Saturday 10 February 2024



It might mildly surprise some of the readers of the blog (you think they are plural – really? (ed)) that I have an interest in naval matters and that naval matters during the English Civil War (or Wars of the Three Kingdoms, or whatever the latest name for the conflicts are) were significant. Unfortunately, they are also heavily neglected in the historiography, although that is starting to change with an eyewateringly expensive academic tome titled ‘The British Civil War at Sea’. At £75 or so, I’ll have to wait for the paperback.

Fortunately, I have a few ideas on the matter. There is some stuff around. For example, the failed naval expeditions to La Rochelle in 1627 and 1628 were expensive, cost Charles I his favourite and led to dissolving Parliament in a huff. Ship Money, of course, caused further tensions in the 1630s, and the wars with Scotland brought the nation to the brink. After the Irish rebellion, the navy went over to the Parliamentarian side.

The consequences were serious for the Royalists (and Irish Confederates). They turned to private enterprise, but still needed foreign arms and munitions, which had to be imported. Slowly the Royalists gained strength at sea – capturing West Country ports helped. Henrietta Maria, famously, landed with arms at Bridlington in February 1643, under fire from a pursuing Parliamentary squadron.

The big ships in the Royal Navy were fairly useless, being too slow, for the war of intercepting merchant ships, convoys, and privateers. Both sides hired armed merchantmen, and Parliament even built some frigates. While there were no big battles there were bloody hostilities at sea, not to mention the relief of various ports by naval forces.

As I mentioned, that was also the question of the importation of guns and ammunition, and it was this that gave me an idea for a scenario. As the Royalists were the worst off for domestic production, they had to try to get cargo across the Channel, while Parliamentary forces, of course, tried to intercept and stop them.

The scenario is shown set up above. Really boring I know, but it gives the idea. The Royalists are in port, and the Parliamentarians are patrolling the sea with their heavier ships nearest the camera. The royalists have to exit by the nearest or near right-hand table edges. Each ship getting to the corner will score 3 points, the middle third of each side will score 2 points, and the last third of the near table will score 1 point. For Parliament, each ship taken will be worth 3 points, while each ship damaged will be worth 1 point per point of damage (for either side, in fact), or if the ship is forced off the table elsewhere than the Royal exit areas Parliament will gain 1 point. Each damage level a Parliamentary ship receives will lose them 1 point.

I should note at this point that the Royalists could fight back against the Parliamentary light ships but would surrender if the heavies (1 third and 1 fourth rate) came into close range. This is because, under the rules, mostly the merchantmen and 6th rates will be at least badly mauled by a close-range broadside from even a fifth rate. I should also note that the rules are my own, and are now covered with scribbled pencil notes.

I have recently discovered that naval wargames and describing the action is even more difficult than land-based wargames. Furthermore, the interaction of wind strength and direction makes things even more complex. The basic problem here was that for the first half of the game, the winds were light and so no one really moved very far or very fast. The wind veered from a north easterly at the start of the game and then round to south-west, which gave the Royalists the wind advantage from the second half of the game especially as the wind then strengthened, meaning that all the ships could move faster.

The game caused a lot of thought and manoeuvring, even more than a land game. The lighter ships clashed and Parliament lost one ship crippled and one seriously damaged (minus 5 points, oops). The main question was whether the Parliamentarian heavies could get among the main Royalist convoy. They were, at one point, getting close and the Royalists tacked (135-degree turn under the rules). The Parliamentarians were slower to turn and the Royalists gained but then reversed their tack and, moving a little faster than the Parliamentarian heavies managed to leave them just about behind.

The picture shows the final situation. While it would seem that the Parliamentary heavy ships are about to sail through the convoy, in fact, the next Royalist move will take them off the table and, due to the wind, there is nothing the Parliamentary ships can do about it. In the distance, on the right, you can see the two damaged Parliamentary 6th rates, as well as one in the foreground and one in the background which are in the wrong place and going the wrong way. Two Royalist sixth rates are already off the table, incidentally.

So, that was interesting. The rules, which I have not used for quite a while, seemed to work quite well, although they now need revision. The Royalists came out of port into a headwind, but the wind veered and gave them the weather gauge, which helped considerably. The Parliamentary ships contested the progress of the convoy bravely but were bested by lucky Royalist shooting rolls. The heavies never quite got into combat as they were extremely slow in the wind conditions.

So, the question now is what next, aside from rule revision. As Paul Hague remarked, naval wargames are best in the context of a campaign narrative, so the choices are either a chase at sea, with various Parliamentary ships trying to intercept the Royalists, and/or attempt to blockade the port to which they are heading. Mind you, the Royalists are on +13 points and the Parliamentarians on -5 at the moment, so there is a lot to catch up.

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