14th Century Naval History

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The Battle off Sluys 24 June 1340, was a major naval engagement of the 100 Years War involving the English and French Fleets depiction by James W.E. Doyle. (1854)

In the 14th century Naval Affairs was managed by the King in Council from 1300 to 1359. A more organised policy towards the Naval Defence of the Kingdom of England began to take shape at the end of the 13th century (1298), when England was geographically divided into three Regional Admiralties' by King Edward I, they continued to operate under Kings Edward II and Edward III. In 1360 monarch briefly centralised the control of these admiralty's under a single commander; an official known as the High Admiral of England. The regional admiralty's lasted until the first decade of the fifteenth Century.[1] Between the 14th and 16th centuries the Navy Royal and its vessels were under the direct or nominal control of the English monarchy and refereed to as the King’s Ships. However it was not sufficiently large in numbers at this point; so the monarch relied upon requisitioning the services of the the semi-autonomous Wardens of the Coast's and their ships and their crew's when needed for large naval campaigns the most important was the Cinque Port Fleet.

Historical Overview

King Alfred the Great first established a navy for England in the ninth century.[2] Navies during the very early middle ages were temporary naval formations of merchant ships requisitioned by the monarch as a feudal duty. In 1050 King Edward the Confessor established a framework for naval service to the crown by assigning ports located on the English Channel the name given to them was the Cinque Ports that consisted of a readily available Cinque Port Fleet.[3] The King's council controlled all naval matters for fifty nine years until the institution of a High Admiral of England formed in 1360 becoming one of the Great Officers of State of England.[4]

During the medieval period England did not possess a navy in the modern sense. There was no permanent fleets at this point specifically assigned for continual defensive and offensive operations at sea in service to the realm. Fleets were raised for military service on an ad hoc basis according to the policies and needs of the English Crown. The closest thing medieval England had to a navy in the modern sense were those ships which the monarchy directly owned or held shares in known as the Kings Ships. These fleets were not permanently maintained and for much of the medieval period (with the exception of the reigns of Edward III and Henry V) were modest in size. The raising and financing of fleets by the Crown was administered by royal officials called commissioners in co-operation with local officials of the maritime counties and ports of England called Wardens of the Coast, they possessed much larger naval forces than the crown such as the Cinque Port Fleet. Additionally Regional Admiralties were created overseen by an admiral to raise fleets in their designated regions.[5]

The big conflict of the century was the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) included frequent cross-Channel raids, frequently unopposed due to the lack of effective communications and the limitations of naval organisation. The navy was used for reconnaissance as well as for attacks on merchantmen and warships. Prize ships and cargoes were shared out. The Battle of Sluys in 1340 was a significant English victory, with Edward III of England's 160 ships (mostly hired merchant vessels) assaulting a French force in the Zwyn estuary and capturing 180 French ships in hand-to-hand combat. Les Espagnols sur Mer, fought in the Channel off Winchelsea in 1350, is possibly the first major battle in the open sea in English history; the English captured 14 Spanish ships. The 14th century also saw the creation of the post of Clerk of the King's Ships, who appears from 1344 on as in charge of some 34 royal vessels. At one point in the mid-14th century Edward III's navy had some 700 ships in service overall.[6]

English fortunes declined in the 1370s, with merchants objecting to the continual borrowing of their ships. There was objection to the taxation to man the king's ships, and by the end of the reign of Richard II of England only four were left, and by 1409 only two. At the beginning of the fifteenth 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 admiralty and centralized all naval affairs into a single Admiralty Office controlled and directed by 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 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.[7]

Regional Admiralties

Map of the Three Seas

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).[8] 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.

The first was the creation of the Southern Northern and Western Admiralty between (1360-1369) this led to the establishment of the office of the High Admiral of England that was an both an administrative and jurisdictional appointment and an operational appointment in the form of the first fleet commander called Admiral of all the Fleets both of these posts were held by a single commander in chief, John de Beauchamp, 1st Baron Beauchamp de Warwick. In 1406 the Northern and Western Admiralties were merged creating the Northern and Western Admiralty, (1364-1414). 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.[9] However regional commands didn't entirely disappear such as the Narrow Seas Station, established in 1412 [10]

Admirals of the North, South and West

Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland, 30th, Admiral of the North 1384 to 1385

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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] However by 1344 and onward their role was moving from primarily an administrative one to that of a seagoing command.[14]

Deputies, Lieutenants, Special Assistants and Sub-Admirals

In the fourteenth 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.[15]. 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18]

Operational Organisation

Edmund of Langley, Earl of Cambridge later 1st Duke of York. Appointed Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1376.

The second division of the Admirals powers was invested in the offices of the Wardens of the Coast for each regional admiralty who were responsible for the direction and co-ordination of the fleet, the equipping of boats and processing payments to sailors and superintendence of the Sea Guard Militia assigned to each coastal maritime county.[19].

Logistical, Shore Organisation

In the 14th century Admirals logistical support and shore organization lay in the creation of the first of seven offices of the Clerks of the Kings Marine they were established manage the burden of civil administration. 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.[20][21] The Clerk of the Kings Ships or Clerk of the Ships remained the sole naval administrator of the English Navy for two hundred years until three further clerks offices established between 1512 until 1528. These individual offices were eventually brought together in 1545 as an executive committee known as the Council of the Marine that was collectively responsible for the civil administrations of the Navy until 1578 when it was replaced by the Navy Board.

Wars with Naval Engagements

Wars of Scottish Independence (1296-1357)

The Wars of Scottish Independence were a series of military campaigns fought between the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.

The First War (1296–1328) began with the English invasion of Scotland in 1296, and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328. The Second War (1332–1357) began with the English-supported invasion by Edward Balliol and the 'Disinherited' in 1332, and ended in 1357 with the signing of the Treaty of Berwick. The wars were part of a great crisis for Scotland and the period became one of the most defining times in its history. At the end of both wars, Scotland retained its status as an independent state. The wars were important for other reasons, such as the emergence of the longbow as a key weapon in medieval warfare.

Hundred Years' War (1337-1453)

The Hundred Years' War was a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, against the French House of Valois, over the right to rule the Kingdom of France. Each side drew many allies into the war. It was one of the most notable conflicts of the Middle Ages, in which five generations of kings from two rival dynasties fought for the throne of the largest kingdom in Western Europe. The war marked both the height of chivalry and its subsequent decline, and the development of strong national identities in both countries.

Third Fernandine War (1381-1383)

The Third Fernandine War was the last conflict of the Fernandine Wars, and took place between 1381–1382, between the Crown of Castile and the Kingdoms of Portugal and England. When Henry II of Castile (Henry of Trastamara) died in 1379, John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster claimed their rights of the throne of the Kingdom of Castile, and again found an ally in Ferdinand I of Portugal.


  1. Rodger, N.A.M. (1997). "Captains and Admirals: Social History 1204 to 1455". The safeguard of the sea : a naval history of Britain. Vol 1., 660-1649. London: Penguin. pp. 131–142. ISBN 9780140297249.
  2. Hall, Simon (1999). The Hutchinson Illustrated Encyclopedia of British History. London, England: Taylor & Francis. p. 295. ISBN 9781579581077.
  3. Gorski, Richard (2012). Roles of the Sea in Medieval England. Martlesham, England: Boydell Press. p. 47. ISBN 9781843837015.
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  7. Wagner, p. 322
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  9. Allison, Ronald; Riddell, Sarah, eds. (1991). The Royal encyclopedia. London: Macmillan Academic and Professional. p. 316. ISBN 9780333538104.
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  12. Rodger pp. 131-142
  13. Rodger pp. 131-142
  14. National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy
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  16. Nicolas, Sir Nicholas Harris (1847). A History of the Royal Navy, from the Earliest Times to the Wars of the French Revolution: 1327-1422. London: R. Bentley. p. 25.
  17. Tucker, St George (2004). "Introduction". Blackstone's commentaries : with notes of reference to the constitution and laws, of the federal government of the United States, and of the Commonwealth of Virginia; with an appendix to each volume, containing short tracts upon such subjects as appeared necessary to form a connected view of the laws of Virginia as a member of the federal union. Vol. 1 (5 ed.). Clark, New Jersey, United States: Lawbook Exchange Ltd. p. xxxii. ISBN 9781886363168.
  18. Blomfield, R. Massie (January 1912). "NAVAL EXECUTIVE RANKS". The Mariner's Mirror. 2 (4): 106–112. doi:10.1080/00253359.1912.10654589.
  19. Rodger pp. 131-142
  20. Bates, Robin (2008). Shakespeare and the Cultural Colonization of Ireland. Routledge. p. 28. ISBN 9781135905125.
  21. Rodger pp. 131-142