302 England’s Garland

This beautiful technical drawing of Revenge was left by Matthew Baker; unlike the equally beautiful Anthony Roll of 1545, it is technically accurate, created by one of England’s greatest shipwrights. Note the rear and aft culverins, the relatively small number of guns compared to later ages – but packing a powerful punch in contemporary terms.


There are many myths about the Elizabethan Navy, the idea of a world-beating tool that created an international Empire. It wasn’t quite, and it didn’t, at all. None the less Elizabethan’s reign and innovations did change England from naval also-ran to Premier league.

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Now, over the last few episodes we’ve covered the halting start of England’s international trade, with a distinct focus on Africa. That leaves us with one more topic to cover. I speak, of the Senior Service. And no I do not refer to the Navy Cut brand of untipped cigarettes of which I used to partake behind the bike sheds of Loughborough all those years ago, I refer to the English Navy. Because we can now begin to refer to THE Royal Navy, or the Navy Royal, as I will explain in some exhaustive and possibly reasonably dull detail for the rest of this episode. I might start with a frankly contentious discussion of why the Navy is referred to as the Senior Service.


The traditional answer is that England had a standing Navy run and financed by the state a good deal earlier than an army. But is that really the right answer? Don’t we really know that, in fact, it’s because the Navy was far cooler than the Army? Don’t get cross with me, just putting it out there. It may reflect those long, and deeply pointless arguments against a northern Irish friend who goaded me with the question ‘Name me 2 great English generals then’. The conversation normally progressed on to how Wellington was really Irish, followed by a bit of a tussle about the ancestry of Monty, so that really the only banker was John Churchill. You know when you’ve resorted to advancing the claims to glory of Redvers Buller that frankly, you’re playing on a sticky wicket, though you know an alcohol fuelled argument at 2 O’Clock in the morning could never be described as an honest search for the truth. Whereas the Navy, well, obviously the banker is Horatio ‘go straight at ‘em’ Nelson, Blake, Jervis, Rodney, Anson, Drake, Collingwood, Sydney – I mean I’d have been tucking into my eggs, bacon, black pudd’en and slice of fried bread by the time I finished. And that’s without making the schoolboy error of referring to the frankly astounding life of Thomas Cochrane, who was of course Scottish. Now obviously I don’t want to upset any Army fans out there, but you know…let’s just be honest shall we?

Moving on, then, the Elizabethan Navy is one of those bits of national myth and legend, none of which we are allowed to have anymore of course in the cause of self flagellation and the omnipresent marketing copy of the true story, the untold story, fake history exposed, mythbusters which are so popular. Life was so much better when we were all whigs. And actually there are a couple of myths about the Elizabethan Navy, and let’s have a hack at them. The first element of the traditional story is that the inherent naval genius of the English invented a new kind of warship – the broadside-armed sailing ship, so called the Race Galleon. Over the course of time this spark of inventive genius swept away the obsolete ships of yesterday, deployed in great error of course by the backward nations of southern Europe. The Elizabethans apparently also developed the line of battle, inspired by the new broadside capability, and all this genius meant that by the end of the reign England was a major naval power, well on her way to three centuries of dominance of the high seas and a deep sea Empire. Cry Harry and St George, hip… hip…

So not a vast amount of this is true, as we’ll see. And indeed, Roifiled of previous mention holds with some vehemence that the English Navy was rubbish until the 18th century. Roifield is of course partly right but also you know, mainly wrong. But some small elements of the myth are true; the warships of Elizabeth’s age were the ancestors of those magnificent 18th century warships, and they did mount the majority of the armament on the broadside. [1] Certainly, Roifield’s right bit is that the Elizabethan Navy was not a world beater in the context of the Spanish, Dutch, Venetian. And nor were they the first to invent the Race Galleon, sorry. But although the English were not first in many areas, nonetheless the Elizabeth age of the navy was still a period of genius in quiet, rather plodding ways that will probably bore the pants off you all, and was part of its transformation. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.

What is certainly true of the Elizabethans, is that more than any preceding age they absolutely understood the importance of the sea and their navy in a way we only began to glimpse at the end of Henry’s reign, and it is doubtful that either Henry or Mary really recognised the navy as a strategic tool. But as soon as Elizabeth came to the throne, a review of naval strength was put in place. Nicholas Throckmorton wrote to Cecil

Bend your force, credit and device to maintain and increase your navy by all the means you can possible, for in this time, considering all circumstances, it is the flower of England’s garland, your best and best cheap defence and most redoubted of your enemies and doubtful friends[2]

It was a sentiment the 16th century wars only confirmed and strengthened. In 1615 a pamphlet declared

As concerning ships, it is that which every one knoweth and can say, they are our weapons, they are our ornaments, they are our strength, they are our pleasures, they are our defence, they are our profit; the subject by them is made rich, the Kingdom through them strong, the Prince in them mighty.’[3]

This is an absolutely critical change that would play a central part in England’s future – placing the fleet, something that had been occasional and outsourced for centuries, was now central to national strategy. This ‘garland’ then, was fully part of England’s patriotic endeavour at sea, in which religion also played its part. I believe I mentioned that through the 1560s and 1570s, English protestant seamen formed something of a piratical partnership with the Huguenots in particular, but also with the Dutch and Scots, form a sort of naval protestant brigade. Huguenot seamen like William le Testu helped England’s first forays into the Caribbean; Le Testu for example sailed with Drake. French ships had sailed with Hawkins on this third, ill-fated campaign, and on his return, Hawkins had helped supply the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle. England’s war at sea against what they saw as Catholic tyranny was quickly part of England’s story, a protestant crusade.

This is a story which has been roundly poo poo’d by the more cynical modern historian, in a familiar race to the bottom historians sometimes indulge in, a search for the most cynical explanation, simplistic and eye catching solution. So  Bruce Lenman concluded that

‘the idea that the privateers were Protestant crusaders is nonsense. Like the lord admiral and his chief judge, they were primarily cheerful thieves[4]

As so often, it is easy forget just how important religion was in the lives of 16th century Europe. Yes, the English went to sea for profit and glory. But they also went to sea to fight England’s enemies, to fight for freedom against what they saw as Catholic tyranny, and they went to fight God’s war. Profit and higher ideals are not incompatible. And their adversaries were motivated in very similar ways. That’s the lovely thing about studying history I would content; you understand that more than one truth can co-exist even if those truths appear contradictory – profit, sitting alongside a commitment to a higher purpose. Oh dear I never meant to get so preachy.

So wherein lay this genius of the Elizabethans, if it lay not in the invention of the famous race galleon? Well, the sad truth is that a large part of it lay in the quality of administration; and it also lay in that clear understanding of the central importance of England’s naval strength, given the diplomatic situation and fear of all the threats around them. As I say, as soon as Elizabeth came to the throne she ordered a full review of England’s naval strength to be carried out, and for stores to be built up. The review found that the fleet consisted of 34 ships; here are some stats for you, just to give you a moment to open your notebook and lick the end of your pencil. 11 of the ships were over 200 tons, plus ten barques and 1 brigantine which were to be kept up. Who knows what a Bark and Brigandine are? I have to refer to a glossary – in the 16th century a Barque is apparently any small sea going vessel – a disappointing answer – and a brigantine a small oared vessel of the galley type. Now you know. Anyway, the remaining 12 vessels were to be binned. The commission also looked at private vessels, and identified 45 ‘merchant ships with may be put in fashion for war’, so the old traditional approach. and 20 other vessels suitable for victualling. It’s a reminder that when looking at sea power, although we can now talk of the Royal navy as a separate thing, Elizabethans would still consider the whole stock of ships and men, across the public-private continuum. Even more interestingly, though, as if it could get any more interesting, the report set a standard to which the Navy should aspire; 24 ships between 200 and 800 tons, for barks of 60-80 tons, and two pinnaces of 40 tons.

We’ll talk about administration in just a tick, but money is of course important. At the tail end of Mary’s reign, her very effective Lord Treasurer, the Earl of Winchester made all naval budget and expenditure the responsibility of the lord Treasurer, advised by the lord admiral. The idea was to take the pfaff away from Mary of having to sign a stream of dockets. But the change had much greater impact than that; it ensured the Navy not only stayed at the heart of strategy, but that it was relatively well funded. Burghley would become Lord Treasurer in 1572, and he of course was keenly interested in long term naval strategy and planning and the most influential man in government; thus did the navy remain such a central part of England’s strategy. So, Winchester in 1557 committed to investing to restore the navy to full efficiency, and the result was a building programme; in 1557 and 8 at least £157k was spent on dockyards and victualling. After Elizabeth came to the throne, she immediately asked parliament for money

For the continual maintenance of the English Navy to be ever in readiness against all evil happs; the strongest wall and defence that can be against the enemies of this island

Classic schoolgirl error incidentally, describing England as an island. Oops. But more importantly by 1561, seven new ships had been built, and the annual expenditure was £28,000 a year. By the end of 1564, 14 ships had been built. Expenditure then reduced, but what had became clear was that this was no short term panic – England was in this for the long game.

The long game meant that an administrative structure needed to be built to support the Navy. The first halting steps towards had been taken by Henry VIII, and over the next few decades a permanent administration grew up that was quickly more sophisticated than any other naval power, France and Spain included, Venice possibly excepted. It meant that as the Navy adapted and changed, it was able to rely on a long institutional memory to support it. At its head was the Council of the Marine, soon to become the Navy board, composed of the Officers of the Navy, each with their own area of competence; the Council met regularly, and advised the Privy Council and monarch. Parallel to it was the Ordnance board, responsible for equipping the Navy of course, and the Master of Naval Ordnance was part of the Council, providing a link between the two. What you get is an alliance between private and public ship builders and merchants that underpins the navy with expertise, and shapes the character of Elizabethan warfare.  The Navy board reported to the Lord Treasurer on the PC, giving a crucial level of financial support to naval development; Elizabeth spent an average of just under £16,000 a year on her navy, and 6.5% of her budget. In the scheme of things, especially compared to the Spanish budget, this level of expenditure was described in technical accountancy terms as piddling, or indeed piffling if you use the SAP platform. And yet the investment yielded a navy that would be in some ways be superior to the leading European power, and a maritime power at that – Spain.

Infrastructure developed to support the navy in which Elizabeth invested, with a substantial structure of stores and dockyards. A staff of salaried shipwrights was employed, and by 1559 nearly 520 shipwrights and 100 labourers were based at the dockyards at Deptford, Woolwich and Portsmouth. Salaried Master Shipwrights quickly became the beating heart of the shipyards, therefore developing the expertise of shipbuilding; under the Master Shipwright Matthew Baker, it seems that design began to be recorded on paper, rather than relying on scale models. I know this doesn’t sound much, but it was at this time done nowhere else; it allowed much faster discussion and development of designs, and it allowed the development of distinct classes of ships. It also allowed the building of ships without the Master being there all the time. Seems like a good idea!

It’s worth speaking a little more about Matthew Baker, since his career is a good example of the joys and perils of Elizabethan ship building. Firstly, as we’ll learn, English shipbuilding did not exist in a vacuum, shipwrights were keen to learn from other nations. As a 21 year old, Baker had travelled to the Levant, and there acquired a good working knowledge of Venetian ship building. Venetian expertise was highly regarded; the highest paid Master Shipwright at Deptford was a Venetian, who was employed for over 40 years to look after the Galleys. Being a Master shipwright in England also required a range of skills – he was a businessman as well as a technical expert, and the business side was for him a deeply painful experience, leading to bitter disputes and politicking in the 1570s between him and John Hawkins. But it’s for his technical expertise he is most remembered, and the greater science he brought. He was the first English shipwright to replace the old geometrical foundation of boat measurement with mathematical techniques, and his calculation, using a ship’s dimensions to establish her burden and deadweight tonnage, became a standard for almost half a century following its statement in 1582. In 1627 it was referred to as ‘Mr Baker’s Old Way’[5]. Baker was probably responsible for the introduction of a new design of ship, the race built Galleon which gets a lot of press; Hawkins who gets a bunch of credit for this was mainly responsible for the administrative side. Baker stretched his hand also to fortifications, hurriedly built to welcome the Spanish Armada on its trip to see us. When he died at 83, he was still directing work at naval shipyards – not a man for whom retirement had any interest. He left behind him a set of material containing the earliest technical drawings of English vessels, with formulae—many of them of Baker’s own devising—for laying out their dimensions and proportions. 1607 the navigator John Davis wrote of

‘his skill and surpassing grounded knowledge for the building of Ships advantageable to all purpose, [he] hath not in any nation his equall’

Matthew Baker ladies and Gentlemen. Not to be confused with Matt Baker. Alongside these developments, was the rise of the Ordnance Board, again with a permanent staff; and a permanent official, the Surveyor of the Victuals for the Seas, the supply of which had been a running sore from time i-memoral. From 1565 the arrangement was made to have a single contractor for all the naval requirements, at an agreed and regularly reviewed rate. Victualling remained a problem, partly due to the essential inflexibility of agricultural supply; but also because of the limited carrying capacity of the English warship, which we’ll come to. However, all these administrative worked well to create a highly effective Navy.

Let us leave the golden shores of naval administration then, casting mournful eyes over our shoulders as we leave, and talk about that bit of myth – the invention By the English of the Race Galleon, the line of battle and a navy designed to build an international Empire, a navy that swept aside the old carracks and galleys of yesteryear. What of that then?

Well let us set the scene by being quite clear that even by the end of the period it was not the sailing ship that was seen as the premier engine of war at sea; I am pretty sure that with my mother’s milk I imbibed the idea that galleys were light weight losers suitable only for the lightweight Mediterranean, blown out of the water by Elizabethan sailing ships in the cold and hardy north. Wah wah oops. My mother’s milk was in error, and I hereby promise that this rather gross metaphor will never be used again on the History of England. Spanish officers never stopped calling for Galleys as their most effective weapon in coastal waters, which after all is where most naval warfare took place. English officers were well aware of the advantages of the galley. In 1602, after a successful action against the Portuguese, the English captain wrote with relief

A precedent which has seldom been seen or heard of for ships to be destroyers of galleys

So why were galleys so feared? Well, the traditional way of fighting was to get the weather gauge, upwind as it were, so you could control the encounter, and also avoid any nasty smells, and then close with the enemy, discharging your guns in a bit explosion of smoke, and then board. These are the guns that had been employed for over a hundred years now were primarily breach loaded people killers, rather than heavy ship killers. In this scenario, high sided Carracks were the bees elbows. But, then Galleys moved on, and mounted large guns in the eye of the ship, in the bow – and these were ship killers. Bearing in mind the galleys superior manoeuvrability, you have a deadly combination – galleys in line abreast formation, so that’s all bow pointing forward, not broadside, firing forward, well before carracks could get to grips and fire its own guns, which of course did not point forwards. Carracks essentially disappeared from the Mediterranean.

Shipwrights had struggled with this essential problem for many years.  The ships detailed in the beautiful Anthony roll in 1545 show a wide variety of craft as the English experimented with new approaches. At this stage, the big traditional ships of course still played a very large part, and size was considered to be good, and there remained large carracks as central. But new designs reflected the supremacy and threat of the galley, and their effectiveness of their armament, and many of them were based on oars, which doesn’t fit with my mental image of the English navy at all. Rowbarges were undecked oared vessels of about 20 tons, essentially gun platforms for defence; in fact the English quickly grew to hate them, thinking of them as far too weak and vulnerable. Oddly, the French rather admired them and picked up on the design. Galleasses were a new design, which combined oars of a galley with high sided carrack; two were built in 1545, of 3 or 400 tons, with a complete bank of oars. Again, the design seems to have been quickly dropped. The idea was for the Galleasses to form a sort of mobile wing to the main fleet; but their size seems to have meant that the oars were never a very effective means of propulsion. Henry also built one galley in true Mediterranean tradition – the Galley Subtle of 1543.

Around the 1560s and 1570s, though, a new way of tackling the problem came to the fore – the race galleon. Contrary to popular belief, these were not invented in England, but emerged in answer to this same challenge of the galley in Scotland, France, Denmark Portugal and England. The essence of the galleon was to combine the forepart of the galley with the afterpart of a Carrack; race galleon is a great name that suggests speed and nimbleness, which is in fact entirely appropriate, but it came from the word raze, from having its upper parts razed or cut away. At the same time, the hull was considerably longer in relation to the beam than was normal for ships, which therefore delivered fast and stable ships, which handled well and were weatherly. But the big one was that now 2 big guns were mounted at the front, and in the bigger ships there were two more on the gun deck below. Now at last northern countries had developed an effective competitor to the galley. By the 1570s John Hawkins, P45 in hand from his international expeditions, was working to the Navy board under contract, managing the renewal of the Navy stock; under his direction, the speed of updating with the new designs increased – in his first year six Navy ships – Triumph, Victory, White Bear, Hope, Philip and Mary and Antelope – were converted into race-built galleons, and by 1585 half the Navy’s ships conformed to the new design.[6]

This was not all though. At the same time England achieved a level of leadership in the provision of ordnance to the navy. Guns were expensive, particularly bronze guns. Bronze had the advantage of greater flexibility and therefore a lower failure rate; but every time you made one, the mould was broken, and they were therefore never standard; and the metal was expensive. England was not a rich place, and procuring guns was a problem.

But consciously under Henry VIII England found a solution, establishing and developing an iron industry in the weald of Kent and Sussex, designed to develop gunfounding. By 1574, there were 52 furnaces and 58 forges in the Weald. Iron had major disadvantages compared to bronze; an overcharged Bronze gun will split, whereas an iron gun will explode catastrophically. Iron guns corroded, and were much heavier. But they had one whopping advantage – they were, comparatively speaking, as cheap as chips, and with increasing expertise, the cost of English gunfounding fell, even at a time of price inflation; from being a net importer of guns, England became an exporter, of a weapon of which they were virtually the only manufacturer. With expertise and specialisation, English gunfounders and their navy customers began to standardise the size of the gun bore, which has got to be a massive advantage when supplying and fitting out a fleet.

In the 16th century, and listen up because I found this particularly fascinating, there were three types of muzzle loading gun. Periers through stone and were short, light, almost, you might say, little more than fizzy water (arf, arf) – personnel guns with a short range. Canon were heavier guns of medium length, throwing stone or iron shot. And culverins were the longest and heaviest of all. Isn’t that interesting? And to think I just called all of them cannon. Tsk, and I say again, tsk. The English chose Culverins. That was not that it gave greater range; smooth bore guns were also inherently inaccurate, so captains tended to fire at no more than 350-400 yards, and even then, it was a bit of a lottery. But the heavier the gun, the less likely it was to fail, and English Culverins had long lives, often of decades. And the heavier the gun, the more it damped the recoil from firing. The Culverin was therefore ever the practical gunner’s first choice. The development of corned gunpowder also helped; older serpentine powder tended to separate into its elements; corned powder was also glazed to protect the powder from decomposition; as a result it burned more evenly, was more powerful and more reliable.

There is one more factor to consider here. Without wanting to be dull, the principle of competitive advantage lies in segmentation and specialisation does it not; the idea that success comes from dominating a particular segment based on that segment’s specific need rather than trying to keep everyone happy. My podcast for example is particularly successful because although I have only one listener, my Mum, she listens every week. England does a similar thing with its navy in the 16th century. Spain and Portugal had multiple needs for their ships, and the resulting caravels were marvels of seaworthiness, which beautifully traded off the need for defence and for carrying cargo. The English had no colonial empire and little enough trade; the purpose of the navy Royal was to defend its home shores. So in the design of its race galleons it could focus on that; its ships tended to be longer and thinner, more nimble and seaworthy, yet able to carry a higher complement of its nice and cheap though heavy iron culverins. The cargo capacity of these ships was essentially pants by comparison with the caravel, and this was a major problem for major international sailing; English ships had to stop to re provision constantly; so much so that the Spanish accused the English of eating way too much, being gut buckets and constantly on the pies. In fact, they had it the wrong way round – it’s just that the English ships could carry less. Although to be fair they weren’t wrong about the pies, obvs.

The result then, was that the Elizabethans developed a navy superbly designed for war in its own coastal waters. The tradition that the Elizabethans developed a new ship design, based on a broadside approach to battle ships that were the basis for a far flung empire is incorrect. Elizabethan ships were designed for a defensive war in coastal waters, based on beating the galley at its own game, firing ahead, based on a galleon hull, with a heavy armament of iron guns with a powerful and flexible rig. That last phrase by the way by the way I have copied without understanding since I essentially don’t understand the use of the term rig in connection to naval design. I am willing to be educated, so advice please..But the tradition is right in essence in a way; that the Elizabethans created a superb tool, which could compete in its chosen field with the best in the world, at a fraction of the cost; as the 17th Century will show it wasn’t always a world beater, particularly with the Dutch, but it was near the top of the premier league. And with this tool Elizabethan sailors would take to sea motivated by a fervent mixture money, freedom of their country from what they firm believed was Catholic tyranny, and the advancement of the protestant religion.

I have gone on a little this week, I am sorry for that, but we have covered a lot of ground. I hope you find the information useful, and you can regale your friends in boozer over a pint or maybe the supremely sophisticated scotch and American, about the benefits of corned powder, why drinking a perier in the 16th century would have been impossible, and the growth of gunfounding in the Weald. I only wish I could be a fly on the wall as you hold court.

Now that was a joy, I did love that. But for the next two weeks sadly we come to a far less attractive and painful subject for a deeply tribal Englishman such as myself. I speak of Elizabethan Ireland. First up will be a character called Shane the Proud. Thank you all for listening, good luck, and have a great fortnight.

[1] N A M Rodgers The Safeguard of the Sea p205

[2] Loades, D Elizabeth I p 156

[3] NAM Rodger, Queen Elizabeth and the Myth of Sea-Power in English History p158

[4] Lenman Bruce England’s Colonial Wars 1550-1688: Conflicts, Empire and National, quoted in NAM Rodger, Queen Elizabeth and the Myth of Sea-Power in English History p157

[5] McDermott, J ODNB, Matthew Baker

[6] Wilson, Ben. Empire of the Deep: The Rise and Fall of the British Navy (Kindle Locations 2202-2204). Orion


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