Chronicles of America 

The Rise of English Sea Power

And so it happened that in 1545 Henry VIII, with a new-born modern fleet, was able to turn defiantly on Francis. The English people rallied magnificently to his call. What was at that time an enormous army covered the lines of advance on London. But the fleet, though employing fewer men, was relatively a much more important force than the army; and with the fleet went Henry's own headquarters. His lifelong interest in his navy now bore the first-fruits of really scientific sea power on an oceanic scale. There was no great naval battle to fix general attention on one dramatic moment. Henry's strategy and tactics, however, were new and full of promise. He repeated his strategy of the previous war by sending out a strong squadron to attack the base at which the enemy's ships were then assembling; and he definitely committed the English navy, alone among all the navies in the world, to sailing-ship tactics, instead of continuing those founded on the rowing galley of immemorial fame. The change from a sort of floating army to a really naval fleet, from galleys moved by oars and depending on boarders who were soldiers, to ships moved by sails and depending on their broadside guns--this change was quite as important as the change in the nineteenth century from sails and smooth-bores to steam and rifled ordnance. It was, indeed, from at least one commanding point of view, much more important; for it meant that England was easily first in developing the only kind of navy which would count in any struggle for oversea dominion after the discovery of America had made sea power no longer a question of coasts and landlocked waters but of all the outer oceans of the world.

The year that saw the birth of modern sea power is a date to be remembered in this history; for 1545 was also the year in which the mines of Potosi first aroused the Old World to the riches of the New; it was the year, too, in which Sir Francis Drake was born. Moreover, there was another significant birth in this same year. The parole aboard the Portsmouth fleet was "God save the King"! The answering countersign was "Long to reign over us"! These words formed the nucleus of the national anthem now sung round all the Seven Seas. The anthems of other countries were born on land. "God save the King"! sprang from the navy and the sea.

The Reformation quickened seafaring life in many ways. After Henry's excommunication every Roman Catholic crew had full Papal sanction for attacking every English crew that would not submit to Rome, no matter how Catholic its faith might be. Thus, in addition to danger from pirates, privateers, and men-of-war, an English merchantman had to risk attack by any one who was either passionately Roman or determined to use religion as a cloak. Raids and reprisals grew apace. The English were by no means always lambs in piteous contrast to the Papal wolves. Rather, it might be said, they took a motto from this true Russian proverb: 'Make yourself a sheep and you'll find no lack of wolves.' But, rightly or wrongly, the general English view was that the Papal attitude was one of attack while their own was one of defence. Papal Europe of course thought quite the reverse.

Henry died in 1547, and the Lord Protector Somerset at once tried to make England as Protestant as possible during the minority of Edward VI, who was not yet ten years old. This brought every English seaman under suspicion in every Spanish port, where the Holy Office of the Inquisition was a great deal more vigilant and businesslike than the Custom House or Harbor Master. Inquisitors had seized Englishmen in Henry's time. But Charles had stayed their hand. Now that the ruler of England was an open heretic, who appeared to reject the accepted forms of Catholic belief as well as the Papal forms of Roman discipline, the hour had come to strike. War would have followed in ordinary times. But the Reformation had produced a cross-division among the subjects of all the Great Powers. If Charles went to war with a Protestant Lord Protector of England then some of his own subjects in the Netherlands would probably revolt. France had her Huguenots; England her ultra-Papists; Scotland some of both kinds. Every country had an unknown number of enemies at home and friends abroad. All feared war.

Somerset neglected the navy. But the seafaring men among the Protestants, as among those Catholics who were anti-Roman, took to privateering more than ever. Nor was exploration forgotten. A group of merchant-adventurers sent Sir Hugh Willoughby to find the Northeast Passage to Cathay. Willoughby's three ships were towed down the Thames by oarsmen dressed in sky-blue jackets. As they passed the palace at Greenwich they dipped their colors in salute. But the poor young king was too weak to come to the window. Willoughby met his death in Lapland. But Chancellor, his second-in-command, got through to the White Sea, pushed on overland to Moscow, and returned safe in 1554, when Queen Mary was on the throne. Next year, strange to say, the charter of the new Muscovy Company was granted by Philip of Armada fame, now joint sovereign of England with his newly married wife, soon to be known as 'Bloody Mary.' One of the directors of the company was Lord Howard of Effingham, father of Drake's Lord Admiral, while the governor was our old friend Sebastian Cabot, now in his eightieth year. Philip was Crown Prince of the Spanish Empire, and his father, Charles V, was very anxious that he should please the stubborn English; for if he could only become both King of England and Emperor of Germany he would rule the world by sea as well as land. Philip did his ineffective best: drank English beer in public as if he liked it and made his stately Spanish courtiers drink it too and smile. He spent Spanish gold, brought over from America, and he got the convenient kind of Englishmen to take it as spy-money for many years to come. But with it he likewise sowed some dragon's teeth. The English sea-dogs never forgot the iron chests of Spanish New-World gold, and presently began to wonder whether there was no sure way in far America by which to get it for themselves.

In the same year, 1555, the Marian attack on English heretics began and the sea became safer than the land for those who held strong anti-Papal views. The Royal Navy was neglected even more than it had been lately by the Lord Protector. But fighting traders, privateers, and pirates multiplied. The seaports were hotbeds of hatred against Mary, Philip, Papal Rome, and Spanish Inquisition. In 1556 Sebastian Cabot reappears, genial and prosperous as ever, and dances out of history at the sailing of the "Serchthrift", bound northeast for Muscovy. In 1557 Philip came back to England for the last time and manoeuvred her into a war which cost her Calais, the last English foothold on the soil of France. During this war an English squadron joined Philip's vessels in a victory over the French off Gravelines, where Drake was to fight the Armada thirty years later.

This first of the two battles fought at Gravelines brings us down to 1558, the year in which Mary died, Elizabeth succeeded her, and a very different English age began.

Back to: English Exploration of America