Chronicles of America 

Tudor Shipping

In the sixteenth century there was no hard-and-fast distinction between naval and all other craft. The sovereign had his own fighting vessels; and in the course of the seventeenth century these gradually evolved into a Royal Navy maintained entirely by the country as a whole and devoted solely to the national defence. But in earlier days this modern system was difficult everywhere and impossible in England. The English monarch, for all his power, had no means of keeping up a great army and navy without the help of Parliament and the general consent of the people. The Crown had great estates and revenues; but nothing like enough to make war on a national scale. Consequently king and people went into partnership, sometimes in peace as well as war. When fighting stopped, and no danger seemed to threaten, the king would use his men-of-war in trade himself, or even hire them out to merchants. The merchants, for their part, furnished vessels to the king in time of war. Except as supply ships, however, these auxiliaries were never a great success. The privateers built expressly for fighting were the only ships that could approach the men-of-war.

Yet, strangely enough, King Henry's first modern men-of-war grew out of a merchant-ship model, and a foreign one at that. Throughout ancient and medieval times the 'long ship' was the man-of-war while the 'round ship' was the merchantman. But the long ship was always some sort of galley, which, as we have seen repeatedly, depended on its oars and used sails only occasionally, and then not in action, while the round ship was built to carry cargo and to go under sail. The Italian naval architects, then the most scientific in the world, were trying to evolve two types of vessel: one that could act as light cavalry on the wings of a galley fleet, the other that could carry big cargoes safely through the pirate-haunted seas. In both types sail power and fighting power were essential. Finally a compromise resulted and the galleasse appeared. The galleasse was a hybrid between the galley and the sailing vessel, between the 'long ship' that was several times as long as it was broad and the 'round ship' that was only two or three times as long as its beam. Then, as the oceanic routes gained on those of the inland seas, and as oceanic sea power gained in the same proportion, the galleon appeared. The galleon had no oars at all, as the hybrid galleasses had, and it gained more in sail power than it lost by dropping oars. It was, in fact, the direct progenitor of the old three-decker which some people still alive can well remember.

At the time the Cabots and Columbus were discovering America the Venetians had evolved the merchant-galleasse for their trade with London: they called it, indeed, the "galleazza di Londra". Then, by the time Henry VIII was building his new modern navy, the real galleon had been evolved (out of the Italian new war- and older merchant-galleasses) by England, France, and Scotland; but by England best of all. In original ideas of naval architecture England was generally behind, as she continued to be till well within living memory. Nelson's captains competed eagerly for the command of French prizes, which were better built and from superior designs. The American frigates of 1812 were incomparably better than the corresponding classes in the British service were; and so on in many other instances. But, in spite of being rather slow, conservative, and rule-of-thumb, the English were already beginning to develop a national sea-sense far beyond that of any other people. They could not, indeed, do otherwise and live. Henry's policy, England's position, the dawn of oceanic strategy, and the discovery of America, all combined to make her navy by far the most important single factor in England's problems with the world at large. As with the British Empire now, so with England then: the choice lay between her being either first or nowhere.

Henry's reasoning and his people's instinct having led to the same resolve, everyone with any sea-sense, especially shipwrights like Fletcher of Rye, began working towards the best types then obtainable. There were mistakes in plenty. The theory of naval architecture in England was never both sound and strong enough to get its own way against all opposition. But with the issue of life and death always dependent on sea power, and with so many men of every class following the sea, there was at all events the biggest rough-and-tumble school of practical seamanship that any leading country ever had. The two essential steps were quickly taken: first, from oared galleys with very little sail power to the hybrid galleasse with much more sail and much less in the way of oars; secondly, from this to the purely sailing galleon.

With the galleon we enter the age of sailing tactics which decided the fate of the oversea world. This momentous age began with Drake and the English galleon. It ended with Nelson and the first-rate, three-decker, ship-of-the-line. But it was one throughout; for its beginning differed from its end no more than a father differs from his son.

One famous Tudor vessel deserves some special notice, not because of her excellence but because of her defects. The "Henry Grace a Dieu," or "Great Harry" as she was generally called, launched in 1514, was Henry's own flagship on his way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. She had a gala suit of sails and pennants, all made of damasked cloth of gold. Her quarters, sides, and tops were emblazoned with heraldic targets. Court artists painted her to show His Majesty on board wearing cloth of gold, edged with the royal ermine; as well as bright crimson jacket, sleeves, and breeches, with a long white feather in his cap. Doubtless, too, His Majesty of France paid her all the proper compliments; while every man who was then what reporters are today talked her up to the top of his bent. No single vessel ever had greater publicity till the famous first "Dreadnought" of our own day appeared in the British navy nearly four hundred years later.

But the much advertised "Great Harry" was not a mighty prototype of a world-wide-copied class of battleships like the modern "Dreadnought". With her lavish decorations, her towering superstructures fore and aft, and her general aping of a floating castle, she was the wonder of all the landsmen in her own age, as she has been the delight of picturesque historians ever since. But she marked no advance in naval architecture, rather the reverse. She was the last great English ship of medieval times. Twenty-five years after the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Henry was commanding another English fleet, the first of modern times, and therefore one in which the out-of-date "Great Harry" had no proper place at all. She was absurdly top-hampered and over-gunned. And, for all her thousand tons, she must have bucketed about in the chops of the Channel with the same sort of hobby-horse, see-sawing pitch that bothered Captain Concas in 1893 when sailing an exact reproduction of Columbus's flagship, the "Santa Maria", across the North Atlantic to the great World's Fair at Chicago.

In her own day the galleon was the 'great ship,' 'capital ship,' 'ship-of-the-line-of-battle,' or 'battleship' on which the main fight turned. But just as our modern fleets require three principal kinds of vessels--battleships, cruisers, and 'mosquito' craft--so did the fleets of Henry and Elizabeth. The galleon did the same work as the old three-decker of Nelson's time or the battleship of today. The 'pinnace' (quite different from more modern pinnaces) was the frigate or the cruiser. And, in Henry VIII's fleet of 1545, the 'row-barge' was the principal 'mosquito' craft, like the modern torpedo-boat, destroyer, or even submarine. Of course the correspondence is far from being complete in any class.

The English galleon gradually developed more sail and gun power as well as handiness in action. Broadside fire began. When used against the Armada, it had grown very powerful indeed. At that time the best guns, some of which are still in existence, were nearly as good as those at Trafalgar or aboard the smart American frigates that did so well in '1812.' When galleon broadsides were fired from more than a single deck, the lower ones took enemy craft between wind and water very nicely. In the English navy the portholes had been cut so as to let the guns be pointed with considerable freedom, up or down, right or left. The huge top-hampering 'castles' and other soldier-engineering works on deck were modified or got rid of, while more canvas was used and to much better purpose.

The pinnace showed the same sort of improvement during the same period--from Drake's birth under Henry VIII in 1545 to the zenith of his career as a sea-dog in 1588. This progenitor of the frigate and the cruiser was itself descended from the long-boat of the Norsemen and still used oars as occasion served. But the sea-dogs made it primarily a sailing vessel of anything up to a hundred tons and generally averaging over fifty. A smart pinnace, with its long, low, clean-run hull, if well handled under its Elizabethan fighting canvas of foresail and main topsail, could play round a Spanish galleasse or absurdly castled galleon like a lancer on a well-trained charger round a musketeer astraddle on a cart horse.[4] Henry's pinnaces still had lateen sails copied from Italian models. Elizabeth's had square sails prophetic of the frigate's. Henry's had one or a very few small guns. Elizabeth's had as many as sixteen, some of medium size, in a hundred-tonner.

[4: Fuller in his "Worthies" (1662) writes: 'Many were the wit-combats betwixt him [Shakespeare] and Ben Jonson, which two I beheld like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war: Master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning, solid but slow in his performances. Shakespeare, like the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds by the quickness of his wit and invention.']

The 'mosquito' fleet of Henry's time was represented by 'row-barges' of his own invention. Now that the pinnace was growing in size and sail power, while shedding half its oars, some new small rowing craft was wanted, during that period of groping transition, to act as a tender or to do 'mosquito' work in action. The mere fact that Henry VIII placed no dependence on oars except for this smallest type shows how far he had got on the road towards the broadside-sailing-ship fleet. On the 16th of July, 1541, the Spanish Naval Attache (as we should call him now) reported to Charles V that Henry had begun 'to have new oared vessels built after his own design.' Four years later these same 'row-barges'--long, light, and very handy--hung round the sterns of the retreating Italian galleys in the French fleet to very good purpose, plying them with bow-chasers and the two broadside guns, till Strozzi, the Italian galley-admiral, turned back on them in fury, only to see them slip away in perfect order and with complete immunity.

By the time of the Armada the mosquito fleet had outgrown these little rowing craft and had become more oceanic. But names, types, and the evolution of one type from another, with the application of the same name to changed and changing types, all tend to confusion unless the subject is followed in such detail as is impossible here.

The fleets of Henry VIII and of Elizabeth did far more to improve both the theory and practice of naval gunnery than all the fleets in the world did from the death of Drake to the adoption of rifled ordnance within the memory of living men. Henry's textbook of artillery, republished in 1588, the year of the Armada, contains very practical diagrams for finding the range at sea by means of the gunner's half circle--yet we now think range-finding a very modern thing indeed. There are also full directions for making common and even something like shrapnel shells, 'star shells' to light up the enemy at night, armor-piercing arrows shot out of muskets, 'wild-fire' grenades, and many other ultra-modern devices.

Henry established Woolwich Dockyard, second to none both then and now, as well as Trinity House, which presently began to undertake the duties it still discharges by supervising all aids to navigation round the British Isles. The use of quadrants, telescopes, and maps on Mercator's projection all began in the reign of Elizabeth, as did many other inventions, adaptations, handy wrinkles, and vital changes in strategy and tactics. Taken together, these improvements may well make us of the twentieth century wonder whether we are so very much superior to the comrades of Henry, Elizabeth, Shakespeare, Bacon, Raleigh, and Drake.

Back to: English Exploration of America