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Earliest times to 1509

Longship
The Queen captures the French ship Cardinal, 1226

The United Kingdom is an island nation. The sea has always been a vital factor in its history. It has been a means of people arriving from overseas, a barrier to invaders, a highway for trade and the basis for a once global empire.

The earliest naval battle we know about in British waters was in 719 between factions of the Dalriata, the people who provided the rulers of modern Scotland. It is likely there were many similar actions all round these islands from the earliest times.

At the end of the Eighth Century a new wave of raiders and settlers began to appear, the Danish and Norwegian Vikings, who eventually occupied the north and east of the country.

King Alfred to William the Conqueror

Wessex was the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom and later historians depicted its most famous leader, King Alfred, as founder of the navy. He fought the Vikings (Danes who settled in what was known as East Anglia, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire) at sea in large oared longships he had specially built. Alfred's ships were especially large for their time, about 45 metres long, and had at least thirty oars on each side when twenty was the usual number. They carried hundreds of men who would capture an enemy vessel once they were alongside. In a battle in 897 Alfred used his new ships to defeat a Viking force raiding the south coast of Wessex.

Alfred's successors were from the unified Anglo-Saxon-Scandanavian elite and could raise ships as well as the seaman and warriors to man them from wealthy households throughout England. King Canute, who took the throne in 1016, was even able to maintain something approaching a professional fleet, manned by mercenaries, but this was abolished by Edward the Confessor. It would be the nearest thing to a modern navy England would see for 500 years.

King Harold's fleet was unable to prevent the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. The new Norman kings were not much interested in a navy; they maintained a few ships, which could be added to by those of their subjects.

Medieval warships

The most important ships of medieval fleets were short, fat sailing ships that were given castles at each end to increase their fighting power; the 'forecastle' and 'aftercastle' became standard features for the bow and stern of ships by the fourteenth century. Their main 'armament' was the large party of soldiers, but bows, arrows, catapults and later, early guns were carried to soften up the enemy before boarding.

Hubert de Burgh versus Eustace the Monk In 1217 England was in crisis. After the death of the unpopular King John, there was a rebellion by barons against the young King Henry III. A French army was landed to support them. William the Marshal, the regent, conducted an effective campaign against the rebels and recaptured coastal towns in Kent through which the French sent supplies. A large French fleet set sail bound for London, a rebel stronghold, commanded by Eustace the Monk. Off the coast of Kent the French were intercepted by British fleet under Hubert de Burgh. De Burgh sailed past the enemy and used the wind to blow his ships onto the rear of the French line. One by one the French ships were boarded and captured. This victory was a major reason for the collapse of the rebellion.

Henry V to Henry VII

Some kings, like Henry V in the early Fifteenth Century, had large and impressive fleets, but there was little continuity. Henry's last and most impressive ship was the Grace Dieu of similar size to HMS Victory but with her towering castles she looked very different. After Henry died in 1422 most of his ships were sold off and soon there were no king's ships at all. The king's interests at sea were taken over by fleets owned by merchants and noblemen. Henry VII he had about half a dozen ships when he died in 1509 but his son would show rather more enthusiasm for naval affairs.

Further reading:

  • N.A.M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea; A Naval History of Britain 660-1649 (London, 1997).
  • Susan Rose, "The Wall of England" in J.R. Hill (Ed), The Oxford Illustrated History of The Royal Navy (Oxford, 1995).