead near Portsmouth. The mutiny lasted a month and included a few violent incidents, but eventually the crews were pardoned and given a better pay, while conditions aboard ships were carefully reviewed.

Inspired by the so-called 'breeze at Spithead', the crew of the HMS Sandwich mutinied a month later at Nore on the Thames. The rest of the fleet soon followed suit and the action started to take the form of a waterborne revolution, with the ships blockading the Thames and preventing merchants from reaching the docks. The dispute was settled through attrition: the mutineers were starved out of their ships. The leader of the mutiny, Richard Parker, was tried for piracy and treason and hanged from the yardarm of the Sandwich.

A more curious mutiny occurred later that year in the West Indies when the crew of the Hermione mutinied and killed most of the officers on board. The problem had begun when two sailors who were afraid of being flogged for being last on deck had broken their legs jumping down from the rigging, and were subsequently punished by being thrown overboard, much to the crew's discontent.

The Battles of Copenhagen

As Napoleon's armies marched across Europe, the countries of Scandinavia began to fear invasion and decided to declare themselves neutral. This was a great problem for the UK, as many of their naval supplies came from Sweden and Norway. In 1801 a fleet under Sir Hyde Parker and Lord Nelson set sail from Yarmouth with the aim of intimidating the kingdom of Denmark-Norway into siding with Britain. When Parker and Nelson reached Copenhagen they were faced by an unbroken line of Dano-Norwegian ships who refused to negotiate.

The First Battle of Copenhagen took place in shallow waters (several ships ran aground) and after three hours Parker signalled to Nelson to disengage. It was then that Nelson famously held his telescope to his partially-blind eye12 and continued to fight the battle, eventually forcing a ceasefire that lead to successful negotiations. Britain had prevented Denmark-Norway from declaring themselves neutral, but this eventually proved inadequate when Napoleon invaded Denmark several years later. The Second Battle of Copenhagen took place in 1807 with the Navy frantically bombarded the city with the aim of seizing the Danish fleet before Napoleon could capture it. The Navy succeeded, but left behind a single frigate which had previously been given as a gift to the Danes.

The Battle of Trafalgar

In 1805, Napoleon began a campaign to take control of the English Channel with a view to invading Britain, something the French had failed repeatedly at since 1066. Aware of Napoleon's intentions, the Navy blockaded the French, but failed to prevent Admiral Villeneuve from escaping from Toulon. Nelson soon made chase and Villeneuve fled to the West Indies to meet the French, eventually heading to the Spanish port of Cadiz. Napoleon was forced to give up his plans and decided to concentrate on Russia instead.

Several months later, the Franco-Spanish fleet sailed out of Cadiz with orders to head for the Mediterranean. The collection of 33 ships, which included the gigantic 136-gun Santissima Trinidad, were spotted by a British frigate Sirius who passed the news on to Nelson. The two fleets were just nine miles apart when they reached Cape Trafalgar, so on the morning of 21 October, as they approached the enemy, Nelson gave his famous signal 'England expects that every man will do his d-u-t-y13', which was displayed on the signal halyards14 of his flagship HMS Victory.

Nelson's ships formed two columns, one commanded by himself aboard the Victory, and the other by Admiral Collingwood aboard Royal Sovereign, and they caught the side of the Franco-Spanish fleet as it was fleeing towards Cadiz. The shooting began at midday and the Victory was soon in the thick of the action, and received a harsh broadside from the French ship Neptune. The Victory fired its own broadside into the Redoubtable and then came alongside with the intent of boarding her. As Nelson walked along the quarterdeck, a musket ball fired from the Redoubtable struck him in the shoulder, fatally wounding him. The close action continued until the Franco-Spanish ships were in disarray, and as the wind dropped, ships were simply floating past one another and exchanging shots. As the Royal Navy began to gain the upper hand some French ships fled for Cadiz, and it slowly became apparent that Nelson had won. However, the victory was marred because Nelson died soon after the battle. His body was returned home in a keg of rum. There are some stories that the keg was breached and some of its contents consumed on the way back to England, leading to the need for a quick burial of Nelson's decomposing body.

The End of an Era

The Battle of Trafalgar was the navy's last major action of the Napoleonic Wars, although the British fleet continued to see action blockading ports and fighting off privateers. The War of 1812 saw further fighting with the USA, and while the navy was not challenged in terms of might, the Americans did win many small actions, especially on the Great Lakes of North America. The exploits of the USS Essex, one of the ships involved in the war, were later fictionalised to be those of the USS Norfolk as it was pursued by the HMS Surprise in The Far Side of the World by Patrick O'Brian15.

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy was the largest fleet in the world, and without a single tangible opponent. The era that followed became known as the Pax Britannica, an era of near-peace lasting for the next 80 years.

1Although some British ships were sent to the Straits of Dover to fend off the French, who actually never turned up.2Ironically, England had previously been fighting against William after he took control of the Netherlands during the Third Anglo-Dutch war.3The Catholic king who had been deposed by William of Orange - see above.4The Quadruple Alliance consisted of Britain, France, Austria and the Netherlands.5So-called due to the claim that an Englishman named Jenkins had had his ear severed during a routine ship inspection in Spanish waters.6So-called due to the fact that it started with a dispute over the Austrian throne.7A port in modern-day Colombia.8What a brilliant name.9The Jacobites were Scottish leaders who wanted the reinstatement of the Stuarts.10New Zealand was first discovered in 1642 by Abel Tasman.11Apparently this was due to Malta's proximity to Naples, where Lady Hamilton was living.12His actual words were 'I really do not see the signal' and not 'I see no ships', as is popularly reckoned.13The message was intended to read 'England confides that every man will do his duty' but the lack of a signal for the word 'confides' necessitated changing it to 'expects'.14These were the ropes upon which various coloured flags were flown to send messages between ships.15To avoid offending American sensibilities, the USS Norfolk becomes the French ship Acheron when it appears in the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

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