Saturday 12 February 2022

Tudor and Stuart Seafarers

This year, so far, seems to be the years of less popular wargames. I suppose it is a reaction to all this populist politics going on around the world at the moment. Alternatively, it could be something along the lines of ‘when the going gets tough, the less tough play fantasy games’.

Be that as it may, I have been reading again, after the pleas of the Estimable Mrs P to read something normal and easy another maritime work.

Davey, J. (Ed.) (2018). Tudor & Stuart Seafarers: The Emergence of a Maritime Nation, 1485 - 1707. London: Adlard Coles.

This tome was produced by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to celebrate the opening of their new gallery devoted to the same topic. And very interesting it is too.

I suppose the book is a little bit more of a coffee table book than those I normally read. It is extensively illustrated, mostly from the NMM’s own collections, by paintings and objects related to the chapters. As is often the case with coffee table books, the chapters themselves are interesting being contributed by experts in their field and giving brief overviews of what, I imagine, is the current state of play in the topics.

You get a fairly wide range of subjects, as you would expect from such a work, and a fair bit is related to military activities. After all, as it is pointed out in one of the chapters, the naval dockyards were the biggest industrial complexes of the Tudor and Stuart reigns, and soaked up a large quantity of national income, particularly at times of crisis and war.

At the start of the period the English were pretty well coastal sailors. Henry VII did not go to sea much after landing in Wales, and Henry VIII, even though he did start a navy, was more interested in recovering France than in the intercontinental travels of the Spanish and Portuguese. The first chapter, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto discusses English responses to the explorations, and the expeditions of Cabot and other, mostly from Bristol. Geography was against them, however, and the North-West passage did not exist.

The turn to the sea occurred after mid-century, with the likes of Frobisher, Hawkins and Drake. This was partly a response to the Spanish empire and its riches, and also to the defence of the Protestant cause, which was threatened by the might of Spain. This takes us to the breakdown of relations between Elizabeth and Phillip II and the Spanish Armada. The take on the Armada is interesting, as in the historiography of the period, British naval superiority was deemed to have started then, and in the iconography it certainly did (the last chapter is on art and the maritime world, and a very fine chapter it is too).

It could hardly be said that English or British naval superiority was established by the end of the Sixteenth Century, however. Navies need constant investment, and the Tudor polity had a great deal of difficulty raising money, and was also under strategic pressure. The navy ensured superiority of mobility and logistics in Ireland and France, and communications with the Low Countries and the Dutch.

After the end of the Spanish (etc) wars, the navy might have been relatively neglected, although James I appointed his son, Prince Henry as Lord High Admiral and Prince Royal was launched, as a prestige status symbol. There are chapters on navigation, which remarks on how the requirements of finding your way at sea improved the status of mathematics at universities, building naval ships (by J. D. Davies) and early (and disastrous) attempts at colonizing North America.

After the Armada chapter, most wargamers with a naval interest would probably turn to the chapter on the Anglo-Dutch Wars, but the chapter on the British Civil Wars (by Elaine Murphy) is most interesting. She points out that while the Royal Navy was almost totally Parliamentary at the start of the First Civil War, the Royalists gained a navy through capturing ports, particularly Bristol, and, more significantly, the Irish Confederacy also raised a navy, leading to a three way naval struggle in the Irish Sea and Channel between naval vessels and privateers. She also observes that the last royalist strongholds in Ireland, England and Scotland fell to naval offensives (in Ireland not until 1653).

The Anglo-Dutch Wars get a chapter, of course, along with a good collection of pictures as naval painting was taking off at the time. Rebecca Ridal gives a good summary of the actions and campaigns, while noting that the wars were largely unnecessary and whoever won was not really sure what, if anything, had been won. It was also a bit embarrassing for the restored Charles II as it was noted that the Commonwealth regime had won its Dutch War while the monarchy had, to put things at their most polite, drawn its wars.

There is a chapter on life at sea, which observes that while seafaring was dangerous, it was also quite well paid, as long as you did not rely on the government paying you as a sailor. There is another chapter on Stuart pirates, which notes that the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy in the early Eighteenth Century was preceded by lots of activity which shaded from privateering to outright piracy and all stations between. Finally, as noted, there is a chapter on art and the maritime world which discusses how the iconography of the sea and battle changed, starting (more or less) with the Armada portrait of Elizabeth I, through to the images of the battles of the Anglo-Dutch Wars which we all know.

Overall, this is a very good, very nicely produced and well-illustrated book. It is chock full of understanding of the naval world of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and should give any wargamer who picks it up and reads it (or just looks at the pictures) plenty of ideas and enthusiasm to get their feet wet, or at least dibble their toes in the world of naval wargaming.


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