Establishment of the Royal Navy of England - from A.D. 1509 to A.D. 1558.

No sovereign of England was ever proclaimed with more universal joy than was Henry the Eighth, when, at the age of eighteen, he succeeded to the throne of his father, A.D. 1509. Tyrant and despot as he became at home, he did not neglect the interests of commerce, while he maintained the honour of England abroad. He made very great improvements in the work his father had commenced. By his prerogative, and at his own expense, he settled the constitution of the present Royal Navy. An Admiralty and Navy Office were established, and commissioners to superintend naval affairs were appointed by him.

Regular salaries were settled for admirals, vice-admirals, captains, and seamen, and the sea-service at this time became a distinct and regular profession.

In 1512, Henry, having entered into a league with Spain against France, fitted out a fleet under the command of Sir Edward Howard, Lord High Admiral, and by an indenture, dated 8th of April of that year, granted him the following allowance:—For his own maintenance, diet, wages, and rewards, ten shillings a-day. For each of the captains, for their diet, wages, and rewards, eighteenpence a-day. For every soldier, mariner, and gunner, five shillings a-month for his wages, and five shillings for his victuals, reckoning twenty-eight days in the month. But the admiral, captains, officers, and men had also further  allowances, under the denomination of dead shares. I doubt whether the naval officers and men of the present day would be satisfied with a similar amount of pay. Certainly the mariners of those days had more dangers and hardships to encounter than have those of the present time under ordinary circumstances. That year Henry’s fleet consisted of forty-five ships, of which the largest was the Regent, of 1000 tons; the two next in size being the Sovereign and the Mary Rose, of about 500 tons each.

The Regent and Cordelier.

War was now declared against France, and the English fleet put to sea under the command of Sir Edward Howard. It carried a considerable body of land forces, under the command of the Earl of Dorset, which were landed at the Port of Passages, in Spain. Afterwards, being reinforced by a number of stout ships, the admiral sailed for Brest, in the hopes of encountering the French. Sir William Knevet had command of the Regent, and Sir Charles Brandon, who had sixty of the tallest yeomen of the Guard under him, commanded the Sovereign. The fleet arrived off Brest just as the French fleet, consisting of thirty-nine sail, was coming out of the harbour. On seeing the enemy, Sir Edward made the signal for an immediate engagement. Scarcely was the signal seen, than the Regent and the Cordelier, the latter being the largest ship in the French navy, attacked each other as if by mutual consent. The Cordelier, it is said, carried 1200 soldiers. Undoubtedly her commander hoped to carry the English ship by boarding. In the course of the action, when locked in a deadly embrace with their grappling-irons, another English ship threw into the Cordelier a quantity of combustibles, or fire-works, as they were called, and set her on fire. In vain the crew of the Regent endeavoured to free their ship from her perilous position. The magazine of the Cordelier was reached, and she and the Regent went up into the air together. In the Regent, Sir William Knevet and 700 men were lost, and in the Cordelier, Sir Pierce Morgan, her captain, and 900 of her crew are supposed to have perished. After this dreadful catastrophe the action ceased; the French, horror-stricken, hurriedly making their way into Brest. The ships, also, of both parties, had received considerable damage.

Although cannon had been employed on board ships since the time of Edward the Third, this was probably one of the first sea-fights in which they were used by both parties on board all the ships engaged. Even on this occasion the combatants seem to have trusted more to their battle-axes and swords than to their artillery. The French give a different account of this battle. They say that an English ship having discharged a quantity of fire-works into the Cordelier, she caught fire, when her Breton commander, finding that the conflagration could not be extinguished, and determined not to perish alone, made up to the English admiral and grappled her, when they blew up into the air together. On this the two fleets separated by mutual consent.

The following year another fleet of forty-two men-of-war, under the command of the Lord High Admiral, sailed for Brest, when the French squadron was found at anchor, protected by batteries on shore, and a line of twenty-four hulks chained together across the harbour’s mouth. The admiral, however, making a feint with his boats, drew the enemy down to the shore, when he ran up past the batteries, and ravaged the country round the town. The French had been waiting the arrival of six galleys from the Mediterranean, under Monsieur Pregent.

I cannot refrain from giving the first account I have met with of what may properly be called a cutting-out expedition. While the English fleet were at Brest, Monsieur Pregent arrived on the coast with six galleys and four foists, and, apprehensive of being attacked by the enemy, he entered the Bay of Conquêt, which was the nearest place to Brest. He here placed his squadron between two rocks, on which he mounted cannon and threw up a breastwork. Notwithstanding the advantageous position of this squadron, the Lord High Admiral resolved to attack it. He had two galleys in his fleet. He went on board one of these, and entrusted the other to Lord Rivers. He had, besides, only two large barges and two boats. With these, on the 20th of April, he boldly ventured into the Bay of Conquêt to attack the French galleys. He no sooner came abeam of the galley commanded by Monsieur Pregent, than, ordering his vessel to be lashed alongside, he boarded her sword in hand, followed only by Don Carroz, a Spanish cavalier, and seventeen of his men. He appeared at first to be gaining the day; but, by some accident, his galley swinging loose, he and his followers, deprived of all succour, were so hard-pressed by the enemy that they were driven headlong into the sea. Lord Ferrers, who had during this time been engaging the enemy without success, seeing the admiral’s galley fall off, retreated. When, however, Lord Howard was missed, a flag of truce was sent to the French commander, who replied that only one seaman had escaped death, and that the admiral and the rest of his companions had been forced overboard. After this the English fleet returned home. In a short time Monsieur Pregent, flushed with success, ravaged the coast of Sussex; but was driven away by Sir Thomas Howard, who succeeded his brother as Lord High Admiral. In the year 1514, the ever-active Pregent again paid the Sussex coast a visit, and burnt Brighthelmstone, as Brighton was then called. In return for this compliment, Sir John Wallop was sent with a fleet to the coast of Normandy, where he burnt twenty-one towns and villages. In consequence of the energetic and summary way in which he carried out his system of retaliation, those who have imitated him have been said to “wallop” the enemy. To replace theRegent destroyed in the terrible way above described, the king built a ship at Erith in 1515, and called her the Henri Grâce de Dieu. She was of 1000 tons burden, and manned with 301 mariners, 50 gunners, and 349 soldiers. Up to that period, when ships were to be manned in a hurry, soldiers were sent on board to do the duty of seamen as best they could, and generals were turned into admirals at very short notice. However, it would be more correct to say that the fighting was done chiefly by soldiers, and consequently that military officers went to command them, while the ships were navigated by professional seamen, who had their own sea-officers, though generally of an inferior grade, over them. A vestige of this custom still remains in the Royal Navy. On board every ship, besides the captain and his lieutenants, there is a sailing-master, who has also his mates or assistants, who have especial charge of the navigation of the ship. Formerly the captain and his lieutenants were not of necessity seamen. Now, they are so by profession, though they still retain a remnant of their military character. In time, probably, the last representative of the master-of-the-mariners, as he was called, will disappear from the British navy—it being the duty of the lieutenants to attend to the navigation of the ship, as they do now to the management in every other respect.

One of the wisest acts of Henry the Eighth was making the sea-service a regular profession—though long after his time ships, and even fleets, were commanded by men who had hitherto lived and fought only on shore. About the year 1545 port-holes were generally introduced on board the larger ships. Before that time the guns were fought over the bulwarks, or were alone placed on the forecastle, and the aftercastle, which latter portion of the ship is now called the poop. This word poop is evidently derived from the Latin puppis, as originally the after-part of a ship was called by the Romans, and thence the name was given to the ship herself, a part being taken for the whole. The ports were, however, placed not more than sixteen inches from the water, so close, indeed, as greatly to peril the ship. It was in consequence of this faulty construction that theMary Rose of sixty guns, one of the largest ships in the British navy, heeling over to a squall while encountering the French at Spithead, was capsized, when her captain, Sir George Carew, and upwards of 500 of his men, perished in the waves. As late as the year 1835, Mr Deane, by means of his ingenious invention, the diving-bell, was enabled to recover several guns, parts of the wreck, and some stone-shot of the Mary Rose.

Ships generally carried but few guns. A writer, describing a battle which took place off the Isle of Wight, and which lasted two hours, when upwards of ninety ships were engaged, speaks of 300 shot being fired, to prove how desperate was the contest. I have before me an account of the battle in which the Mary Rose was lost, not, as the French say, in consequence of their fire, but because it was attempted to keep her ports open when a considerable sea was running, and a strong breeze had suddenly sprung up. The French king had sent over a large fleet to annoy the English coasts. Henry, hearing of the expedition, hurried down to Portsmouth to hasten the equipment of 100 sail, which he had ordered to be got ready. The French appearing, the English sailed out to Saint Helen’s to meet them. A squall came on, and the Mary Rose foundering, the Great Harry which was attacked by the French row-galleys, bore the brunt of the action. The French quickly retired, though they attempted to make a lodgment on the Isle of Wight, but were compelled to return to their ships. The English are described as using pinances, which are vessels of great length and little beam, moving very rapidly, and fitted both with sails and oars. We hear, also, that the Carracon the ship of the French Admiral, was destroyed by fire before the fleet left their coasts. She is described as appearing like a castle among the other ships of the fleet, and so strong that she had nothing to fear at sea but fire and rocks. It is stated that she had 100 brass cannon on board; but as she was not more than 800 tons burden, they must have been very small ones. Still, it is certain that she was the stoutest ship possessed by the French.

From a French account of one of the attacks made on the English fleet before Portsmouth, we ascertain the character of the galleys employed by the French. We are told that they were worked by oars, and we read that so many galley-slaves were killed. It is said, also, that “the galleys had all the advantage of working that they could desire, to the great damage of the English, who, for want of wind, not being able to stir, lay exposed to the French cannon, and being so much higher and bulkier than their galleys, hardly a shot missed them; while the galleys, with the help of their oars, shifted at pleasure, and thereby avoided the danger of the enemy’s artillery.” The same writer says that, later in the day, “the violence of the wind, and the swelling of the sea, would deprive us of our galleys.” We thus see at once that these galleys, though from their lightness easily manoeuvred in smooth water, were unfit to buffet with the winds and waves. They were probably similar to the galleys I have before described, and which for centuries were in use in the Mediterranean.

Another writer says: “A gale arising, the French galleys were in danger, the English ships bearing down upon them with full sail, a danger from which they escaped purely by the skill and experience of their commanders, and the intrepidity of the Prior of Capua, who exposed his galley with undaunted courage, and freed himself from danger with equal address.” The title of Prior of Capua sounds oddly enough when applied to a naval commander. From these accounts it would appear that the English ships were more powerful than those of the French, and were better calculated to stand the brunt of battle than to chase a nimble enemy, as the French seem to have been. The larger ships in the British navy were at that time fitted with four masts, like the Henri Grâce de Dieu.

Though the yards and sails were unwieldy, the rigging heavy, and the top hamper prodigious, we find that they were tending towards the form they had assumed when Howe, Jervis, and Nelson led our fleets to victory.

They had short stout masts, a vast number of shrouds to support them, and large heavy round tops on which a dozen men or more could stand. The sterns were ornamented with a profusion of heavy carved-work, and they had great lanterns stuck up at the taffrail, as big, almost, as sentry-boxes, while the forecastle still somewhat resembled the building from which it took its name. This vast amount of woodwork, rising high above the surface of the water, was very detrimental to the sailing qualities of ships, and must have caused the loss of many. What sailors call fore-and-aft sails had already been introduced, and we hear constantly of ships beating to windward, and attempting to gain the weather-gage. In those days a great variety of ordnance were employed, to which our ancestors gave the odd-sounding names of cannon, demi-cannon, culverins, demi-culverins, sakers, mynions, falcons, falconets, portpiece-halls, port-piece-chambers, fowler-halls, and curthalls. These guns varied very much in length and in the weight of their shot. When a ship is spoken of as carrying fifty or sixty guns it must be understood that every description of ordnance on board was included, so that a very erroneous idea would be formed, if we pictured a ship of sixty guns of those days as in any way resembling in size a third, or even a fourth-rate at the end of the last century. An old author says: “By the employment of Italian shipwrights, and by encouraging his own people to build strong ships of war to carry great ordnance, Henry established a puissant navy, which, at the end of his reign, consisted of seventy-one vessels, whereof thirty were ships of burden, and contained in all 10,550 tons, and two were galleys, and the rest were small barks and row-barges, from eighty tons down to fifteen tons, which served in rivers and for landing men.”

Stone-shot had hitherto been used both at sea and on shore, but about the middle of the century they were superseded by iron shot. About the same period matchlocks were introduced on board ships.

An Act was passed in this reign encouraging merchants to build ships fit for men-of-war, such ships being exempt from certain duties, the owners also receiving from the king, when he required them, twelve shillings per ton a-month.

Henry the Eighth established an Office of Admiralty, with a Navy Office, under certain commissioners; and appointed regular salaries, not only for his admirals and vice-admirals, but for his captains and seamen. This established the system, pursued with various alterations, for the maintenance of the Royal Navy. These regulations and appointments encouraged the English to consider the sea as a means of providing for their children, and from this time forward we have a constant series of eminent officers in the Royal Navy, many of them noblemen of the first distinction. Among the most celebrated in this reign were Sir Edward Howard, his brother Sir Thomas Howard, afterwards Earl of Surrey, Sir William Fitzwilliams, afterwards Earl of Southampton, and John Russell, first Earl of Bedford. The most eminent navigator in the reign of Edward the Sixth was Sebastian Cabot, son of John Cabot, who, under Henry the Seventh, discovered Newfoundland. Nothing was done concerning trade without consulting him; he was at the head of the merchant adventurers, and governor of a company formed to find out a passage by the north to the East Indies. Among the regulations for the government of the fleet destined for the voyage to Cathay were several which show a considerable amount of worldly wisdom and sound so quaint, that I am tempted to quote a few of them. Clause 22—“Item—not to disclose to any nation the state of our religion, but to pass it over in silence without any declaration of it, seeming to bear with such laws and rites as the place hath where you shall arrive.” Item 23—“Forasmuch as our people and ships may appear unto them strange and wondrous, and theirs also to ours, it is to be considered how they may be used, learning much of their nature and dispositions by some one such person whom you may first either allure or take to be brought on board your ship.” Item 24—“The persons so taken to be well entertained, used, and apparelled, to be set on land to the intent he or she may allure others to draw nigh to show the commodities; and if the person taken may be made drunk with your beer or wine, you shall know the secrets of his heart.”

Under the judicious management of Sebastian Cabot, the Russian Company was established, though their charter was not granted till the year 1555. Among other discoverers and navigators Captain Wyndham merits notice, having opened up a trade with the coast of Guinea. Both he and his companion Pintado died, however, of fever, forty only of his crew returning to Plymouth. Captain Richard Chancellor is another able navigator of this reign. He sailed with Sir Hugh Willoughby in the service of the company, at the recommendation of Cabot. He made several voyages to Russia; in the last, he parted with Sir Hugh Willoughby, who, putting into a port to winter, was, with all his crew, frozen to death. His ship was found riding safe at anchor by some Russian fishermen, and from a journal discovered on board it was found that the admiral and most of his fellow-adventurers were alive in January, 1554.

During Henry the Eighth’s reign the infamous slave-trade was commenced by Mr William Hawkins of Plymouth, father of the celebrated Sir John Hawkins. He, however, evidently did not consider the traffic in the light in which it is now regarded. In his ship, the Paul, of Plymouth, he made three voyages to the Brazils, touching at the coast of Guinea, where he traded in slaves, gold, and elephants’ teeth. At that time the English, considering themselves lords paramount at sea, insisted that ships of all other nations should strike their flags in presence of their fleets. Even when William Lord Howard, Mary’s high admiral, went with a fleet of twenty-eight men-of-war to await the arrival of King Philip, who soon after appeared in the channel, escorted by one hundred and sixty sail, the Spanish flag flying at his main-top, the English admiral compelled him to lower it, by firing a shot before he would salute the intended consort of the Queen. This determination of the English to maintain the sovereignty of the seas was the cause hereafter of many a desperate naval engagement between themselves and the Dutch, who disputed their right to the honour.

Henry died A.D. 1547. No great improvements were made in navigation during his reign, but the encouragement he gave to shipbuilding, and the establishment of a permanent Royal Navy, contributed much to enable England to attain that supremacy on the ocean which she has ever since maintained.

During the early part of Edward the Sixth’s reign the navy of England was employed chiefly in operations against the Scotch, but in 1550 the French formed a plan to capture Jersey and Guernsey, which they surrounded with a large fleet, having 2000 troops on board. The inhabitants held out stoutly, and gained time for Captain (afterwards Sir William) Winter to arrive to their succour. Though he had but a small squadron, so hastily did he attack the French, that he captured and burnt nearly all their ships and killed a thousand men, the rest with difficulty escaping to the mainland.

Mary’s reign is a blank, as far as most achievements were concerned, and, had the miserable queen obtained her wishes, the ships of England, and all the English hold dear, would have been handed over to the tender mercies of Philip and the Spaniards.