Chronicles of America 

Henry VIII, King of the English Sea

The leading pioneers in the Age of Discovery were sons of Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Cabot, as we have seen, was an Italian, though he sailed for the English Crown and had an English crew. Columbus, too, was an Italian, though in the service of the Spanish Crown. It was the Portuguese Vasco da Gama who in the very year of John Cabot's second voyage (1498) found the great sea route to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Two years later the Cortereals, also Portuguese, began exploring the coasts of America as far northwest as Labrador. Twenty years later again the Portuguese Magellan, sailing for the King of Spain, discovered the strait still known by his name, passed through it into the Pacific, and reached the Philippines. There he was killed. But one of his ships went on to make the first circumnavigation of the globe, a feat which redounded to the glory of both Spain and Portugal. Meanwhile, in 1513, the Spaniard Balboa had crossed the Isthmus of Panama and waded into the Pacific, sword in hand, to claim it for his king. Then came the Spanish explorers--Ponce de Leon, De Soto, Coronado, and many more--and later on the conquerors and founders of New Spain--Cortes, Pizarro, and their successors.

Basque fishermen and whalers apparently forestalled Jacques Cartier's discovery of the St. Lawrence in 1535; perhaps they knew the mainland of America before John Cabot in 1497. But they left no written records; and neither founded an oversea dominion nor gave rights of discovery to their own or any other race.

During all this time neither France nor England made any lodgment in America, though both sent out a number of expeditions, both fished on the cod banks of Newfoundland, and each had already marked out her own 'sphere of influence.' The Portuguese were in Brazil; the Spaniards, in South and Central America. England, by right of the Bristol voyages, claimed the eastern coasts of the United States and Canada; France, in virtue of Cartier's discovery, the region of the St. Lawrence. But, while New Spain and New Portugal flourished in the sixteenth century, New France and New England were yet to rise.

In the sixteenth century both France and England were occupied with momentous things at home. France was torn with religious wars. Tudor England had much work to do before any effective English colonies could be planted. Oversea dominions are nothing without sufficient sea power, naval and mercantile, to win, to hold, and foster them. But Tudor England was gradually forming those naval and merchant services without which there could have been neither British Empire nor United States.

Henry VIII had faults which have been trumpeted about the world from his own day to ours. But of all English sovereigns he stands foremost as the monarch of the sea. Young, handsome, learned, exceedingly accomplished, gloriously strong in body and in mind, Henry mounted the throne in 1509 with the hearty good will of nearly all his subjects. Before England could become the mother country of an empire overseas, she had to shake off her medieval weaknesses, become a strongly unified modern state, and arm herself against any probable combination of hostile foreign states. Happily for herself and for her future colonists, Henry was richly endowed with strength and skill for his task. With one hand he welded England into political unity, crushing disruptive forces by the way. With the other he gradually built up a fleet the like of which the world had never seen. He had the advantage of being more independent of parliamentary supplies than any other sovereign. From his thrifty father he had inherited what was then an almost fabulous sum--nine million dollars in cash. From what his friends call the conversion, and his enemies the spoliation, of Church property in England he obtained many millions more. Moreover, the people as a whole always rallied to his call whenever he wanted other national resources for the national defence.

Henry's unique distinction is that he effected the momentous change from an ancient to a modern fleet. This supreme achievement constitutes his real title to the lasting gratitude of English-speaking peoples. His first care when he came to the throne in 1509 was for the safety of the 'Broade Ditch,' as he called the English Channel. His last great act was to establish in 1546 'The Office of the Admiralty and Marine Affairs.' During the thirty-seven years between his accession and the creation of this Navy Board the pregnant change was made.

'King Henry loved a man.' He had an unerring eye for choosing the right leaders. He delighted in everything to do with ships and shipping. He mixed freely with naval men and merchant skippers, visited the dockyards, promoted several improved types of vessels, and always befriended Fletcher of Rye, the shipwright who discovered the art of tacking and thereby revolutionized navigation. Nor was the King only a patron. He invented a new type of vessel himself and thoroughly mastered scientific gunnery. He was the first of national leaders to grasp the full significance of what could be done by broadsides fired from sailing ships against the mediaeval type of vessel that still depended more on oars than on sails.

Henry's maritime rivals were the two greatest monarchs of continental Europe, Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain. Henry, Francis, and Charles were all young, all ambitious, and all exceedingly capable men. Henry had the fewest subjects, Charles by far the most. Francis had a compact kingdom well situated for a great European land power. Henry had one equally well situated for a great European sea power. Charles ruled vast dominions scattered over both the New World and the Old. The destinies of mankind turned mostly on the rivalry between these three protagonists and their successors.

Charles V was heir to several crowns. He ruled Spain, the Netherlands, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and important principalities in northern Italy. He was elected Emperor of Germany. He owned enormous oversea dominions in Africa; and the two Americas soon became New Spain. He governed each part of his European dominions by a different title and under a different constitution. He had no fixed imperial capital, but moved about from place to place, a legitimate sovereign everywhere and, for the most part, a popular one as well. It was his son Philip II who, failing of election as Emperor, lived only in Spain, concentrated the machinery of government in Madrid, and became so unpopular elsewhere. Charles had been brought up in Flanders; he was genial in the Flemish way; and he understood his various states in the Netherlands, which furnished him with one of his main sources of revenue. Another and much larger source of revenue poured in its wealth to him later on, in rapidly increasing volume, from North and South America.

Charles had inherited a long and bitter feud with France about the Burgundian dominions on the French side of the Rhine and about domains in Italy; besides which there were many points of violent rivalry between things French and Spanish. England also had hereditary feuds with France, which had come down from the Hundred Years' War, and which had ended in her almost final expulsion from France less than a century before. Scotland, nursing old feuds against England and always afraid of absorption, naturally sided with France. Portugal, small and open to Spanish invasion by land, was more or less bound to please Spain.

During the many campaigns between Francis and Charles the English Channel swarmed with men-of-war, privateers, and downright pirates. Sometimes England took a hand officially against France. But, even when England was not officially at war, many Englishmen were privateers and not a few were pirates. Never was there a better training school of fighting seamanship than in and around the Narrow Seas. It was a continual struggle for an existence in which only the fittest survived. Quickness was essential. Consequently vessels that could not increase their speed were soon cleared off the sea.

Spain suffered a good deal by this continuous raiding. So did the Netherlands. But such was the power of Charles that, although his navies were much weaker than his armies, he yet was able to fight by sea on two enormous fronts, first, in the Mediterranean against the Turks and other Moslems, secondly, in the Channel and along the coast, all the way from Antwerp to Cadiz. Nor did the left arm of his power stop there; for his fleets, his transports, and his merchantmen ranged the coasts of both Americas from one side of the present United States right round to the other.

Such, in brief, was the position of maritime Europe when Henry found himself menaced by the three Roman Catholic powers of Scotland, France, and Spain. In 1533 he had divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, thereby defying the Pope and giving offence to Spain. He had again defied the Pope by suppressing the monasteries and severing the Church of England from the Roman discipline. The Pope had struck back with a bull of excommunication designed to make Henry the common enemy of Catholic Europe.

Henry had been steadily building ships for years. Now he redoubled his activity. He blooded the fathers of his daughter's sea-dogs by smashing up a pirate fleet and sinking a flotilla of Flemish privateers. The mouth of the Scheldt, in 1539, was full of vessels ready to take a hostile army into England. But such a fighting fleet prepared to meet them that Henry's enemies forbore to strike.

In 1539, too, came the discovery of the art of tacking, by Fletcher of Rye, Henry's shipwright friend, a discovery forever memorable in the annals of seamanship. Never before had any kind of craft been sailed a single foot against the wind. The primitive dugout on which the prehistoric savage hoisted the first semblance of a sail, the ships of Tarshish, the Roman transport in which St. Paul was wrecked, and the Spanish caravels with which Columbus sailed to worlds unknown, were, in principle of navigation, all the same. But now Fletcher ran out his epoch-making vessel, with sails trimmed fore and aft, and dumbfounded all the shipping in the Channel by beating his way to windward against a good stiff breeze. This achievement marked the dawn of the modern sailing age.

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