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Royal NavyRoyal Navy

Historical periods

From Navy Royal to Royal Navy 1509 to 1660

Battle of North Foreland, June 1653, the flagship of Admiral Tromp engages the British Ship James (Royal Naval Museum)
Capture of the Scottish ship Lion, 1511
Revenge in her last fight off the Azores, 1591

Henry VIII and the Navy Royal

When Henry VIII was crowned in 1509 he was aware of the growing naval power of King James IV of Scots. James had built an impressive fleet to control the Western Isles including a giant gun armed ship, the Great Michael. This was an attack on Henry's prestige and a threat since Scotland was allied to France.

Henry built up of his major own fleet, the Navy Royal as was known. New ships to match the Great Michael were constructed, the best known being the Mary Rose , whose wreck is preserved in Portsmouth. Smaller types of warships (galleases) combining the best features of oars, sails and guns were also built. By Henry's death in 1547 his fleet had grown to 58 vessels, partly funded by the resources of the dissolved monasteries.

This enlarged fleet required a more developed administration with storehouses and dockyards. In 1546 a 'Council of the Marine' was established which later became the 'Navy Board'. The Navy Board was in charge of the daily administration of the navy until 1832 when it was combined with the Board of the Admiralty. At this time the latter's functions were in the hands of single officer, the Lord Admiral, who commanded the king's ships at sea.

Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada

Elizabeth I inherited a fleet of only 27 ships in 1558. Instead of building up her own fleet Elizabeth encouraged private enterprise, in effect piracy, against Spain's new Atlantic empire. She used men engaged in these activities, such as Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake , to command groups of Royal and private ships in attacks on the Spanish.

When Spain counter attacked and threatened invasion with its Armada of 1588 the Navy of England both Royal and private was mobilised successfully to defend the realm.

From Mary Rose to Sovereign of the Seas

The Mary Rose was typical of the larger sailing ships of the fleet with high castles at bow and stern. She was one of the first ships to carry heavy guns firing out of gun ports in the side of the hull.

There were also oared vessels of various sizes which used their better mobility to bring their guns to bear, usually firing forward. During the reign of Henry VIII these vessels were developed into fast, handy sailing ships that became known as galleons; combining the well armed prow of a galley with the seaworthiness of a sailing ship, they were the major fighting ship at the time of the Spanish Armada.

Early in the Seventeenth Century, larger galleons were built with heavier armaments. The obvious place to put more guns was along the side of the ship, the broadside, and this encouraged new naval tactics. The line of battle was born. Easily the largest English ship was Sovereign of the Seas built for prestige purposes by Charles I in 1637. The first ship with three gun decks to carry her 102 guns, she was the most powerful ship in the world for many years.

Charles I and the Commonwealth regime

The Navy Royal changed little in size from Elizabeth's death in 1603 to the accession in 1625 of King Charles I. Like Henry VIII, Charles I began to build up his fleet by exploiting his ancient rights to raise money to pay for it. By 1633 there were 50 of the king's ships but financial problems and poor administration saw this reduced to 42 by 1642.

When the Civil War broke out in 1642 the fleet, starved of money, declared for Parliament. The Commonwealth regime created the most powerful and effectively run fleet Britain had ever seen. By 1652 the navy has 102 ships and cost 400,000 pounds per year to maintain. Ships adopted broadside tactics and fought in long lines. The line was divided into three squadrons each with an admiral, vice-admiral and rear admiral, the origins of today's ranks. This magnificent new force proved its power fighting the Dutch War and Spanish led by such excellent admirals as Robert Blake .

When the King Charles II came to the throne in 1660 he inherited a huge fleet of 154 ships. This was a permanent professional national force and the beginning of the Royal Navy as we know it today.

Further reading:

  • N.A.M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea, A Naval History of Britain 660-1649(London 1997). D. Loades, "From the Kings Ships to Royal Navy" in J.R. Hill (Ed.)The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy (Oxford, 1995).