15th Century Naval History

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At the beginning of the 15th Century Henry V of England revived the Navy Royal establishing it as a permanent battle fleet, building a number of balingers and "great ships", increasing the fleet from six in 1413 to 39 by 1417/8. These included the 1,400-ton Grace Dieu (which still exists, buried in the Hamble estuary), and won victories in the Channel, reaching a high point in 1417 when the French fleet was destroyed. In 1414 he abolished the final regional command the Northern and Western Admiralty and centralized all naval affairs into a single Admiralty Office and a single commander, the High Admiral of England. An invasion of France took place in 1415 which led to the capture of Harfleur and the victory at Agincourt. A not well-known yet important naval engagement fought in the mouth of the river Seine, when on 15 August 1416, occurred between a fleet of English ships under the command of the king Henry V’s brother the Duke of Bedford who successfully defeated and scattered a Franco-Genoese naval force blockading the recently conquered port of Harfleur that was known as the Battle of the Seine. A second invasion, beginning in 1419, led to the conquest of the Channel coast of France, almost eliminating any seaborne threat to England and enabling the running down of Henry's naval forces.[1] payment the services of the the semi-autonomous Wardens of the Coast's ships and their crew's when need for large naval campaigns.

Historical Overview

Henry V

Today's modern historians tend to not acknowledged Henry V as one of the founders of the Royal Navy, because the word ‘navy’ was not used in the modern sense until the 16th century and ‘the Navy Royal’ implies the existence of a standing fleet of royal ships, during the medieval periods no English monarch possessed one.[2] In addition, it was impossible to exercise true sea power in medieval times, because the ships of the day found it difficult to keep the sea, let alone intercept an enemy. Lastly, there was no continuity between the fleet of Henry V and that of Henry VIII (the next monarch with a claim to be the founder).[3] However Henry V did take an unusual of interest in naval affairs during a short reign (1413-1422), He began building new larger and better equipped ships, whilst refitting out the existing fleet and by the time of Agincourt the new fleet was in operation. In February 1415 the royal fleet was assigned for the guard of the Narrow Sea and North Sea.[4]

During Henry's reign the Port of Southampton established its place as the most important naval base in England. This was partly due to the face that Henry who had appointed William Soper the Clerk of the King's Ships in 1418 was also a member of parliament for Southampton. The development of Southampton into an important naval port really had a lot to do with Soper's personal connection to the King. The first flagship of the royal fleet HMS Trinity Royal having been built earlier at Greenwich. In 1414 ship repair work began at Southampton but it would not be until around 1416 that a dock was constructed though not in the modern sense. It was here the the royal fleets second flagship HMS Gracedieu was constructed.[5] It was at Southampton was where Henry V’s army and fleet were assembled in 1415. Beginning on 19 March the High Admiral of England, Thomas Earl of Dorset under instructions of the King arranged for the entire available naval resources of England to be gathered and transferred to Southampton by 8 May.[6] By 27 July 1415 the royal fleet was according to accounts given at the time approximately 1,500 vessels. Modern historians however have revised this figure down to approximately 400 ships.[7] This fleet was made up of the Kings Ships or Royal Squadron together transport ships. As a result of Henry V’s conquest of Normandy between 1417 and 1419 and his policing of the Channel, the South of England enjoyed a generation of relative security, from piracy and French raids alike. Henry V was the fist English King to take a long term view towards naval activity, policy and planning.[8] It would not be until the end of King Edward IV reign that any permanent naval force for the defence of the realm was attempted by an English government.[9]

War of the Roses

During the War of the Roses, England had no standing fleet, and naval needs were met by indenting (contracting) with merchants and nobles to supply ships and crews to perform a specified service for a specified time. Not meant for voyaging in the open sea, civil war naval forces operated mainly in the Narrow Seas (i.e., the English Channel), where they undertook to intercept invaders, ward off coastal raiders, transport English armies, protect English traders, and maintain communication and supply lines with Calais.

After Henry V’s death in 1422, the powerful battle fleet that he had built to support military operations in France was disbanded. Because Henry’s conquest of the Norman coast denied the French access to Channel ports, the need for a large English navy seemed to disappear, and the minority government of Henry VI sold off ships and discharged experienced ship’s masters. By the late 1450s, with Normandy lost and civil war looming, Henry VI had no fleet and no money to build one. As a result, control of the Channel fell to the House of York after 1456, thanks mainly to the piratical activities of Richard Neville, earl of Warwick. As captain of Calais, Warwick appropriated wool revenues to build a fleet that plundered merchant vessels of various nationalities. While Warwick’s piracy embroiled the Lancastrian government with outraged foreign powers, it won the earl and the Yorkist cause much popularity, especially in LONDON, where Warwick was seen as a bold commander striking a much needed blow for English national pride. Warwick’s naval success was also a propaganda windfall for the Yorkists, because it could be profitably contrasted with Lancastrian ineffectiveness, especially in August 1457 when the government failed to prevent a French squadron under Pierre de Breze from sacking Sandwich. In 1460, Warwick defeated the royal fleet under Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, and also attacked Sandwich, where he destroyed a squadron then under construction and captured the Lancastrian commander, Richard Woodville, Lord Rivers, in his bed. Unopposed in the Channel, Warwick crossed to England in June; his popularity as a naval commander convinced London authorities to admit the Yorkists and allowed Warwick to gather the army with which he defeated and captured the king at the Battle of Northampton in July.

In the spring of 1470, after the failure of his second coup attempt against Edward IV, Warwick put to sea in the naval squadron he had maintained during the 1460s. Denied entry to Calais, Warwick resumed indiscriminate piracy in the Channel before landing in France, where he concluded the Angers Agreement with Queen Margaret of Anjou. Now acting in the Lancastrian interest, Warwick eluded the small royal fleet and landed in England, where in October he restored the House of Lancaster and forced Edward IV to flee to Burgundy. However, Edward, thanks in part to anger generated by Warwick’s piracy, was by March 1471 able to obtain shipping to England from the Hanseatic League, a German merchant alliance with which his government had previously been at war.

After defeating Warwick and regaining the throne, Edward IV began rebuilding the royal fleet by constructing ships and gathering a new cadre of experienced ship’s masters. In the 1460s, he had built the first English royal caravel, the Edward, and, after 1471, he constructed fleets to support his invasions of France (1475) and Scotland (early 1480s). Although still meant to carry land troops to fight battles at sea, caravels were smaller, faster vessels than Henry V’s high, bulky carracks, and they foreshadowed the quick, agile vessels with which Elizabethan England later defied the might of Spain. Despite these achievements, Edward still desired a small, inexpensive navy, and he maintained his fleet largely to protect trade and intercept invaders, a task that Richards's flotilla of watching vessels failed to accomplish in August 1485 when Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, set sail for Wales.

After defeating and killing Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field Richmond, Henry Tudor now Henry VII, continued the naval policy of Edward IV, building new ships and establishing a naval base at Southampton. However, he still indented for vessels when he took an army to defend Brittany in 1492, and he, like his predecessor, lacked the naval strength to intercept the invasion forces of such Yorkist pretenders as Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, who both had to be defeated in land battles (see: Battle of Stoke) after their arrival in England.

First Admiralty of England

Prior to 1414 naval and judicial administration and naval operations was divided into three specific geographical areas each commanded by an Admiral responsible for one of the three seas that surround the Brtish Isles; they included the Northern Sea or (North Sea), the Southern Sea or (English Channel) and the Western Sea or (Irish Sea).[10] They were Northern Admiralty was established between (1294-1406), the Southern Admiralty, (1294-1306), (1325-1326) and the the Western Admiralty, (1294-1406). In 1326 the Southern admiralty was merged into the Western admiralty. By the middle of the 14th century for operational purposes the admiralties were unified into larger national commands at various times though not permanent basis. In 1414 the last remaining regional admiralty under the control of the office of Admiral of the North and West was abolished and their role and jurisdiction was absorbed by the office of the High Admiral of England this led to a single nationwide admiralty known as the Admiralty Office.[11] However regional commands didn't entirely disappear such as the Narrow Seas Station, established in 1412 [12]

Admirals in the 15th Century

The appointment of an admiral was not regarded by the English Government at the time as an honourary post subordinate to a military rank, the importance attached to their office can be confirmed by the recording of their allowances paid recorded in the Calendar of Patent Rolls.[13] In the fourteenth century Admirals were paid a respectable salary which was only granted because the position was viewed as substantially important. In addition the rank of admiral was only granted to men of high prestige within the feudal hierarchy, most recipients of the office were usually knights but more often earls or even dukes.[14] The Admirals duties usually consisted of assembling fleets either from the Kings ships only or a combination of the monarchs vessels and those belonging to the Wardens of the Coast to be used for naval expeditions undertaken by the monarch on campaign, maintaining order and discipline and supervising the work of the Admiralty Courts for each region. On major military expeditions the Admiral would go to sea with their fleets and accompany the overall Commander-in-Chief of both sea and land forces usually the King himself but sometimes a nobleman of higher rank than the admiral himself. Their chief role was to observe and direct naval battles but not necessarily taking part in them, themselves.[15] However by 1344 and onward their role was moving from primarily an administrative command one to that of a seagoing command.[16]

Deputies, Lieutenants, Special Assistants and Sub-Admirals

In the fifteenth century the Admirals responsibilities was distributed through the creation of special assistants. these were appointed to handle two important sub-divisions of the admirals powers. The first was the admiral's lieutenant, or deputy sometimes refereed to as sub-admirals, they handled administrative and legal duties within each regional admiralty and each of these admirals had one, additionally they often retained more knowledge than the Admiral himself in relation to the sea and coastal communities.[17]. In 1337 the first known record of the appointment of a "vice-admiral' was granted to a Nicholas Ususmaris, a Genoese, he was made Vice-Admiral of the King's fleet of Galleys, and all other ships of Aquitaine.[18] However these appointments were far and few between., there was two further instances of the appointment of Vice-Admirals to Sir Thomas Drayton as Vice-Admiral of the Northern Fleet and Sir Peter Bard Vice-Admiral of the Western Fleet both on 28 July 1338.[19] In 1412 the office of Vice-Admiral of the Narrow Seas created but it fell vacant until it was revived in 1520. Following the creation of the single office of High Admiral of England was established in 1360 a special assistant was appointed around the middle of century c. 1450 to support the High Admiral in the discharging of his duties and was known as the Vice-Admiral of England or Lieutenant-General. They were appointed on a more regular basis but records of their appointments to office remain scarce. This sub-admiral eventually became known as the Lieutenant of the Admiralty.[20]

Operational organisation

Till the 15th century England had no permanent navy to defend it from sea-borne aggression. Instead five ports in the South East called the Cinque Ports continued to provide an Cinque Port Fleet to the Navy Royal. The Wardens of the Coast continued to be responsible for the direction and co-ordination of the fleet in their particular area, the equipping of boats and processing payments to sailors and superintendence of the Sea Guard Militia assigned to each coastal maritime county.[21]. In this century two more permanent naval commands were established the office of the Admiral of the Narrow Seas and the Admiral of the Irish Fleet, both commanding the Narrow Sea Squadron and the Kings Irish Fleet.

Logistical, Shore organisation

In the 15th century the High Admiral of England's logistical support shore based organization remained the same as with the previous century, the office of the Clerks of the Kings Marine would continue to manage the bulk of civil administration of Navy Royal. In 1320 the first clerk of the kings marine appointed was the Clerk of the King's Ships his duties were outlined in official documents of the time as the administration of ships of the crown, the repair of ships of the crown, the payments to all crews of the crown's ships, the safekeeping of ships of the crown and the victualling of ships of the crown.[22][23] The Clerk of the Kings Ships or Clerk of the Ships remained the sole naval administrator of the English Navy for the remainder of this century At the beginning of the 16th century a second clerk's office was established. I would be during the next century that the logistical support organisation would start to expand.


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  16. National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy
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