Roots of the British Navy

In this latest post, I aim to put forward the argument that the British navy saw its rise during the seventeenth century during and after the English Civil War. Much historical writing has been done on the British navy during the century after, but due to the formation of the navy coming from one of Britain’s most embarrassing defeats, it can be see why the seventeenth century has been left alone by British historians. I will briefly mention the historical context as well as talk about the tactics developed and mention some of the admirals during this time period, arguing that they may be or could be argued to be greater than Nelson himself.

The seventeenth century is home to perhaps one of the least remembered conflicts in British public history, the Anglo-Dutch Wars of 1652-72. In the three wars that take place in the space of 20 or so years, both the English and Dutch fleets engaged to huge battles of over 80 plus ships on each side. The battles were fought just off the English and Dutch coasts, or even around the Isle of Wight, so extremely close to home. Thousands of sailors would die a horrible death whilst in the service of their countries navies. The causes of such a war deserve its own blog discussion so stay tuned!

So where are the roots of the English navy? Well Cromwell’s decision to expand the navy, and to also create the forerunners of the marines, ensured that the navy was fit enough to take on the Dutch and win. This was the end of the era of the national navy hiring private ships to fight their own battles. After the first Anglo-Dutch Wars of 1652, the English navy, bought and made its own men of war, to fight with a large number of guns to do the most damage. The navy admirals were land generals, with Blake and Monke coming from the English Civil War, however they did surprisingly well and it due to these men that the tactic of sailing in line came about, which would remain with us until Nelson broke line during the battle of Trafalgar. Blake was stubborn, he always fought, even if he was completely outnumbered, he would stand, and his naval tactics were no different in this. I would argue that he was a genius and it was down to his stubbornness and general ideas that won him the battles and the First war. Sadly he would die before the Second Anglo-Dutch War, and this is where the changes happened.

By the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, there could be seen drastic faults in the navy structure; it was corrupt and too factional. Thanks to Pepy’s diaries we now know what exactly happened and how it was restructured. If you want to know more about Pepy’s, then you can get plenty a book on the man or maybe they’ll be a blog post in the future about what he did and how important he was, then and now.

The sum up the British sailing tactics in this period, is to say they preferred big ships, big guns and iron discipline to rule to waves. It was a tactic that would remain for over a century. But the Anglo-Dutch War shaped how the navy thought, how it was organised, how it was led, and how it won. So for a war where we lost drastically, (Raid on the Medway for starters),it changed Britain, and it made England one of the greatest sea powers. The 17th century, a military revolution?


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