Early English Ships (from A.D. 600 to A.D. 1087.)

We Englishmen undoubtedly derive a large portion of our nautical spirit from our Saxon ancestors, the first bands of whom came to the shores of our tight little island under those sea-rovers known as Hengist and Horsa, invited by the helpless Britons to defend them from the attacks of the savage Picts and Scots. The enemies of the gallant heroes I have named were apt to call them pirates; but as might made right in most sublunary affairs during those dark and troubled ages of the world’s history, they looked upon the roving commissions they had given themselves as perfectly honourable and lawful, and felt no small amount of contempt for the rest of mankind who chose to stay at home at ease by their firesides, while they were ploughing the ocean in search of plunder and glory. I suspect that they had a strong preference for the former.

After the Saxons had driven the ancient inhabitants of the island out of the more fertile portions of the country, and had made themselves, according to their notions, pretty comfortable in their new homes; they, in a little time, in their turn, were sadly pestered by foreign invaders. These were the Danes. Those hardy sons of the North, still more wild and fierce than the Saxons, and still less scrupulous in their proceedings, pleased with the appearance of the country which they had come over to look at, settled themselves in every nook and corner of Old England in which they could haul up their ships, and find a resting place for their feet. I cannot help feeling a great respect for those old sea-kings. They were heathens, and we must judge of them by the light which they possessed, and not by any standard acknowledged in the present civilised world. Bold, enterprising, and sagacious, their own country confined and barren, they looked on the wide ocean as the only worthy field for the employment of their energies. They loved it for itself, too; they were born on it, or within the sound of its surges; they lived on it, they fought on it, and it was their wish through life to die on it, as if only on its boundless expanse their free spirits could be emancipated from this mortal coil. This same spirit still exists and animates the breasts of the officers and men of our navy, of our vast mercantile marine; and, though mentioned last, not certainly in a less degree of the owners of the superb yacht fleets which grace the waters of the Solent, of the Bay of Dublin, of Plymouth Sound, of the mouth of the Thames, and indeed of every harbour and roadstead round our shores. No people, unless animated by such a spirit, would go to sea simply for the love of a sea-life as do our yachtsmen. We may depend upon it that they are the lineal descendants of those old sea-rovers, somewhat more civilised and polished certainly, differing as much in that respect, it is to be hoped, from their remote ancestors as do their trim yachts, which will go nine knots or more within four and a-half points of the wind, from the tubbish-looking sturdy craft of the Danes, which had no idea of sailing any way except dead before the gale.

There was something barbarously grand in the notion of the old Norse kings which induced them, when worn out with age and fatigue, to sail forth into mid-ocean, and then, lighting their own funeral pile, to consume themselves and the stout ship they loved so well in one conflagration. Seriously, however, we must not forget that they were influenced by a very terrible and dark superstition, and be thankful that we live in an age when the bright beams of Christianity have dispelled such gross errors from this part of the globe. I cannot help fancying that the late Lord Yarborough, that chief of true yachtsmen, had somewhat the same feeling I have been describing, refined and civilised of course, when, his vessel, the Kestrel, being in Malta harbour, he found death approaching, and ordered her to be got under weigh, to stand out to sea, that he might breathe out his spirit surrounded by that element on which he had so long made his home, and in which he so truly delighted.

The tribes, now so closely united, which make up the British race, were the most maritime people of their time, and it is not, therefore, surprising that we should now possess strong nautical propensities. The Normans, it must be remembered also, who afterwards conquered England, were descended from the same bold sea-rovers, though, having paid sundry visits to Paris, where they learned to write poetry, to sing, and to dance, with many other accomplishments, they had wonderfully improved in civilisation since the days of their ancestors, of whom I have been speaking. Still the same enterprising spirit animated their bosoms, afterwards to shine forth with splendour, when their descendants became the leaders of numberless exploring expeditions to all parts of the world, and of the victorious fleets of Old England.

There is no doubt, as I have shown, that the English possessed trading vessels, if not also ships, built exclusively for war, from a very early period.

The first regular war-fleet, however, which we hear of was one built by our great King Alfred, to protect his dominions from the attacks of the Danes.

He designed a ship from the model of those used by the Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians, similar to the Maltese galley employed down to a very recent date in the Mediterranean. His ships are said to have been twice as large as any vessels of war used by other nations at that period. They were large galleys, propelled by sixty oars, with a deck above that part where the rowers sat. On the deck stood the fighting men and mariners, who managed the sails, for they had masts and sails as well as oars. There were besides probably small towers or breast-works at the stern and bow to contribute to their means of attack and defence. These ships were built of well-seasoned materials, commanded by experienced officers, whom the king had collected from all quarters, and manned by expert seamen. The commanders were ordered to go forth in quest of the Danes, to attack wherever they encountered them, and to give no quarter; orders which were strictly obeyed, and which for the time were most efficacious in clearing the coast of pirates. In consequence of the ease with which the ships were moved through the water, and from their being always able to keep the weather-gauge, as likewise from the strange appearance which they presented to their enemies, Alfred’s commanders were not afraid of attacking twice or thrice their own number of the enemy, and invariably came off victorious. Indeed they had nearly the same advantage over the Danes which a steamer at the present day has over a fleet of Chinese junks. Alfred, it is said, caused surveys to be made of the coasts of Norway and Lapland, and sent out ships to the polar regions in search of whales.

I have met with an old writer, who describes a far more remarkable achievement than any of these. He was a monk, of course, and his knowledge of geography we may suspect was rather limited, when he tells us that in the reign of Alfred a voyage was performed to the Indies by the way of the north-east—that is to say, round the north of Asia—under the command of a certain monk, Swithelm, who, as his reward, was made Bishop of Sherburn. The mission was undertaken to aid the Christians of a place called Saint Thomas, on the continent of India, and we are assured that the curiosities which were brought back, and are fully described, are exactly like the productions found in India, when it became more fully known. The expedition, if it ever took place, must have proceeded down the African coast and round the Cape of Good Hope. If so, the seamen of Britain, with a monk as their commander, succeeded in an enterprise which, having been totally forgotten, immortalised Bartholomew Diaz as the discoverer of the Stormy Cape full six centuries afterwards. We must not place more faith in the narrative than it deserves, but one thing is certain, that if any long or perilous voyages were performed, the prints of ships pretending to be those of the days of King Alfred found on tapestries, old illustrated histories and other works are not slightly incorrect. When a boy, I used very strongly to suspect that if a ship had ever been built after the model of the prints exhibited in the History of England, she would either, as sailors say, have turned the turtle directly she was launched, or have gone boxing about the compass beyond the control of those on board her; but as to standing up to a breeze, or going ahead, I saw that that was impossible. I have since discovered, with no little satisfaction, when examining into the subject, that the verbal descriptions of the ships of those days give a very different idea to that which the prints and tapestry work do, which so offended my nautical instincts.

Large substantial vessels, we may depend on it, existed in those days, and though encumbered with much top hamper, and rigged only with square sails, they did not carry the high towers nor the absurdly cut sails which they are represented to have done in all the illustrated histories I have seen. The celebrated galleys of King Alfred are described by an old writer as very long, narrow, and deep vessels, heavily ballasted on account of the high deck on which the soldiers and seamen stood above the heads of the rowers. Of these rowers, there were four to work each oar, and as there were thirty-eight oars on a side, there must have been upwards of three hundred rowers to each vessel. Whether these vessels had more than one mast is uncertain. From their want of beam they would have run much risk of turning over had they attempted to sail except directly before the wind. They moved with great rapidity; and in an engagement off the Isle of Wight, they ran down the Danish vessels in succession till the whole fleet of the enemy was either sunk, driven on shore, or put to flight.

The navy of England still further increased during the reign of Alfred’s immediate successors, till, in the time of King Edgar (A.D. 957), it had reached the number of three thousand six hundred ships at least, “with which,” as say his chroniclers, “he vindicated the right claimed in all ages by the sovereigns of this island to the dominion of the seas (meaning the seas surrounding England), and acquired to himself the great title ofThe Protector of Commerce.”

This navy was divided into three fleets, each of twelve hundred sail, which he kept in constant readiness for service, one on the eastern coast, another on the western, and a third on the northern coasts of the kingdom, to defend them against the depredations of the Danish and Norman pirates, and to secure the navigation of the adjacent seas; which, that he might the more effectually do, he, every year after the festival of Easter, went on board the fleet on the eastern coast, and sailing westward with it scoured the channel of pirates; and having looked into all the ports, bays, and creeks between the Thames’ mouth and Land’s End, quitted this fleet and sent it back, and going on board the western fleet did the like in those parts, as also on the coasts of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and among the Hebrides or Western Islands, where being met by the northern fleet, he went on board the same, and came round to the Thames’ mouth. Thus encompassing all his dominions, and providing for the security of their coasts, he rendered an invasion impracticable, and kept his sailors in continual exercise. This he did for the whole sixteen years of his reign.

May our rulers ever possess the wisdom of Alfred, the greatest of England’s kings, and by the same means preserve inviolate the shores of our native land.

It would have been well for Old England had all its monarchs imitated the excellent example set by King Edgar, and had never allowed any decrease in the naval establishment. Let the present generation do as he did, with the modifications changed times and circumstances have introduced, and then, although we may not be able correctly to troll forth “Hearts of oak are our ships,” we may sing truly—

    “Iron coats wear our ships,
    Lion hearts have our men;
        We always are ready;
        Then steady, boys, steady;
We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again.”

King Edgar appears to have been the last great naval sovereign of the Saxon race. When his son Ethelred, by the murder of his brother Edward, came to the throne, his navy was so neglected that the Danes made incursions with impunity on every part of the coasts of England, and in the year A.D. 991, they extorted no less a sum than 10,000 pounds from that wicked monarch, or rather from his unfortunate subjects (who, depend upon it, had to pay the piper), as the price of their forbearance in refraining from levying a further amount of plunder.

This circumstance might have served as a strong hint to the English of those times to keep up the strength of their navy, but it does not appear to have had any such effect; and even that wise monarch, Canute the Great, had only thirty-two ships afloat. We find, however, that when Harold, son of Earl Godwin, was striving to maintain his claim to the crown of England (A.D. 1066), he fitted out a numerous fleet, with which he was able to defeat his rivals. Now, as we are elsewhere told that one of these rivals alone had a navy of three hundred sail, his must have been of considerable magnitude. After his death, at the battle of Hastings, his sons and several of his chief nobility escaped in the remnant of their fleet to the coasts of Norway, and gave no little annoyance to the Norman Conqueror, William.

It must be remembered that the Duke of Normandy, as he was then styled, had, to bring over his army, nine hundred transports; but he burnt them when he landed, to show his own followers, as well as the Saxons, that he had come to die or to conquer.

Such is a very brief account of the navy of England up to the time of the Norman Conquest.

It is more easy to describe what the ships of those days were not like than to give an exact description of them. Certainly the ships represented on tapestry, on seals, or on coins are very unlike any piece of naval architecture which ever had existence. Every seaman knows how impossible it is for an ordinary landsman to draw anything like a faithful representation of a ship, however picturesque a production the thing might appear to him. We are bound, therefore, to look with grave suspicion on the  performances of the draughtsmen of those early days; who had but a poor idea of drawing the objects they had constantly before their eyes.

Our artist has given a fair representation, I suspect, of what a ship was in those early days. She probably had another mast aft, and some more head sail of a square shape. What are called fore and aft sails were not generally used till comparatively modern times. She looks as if she really was fitted to cross the channel, to carry a number of men, and even to contend with heavy seas. The tall masts, heavy rigging, and large tops, on which a number of men could stand and fight, had not then been employed on these northern seas.

I have hitherto spoken only of the war-ships of those early days. There were, however, merchant-ships which traded to far-distant shores. They were probably good wholesome craft, of somewhat tub-like form, of about the size of a vessel of the present day of one hundred to one hundred and fifty tons, rigged with two or three big sails, with one bank of oars, and manned by a hardy and numerous crew, who patiently waited for the coming of a fair wind before they ventured to make sail; and who, though generally addicted to hugging the shore, yet at times ventured to stand out into the boundless ocean, guided alone by the stars. The mercantile marine was encouraged in every way by the wiser sovereigns of the Saxon race, as the nursery of those stout seamen who would prove the best bulwarks of their country against foreign invasion.

We now come to a fresh epoch in the history of Old England; but as no writer of those days has thought fit to enlighten us as to naval affairs, our knowledge of them is meagre and unsatisfactory.

Literature, in that iron age, was chiefly confined to monastic cells; we hear of bishops becoming warriors, and leading their armies to battle on the field, and it is recorded that there were other monks besides Swithelm who took to the profession. Probably some sailors, after growing weary of cutting throats on the high seas, and other acts of piracy, assumed the easy and dignified position of monks, and endowed their monasteries with their wealth; but then it may be questioned whether they were likely to have been able to read, much less to write.

William of Normandy had, for some time, too much to do on shore in keeping his new subjects in order, to attend to affairs afloat; but he at length was compelled to build and fit out a fleet to defend his kingdom from the attacks of the Danes, instigated by the sons and followers of Harold. He, after much consideration, hit upon a new plan for raising a fleet, and it is a point of history worthy of recollection. He exempted five of the principal ports of the kingdom from all taxes, impositions, or burdens, on condition that each should fit out, man, and support a certain number of vessels for a certain period. They were Dover, Romney, Sandwich, Hastings, and Rye, and were thence called the Cinque Ports.

Though others were afterwards added, the name has ever since been retained. It appears by Doomsday Book that Dover, Romney, and Sandwich, severally, were to provide twenty vessels each, with twenty-one men, provisioned for fifteen days at their own charge. After that time the crews were to be supported by the Crown.

Another document states that, besides the twenty men, there is to be a master of the mariners, who is to receive sixpence a-day, a constable, who is to receive a like sum, and each mariner threepence a-day. These five ports, with other smaller ones attached to them, provided in all 57 ships, 1187 men, and 57 boys, one boy being on board each ship. These boys were called gromets. A gromet is now the name given to a ring of rope used sometimes to slide up and down the mast, and I conclude, therefore, that the duty of these boys was to swarm up the mast, and set and furl the lighter sails.

In the reign of King John (A.D. 1217), Herbert of Burgo, the captain of Dover, hearing of an invasion intended by Lewis the Elder, son of the King of France, in favour of the discontented barons, assembled in the king’s name forty tall ships from the Cinque Ports, and took, sunk, and discomfited eighty sail of Frenchmen in a gallant engagement on the high seas. These ports did great service under Henry the Third and Edward the First. Among other brave deeds, they fitted out one hundred sail, and encountered two hundred sail of Frenchmen with such success, that they effectually ruined the navy of France. Many years happily passed before that country recovered the loss of her men and ships. I will give a fuller account of this action further on. Numberless are the tales of a like description to be told.

Besides the twenty-three mariners which these warships of the Cinque Ports carried, there were on board a considerable number of fighting men, knights, and their retainers, armed with bucklers, spears, and bows and arrows. They also used slings and catapults, and perhaps stink-pots, like those employed by the Chinese at the present day, as well as other ancient engines of warfare. That ships of war were capable of holding a considerable number of men, we learn from the well-known account of the death of the brave young Prince William, son of Henry the First. When crossing the channel from Normandy, in an attempt to make his ship get ahead of that of his father, he kept too close in with the shore, and consequently ran on a rock called the Shatteras. He might have been saved; but hearing that his sister, the Countess of Perche, still remained on board, he ordered the boat in which he was escaping to put back to rescue her. On arriving alongside, so large a number of people jumped into the boat, that she was swamped, and all were lost. On this occasion two hundred people perished, only one, the ship’s butcher, escaping to the shore, and through him the sad tidings were known. Now, if we turn to any old illustrated History of England, we shall find, probably, a print professing to describe this very event. Yet, on examining it, we shall see that the vessel is not large enough to carry twenty people, much less two hundred. The artists either made their sketches from river barges, or row-boats, or drew a ship from one they saw at a distance, and having altered and adorned her to suit their own fancies afterwards, put a crew on board, utterly forgetful of the proper proportions between the ship and the men.

In the reign of the son and successor of William the Conqueror, William the Second, called Rufus, the first great crusade against the Saracen possessors of the Holy Land was commenced, in the year 1095. To aid in that extraordinary expedition, a large fleet was fitted out in England, and placed under the command of the Earl of Essex. The ships, as they had a long voyage to perform, and a number of armed men and provisions to carry, must have been of considerable size. As the use of the mariner’s compass was unknown to them, they must have coasted round the shores of France, Portugal, and Spain, before they entered the Mediterranean.

The Atlantic in those days was not likely to be more tranquilly disposed than it is at present, and thus the mariners must have been expert and brave, and the ships well found, or they would not have performed the voyage in safety. We know that the Crusaders had horses, but they probably were transported from the neighbouring shores of the Mediterranean, and any favourite war-steeds which came from England were conveyed across France. Neither Henry the First nor Stephen, from A.D. 1100 to 1135, maintained a navy, properly so-called, but on the few occasions that they required ships, they hired them of the merchants, called on the Cinque Ports to supply them, or had them built for the purpose.

Probably all vessels in those days carried oars, or long sweeps, to assist them in calms, and in going in and out of harbours; but many craft of considerable burden depended solely on oars for moving at all. There appears to be much difference of opinion as to how these oars were worked when there were several tiers, and I therefore return to the subject already touched on in the first chapter. It is most probable that there was one space, or between decks, devoted entirely to the rowers. This space was fitted with a succession of rows of benches one higher than the other, but not one above another. That is to say, that the bench immediately higher than the first was placed in the interval between it and the one behind it, so that the rowers sitting on this higher bench had their feet pressed against the bench below them, others on the tier above having their feet on their bench. As the tiers were higher and higher in the vessel’s sides, the oars would be longer and longer, and would project far beyond the lower ones; indeed, they would become sweeps, and probably the inner part of each would extend completely across the vessel, and thus the upper oars on the same tier would not be opposite to each other. The lowest tier would perhaps be pulled only by one or two men, and as the tiers rose in height, and consequently the oars in length, more men would be added. Then, again, the lower tiers would have many more oars than the upper, and consequently even more men would be seated on the lower than on the upper benches. This, I think, is the best solution as to the difficulty regarding the mode in which the rowers of a large galley were placed. The hold and the deck immediately below the rowers was thus left for cargo and stores, and perhaps for sleeping-places, while the deck and forecastle, and aftercastle or poop above them, were free for working the sails and for righting. The officers, and perhaps the crew, slept under the poop and forecastle, and in other buildings on deck, as is the case on board many vessels at the present day, only the forecastles and poops were more like those of a Chinese junk than of any modern European craft.

Henry the Second, in the year 1171, collected or built a fleet of four hundred ships of great size, for the purpose of carrying over his troops for the conquest of Ireland, which country he annexed to the English crown. These ships, as no enemy was to be encountered on the ocean, were merely transports.

Richard the First, of the Lion Heart, who began to reign 1189, fitted out a fleet, which, when assembled in the port of Messina in Sicily, in the year 1189, ready to carry his army to the shores of the Holy Land, consisted of sixteen capital ships of extraordinary burden (occupying the position of three-deckers), one hundred and fifty ordinary ships of war, and fifty-three galleys, besides vessels of less size and tenders. In his passage to Acre, known also as Ptolemais, he encountered a huge vessel of the Saracens, laden with ammunition and provisions, bound for the same place which was then besieged by the Christian army. She was called the Dromunda, and her size was enormous. Though she appeared like some huge castle floating on the sea, Richard ordered his galleys to attack her, and as they approached, they were received by showers of missiles, Greek fire, and other horrible combustibles. It was no easy task to board so lofty a ship, but the king urged on his men, some of whom, jumping overboard, swam to the rudder, to which they secured ropes, and thus gained the power of steering her. The most active now climbed up her sides, but were driven back by the overwhelming number of her defenders. The galleys were next ordered to try the effect of their beaks; retiring to windward, and setting all their sails, as well as working away with their oars, they bore down on the Dromunda with such force and velocity, that their iron beaks pierced the sides of the monstrous ship, which instantly began to sink, and out of fifteen hundred officers and men who composed her company, the whole, with the exception of fifty-five, were drowned. These latter  were chiefly officers, none of the common men being received on board the galleys.

It is very evident that the art of shipbuilding must have made considerable progress in that part of the world, when a ship of such a size could be constructed. The Dromunda could scarcely have been less in size than a fifty-gun ship in Nelson’s day.

We here see the effect produced by rams, much in the way it is proposed to employ them in modern warfare. There will, however, be this difference in a naval battle of the future, that both sides will be provided with these formidable implements of warfare. Before Richard reached Acre a fierce naval engagement had taken place between the besiegers and the besieged. The latter came out of port with their galleys two and two, preserving a similar array in their advance. The Crusaders prepared to receive them, moving to a distance, so that they should not be denied free egress. The Crusaders then disposed their ships in a curved line, so that if the enemy attempted to break through they might be enclosed and defeated. In the upper tiers the shields interlaced were placed circularly, and the rowers sat close together, that those above might have freer scope. The sea being perfectly calm, no impediment was offered to the blows of the warriors or the strokes of the rowers; advancing nearer to each other, the trumpets sounded on both sides, and mingled their dread clangour. First, they contended with missiles, but the Crusaders more earnestly plied their oars, and pierced the enemy’s ships with the beaks of their own. Soon the battle became general; the oars became entangled, and the combatants fought hand to hand.

There was one English galley which, through the rashness of the crew, got close alongside an enemy, who set her in flames with their Greek fire. The Saracens on this rushing in at all parts, the rowers leaped into the sea, but a few soldiers remained through desperation. Those few overcame the many, and retook their half-burned ship. The weapons used were swords, axes lances, arrows, and other missiles, as well as engines for casting large stones; and both Saracens and Christians employed that burning oil commonly called the Greek fire, which is said to consume both flint and iron. It was the invention of the seventh century, and was long used with terrific effect by the Greeks, who called it the liquid fire. It is supposed to have been composed of naphtha, pitch, and sulphur, with other ingredients. It was propelled in a fluid state through brazen tubes from the prows of vessels and from fortifications, with as much facility as water is now thrown from the fire-engine; igniting the moment it was exposed to the air, when it became a continuous stream of fire, carrying with it torture and destruction. Water increased its power, and it could only be extinguished by vinegar or sand; while, in addition to its other horrors, it emitted a stifling smoke, loud noise, and disgusting stench. Tow dipped in it was fastened to the heads of arrows, which thus became carriers of unquenchable flame. It was kept in jars or large bottles. It was probably introduced into England before the time of Richard the First, for in 1195 a payment was made by the king for carrying Greek fire and other implements from London to Nottingham.

Fire-ships were, indeed, of far earlier date than the days of Richard the First. We find them in use among the Tyrians in the time of Alexander the Great. It is related that at the siege of Tyre, when a mole was being constructed to join that city to the continent, the inhabitants, having loaded a large ship heavily by the stern with sand and stones, for the purpose of raising her head out of the water, and having filled her with all sorts of combustible matter, they drove her violently with sails and oars against the mole, when they set fire to her, the seamen escaping in their boats. The mole being in a great measure built of wood, with wooden towers on it, was by this device utterly destroyed. Thus we see that the Tyrians invented and successfully employed fire-ships before the Christian era. We are apt to consider many other discoveries modern which were known to the ancients. For instance, an Italian author, some three centuries ago, describes a ship weighed in his time out of the lake of Riccia, where it had lain sunk and neglected for above thirteen hundred years. It was supposed to have belonged to Trajan.

He observed, he says, “that the pine and cypress of which it was built had lasted most remarkably. On the outside it was built with double planks, daubed over with Greek pitch, caulked with linen rags, and over all a sheet of lead, fastened on with little copper nails.”

Here we have caulking and sheathing together known in the first century of the Christian era; for, of course, the sheet of lead nailed over the outside with copper nails was sheathing, and that in great perfection, the copper nails being used instead of iron, which, when once rusted in the water by the working of the ship, soon lose their hold, and drop out.

Captain Saris, in a voyage to Japan in the year 1613, describes a junk of from eight to ten hundred tons burden, sheathed all over with iron. As in the days of the Plantagenets the country had not the advantage of possessing a Board of Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, nor, indeed, any office in which the records of the ships built, altered, rebuilt, or pulled to pieces were kept, or, indeed, any naval records whatever, we are without the means of ascertaining what special improvements were introduced either in shipbuilding or in the fitting or manning of ships during each particular reign. Indeed, for several centuries very slow progress appears to have been made in that art, which ultimately tended to raise England to the prosperous state she has so long enjoyed.