The sea, ships, mariners, naval affairs and the actions of the Royal Navy at war have attracted writers from a broad background, including academia and the Service itself. The following list of titles, some of which have descriptive annotation, is organised in sections relating to the key aspects of naval, nautical and maritime history subjects and their study. The inclusion of titles here reflects some of the research demands and personal and professional interests of the compiler; it is not exhaustive and any omissions do not indicate a qualitative judgment – there are many other books long and short which deserve to be read or consulted by the professional or amateur historian, for work or for pleasure. Many of the titles listed here have ample bibliographies which will fill the inevitable gaps in this list. The list will be frequently extended and suggestions for other titles supported by annotated comments are welcomed.


  • Naval History (including strategy, geopolitics, adminstration, organisation, and main events)

    51yKuFLiPkL._SX342_Davies, J. D. Pepys’s Navy: ships, men & warfare, 1649-1689 (Barnsley 2008)

    Encyclopaedic in scope and depth, this is essential reading for research into the early years of the Royal Navy.


    Grove, Eric. The Royal Navy since 1815: a new short history (Basingstoke 2005)

    A concise account of the Royal Navy’s policies, organisational structure, technical development and operations in the 200 years following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, by a master historian; excellent as an authoritative introduction to the subject for students and lay readers.

    Harding, Richard   The Royal Navy, 1930-2000: innovation and defence (London 2005)

    Harding, Richard   A great and glorious victory: new perspectives on the Battle of Trafalgar (London 2008)

    Hattendorf, John B et al (eds.)  British Naval documents, 1204-1960 (Navy Records Society, Aldershot 1993)

    Herman, Arthur   To Rule the Waves: how the British Navy Shaped the Modern World

    an easily assimilated overview of how the Royal Navy created Britain’s prosperity and influence – a good introduction for the general reader

    Hill, J R and Ranft, B (eds.)  The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy  (Oxford 2002)

    a series of essays concerning key periods of British naval history by leading specialists

    Hore, Peter   The Habit of Victory: the story of the Royal Navy 1545-1945 (London 2005)

    an entertaining and very useful book based on letters, reports, dispatches, and memoirs from a wide range of naval people of all ranks and departments, skilfully edited by an historian and former serving naval officer; especially helpful in studying how technological changes in the modern era drove operational strategy and tactics

    Hore, Peter   Dreadnought to Daring: 100 years of comment, controversy and debate  in The Naval Review (Barnsley, 2012)

    Humble, Richard   Naval Warfare: an illustrated history (TimeWarner, 2002)

    Ireland, Bernard   Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail (London 2000)

    a well-illustrated, informative and readable introduction to the ships and tactics of the Georgian period; note: do not confuse this with the more technical book on naval fighting tactics of the same title by Brian Tunstall, listed below

    Kennedy, Paul   The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (London 2006)

    one of the most accessible but well-researched analyses of the political and technical foundations and development of the Royal Navy, a masterpiece of modern history writing with a broad perspective

    Lavery, Brian   Nelson’s Navy: the ships, men and organisation 1793-1815 (London 1989)

    Lee, Christopher   Nelson and Napoleon (London 2005)

    Lewis, Michael   England’s sea-officers : the story of the naval profession (London 1948)

    Lewis, Michael   The history of the British Navy (London 1959)

    Lewis, Michael   A social history of the navy, 1793-1815 (London 1960 and 2004)

    Mackinder, HJ   ‘The geographical pivot of history’, in Geographical Journal, vol 23/4 (1904),  pp298-321; published online in facsimile as vol 170:4 (2004)

    an original approach to the concept of geo-political power by an early academic geographer, widely viewed as the proponent of continental power bases over-riding maritime power as advocated by Alfred Thayer Mahan (see below) – influential in the 1920s and 1930s and still an important element in current debate about the role of naval power projection by emerging states

    Maffeo, Steven E   Most Secret and Confidential: intelligence in the age of Nelson  (New York 2000)

    a fascinating overview of naval intelligence in the age of sail by a former intelligence officer in the US Naval service; the occasional reference to fictional characters is idiosyncratic but often illuminating

    Mahan, Alfred Thayer   The influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (London 1893)

    one of the most influential books in naval historiography and the study of naval strategy resonating geopolitics of today’s great powers, Captain Mahan posits an argument that maritime states naturally have a leading role in the geopolitics of our maritime planet; his arguments – while disputed (see Mackinder above) – are still valid elements in the geopolitical strategy of maritime states today and this seminal volume offers much for the naval historian studying sea-power in every era

    Nicolson, Adam   Seize the Fire: heroism, duty and the battle of Trafalgar (London 2005)

    Rodger, NAM   The Admiralty (Lavenham 1979)      

    a study of the organisational structure of the Admiralty throughout its history, part of a series of studies by various historians of the great offices of state; Dr Rodger feels this work needs revising but it stands as an important introduction to the specialist area of naval history, essential reading to understand the nature of naval operational management in a political context

    Rodger, NAM   The Wooden World: an anatomy of the Georgian navy (London 1988) 

    a comprehensive study of the British navy in its social context afloat and ashore, scorching previous myths and setting a new standard in naval historical writing of this important aspect of the subject

    Rodger, NAM   The Safeguard of the Sea: a naval history of Britain (London 1997)

    the best general naval history of this period, by the greatest naval historian of our generation, in two magisterial volumes; this first volume takes us from the early days of naval activity around the coasts of the British Isles up to the end of the period of ‘King’s ships’

    Rodger, NAM   The Command of the Ocean: a naval history of Britain 1649-1815 (London 2004)

    this second volume in Nicholas Rodger’s series begins with the Commonwealth navy and the origins of a properly constituted naval administration leading to the establishment of the English ‘Royal’ Navy, through the Golden Age of the Georgian navy; Dr Rodger’s third volume taking the study of the Royal Navy into the Twentieth century is eagerly awaited

    Sumida, Jon Tetsuro   Inventing grand strategy and teaching command: the classic works of Alfred  Thayer Mahan reconsidered (London 1992)

    analysis of the influence of Mahan’s theories on the naval strategy and geo-policy of several generations of Western nations

    Tunstall, Brian   Naval warfare in the Age of Sail: the evolution of fighting tactics 1650-1815  (London 1990)

    an excellent book on signaling and naval fighting tactics in the Georgian period, especially good on comparisons with other European navies

    Wheeler, James Scott   The making of a World Power: war and the military revolution in seventeenth-century England  (Stroud 1999)

    highly recommended survey of the development of English geopolitical power, placing it earlier in the 17th century than received wisdom, supported by an intensive analysis of naval and military expenditure during the Commonwealth and Restoration, from a wide range of well-chosen primary sources

  • Naval Characters

    Biographies written by naval historians tend to focus on their subject’s major actions; a few also analyse the character of their subject and the relationships with officers and men under their command, and also the difficulties of working under political control in the service of the state. This list includes some of the very best examples of naval biographical writing. A separate list covering the life and career of Samuel Pepys is in preparation.

    Bennett, Geoffrey   Nelson the Commander (London 1972)

    an excellent survey of Nelson as a tactician and as a leader of men in warfare by an experienced naval officer

    Cochrane, Thomas (10th Earl of Dundonald)   Autobiography of a Seaman (London 1860 and 1890,  online editions available)

    sometimes contentious and often self-aggrandizing, this ‘life’ by one of the most important and interesting characters of the age of sail covers his naval career in the Royal Navy and in the nascent naval services of Chile, Peru, Brazil and Greece in some detail, but large proportions are devoted to Cochrane’s dispute with Admiral Gambier over the action at Aix Roads in 1809 and a defence of Cochrane’s character arising from his prosecution in the Stock Exchange fraud of 1812; the descriptions of his most exciting naval actions provide useful insights into naval warfare and life at sea in small warships in the Napoleonic era, and from analysis against primary source material can be seen to have been faithfully recalled in old age

    Davies, J D   Gentlemen and Tarpaulins: The officers and men of the Restoration Navy (Oxford 1991)  

    revised from David’s DPhil thesis, this book – still available as print-on-demand from OUP – is the seminal work in the discussion about the social origins of the British naval officer cadre

    Grimble, Ian   The Sea Wolf: the life of Admiral Cochrane (London 1978)

    Harding, Richard and Le Fevre, Peter   Precursors of Nelson: British Admirals of the Eighteenth Century (London 2000)

    Lambert, Andrew   Nelson, Britannia’s God of War (London 2004)

    a very readable and well-researched biography by a leading naval and military historian and academic, placing Nelson in the context of British history

    Le Fevre, Peter   Contemporaries of Nelson: British Admirals of the Napoleonic Wars (London 2005)

    Mahan, Alfred Thayer   The life of Nelson: the embodiment of the sea power of Great Britain, 2nd edition (London 1899)

    one of the earliest biographies of the great naval hero to place Nelson in the wider context of geopolitics and operational maritime strategy

    Mahan, Alfred Thayer   Types of naval officers, drawn from the history of the British navy  (London 1902)

    a fascinating study of the psychological make-up of the naval officer cadre of the Royal Navy

    Oman, Carola   Nelson (London 1947)

    frustrating due to the paucity of references typical of histories and biographies prior to the more structured approach of the late twentieth century, this is a fascinating and sympathetic study of the psychology of a complex man and his relationships with professional and social contacts

    Pocock, Tom   Horatio Nelson (London 1988)

    perhaps the best “life” of Admiral Lord Nelson, analysis of Nelson’s complex personality combined with good factual history

    Pocock, Tom   “Remember Nelson”: the life of Sir William Hoste (London 2005)

    by one of the masters of naval biography, this study of the dashing frigate commander and Nelson’s Norfolk protégé reads like naval fiction but Pocock’s historical research and analysis is reliable

    Reay, Justin    ‘The Fighting Cochranes: a naval dynasty like no other’, in The Trafalgar Chronicle vol 23 (The 1805 Club 2013)

    Rodger, NAM   The Insatiable Earl: a life of John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, 1718-1792 (London 1993)

    this biography, from a leading naval historian, covers the life and work of one of the most interesting and important naval administrators, who was First Lord of the Board of Admiralty for three periods; noted for his capacity for hard work and effectiveness in his first two terms, his reputation was (perhaps unfairly) marred by the loss of the American colonies during his third term, and by his scandalous personal life

    Villiers, Alan   Captain Cook, the Seaman’s Seaman (Harmondsworth 1967 and 2002)

    one of the best naval biographies, written by one of the last master mariners to work large sailing vessels; perceptive of Cook’s character and appreciative of the difficulties and dangers of global voyaging in the age of sail, and also engagingly written

    Wareham, Tom   The Star Captains: frigate command in the Napoleonic Wars (London 2001)

    taken from research for his PhD thesis this volume is a wide-ranging, well written and very useful survey of the operational careers of commanders of the vitally important lower-rated RN warships of the age of sail, such as Thomas Cochrane, William Hoste, George Mundy and their brother officers; highly recommended

    White, Colin   1797: Nelson’s Year of Destiny (Stroud 1998)

    White, Colin   Nelson the Admiral (Stroud 2005)

    White, Colin   ‘“A Man of Business”: Nelson as Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean May 1803-January 1805’, in Mariner’s Mirror 91: 2, pp 175-194 (Society for Nautical Research 2005)

    by the leading Nelson historian, the late Dr Colin White, these titles offer a fascinating study of Lord Nelson’s fateful year of success and danger, an excellent study of Nelson as a fleet commander, and a penetrating survey of Nelson’s day-to-day management of the Mediterranean fleet during the Trafalgar Campaign from the summer of 1803

    White, Colin (ed.)  The Nelson Companion (Stroud 1995)

    a compendium of interesting essays edited by the leading Nelson historian; a few niggling inaccuracies and omissions but generally sound and a useful addition to the bookshelf

    White Colin (ed.)   Nelson the New Letters (Stroud 2005)

    a large set of letters to and from Nelson, most previously unpublished, discovered during Colin’s long project identifying Nelson’s uncatalogued correspondence; expertly edited and a lasting memorial to the life’s work of a great historian

  • Naval Actions: Campaigns and naval aspects of larger conflicts

    Ferguson, Harry   Operation Kronstadt (New York 2010)   

    well-researched and ranging wider than its title suggests, this is the first proper study of a fascinating and important but almost forgotten incident in the Royal Navy’s campaign to contain the Bolshevik Baltic Fleet during the Russian Civil War.  An article based on Justin Reay’s lectures about Captain Gus Agar VC and the Kronstadt raids of 1919 will be hosted on this website shortly. 

    Gardiner, R (ed)  Nelson against Napoleon: from the Nile to Copenhagen 1798-18 (London 2001)

    essays charting the frustration of Napoleon’s strategy in the Mediterranean and the Baltic squadrons under Nelson’s command, with a rare essay on the role of the USA in the period

    Gardiner, R (ed)   The Campaign of Trafalgar 1803-1805 (London 2005)

    the long run-up to the battle of Trafalgar in October 1805 is covered by a series of essays looking at the essential aspects of thwarting Bonaparte’s ambitions at sea

    Harding, Richard (ed)  A Great and Glorious Victory: new perspectives on the Battle of Trafalgar (Barnsley 2008)

    Hore, Peter   Sydney, Cipher and Search (Rendlesham 2009)

    the story of the sinking of the Royal Australian Navy’s light cruiser Sydney in 1941, by the armoured raider Kormoran, and how Captain Hore decrypted and analysed German coded documents to unravel the last great mystery of WWII – highly regarded by distinguished historians

    Lavery, Brian   Nelson and the Nile: the Naval War against Bonaparte 1798 (London 2003)

    a readable and valuable reference to the battle of the Nile

    Padfield, Peter   Maritime Supremacy and the opening of the Western Mind: Naval Campaigns that Shaped the Modern World 1588-1782 (London 1999)

    the over-long title describes precisely what this useful and well-argued book is about, essential for the study of geopolitics in the modern world

    Reay, Justin  “A Place of Considerable Importance”: Lord Cochrane and the Siege of Roses 1808′, in Mariner’s Mirror, vol 95:4 (Society for Nautical Research 2009), pp400-428

    Tracy, Nicholas   Nelson’s Battles: The Art of Victory in the Age of Sail (London 2002)

    Voelcker, Tim   Admiral Saumarez versus Napoleon: the Baltic, 1807-12 (Woodbridge 2008)

    Warwick, Peter   Voices from the Battle of Trafalgar (Newton Abbott 2005) 

    fascinating and thought-provoking first-hand accounts from men of all ranks who fought in the battle on each side

  • Ships

    Boudriot, Jean     The seventy-four gun ship : a practical treatise on the art of naval architecture (Rotherfield 1988)

    Boudriot, Jean     John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard (Paris 1987)

    Colledge, JJ and Warlow, Ben (compilers)   Ships of the Royal Navy: the complete record of all Fighting Ships of the Royal Navy from the 15th century to the Present (Newbury 2010)

    Cordingly, David    Billy Ruffian: The Bellerophon and the downfall of Napoleon: the biography of a ship of the line, 1782-1836 (London 2004)

    Deane, Anthony    Nelson’s Favourite: HMS Agamemnon at War 1781-1809 (London 1996)

    Lyon, David, and Winfield, Rif    The sail & steam Navy List: all the ships of the Royal Navy, 1815-1889 (London 2004)

    Winfield, Rif   British warships in the Age of Sail 1793-1817: design, construction, careers, and fates (London 2005)

    Winfield, Rif   British warships in the Age of Sail 1714-1792: design, construction, careers and fates (London 2008)

  • Maritime History

     List in preparation

    Stevens Cox, Gregory   The Guernsey merchants and their world in the Georgian era: an investigation (Guernsey 2009)

    an extensively researched study of the international trading of Guernsey merchant families including illumination of their business relationships with France, Spain and the Americas during various conflicts with Britain; includes many fascinating and useful data of a little-known but important aspect of maritime trade in the age of sail

  • Marine Art

    Marine or maritime art comprises paintings in oils and watercolour, drawings and prints, and in the current era, documentary photographs and film. It is a discipline important for anyone interested in nautical affairs, and also provides some of the most satisfying examples of artistic endeavour. Unlike Art History and Naval History however, the discipline has rarely attracted proper research, analysis and presentation other than a few studies of the key artists such as the Van der Veldes and Nicholas Pocock . The titles listed below deal with a genre of art important both as a cultural medium and potentially as historical evidence.

    Cordingly, David   Marine Painting in England 1700-1900 (London 1974)

    perhaps the best introduction to the genre, this book offers a broad survey of some of the most evocative and beautifully executed paintings of the sea and ships

    Gaunt, William   Marine Painting (London 1975)

    Harland, John (ed)   Ships and Seamanship: the Maritime Prints of JJ Beaugean (London 2000)

    a fascinating facsimile edition of the superbly observed portraits of vessels of the Napoleonic era by Beaugean, with an introductory essay and useful commentaries by one of the leading experts in the technical aspects of the age of sail

    Leek, Michael E   The Art of Nautical Illustration: a visual tribute to the achievements of the classic marine illustrators (Royston 2002)

    Reay, Justin   The Fortune of the Sea: marine paintings as historical evidence (forthcoming)

    a study of the potential usefulness and problems of using paintings and engravings of ships and naval actions as source material for naval history, exemplified by a detailed analysis of depictions of the Battle of Trafalgar; written by a naval and art historian this illustrated monograph includes a practical guide to the use of marine art as historical evidence
    available as a downloadable monograph on the BNH website from January 2014

  • Naval and Maritime Reference

    Cock, Randolph and Rodger, NAM   A guide to the naval records in the National Archives of the UK, 2nd edition (London 2008)

    essential for anyone using primary sources for naval or maritime history

    Falconer, William   A New Universal Dictionary of the Marine (London 1815)

    the classic source, a fascinating and important contemporaneous encyclopedia of the Georgian navy in the age of sail, especially valuable for its descriptions of technical matters; available in facsimile in modern editions

    King, Dean et al   A Sea of Words, 2nd edition (New York 1997)

    Philipps, Lawrie    The Royal Navy Day by Day, 4th edition (Stroud 2013)

    much more than just the diurnal aide memoire its title and format suggest this is chock full of information, much of it not published elsewhere, and the fruit of intensive research

  • Naval Historiography

    Geoffrey Callender (compiler)   Bibliography of Naval history (London 1924-25)

    Laughton, JK   The scientific study of naval history (London 1874)

  • Naval Fiction

    Davies, J David    The Quinton Journals

    set in the late Seventeenth century, this canon from a distinguished naval historian featuring the ‘Gentleman Captain’ Matthew Quinton currently extends to four novels, with a fifth eagerly anticipated

    Forester, CS   The Hornblower Companion

    this fascinating reference companion to Forester’s Hornblower series of naval novels describes all the actions in the series and their geographical settings, with maps, charts, and sketches

    Marryat, Frederick   Frank Mildmay, or The Naval Officer (London 1864)

    the first proper naval novel, written by a former Royal Naval Captain and largely autobiographical; it includes (chapter seven) a detailed account of the defence of Trinity Castle at Rosas in 1808 by Captain Lord Cochrane and his men, which analysis against primary evidence indicates to be an accurate eye-witness account only slightly embellished for literary purposes. The writing style is dated but this is a “rattling good read”, as good as anything in the genre, and offers the social historian valuable insights into the psychology of command in sailing ships at war

    O’Brien, Patrick   Master and Commander

    a very enjoyable naval history novel set during the Napoleonic Wars, the opening of the 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin canon inspired by the real-life exploits of Captain Thomas Cochrane and other dashing naval officers; with high-quality writing, Jane Austen-like complex characterisation and well-researched descriptions of life in the Royal Navy in this era. O’Brian’s wit is dry and his pace is sometimes as slow as a long watch in the Doldrums, but the descriptions of warships in action are exciting and generally accurate. Only the title of this novel was taken for the excellent film of the same name featuring Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey and Paul Bethany as Stephen Maturin, of which the main action was an amalgam of two later novels in the canon

The Naval Historians Bookshelf was compiled and annotated by Justin Reay
BNH bookshelf v2 September 2013

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