Tudor Period and the Birth of a Regular Navy Part Two

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Another great change of these Henry VIII days was in the form of the ships. (Henry VlII introduced a new form of warship in the "pinnaces," which were, to a certain extent, analogous to the torpedo craft of to-day.) At this era they began to be built with "tumble-home" sides, instead of sides slanting outwards upwards, and inwards downwards as heretofore. With the coming of the porthole came the decline of the cross-bow as a naval arm. In the pre-porthole days every record speaks of "showers of arrows," and the gun appears to have been a species of accessory. In the early years of the Sixteenth Century it became the main armament, and so remained unchallenged till the present century and the coming of the long-range torpedo.

Henry VIII's reign is also remarkable for the first institution of those "cutting out" expeditions which were afterwards to become such a particular feature of British methods of warfare. This first attempt happened in the year 1513, when Sir Edward Howard, finding the French fleet lying in Brest Harbour refusing to come out, "collected boats and barges" and attacked them with these craft. The attempt was not successful, but it profoundly affected subsequent naval history.

Therefrom the French were impressed with the idea that if a fleet lay in a harbour awaiting attack it acquired an advantage thereby. The idea became rooted in the French mind that to make the enemy attack under the most disadvantageous circumstances was the most wise of policies. That "the defensive is compelled to await attack, compelled to allow the enemy choice of the moment" was overlooked!

From this time onward England was gradually trained by France into the role of the attacker, and the French more and more sank into the defensive attitude. Many an English life was sacrificed between the "discovery of the attack" in the days of Henry VIII, and its triumphant apotheosis when centuries later Nelson won the Battle of the Nile; but the instincts born in Henry's reign, on the one hand to fight with any advantage that the defensive might offer, on the other hand to attack regardless of these advantages, are probably the real key to the secret of later victories.

The Royal ships at this period were manned by voluntary enlistment, supplemented by the pressgang as vacancies might dictate. The pay of the mariner was five shillings a month; but petty officers, gunners and the like received additional pickings out of what was known as "dead pay." By this system the names of dead men, or occasionally purely fancy names, were on the ship's books, and the money drawn for these was distributed in a fixed ratio. The most interesting feature of Henry VII and Henry VIII's navies is the presence in them of a number of Spaniards, who presumably acted as instructors. These received normal pay of seven shillings a month plus "dead pay."

The messing of the crews was by no means indifferent. It was as follows per man :—

  • Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday : 3/4lb. beef and 1/2 lb. bacon.
  • Monday, Wednesday, Saturday : Four herrings and two pounds of cheese.
  • Friday : To every mess of four men, half a cod, ten herrings, one pound of butter and one

pound of cheese.

There was also a daily allowance of one pound of bread or biscuit. The liquid allowance was either beer, or a species of grog consisting of one part of sack to two of water. Taking into account the value of money in those days and the scale of living on shore at the time, the conditions of naval life were by no means bad, though complaints of the low pay were plentiful enough. Probably, few received the full measure of what on paper they were entitled to.

Henry VIII died early in 1547. In the subsequent reigns of Edward VI and Mary, the Navy declined, and little use was made of it except for some raiding expeditions.

When Elizabeth came to the throne the regular fleet had dwindled to very small proportions, and, war being in progress, general permission was given for privateering as the only means of injuring the enemy. It presently degenerated into piracy and finally had to be put down by the Royal ships.

No sooner, however, was the war over than the Queen ordered a special survey to be made of the Navy. New ships were laid down and arsenals established for the supply of guns and gunpowder, which up to that time had been imported from Germany. Full advantage was taken of the privateering spirit, the erstwhile pirates being encouraged to undertake distant voyages. In many of these enterprises the Queen herself had a personal financial interest. She thus freed the country from various turbulent spirits who were inconvenient at home, and at one and the same time increased her own resources by doing so.

There is every reason to believe that this action of Elizabeth's was part of a well-designed and carefully thought out policy. The type of ship suitable for distant voyages and enterprises was naturally bound to become superior to that which was merely evolved from home service. The type of seamen thus bred was also necessarily bound to be better than the home-made article. Elizabeth can hardly have failed to realise these points also.

To the personnel of the regular Navy considerable attention was also given. Pay was raised to 6/8 per month for the seamen, and 5/- a month with 4/- a month for clothing for soldiers afloat. Messing was also increased to a daily ration of one pound of biscuit, a gallon of beer, with two pounds of beef per man four days out of the seven, and a proportionate amount of fish on the other three days. Subsequently, and just previous to the Armada, the pay of seamen rose to 10/- a month, with a view to inducing the better men not to desert.

The regular navy was thus by no means badly provided for as things went in those days; while service with "gentlemen adventurers" offered attractions to a very considerable potential reserve, and so England contained a large population which, from one cause and another, was available for sea service. To these circumstances was it due that the Spanish Armada, when it came, never had the remotest possibility of success. It was doomed to destruction the day that Elizabeth first gave favour to the "gentlemen adventurers."

Of these adventurers the greatest of all was Francis Drake, who in 1577 made his first long voyage with five ships to the Pacific Ocean. Drake, alone, in the Pelican, succeeded in reaching the Pacific and carrying out his scheme of operations, which — not to put too fine a point on it — consisted of acts of piracy pure and simple against the Spaniards. He returned to England after an absence of nearly three years, during which he circumnavigated the globe.

There is little doubt that Drake in this voyage, and others like him in similar expeditions, learned a great deal about the disadvantages of small size in ships. Drake, however, learned another thing also. Up to this day the crew of a ship had consisted of the captain and a certain military element; also the master, who was responsible for a certain number of "mariners." The former were concerned entirely with fighting the ship — the latter entirely with manoeuvring it.

This system of specialisation, awkward as it appears thus baldly stated, may have worked well enough in ordinary practice. It did not differ materially from the differentiation between deck hands and the engineering departments, which to a greater or less extent is very marked in every navy of the present day.

>>>Tudor Period and the Birth of a Regular Navy Part Three

Also See


Fred T. Jane, The British Battle Fleet, 1915 - London, Library Press.