As has been the general theme so far this year, I am going to blog again about that unpopular wet stuff, known as the ocean. For I have been reading again, and, of course, I am hoping by continued transgression into naval matters, to reduce the readership of the blog to single figures, if not fewer.
Davies, J. D. (2017). Kings of the Sea: Charles
II, James II & the Royal Navy. Barnsley: Seaforth.
It is always nice to report on a well-produced history
book, and this is such. The Estimable Mrs P thought it a nice book with nice
illustrations, and so it is. An advantage of the period of the Anglo-Dutch Wars
is that there are excellent paintings of some of the actions, which give a very
good idea of the ships and their activities. There are also, of course, a good
number of non-battle naval paintings, which give a check on what might have
been more fanciful interpretations of the actions and, indeed, that habit of
early modern artists to compress the whole narrative into a single frame.
It is also good to read something that
challenges the conventional narrative history of something or another, and this
book does that. The usual narrative of Charles II is that he was the ‘Merrie
Monarch’ and was only interested in who he could get into bed rather than any
matters of state. Thus he was at the mercy, or in the hands of, his officials
and ministers who took advantage of his laziness and dissolution and ran things
their way, to their financial advantage.
In terms of the navy, that official is Samuel
Pepys. Davies is not daft enough to write Sam off as just a minute taker,
although he did do that, but his argument is that Charles II was heavily
involved in naval matters, as was his brother James, Lord High Admiral. At one
point Davies observes that according to the minutes Charles had attended more
naval board meetings than anyone else, including our Sam.
While the book is not a narrative of the Dutch
Wars, politics or campaigns, there is a lot of information in it about all
these things. It starts with the ancestry of the Stuart dynasty in Scotland,
observing that their original seat, Rothesay Castle on the Isle of Bute needed a
sea voyage to get to it. As the Stuarts came to the monarchy in Scotland, so
the interest in the navy grew. James IV (r. 1488 – 1513) led three naval expeditions
to the west, defeating the last independent Lord of the Isles, and, after
finding hiring ships was less successful, focused on building up a Scottish
navy, the largest of which was the Michael, launched in 1511. In 1513 the
Scottish navy had 38 ships of which 15 were true warships.
James I and VI, when he came to the English
throne, was not so interested in the navy, perhaps because he was a peaceable
soul on the whole. However, his sons Henry and Charles were. Henry, James’ oldest
son, was given a small ship by the Lord High Admiral in 1604. A few years later
the Prince Royal was launched, a colossal ship by the standards of the time.
The King’s favourite, Buckingham, was appointed Lord High Admiral in 1619 and
naval expansion got under way. There were 35 serviceable ships in 1623.
Charles I is, of course, well known for
enlarging the navy, almost literally, with the 1637 Sovereign of the Seas, the
most expensive British warship for over a century. The background to the civil
war also included disputes about ship money, the tax originally levied on
coastal counties for their defence which Charles extended to the whole country.
This was, in part, against the backdrop of on ongoing war in the Mediterranean against
the North African states, particularly Salee.
Under the Commonwealth the navy increased
again. It was, after all, a matter of self-defence for the new republic.
Charles II escaped in 1646 to Jersey, where, it seems, he learnt to sail, and
was given a pinnace. The second civil war, when ten warships defected from the
Commonwealth navy, gave Prince Rupert a taste of command, which forced the
Commonwealth navy under Blake to blockage the Tagus for most of a year. The
royalist fleet ceased to exist after a hurricane in the Caribbean in 1652.
There is an awful lot more in the book. I have
only covered so far the first couple of chapters, so you can tell I am an
enthusiast. There is a chapter on the royal yachts, which were general purpose dispatch,
packet and transport for dignitaries vessels, under the King’s direct command.
In fact, one of the points Davies makes is that all of His Majesty’s Ships were
under his direct command, no matter what his admirals might think.
Charles II was also directly responsible for
the galley frigate, the aim of which was the pursuit of Barbary Corsairs. They
required larger crews than usual (as they had oars) and were thus uneconomic.
Eventually three were built, the Charles Galley and James Galley, and were
highly successful in their role. A third followed in 1687, Mary Galley. They
were ultimately converted into fifth rates and lost their rowing function.
However, Davies notes that the main idea of the vessels, a single,
uninterrupted gun deck became the basis of British frigate design.
A great deal more could be said. Davies
observes that British and world history might have changed on 3 June 1665 if
James had been hit by the Dutch chain shot which killed the three men standing
next to him on the quarterdeck of the Royal Charles. Imagine the differences:
no Glorious Revolution, no William III, no Battle of the Boyne, no Culloden. On
such things history turns, I suppose.
Perhaps the most interesting wargame idea in
the book are the almost constant wars against the city states of Algiers,
Tripoli, Tunis and Salee. These come along with the defence of Tangiers, which
turned out to be too far away from the others to be useful. Interestingly, the
British rented port facilities in Gibraltar decades before the captured the
place in 1704.
An excellent book. I might return to it, as I
have only just scratched the surface.