The Navy in the days of the Plantagenets - from A.D. 1087 to A.D. 1327.

William Rufus, in 1087, had scarcely a vessel which deserved the name of a ship of war. The trade of the country, however, was carried on by small craft, of which there were great numbers; there remained also some of the transports of former years, but William when expecting the invasion of his kingdom by his brother Robert, found to his sorrow that he possessed no ships of sufficient size to compete with those of the Normans. Being unwilling to weaken his land forces by sending them on board such ships as he possessed, he engaged all the large trading-vessels of the country, and invited mariners to embark in the transports. He gave commissions, also, to all the traders to sink, burn, and destroy every Norman vessel they could meet with, and offered considerable rewards for every successful action. Besides this, he published proclamations inviting all private persons to fit out vessels on their own account, encouraging them with the promise of similar rewards. Numbers of traders accepted the commission, and the sea swarmed with privateers. They were of small size, but were manned by bold seamen, who encouraged one another by their numbers. Robert, who was aware that the English had no fleet, not expecting any resistance at sea, thought only of loading his transports with as many men as they could carry. His ships were therefore ill-prepared for action, being overloaded with men, and he little expected any opposition from the small ships of the English.

The latter, meantime, obtained exact intelligence of the movements of the Normans, while they kept secret their own forces and plans. The Normans at length sailed, and had no time to laugh at the smallness of the English ships before they began to quake at their numbers. The latter bore down upon them like a pack of hounds on a stag, and, encouraged by the promised rewards, fought with the greatest fury. In vain the Normans attempted to fly; they were overtaken and overpowered by the multitude of their assailants. The number that perished by the sword and drowning was astonishing; those who attempted to escape were overtaken, and shared the fate of the others; and but few got back to Normandy with the news of their defeat. Never was a sea-fight in which personal courage was more nobly exhibited; never a more complete victory, nor ever, apparently, slighter means of obtaining it.

The Normans called the English pirates, but they were properly privateers, and the original armament to which they were united, though a poor one, was a royal force. William punctually paid the promised rewards.

People were generally too pleasantly employed in those mediaeval days in knocking their neighbours on the head, or in storming and demolishing their castles, and other similar pastimes on shore, to attend to any subject so unromantic as shipbuilding or navigation.

Still the monarchs of the Plantagenet race had ships of their own; but their chief notion of keeping up a navy was by laying taxes on the sea-ports, on commerce, and on the fisheries, thus crippling the surest means by which a fleet could be maintained. The chief naval events of the intermediate reigns have been described in the preceding chapter.

John, we are told, had a naval establishment of ships and officers, with certain boards for its government. He had not many vessels, however, as he chiefly depended on the Cinque Ports to furnish him with ships, while he laid an embargo on merchant-vessels in case of necessity; and turned them into ships of war. He must have had a great notion, however, of keeping up the dignity of England on the ocean, as he passed an ordinance that all ships should lower their topsails to the English flag; a custom which was preserved for many centuries. Foreigners, however, did not always show themselves willing to conform to the custom, and it was more than once the cause of quarrels between England and other nations. Still, even at the present day, English men-of-war do not salute foreign ships in that or any other way, unless the latter pay the compliment to them first, or at the same time.

Philip Augustus of France having attacked his ally, the Earl of Flanders, the king fitted out a numerous fleet, which he placed under the command of the Earl of Salisbury, giving him directions to destroy rather than to capture any of the enemy’s ships. The Earl of Salisbury observed his instructions, and followed the movements of the enemy, waiting for an opportunity to bear down upon them. The French ships, amounting to more than nine hundred sail, moved slowly over the sea, he watching them vigilantly, and bearing the reproaches of his officers, who thought him deficient in courage. On the third day a slight storm having thrown the French fleet into confusion, the earl bore down upon them. The winds had so terrified the French that they were in no condition to stand before a furious enemy. The English, who were far better sailors, were in high courage, and so furiously assaulted the French ships that in a short time upwards of a hundred were sunk, many more running on shore, while scarcely forty got back to the ports of France.