Saturday 5 March 2022

Kings of the Sea

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.

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