CHAPTER XXIII. ELIZABETH (viii), 1558-87 - THE SEAMEN
As before we postponed the story of Ireland, in order to give a consecutive narrative down to the point at which the interaction of Irish and English affairs became marked and definite, so we have hitherto deferred consideration of the most tremendous factor in the Elizabethan evolution, the development of the Island nation into the greatest Ocean Power in the world. The charter of the Queen of the Seas was drawn by the Tudor seamen, and received its seal when the great Armada perished. It is time therefore to see how it came about that England was able to challenge and to shatter the Power which threatened to dominate the world.
[The New World]
Throughout the Middle Ages, until what we conveniently term, from the English point of view, the Tudor Period, the European peoples were confined to the European Continent and the adjacent islands. In Asia and in Mediterranean Africa the Mohammedan races were a militant barrier to expansion. The discoveries of Columbus and Vasco da Gama opened new fields, whereof the inheritance was destined to the nations who should achieve the dominion of the Ocean. Always important, the capacity for maritime development now became the primary condition of ultimate greatness. The fact was at the first recognised by Spain and Portugal; and an immediate incentive was given to those two Powers, and something of a check to the rest, when Pope Alexander VI., with an authority as yet unchallenged, divided between them the newly found countries and the lands still to be discovered. Acquiescence in the award was limited; with the ecclesiastical revolt from Rome it vanished; but Spaniards and Portuguese were already in full possession of vast territories before their exclusive title to the whole was called in question.
[The English Marine before Elizabeth]
Nevertheless, more than before, the eyes of statesmen were turned to the sea and the eyes of merchants to the ocean. The nucleus of a Royal Navy was formed by Henry VII., and his son very greatly increased the number of the King's ships and built many tall vessels. The merchants of Bristol and the western ports made daring voyages in hitherto unexplored and half-explored waters, as we have seen; while the general activity of the mercantile marine was greatly increased.
Prosperity, and as a necessary result, enterprise, suffered a check under the disastrous financial conditions prevalent in the reigns of Edward and Mary; yet the closing months of Edward's reign had been marked by the departure of the expedition of Willoughby and Chancellor in search of a North-East Passage; while several voyages to the Guinea Coast - whither William Hawkins had sailed in Henry's day - were undertaken by John Lock and Towerson, during the reign of Mary. We have seen also how the young hot-heads of Protestantism had taken to privateering in the Channel, in the name of Patriotism and true Religion. That course was reprehensible enough; but it led at least to the cultivation of the art of seamanship. On the other hand, that art suffered from a curious draw-back. The partial cessation of the practice of fasting which accompanied the development of Protestantism reacted on the fishing trade, which was the regular school of sailors; insomuch that not only Somerset but Cecil in Elizabeth's time, proposed ordinances in favour of fasting, simply and solely to check the collapse of that industry.
[The Royal Navy]
The Royal Navy developed by Henry VIII. was allowed perforce to decay under his two immediate successors. According to the most authentic lists, [Footnote: Sir W. Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy, vol. i., pp. 419 ff. Throughout this chapter, the figures for tonnage are adopted from this work.] in 1548 there were 53 ships in the Fleet, with a total tonnage of about 11,000. In 1558 there were but 26, with a tonnage of little more than 7,000. During the first half of Elizabeth's reign, the numbers were not increased; in 1575 there were but 24 vessels; but the tonnage had risen 50 per cent., and was within 10 per cent, of what Henry had bequeathed to Edward. When the Armada came, in the twenty-ninth year of Elizabeth's reign, 34 ships of the Royal Navy were engaged, which had a slight superiority [Footnote: Clowes, Royal Navy, i., p. 561.] of armament over any equal number of the enemy's fleet. The aggregate tonnage is given [Footnote: Ibid., p. 588.] as 15 per cent. more than that of Henry's 53 - an average per ship of very nearly double. It is clear therefore that the policy of strengthening the navy was not neglected; but it took the form of acquiring not more ships, but larger and better fighting craft. [Footnote: Corbett, Drake and the Tudor Navy, i., pp. 370 ff. It is pointed out (p. 372) that medium sized ships were regarded as better weapons in general than those of the largest size.] The multiplication of smaller craft would have been a far less effective means for achieving the desired end. The Royal Navy, a creation of the century, was not supposed to constitute the naval defences of the country. It occupied a position among the marine fighting force analogous to that of our white troops in India to-day; who form only one-third of the army there while reckoned and intended to be its mainstay.