Ships and Commerce to the reign of Henry the Seventh - from A.D. 1327 to A.D. 1509.
In the early part of the reign of Edward the Third, the French introduced cannon on board their ships, chiefly in consequence of which his fleet, under the young Earl of Pembroke, as I have described, was defeated before Rochelle. He took care, however, that this should not again occur, and by the year 1338 he appears to have introduced them on board most of his ships, and by the end of his reign no ships of war were without them. Their employment, of course, effected a great change in naval warfare, but a far greater revolution was about to take place in the whole system of navigation, by the introduction of the mariner’s compass. I have before stated that if not discovered it was at all events improved by Flavio Gioja, of Amain, in the kingdom of Naples, about A.D. 1300. It was soon discovered that the needle does not point, in all places, truly to the North Pole, but that it varies considerably in different degrees of longitude, and this is called the variation of the needle. It has also another variation, called the declination, or dip. The cause of these phenomena is still utterly unknown. The means of steering with almost perfect accuracy across the pathless ocean, gave a confidence to mariners, when they lost sight of land, which they had never before possessed, and in time induced them to launch forth in search of new territories in hitherto unexplored regions. The English were, however, too much occupied with foreign wars or domestic broils to attend much to navigation. We hear of a certain Nicholas of Lynn, a friar of Oxford, who, A.D. 1360, just sixty years after the use of the compass became known, sailed in charge of certain ships to visit and explore all the islands to the north of Europe. He, it is said, returned and laid before King Edward the Third an account of his discoveries in those northern regions, but what they were or what benefit resulted from them, history does not tell us. Father Nicholas’s knowledge of navigation was probably somewhat limited and not very practical, and it is just probable that his voyage was not so extensive as it was intended to be; but that, having the pen of a ready writer, he drew on his imagination for a description of the countries he was supposed to have surveyed. At all events, we hear of no voyage undertaken at the sovereign’s instigation till nearly two centuries later.
In the reign of Edward the Third, the Island of Madeira is said to have been discovered by a certain Lionel Machin, a citizen of London. The young citizen had been paying court to a lady, Arabella Darcy, whose father indignantly refused his suit; and not without reason, if we may judge of his character by his subsequent conduct. He collected a band of rovers and pursued the fair Arabella, who had gone to live in the neighbourhood of Bristol. He had fixed his eyes on a ship ready prepared for sea, the crew of which were on shore. Securing the lady, he carried her on board the ship, cut the cables, and made sail to the southward, without leave of the captain or owners. He met with due punishment, for, having made the then unknown island of Madeira, and he and Arabella having landed, the ship was driven to sea by a gale, leaving the two alone. She soon died of starvation, and when his companions ultimately returned, they found him in a sinking state, and buried him by the hapless damsel’s side. A Portuguese captain hearing from the English pirates of the discovery of the island, sailed thither, and took possession of it in the name of his sovereign, Don John, and the infant Don Henry.
This account of Machin’s adventures is doubted by many, but at all events it must be said that it is very much in accordance with the style of doing things in those days. Richard the Second began to reign A.D. 1377. Although probably no improvement took place in shipbuilding during his reign, it is not altogether destitute of nautical exploits. The maladministration of Government at the latter period of his grandfather’s life, left the people in a discontented state, and this induced the French to make a descent on the English coast with a fleet of fifty ships, commanded by the Admiral de Vienne. They plundered and burnt Rye in Sussex, levied a contribution of a thousand marks on the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight, and finished off by burning Plymouth, Dartmouth, Portsmouth, and Hastings.
They were sufficiently long about these proceedings to enable the Abbot of Battle to fit out a fleet, with which he met them off Winchelsea, and completely defeated them. Their example was, however, followed by a body of Scotch pirates, who, with a number of ships under a Captain Mercer, ravaged the east coast of England. The Government, occupied with the coronation of the king, paid no attention to these insults.
Indignant at this state of things, a wealthy and truly patriotic citizen and merchant of London, John Philpot, at his own expense, fitted out a fleet manned by a thousand men, and set sail in person in quest of the pirate. He succeeded in coming up with him, and in bringing him to action, when he not only completely defeated him, but made him prisoner, capturing his entire fleet, as well as retaking all his English prizes, and fifteen richly-laden French and Spanish vessels. On his return, instead of being thanked, the gallant Philpot was tried for a misdemeanour, but so entirely did he succeed in vindicating his character, and so evident were the services he had rendered to the public, that he ultimately received the thanks and honours which were his due.