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History Of The Royal Navy

Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Sea borne travel has been important to the British Isles ever since sea level rises around five thousand years ago created the English Channel. This event is usually presented as the separation of Britain from the continent, and of course in a physical sense this is true. But research seems to indicate that communications between what is now Britain and the continent actually improved after the separation. Historian Norman Davies says: "even with the primitive boats then available, one could paddle or sail from one side of the sleeve to the other more rapidly than one could previously have tramped across the isthmus or, in the intermediary phase, waded through the marshes" (The Isles P9). Even at this early stage the importance of shipping to Britain is illustrated. Ships gave the chance for travel and communication that was lacking over land.








Although boats were important to the British Isles from their earliest days as islands, it was a long time before a navy was created. Following the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD, Roman navy ships used bases in Britain, at Sandwich or Dover. Then during the Saxon era, navies were built by Alfred and Ethelred to try and counter Viking sea bourne attacks. Once again Sandwich figures as an important naval base. Interestingly it is still possible to see craftsmen producing boats much as they would have been built in Alfred's day. Go to the river front at Richmond. In the arches near the bridge wooden boats are still being made using the clinker method of nailing and "clenching" one plank to another.


With the disappearance of the Scandinavian threat, interest in a navy was largely lost. Once William the Conqueror invaded in 1066, England became part of a wider continental empire, and so did not require a navy. The only real function for shipping was to ferry goods and people back and forth across the Channel. If fighting ships were needed they were generally provided by the Cinque Ports. These five coastal towns in southern England - Dover, Hythe, Romney, Hastings and Sandwich - were traditionally required to provide fifty seven ships for fifteen days a year. If longer service was required, merchant ships were hired or commandeered. When Richard the Lionheart left on crusade in 1190, he used a fleet of merchant ships in this way. It was actually Richard, a king whose foreign wars required shipping, who realised the importance of naval forces. In 1196, according to W.L. Warren in King John, Richard is supposed to have built seventy vessels designed for river work, to assist in the defence of the Seine valley in a war against the French king. Richard also felt that a permanent naval depot on the south coast was needed. He selected a barren bit of land on the Solent, within easy access of royal manors in Hampshire and Wiltshire, with Porchester Castle offering protection close by. In this way the naval dockyard and town of Portsmouth was established.



Portsmouth Dockyard

Beyond the establishment of Portsmouth Richard had no naval policy. This had to wait for the reign of Richard's brother King John who succeeded him in 1199. It was during John's reign that England finally became an island in a political as well as physical sense. In 1202 Philip of France managed to seize the continental portions of an empire which had endured since the reign of William the Conqueror, turning England into an island kingdom. John now needed more naval power than the old system based on the Cinque Ports could provide. By 1204 John had forty five galleys stationed around the south coast. In the years 1209 - 1212 twenty nine new galleys and thirty four other vessels were launched (King John W.L. Warren). A new breakwater was built at Portsmouth to protect the growing fleet, along with new supporting shore facilities. There was a change in ship architecture as well. Both galleys and cargo ships now had "castles" built at bow and stern, the forecastle and the poop as they were later called.


This fleet required an administration to maintain it. From 1188 William of Wrotham had directed an organisation for taxing the produce of tin mines in Devon and Cornwall. An important element of his job was supervising the shipment of tin abroad, and in this way William gained an experience of maritime affairs. This experience was useful in the job he was given to commission ships for the government. They were paid for with proceeds from the tin mines. Naval administration may have rubbed off on government administration in general. It was from John's reign that chancery records were dated. A keeper of archives was appointed for the first time. As the navy grew it began to consume a sizable portion of England's entire public expenditure. The fleet called for the establishment of docks, shipyards, foundries, and energised the timber and iron trades. Iron forging was encouraged on Ashdown Forest in the Weald of Kent and the Forest of Dean to support the navy during Henry VIII's reign. There was a need for constant development of navigation science, and in the seventeenth century the Royal Observatory, Greenwich was set up for this purpose. Royal dockyards at Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham, Portsmouth, and later Devonport drove industrial development and became the most advanced workshops in the country. The navy's huge expense also helped Britain develop politically. Naval expenditure was the single most important force driving the crown into permanent partnership with Parliament, which could provide the crown with funds through taxation.



"England Expects" flag message on HMS Victory at Portsmouth Dockyard

The Navy Royal became the Royal Navy in the reign of Charles II (1660 -1685). During this period the naval administrator and diarist Samuel Pepys did much to modernise naval administration and organisation. He regularised accounts, and made sure limited money was efficiently spent. His work can still be seen at the Pepys Library in Cambridge, in a document known as the Navy White Book. This conscientious volume has pages devoted to sail-making, tar, ropes, timber, recruitment problems. In 1677 Pepys forced through his most revolutionary reform. He proposed that no one should be appointed lieutenant until he had served three years, received a certificate from his captain and passed an examination in navigation and seamanship at the Navy Office. Having experience and training before taking on a senior role seems an obvious requirement now, but it wasn't in the seventeenth century. As Pepys' biographer, Claire Tomalin, says: "Pepys had made history at a stroke, bringing about a revolution in the way the navy was run, fired by his belief that education and intelligence were more useful to the nation than family background and money" (Samuel Pepys P303). In this new navy talented people like James Cook, son of a farm labourer, would be able to rise to the highest positions. Naturally this new meritocracy had its limits. Horatio Nelson the famous vice admiral at Trafalgar, was born in relatively humble circumstances as the son of a curate. While Nelson made much of his rise on merit, as a "young man of friendless merit," he was an inveterate self promoter who was good at burnishing his own image. He was not in fact a young man of friendless merit. Nelson's uncle, Maurice Suckling was comptroller of the Navy Board, one of the most influential men in naval administration, and was actually on the three man panel which interviewed Nelson for his position as lieutenant in 1776. Not surprisingly young Nelson got his promotion (see Nelson, The Man And The Legend by Terry Coleman P17-19). There were all kinds of ways in which ambitious men could work the navy system to get on, or promote those they favoured. James Cook for example put his young sons on his crew rosters to make it appear as though they had years of service when they didn't. This would help them fulfill the requirement for length of service for promotion to lieutenant. Practices such as this were widespread and quietly accepted. Nevertheless, admitting all these provisos, it can still be said that a relative sense of meritocracy was a revolution for the navy, and a social milestone generally. Imperial Britain may have been known for its class system, but it was on a relatively meritocratic basis that the navy grew ever more powerful, and was used to create the largest empire in history. Britain at one time or another has ruled the eastern American states, Canada, fourteen African countries, India, Burma, Nepal, Malaya, New Guinea, Australia, Iraq, Kuwait, Palestine (now Israel), Cyprus, Oman, Aidan, Malta, Minorca, Gibraltar, and many other islands dotted around the world. In defence of this empire the navy was kept at a level where it had as many ships as the next two most powerful naval powers put together. When Nelson won his famous victory at Trafalgar in 1805 he faced exactly this threat, in the combined fleets of France and Spain.



Navy Staircase at Somerset House, home of naval administration in the nineteenth century

The hundred years following Trafalgar represented the Pax Britannica, the peak of Britain's global power. Evidence for the navy's influence at this time can still be appreciated in the Forest of Dean where around thirty million acorns were planted to ensure supplies of timber for ship building. Ironically by the time the trees were mature ships were being built with iron and steel, leaving the oaks of Cannop Valley to remain as a testament to the importance of the navy to Britain. A lead in technology and banking systems led to economic dominance, which in turn allowed the creation of an unmatchable fleet. But then towards the end of the nineteenth century other countries with larger populations, and greater natural resources were catching up. By 1897 Britain was beginning to lose the ability to produce a navy which outclassed all others. In 1883 the number of British battleships almost equalled the total number of all other powers combined - the British had thirty eight compared with forty for the rest of the world. By 1897 this ratio had shifted with sixty two British battleships to ninety six for the rest of the world (figures quoted in The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery by Paul Kennedy). Following World War One with Britain exhausted by the war effort, the United States was beginning to take over as the world's leading naval power. Britain realised it could not win a naval arms race with a country the size of America. Britain signed the Washington Treaty in 1922, guaranteeing parity in battleships between the United States and Britain. This meant that Britain was only allowed to build two new battleships in the 1920s, HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson. Meanwhile successive British governments concentrated on air power, which being defensive in nature might seem less likely to antagonise potential aggressors. In this way the RAF became the first service in terms of money.


HMS Invincible - being decommissioned at Portsmouth

Through the course of World War Two Britain suffered major economic damage. Part of this was physical war damage, but most was related to changing economic circumstances. To survive economically Britain had to submit to the Lend Lease agreement with the United States. As Paul Kennedy writes: "No lend-lease goods could go into exports, nor could similar British made products be sent to overseas markets lest this provoke resentment in United States commercial circles" (The Decline and Fall of British Naval Mastery P316). Hancock and Gowing in The British War Economy write that "in a war allegedly governed by the concept of the pooling of resources among allies, the British had taken upon themselves a sacrifice so disproportionate as to jeopardise their economic survival as a nation" (P522). Following World War Two the Royal Navy slipped into third place in terms of funding behind the air force and army, with reduced income itself coming from a reduced overall defense budget. Inspite of an impressive showing in a limited war against Argentina in the Falklands in 1982, the Royal Navy could no longer claim a world role. The United States Navy took over as the world's leading naval force. Britain no longer had a maritime empire held together by a huge navy. Inspite of nostalgic nationalism, navies are hugely expensive and reflect economic realities. The Royal Navy is one of the best indicators that Britain has entered a new phase in its existence, or rather is reverting to an earlier phase.