First steps towards a Navy – Ken Napier

Text of Ken Napier’s speech at the annual general meeting 2015

CS Forester wrote a number of sailing maritime historical fiction books. These include The Earthly Paradise (Columbus), the many Hornblower novels, The Captain from Connecticut (US 1814), and later nautical books. His non-fiction includes The Naval War of 1812, and Nelson. They were carefully based on historical research, and meticulous sailing methods.

This article covers the formation and development of the Royal Navy, from Alfred the Great to 1815.
The illustrations show the development of sailing warships from 1340 – 1812

Alfred the Great had a small fleet, c886, which he used to defend Wessex against Danes. By 1340, the English ships, many from the Cinque Ports, were primarily for transporting troops to France. Eventually 250 quite small ships met 200 French ships, at the battle of Sluys off the Dutch coast. This can best be described as a land battle at sea – archers opened up, the ships went alongside each other and axemen, swordsmen and pike men fought it out. The French lost between 26 and 30,000 men and most of their ships, the English about 4,000 men. Edward III commanded the fleet from the cog THOMAS, of about 200 tons. (To set the scene my first ship, a wooden hulled minesweeper, was 360 tons, 35 crew).
A Lord High Admiral was appointed in 1391, but he didn’t always have ships to command.
Henry V built the JESUS of 1,000 tons in 1420, and most importantly he was the first to put large naval guns in his ships. He used his ships to keep the Channel clear of enemy warships, at other times to check piracy which was rife. Henry VII built a drydock in Portsmouth. As merchant ships grew larger so did the King’s ships.

Henry VIII inherited seven royal ships and built 24 more. The object of sea fighting was now to destroy by gunfire if possible. His largest ship was the HENRY GRACE A DIEU, a four master of 1,500 tons.

His daughter Elizabeth appointed John Hawkins, as treasurer of the Navy Board. He was an experienced merchant seaman, and did away with the unseaworthy high fo’c’sles; this enabled his ships to steer closer to the wind and to be faster.
His and her ships duly fought the Spanish Armadas, yes plural, and in 1588 under Queen Elizabeth the English Navy defeated the most serious one. The English warships were more numerous than the Spanish warships who also had troop transports, and were if anything better armed – and fighting in defence of their country. The Armada was convincingly defeated, and the Spanish invading army remained stuck ashore.

For the next 300 years the only advances lay in the growth in tonnage and the evolution of a finer hull form, a more efficient sail plan and more powerful armament.
BUT the Royal Navy became pre-eminent.


Second steps to building a Navy.
Henry VIII’s and Queen Elizabeth’s English Navy both relied on officers and men who had started as merchant adventurers, and explorers. Their ships had to defend themselves, and they did – and captured other merchant ships, much to the annoyance of the Spanish in particular. But ships full of guns had less space for cargo. Voyages were made to Russia, Guinea, North America and the Mediterranean. The ships were not only quite heavily armed but were seaworthy for Atlantic crossings. A hard core of well-trained sailors was developed, in time for the 1588 Armada.

In the 17th century Britain continued her mercantile progress, fighting the Dutch when necessary. The Dutch East India company had a problem – their ships had to be shallower draught than those of the British East India Company, to get in and out of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and could therefore carry less trade goods. (Hornblower’s ship of the line, SUTHERLAND, ex Dutch EENDRACHT, had exactly this problem, and tended to go downwind to leeward quickly, with no deep keel). British trading stations developed in America, Madras Calcutta and Bombay. The Dutch wars were the inevitable climax of imperial and economic rivalry.

Incidentally the British Navy under the administration of Samuel Pepys, and commanded by a series of very effective Generals at sea, were allowed ten times more for each man’s daily rations than I was in 1988! The Navy was officially called the Royal Navy from the time of Charles II.

By1653, the Fighting Instructions laid down that the “line ahead” was to be the principal fighting formation, by 1665 the distance between ships was to be half a cable, ie 100 yards (metres). The line could be used to double the enemy’s, and this was done at Solebay, 1672, Beachy Head 1690 and Barfleur 1692. 100 ships on either side fought for command of the seas. Smaller ships would be easily defeated, so ships with more than 50 guns were First Rate, Second and Third rate “SHIPS OF THE LINE”. Fourth rates and below were used as convoy guard ships, cruising ships in foreign waters and on expeditions of great distance.
British shipbuilding “Establishments” successively increased the size of ships, but the rigid specification retarded the progress of naval architecture.

In 1637 the first real prototype of the first rate ship of the line, the SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS, had three masts, and 100 guns on three decks. She was 232 feet long and had displacement of 1637 tons. She was basically the same plan as the VICTORY, but with more decoration; built in 1765, VICTORY was Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, 1805.

Continental shipbuilders were free to incorporate in their designs the results of scientific investigations into the design of warships. Continental shipbuilders allowed a greater space between gunports, which increased the length of the ships and their breadth, but allowed more space for the gunners to manage their guns. The ships were more buoyant, and especially the lower gundeck was higher above the water; this allowed all the guns to fire in heavy weather compared with the British, and this was to be the case for 150 years. The French also followed research into the resistance of solid bodies to water and waves, and particular attention was paid to the underwater hull form. French ships were faster, and in the event of a chase could escape.

Spanish ships were also better and bigger. In the second quarter of the 18th century a typical Spanish 70 gun ship was 15 feet longer, 6 feet wider and 4 feet deeper, than a British ship of the same armament: the Spanish vessel was 1700 tons, the British 1250. But this did not stop the British ships from winning – here (illustration) the CENTURION defeats the Spanish COVADONGA, 1743. One reason – the British allowed gunnery practice regularly with real ammunition, and also much more time at sea: blockading summer and winter in all weathers was hard training. Sailors, especially Topmen, knew their stuff – although accidents at sea were common. This was the case right through the Napoleonic wars. In 1757 the Royal Navy introduced a new class of ship of the line – the 74, based on French designs such as the captured INVINCIBLE, taken in 1747.
And this was to be the case for the next 100 years – superb French ships ended up captured by better British seamen and it must be said better cannons, fired faster, and lasted much longer than equivalent British ships – perhaps because latterly many British ships had to be built of pine and not oak, as although there were plenty of oak trees left in England most were inaccessible. In 1757, a 74 gunned ship of the line could take up to 4,000 mature oak trees. Some ships were later built in India where hardwood was available.

Men too were in short supply: In 1653 16,000 men had been enough to man the fleet, by 1688 – 42,000. The costs of keeping the fleet in existence was prodigious.

The eighteenth century saw a series of naval wars, mostly successful for Britain. The climax was probably in 1759, during the Seven Years’ war, when Britain defeated the French convincingly: Canada was confirmed as British – Wolfe (with naval support) took Quebec; a French invasion fleet was destroyed at Lagos in Spain – but the ultimate battle was Quiberon Bay. Hawke had chased the French fleet from Brest. He hoisted the most daring signal in history: “GENERAL CHASE” which was very dangerous indeed. He ordered every ship to attack. This was during a storm, on a badly charted lee shore – even Brest was out on French charts by 30 miles. He lost two ships and destroyed the French fleet.The Navy’s March is Hearts of Oak: the second line is “To add something more to this wonderful year” – 1759.

US War of Independence. At Chesapeake Bay, De Grasse drove off English Admiral Graves, and the British army surrendered 1781 at Yorktown – out numbered heavily by the French and Washington’s Armies, and unsupported. BUT the cost was too high for French Chancellor Necker and the bankrupt French government – he could not pay for a French Army, a French Navy and the profligate French court – the results were at once the Independence of the USA – and very shortly the French Revolution. De Grasse was later defeated by Rodney’s fleet at the battle of the Saintes, when the French line of battle was broken by the RN.

The RN entered war with France with a balanced and well trained Fleet, and maintained that level of excellence on blockade duties, single ship actions and especially convoy duties: both defensive and offensive. There were to be over 120 Ships of the Line, First, Second third and fourth rates. They could not sail as fast as their French opponents, and their lower gun decks were closer to the sea’s surfaces, making it impossible in rough weather for the lower gundeck’s main armament guns to fire – the gunports could not be opened. Some of the ships like VICTORY were quite old, and their wood work was not in good condition.

The Royal Navy could fire faster than the French, and expected to win. Most – but not all – Admirals were used to attack, even if outnumbered. But all was not well with the Fleet, in that pay remained very poor, and there were a series of mutinies at the end of the 18th century. Conditions at sea were hard, with frequent casualties, and some ships relied on harsh discipline. For an excellent account of blockade work, see Forester’s “HORNBLOWER and the HOTSPUR”.
The Navy also fought the USN. President Madison had taken Napoleon’s word that the US could have Canada, and declared war. The USN’s three super frigates easily defeated the smaller RN frigates, which were on convoy protection duties: however the US ships were so pleased with their successes, that the RN had done its job – the convoys escaped.

The USN had access to superb seamen, some of whom were ex RN, and used southern live oak from Gascoigne Bluff, Georgia. This was very dense indeed – up to 75lbs per cubic foot. Indeed it took three goes to launch CONSTITUTION. PRESIDENT was captured, and drawings used to build an RN PRESIDENT – subsequently used as RN flag ship on the US coast. See Forester’s “The Captain from Connecticut” for a good account of one of these super frigates…

Here is a namesake of mine, Henry Napier: “Found the month of April on and abut St George’s Bank, extremely unpleasant from bad to worse, very cold, with damp penetrating fog, constantly and alternatively changing to rain with the wind from west round by south and east, when it hardens into snow and sleet, which continues till it veers to the to the westward of north, a sure indication of hard frost; thus the comforts of a winter cruise on the coast of North America are inexhaustible”.

But blockade duty worked: USS ESSEX captured a number of British whaling ships in the Pacific, before being captured herself by HMS PHOEBE, but all the whalers were recaptured before they could reach the US coast.
By the end of the Napoleonic wars, the Royal Navy was unquestioned ruler of the sea, ensuring British merchants could carry out their work unmolested.


KEN NAPIER, Chazarem October 2015