There are, perhaps, three villains of the second volume of Rodger’s naval history of Britain:
Rodger, N. A. M., The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Penguin, 2004).
The first of these is Napoleon Bonaparte, the second is Lord Howe and the third, perhaps surprisingly given the date range of the book, is Henry VIII.
To start in the middle with Lord Howe is probably the easiest. Howe practically destroyed the functioning of the British naval bases and supply system. For all his abilities as an admiral, he was convinced that there was extensive corruption in the naval logistics and supply system. Anywhere in early modern Europe, if you looked for corruption, you could usually find it. Howe, of course, was no exception. For example, Rodger explains how Howe demanded a certain quality of timber from suppliers and rejected shipments that did not reach that level. This was unfair, as, of course, timber comes from trees and trees grow naturally. Thus a certain quality of timber cannot be guaranteed – there is always going to be some variation. Nevertheless, Howe thought this was corrupt and rejected ‘substandard’ timber, with the result that contractors refused to supply and the naval dockyard’s careful garnering and storage of timber of repairs and shipbuilding was disrupted. It took a while to rebuild the system, during the Napoleonic wars and, as a result, the Royal Navy was always in a bit of a hand-to-mouth existence with respect to shipbuilding and repair.
Britain’s naval superiority was assured by 1815, of course. The national myth-making assumes that, in truth, naval superiority was assured by 1700 at the latest. There was a ‘tradition of victory’, after all, and ‘Rule Britannia’ was composed in 1740. Rodger, however, notes that Arne probably meant it to be aspirational. After all, Bonnie Prince Charlie was able to land in Scotland in 1745, which does not indicate a particularly secure command of the ocean. If the French had been particularly interested, they could probably have defeated Hanoverian Britain and restored the Stuarts. This, however, was not to be.
The story of how Britain did come to rule the waves is, therefore, a lot more interesting and varied than popular history would have it. The true heroes are the naval administrators, from Pepys onwards, who laid the foundations for and maintained the operations of the dockyard and supply systems. The ultimate key to British naval supremacy was to be found in the ability to keep ships at sea for long periods, to repair them quickly, even when not in home waters, and, strategically, to maintain a squadron in the Western Approaches to the Channel.
This last point was not always recognised by politicians, but it was really essential to eighteenth century naval strategy. It could only happen, of course, because the logistical bases of the navy, particularly at Plymouth, had been built up, by the heroic administrators are farsighted admirals. The Western Approaches squadron could protect British trade both to and from the Americas, Africa and India and also, when needs must, intercept other country’s trade and attack their trade protection squadrons.
At this point, a key difference between the Royal Navy and their French and Spanish equivalents comes into play. Royal Navy captains and admirals were expected to be aggressive and attack. French and Spanish navies, strategically, were to protect trade and were, therefore, trained and ordered to be more defensive. They protected convoys. Royal Navy ships attacked the protectors of convoys and anyone who might intercept British trade. Rodgers notes that no British naval captains were court-martialled for being over aggressive against the odds, while a number were for not pressing home attacks. Incidentally, this also accounts for the much-repeated assertion that French ships fired at rigging while the British fired at the hull. The French approach was entirely logical – if you prevent the enemy from sailing at any speed by shooting away their sails, the convoy can escape.
The British did have various technical advantages over their enemies, such as copper-bottomed ships which made them faster and needing less maintenance (which could, in fact, strain the ship’s structure) but the real advantage was in the professional logistical and support structure which Howe so nearly wrecked. That he did not, and that the Royal Navy managed to recover, even in wartime, is a tribute to the resilience of the system as a whole.
The next villain is Napoleon. Rodger blames him, probably quite rightly, for bleeding France and the rest of Europe dry and thus leaving the seas to Britain. The French and Spanish navies could have taken on the Royal Navy and might have won. However, there were no resources and few trained sailors for them to do so. The infrastructure was not available. Further, Napoleon never seems to have understood how navies work and seems to have ordered naval squadrons around as he did army corps, with exact timetables and concentrations. Given the state of naval technology and the nature of seas, this was never going to, and did not, work. Towards the end, even though the French were building warships, they were (even if they had been launched) almost certainly not going to challenge the Royal Navy after 1805.
Rodgers notes that there was no assertion of the sovereignty of the seas by Britain in the post-Napoleon treaties. It was not required. Everyone could see that Britain, by 1815, did rule the waves. No-one needed to mention it; it was not disputed. Mostly, it was Napoleon’s fault.
Finally, we come to the third villain, Henry VIII. How come he gets the blame? Before him, Britain had a navy much like anyone else’s – brought into being when needed for the monarch’s wars. With Henry’s (sort of) assertion of Protestantism, Britain was left facing a hostile Channel coast. I have noted before that part of Elizabeth I’s strategy was to secure a friendly power in the Channel ports, and she managed that. But with France and Spain Roman Catholic and Catholicism resurgent across Europe, England, and then Britain, needed a navy in being. And that meant starting (admittedly rather haphazardly) the navel infrastructure which led to naval supremacy.
Without Henry VIII, therefore, Britain would not have had to professionalise naval administration and there would have been no command of the ocean, because it would not have been needed. Therefore, if anyone comes at you with the old canard that religion is not important alongside other factors in history, such as economics or technological factors, just point them to the development of the Royal Navy and Rodger’s book.