How Britannia Came to Rule the Waves, updated to 1900, by W.H.G. Kingston.
This is a history of the British Navy, originally written by Kingston, but as he had died many years before 1900, and as it was felt that this book ought to go up to that year, it was edited and re-issued by the friends of Kingston, in particular by Henty.
It is a serious book, yet it is an easy one to read. It is also a very interesting book, that all British boys and girls, even now, more than a hundred years after the book was published, would do well to read.
One thing of special interest is that today's naval families, families that have traditionally sent sons to a distinguished career in the Navy, can look back, and read of the exploits of their forbears.
On the other hand, because of the very large numbers of names in the book it would probably not make a good audiobook, and we have not tried it.
HOW BRITANNIA CAME TO RULE THE WAVES, UPDATED TO 1900, BY W.H.G. KINGSTON.
Rome was not built in a day, nor has the glorious British Navy attained its present condition except by slow degrees, by numerous trials and experiments, by improvements gradually and cautiously introduced, and by the employment of a vast amount of thought, energy, and toil. We are apt to forget when we see an elaborate machine, the immense quantity of mental and physical exertion it represents, the efforts of the united minds perhaps of many successive generations, and the labour of thousands of workmen. I propose briefly to trace the progress which the British Navy has made from age to age, as well as its customs, and the habits of its seamen, with their more notable exploits since the days when this tight little island of ours first became known to the rest of the world.
Some writers, indulging in the Darwinian theory of development, would make us believe that the ironclad of the present day is the legitimate offspring of the ancient coracle or wicker-work boat which is still to be found afloat on the waters of the Wye, and on some of the rivers of the east coast; but if such is the case, the descent must be one of many ages, for it is probable that the Britons had stout ships long before the legions of Cassar set their feet upon our shores. I am inclined to agree with an ancient writer who gives it as his opinion that the British were always a naval people. "For," says he, in somewhat quaint phraseology, "as Britain was an island, the inhabitants could only have come to it across the ocean in ships, and they could scarcely have had ships unless they were nautically inclined." The same writer asserts that the Britons had vessels of large size long before the invasion of the Romans, but that they either burnt them to prevent their falling into the hands of the invaders, or that they were destroyed by the Romans themselves, who then, adding insult to injury, stigmatised the people as mere painted barbarians, whose sole mode of moving over the waters of their coasts and rivers was in wicker baskets covered with hides—the truth being, that these wicker-ribbed boats were simply the craft used by the British fishermen on their coasts or streams. How could the hordes that in successive ages crossed the German Ocean have performed the voyage unless they had possessed more efficient means of conveyance than these afforded? I must, therefore, agree with the aforesaid ancient writer that they had stout ships, impelled by sails and oars, which were afterwards employed either in commercial or piratical enterprises. The Britons of the southern shores of the island possessed, he says, wooden-built ships of a size considerably greater than any hide-covered barks could have been. It is very certain that many hundred years before the Christian era the Phoenicians visited the coasts of Cornwall and Devonshire, and planted colonies there, which retain to the present day their ancient peculiarities and customs, and even many names of common things. It is probable that these colonists, well acquainted as they were with nautical affairs, kept up their practical knowledge of shipbuilding, and formed a mercantile navy to carry on their commerce with other countries, as well as ships fitted for warfare to protect their ports from foreign invasion, or from the attacks of pirates.
Many English nautical terms at present in use are clearly of Phoenician origin. Davit, for instance, is evidently derived from the Arabic word Davit, a crooked piece of wood, similar in shape to that by which the boats of a vessel are hoisted out of the water and hung up at her sides. The word Caboose was the name given by the Phoenicians to the temple dedicated to the god of fire, whom they worshipped, built on the decks of their vessels; when a purer faith was introduced, it being found convenient to cook dinners in the no longer sacred Caboose, the name being retained, Blackie the cook took the place of the officiating priest. Caboose is at the present day the name of the kitchen-house on the deck of a merchant-vessel. Many other terms even now used by seafaring people are derived directly or indirectly from the same far-distant origin, as are several of the customs observed at the present day. I may mention some of them by-and-by.
SHIPS OF THE ANCIENTS.
The ancient Greeks and other Eastern nations had ships of considerable size many hundred years before the Christian era. The earliest mythical stories describe long voyages performed by vessels of far more complicated structure than the simple canoe. The ships engaged in the Trojan war each carried a hundred and twenty warriors, which shows that at the period referred to they could not have been of very small dimensions. Although they might have been open, they had masts and sails, and were propelled by rowers sitting on benches, while the oars were fastened to the sides of the ship with leathern thongs. Some were painted black, others red. When they arrived at their destination, the bows were drawn up on shore; or when on a voyage, they at night anchored by the stern, with cables secured to large stones. At an early period they had round bottoms and sharp prows. We hear of ships with three ranks of rowers, called triremes, B.C. 700, and long before that time biremes, or ships with two ranks of oars, had been introduced. In the time of Cyrus, long sharp-keeled war-ships were used, having fifty rowers, who sat in one row, twenty-five on each side of the ship. About B.C. 400, the practice of entirely decking over ships was introduced; Themistocles induced the Athenians to build a fleet of two hundred sail, and to pass a decree that every year twenty new triremes should be built. The Greeks even at that period, however, seldom ventured out into the open sea, steering in the daytime by headlands or islands, and at night by the rising and setting of different stars.
The Greeks possessed ships of war and merchant-vessels. That a war-galley was of large size may be inferred from the fact that she carried two hundred seamen, besides on some occasions thirty Epibatoe— literally, marines, trained to fight at sea. These war-vessels moved with wonderful rapidity, darting here and there with the speed of a modern steam-vessel. The ordinary war-ships were triremes, or had three banks of oars. The merchant-vessels or transports were much more bulky, had round bottoms, and although rowers were employed on board, yet they were propelled chiefly by their sails. After the time of Alexander, vessels with four, five, and even more ranks of rowers became general, and ships are described with twelve and even thirty ranks of rowers and upwards—but they were found of no practical use, as the crew on the upper benches were unable to throw sufficient power into the immensely long oars which it was necessary to employ.
Fully B.C. 500, the Carthaginians invented the quadremes, and about B.C. 400, Dionysius, first tyrant of Syracuse, whose ambition was to create a powerful navy, built numerous vessels of the same description, unused till that time by the Greeks. The rowers in these ships, with numerous banks of oars, could not have sat directly one above another, as some suppose; but the feet of those on the upper tier must have rested on the bench or thwart on which those immediately below them sat. Thus the tiers of oars were probably not more than two feet, if so much, one above another; and supposing the lowest tier was two feet above the water, the highest in the quadremes could not have been more than ten feet, and even then the length of the oar of the upper tier must have been very great, and it must have required considerable exertion on the part of the rower to move it. The most interesting part, however, of an ancient ship to us at the present day was the beak or rostra. At first these beaks were placed only above water, and were formed in the shape of a short thick-bladed sword, with sharp points, generally three, one above another, and inclining slightly upwards, so that they might rip open the planks of the vessels against which they ran. They were sometimes formed in the shape of a ram's head fixed to the end of a beam; and hence in modern days we have adopted the name of rams, which we give to ships of war built on the same principle.
After a time these beaks were fixed on to the bow of the ship below the water, and were thus still more dangerous to other ships, when they could strike an antagonist on the side. The bow of a ship was generally ornamented by the head of some animal, such as a wild boar or a wolf, or some imaginary creature placed above the rostra. On both sides of the prow were painted eyes, such as are seen on the bows of boats and vessels in the Mediterranean at the present day. The upper part of the prow was frequently ornamented with a helmet covered with bronze. The steersman or pilot was looked upon as the chief in rank among the crew, and after him there came an officer whose duties were similar to those of the boatswain, as he had the care of the gear and command over the rowers. The stern or puppis, from which we derive the term poop, was elevated above the other parts of the deck, and here the helmsman had his seat, sheltered by a shed frequently adorned with an image of the tutelary deity of the vessel. Sometimes he had a lantern hanging in front of him, probably to enable him to see the magic compass, the use of which was kept secret from the rest of the crew. A circular shield or shields also ornamented the stern. Behind the helmsman was placed a slight pole on which flew the dog-vane, to show the direction of the wind. In the centre of the ship was a raised platform on a level with the upper part of the bulwarks, on which in battle the soldiers took their stand to hurl their darts against the enemy.
The quadremes and quinqueremes carried from three to four hundred rowers, and a ship belonging to Ptolemaeus Philopater is described as carrying four thousand rowers. From the surface of the water to the top of the prow was forty-eight cubits, or seventy-two feet, and from the water to the top of the stern fifty-three cubits, or nearly eighty feet; she had thus sufficient room for forty ranks of rowers, and the oars of the uppermost rank were thirty-eight cubits or fifty-seven feet long, the handles of which were weighted with lead, so as to balance the outer part, and thus render the long oars manageable. The lower parts of the holes through which the oars passed were covered with leather. Till the invention of the rudder, vessels were steered by two large oars, one on either side of the stern, with very broad blades. Ships were also furnished with long poles, by which they could be shoved off the ground. The triremes were fitted with two masts, and so were even smaller vessels; the larger had three masts, the largest of which was nearest the stern. They were usually of fir; and the head of the lower mast, which is at present called the top, was in the shape of a drinking cup. Some of these tops were of bronze; the largest held three men, two in the next, and one in the smallest; and breast-works ran round them to defend the occupants from the darts of the enemy. They were also furnished with tackles for hoisting up stones and weapons to hurl at the foe. Above the main-mast was a top-mast or topgallant-mast, called the distaff; the yards were hoisted up much as in the present day, and were secured by parrels or hoops to the mast. They were fitted with topping-lifts and braces. Each mast carried two square sails, and in after days the Romans introduced triangular sails. Though they generally ran before the wind, they were also able to sail on a wind, though probably not very close-hauled.
Ships were supplied with weather-boards, or broad belts of canvas, to keep out the sea, and were surrounded, also, by lines of ropes one above another, to prevent the seamen from being washed overboard. Sometimes these breast-works were made of skins or wicker-work, and in bad weather were raised to a considerable height above the bulwarks. It is said that Anacharsis, upwards of 500 B.C., if he did not invent, greatly improved the form of anchors, which were already made of iron. The anchor had generally two flukes or teeth, and was then called bidens; but sometimes it had only one. We use the same terms as the ancients, to cast anchor or weigh anchor, whence the latter term is equivalent to set sail. Each ship had several anchors; that in which the Apostle Paul sailed, we know, had four, and others had eight. The largest and most important anchor was denominated "the last hope," hence, when that failed, arose the expression "the last hope gone." A buoy was used fixed to the anchor by a rope, to show the spot where it lay.
The Romans possessed no war fleets till the year B.C. 260, when a fleet of triremes was built to oppose the Carthaginians. Many of them having been sent to the bottom, however, by the quinqueremes of that people, the Romans built a hundred of the latter-sized ships from the model of a Carthaginian vessel wrecked on the coast of Italy. The Romans must have had very large merchant-vessels to enable them to transport the enormous monoliths from Egypt which they erected in Rome. These vast stones, also, could not have been got on board and brought up the Tiber without considerable mechanical appliances.
The construction of their ships differed but slightly from that of the Greek vessels; they had turrets on the decks of their larger men-of-war, and employed a variety of destructive engines; so that in battle the soldiers on board fought much as they did when standing on the walls of a fortress. Of one thing I am sure, that no correct drawings of ancient ships have come down to us, if any such were really made; those on medals, cameos, and such as are painted on walls, are probably as far removed from the reality as a Thames barge is from a dashing frigate. They give us, certainly, the different parts of the ship, and from them we may form a pretty correct idea of what a ship really was like. Certain it is, however, that ships were built of prodigious size, and if not equal to a line-of-battle ship of late days, they must have been as large as, if not larger than, the Great Harry, and probably quite as well able to encounter as she was the boisterous seas. Long before the Christian era, ships boldly struck across the Mediterranean, and even passing through the Pillars of Hercules, coasted along the shores of Iberia and Gaul, and thence crossed over to Britain, or coasted round the African continent.
Advanced as the ancients were in architectural knowledge, there is every reason to suppose that they were equally capable of building ships to answer all their requirements, either for war or commerce. They were probably thus not only of great size, but well built, and were certainly finished and ornamented in an elegant and even a magnificent manner, far superior to that of many ages later. The mistaken notion as to the size of the ships of the ancients arises from the supposition that because merchantmen of the present day are smaller than men-of-war, that they were so formerly—the reverse, however, being the case. Men-of-war were generally long, narrow vessels, constructed for speed, to carry only fighting men, with a small quantity of provisions; whereas merchantmen were built of considerable beam and depth to stow a large quantity of cargo. A Phoenician vessel was able to afford accommodation to 500 emigrants, with provisions for a long voyage, besides her crew, while her masts were formed of the cedars of Lebanon.
NAUTICAL CUSTOMS DERIVED FROM THE ANCIENTS.
Among the best-known customs of the ocean is the ceremony that takes place when ships cross the line. That, however, like many others of olden days, is getting somewhat into disuse. Few of those who have witnessed it, probably, have suspected that its origin dates as far back as the times of the Phoenicians. As the ship approaches the imaginary band which encircles the globe, a gruff voice hails her from alongside, and demands her name and nation, whence she is from, and whither she is bound. These questions being answered, she is ordered to heave to, when no less a person than old father Neptune himself, with his fair wife Amphitrite, and their attendant Tritons, climb up over the bows, and take possession of the fore-part of the deck. Neptune generally wears a crown formed out of a tin saucepan, with a flowing beard, a wig of oakum, and a robe composed of some gay-coloured petticoat-stuff, stored up for the occasion, or a piece of canvas, with curious devices painted on it, while he carries in his band a trident, made out of a harpoon or a boat-hook. The fair Amphitrite, who is more commonly known on board as Bill Buntline, the boatswain's mate, is habited, like her lord, in the gayest of gay attire, with a vast profusion of oakum locks, and bows of huge proportions, although it must be confessed that she has very little to boast of in the way of feminine delicacy or personal beauty, while the Tritons are at all events very odd-looking fish.
The captain, surrounded by his officers, with the passengers behind him, stands on the poop, and a spirited conversation, not altogether destitute of humour, generally takes place between him and Neptune—when the monarch of the main demands that every one on board who has not before crossed that portion of his watery realm where the ship then floats, shall be brought before him. None, whatever their rank, are excused. Those who at once consent to pay tribute are allowed to escape without undergoing any further ceremony, but those luckless wights who refuse or have not the wherewithal to pay are instantly seized on by the Tritons, lathered with pitch and grease, shaved with a rusty hoop, and soused over head and ears in a huge tub, while from all quarters, as they attempt to escape from the marine monsters, bucketfuls of water are hove down upon them. Uproar and apparent confusion ensues; and usually it requires no little exertion of authority on the part of the captain and officers to restore order.
We might suspect, from the introduction of the names of Neptune and Amphitrite, that this curious and somewhat barbarous custom must have a classical origin. There can be no doubt that it is derived from those maritime people of old, the Phoenicians. Ceremonies, to which those I have described bear the strongest similarity, were practised by them at a very remote period, whenever one of their ships passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. That talented writer, David Urquhart, in his "Pillars of Hercules," asserts that the Phoenicians and Carthaginians possessed a knowledge of the virtues of the loadstone, and used it as a compass, as did the mariners of the Levant till a late period.
The original compass consisted of a cup full of water, on which floated a thin circular board, with the needle resting on it; this was placed in a small shrine or temple in front of the helmsman, with a lantern probably fixed inside to throw light on the mysterious instrument during the night. The most fearful oaths were administered to the initiated not to divulge the secret. Every means, also, which craft could devise or superstition enforce was employed by the Phoenicians to prevent other people from gaining a knowledge of it, or of the mode by which their commerce beyond the Straits of Hercules was carried on, or of the currents, the winds, the tides, the seas, the shores, the people, or the harbours. A story is told of a Phoenician vessel running herself on the rocks to prevent the Romans from finding the passage. This secrecy was enforced by the most sanguinary code—death was the penalty of indiscretion; thus the secret of the compass was preserved from generation to generation among a few families of seamen unknown to the rest of the civilised world. The ceremonies, especially, were kept up, though in a succession of ages they have undergone gradual alterations.
The lofty shores which form the two sides of the Straits of Gibraltar were known in ancient days as the Pillars of Hercules. Here stood the temple of the god, and hither came the mariners before launching forth on the more perilous part of their voyage, to pay their vows, and probably to bind themselves by oaths to conceal the secrets to be revealed to them. Perhaps in all cases the temple on shore was not visited, but, at all events, the oaths were administered to the seamen on board, ablutions were performed, and sacrifices offered up. The introduction of Christianity did not abolish these observances, and through the ignorance and superstition of the mariners of those seas they were for century after century maintained, though the motive and origin were altogether forgotten.
A traveller, who wrote as recently as the seventeenth century, describes a ceremony which took place on board a ship in which he was sailing, when passing through the straits. Just as the two lofty headlands were in sight on either side of the ship, an old seaman came forward with a book, and summoning all those whose names he declared not to be registered in it, made them swear that they in future voyages would compel their fellow-seamen to perform the same ceremonies in which they were about to engage. Behind him appeared a band of veteran seamen dressed up in a variety of fantastic costumes, with a drum and other musical instruments. These forthwith seized on all whose names were not registered as having before passed through the straits, and dragging them forward, thrust them into tubs, and soused them thoroughly with water. No one was altogether exempt, but those who had before passed were allowed to escape a like process by the payment of a fine.
These same mariners, when they extended their voyages to the southern hemisphere, very naturally postponed the ceremony which they were in the habit of performing on passing the straits, till they crossed the line. They also, not altogether abandoning classical allusions, changed the name of their dramatis personae. Hercules, who had no connection with the ocean, whatever he might have had to do with the Straits of Gibraltar, had to give place to Neptune, the long-honoured monarch of the main, and Amphitrite was introduced to keep him company. We recognise in the duckings, the sacrificial ablutions, and in the shaving and fining, the oaths and the penalty.
When the hardy seamen of Great Britain first began to steer their ships across the line, they were undoubtedly accompanied by pilots and mariners of the Mediterranean. These, of course, taught them the ceremonies they had been in the habit of performing. The English, as may be supposed, made various additions and alterations suited to their rougher habits and ideas, and what at one time probably retained somewhat of the elegance of its classical origin, became the strange burlesque it now appears.
Another nautical custom still in vogue is also derived from remote antiquity. At the present day, with doubtful propriety, in imitation of the rite of baptism, we christen a ship, as it is often called, by breaking a bottle of wine on her bows as she glides off the stocks. The custom is of thoroughly heathen origin. A similar ceremony was practised by the ancient Greeks when they launched a ship. We ornament our vessels with flags; they decked theirs with garlands. At the moment the ship was launched forth into the deep the priest of Neptune raised to his lips a goblet of wine, and after quaffing from it, he poured the remainder out as a libation to his deity. The modern Greeks still perform the ceremony much in the manner of their ancestors. Clearly, the custom we have of breaking a bottle of wine is derived from the libations of the ancients. In most instances, at the present day, the ship is named at the moment she is launched by a young lady, who acts the part of the priest or priestess of old.
Of late years a religious service is usually performed at the launch of a man-of-war. The heathen libation is not, however, omitted, and the whole ceremony presents a curious jumble of ancient and modern forms suited to the tastes of the day. Still we are bound heartily to pray that the gallant sailors who will man the stout ship may be protected while in the performance of their duty to their country; and, still more, that they may be brought to a knowledge of the Gospel.
The Greeks invariably gave feminine names to their ships, choosing, whenever possible, appropriate ones; while the less courteous Romans bestowed masculine names on theirs. Though we may not have followed the Greek rule, we to the present day always look upon a ship as of the feminine gender.
The mariner's compass, the most important instrument used in navigation, demands further notice. The magnet, or loadstone, was known to the ancient Greeks many centuries before the Christian era. The legend runs, that one Magnes a shepherd, feeding his flocks on Mount Ida, having stretched himself on the ground to sleep, left his crook, the upper part of which was made of iron, lying against a rock. On awaking, and rising to depart, he found, when he attempted to take up his crook, that the iron adhered to the rock. Having communicated this extraordinary fact to some neighbouring philosophers, they called the rock after the name of the shepherd, Magnes, the magnet.
The Chinese, of still more ancient date, so their traditions affirm, discovered a mountain rising out of the sea possessing an intensity of attraction so great that the nails and iron bands were drawn out of their ships, causing their immediate wreck. Those sea-arabs whom we call Phoenicians had, at a very early date, made use of their knowledge of the property of the loadstone to turn towards the North Pole; though, like many other discoveries, as I have just mentioned, it was kept a profound secret among a select few, and concealed from the public by having an air of religious mystery thrown over it. Lumps of loadstone formed into balls were preserved in their temples, and looked upon with awe, as possessing mystic properties. With these round stones the point of a needle was rubbed, as often as it required fresh magnetising.
I have already described the compass used by the Phoenicians, and how, long after Islamism had gained the ascendency, it was possessed by their descendants. At length the secret was divulged, and it came into general use among the mariners of the Mediterranean in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Its original form was unaltered for nearly four centuries, when, in 1502, Flavio Gioja of Positano, near the town of Amalfi, on the coast of Calabria, a place celebrated for its maritime enterprise, improved upon the primitive rude and simple instrument by suspending the needle on a centre, and enclosing it in a box. The advantages of his invention were so great that his instrument was universally adopted, and hence he gained the credit of being the inventor of the mariner's compass, of which he was only the improver.
Long before the compass was used at sea, it had been employed by the Chinese to direct the course of their caravans across the desert. For this purpose a figure, placed in a waggon which led the caravan, was so constructed that the arm and hand moved with perfect freedom, the magnetic needle being attached to it; the hand, however, pointed to the south, the negative end being fixed in it. The Chinese also used a needle which was freely suspended in the air, attached to a silken thread, and by this means they were able to determine the amount of the western variation of the needle. It is possible that both the Chinese and Arabs discovered the magnetic powers of the loadstone, although the latter in their long voyages may have allowed the knowledge they possessed to have been drawn from them by the astute Chinese; or, vice versa, the Arabs may have obtained the knowledge which the Chinese already possessed, and kept it secret from the western nations. We all remember the wonderful adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, as narrated in the Arabian Nights—how the ship in which he sailed was attracted by a magnetic mountain, which finally drew all the iron bolts and nails out of her. Now it happens that the author places Sinbad's mountain in the same part of the world in which the Chinese say their magnetic mountain exists. Ptolemy, in his geography, also describes a magnetic mountain existing in the Chinese Seas. We may therefore, I think, come to the conclusion, that the mariner's compass was known to the ancients long before the Christian era, and that although disused for centuries, the knowledge was never altogether lost.
EARLY ENGLISH SHIPS (FROM A.D. 600 TO A.D. 1087.)
We Englishmen undoubtedly derive a large portion of our nautical spirit from our Saxon ancestors, the first bands of whom came to the shores of our tight little island under those sea-rovers known as Hengist and Horsa, invited by the helpless Britons to defend them from the attacks of the savage Picts and Scots. The enemies of the gallant heroes I have named were apt to call them pirates; but as might made right in most sublunary affairs during those dark and troubled ages of the world's history, they looked upon the roving commissions they had given themselves as perfectly honourable and lawful, and felt no small amount of contempt for the rest of mankind who chose to stay at home at ease by their firesides, while they were ploughing the ocean in search of plunder and glory. I suspect that they had a strong preference for the former.
After the Saxons had driven the ancient inhabitants of the island out of the more fertile portions of the country, and had made themselves, according to their notions, pretty comfortable in their new homes; they, in a little time, in their turn, were sadly pestered by foreign invaders. These were the Danes. Those hardy sons of the North, still more wild and fierce than the Saxons, and still less scrupulous in their proceedings, pleased with the appearance of the country which they had come over to look at, settled themselves in every nook and corner of Old England in which they could haul up their ships, and find a resting place for their feet. I cannot help feeling a great respect for those old sea-kings. They were heathens, and we must judge of them by the light which they possessed, and not by any standard acknowledged in the present civilised world. Bold, enterprising, and sagacious, their own country confined and barren, they looked on the wide ocean as the only worthy field for the employment of their energies. They loved it for itself, too; they were born on it, or within the sound of its surges; they lived on it, they fought on it, and it was their wish through life to die on it, as if only on its boundless expanse their free spirits could be emancipated from this mortal coil. This same spirit still exists and animates the breasts of the officers and men of our navy, of our vast mercantile marine; and, though mentioned last, not certainly in a less degree of the owners of the superb yacht fleets which grace the waters of the Solent, of the Bay of Dublin, of Plymouth Sound, of the mouth of the Thames, and indeed of every harbour and roadstead round our shores. No people, unless animated by such a spirit, would go to sea simply for the love of a sea-life as do our yachtsmen. We may depend upon it that they are the lineal descendants of those old sea-rovers, somewhat more civilised and polished certainly, differing as much in that respect, it is to be hoped, from their remote ancestors as do their trim yachts, which will go nine knots or more within four and a-half points of the wind, from the tubbish-looking sturdy craft of the Danes, which had no idea of sailing any way except dead before the gale.
There was something barbarously grand in the notion of the old Norse kings which induced them, when worn out with age and fatigue, to sail forth into mid-ocean, and then, lighting their own funeral pile, to consume themselves and the stout ship they loved so well in one conflagration. Seriously, however, we must not forget that they were influenced by a very terrible and dark superstition, and be thankful that we live in an age when the bright beams of Christianity have dispelled such gross errors from this part of the globe. I cannot help fancying that the late Lord Yarborough, that chief of true yachtsmen, had somewhat the same feeling I have been describing, refined and civilised of course, when, his vessel, the Kestrel, being in Malta harbour, he found death approaching, and ordered her to be got under weigh, to stand out to sea, that he might breathe out his spirit surrounded by that element on which he had so long made his home, and in which he so truly delighted.
The tribes, now so closely united, which make up the British race, were the most maritime people of their time, and it is not, therefore, surprising that we should now possess strong nautical propensities. The Normans, it must be remembered also, who afterwards conquered England, were descended from the same bold sea-rovers, though, having paid sundry visits to Paris, where they learned to write poetry, to sing, and to dance, with many other accomplishments, they had wonderfully improved in civilisation since the days of their ancestors, of whom I have been speaking. Still the same enterprising spirit animated their bosoms, afterwards to shine forth with splendour, when their descendants became the leaders of numberless exploring expeditions to all parts of the world, and of the victorious fleets of Old England.
There is no doubt, as I have shown, that the English possessed trading vessels, if not also ships, built exclusively for war, from a very early period.
The first regular war-fleet, however, which we hear of was one built by our great King Alfred, to protect his dominions from the attacks of the Danes.
He designed a ship from the model of those used by the Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians, similar to the Maltese galley employed down to a very recent date in the Mediterranean. His ships are said to have been twice as large as any vessels of war used by other nations at that period. They were large galleys, propelled by sixty oars, with a deck above that part where the rowers sat. On the deck stood the fighting men and mariners, who managed the sails, for they had masts and sails as well as oars. There were besides probably small towers or breast-works at the stern and bow to contribute to their means of attack and defence. These ships were built of well-seasoned materials, commanded by experienced officers, whom the king had collected from all quarters, and manned by expert seamen. The commanders were ordered to go forth in quest of the Danes, to attack wherever they encountered them, and to give no quarter; orders which were strictly obeyed, and which for the time were most efficacious in clearing the coast of pirates. In consequence of the ease with which the ships were moved through the water, and from their being always able to keep the weather-gauge, as likewise from the strange appearance which they presented to their enemies, Alfred's commanders were not afraid of attacking twice or thrice their own number of the enemy, and invariably came off victorious. Indeed they had nearly the same advantage over the Danes which a steamer at the present day has over a fleet of Chinese junks. Alfred, it is said, caused surveys to be made of the coasts of Norway and Lapland, and sent out ships to the polar regions in search of whales.
I have met with an old writer, who describes a far more remarkable achievement than any of these. He was a monk, of course, and his knowledge of geography we may suspect was rather limited, when he tells us that in the reign of Alfred a voyage was performed to the Indies by the way of the north-east—that is to say, round the north of Asia— under the command of a certain monk, Swithelm, who, as his reward, was made Bishop of Sherburn. The mission was undertaken to aid the Christians of a place called Saint Thomas, on the continent of India, and we are assured that the curiosities which were brought back, and are fully described, are exactly like the productions found in India, when it became more fully known. The expedition, if it ever took place, must have proceeded down the African coast and round the Cape of Good Hope. If so, the seamen of Britain, with a monk as their commander, succeeded in an enterprise which, having been totally forgotten, immortalised Bartholomew Diaz as the discoverer of the Stormy Cape full six centuries afterwards. We must not place more faith in the narrative than it deserves, but one thing is certain, that if any long or perilous voyages were performed, the prints of ships pretending to be those of the days of King Alfred found on tapestries, old illustrated histories and other works are not slightly incorrect. When a boy, I used very strongly to suspect that if a ship had ever been built after the model of the prints exhibited in the History of England, she would either, as sailors say, have turned the turtle directly she was launched, or have gone boxing about the compass beyond the control of those on board her; but as to standing up to a breeze, or going ahead, I saw that that was impossible. I have since discovered, with no little satisfaction, when examining into the subject, that the verbal descriptions of the ships of those days give a very different idea to that which the prints and tapestry work do, which so offended my nautical instincts.
Large substantial vessels, we may depend on it, existed in those days, and though encumbered with much top hamper, and rigged only with square sails, they did not carry the high towers nor the absurdly cut sails which they are represented to have done in all the illustrated histories I have seen. The celebrated galleys of King Alfred are described by an old writer as very long, narrow, and deep vessels, heavily ballasted on account of the high deck on which the soldiers and seamen stood above the heads of the rowers. Of these rowers, there were four to work each oar, and as there were thirty-eight oars on a side, there must have been upwards of three hundred rowers to each vessel. Whether these vessels had more than one mast is uncertain. From their want of beam they would have run much risk of turning over had they attempted to sail except directly before the wind. They moved with great rapidity; and in an engagement off the Isle of Wight, they ran down the Danish vessels in succession till the whole fleet of the enemy was either sunk, driven on shore, or put to flight.
The navy of England still further increased during the reign of Alfred's immediate successors, till, in the time of King Edgar (A.D. 957), it had reached the number of three thousand six hundred ships at least, "with which," as say his chroniclers, "he vindicated the right claimed in all ages by the sovereigns of this island to the dominion of the seas (meaning the seas surrounding England), and acquired to himself the great title of The Protector of Commerce."
This navy was divided into three fleets, each of twelve hundred sail, which he kept in constant readiness for service, one on the eastern coast, another on the western, and a third on the northern coasts of the kingdom, to defend them against the depredations of the Danish and Norman pirates, and to secure the navigation of the adjacent seas; which, that he might the more effectually do, he, every year after the festival of Easter, went on board the fleet on the eastern coast, and sailing westward with it scoured the channel of pirates; and having looked into all the ports, bays, and creeks between the Thames' mouth and Land's End, quitted this fleet and sent it back, and going on board the western fleet did the like in those parts, as also on the coasts of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and among the Hebrides or Western Islands, where being met by the northern fleet, he went on board the same, and came round to the Thames' mouth. Thus encompassing all his dominions, and providing for the security of their coasts, he rendered an invasion impracticable, and kept his sailors in continual exercise. This he did for the whole sixteen years of his reign.
May our rulers ever possess the wisdom of Alfred, the greatest of England's kings, and by the same means preserve inviolate the shores of our native land.
It would have been well for Old England had all its monarchs imitated the excellent example set by King Edgar, and had never allowed any decrease in the naval establishment. Let the present generation do as he did, with the modifications changed times and circumstances have introduced, and then, although we may not be able correctly to troll forth "Hearts of oak are our ships," we may sing truly—
"Iron coats wear our ships, Lion hearts have our men; We always are ready; Then steady, boys, steady; We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again."
King Edgar appears to have been the last great naval sovereign of the Saxon race. When his son Ethelred, by the murder of his brother Edward, came to the throne, his navy was so neglected that the Danes made incursions with impunity on every part of the coasts of England, and in the year A.D. 991, they extorted no less a sum than 10,000 pounds from that wicked monarch, or rather from his unfortunate subjects (who, depend upon it, had to pay the piper), as the price of their forbearance in refraining from levying a further amount of plunder.
This circumstance might have served as a strong hint to the English of those times to keep up the strength of their navy, but it does not appear to have had any such effect; and even that wise monarch, Canute the Great, had only thirty-two ships afloat. We find, however, that when Harold, son of Earl Godwin, was striving to maintain his claim to the crown of England (A.D. 1066), he fitted out a numerous fleet, with which he was able to defeat his rivals. Now, as we are elsewhere told that one of these rivals alone had a navy of three hundred sail, his must have been of considerable magnitude. After his death, at the battle of Hastings, his sons and several of his chief nobility escaped in the remnant of their fleet to the coasts of Norway, and gave no little annoyance to the Norman Conqueror, William.
It must be remembered that the Duke of Normandy, as he was then styled, had, to bring over his army, nine hundred transports; but he burnt them when he landed, to show his own followers, as well as the Saxons, that he had come to die or to conquer.
Such is a very brief account of the navy of England up to the time of the Norman Conquest.
It is more easy to describe what the ships of those days were not like than to give an exact description of them. Certainly the ships represented on tapestry, on seals, or on coins are very unlike any piece of naval architecture which ever had existence. Every seaman knows how impossible it is for an ordinary landsman to draw anything like a faithful representation of a ship, however picturesque a production the thing might appear to him. We are bound, therefore, to look with grave suspicion on the performances of the draughtsmen of those early days; who had but a poor idea of drawing the objects they had constantly before their eyes.
Our artist has given a fair representation, I suspect, of what a ship was in those early days. She probably had another mast aft, and some more head sail of a square shape. What are called fore and aft sails were not generally used till comparatively modern times. She looks as if she really was fitted to cross the channel, to carry a number of men, and even to contend with heavy seas. The tall masts, heavy rigging, and large tops, on which a number of men could stand and fight, had not then been employed on these northern seas.
I have hitherto spoken only of the war-ships of those early days. There were, however, merchant-ships which traded to far-distant shores. They were probably good wholesome craft, of somewhat tub-like form, of about the size of a vessel of the present day of one hundred to one hundred and fifty tons, rigged with two or three big sails, with one bank of oars, and manned by a hardy and numerous crew, who patiently waited for the coming of a fair wind before they ventured to make sail; and who, though generally addicted to hugging the shore, yet at times ventured to stand out into the boundless ocean, guided alone by the stars. The mercantile marine was encouraged in every way by the wiser sovereigns of the Saxon race, as the nursery of those stout seamen who would prove the best bulwarks of their country against foreign invasion.
We now come to a fresh epoch in the history of Old England; but as no writer of those days has thought fit to enlighten us as to naval affairs, our knowledge of them is meagre and unsatisfactory.
Literature, in that iron age, was chiefly confined to monastic cells; we hear of bishops becoming warriors, and leading their armies to battle on the field, and it is recorded that there were other monks besides Swithelm who took to the profession. Probably some sailors, after growing weary of cutting throats on the high seas, and other acts of piracy, assumed the easy and dignified position of monks, and endowed their monasteries with their wealth; but then it may be questioned whether they were likely to have been able to read, much less to write.
William of Normandy had, for some time, too much to do on shore in keeping his new subjects in order, to attend to affairs afloat; but he at length was compelled to build and fit out a fleet to defend his kingdom from the attacks of the Danes, instigated by the sons and followers of Harold. He, after much consideration, hit upon a new plan for raising a fleet, and it is a point of history worthy of recollection. He exempted five of the principal ports of the kingdom from all taxes, impositions, or burdens, on condition that each should fit out, man, and support a certain number of vessels for a certain period. They were Dover, Romney, Sandwich, Hastings, and Rye, and were thence called the Cinque Ports.
Though others were afterwards added, the name has ever since been retained. It appears by Doomsday Book that Dover, Romney, and Sandwich, severally, were to provide twenty vessels each, with twenty-one men, provisioned for fifteen days at their own charge. After that time the crews were to be supported by the Crown.
Another document states that, besides the twenty men, there is to be a master of the mariners, who is to receive sixpence a-day, a constable, who is to receive a like sum, and each mariner threepence a-day. These five ports, with other smaller ones attached to them, provided in all 57 ships, 1187 men, and 57 boys, one boy being on board each ship. These boys were called gromets. A gromet is now the name given to a ring of rope used sometimes to slide up and down the mast, and I conclude, therefore, that the duty of these boys was to swarm up the mast, and set and furl the lighter sails.
In the reign of King John (A.D. 1217), Herbert of Burgo, the captain of Dover, hearing of an invasion intended by Lewis the Elder, son of the King of France, in favour of the discontented barons, assembled in the king's name forty tall ships from the Cinque Ports, and took, sunk, and discomfited eighty sail of Frenchmen in a gallant engagement on the high seas. These ports did great service under Henry the Third and Edward the First. Among other brave deeds, they fitted out one hundred sail, and encountered two hundred sail of Frenchmen with such success, that they effectually ruined the navy of France. Many years happily passed before that country recovered the loss of her men and ships. I will give a fuller account of this action further on. Numberless are the tales of a like description to be told.
Besides the twenty-three mariners which these warships of the Cinque Ports carried, there were on board a considerable number of fighting men, knights, and their retainers, armed with bucklers, spears, and bows and arrows. They also used slings and catapults, and perhaps stink-pots, like those employed by the Chinese at the present day, as well as other ancient engines of warfare. That ships of war were capable of holding a considerable number of men, we learn from the well-known account of the death of the brave young Prince William, son of Henry the First. When crossing the channel from Normandy, in an attempt to make his ship get ahead of that of his father, he kept too close in with the shore, and consequently ran on a rock called the Shatteras. He might have been saved; but hearing that his sister, the Countess of Perche, still remained on board, he ordered the boat in which he was escaping to put back to rescue her. On arriving alongside, so large a number of people jumped into the boat, that she was swamped, and all were lost. On this occasion two hundred people perished, only one, the ship's butcher, escaping to the shore, and through him the sad tidings were known. Now, if we turn to any old illustrated History of England, we shall find, probably, a print professing to describe this very event. Yet, on examining it, we shall see that the vessel is not large enough to carry twenty people, much less two hundred. The artists either made their sketches from river barges, or row-boats, or drew a ship from one they saw at a distance, and having altered and adorned her to suit their own fancies afterwards, put a crew on board, utterly forgetful of the proper proportions between the ship and the men.
In the reign of the son and successor of William the Conqueror, William the Second, called Rufus, the first great crusade against the Saracen possessors of the Holy Land was commenced, in the year 1095. To aid in that extraordinary expedition, a large fleet was fitted out in England, and placed under the command of the Earl of Essex. The ships, as they had a long voyage to perform, and a number of armed men and provisions to carry, must have been of considerable size. As the use of the mariner's compass was unknown to them, they must have coasted round the shores of France, Portugal, and Spain, before they entered the Mediterranean.
The Atlantic in those days was not likely to be more tranquilly disposed than it is at present, and thus the mariners must have been expert and brave, and the ships well found, or they would not have performed the voyage in safety. We know that the Crusaders had horses, but they probably were transported from the neighbouring shores of the Mediterranean, and any favourite war-steeds which came from England were conveyed across France. Neither Henry the First nor Stephen, from A.D. 1100 to 1135, maintained a navy, properly so-called, but on the few occasions that they required ships, they hired them of the merchants, called on the Cinque Ports to supply them, or had them built for the purpose.
Probably all vessels in those days carried oars, or long sweeps, to assist them in calms, and in going in and out of harbours; but many craft of considerable burden depended solely on oars for moving at all. There appears to be much difference of opinion as to how these oars were worked when there were several tiers, and I therefore return to the subject already touched on in the first chapter. It is most probable that there was one space, or between decks, devoted entirely to the rowers. This space was fitted with a succession of rows of benches one higher than the other, but not one above another. That is to say, that the bench immediately higher than the first was placed in the interval between it and the one behind it, so that the rowers sitting on this higher bench had their feet pressed against the bench below them, others on the tier above having their feet on their bench. As the tiers were higher and higher in the vessel's sides, the oars would be longer and longer, and would project far beyond the lower ones; indeed, they would become sweeps, and probably the inner part of each would extend completely across the vessel, and thus the upper oars on the same tier would not be opposite to each other. The lowest tier would perhaps be pulled only by one or two men, and as the tiers rose in height, and consequently the oars in length, more men would be added. Then, again, the lower tiers would have many more oars than the upper, and consequently even more men would be seated on the lower than on the upper benches. This, I think, is the best solution as to the difficulty regarding the mode in which the rowers of a large galley were placed. The hold and the deck immediately below the rowers was thus left for cargo and stores, and perhaps for sleeping-places, while the deck and forecastle, and aftercastle or poop above them, were free for working the sails and for righting. The officers, and perhaps the crew, slept under the poop and forecastle, and in other buildings on deck, as is the case on board many vessels at the present day, only the forecastles and poops were more like those of a Chinese junk than of any modern European craft.
Henry the Second, in the year 1171, collected or built a fleet of four hundred ships of great size, for the purpose of carrying over his troops for the conquest of Ireland, which country he annexed to the English crown. These ships, as no enemy was to be encountered on the ocean, were merely transports.
Richard the First, of the Lion Heart, who began to reign 1189, fitted out a fleet, which, when assembled in the port of Messina in Sicily, in the year 1189, ready to carry his army to the shores of the Holy Land, consisted of sixteen capital ships of extraordinary burden (occupying the position of three-deckers), one hundred and fifty ordinary ships of war, and fifty-three galleys, besides vessels of less size and tenders. In his passage to Acre, known also as Ptolemais, he encountered a huge vessel of the Saracens, laden with ammunition and provisions, bound for the same place which was then besieged by the Christian army. She was called the Dromunda, and her size was enormous. Though she appeared like some huge castle floating on the sea, Richard ordered his galleys to attack her, and as they approached, they were received by showers of missiles, Greek fire, and other horrible combustibles. It was no easy task to board so lofty a ship, but the king urged on his men, some of whom, jumping overboard, swam to the rudder, to which they secured ropes, and thus gained the power of steering her. The most active now climbed up her sides, but were driven back by the overwhelming number of her defenders. The galleys were next ordered to try the effect of their beaks; retiring to windward, and setting all their sails, as well as working away with their oars, they bore down on the Dromunda with such force and velocity, that their iron beaks pierced the sides of the monstrous ship, which instantly began to sink, and out of fifteen hundred officers and men who composed her company, the whole, with the exception of fifty-five, were drowned. These latter were chiefly officers, none of the common men being received on board the galleys.
It is very evident that the art of shipbuilding must have made considerable progress in that part of the world, when a ship of such a size could be constructed. The Dromunda could scarcely have been less in size than a fifty-gun ship in Nelson's day.
We here see the effect produced by rams, much in the way it is proposed to employ them in modern warfare. There will, however, be this difference in a naval battle of the future, that both sides will be provided with these formidable implements of warfare. Before Richard reached Acre a fierce naval engagement had taken place between the besiegers and the besieged. The latter came out of port with their galleys two and two, preserving a similar array in their advance. The Crusaders prepared to receive them, moving to a distance, so that they should not be denied free egress. The Crusaders then disposed their ships in a curved line, so that if the enemy attempted to break through they might be enclosed and defeated. In the upper tiers the shields interlaced were placed circularly, and the rowers sat close together, that those above might have freer scope. The sea being perfectly calm, no impediment was offered to the blows of the warriors or the strokes of the rowers; advancing nearer to each other, the trumpets sounded on both sides, and mingled their dread clangour. First, they contended with missiles, but the Crusaders more earnestly plied their oars, and pierced the enemy's ships with the beaks of their own. Soon the battle became general; the oars became entangled, and the combatants fought hand to hand.
There was one English galley which, through the rashness of the crew, got close alongside an enemy, who set her in flames with their Greek fire. The Saracens on this rushing in at all parts, the rowers leaped into the sea, but a few soldiers remained through desperation. Those few overcame the many, and retook their half-burned ship. The weapons used were swords, axes lances, arrows, and other missiles, as well as engines for casting large stones; and both Saracens and Christians employed that burning oil commonly called the Greek fire, which is said to consume both flint and iron. It was the invention of the seventh century, and was long used with terrific effect by the Greeks, who called it the liquid fire. It is supposed to have been composed of naphtha, pitch, and sulphur, with other ingredients. It was propelled in a fluid state through brazen tubes from the prows of vessels and from fortifications, with as much facility as water is now thrown from the fire-engine; igniting the moment it was exposed to the air, when it became a continuous stream of fire, carrying with it torture and destruction. Water increased its power, and it could only be extinguished by vinegar or sand; while, in addition to its other horrors, it emitted a stifling smoke, loud noise, and disgusting stench. Tow dipped in it was fastened to the heads of arrows, which thus became carriers of unquenchable flame. It was kept in jars or large bottles. It was probably introduced into England before the time of Richard the First, for in 1195 a payment was made by the king for carrying Greek fire and other implements from London to Nottingham.
Fire-ships were, indeed, of far earlier date than the days of Richard the First. We find them in use among the Tyrians in the time of Alexander the Great. It is related that at the siege of Tyre, when a mole was being constructed to join that city to the continent, the inhabitants, having loaded a large ship heavily by the stern with sand and stones, for the purpose of raising her head out of the water, and having filled her with all sorts of combustible matter, they drove her violently with sails and oars against the mole, when they set fire to her, the seamen escaping in their boats. The mole being in a great measure built of wood, with wooden towers on it, was by this device utterly destroyed. Thus we see that the Tyrians invented and successfully employed fire-ships before the Christian era. We are apt to consider many other discoveries modern which were known to the ancients. For instance, an Italian author, some three centuries ago, describes a ship weighed in his time out of the lake of Riccia, where it had lain sunk and neglected for above thirteen hundred years. It was supposed to have belonged to Trajan.
He observed, he says, "that the pine and cypress of which it was built had lasted most remarkably. On the outside it was built with double planks, daubed over with Greek pitch, caulked with linen rags, and over all a sheet of lead, fastened on with little copper nails."
Here we have caulking and sheathing together known in the first century of the Christian era; for, of course, the sheet of lead nailed over the outside with copper nails was sheathing, and that in great perfection, the copper nails being used instead of iron, which, when once rusted in the water by the working of the ship, soon lose their hold, and drop out.
Captain Saris, in a voyage to Japan in the year 1613, describes a junk of from eight to ten hundred tons burden, sheathed all over with iron. As in the days of the Plantagenets the country had not the advantage of possessing a Board of Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, nor, indeed, any office in which the records of the ships built, altered, rebuilt, or pulled to pieces were kept, or, indeed, any naval records whatever, we are without the means of ascertaining what special improvements were introduced either in shipbuilding or in the fitting or manning of ships during each particular reign. Indeed, for several centuries very slow progress appears to have been made in that art, which ultimately tended to raise England to the prosperous state she has so long enjoyed.
THE NAVY IN THE DAYS OF THE PLANTAGENETS—FROM A.D. 1087 TO A.D. 1327.
William Rufus, in 1087, had scarcely a vessel which deserved the name of a ship of war. The trade of the country, however, was carried on by small craft, of which there were great numbers; there remained also some of the transports of former years, but William when expecting the invasion of his kingdom by his brother Robert, found to his sorrow that he possessed no ships of sufficient size to compete with those of the Normans. Being unwilling to weaken his land forces by sending them on board such ships as he possessed, he engaged all the large trading-vessels of the country, and invited mariners to embark in the transports. He gave commissions, also, to all the traders to sink, burn, and destroy every Norman vessel they could meet with, and offered considerable rewards for every successful action. Besides this, he published proclamations inviting all private persons to fit out vessels on their own account, encouraging them with the promise of similar rewards. Numbers of traders accepted the commission, and the sea swarmed with privateers. They were of small size, but were manned by bold seamen, who encouraged one another by their numbers. Robert, who was aware that the English had no fleet, not expecting any resistance at sea, thought only of loading his transports with as many men as they could carry. His ships were therefore ill-prepared for action, being overloaded with men, and he little expected any opposition from the small ships of the English.
The latter, meantime, obtained exact intelligence of the movements of the Normans, while they kept secret their own forces and plans. The Normans at length sailed, and had no time to laugh at the smallness of the English ships before they began to quake at their numbers. The latter bore down upon them like a pack of hounds on a stag, and, encouraged by the promised rewards, fought with the greatest fury. In vain the Normans attempted to fly; they were overtaken and overpowered by the multitude of their assailants. The number that perished by the sword and drowning was astonishing; those who attempted to escape were overtaken, and shared the fate of the others; and but few got back to Normandy with the news of their defeat. Never was a sea-fight in which personal courage was more nobly exhibited; never a more complete victory, nor ever, apparently, slighter means of obtaining it.
The Normans called the English pirates, but they were properly privateers, and the original armament to which they were united, though a poor one, was a royal force. William punctually paid the promised rewards.
People were generally too pleasantly employed in those mediaeval days in knocking their neighbours on the head, or in storming and demolishing their castles, and other similar pastimes on shore, to attend to any subject so unromantic as shipbuilding or navigation.
Still the monarchs of the Plantagenet race had ships of their own; but their chief notion of keeping up a navy was by laying taxes on the sea-ports, on commerce, and on the fisheries, thus crippling the surest means by which a fleet could be maintained. The chief naval events of the intermediate reigns have been described in the preceding chapter.
John, we are told, had a naval establishment of ships and officers, with certain boards for its government. He had not many vessels, however, as he chiefly depended on the Cinque Ports to furnish him with ships, while he laid an embargo on merchant-vessels in case of necessity; and turned them into ships of war. He must have had a great notion, however, of keeping up the dignity of England on the ocean, as he passed an ordinance that all ships should lower their topsails to the English flag; a custom which was preserved for many centuries. Foreigners, however, did not always show themselves willing to conform to the custom, and it was more than once the cause of quarrels between England and other nations. Still, even at the present day, English men-of-war do not salute foreign ships in that or any other way, unless the latter pay the compliment to them first, or at the same time.
Philip Augustus of France having attacked his ally, the Earl of Flanders, the king fitted out a numerous fleet, which he placed under the command of the Earl of Salisbury, giving him directions to destroy rather than to capture any of the enemy's ships. The Earl of Salisbury observed his instructions, and followed the movements of the enemy, waiting for an opportunity to bear down upon them. The French ships, amounting to more than nine hundred sail, moved slowly over the sea, he watching them vigilantly, and bearing the reproaches of his officers, who thought him deficient in courage. On the third day a slight storm having thrown the French fleet into confusion, the earl bore down upon them. The winds had so terrified the French that they were in no condition to stand before a furious enemy. The English, who were far better sailors, were in high courage, and so furiously assaulted the French ships that in a short time upwards of a hundred were sunk, many more running on shore, while scarcely forty got back to the ports of France.
Another important action, before-mentioned, occurred in this reign. Prince Louis, afterwards Louis the Eighth, to whose father Pope Innocent had made a liberal present of England without consulting its inhabitants, had set sail from Calais at the head of a large army, convoyed by eighty large ships of war. Hubert de Burgo, with a great baron, Philip D'Albiney, as his lieutenant, assembled all the ships they could from the Cinque Ports, though the whole did not amount to more than half that of the French fleet. The latter was under the command of Eustace the monk, who had formerly been in the pay of John, but had lately transferred his services to Louis. The English ships were armed with strong beaks, like those of the Roman galleys, and their mode of attack consisted, as of yore, in charging the vessels of the enemy, and endeavouring to pierce their sides with their iron rams. They were impelled chiefly by oars, but also carried sails, to enable them to bear down with greater speed on the enemy; hence the importance of obtaining the weather-gage. The two fleets came in sight of each other in the Straits of Dover, on the 24th of August, 1217. The English admirals having by their skilful manoeuvres obtained the weather-gage, bore down on the enemy with irresistible force. In addition to other means of offence, they had brought on board a number of barrels of unslaked lime; on nearing the enemy they poured water on the lime, so as to slake the whole mass, and the smoke thus created being borne by the wind into the faces of the French, prevented them from seeing the operations of the foe till it was too late to avoid them. The English boarded, their first endeavour being to cut away the rigging and halliards of the French ships, when the masts and sails went over the side. Most of the French knights, preferring death to imprisonment, leaped overboard. Throwing their grapnels on board, the English made a furious onslaught on the enemy, the crossbow-men and archers, under Sir Philip D'Albiney, discharging their bows and arrows, did immense execution. Out of the whole fleet, fifteen only escaped. De Burgo's great aim, however, was to obtain possession of the traitor Eustace, and diligent search being made, the quondam ecclesiastic was found in the hold of one of the captured vessels, when he was immediately killed. The French fleet was put to flight, the crews of those which escaped landed on the Kentish coast. The victory prevented Louis from obtaining further reinforcements from France, and showed the English barons, who had hitherto adhered to his cause, that it would be hopeless to attempt the subjugation of England. They, therefore, at once made their peace with the king, and Louis was glad to get off by renouncing all claim to the English crown. We now come to the long reign of Henry the Third, A.D. 1216. Frequent expeditions were fitted out on his demand by the Cinque Ports, and by other maritime towns, while merchant-vessels were occasionally pressed into his service to carry him and his troops over to France. The king himself also possessed a fleet of some importance, one of his ships carrying, besides the commander and officers and the regular fighting men, fully thirty mariners. Many merchant-vessels of the present day of eight or nine hundred tons, do not carry a larger crew. In those days we read that a number of piratical vessels, both British and of other nations, scoured the ocean, and committed great depredations both along the coast and on the peaceable merchantmen who sailed up and down it.
The great object of the commander of a fleet in those days was to gain the weather-gage, then to bear down under all sail in order to strike the broadsides of the enemy's ships; when the one generally attempted to board the other, if not to throw stink-pots into their antagonists' vessels, or what were called fire-works, a sort of hand grenades; and sometimes slaked lime to blind the foe with the vapour. With this object in view the admiral manoeuvred his fleet for hours together, rowing and sailing. As guns, when they first came into use, carried no great distance, they were not fired till ships got close together. Ships in action very frequently caught fire and blew up, and sometimes locked in a deadly embrace, were destroyed together. Trumpeters had an important part to play, not only to make signals, but to create as much noise as possible. The good ship called the Matthew Gonson, of the burden of three hundred tons, whereof was owner old Master William Gonson, paymaster of the king's navy, fitted out at this time for a voyage to the islands of Candia and Chio to bring back wine and other produce, besides the hundred men of her company, had six gunners and four trumpeters. Probably men-of-war had many more such musicians.
Edward the First, A.D. 1272, ordained various laws and ordinances for the government of his navy, which was now, though still furnished chiefly by the maritime ports, better organised than hitherto. He claimed, also, the right of England to the sovereignty of the narrow seas, asserting that from time immemorial it had been undisputed. About the year 1290, the pennant used at the present day by all ships commissioned by officers of the Royal Navy was first adopted.
In the reign of Edward the Second no important maritime event occurred, though squadrons were occasionally sent away on various services.
It is only by examining carefully into the details given by historians of the naval combats which took place in those ages, that we can hope to form a correct guess as to the size and construction of a ship, and the method of manoeuvring her. We are now coming to a very important epoch in naval matters, the reign of Edward the Third. 1327, when the mariner's compass was discovered, or rather became known in Europe, and cannon were first introduced on board ships.
Edward gained the title of "The King of the Sea," and raised the naval glory of England to a higher pitch than it had ever before attained by his many victorious combats on the ocean. The greatest naval engagement which occurred during the middle ages was that known as the battle of Sluys, when Philip the Sixth sat on the throne of France. The English fleet consisted of only 260 ships fit for warfare. The French, whose fleet amounted to no less than 400 sail, lay securely, as they thought, in the harbour of Sluys. Edward embarked on board the cog Thomas, commanded by Richard Fyall, and attended by several noblemen. A cog was a craft larger than those usually designated ships—the cog John, which is spoken of, had a crew of eighty-two men, and probably she carried besides a considerable number of knights and soldiers. Many ships of the English fleet must have been of small size. Froissart says that the French fleet consisted of 140 large ships, besides hanquebos with 35,000 men on board, Normans, Picards, and Genoese. The masts of so numerous an assemblage of vessels, as they were seen in the harbour of Sluys, resembled rather a forest than a fleet. Of these ships, nineteen were remarkable for their enormous size. Besides other implements of warfare, quantities of large stones were stored in the tops and also in small boats hoisted to the mast-heads, to be hurled on the assailants. The French had secured their ships together by chains, to prevent the English from breaking through them. Among the ships in the leading rank was the Christopher, full of Genoese archers, with the Edward, Katherine, Rose, and other large cogs which had formerly been captured from the English.
Edward had perfect confidence in the valour and prowess of his seamen and men-at-arms, and, notwithstanding the superiority of the enemy in numbers, he resolved to open a passage through them. Having ordered all his ships to be in readiness, he placed the strongest in the front, and filled those which were at each end of the line with archers. Also between every two ships of archers he placed one filled with men-at-arms. He likewise ordered another line to be formed on the side, as a body of reserve, and filled those ships also with archers, that they might be ready to support or relieve any most requiring aid.
The English fleet approaching the haven of Sluys in the manner described, found the French already lying in order of battle, in three divisions, waiting for them. The English having gained the advantage of the wind and sun by their dexterity and management, the king ordered the signal for engaging to be given. The Normans, perceiving the English to tack as they did to get the wind, thought that they were taking to their heels, and began to triumph. But they soon found out their mistake, and, being able seamen and brave combatants, prepared for the fight. They began the battle by advancing with the Great Christopher, and, with a vast noise of trumpets and other instruments, attempted to break the line, to come at the ship in which they supposed the British king to be. They were received with a general shout, and during continual huzzas the English poured such showers of arrows from their long bows into the enemy's ships as soon covered their decks with dead and wounded men, and put the whole fleet into general consternation. The Great Christopher was taken in the beginning of the battle, and all who were in her were either killed or made prisoners. The English, on this, filled her with archers, and sent her to annoy the Genoese ships, which formed part of the French fleet. And now death and destruction appeared on every side in their most terrible array. The very air was darkened with arrows, and the hostile ships rushing together, the men-at-arms engaged in close fight.
The English, taking advantage of the confusion into which they had put the French at the beginning of the fight, soon boarded them with the help of their grappling-irons, and pursuing their good fortune, obtained a complete victory, though a most bloody one, as their loss amounted to 4000 men killed and wounded. Great numbers of the French sailors desperately threw themselves into the sea, and submitted to a certain death rather than abide the repeated showers of English arrows; what also might have contributed more to this desperate resolution was that, on board the ships captured in the heat of battle, no quarter was given. The engagement lasted from eight in the morning till seven at night. The loss on the French side was enormous, 230 of their ships being captured; only about 30 having escaped. According to the Frenchmen's account of the battle, they lost two admirals, Bauchet, who was killed in action, and De Kernel, who was taken prisoner. King Edward behaved during the whole action with the most inimitable courage and conduct; regarding neither danger nor fatigue, he was always present where the battle raged the hottest.
During the night thirty French ships, endeavouring to escape, were attacked by the English, and on board of one of them, the James of Dieppe, after she had been engaged the whole night with the Earl of Huntingdon, 400 dead bodies were found. Certain old writers remark that the rostrum or beak used by the Romans could not have existed in the English ships, nor was the manoeuvre employed by which one ship attempts to break the oars of another. From this they conclude that the English fleet must have consisted of high-sided ships, worked chiefly by sails. Probably, however, they had oars also.
It is said that nearly 30,000 men were killed in this memorable battle. So apparently irretrievable was the disaster to the French that none of King Philip's counsellors had the courage to inform him of what had occurred. At length they bethought them of employing the court fool to communicate the disastrous intelligence. Accordingly, that dignified individual took an opportunity of remarking to the king that he considered the English arrant cowards.
"Why so, Master Wisdom?" asked Philip.
"Why does your Majesty ask? because they had not the courage to leap into the sea and be drowned as our brave Frenchmen did the other day, when your Majesty's ships went to the bottom."
In 1350 the warrior king, on board his cog Thomas, led his fleet to attack the Spaniards, who had ventured into the British Channel; he was accompanied by Edward, the Black Prince, and numerous great personages, with nearly four hundred knights. The king, attired in a black velvet jacket and beaver hat, took post on the bow of his ship, eagerly looking out for the enemy. As they did not appear, to beguile the time he caused his minstrels to play a German dance, and made Sir John Chandos, who had recently introduced it, to sing with them. From time to time, however, he looked aloft at the man stationed in the top of the mast to announce the approach of the Spaniards. At length they were seen, numbering forty large ships, denominated carricks; strong and handsome were they to behold—each mast was adorned with rich standards and banners, and their tops filled with soldiers and missiles. They, however, it was evident, wished to avoid an action, but the king, leading his fleet, stood down upon them till he reached a heavy ship, when, reckless of consequences, he ordered the helmsman to lay her aboard. So violent was the blow that the masts of the cog Thomas went over the side, the men in the top were drowned, and the ship sprang a dangerous leak. The Spaniard sheering off, Edward grappled another enemy; but now the cog Thomas sinking, the king and his crew took possession of the prize. In her he pushed into the thickest of the fight. The Prince of Wales' ship, also nigh to sinking, had grappled her huge adversary, when the Earl of Lancaster arriving and shouting, "Derby to the rescue!" boarded and obtained possession of the Spaniard, throwing all who resisted into the sea. Scarcely had the prince and his followers got on board the prize, when his own ship foundered. Sir Robert de Namur having grappled with a huge ship was carried by her out from among the fleet; the two combatants were rapidly leaving the rest of the ships astern, when Sir Robert's valet, Hannekin, bravely cutting the halliards of the principal sail, the English, taking advantage of the confusion, boarded and drove the Spaniards into the sea. Thus the Spanish fleet was completely beaten, and twenty-six large ships captured.
The British seem to have been as prone in those days as at present to seek for victory by laying the enemy on board and trusting to the strength of their own arms. At present, instead of battle-axes and clubs, or spears, or two-handed swords they have a fondness for their cutlasses and pistols. In the days, before Britannia could loudly roar with her thunder, naval combats were carried on with all the noise and hubbub the men on either side could create with their voices, as also with the braying forth of trumpets and beating of gongs and drums, in the hope of thus striking terror into the hearts of their enemies. How great is the contrast between such a naval engagement as has been described and one at the present day. In solemn silence the crews grimly stand at their guns, stripped generally to the waist. Not a sound is heard, not a word spoken, except perhaps one hearty cheer, a response to the captain's brief address. Slowly and steadily the hostile fleets approach each other till the signal is given to commence the deadly strife, and then in a moment, like fierce monsters awakened from sleep, they send from their cannons' mouths a quick succession of terrific roars, fire, and smoke, which laugh to scorn all the trumpet braying and shouting of our ancestors.
After the famous battle of Crescy, King Edward laid siege to Calais with a fleet of 738 ships, having on board 14,956 mariners, each of whom received 4 pence per diem. Of these ships, no more than 25 belonged actually to the king. The latter carried about 419 seamen only, which was not more than 17 seamen to each ship. Some, however, had 25 seamen, and others less. Many of the ships furnished by the maritime ports were larger than the king's. The total cost of the war, which lasted one year and 131 days, was 127,101 pounds, 2 shillings 9 pence, for even in those romantic days people could not knock each other on the head free of all charge, it must be remembered. The mention of that 127,101 pounds 2 shillings 9 pence also shows that their accounts must have been kept with most praiseworthy exactness.
Only great nations, to whom victory has generally been awarded by the God of battles, can afford to talk of their defeats. Though in most cases successful, Edward's arms met with a severe repulse before Rochelle, to the relief of which place he had sent forty ships, under the young Earl of Pembroke. "They were encountered by a French squadron of forty sail of capital ships," we are told, "besides thirteen able frigates, well manned, and commanded by four experienced officers. The earl was taken prisoner, and nearly every ship was captured or sunk." Though employed by France, they were Spaniards, supplied by the King of Castile. In addition to the large number of men-at-arms on board the Spanish ships, whose weapons were crossbows and cannon, large bars of iron and lead were used. The Spaniards bore down upon the small English ships with loud shouts and great noise; the English shouted in return, but were unable to climb up the lofty sides of the Spaniards. In the first day of the battle the Spaniards lost two barges, and the next day the earl's ship was attacked and captured by four large Spanish ships full of soldiers, while most of his fleet were either taken or destroyed.
Our national pride will make us examine narrowly to discover the cause of this disaster. In the first place, the earl, though brave, was inexperienced; then some of those forty French ships were larger than the forty English ships, and the able frigates were quick rowing galleys, full of men-at-arms, who must have done much mischief. The French on this occasion also made use of balistas and other machines for throwing bars of iron and great stones, to sink the English ships. They had also in another way got ahead of the English, for they had provided themselves with cannon, which the latter had not as yet got. This was the first naval engagement in which such engines of destruction were employed.
History is read by the naval and military man, and indeed by any one, to very little purpose, unless facts like these are not only carefully noted, but duly acted on; unless we take warning by the errors and neglects of our predecessors. It is not only necessary to be well-armed in appearance, but to be as well armed in reality, as those are with whom we may possibly be called to fight. It is wise not only to adopt new inventions likely to be of service, but if possible to have them already in use before they are adopted by our enemies. The gun of those days was a thick tube of wood, bound together with iron hoops, and probably could send a shot of three or four pounds little more than two or three hundred yards with very uncertain aim. What a contrast to the "Woolwich Infant" of the present day, with its shot of several hundredweight, whizzing for five miles or more through the air, with almost a certainty of hitting its object at the termination of its journey.
SHIPS AND COMMERCE TO THE REIGN OF HENRY THE SEVENTH—FROM A.D. 1327 TO A.D. 1509.
In the early part of the reign of Edward the Third, the French introduced cannon on board their ships, chiefly in consequence of which his fleet, under the young Earl of Pembroke, as I have described, was defeated before Rochelle. He took care, however, that this should not again occur, and by the year 1338 he appears to have introduced them on board most of his ships, and by the end of his reign no ships of war were without them. Their employment, of course, effected a great change in naval warfare, but a far greater revolution was about to take place in the whole system of navigation, by the introduction of the mariner's compass. I have before stated that if not discovered it was at all events improved by Flavio Gioja, of Amain, in the kingdom of Naples, about A.D. 1300. It was soon discovered that the needle does not point, in all places, truly to the North Pole, but that it varies considerably in different degrees of longitude, and this is called the variation of the needle. It has also another variation, called the declination, or dip. The cause of these phenomena is still utterly unknown. The means of steering with almost perfect accuracy across the pathless ocean, gave a confidence to mariners, when they lost sight of land, which they had never before possessed, and in time induced them to launch forth in search of new territories in hitherto unexplored regions. The English were, however, too much occupied with foreign wars or domestic broils to attend much to navigation. We hear of a certain Nicholas of Lynn, a friar of Oxford, who, A.D. 1360, just sixty years after the use of the compass became known, sailed in charge of certain ships to visit and explore all the islands to the north of Europe. He, it is said, returned and laid before King Edward the Third an account of his discoveries in those northern regions, but what they were or what benefit resulted from them, history does not tell us. Father Nicholas's knowledge of navigation was probably somewhat limited and not very practical, and it is just probable that his voyage was not so extensive as it was intended to be; but that, having the pen of a ready writer, he drew on his imagination for a description of the countries he was supposed to have surveyed. At all events, we hear of no voyage undertaken at the sovereign's instigation till nearly two centuries later.
In the reign of Edward the Third, the Island of Madeira is said to have been discovered by a certain Lionel Machin, a citizen of London. The young citizen had been paying court to a lady, Arabella Darcy, whose father indignantly refused his suit; and not without reason, if we may judge of his character by his subsequent conduct. He collected a band of rovers and pursued the fair Arabella, who had gone to live in the neighbourhood of Bristol. He had fixed his eyes on a ship ready prepared for sea, the crew of which were on shore. Securing the lady, he carried her on board the ship, cut the cables, and made sail to the southward, without leave of the captain or owners. He met with due punishment, for, having made the then unknown island of Madeira, and he and Arabella having landed, the ship was driven to sea by a gale, leaving the two alone. She soon died of starvation, and when his companions ultimately returned, they found him in a sinking state, and buried him by the hapless damsel's side. A Portuguese captain hearing from the English pirates of the discovery of the island, sailed thither, and took possession of it in the name of his sovereign, Don John, and the infant Don Henry.
This account of Machin's adventures is doubted by many, but at all events it must be said that it is very much in accordance with the style of doing things in those days. Richard the Second began to reign A.D. 1377. Although probably no improvement took place in shipbuilding during his reign, it is not altogether destitute of nautical exploits. The maladministration of Government at the latter period of his grandfather's life, left the people in a discontented state, and this induced the French to make a descent on the English coast with a fleet of fifty ships, commanded by the Admiral de Vienne. They plundered and burnt Rye in Sussex, levied a contribution of a thousand marks on the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight, and finished off by burning Plymouth, Dartmouth, Portsmouth, and Hastings.