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A Naval History of Britain 660 -164

Before the Royal Navy, there was Queen Elizabeth’s Navy Royale. Before the current professionalism of RN officers, there were many privateers operating under letters of marque and letters of reprisal, and before these, there were the Angle, Saxon, and Jute pirates whose descendants settled in England around the fifth century. This volume, the first of a projected four, deals with the first millennium, while the future volumes will address themselves to the remaining three and a half centuries bringing us up to the present. This might seem like a very heavy load on the after deck, but the reading of this narrative illuminates how little is really known about this early period. Not only do we modems know and understand little, but the series of similar miscalculations that occurred during the period show that the main actors on this stage had little history from which to learn.

Many of the happenings during the dark ages and the medieval years are shrouded in clouds of undocumented legend, and the five hundred years following the Norman Conquest of 1066 which make up the rest of this book show that the English peoples and their leaders learned slowly-“and then for long periods forgot”-about “the use of the sea for national defense, and the defense of those who used the sea.” As a means of imposing some order on this process, the author has divided his narrative into four layers:

  • Policy, strategy, and naval operations
  • Finance, administration, and logistics
  • Social history, and
  • Material elements (ships and weapons)

This division helps to make a complex story more accessible, but it also results in a lot of redundancy as the author needs to place each of these developmental lines in a general context with the others. For a book that has over seven hundred pages between its covers, there are only 434 pages of actual narrative and the content of many of these is repetitious. The problems of “victualing,” for example, affect the length of time a ship can stay at sea, the cost of operations, the quality of life, and the design of storage spaces. They, therefore, appear in all four of the author’s layers. I don’t have an answer to this problem, but, as I proceeded through the book, there were many times when I felt a boring sense of deja vu. Nevertheless, there is much information here that is enthralling, from the seakeeping characteristics of Viking longboats to the development of naval guns and gunnery.

Mr. Rodger starts his history in the mid-seventh century. At this time the roots of the future in the British Isles could be seen in the interactions of three ethnic/social groups, each of which was associated with, and influenced by, a sea:

  • The Irish Sea was “the highway and forum of the Celtic world,” connecting the Irish Celts with their kinsmen on the west coasts of Scotland and England. These peoples had become largely Christian from their earlier contacts with Rome.
  • The English Channel, the “Narrow Sea,” connected the English with the Germanic/Frankish cultures and the Christianity of the late Roman world.
  • The North Sea connected a pagan, unromanized Scandinavian culture with its homelands in north Germany and Denmark.

These three worlds met in the British Isles, particularly in England, where they clashed and mingled to form the foundations of the modern society. It is difficult to assimilate how far back we are going here. The first recorded Viking raid on England occurred in 789, “when three Norwegian ships landed at Portland, killing the local official who took them for peaceful merchants.” King Alfred, sometimes said to be the father of the fictional King Arthur, ascended to the throne of Wessex in 871–over two centuries beyond the period where Rodger begins his story. In those days there was no naval warfare. Ships were mainly used to move fighting men along the coast. They did not fight each other on the open seas.

Perhaps the best-known naval battle during these thousand years was the defeat of the Spanish Armada. My memories of the history poured into my gullible brain during high school and college are much different from the facts as reported by this author. Rather than an overwhelming force of invading warships defeated by a greatly outnumbered force of gallant English who was given to throwing their cloaks over muddy puddles so that their queen would not get her feet wet, in pure numbers the two sides were rather evenly matched. The Spanish left their ports with a grand total of 141 ships, most of which were troop transports. (The Spanish commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, was an experienced sea officer and apparently had few illusions concerning his chances for success.) The English, while their numbers varied considerably over the approximately twelve days of operations, had, at one point, a maximum of 140 ships present. All in all, a total of 197 English ships participated in these operations. The Spanish ships were manned by 7,667 seamen and carried 20,459 soldiers. The troops were, in fact, the only factor in which the Spanish forces at sea were greatly superior. They were not much help in the intermittent skirmishing that took place.

Besides the lack of equality in the number of fighting ships, the English ships were larger and faster. In the matter of armaments, the English guns were generally heavier and the “English rates of fire were of the order of one or one and a half rounds an hour per gun; Spanish about the same per day.” With this disparity in weapons and gunnery, the English gunners were soon taking a heavy toll while the Spanish were able to inflict only negligible damage in return. The Armada was gradually chased from the English Channel, through the Straits of Dover, and into the North Sea. The English turned back at about the latitude of the Firth of Forth. The Spaniards sailed north of Scotland, and returned to Spain via a track that took them west of Ireland. Only sixty-seven ships returned to Spain. The year of “1588 was seen as the moment when the tide of Spanish expansion began to tum.”

The author concludes that the foundations of British sea power had been laid during these final days of the Tudor dynasty. The shore-based infrastructure was in place and, more importantly, the governing classes had learned the high cost of modem war and the still higher cost of not maintaining an effective navy. This combination led to a consensus for the sustenance of a permanent fighting fleet. The invincible Royal Navy that nobly supported the growth of the British Empire during the next three centuries waited just around a near-future comer.

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