16th Century Naval History

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Painting of the HMS Mary Rose under sail by Geoff Hunt


The 16th Century saw the establishment of a permanent Navy Royal,[1] with its own secretariat, dockyards and a permanent core of purpose-built warships, built and developed during the reign of Henry VIII.[2] Under Elizabeth I England became involved in a war with Spain, which saw privately owned ships combining with the Navy Royal in highly profitable raids against Spanish commerce and colonies.[3] In 1588, Philip II of Spain sent the Spanish Armada against England to end English support for Dutch rebels, and to stop English corsair activity and to depose the Protestant Elizabeth I and restore Catholicism to England. The Spaniards sailed from Lisbon, planning to escort an invasion force from the Spanish Netherlands but the scheme failed due to poor planning, English harrying, and blocking action by the Dutch, and severe storms.[4] A Counter Armada, known as the English Armada, was dispatched to the Iberian coast in 1589, but it failed to drive home the advantage England had won upon the dispersal of the Spanish Armada in the previous year. The Admiralty Office (1414–1546) then later Admiralty and Marine Affairs Office (1546–1690) became a government department of state in 1690 called the Department of Admiralty or Admiralty.

Historical overview

The English experiment of different types of government began to develop during this period. The monarch's leading advisers became the Privy Council of England, the central body of the government of the Tudors and the Stuarts.[5] Originally, this was a select group of the full royal council, but in time, the full council became too large for effective government. The monarch's principal private secretary (would be later known as the Secretary of State during the 16th Century) was responsible for all administrative functions of the crown whilst the Treasurer of the Royal Court was in effect its chief of finance and responsible for all functions of finance relating to accounting and auditing.

In 1546 as the English Navy was expanding there was at this point no official body set up the manage it effectively this led to the creation of council of advisers to the Lord Admiral of England known as the 'Council of the Marine' formed by group of court officials with the consent of King Henry VIII that would act as an advisory committee, this council would evolve into the Navy Board. This new Navy Office would be the first permanent attempt to establish effective naval administration the board's remit was the construction of ships, the maintenance of ships including repairs and the control and administering the Royal Dockyards

The origins of the Navy Board really date in the first quarter of the 16th century when the Keeper of the King's (or Clerk of the King's) Ships the predecessor then later subordinate office of the Lord Admiral of England was joined by a Keeper of the Kings Storehouses. As management of the navy began to expand he was joined by a third officer the Treasurer of Marine Causes. In 1545 a fourth officer was created (a Surveyor and Rigger of the Navy) about this time the group worked as a body called the Council of the Marine. The Navy Board was officially appointed by letters patent by Henry VIII on the 24 April 1546 that was initially directed by the Lieutenant of the Admiralty until 1557.[6] the board was charged with overseeing the administrative affairs of the navy (while directive, executive and operational duties of the Lord High Admiral remained with the Admiralty Office.[7] It was also referred to as the Navy Office.[8] In 1550 there was a creation of a fifth officer the Surveyor-General of Victuals who was responsible for supplying the fleet with food and drink supplies. There was also during this period a creation of a Board of Ordnance though essentially independent supplied the Navy Royal with weapons, which was directed by a Master of Naval Ordnance, this board was responsible for the storing and issuing of weapons, maintaining gunpowder stores and running the ordinance wharf's at the main various Naval Bases. From the 1550s onward for the next six decades, this system of Naval administration did not change.

In 1557 the Lieutenant of the Admiralty ceased to direct the Navy Board that role was now given to the Treasurer of Marine Causes. In the earlier part of its history, it remained independent until 1628 when it became a subsidiary body of the Board of Admiralty. The Navy Board’s formation would influence the modernisation of the Lord Admiral's office itself the Treasurer an original member of the board, however, developed independently (reporting to the Lord High Treasurer), they effectively would provide the money for the Royal Navy, however financial spending and financial administration would remain the responsibility of the Navy Board.

Naval Affairs and Organization

Office of the Commander-in-Chief of the English Armed Forces

The Commander-in-Chief of the English Armed Forces, also referred to as Commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the Crown, is a constitutional role vested in the English monarch, who as head of state is the "Head of the Armed Forces". Long-standing constitutional convention, however, has vested de facto executive authority, by the exercise of Royal Prerogative.[9]

Council of Advisers to the Commander-in-Chief

The Privy Council of England, also known as His or Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, was a body of advisers to the sovereign of the Kingdom of England. Its members were often senior members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons of the Parliament of England, together with leading churchmen, judges, diplomats and military leaders.

The Privy Council of England was a powerful institution, advising the Sovereign on the exercise of the Royal prerogative and on the granting of Royal charters. It issued executive orders known as Orders in Council and also had judicial functions. The Lord Admiral of England was a member of the privy council.[10]

  1. Privy Council of England

Admiralty of England

Flag of the Admiralty of England 16th Century

The Admiralty of England during the 16th century consisted of the Office of the High Admiral of England later Lord Admiral of England as naval commander in chief of England controlling and directing the Admiralty Office later renamed the Admiralty and Marine Affairs Office. He was supported in the discharging of his duties by two deputy's the Vice-Admiral of England and the Lieutenant of the Admiralty they were responsible for the control and direction of the navy in matters of civil, legal and logistical support administration the Navy Royal. This was managed through the individual Offices of the Clerks of the Kings Marine, they were collectively working together by 1545. In 1546 they were formally brought together an executive committee called the Council of the Marine, this later became known as the Navy Board which oversaw the Navy Office and Navy Pay Office. Management and supply of naval ordnance, arms and armour came under the Ordnance Office overseen by a Board of Ordnance, there was also a separate Armoury Office both whom were autonomous of the Admiralty Office itself but it coordinated the provision of and supply ordnance to Admiralty of England. This was achieved through the creation of a special liaison officer called the Master of Naval Ordnance who was a member all relevant boards and councils.

  1. Admiralty Office
  2. Admiralty and Marine Affairs Office

Naval Commander in Chief of England

The ancient office of the High Admiral of England was first established in 1360 and at times titled as High Admiral of England, Ireland and Aquitaine by 1414 the post was now national and permanent the title when the last surviving Regional Admiralty from the previous 13th century the Northern and Western Admiralty was abolished and its functions subsumed into a single Admiralty Office. During the sixteenth century the Naval Commander in Chief of England's title was altered to Lord Admiral of England in 1512. [11] From the 17th century it was altered again to Lord High Admiral of England.[11] He was the head of the Navy Royal. Most Lord Admiral's have been courtiers or members of the Royal Family, and not professional naval officers. The office of Lord High Admiral is one of the nine English Great Officers of State.

  1. High Admiral of England
  2. Lord Admiral of England
Deputy Naval Commander in Chief of England

His official deputies were the Vice-Admiral of England originally established around c. 1450. Then he was collectively responsible for both civil administration of the navy but also its legal administration exercised through the admiralty courts. The Vice-Admiral served as head of the court system until 1483 when he was relieved of one of his duties by the establishment of the office of the Judge of the High Court of Admiralty in 1483. By the 16th century his role was primarily operational whilst superintending the Judge of the High Court.[12] In 1545 a second deputy to the Lord Admiral known as the Lieutenant of the Admiralty was created he was made head of the executive committee the Council of the Marine who oversaw all civil, logistical and support services of the Navy Royal

  1. Vice-Admiral of England
  2. Lieutenant of the Admiralty

Operational organisation

Subordinate to High Admiral and his deputies were vice-admirals appointed to command specific squadrons. The English Navy has organized the fleet into squadrons from at early 13th century [13] and certainly during the 16th century. In 1560 four squadrons were operating in the Channel, Irish Sea, Narrow Seas and North Sea[14] Until the 16th century, admirals were high officials under kings, and were charged with protecting the realm from sea attack.[15]

  1. Vice-Admiral Commanding the Channel Squadron
  2. Admiral Commanding the Irish Squadron
  3. Admiral Commanding the Narrow Seas Squadron
  4. Vice-Admiral Commanding the North Sea Squadron

Logistical and Shore Support organisation

Prior to 1545 logistical support to the Lord and Vice-Admiral of England originally lay with of four men appointed to the Office of the Clerks of the Kings Marine. They were variously responsible for naval finance, ship building, safekeeping of ships and ship yards, storehouses and victualling [16] As their work load increased additional Kings Clerks were appointed before they were eventually brought together collectively into a committee called the Council of the Marine sometimes called the Council of Marine Causes and were appointed by letters patent to be responsible, under the Lord High Admiral, for the civil administration of the Navy. These Chief Officers of the Admiralty later became known as the Principal Officers and Commissioners of the Navy, of the Navy Board in 1576. They were responsible for materials, non-combatant personnel, warrant officers and ratings and the civil administration of the Navy and were headquartered at the Navy Office. The Navy Board and subsequently the Navy Office at first they worked closely with the Lord High Admiral, but by the early eighteenth century, while nominally subordinate to the Board of Admiralty, they acted in practice largely semi independently of it, issuing orders directly from the Secretary of State of England. Responsibility for naval finance during the 16th century administered by the Office of the Treasurer of Marine Causes although he was a member of the council then later board he operated semi-autonomously of them, he was headquartered at the Navy Pay Office and and additionally he reported to the Lord High Treasurer of England the Kingdom of England's Chief Financial Officer.

  1. Offices of the Clerks of the Kings Marine
  2. Council of the Marine
  3. Navy Board
  4. Navy Office
  5. Navy Office
  6. Office of Ordnance
  7. Board of Ordnance

Judicial organisation

  1. Judicial Department

Wars with Naval Engagements

The Kingdom of England and hence Navy Royal was involved in a number of armed conflicts either directly or part of joint opposing forces during the 16th century that continued into the 17th century, below is some of the most important ones individual battles and other naval engagements can be found in those articles.

Italian War of (1521–1526)

The Italian War of (1521–1526), sometimes known as the Four Years' War, was a part of the Italian Wars. The war pitted Francis I of France and the Republic of Venice against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Henry VIII of England, and the Papal States.

Italian War of (1542–1546)

The Italian War of (1542–1546) was a conflict late in the Italian Wars, pitting Francis I of France and Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Henry VIII of England.

Italian War of (1551–1559)

The Italian War of (1551–59), sometimes known as the Habsburg–Valois War and the Last Italian War, began when Henry II of France, who had succeeded Francis I to the throne, declared war against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V with the intent of recapturing Italy and ensuring French, rather than Habsburg, domination of European affairs.

War of the Portuguese Succession (1580-1583)

The War of the Portuguese Succession, a result of the extinction of the Portuguese royal line after the Battle of Alcácer Quibir and the ensuing Portuguese succession crisis of 1580, was fought from 1580 to 1583 between the two main claimants to the Portuguese throne.

Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604)

The Anglo-Spanish War was an intermittent conflict between the kingdoms of Spain and England that was never formally declared.The war was punctuated by widely separated battles, and began with England's military expedition in 1585 to the Netherlands under the command of the Earl of Leicester in support of the resistance of the States General to Spanish Habsburg rule.

Dutch Revolt (1568–1648)

The Dutch Revolt was the revolt of the northern, largely Protestant Seven Provinces of the Low Countries against the rule of the Roman Catholic Habsburg King Philip II of Spain, hereditary ruler of the provinces. The northern provinces (Netherlands) eventually separated from the southern provinces (present-day Belgium and Luxembourg), which continued under Habsburg Spain until 1714.

Eighty Years' War (1568–1648)

The Eighty Years' War also known as the Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648) was a revolt of the Seventeen Provinces of what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg against Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands.


  1. Tittler, Robert; Jones, Norman L. (Apr 15, 2008). A Companion to Tudor Britain. John Wiley & Sons. p. 193. ISBN 9781405137409.
  2. Rodger, Safeguard, pp. 221–37
  3. Rodger, Safeguard, pp. 238–53, 281–6, 292–6
  4. Rodger, Safeguard, pp. 253–71
  5. Perry, Marvin (2015). Western Civilization: A Brief History. Cengage Learning. p. 213. ISBN 9781305537750.
  6. Ehrman, John (2012). The Navy in the war of William III, 1689-1697: its state and direction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 179. ISBN 9781107645110.
  7. "MOD historical summary" (PDF).
  8. Baugh, Daniel A. (Dec 8, 2015). British Naval Administration in the Age of Walpole. Princeton University Press. p. 2. ISBN 9781400874637.
  9. Hewison, Robert (2015). Culture and Consensus (Routledge Revivals): England, Art and Politics since 1940. Abingdon, England: Routledge. p. 7. ISBN 9781317512387.
  10. Pulman, Michael Barraclough (1971). The Elizabethan Privy Council in the fifteen-seventies. Berkley, California, USA: University of California Press. p. 59. ISBN 978-0520017160.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Rodger, N.A.M. (1998). "appendix:v : Admirals and Officials". The safeguard of the sea : a naval history of Britain, 660-1649 (1st American ed.). New York: W.W. Norton. pp. 504–509. ISBN 9780393319606.
  12. Perrin. W.G., The Mariners Mirror Volume 1, Issue 1, pp,26-31, January 1928.
  13. Rose, Susan (2013). "3:The Navy of England understanding the resources of the crown". England's Medieval Navy 1066-1509: Ships, Men & Warfare. Barnsley, England: Seaforth Publishing. ISBN 9781473853546.
  14. Corbett, Julian Stafford (1917). "The Navy of Elizabeth". Drake and the Tudor navy, with a history of the rise of England as a maritime power. London, England: London : Longmans, Green. p. 347.
  15. Incorporated, Grolier (2000). The encyclopedia Americana. New York, NY, USA: Grolier Inc. p. 173.
  16. Rodger, N.A.M. (1998). "The Council of the Marine". The safeguard of the sea : a naval history of Britain, 660-1649 (1st American ed.). New York: W.W. Norton. pp. 221–238. ISBN 9780393319606.


  1. Flag of the Admiralty of England 16th Century Image by Martin Grieve at https://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/xf-copy.html