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.

Another important action, before-mentioned, occurred in this reign. Prince Louis, afterwards Louis the Eighth, to whose father Pope Innocent had made a liberal present of England without consulting its inhabitants, had set sail from Calais at the head of a large army, convoyed by eighty large ships of war. Hubert de Burgo, with a great baron, Philip D’Albiney, as his lieutenant, assembled all the ships they could from the Cinque Ports, though the whole did not amount to more than half that of the French fleet. The latter was under the command of Eustace the monk, who had formerly been in the pay of John, but had lately transferred his services to Louis. The English ships were armed with strong beaks, like those of the Roman galleys, and their mode of attack consisted, as of yore, in charging the vessels of the enemy, and endeavouring to pierce their sides with their iron rams. They were impelled chiefly by oars, but also carried sails, to enable them to bear down with greater speed on the enemy; hence the importance of obtaining the weather-gage. The two fleets came in sight of each other in the Straits of Dover, on the 24th of August, 1217. The English admirals having by their skilful manoeuvres obtained the weather-gage, bore down on the enemy with irresistible force. In addition to other means of offence, they had brought on board a number of barrels of unslaked lime; on nearing the enemy they poured water on the lime, so as to slake the whole mass, and the smoke thus created being borne by the wind into the faces of the French, prevented them from seeing the operations of the foe till it was too late to avoid them. The English boarded, their first endeavour being to cut away the rigging and halliards of the French ships, when the masts and sails went over the side. Most of the French knights, preferring death to imprisonment, leaped overboard. Throwing their grapnels on board, the English made a furious onslaught on the enemy, the crossbow-men and archers, under Sir Philip D’Albiney, discharging their bows and arrows, did immense execution. Out of the whole fleet, fifteen only escaped. De Burgo’s great aim, however, was to obtain possession of the traitor Eustace, and diligent search being made, the quondam ecclesiastic was found in the hold of one of the captured vessels, when he was immediately killed. The French fleet was put to flight, the crews of those which escaped landed on the Kentish coast. The victory prevented Louis from obtaining further reinforcements from France, and showed the English barons, who had hitherto adhered to his cause, that it would be hopeless to attempt the subjugation of England. They, therefore, at once made their peace with the king, and Louis was glad to get off by renouncing all claim to the English crown. We now come to the long reign of Henry the Third, A.D. 1216. Frequent expeditions were fitted out on his demand by the Cinque Ports, and by other maritime towns, while merchant-vessels were occasionally pressed into his service to carry him and his troops over to France. The king himself also possessed a fleet of some importance, one of his ships carrying, besides the commander and officers and the regular fighting men, fully thirty mariners. Many merchant-vessels of the present day of eight or nine hundred tons, do not carry a larger crew. In those days we read that a number of piratical vessels, both British and of other nations, scoured the ocean, and committed great depredations both along the coast and on the peaceable merchantmen who sailed up and down it.

The great object of the commander of a fleet in those days was to gain the weather-gage, then to bear down under all sail in order to strike the broadsides of the enemy’s ships; when the one generally attempted to board the other, if not to throw stink-pots into their antagonists’ vessels, or what were called fire-works, a sort of hand grenades; and sometimes slaked lime to blind the foe with the vapour. With this object in view the admiral manoeuvred his fleet for hours together, rowing and sailing. As guns, when they first came into use, carried no great distance, they were not fired till ships got close together. Ships in action very frequently caught fire and blew up, and sometimes locked in a deadly embrace, were destroyed together. Trumpeters had an important part to play, not only to make signals, but to create as much noise as possible. The good ship called the Matthew Gonson, of the burden of three hundred tons, whereof was owner old Master William Gonson, paymaster of the king’s navy, fitted out at this time for a voyage to the islands of Candia and Chio to bring back wine and other produce, besides the hundred men of her company, had six gunners and four trumpeters. Probably men-of-war had many more such musicians.

Edward the First, A.D. 1272, ordained various laws and ordinances for the government of his navy, which was now, though still furnished chiefly by the maritime ports, better organised than hitherto. He claimed, also, the right of  England to the sovereignty of the narrow seas, asserting that from time immemorial it had been undisputed. About the year 1290, the pennant used at the present day by all ships commissioned by officers of the Royal Navy was first adopted.

In the reign of Edward the Second no important maritime event occurred, though squadrons were occasionally sent away on various services.

It is only by examining carefully into the details given by historians of the naval combats which took place in those ages, that we can hope to form a correct guess as to the size and construction of a ship, and the method of manoeuvring her. We are now coming to a very important epoch in naval matters, the reign of Edward the Third. 1327, when the mariner’s compass was discovered, or rather became known in Europe, and cannon were first introduced on board ships.

Edward gained the title of “The King of the Sea,” and raised the naval glory of England to a higher pitch than it had ever before attained by his many victorious combats on the ocean. The greatest naval engagement which occurred during the middle ages was that known as the battle of Sluys, when Philip the Sixth sat on the throne of France. The English fleet consisted of only 260 ships fit for warfare. The French, whose fleet amounted to no less than 400 sail, lay securely, as they thought, in the harbour of Sluys. Edward embarked on board the cog Thomas, commanded by Richard Fyall, and attended by several noblemen. A cog was a craft larger than those usually designated ships—the cog John, which is spoken of, had a crew of eighty-two men, and probably she carried besides a considerable number of knights and soldiers. Many ships of the English fleet must have been of small size. Froissart says that the French fleet consisted of 140 large ships, besides hanquebos with 35,000 men on board, Normans, Picards, and Genoese. The masts of so numerous an assemblage of vessels, as they were seen in the harbour of Sluys, resembled rather a forest than a fleet. Of these ships, nineteen were remarkable for their enormous size. Besides other implements of warfare, quantities of large stones were stored in the tops and also in small boats hoisted to the mast-heads, to be hurled on the assailants. The French had secured their ships together by chains, to prevent the English from breaking through them. Among the ships in the leading rank was theChristopher, full of Genoese archers, with the Edward, Katherine, Rose, and other large cogs which had formerly been captured from the English.

Edward had perfect confidence in the valour and prowess of his seamen and men-at-arms, and, notwithstanding the superiority of the enemy in numbers, he resolved to open a passage through them. Having ordered all his ships to be in readiness, he placed the strongest in the front, and filled those which were at each end of the line with archers. Also between every two ships of archers he placed one filled with men-at-arms. He likewise ordered another line to be formed on the side, as a body of reserve, and filled those ships also with archers, that they might be ready to support or relieve any most requiring aid.

The English fleet approaching the haven of Sluys in the manner described, found the French already lying in order of battle, in three divisions, waiting for them. The English having gained the advantage of the wind and sun by their dexterity and management, the king ordered the signal for engaging to be given. The Normans, perceiving the English to tack as they did to get the wind, thought that they were taking to their heels, and began to triumph. But they soon found out their mistake, and, being able seamen and brave combatants, prepared for the fight. They began the battle by advancing with the Great Christopher, and, with a vast noise of trumpets and other instruments, attempted to break the line, to come at the ship in which they supposed the British king to be. They were received with a general shout, and during continual huzzas the English poured such showers of arrows from their long bows into the enemy’s ships as soon covered their decks with dead and wounded men, and put the whole fleet into general consternation. The Great Christopher was taken in the beginning of the battle, and all who were in her were either killed or made prisoners. The English, on this, filled her with archers, and sent her to annoy the Genoese ships, which formed part of the French fleet. And now death and destruction appeared on every side in their most terrible array. The very air was darkened with arrows, and the hostile ships rushing together, the men-at-arms engaged in close fight.

The English, taking advantage of the confusion into which they had put the French at the beginning of the fight, soon boarded them with the help of their grappling-irons, and pursuing their good fortune, obtained a complete victory, though a most bloody one, as their loss amounted to 4000 men killed and wounded. Great numbers of the French sailors desperately threw themselves into the sea, and submitted to a certain death rather than abide the repeated showers of English arrows; what also might have contributed more to this desperate resolution was that, on board the ships captured in the heat of battle, no quarter was given. The engagement lasted from eight in the morning till seven at night. The loss on the French side was enormous, 230 of their ships being captured; only about 30 having escaped. According to the Frenchmen’s account of the battle, they lost two admirals, Bauchet, who was killed in action, and De Kernel, who was taken prisoner. King Edward behaved during the whole action with the most inimitable courage and conduct; regarding neither danger nor fatigue, he was always present where the battle raged the hottest.

During the night thirty French ships, endeavouring to escape, were attacked by the English, and on board of one of them, the James of Dieppe, after she had been engaged the whole night with the Earl of Huntingdon, 400 dead bodies were found. Certain old writers remark that the rostrum or beak used by the Romans could not have existed in the English ships, nor was the manoeuvre employed by which one ship attempts to break the oars of another. From this they conclude that the English fleet must have consisted of high-sided ships, worked chiefly by sails. Probably, however, they had oars also.

It is said that nearly 30,000 men were killed in this memorable battle. So apparently irretrievable was the disaster to the French that none of King Philip’s counsellors had the courage to inform him of what had occurred. At length they bethought them of employing the court fool to communicate the disastrous intelligence. Accordingly, that dignified individual took an opportunity of remarking to the king that he considered the English arrant cowards.

“Why so, Master Wisdom?” asked Philip.

“Why does your Majesty ask? because they had not the courage to leap into the sea and be drowned as our brave Frenchmen did the other day, when your Majesty’s ships went to the bottom.”

In 1350 the warrior king, on board his cog Thomas, led his fleet to attack the Spaniards, who had ventured into the British Channel; he was accompanied by Edward, the Black Prince, and numerous great personages, with nearly four hundred knights. The king, attired in a black velvet jacket and beaver hat, took post on the bow of his ship, eagerly looking out for the enemy. As they did not appear, to beguile the time he caused his minstrels to play a German dance, and made Sir John Chandos, who had recently introduced it, to sing with them. From time to time, however, he looked aloft at the man stationed in the top of the mast to announce the approach of the Spaniards. At length they were seen, numbering forty large ships, denominated carricks; strong and handsome were they to behold—each mast was adorned with rich standards and banners, and their tops filled with soldiers and missiles. They, however, it was evident, wished to avoid an action, but the king, leading his fleet, stood down upon them till he reached a heavy ship, when, reckless of consequences, he ordered the helmsman to lay her aboard. So violent was the blow that the masts of the cog Thomas went over the side, the men in the top were drowned, and the ship sprang a dangerous leak. The Spaniard sheering off, Edward grappled another enemy; but now the cog Thomas sinking, the king and his crew took possession of the prize. In her he pushed into the thickest of the fight. The Prince of Wales’ ship, also nigh to sinking, had grappled her huge adversary, when the Earl of Lancaster arriving and shouting, “Derby to the rescue!” boarded and obtained possession of the Spaniard, throwing all who resisted into the sea. Scarcely had the prince and his followers got on board the prize, when his own ship foundered. Sir Robert de Namur having grappled with a huge ship was carried by her out from among the fleet; the two combatants were rapidly leaving the rest of the ships astern, when Sir Robert’s valet, Hannekin, bravely cutting the halliards of the principal sail, the English, taking advantage of the confusion, boarded and drove the Spaniards into the sea. Thus the Spanish fleet was completely beaten, and twenty-six large ships captured.

The British seem to have been as prone in those days as at present to seek for victory by laying the enemy on board and trusting to the strength of their own arms. At present, instead of battle-axes and clubs, or spears, or two-handed swords they have a fondness for their cutlasses and pistols. In the days, before Britannia could loudly roar with her thunder, naval combats were carried on with all the noise and hubbub the men on either side could create with their voices, as also with the braying forth of trumpets and beating of gongs and drums, in the hope of thus striking terror into the hearts of their enemies. How great is the contrast between such a naval engagement as has been described and one at the present day. In solemn silence the crews grimly stand at their guns, stripped generally to the waist. Not a sound is heard, not a word spoken, except perhaps one hearty cheer, a response to the captain’s brief address. Slowly and steadily the hostile fleets approach each other till the signal is given to commence the deadly strife, and then in a moment, like fierce monsters awakened from sleep, they send from their cannons’ mouths a quick succession of terrific roars, fire, and smoke, which laugh to scorn all the trumpet braying and shouting of our ancestors.

After the famous battle of Crescy, King Edward laid siege to Calais with a fleet of 738 ships, having on board 14,956 mariners, each of whom received 4 pence per diem. Of these ships, no more than 25 belonged actually to the king. The latter carried about 419 seamen only, which was not more than 17 seamen to each ship. Some, however, had 25 seamen, and others less. Many of the ships furnished by the maritime ports were larger than the king’s. The total cost of the war, which lasted one year and 131 days, was 127,101 pounds, 2 shillings 9 pence, for even in those romantic days people could not knock each other on the head free of all charge, it must be remembered. The mention of that 127,101 pounds 2 shillings 9 pence also shows that their accounts must have been kept with most praiseworthy exactness.

Only great nations, to whom victory has generally been awarded by the God of battles, can afford to talk of their defeats. Though in most cases successful, Edward’s arms met with a severe repulse before Rochelle, to the relief of which place he had sent forty ships, under the young Earl of Pembroke. “They were encountered by a French squadron of forty sail of capital ships,” we are told, “besides thirteen able frigates, well manned, and commanded by four experienced officers. The earl was taken prisoner, and nearly every ship was captured or sunk.” Though employed by France, they were Spaniards, supplied by the King of Castile. In addition to the large number of men-at-arms on board the Spanish ships, whose weapons were crossbows and cannon, large bars of iron and lead were used. The Spaniards bore down upon the small English ships with loud shouts and great noise; the English shouted in return, but were unable to climb up the lofty sides of the Spaniards. In the first day of the battle the Spaniards lost two barges, and the next day the earl’s ship was attacked and captured by four large Spanish ships full of soldiers, while most of his fleet were either taken or destroyed.

Our national pride will make us examine narrowly to discover the cause of this disaster. In the first place, the earl, though brave, was inexperienced; then some of those forty French ships were larger than the forty English ships, and the able frigates were quick rowing galleys, full of men-at-arms, who must have done much mischief. The French on this occasion also made use of balistas and other machines for throwing bars of iron and great stones, to sink the English ships. They had also in another way got ahead of the English, for they had provided themselves with cannon, which the latter had not as yet got. This was the first naval engagement in which such engines of destruction were employed.

History is read by the naval and military man, and indeed by any one, to very little purpose, unless facts like these are not only carefully noted, but duly acted on; unless we take warning by the errors and neglects of our predecessors. It is not only necessary to be well-armed in appearance, but to be as well armed in reality, as those are with whom we may possibly be called to fight. It is wise not only to adopt new inventions likely to be of service, but if possible to have them already in use before they are adopted by our enemies. The gun of those days was a thick tube of wood, bound together with iron hoops, and probably could send a shot of three or four pounds little more than two or three hundred yards with very uncertain aim. What a contrast to the “Woolwich Infant” of the present day, with its shot of several hundredweight, whizzing for five miles or more through the air, with almost a certainty of hitting its object at the termination of its journey.