Saturday 3 February 2018

The Safeguard of the Sea

Oh dear. This will kill the ratings, you know. This is another post about navies and wargaming and all that stuff. I have never got to the bottom of why naval wargaming is so relatively unpopular, nor yet as to why should my posts on the subject, which are such as to get the word ‘intermittent’ a reputation for consistency, be so rarely looked at.

I have been reading a book which simply adds grist to my mill, namely ‘The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 600 – 1649 by N. A. M. Rodger (London: Penguin, 2004). This was a Christmas gift (as was volume 2, The Command of the Ocean, 1649-1815, but I have not got to that yet). This is a hefty tome of some 430 pages of text  plus assorted notes, appendices, glossary and a bibliography with some annotations as to the usefulness or otherwise of the work referenced.

Rodger’s main point is that in the period from the Norman conquest to the reign of Elizabeth I, only two English kings really got hold of the idea of naval power and how to use it. These were Richard I, who seems to have learnt a lot about it while on crusade, and Henry V, who used medieval navies in the way that Rodger thinks they should have been used, to obtain strategic surprise by landing armies in unexpected places. Most English kings did the obvious thing and landed in Flanders to attack France. Edward III, granted did land elsewhere (having exhausted the Flanders options) but this seems to be something of a fluke and was really meant to be raid rather than an invasion. Henry V invaded.

The book is rather disparaging about other English naval efforts and the kings who used, or rather, didn’t use them. Edward I comes in for a bit of a pasting over all those castles in North Wales. Apart from Conway, Rodger thinks, they were not only a waste of effort but also useless and strategic white elephants. As royal castles the king’s prestige was bound up in their keeping. Thus if one of them was besieged, the English had to relieve it. Given the paucity of English naval power in the Irish Sea, they had to relieve it overland, and thus open themselves to ambush along the way. An English naval squadron based in Chester would have been far more productive of controlling Wales than the castles.

Rodger notes that, as far as we can tell, pre-conquest England was a naval power of note, and seems to have been on its way to some sort of informal overlordship of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. This seems to have been totally scuppered by the conquest, firstly because the Norman kings were uninterested in navies except for cross-channel movement, and because England became embroiled in a series of continental wars (you could argue that they went down to 1558) and meant that Wales, Scoland and Ireland could be pretty well neglected. If they could not be neglected, then they had to be dominated, usually by conquest and military occupation. This did not work very well, and probably landed Britain (as the archipelago) in a lot of trouble in the longer term.

Strategically, Britain faces three ways. There is the east, across the North Sea towards northern Germany and Scandinavia, and, crucially for naval supplies, the Baltic. To the west is the Irish Sea, the Western Isles of Scotland and assorted Viking naval powers associated with them. And then there is the south, the Channel coast. Until the English Civil War, really, the Irish Sea was under patrolled and under resourced. Most effort had gone into the Channel.

The command of the sea was never a viable option. Communications were slow and the interception of a hostile fleet could only be by either luck or in inshore situations. Scouting was not much done until the sixteenth century and, even when it was achieved, actually sending a message to the fleet in time was more or less impossible.

In the conclusion, Rodger notes that historians often assume that, post-Conquest, the sea made England invasion proof. He notes that English governments were overthrown nine times by foreign invasion – 1139, 1153, 1326, 1399, 1460, 1470, 1471, 1485 and 1688. Scotland was successfully invaded in 1332. Major forces were landed in England in 1069, 1101, 1215, 1405, 1462, 1469 and 1487, plus in Scotland in 1708. This ignores raids or assistance sent to forces hostile to the government, and completely ignores Ireland. The sea was the highway, not an impregnable barrier.

Rodger also notes that the naval efforts of the Irish and Scots are frequently ignored. In fact, for most of the period, these nations were far ahead of the English in naval force and prowess. Their rulers had a far better understanding of the possibilities of projecting power using naval assets. The English only slowly learnt (or, perhaps, relearnt) the possibilities of naval power.

Arguments over the ‘military revolution’ aside, Rodger notes that there was a sixteenth century naval revolution. The ships of Elizabeth’s navy were different from their predecessors, although not that different. Elizabeth’s navy, he argues, was built for a specific purpose – the short range defence of the realm. It could, and did, take the offence during the war with Spain, but English ships could not be victualled for long, and so the long range or long term projection of power was not possible. He also notes the difficulty in victualling a fleet based on Plymouth, when the only possible base for supplying such numbers of men was London. Local resources and infrastructure were not adequate to the task, and Plymouth is a long way windward for London. Thus the main fleet was usually kept in the Channel, in the downs or Medway.

Finally, Rodger notes that the fleet was the most complex technical problem facing a government (and it still is). Warships are complicated beasts; their crews cannot just be rounded up off the streets – you need a large merchant marine to supply skilled sailors. Further, ships need regular, complex maintenance. There have to be dockyards, skilled workers, plans, stores and experienced administrators. Rodger’s argument is that this started to happen in Elizabeth’s reign, faltered under the early Stuarts, but Charles I, with the ship money fleet, was just about starting to pull it together again.

The problem for Charles (aside from money and his own political ineptitude) was that no one had exactly decided what the fleet was for. Hearkening back to Elizabeth’s reign did not really help; circumstances were different. Was the fleet for short range flag showing, reputation building and creation of the image of power, or was it a long range, trade escorting and protecting force, capable of real power projection over the oceans. No one seems to have really noticed that there was a question until the civil war. Charles favoured the former; his merchant enemies (many of whom owned very profitable privateers) favoured the latter.

I have gone on a bit, but then it is a long book. But it is well worth reading and pondering. As a final note, in the bibliography entry to Philippe Contamine’s War in the Middle Ages, Rodger notes ‘ An egregious example of a common approach; the distinguished author blandly announces that he proposes to ignore naval warfare altogether ‘as a matter of maintaining internal balance’, because it is too complicated.’

As wargamers, are we guilty as charged?


  1. Great review. I've read the second volume- I shall endeavor to pick this one up.



    1. Thank you; the second volume is on my 'to read' pile, so i will probably comment on it in due course. I wouldn't hold your breath, though....