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.

These circumstances should be borne in mind, for people of the present day are apt to fancy that the shores of Old England, since the time of the Danes perhaps, have ever been free from insult and annoyance, whereas we see that our neighbours across the channel have managed, whenever they have had the opportunity, without being so very seasick, to effect a very considerable amount of both one and the other.

A fleet, also, was sent to take possession of Cherbourg, which had been mortgaged by the King of Navarre to the English. The expedition was under the command of Philip and Peter Courtray. It was, however, encountered by a far superior Spanish squadron, which the English attacked with great fury, but Philip Courtray was severely wounded, and his brother Peter, who was taken prisoner with a number of knights and gentlemen, was never again heard of, numbers also losing their lives. While a large fleet under the Duke of Lancaster sailed to retrieve the loss, and was laying siege to Saint Malo, the French were ravaging the coasts of Cornwall. While, also, the Duke of Buckingham was in France, a fleet of French and Spanish galleys sailed up the Thames as far as Gravesend, which they plundered and burnt, as well as other places on the Kentish shore. Leaving the Thames, they sailed along the west coast, plundering and burning as they went. They were, however, met by a west country fleet, fitted out to attack them, and pursued to the Irish coast, where many were captured, and their prizes retaken. Still a sufficient force escaped to plunder and burn Winchelsea on their return.

On the accession of Charles the Sixth to the throne of France, he resolved to put in execution a scheme formed by his father to drive the English out of France by invading England itself. For this purpose, he purchased of various nations a fleet of 1600 sail to carry across an immense army which he had raised for the purpose. To defend his kingdom, Richard raised an army of 100,000 men, horse and foot, and equipped a fleet, placed under the command of the Earls of Arundel and Nottingham. Portsmouth and Plymouth fitted out small fleets of privateers, which sailed up the Seine, and made many prizes. Although there was no general engagement, the French fleet were cut off in detail, and in consequence of the strenuous efforts made by the English, the intended invasion was abandoned.

Henry the Fourth began to reign A.D. 1399. The French, in 1402, sent a fleet to assist Owen Glendowyr with an army of 12,000 men. They put into Milford Haven, and plundered the neighbourhood; but a fleet fitted out by the Cinque Ports, under Lord Berkley and Harry Percy, arrived there in time to capture fourteen of them before they had time to make their escape.

The principal admiral in this reign was Admiral Beaufort. He was styled Admiral of all the King’s Fleet, both to the north and west; and among many other offices, he held those of Constable of Dover Castle and Warden of the Cinque Ports.

The fifth Henry, with whose name the famous victory of Agincourt over the French will ever be associated, began to reign A.D. 1413. He was so much occupied with his wars in France for the greater part of his reign, that he paid but little attention to naval affairs beyond obtaining the transports necessary to convey his armies across the channel. While he was carrying on his conquests in France, part of the French fleet came over and blockaded the English ships collected at Portsmouth and Southampton, and made an attempt to land on the Isle of Wight. They were, however, driven back with loss. Henry had, in the meantime, taken possession of Harfleur on the Seine. He was besieged by the French both by land and sea. The king accordingly despatched his brother the Duke of Bedford with a fleet of 500 ships, containing 20,000 men, to the relief of the town. They found the enemy’s fleet, in which were several large Genoese carracks, lying before the haven of Harfleur, and pressing the siege with all possible vigour. As no relief could be given to the town without forcing a passage through the French fleet, an engagement was unavoidable. The English began the attack, and though the French maintained the fight for some hours, they gave way at last, and were totally defeated. Five hundred vessels were taken or sunk, together with five of the Genoese carracks, and nearly 20,000 men are reported to have been killed. The whole English fleet entered the port in triumph, and carried a seasonable relief to the town.

Another important naval battle was fought during Henry’s reign. Before he commenced his great and successful expedition to Normandy, which province he regained for the crown of England, after it had been lost for 215 years since the reign of King John, he despatched the Earl of Huntingdon with a fleet of about 100 sail to scour the seas, that his transports might cross without molestation. At this time the Duke of Genoa had, in consequence of a treaty made with France, supplied the French government with a squadron, consisting of eight large carracks, and as many galleys, which had on board 600 crossbow-men, under the command of John Grimaldi. These had united with the French fleet, consisting of 100 tall ships, and commanded by the Bastard of Bourbon. The Earl of Huntingdon speedily came up with the united fleets of France and Genoa at the mouth of the Seine. The engagement was long and desperate; the Genoese sustained the brunt of the engagement, their ships being larger and better formed than the French. One carrack especially, commanded by Lawrence Foglietta resisted the attacks of seven English ships. The English ships, it appears, were furnished with stages, which could be let down on the decks of the vessels they were attacking, so as to form a bridge across into them. Foglietta’s ship was at length disengaged from her enemy by the dexterity of a sailor, who cut the cordage with which the stage had been secured to her side. Notwithstanding, however, all the efforts of the Genoese, who are in this instance their own historians, the French and they were completely defeated. John de Franguemont, the son of the vice-admiral, was slain, the Bastard of Bourbon was taken prisoner, and four, if not six, of the Genoese carracks fell into the hands of the English. On board of the carracks was a sum of money, the wages of the whole fleet for three months, the English accounts say for six months. They also assert that three carracks were taken and three sunk. This was a great victory, and it is evident that the enemy were numerically superior to the victors. This is the only account I have met with in which mention is made of stages or bridges used by the English to enable them to board the ships of the enemy. The carracks spoken of were undoubtedly large and powerful ships compared to those in general use at that period. The Genoese were at that time, and for long continued, the first maritime people in Europe, and from their shipwrights and seamen, as well as from the captured ships, the English obtained many of the improvements which were soon afterwards brought into the art of shipbuilding in England.

Henry died on the 31st of August, 1422, aged thirty-three years, worn out with the fatigues of his late campaign in Normandy. He had reigned nine years, five months, and eleven days.

I have before me a curious history in verse relating to navigation and nautical affairs, written during the reign of Henry, entitled De Politia conservativa Maris. The author, in his preface, urges the importance of England maintaining the dominion of the channel.

“The true process of English policy,
Of utterward to keep this regne in
Of our England, that no man may deny,
Nor say of sooth but it is one of the best,
Is this that who seeth south, north, east, and west,
Cherish merchandise, keep the Admiralty
That we be masters of the narrow sea.

Who can here pass without danger and woe?
What merchandise may forby be ago?
For needs him must take trewes every foe:
Flanders, and Spain, and other, trust to me
Or else hindered all for this narrow sea.”

The whole poem is very curious, and full of information respecting the commerce of England in those days. It shows us how extensive it had already become, and how much alive the British merchants were to its importance, although the monarchs and chief nobles, madly engaged in civil wars or foreign conquests, did their utmost to destroy it, instead of endeavouring to protect and improve it. The more we study history, the more we shall be convinced that England owes her present greatness and prosperity to the enlightened energy and perseverance of her merchants and manufacturers, and the seamen of the mercantile marine.

Without them her brave armies and navies could not have been created or maintained, nor won the renown which England proudly claims.

“From Spain,” says our poetical author, “we import figs, raisins, wine, dates, liquorice, oil, grains, white pastil soap, wax, iron, wool, wadmolle, goat-fell, kid-fell, saffron, and quicksilver.

“From Flanders, fine cloth of Ypre and Curtike, fine cloth of all colours, fustian, linen cloth; for which England returns wool and tin.

“From Portugal, always in unity with England, we obtain wine, osey, wax, grain, figs, raisins, honey, cordmeynes, dates, salt, hides.

“With Bretaigne we deal in salt, wine, crest cloth, and canvas; but this is only of late years, for the Bretons were noted pirates, and greatly interrupted the navigation of this kingdom, both by taking the merchant-ships and plundering and burning the towns on the sea-coast, till Edward the Third granted letters of reprisal to the inhabitants of Dartmouth, Plymouth, and Fowey, which obliged the Duke of Bretaigne to sue for peace and engage for the future good behaviour of his subjects.”

Here we have an example of the advantage of allowing people who possess the sinews of war to take care of themselves. We may depend on it they will, in most instances, give a good account of their proceedings.

The same principle may be applied to our larger colonies at the present day, and we may have little fear that if attacked they will maintain their independence, and the honour of the British name.

“We trade with Scotland for felts, hides, and wool in the fleece; and with Prussia, High Germany, and the east countries for beer, bacon, almond, copper, bow-staves, steel, wax, pelt ware, pitch, tar, peats, flax, cotton, thread, fustian, canvas, cards, buckram, silver plate, silver wedges, and metal.

“From Genoa we import most of the articles which we now procure from Africa, and which come in large ships called carracks, such as cloth of gold, silk, black pepper, and good gold of Genne (Guinea).”

Our author does not at all approve of the articles which were imported from Venice and Florence. They were very similar, in some respects, to those which now come from France, and without which, most undoubtedly, we could do very well.

“The great gallies of Venice and Florence
Be well laden with things of complacence,
Allspicery and of grocer’s ware,
With sweet wines, all manner of chaffare;
Apes and japes, and marmusets tailed,
Nifles and trifles that little have availed,
And things with which they featly blear our eye,
With things not enduring that we buy;
For much of this chaffare that is wastable,
Might be forborne for dear and deceivable.”

On the death of his father, August, 1422, the unfortunate Henry the Sixth, when not a year old, was proclaimed King of England and heir of France, and when eight years of age he was crowned both in London and Paris. No improvements in naval affairs were introduced during his inglorious and disastrous reign. The chief battle at sea was fought by a fleet under the command of the famous king-maker, the Earl of Warwick. In the Straits of Dover he encountered a fleet of Genoese and Lubeck ships laden with Spanish merchandise, and under the convoy of five carracks. Of these he captured six, and sunk or put to flight twenty-six more, took numerous prisoners, and slew a thousand men, while his prize-money amounted to 10,000 pounds, an enormous sum in those days, when the whole revenue of England did not exceed at one time 5000 pounds.

The Earl of Warwick was soon afterwards, with his fleet, instrumental in dethroning Henry, and placing Edward of Lancaster on the throne, under the title of Edward the Fourth. It was not, however, till the victory of Tewkesbury placed the crown securely on his brows that Edward was able to turn his attention to naval affairs. In the year 1475, having resolved to make war on France, he collected at Sandwich five hundred flat-bottomed vessels, in which he purposed to carry his army across the channel. He succeeded, indeed, in transporting them to the French coast, but the King of France suing for peace, and undertaking to pay a large tribute to England, he returned home. By similar means he brought the King of Scotland to submission. He granted many privileges to merchants trading to foreign countries, and encouraged commerce by every means in his power.

It is scarcely necessary to allude to the reign of his son, poor young Edward the Fifth, who had worn the crown but two months, when it was grasped by his uncle, Richard the Third, who was crowned at Westminster on the 5th of July, 1483.

When threatened with an invasion of England by the Earl of Richmond, he kept a powerful fleet in readiness to defend the shores of his kingdom. On hearing, however, that the earl had been driven off the coast, he very unwisely laid up most of his ships, and disbanded the greater part of his army. On discovering this, the sagacious earl immediately embarked all the forces he could collect in a few transports, and, landing at Milford Haven, gained the battle of Bosworth, which placed the crown of England on his head, and in which Richard lost his life.

Since old Nicholas of Lynn’s expedition to the northern regions of the world in the reign of Edward the Third up to this period, no voyages of discovery had been performed under the patronage of Government; and probably but little, if any, improvement had taken place in marine architecture. A new era was about to commence, which was to see the establishment of England’s naval glory. Other European nations were at that time far in advance of our country as regarded all affairs connected with the sea. It was a period rife with maritime adventure and enterprise. Men began to perceive that there were other achievements more glorious than those which the sword could accomplish, more calculated, at all events, to bring wealth into their coffers.

It was now that the ardent, bold, and sagacious spirit of Columbus devised the scheme for reaching India by the west, which resulted in the discovery of a new world. In 1485, having fully instructed his brother Bartholomew in his intended project, he sent him to England in order that he might apply to Henry, under the belief that the king would at once embrace his proposals. Unfortunately, he fell, it is said, into the hands of pirates, who stripped him of all he had; and on his reaching England in poverty he was attacked with a fever, which caused a still further delay. When he recovered he had to raise funds for his purpose by making and selling maps, and thus it was not till 1488 that he was in a condition to present himself before the king. He was, however, then well received, and an arrangement was made by which Christopher Columbus was to proceed on a voyage of discovery under the flag of England. Circumstances occurred to prevent the accomplishment of this plan, and Henry lost the glory he would have gained as the supporter of one of the greatest and truest heroes who has ever figured on the page of history. This honour was reserved for Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, who, on the 17th of April, 1492, signed the articles of agreement with the Genoese navigator at the little town of Santa Fé, in the kingdom of Grenada.

The squadron prepared for this expedition, which was to prove of such mighty importance to the world in general, consisted but of three vessels, carrying in all but 120 men. I will describe them, as they give us some idea of the vessels of that period, and which were considered fit, by the mariners of those days, to contend with the stormy winds and waves they would in all probability have to encounter on so long a voyage. There was, first, the admiral’s ship, called by him the Santa Maria, a carrack, or a ship with a deck. The second was the Pinta, commanded by Martin Alonso Pinçon; and the third the Minna of which Viconte Yannes Pinçon was master. These two were carvels, which are described as open vessels without decks. I suspect, however, that they must have been nearly, if not entirely, decked over—in fact, that they were what are now called flush-decked vessels, while probably the carrack was a frigate-built ship, or, at all events, a ship with a high poop and forecastle. Supposing the carrack to have earned sixty men, and the carvels thirty each, how could all the necessary stores, provisions, and water have been stowed away for those thirty, unless in a vessel of good size? or how could they have been protected from wet unless below a deck?

Carvels were strongly built craft, and we still speak of a vessel being carvel, or ship-built. I therefore do not hold to the idea that the two consorts of Columbus’s ship were little better than open boats, but believe that they were stout, well-formed vessels, not so utterly unworthy of the great sovereigns who sent forth the expedition. Right honoured was the little town of Palos, whence it sailed on Friday, 3rd August, 1492.

Henry, although he had lost this great opportunity of increasing his renown, wisely perceived that in no way could he more effectually gain the respect of his subjects and consolidate his power than by affording every encouragement to naval enterprise, and to the extension of commerce. He therefore gladly listened to a proposal to search for certain lands said to exist in the north-west, made by John Cabot, a Venetian by birth, settled at Bristol. A commission, signed in 1496, was granted to him and his three sons, Lewis, Sebastian, and Sanctius, who were skilful in navigation and cosmography.

The record is as follows:— “The King, upon the third day of February, in the thirteenth year of his reign, gave licence to John Cabot to take six English ships, in any haven or havens of the realm of England, being of the burden of 200 tons or under, with all necessary furniture; and to take, also, into the said ships, all such masters, mariners, and subjects of the King as might be willing to go with him.”

The expedition sailed early in the year 1497, and reached the coast of Labrador, Newfoundland, in June of the same year. There is some doubt whether the father, John, was alive at that time, so that the more celebrated Sebastian has the credit of the discovery. At all events, he performed several successful voyages in the same direction, and made many important discoveries. Thus, though the Spaniards claim the honour of being the discoverers of the middle portion of the great continent of America, there can be no doubt that the English were the first visitors to its northern shores, where many millions of their descendants are now established.

Henry, with his usual sagacity, saw the advantage of having a fleet of ships exclusively fitted for war, instead of drawing off those which might be well calculated for the purposes of commerce, but were not, from their construction, suited to stand the brunt of battle. He could not but perceive, besides this, that by employing the merchant-vessels, as had before been done, for the purposes  of fighting, he crippled the merchants in their commercial pursuits, and prevented them from supplying him with the sinews of war. He desired also to have a permanent fleet ready, should war break out, to protect the coasts of his kingdom from foreign invasion. The first ship he built was called the Great Harry. She cost 14,000 pounds. She had four masts, a high poop and forecastle, in which were placed numerous guns, turning inboard and outwards. She had only one tier of guns on the upper-deck, as ports were not used in those days. She was, however, what would now be called frigate-built. She was burnt by accident at Woolwich in 1553. The Great Harry may properly be considered the first ship of what is now denominated the Royal Navy. There is a model of her in Somerset House, and there are numerous prints of her which give a notion of what she was like. Few seamen of the present day, I fancy, would wish to go to sea in a similar craft. I certainly used to doubt that such a vessel could have ventured out of harbour at all, till I saw the Chinese junk which was brought to the Thames all the way round from China, and which, in appearance and construction, is not very dissimilar to what, from her model, the Great Harry must have been, except in point of size. She probably did not measure much less than 1000 tons; she must have been, therefore, about the size of a modern frigate.