Benjamin W. D. Redding, The English and French Navies, 1500-1650, The Boydell Press, 2022. ISBN 9781782376578, 252 pages. £75.00//$115USD.
by Dr. Ian Friel
Benjamin Redding’s new book, the result of more than a decade’s research, is a major contribution to our understanding of English and French naval history between 1500 and 1650. The first three chapters of this work look at the functions of admirals, how naval naval administrations worked, and the funding of fleets. Chapter 4 deals with warship design and experimentation, followed by a consideration of fleet size and composition, and the use of ships belonging to the subjects of both nations (‘privateers’). The final chapter is concerned with these navies in the mid-17th century, and how they survived national crises. This is followed by some very useful appendices on finance and fleet strengths. The book places the English and French navies in their wider contexts, with the role of naval development in state formation as one of its key themes.
The Tudor and Stuart navies have received a lot of attention from scholars since the 19th century, but the same cannot be said of their French counterparts. Little was available in English before the appearance of Redding’s work, and a key French source remains Charles de la Roncière’s Histoire de La Marine Française (6 volumes, Paris 1899-1932), a monumental piece of scholarship, but inevitably dated. One of the difficulties with the French sources, aside from the loss of some records, is that the naval archives are dispersed around the country. Redding has been able to pull this disparate material together and make it accessible to a wider audience.
The development of the English navy in this period was a reflection of the fact that the kingdom of England – with Wales and parts of Ireland – was more centralised than France, as Redding points out. Geography helped in this: from the time of Henry VIII, most of the royal dockyards lay on the Thames and Medway, on the doorstep of the royal government in London.
The situation in France was very different. French kings had to cope with both a powerful aristocracy and a high degree of regional autonomy. As regards the French navy, these problems were exacerbated by geography: the French navy was far from the capital, with the nearest naval base to Paris at Le Havre, 200 km away. In consequence, French fleets were managed on a regional basis, split between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts and between provinces. These naval forces were answerable to an administrative Admiral of France in Paris, but the Admirals lacked a central naval administration. It was small wonder that the powerful royal fleets of the first half of the 16th century did not endure, and that the navy fell apart in the chaos of the Wars of Religion (1562-98). Even after Cardinal de Richelieu began to rebuild and reform the navy from the 1620s onwards, the fleet retained a strong regional character.
There was no such hiatus in the 16th-century English navy. Earlier medieval royal fleets had little or no continuity, but Henry VIII’s great navy outlived him and is the ancestor of the modern Royal Navy. Henry had built up his fleet to pursue his claim to the French throne and latterly, to defend the country. It is unlikely that he planned to create a navy for the ages, but ironically one of the things that helped the Tudor fleet survive was the potential threat of invasion from Catholic Europe that followed from Henry’s break with Rome and the eventual transformation of England into a Protestant country.
However, as Redding points out, the survival of the navy was also down to the fact that it became a government institution of sorts, rather than just a wartime expedient. The size and complexity of Henry’s fleet in the 1540s led to the creation of the ‘Council of the Marine’, which pulled together the rather ad hoc earlier naval administration and offered a more coherent way of running the fleet. This was the predecessor of the Navy Board, and was followed within a few years by the development of a victualling organisation and by the first annual naval budget in 1557. The navy itself remained the personal property of the sovereign, and the Council of the Marine was riven at times by corruption, conflict and inefficiency, but these institutional innovations still played a big part in ensuring the continuance of the navy.
The author ranges from matters such as naval high command and politics to ship design and technology, and there is not space here to consider them all. However, I do disagree with some of the statements made about technological issues. For one thing, it is not true to say that ‘galleys and oared vessels… were not measured in tonnage at all’ (p 116). In the English sources, at least, there are many references to the tonnages of oared warships.
Some of the other things said about ship technology also need to be qualified. Carvel construction was not ‘said to have originated in the Mediterranean’ (p 141): it was actually developed there in early Middle Ages, as wreck finds have shown. Similarly, it was not ‘adopted in northern Europe in the sixteenth century’: it was already present, having arrived there in the mid-1400s. The process of its adoption is still poorly understood, but if the English were using carvel techniques in 1510 to build a big war carrack like the Mary Rose (as archaeologists now believe), the method must have been already well-established in that country.
It would have been useful to have more detailed discussions of subjects such as manning and the backgrounds of the men who served in these navies. However, one cannot have everything, and my caveats about the technological sections lead me to feel that we need to re-evaluate what we think we know about these issues. This book is a significant and thought-provoking study of the English and French navies of this period, and an important contribution to European naval history.
Ian Friel is a maritime historian of wide experience, and the author of many studies and five books, including The Good Ship (1995), The Maritime History of Britain and Ireland 400-2001 (2003), Henry V’s Navy (2015), Britain and the Ocean Road (2020) and Breaking Seas, Broken Ships (2021). He worked in museums for 30 years, including the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and the Mary Rose Trust, before becoming an independent historian, museum consultant and writer in 2007. Ian has worked extensively with maritime archaeologists, and is currently completing a study identifying a 17th-century shipwreck.