Hello everyone and welcome to the Shedcast Britain and the Sea number 4 – Pirates and Privateers. It has been a while since we have been to the seaside, and I do like to be beside the seaside. This time we are going to visit one of England’s great secret weapons – otherwise known as Devon and Cornwall. Well that’s two secret weapons, but hey.
Let me tell you then about John Hawley. John seems to have been a hardworking sort of chap, who moved to Dartmouth at some time in the mid 14th century. Dartmouth, for those of you who do not know, is in Devon, down in the far South West of England. You may know that it is a beautiful place, with a stunning coastline of cliffs and inlets and coves, thoroughly romantic. And traditionally way back a haven for smugglers and all sorts of stuff. Devon and Cornwall and the South West coastline will play an increasingly large part in a story that has so far been dominated by South East English ports, so it seemed appropriate that this week’s stories come at least in part from down the South Western way.
So, John Hawley and Mrs Hawley, starting out in a new part of England, looking to make their collective fortune. Dartmouth is on the tidal estuary of the River Dart, so no prizes for guessing why it’s called Dartmouth. At the time of John Hawley’s arrival sometime before 1340, it had a rather clever mill, where the water was diverted from the rising tide and used to run the mill race. Near to the clever mill, John and his missus built a business at a place call Hawley’s Hoe. ‘Blow it high or blow it low it always blows fair to Hawleys Hoe’ was the saying, but you know, in a Devonshire accent rather than whatever that was, because Hawley built his business on ships – trading wool and wine, wool that came down to Dartmouth from Totnes, and wine on the return trip from Gascony. It is difficult to know the precise economics of trading by sea, there would be so many variables; certainly the risk was high, with natural dangers of the sea and piracy; and the loss of ship could easily destroy a small merchant. But even before the days of the opening up of the world through exploration and the seaborne spice trade, the returns from European sea borne could be good and would reward the successful risk taker. We have some snippets of information; a Genoese merchant for example was generating 150% return on capital a year at this time, a Venetian 110%. So it could be that Hawley could pay off the capital investment of a ship with 2 or 3 trips to Gascony, or within a year. Given the enormous relative value of ships, the level of return had to make the risk worthwhile.
Well, it seemed to work out for Hawley, and as his success grew, it may be that we know a lot more than we think of one of the John Hawleys at least, because as it happens Chaucer’s Shipman in his Canterbury Tales is a man of Dartmouth, so there’s lot’s of speculation that maybe Chaucer came to call, and maybe he saw John Hawley’s Cogs plying the river Dart; in fact we know that Chaucer did come to Dartmouth on the king’s business in 1373 so it’s certainly possible he met the son of the original Hawley. When literature and history meet.
Anyway, John’s son and his grandson would stand on his shoulders. Somewhere before 1350 was born their eldest, another John the man who may be the man who met Chaucer. This was the time of the Black death of course and it could be that it was this that carried of the Hawleys senior, but their business survived in the hands of their son. As the money flowed, Hawley Junior lived in his Hall, the biggest house in the town, possibly the current Guildhall, and became the mayor at a tender age – at the oldest in his very early 30’s and even maybe in his 20’s. The Hawleys were a big noise in Dartmouth is what I am saying, no noise bigger or louder; he would be mayor 14 times, and MP in the 1390s and naughties as well. His influence extended all the way to London, and he bagged himself royal positions in customs collection and as Escheater of Devon and Cornwall. You might be wondering what an escheator means, so I looked it up in a dictionary for a neat definition and do you know what it said? Someone who collects Escheats’. Hey, great, thanks, that’s clear then. So I’ll have a go; basically if a person of property fell foul of the law, like all those folks who are attainted for example, for rebellion, some or all their property by be confiscated. Escheators went along and took possession and then re-distributed it as directed. Obviously it attracted a salary and who knows, presumably a little grease to boot. But you know it’s not a job for the faint or soft hearted.
And then finally for the last entry of the greasy pole climbing manual of the middle ages, Hawley married well – to Joan Tresilian, probably daughter of the Chief Justice who was totalled in the merciless parliament of 1388, if you remember that episode. And if you do, take a gold star. Tresilian’s fall from grace turned out to be a bit of financial luck for Hawley since he then picked up Tresilian’s lands – there’s no wind so ill that it blows nobody good, as the canny folk say.
So far so traditional then – John Hawley had become part of the local gentry, was courted by the crown, used his local influence to bring home some bacon, and married well. But, not so usual was the way he kept the real money coming. The Hawley haulage business as it were. This had moved on from simply wool one way and wine the other – Hawley was now walking along a razor sharp line. It is a razer sharp line that very many will walk. It’s the line that lay between privateer and pirate, and is a line that is not only razer thin, but also very grey and fuzzy. Clearly that’s not possible but in the world of metaphor, anything is fair game. In 1338 Edward III was largely navy less; so he re-instituted a local position called Keeper of the sea, a sort of local militia for the sea. As the war against France grew, Hawley was now legally able to sweep along the channel looking for French shipping and destroying and robbing anything he could find. And so he did. We have no idea how much, the real scale of this, but some incidents come down to us. These actions might be Hawley and his ships alone; but just as often as Keeper of the Seas Hawley would organise multiple shipowners to put together a flotilla and go shopping. The activity was profitable to both the pirate, sorry, fully legally constituted privateer, and to the crown because a cut of any prizes went to the crown. This is a system of state endorsed private piracy which will be utterly typical of the Tudors for example, and allowed the Crown to harness the enterprise of private individuals. It had some downsides – do you remember our first episode where we had 7 options? This was option number 6, the national piracy option, It was cheap, financially profitable – but carried a massive diplomatic cost, and was very hard to control. So, in 1383 the ‘men of Portsmouth and Dartmouth’ destroyed a French fleet, and killed all but nine men, and took 1500 casks of wine. They on went further and sailed up the Seine, destroying four ships and capturing another four. For much of the time in this period, the English were allied with Brittany, and so much of the old warfare was gone just for a brief moment, replaced by collaboration – Hawley for example hooked up with Sir John des Roches, Captain of Brest in 1386.
But with the coming of military defeat and Truce with France everything got harder for the Hawley family. Hawley took risks, and took some ships – Italian, Spanish – that he should not have done, and indeed French after the truce which was also not allowed. As I say – once you let a pirate taste flesh, it’s difficult to get him back in his cage. Because of course the injured merchants and their governments complained, and on occasion randomly seized goods from English ships in port in compensation. Hawley fell out with his Breton fellow pirates, leading to a massive court case that lasted four years. Maybe fortunately for Hawley, Brittany of course came back into the French orbit, and so in the carousel that was northern European politics, friend became enemy again and Hawley could gratefully ignore the operation of the law.
Now, I mentioned last time that one of the consequences of John’s loss of Normandy and Henry III’s loss of Poitou was that suddenly the French had a string of channel ports; and now England had to learn that this had opened a new frontier – a sea frontier. All along the south coast, ports and towns that had once been pretty much safe except the odd Breton raid maybe, were suddenly exposed to the wrath of Khan. Or the French, who ever got there sooner. Edward III’s naval victory at Sluys and Winchelsea changed nothing strategically. French kings invested in a small but powerful force of galleys; but mainly employed Genoese and Castilian ships to carry out raids along England’s southern coast, especially after Edward III’s glory days had come to a tragic end. In the late 14th century a series of raids tore along the south coast – some ports, like Melcombe in Dorset, never recovered from the devastation. The response was completely inadequate, but the idea of keepers of the Sea was not the only response; forts were built to defend ports as well. By 1400 then, Hawley had built for the king a fort, and a chain was set across the harbour to prevent ships entering Dartmouth harbour. Just like they had at Constantinople at the golden Horn. So you know, Dartmouth Constantinople – what’s Constantinople got Dartmouth hasn’t?
Despite the new defences, in April 1404, a Breton force of 300 ships, 2000 knights and assorted crossbowmen landed near Dartmouth. Their plan was to attack Dartmouth from the landward side. This is a substantial force, so you wonder if a bit of bigging up is going on in the numbers department; but nonetheless the victory that followed for Hawley and a rather ragtag army thrown together was so unexpected, that Henry ordered a Te Deum in Westminster Abbey.
It was a high point. Hawley was appointed lieutenant to the Earl of Worcester, the Admiral of England. And look in 1400, Dartmouth was even further away from London than it is today, even despite that instrument of torture that is the A303, and so when Henry IV ordered him to stop breaking the rules Hawley just, well, just ignored him really. Instead the early 1400’s were spent in what was quite clearly piracy, and in Henry’s ears the chorus of complaints from Italian and Spanish merchants in particular rose to a crescendo. Dartmouth is a long way from London, but London merchants equally are a lot closer to the king; neither Henry diplomatically nor the London merchants commercially enjoyed John Hawley’s stirring. John Hawley was about to discover, as so many have, that king’s are dangerous beasts. In 1406, he was summoned to court. The odds were slight that he was due a kiss on the cheek. Hawley tried the dog ate my homework approach, claiming that he was so ill he could no longer ride. It did him no good – his protestations were swept aside and Hawley duly found his unkissed cheek imprisoned in the Tower. Maybe now at last royal authority and the king’s peace would be enforced.
But the trouble was that throughout the reigns of the 14th and 15th centuries, English kings were just too compromised. Another flip side of partnership between crown and privateers was mutual dependence – Henry found he could not just turn these relationships on or off. Hawley’s friends stumped up £3,000 worth surety to have him release on a promise of good behaviour, and Hawley brazenly carried on as before – even in the last year of his life he was part of a group of shipowners that had illegally captured 17 ships. That last year was 1408, when he died was buried between his wives, Joan and Alice, in the chancel of St Saviour’s Church, Dartmouth, which he himself had founded. There is a nice brass of him, with an excellent set of mustachios.
Into this rather chaotic situation came Henry V. Henry V is the third of our contenders for father of the English Navy award; like Alfred and Richard before him, Henry understood the strategic potential of naval power. And for a short period, England was to once more rule the narrow seas.
By Henry’s day there had been more significant developments in ship design. One of these came in response to the problem of passing through the straits of Gibraltar. Essentially, given the strength of the current, it took ages to row your way through the straits, and time as you all know, is money. Now the Genoese were an inventive bunch of traders, but even they couldn’t slow the strength of the tide – but what they could do was make every passage count. And so was born the Great Galley. Up to 300 tons, the Great Galley was so big it could be sent without a defensive convoy, and at that size it was able to have significant hold space, rather than just being full up with rowers with hold space only for a small wafer thin after dinner mint. From 1298 then, Great Galleys started to appear in English ports.
Wild though that was, even more significant than that, was the development of the Carrack. The Carrack took the design of the Cog, and adapted it by building it through the skeleton method – building a frame and skeleton, and laying the hull on the skeleton, with the planks flush in each other – carvel built therefore. This lighter design allowed enormous ships to be create – or enormous by the standards of the day at least. Henry himself commissioned a series of great Carracks, the Santa Clara of 750 tons, the Jesus of 1,000 tons – and the Grace Dieu, probably 1,400 tons. These ships were, comparatively speaking, – monsters, and with their high freeboard and the big fore and aft castles could dominate most other ships. But there’s more. The 15th century also saw the development of the 3 masted square rig. The what? Well, don’t mock, I am reliably informed that this would be the dramatic change that was maybe the biggest single factor in creating the conditions for Europeans to flood all over the world.
Why is having 3 masts and a new rig so important? Well It’s not just that more means more sail. It allowed a combination of square sail, and the Lateen, triangular sail – which was deployed usually on the mizzen mast with is the sail at the back, basically. Aft. The Lateen sail allowed ships to tack much closer to the wind, it was much easier to manoeuvre ships in difficult or restricted conditions. The rigging also allowed the number of sailors to be reduced. And then, down in Portugal and Spain, the much smaller Caravel was developed, fast and handy, used for fishing, trade and war. During the 15th century then, ship building in England and Scotland began to be transformed – skeleton built, 2 or 3 masted, caravel hulled and caravel rigged ships to replace the cog and the Hulk. The old clinker built longship remained the best and most used ship in the western Isles of Scotland, and the Galley would not go away, but the Caravel and Carrack would be the model until the arrival of the Galleon.
At the same time Henry V began to invest in infrastructure, and here then is my chance to give you a general update on English naval warfare in the 15th century. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin. Infrastructure then. In 1420 William Soper, the Clerk of the King’s Ships effectively made Southampton England’s new Naval base, with stone built buildings which have the most glorious distinction of apparently being the first stone built naval buildings in England. I have to say, that’s quite a specific award, but hey, congratulations Southampton. Whoop and indeed whoop. The docks, however, used by the navy were still mud docks. I am now going to tell you how mud docks work. I was really interested in this when I wrote it – I am now slightly wondering if you are going to be quite so fascinated, and am reflecting that selection, of course, is one of the key skills of the historian. Anyway, mud docks. We have a lot of mud here in England, especially on tidal rivers of course where you want to keep your ship. So, the idea is that you wait for a really high high tide- a spring tide or whatever, then beach your ship on the mud, and build a fence round it when it’s left high and dry. Simple as that. But if you needed your ship to be held longer, you scooped out the mud on the shore, and built a channel and a watertight dockhead. Sounds simple, and it was and it’s is cheap I guess. One of the problems was that when you wanted to fill up for mud dock with water again it could be very time consuming to dig away the mud, and it would be a major invocation when in 1496 we get a drydock with timber dockheads and pumps. We must compare this with the leading seafaring nation in Europe. Venice at this time had its stone-built dockyards and armouries – I may be over labouring the point that England and indeed the British Isles are a long way behind, but just to be clear, if you are expecting most powerful naval nation in the world, we have a way to go yet.
Armaments and tactics remained very much the same – fighting was hand to hand. But guns are beginning to appear as early as the 14th century and through the 15th century. Guns and armoury was now being manufactured routinely in the Tower of London with increasing professionalism, but the point is that these are light guns, anti-personnel guns; even in Henry VII’s reign and the start of Henry VIII’s, these are light, breech loaded guns used to sweep the opponents decks before boarding. The real development in ship borne guns was happening elsewhere – in the low countries and galleys in the Mediterranean from 1470s. What happens there is that ship killer guns, 4 inch guns or higher were being mounted in the bows of Galleys so that for the first time there was the prospect of an entirely new form of naval warfare – standing off and trying to damage ships or even sink them without the hand to hand fighting bit. Watch this space.
There is no doubt that Henry V turned his massively organised and slightly scarily forceful character to the English navy, that he used the navy as an instrument of war rather than just support for land forces. He had a strategy – to use the Navy keep the narrow seas for England. And that for the duration of his reign he achieved it; in two naval victories the Duke of Bedford gained supremacy for his brother over the French, and of course Henry’s land victories once more returned Norman coastal ports to English control which removed much of France’s potential to contest the Channel. Henry also for once got a grip on piracy. While he lived, John Hawley’s son down in Dartmouth, successor to his father’s empire and also called John, was not indulging in piracy, he was being requisitioned to form part of Henry’s fleet, and he could be confident that a bit of freeloading would be severely punished by a man like Henry.
Serving in a royal naval flotilla was a double whammy for shipowners and merchants. Not only were they restricted from making money, by whatever means, fair or foul, but it actually cost them. In a sense, the duty of shipowners to provide service fitted neatly within the feudal context; but ship owners got a very poor deal. A knight would receive a wage and compensation for losses, on a complex scale proportionate to his status. The scale for the merchant and shipowner had the advantage of simplicity – they received diddly squat. Or at least they very rarely received any compensation. Their ships could be requisitioned for a range of royal service, not just war. You will not be surprised to learn, then, that shipowners tried to avoid service when they could.
So the system was that when the king was going to call ships up for service a general order forbade ships to leave port, and then royal officials came round to requisition the ships. While they travelled, port exits were black with leaving ships. I exaggerate for effect, but if they could, they’d go. Often the commissioners would make changes to the ships they did manage to catch in port – building castles for and aft, or making the ships suitable for carrying horses, that sort of thing. The process might take anything over 6 weeks – but frequently they’d all be called up and assembled – and then sit here, sometimes for 3 months. While everyone was sitting around contemplating fingernails, the shipowner would have to pay and feed his crew- payment from the king didn’t start until the actual operations started. Behind all this lay royal finance, obviously, but also the social status of merchants – sympathy for shipowners was distinctly limited – they were rich merchant afterall. This system, was our number 3 of our royal naval options, the Feudal Fleet, and the way it was operated could have a pretty disastrous impact on ship owners. In Edward III’s reign for example, there were some dramatic declines in tonnage, and it became increasingly difficult to find enough ships. By Henry V’s day, the system was no longer sustainable.
The answer lay partly in state funding, partly in private enterprise. In 1347 the tax of tonnage and poundage was first raised specifically to pay for a naval campaign, though the tax rarely raised enough. So to supplement taxes, ports and organisations like the cinque ports were given substantial privileges, to compensate for the pain they would go through.
The other route though was to allow shipowners to profit more from war – by re-organising the way prize money was paid. This was War again as a joint private enterprise, and prize money will be a major factor in paying for the cost of war for a very long time. I assume you understand the concept of prize money – sorry to be elephantine; it’s the idea that if you captured an enemy ship, you could have it sold off and recover some of the value. The custom by Henry V’s time was for the prize money to be divided up ¼ to the king, ¼ to the owner and ½ to the captors – master and crew. By 1440 the crown had decided to give up their share during war time – and so fully 1/3 went to the owners, 1/6 to the master alone, and all the rest went to the crew. The feudal approach might be a haphazard approach that often generated a second rate navy, certainly compared to sophistication of the Venetians; but it was cheap. Just as a point of comparison, in 1380 the French commissioned 20 Castilian galleys for £50,000 for one summer. £50,000 constituted half the entire normal royal English income. Hate it or loathe it, the English had to cut their suit according to their cloth.
As the idea of official privateering gathering currency, it becomes more regularised. Around 1443, the phrase ‘letters of marque’ entered the English language. The letter of Marque was a document from the Crown enabling the ship owner to make war using their own ship. The official full wording was a letter of marque and reprisal, which is a tautology since the word marque itself comes from an Anglo Norman word meaning reprisal. Who knew. Originally a licence authorizing a subject to take reprisals against the enemy for the injuries they had caused, what it essentially turned into was a licence to make war. I am told, incidentally, that in Europe, the idea of letters of marque was abolished in 1856; but it remains constitutional for the US congress to commission privateers by letters of marque. Once again, who knew.
Ok, back to Henry V. Despite the fact that Henry created the kernel of a Navy, and for a short period repressed the activities of privateers and pirates like John Hawley, he cannot be awarded the title father of the English Navy. Sorry, Henry, close but no cigar. Because after his death and during the reign of Henry VI and the wars of the Roses English piracy exploded once more. Let us travel back to Devon, to the port of Dartmouth once more. John Hawley Junior was back to the Hawley ways soon after Henry V’s death in 1422 – coming close to arrest when he was involved in the seizure of the goods and ship of a Scottish merchant, valued at £220, in 1427. He was of course, not alone, this is just one example.
At which point, by way of example another mayor of Dartmouth, Roger Wenyngton enters our story. Welcome to the shed, Roger. The only effective and lasting measure during the 15th century to try and both contain piracy and defend the shores of Blighty, came by the expedient of commissioning privateers to keep the seas as the phrase goes – so the sort of stuff we have been talking about with John Hawley as Keeper of the Sea. For Roger this presented a rather nice opportunity, especially when combined with Edward I’s principle of sovereignty of the seas – remember that? This was the idea that England Edward I advanced that England had legal jurisdiction over it’s waters – a surprisingly novel claim at the time as an expedient to avoid French claims for compensation. Roger Wenyngton figured that this rule meant that while he bore the title of Keeper of the Seas he could exercise legal jurisdiction over English waters. Which he reckoned meant he could stop any ship he chose – and claim to be acting legally. And so in 1449 acruising he would go. To his joy, he came across 130 Hulks, 130 hulks, that is a big merchant fleet. The fleet was carrying Salt and it was owned by the enormously powerful Hanse Merchants. Wenyngton demanded that the ships strike their colours in acknowledgement of England’s sovereignty of the sea. The Hanse admiral refused. He did so in no uncertain terms I might add; we have Wenyngton’s report to king’s council and it said, if you’ll excuse the following vulgarity that he
‘bade them strike in the name of the King of England, and they bade me shit in the name of the King of England.’
Wenyngton could have kissed them for their defiance. We went onto the attack, gaining the weather gauge and then rather madly ordering his ships to ram them; it’s worth noting that this was not a normal method of attack; even galleys, which we sometimes visualise with a ram at the prow, had done no such thing since classical times, it’s a complete myth. But in this case it worked – because the Hanse Captain squeefed, and surrendered.
Obviously the powerful Hanse towns filled the air of England with their outraged complaints and demanded compensation. But Wenyngton knew exactly what he was doing. Several of the royal Council had an interest in his little business and stood to profit massively from prize money. And anyway Wenyngton had become a local hero – the Hanse were deeply unpopular, as big, powerful and rich organisations usually are; and partly for good reason, since the Hanse used their muscle to gain trading privileges in English ports, but then refused to grant English merchants rights in their cities in return. So, politically, carpeting Wyngngton wasn’t a great idea. Wenyngton had calculated correctly – he was perfectly safe. But while it might have felt good to the Council and the good folk of England to defy the Hanse whether their cause was right or wrong, in the long run it cost everyone. It was disruptive to trade – in this case, the Hanse punished England by closing the Sound of Denmark to its traders and committing acts of reprisal against its merchants. And even the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard were constantly paying out to satisfy the claims of aggrieved foreign merchants. For example, in 1474, Edward IV was forced to pay 11,000 Crowns to Basque shipowners, and 50,000 crowns to Breton shipowners.
Part of the reason for Edward’s payout was for diplomatic purposes – at the time he was looking for support from Brittany against France; but part of it was also that piracy from the south west was now becoming intolerable. So why was this, why did the South West became such a hot bed of piracy? It was a trend that produced some the most famous, or some ways infamous of course, of our early sea captains – John Hawkins and Francis Drake being the best known. Well, as I have noted, Cornwall and Devon are a long way from the centre of government at Westminster. For another, the coves and inlets of the coast are ideal for smuggling and hiding ships and taking refuge. Cornwall in particular was also closely involved in international trade, particularly as one of the few European sources of Tin. The tradition of local warfare had also been built up from bitter need. The Barbary pirates frequently raided the coasts on slaving missions, and the need for self defence played its part. There are geographical reasons too; the normal wind in the Channel is to blow from the South west, and that would have helped the pirates from Cornwall and Devon in bearing down on their victims.
As an example of how bad it had become, you might one daylike to visit a small port town called Fowey, which in the long roll call of idyllic Cornish ports has got to be near the top of anyone’s list. Butter would not now melt in its collective picturesque mouth now, but back in the 15th century life was more basic and piracy was a major earner. Fowey had been granted a licence back in the days of Edward III during the French wars, and the good people of Fowey decided that this should be a permanent thing. Piracy was not just the action of a few private individuals by the way; it reached back into the very fabric of local society and enriched the whole network. Noble families such as the Courtenays, Arundells, and Treffrys all profited, and the pirate families themselves became part of the social elite – the Mikxstow family, once ordinary folk, would become rich enough to command 200 armed men, and married into the Treffreys and thereby into social respectability. So throw away the image of desperate Caribbean pirates, these folks visit the local church, strut their stuff in society, and stand at the head of an economic network. So active were the pirates of Fowey, that their collection of pirate families – Trevelyn, Tregarthen, Carminow and Mixstow – were known as the Fowey Gallants.
But it was dangerous business. Sometimes their victims took revenge through the law courts as in 1474 when they could gain leverage. Sometimes they took more direct action – in 1457 the French raided and ransacked Fowey, and as we have said the lack of a proper English state Navy meant all these small ports were vulnerable to such attack, despite local defence efforts – Fowey was defended by forts and a chain stretched across the harbour. But also at times, goaded beyond endurance, the English themselves took vigilante action through law or raids, as the Fowey Gallants and pirates like them all along the coast continually refused to come into line. It’s not surprising – the Crown’s policy changed bewilderingly quickly, shipowners relied on their local influence to protect them from the Crown when policy changed against them. And anyway the gains were too mouth watering.
Also of course the Crown often appeared impotent. One fine example is Henry Bodrugan, a pirate who managed to get himself appointed to a series of royal commissions, during Edward IV’s reign, including one supposed to deal with piracy which was a real hoot – allowing him to run with the hare and hunt with hounds. His misrule subverted the delivery of justice and led to a storm of petitions to the King. One of them read:
For is any person would sue against the said Henry and Richard Bodrugan or against any of their servants, anon they should be murdered and slain, and utterly despoiled of all their goods, so that no man dare sue
Constantly Bodrugan was summoned to answer to the king, constantly he just did nothing, refused to respond, stuck two fingers up and did not turn up at court as summoned.
The case of the Fowey Gallants is in fact an illustration of royal impotence. Driven by his diplomatic needs, Edward had to stop the Fowey Gallants and Henry Bodrugan, but did not know how – and so once again he set thief to catch thief. In 1478 then, a message reached the members of the Fowey Gallants, arranging a meeting for them all at the town of Lostwithiel in Cornwall, at the head of the Fowey estuary. Off set the worthy business men, for no doubt a fun day of companionship, planning and a bit of boozing thrown in for good measure. But once they had left, around the headlands came the ships of the equally piratical men of Dartmouth, who broke into the harbour and into the town. They captured ships, gear, goods and merchandise, they looked up the ships Masters. Dartmouth had been contacted by the king, and ‘the willing men of Dartmouth’ as he referred to them, took on the task of retribution. Once in his power many of the Fowey Gallants were indeed convicted of piracy and executed. But before you get too carried away with this expression of royal power, reflect firstly that Edward was forced to use private individuals rather than royal officials; and reflect that Henry Bodrugan was allowed to buy himself off – for £3000 to the crown and £3000 to his victims. He then carried on exactly where he’d left off, leading all the local commissions of array, peace, assessment, piracy. He was even knighted, and then outlawed and pardoned twice. He found a wizard wheeze of illegally altering wills, and then acting as their executor and managing the victims estates. He’s not a good man.
Sadly, I need to finish the Story of Henry Bodrugan before I go back to ships. The story goes that when Richard III seized power, a local knight and Lancastrian, Richard Edgcome was so incensed he took part in Buckingham’s failed rebellion, and Bodrugan was ordered to arrest him. Bodrugan took a troop of soldiers but Edgcome managed to escape – by filling his cap with stones, throwing it into a river and convincing his pursuers that he’d drowned. He fled to Brittany and joined Henry Tudor. You know the next bit, Bosworth field, my kingdom for a horse and all that. No doubt Henry Bodrugan would have liked to have reached an accommodation with the latest version of remote rule, but of course with the return of Henry Tudor came the return of local man Richard Edgcombe. So in 1487 Bodrugan made the mistake of supporting Lambert Simnel, and now Edgcombe was the hunter. Bodrugan showed himself every bit as resourceful in escaping arrest – this time by leaping over a cliff to a waiting boat in the sea. He died in 1503 in exile in Ireland.
Now, we have therefore arrived at the Tudors, but I want to end this episode not with the next applicant for father with the British Navy, Henry VIII, but to take you instead to Scotland, and the career of some men there, Andrew Wood of Largo and Andrew Barton. Because it’s probably in Scotland that we can identify the very first step towards the modern navy that will be, in Henry VIII’s reign in England, the first time we can really start talking of a coherent and lasting state Navy.
The first point to make about Scotland is that there were two traditions still by the late 15th century. In the Western Islands, ship building remained very much with the oared, longship type. There is a carving from the tomb of Alexander Macleod of Dunvagen in 1528 which shows a 17 room galley, very similar to the longship type, though with a rudder rather than being double ended. In 1481, the Lord of Western Isles and his son fought for supremacy, where, at the battle of Bloody Bay the son, Angus MacDonald won, and his father was packed off to the king of Scots to become a pensioner. We’ll come back to the consequences of Angus’s victory in a minute.
Elsewhere, the Scottish tradition was very much in the same line as the rest of north west Europe, as the career of the Barton brothers would demonstrate. Andrew Barton appears in the records in 1497, supporting Perkin Warbeck on the orders of King James IV of Scotland. But like so many sailors, Barton combined service to the crown with piracy. He managed to get himself letters of Marque to recompense some losses he’d suffered at the hands of the Portuguese – which he pursued out of all proportion. When finally summoned by James IV to answer Portuguese claims, he slipped out the harbour to avoid it, and sailed to Denmark to the service of king Hans. As soon as Hans had paid him, Barton half inched a Danish ship and legged it, never to be seen by the king again. He put his stolen ships to what he would consider excellent and practical use, preying on ships up and down the east coast of England until in 1511 Thomas Howard ran him down, killed him and took his ships. James IV actually had the nerve to protest about this to Henry VIII…but actually was probably jolly relieved that Barton was gone, the removal of a loose cannon.
Andrew Wood’s career was much more to the liking of the Scottish king. He’d served James III, James IV’s father, until James III had died as a result of his son’s rebellion. Now, if you chose the wrong side in a rebellion, it can go badly – and for most of the James III supporters, that is indeed the direction life took them. Andrew Wood was an exception – he moved smoothly into James IV’s service, which is some kind of recommendation for his talents. He was to prove his worth in a rather heroic epic battle against an English Captain, one Stephen Bull, described by the chronicler Robert Lindsay of Pittscottie. Essentially, Andrew Wood came on a small group of English ships in the Forth of Firth in 1489 or 90, possibly specifically sent to take on Andrew Wood. With his ships the Flower and the Yellow Caravel, Andrew defeated and captured Bull and the English ships and presented the defeated captain to his young king. There’s a rather lovely model of the Yellow Caravel; which is as good a way to visualise a caravel as any – you can see it on the website.
Andrew Wood’s career is one of loyal and continuous service until he died in 1515, but the event for which we came north started in 1494. The Lords of the Western Isles, now our Angus MacDonald had been pretty much autonomous, and James IV had decided this was a situation that could not be allowed to continue. But obviously it was impossible to destroy the power of the western Isles without a fleet. Andrew Wood sailed the king’s ships into the Western Isles in 1494 and 1498. Which was great, except neither event had any great lasting impact; it proved impossible to capture the fortress of the Lords of the Isles.
However, it just so happens that James had the traditional Renaissance passion for guns and Gunpowder; the trouble was getting the heavy guns he’d developed to the right place in the islands. In 1504 James and Andrew Wood came up with an answer – they’d mount the heavy guns on board a ship. Remember guns on ships in NW Europe were by and large small anti personnel guns. That year then Andrew Wood bombarded the rock fortress of Cairn na Burgh – an impregnable fortress that could only have been fired on from the sea. Within two years the fall of the lord of the Isles’ fortress at Stornoway effectively ended their power.
The main point about this, is that what will transform navies in the 16th century was the use of heavy cannon on board ship. The initiative had been taken decisively by Galleys, that mounted ship killer cannon in the bows of the ship, maybe 4 bow chasers and 4 stern chasers, with the utterly radical and mind-blowing idea that now ships could be defeated at distance rather than by a hand to hand fight. For the first time in waters of the British Isles then, in 1504, heavy guns were mounted on and used from a caravel. It’s the start of the Galleons we have come so used to as an image of Tudor navies – but we’ll come to that in a future episode.
James IV also had a clear strategic purpose for a Scottish royal Navy. This might sound utterly unexceptional – I mean you would assume that every king had a strategy for their ships. Well, they might have done in Castile, Genoa, Venice – but they almost certainly didn’t in England – afterall there was no royal navy to speak of to implement a policy anyway. The only whiff of a concerted policy after Henry V had been in the 1430s, and a political poem called the Libel, meaning book, the libel of English Policy which advocated the crown to
Cherish merchandise, keep the Admiralty
That we be masters of the Narrow Sea
But James was determined that Scotland would play a full part on the stage of European diplomacy, and to do that he needed to be able to project his presence, tucked away as he was up there in the top corner of Europe. James needed a navy. And so a Navy he shall have.
Given the income of the Scottish kings, the Navy James assembled after 1506 was remarkable, and able to compete with any in northern waters. Almost a third of royal revenue was devoted to it’s creation and maintenance. The ships that formed its backbone were significant; the Michael was a 4 masted ship of 1000 tons, and was very probably the model for the Great Harry which Henry VIII commissioned the following year. There was a specially constructed yard on the Forth, with a safer anchorage further upstream behind fortifications on the island at Queensferry narrows on the firth of Forth. There remained a naval base at Dumbarton in the west, but the focus had shifted significantly to the east, the centre of gravity now facing France, England and Flanders.
It is too much probably to award James IV of Scotland the title of father of the British Navy. But he is most certainly in the tradition of Alfred, Aethelstan, Edgar, Richard I and Henry V who stand out with their understanding of the strategic importance of a centrally funded and maintained navy.
Which will brings us, kicking and screaming to the early days of the Tudor Navy. I made the rather expensive decision to buy the Anthony roll, so without doubt I am going to be inflicting Henry VIII’s navy on you – #sorry not sorry. Lord knows, however, when that will be. Meanwhile hie thee to the website to have a look at the Yellow caravel. The next shedcast is in two week’s time, and we are back to the History of Scotland for the Wolf of Badenoch, and if that isn’t a cool name, then I don’t know what is.
Now it’s our shanty moment. We have had Long haul, short haul, capstan. This week we have a pumping shanty. Wooden ships were essentially made out of wooden planks nailed together. This mean that they were liable to leak quite a lot. Shipbuilders tried to stop this by caulking, which was forcing soft material such as oakum or cotton between the planks, and then sealing with pitch or tar. Which is great – but imperfect, and the material would degrade. So when we get to those long voyages there’ll be quite a bit of stopping on small islands to haul the boat over a do a spot of caulking. Any way, leaky – and therefore pumps were used constantly to keep the water under control. Pumps were located in the bilge, at the very bottom section of a ship. Hence the expression OK come on that’s utter bilge. Pumping was hard, boring unrewarding work. And so what did seamen do when faced with such a thing? Presumably moaned quite a lot, but also they sang special shanties. Here is one by Victory at Sea, and it’s called ‘Santy Ano’. Since it is an English song, though I suspect sang here by Americans actually, it is of course spelled wrongly – S a n t y Ano. Sheesh. It’s nice though. Happy listening.