Keep your eye on the tide, Jock

Tom Shippey

  • The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, Vol. I, 660-1649 by N.A.M. Rodger
    HarperCollins, 691 pp, £25.00, September 1997, ISBN 0 00 255128 4
  • Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe by Bert Hall
    Johns Hopkins, 300 pp, £25.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 8018 5531 4

It’s a hard life these days for a naval historian. His readers, brought up on Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey, know all about the technicalities and the details of the service already. Stuffed with explanations of loggerheads and bitter ends, capable of laughing at jokes about dog-watches and sailing on a bowline, they will neither turn a hair nor shift a backstay when faced by sentences like, ‘Nevertheless the performance of a large, especially a taunt sail to windward will always be limited by the difficulty of controlling the weather leach.’ They will nod understandingly and wonder why the three-masted rig, with topsails and topgallants, was not introduced earlier.

To put it another way, the great menace for the naval historian of England is the expectation of a Whig history. England’s destiny was on the high seas, and lay in the development of the Navy: everybody knows that, so let’s look back to see where it started. The danger is exacerbated even now by memories from school. Till I read N.A.M. Rodger’s book I could not have placed Richard Grenville and the Revenge within twenty years, nor had any idea what he was doing ‘at Flores in the Azores’; nor do I know even yet (for Rodger is certainly not going to mention it) who wrote the poem about him, but I can remember whole stanzas of it: ‘Sink me the ship, master gunner!/Sink her, split her in twain./Fall into the hands of God,/Not into the hands of Spain.’ The result is that, in The Safeguard of the Sea, Rodger continually gives the impression of counterpunching against an invisible and unmentionable adversary.

He counterpunches to the limits of his force, and rather beyond the requirements of balance. He begins by saying that he is not going to write a history of the Navy (for there wasn’t one in the sense of a permanent, royally-funded institution for most of his period); nor of victory, for failure was as frequent as success; nor of England, for Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Irish Sea were all vital parts of the story. All this is fair enough, and there are some startling reminders in the book. Rodger points out, for example, that the Viking tradition of longship-building hung on in the Hebrides till well into the 16th century, with the galleys of Ruari MacNeil of Barra raiding as far south as Bristol as late as 1580, and the first Tudor attempt to put down the Scots in Northern waters ending ignominiously, with the capture of the heavy-gun Renaissance warship Mary Willoughby by the outdated longships of Hector Maclean of Duart off the Shetlands in 1533.

Before long, however, one begins to wonder whether Rodger is not falling over backwards to be fair. The Scots, we are told repeatedly, with little evidence to back it up, were the real deep-water navigators of the 16th century and earlier. The English were hopeless, a pathetic mixture of incompetence and arrogance. Alan of Galloway, with his two hundred ships, was the great warrior of the 13th century, Edward I, ‘Hammer of the Scots’, by contrast a buffoon who built his castles in the wrong place as the result of a failure to understand sea-power. Bannockburn and Edward II get a fair hearing for a book on naval history, but real venom is reserved for Edward III: Southampton burned by the Genoese, and the king, like his father, ‘For want of a professional fleet ... for ever three months behind the enemy’, the only English response to naval threat being ‘to impose compulsory archery practice and ban football: an admirable measure, but no substitute for a navy’. Naval failure apparently (‘want of good governance at sea’, a contextless quotation from the Parliamentary Rolls) ‘contributed substantially’ to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the deposition and murder of Richard II in 1399. Mixed in with this tirade is a brief mention of the crushing English naval victories at Sluys – which, however, did not ‘confer command of the sea’, as if there was such a thing in the 14th century; and at Winchelsea, ‘Les Espagnols sur Mer’ – ‘but it is probable that there were other, perhaps many other sea battles as important, which the chroniclers ignored.’ One way of writing history would of course be to write one’s own ideas of probability into the silence: but isn’t this a projection of current sentiment, or rather current reaction against old-fashioned sentiment, back into the past?

The suspicion is confirmed when one finds Rodger evidently gloating over what he sees as English failure in the early Tudor period: ‘it must have been clear to perceptive Englishmen, perhaps even to Henry [VIII], that all this [power and greatness] had gone for ever. A shrunken, post-imperial England faced an uncertain future on the margins of a Europe now dominated by the great powers.’ In what sense was England already ‘post-imperial’ by 1523, one wonders? And ‘gone for ever’? For ever is a long time, and if England was in some sense ‘shrunken’ in 1523, and is again shrunken and even marginalised in 1998, it might be conceded that it had an expansive period somewhere in between. Which is perhaps the historian’s problem.

Too many of Rodger’s theses, joking apart, do not hold water. By 1523, England had seen off the Scots to crushing effect at Flodden, largely thanks to the performance of the Admiral’s marines: ‘extremely lucky’ is Rodger’s grouchy remark about that. As for the Scottish debacle at Solway Moss in 1542 (keep your eye on the tide, Jock), that was just ‘unlooked for’, while the utter humiliation of Pinkie (1547), initiated by gunfire from an unopposed English fleet, is, like Sluys, presented as insufficiently strategic to count. In any case, English seamen were about to make very large amounts of money, seen as a return on investment, though quite small amounts compared with what they might have made if they had been luckier, by raiding Spanish possessions overseas. Despite the fact that no English fleet ever intercepted a Spanish silver flota, Drake’s voyage in the Golden Hind returned £600,000 on a £5000 investment, the Queen’s share being enough to pay off the National Debt. The real question is, how did such a small, poor and indeed marginalised power manage that (and defeat the Armada, and singe the King of Spain’s beard), from a basis of no significant national resources?

Rodger’s answer, repeated many times, is ‘administration’. This may or may not cut much ice in the world of British universities, where the word ‘administration’ is normally surrounded not by scare-quotes but by an atmosphere of holy awe (though also, in secure surroundings, by ribald cynicism). One can see Rodger’s point: ships must benefit from access to dry docks, adequate provisions and expensive if largely invisible ‘infrastructure’ (another Rodger word), but at the same time, as British forces found out in 1942, all the NAAFIs and Pay Corps and effective administrative structures in the world are no use to an army or navy outmatched at the point of contact with the enemy. Sixteenth-century English navies were not outmatched – quite the reverse – and one wonders why not.

Here Rodger seems to be counterpunching against another thesis, that of Carlo Cipolla, mentioned nowhere that I can see in the text. In his Guns, Sails and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion 1400-1700 (1965), Cipolla argued that it was the hull-mounted, recoiling-carriage, cast-iron, muzzle-loader cannon that turned the North-West European powers very suddenly from fringe societies into world dominators. Vital steps to its development included the technical breakthrough of William Levett, the rector of Buxted, and the Sussex ironmaster Ralph Hogge, who in the early 1540s worked out how to make guns out of cast-iron (not welded iron or cast-bronze) which did not blow up and were a quarter of the price of gunmetal guns. Because of their cheap, heavy guns the English could follow the logic of experience, which ‘teacheth how sea-fights in these days’ – early 17th century – ‘come seldom to boarding ... but are chiefly performed by the great artillery breaking down masts, yards, tearing, raking, and bilging the ships’.

And so we return to Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, with the significant addition of notions not of administration, but of a quality rarely found and rarely mentioned in the British academic world: leadership. Rodger is forced to concede that the sailors of Elizabethan England seem to have worked out a compromise between social standing and technical skill, the gentlemen and the tarpaulins, in which even Lord Howard could lay a gun, and spoke freely and by name to his ‘poor toiling and continual labouring mariner[s]’; while Drake, in a famous scene which Rodger does his best to run down, not only said, ‘I must have the gentleman to haul and draw with the mariner,’ but showed himself ready to hang gentlemen who thought themselves above discipline. On page 310, struggling all the way, Rodger is still claiming that ‘Scotland owed more to sea-power than England,’ but in Scotland the sea did not gain ‘social status’. So it was a matter of mythology after all.

And, one has to repeat, technology. Rodger prefers administrative, bureaucratic, and financial explanations for success, perhaps because these are much more familiar to the modern academic than ‘guns and sails’. Bert Hall by contrast plunges straight into the unfamiliar world of Early Modern technology, the ‘black box’ as he calls it, whose inputs and outputs are commonly known to historians but whose inner functions are felt to be of no interest. Historians of technology (a small group) are concerned with the logic of technology, general historians, including military ones, only with its grammar. This ‘subtle separation’ makes the first group marginal and offers the second a hidden, quasi-magical explanation for why things happened as they did. But to reverse the separation one has to get one’s hands dirty, as Hall strikingly and successfully has.

There is a general if thoughtless idea around that gunpowder is pretty simple once you have the recipe. Saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal: you could run up a batch yourself if transported back to the Dark Ages. Those idiotic Chinese, not working out how to use it in guns! Those ridiculous knights, peacocking about in plumes and shining armour when all unknown to them they had been made completely obsolete by democratic militias with muskets! The ideas converge in Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, who (somehow transposed to King Arthur’s court) quickly runs up ‘a few bushels of first-rate blasting powder’, reinvents the revolver, shoots down a few knights and reduces the rest of the British aristocracy to their true laughable state by making the Round Table ride bicycles and wear sandwich boards. The unstated but still potent assumption is that our ancestors, especially the military upper classes, were pretty stupid – not ‘brains enough in the entire nursery ... to bait a fishhook with’, says Twain.

So where do you get saltpetre from, what is it and how much does it cost? It comes from bacteria acting on decomposing organic wastes, and the best chance of finding it naturally is in stables and pig-pens. But there are all kinds of complications. For one thing, Hall points out, there are three kinds of saltpetre: potassium nitrate, sodium nitrate and calcium nitrate. They will all work, but the first is much to be preferred because it is less hygroscopic (prone to absorb water from the air). Medieval gunners did not know why this was so, but they did know to taste gunpowder – saltiness indicated the presence of sodium, a bad sign – and they slowly worked out how to accelerate production of the stuff, cutting the initial exorbitant price. Making gunpowder, Hall concludes, was ‘more like baking or brewing than modern chemistry’. Manufacturers had their own recipes, and with the advantage of generations of hindsight one can see, for example, that Gerard Honrick was right in 1561 to insist on the urine of people who drank ‘wyne or strong bear’ and on dung from oat-fed horses for his saltpetre: ammonia levels in urine ‘increase dramatically as the body metabolises alcohol’, while oats are high in potassium and lower in sodium than hay.

Getting the saltpetre was only the start, however; it was a long time before supply, largely from India, could match demand. You then had to prevent the mixed or mealed ingredients from absorbing water and failing to work (no easy business on campaign in Northern Europe), and to prevent early guns, with their forged barrels, from blowing up. The strange, megaphone-shaped bombards of the 14th and 15th centuries show a sensible adaptation. With mixed powder you had to have a small powder chamber, smaller than the bore of the gun, with some free space to allow the powder to ‘loft’ into a state of gaseous suspension; while to make certain the gun did not blow up you wanted plenty of windage, even if that dramatically lowered muzzle velocity. In the face of such drawbacks it is not surprising that the first really decisive use for artillery was in siege warfare, firing large stone shot at castle walls: this determined such campaigns as the French expulsion of the English or the Spanish reconquest of Granada.

What it also did was to liberate heavy cavalry by forcing castle-garrisons into the open field. Gunpowder (stage 1) did not reduce knights and gendarmes to clanking atavisms, but gave them a new role. As Hall points out, basing his remarks on scientific trials carried out in Austria with museum weapons, the idea that a civic militia with early handguns could sweep its social superiors from the field is mere modern wishful thinking. With an early handgun you only got one shot; it might not fire; it would almost certainly miss – for smooth-bore weapons pretty much inevitably ‘hook’ or ‘slice’, but do not do so consistently, so it’s no good ‘zeroing’ your weapon like a modern rifleman. And the ballistics of round shot meant it had a fair chance of bouncing off armour when it arrived. European armies learnt fire discipline the hard way: before the invention of socket bayonets no unsheltered arquebusier or musketeer could feel he had much of a chance with cavalry on the field.

In any case, other technologies were operating simultaneously. A major one, which Hall covers in great technical detail, was ‘corned’ gunpowder: powder made into a paste with vinegar, rolled into Knollen or ‘dumplings’, and then ground to size. In his opinion, this began as a desperate expedient to prevent hygroscopy, but as a by-product gunners slowly realised that they could control the speed of burn by sieving and varying grain size. The increased power of corned powder was not without its dangers – Hall has suggested elsewhere that the death of James II of Scotland, killed by his own gun, may have been caused by the practice of selling European fringe powers obsolescent artillery, and then selling them improved gunpowder without the manufacturer’s instructions. But it revolutionised naval warfare and created a whole arms race involving infantry weapons, and field and siege artillery, not to mention strange but not senseless experiments such as, in effect, wheelbarrow guns.

Meanwhile, the response to the first gunpowder revolution in siege warfare involved not only quick-fix solutions but also the more efficient (and fantastically expensive) expedient of the trace italienne, the new low-lying earth fortifications which defied guns at the cost of bankrupting administrations. Quite soon, Hall concludes, sieges were back where they started, with field commanders realising that handguns gave immense power to the defending side, at the cost of imposing virtual immobility – occasionally and spectacularly broken by Swiss pikemen or French gendarmes, who might exploit any weakness with speed and shock, and turn a confrontation into sudden rout.

Hall’s analysis of the difficult tactical situations arising from gunpowder technology is too complex to summarise, but one further point he makes is that stage three of the gunpowder revolution, the one which did sweep the armoured knight from the battlefield, was carried out not by the low-class infantryman but by the knight’s younger brother, the cadet on a cheap horse carrying a brace of wheel-lock pistols. These have been sneered at by modern writers – how foolish, learning the caracole when everyone knows that cavalry must charge home – but while pistols had no advantage over muskets, they were fatal to lancers. A pistoleer had two or three shots against the musketeer’s one, he could fire them at ten-foot range where armour was no protection, and if he missed even his enemy’s horse he could just ride away. The Reiters cleared heavy cavalry off the battlefield (as a result of the complex but only moderately costly technology of the wheel-lock); with them out of the way infantry manoeuvres were less risky. But none of it meant much in terms of social class, even if democratic historians would like to think so.

How does all this affect Michael Roberts’s notorious ‘military revolution’? Hall’s answer once again is to give Early Modern generals credit for having some sense. If, by about 1600, ‘the art of war was stiffening into immobility’, as Roberts complained, that was because belligerents had learnt what worked and what didn’t, and what worked was ‘the logical outcome of [their] weapons’ inherent technical characteristics’. Does this have anything to do with army size, the impoverishment of nations and the rise of efficient tax systems to pay for war?

One literary and cinematic genre evident today is the ‘training story’, whose thesis is that you can take a bunch of layabouts off the street, convicted criminals or whatever, and turn them into fighting machines by ‘training’ (which seems to involve doing a million press-ups and learning to use strange gadgets not on general release). At the end you have the SAS, the US Navy Seals, or some other élite formation. Now this could not even rise to being a fantasy in the medieval world. You could not train someone to be a longbowman, or a knight, or a horse-archer. Complex skills like that had to be learned from childhood, and were the product of whole cultures, peasant, aristocratic or nomadic. Even the relatively simple technology of the Swiss pikemen only worked because the Haufen was a reflection of the intensely cohesive society which produced it; while it seems unlikely that you could produce skilled boatswains or skippers either without a lifetime’s dedication. You could, however, train a musketeer to do exactly what he was told in a relatively short time. Soldiers of the Renaissance could be mass-produced because they were no longer craftsmen, only semi-skilled labour, and the main requirement for this newly industrialised and proletarian trade was simply the ability to survive a harsh and alienated environment. Becoming a soldier, Hall says, was rather like doing the Lottery. If you lived to collect your pay at the end of a spell with a Spanish tercio, you might well go back to your village rich. Meanwhile, you were not much worse off. Both ideas appealed most to those with fewest alternatives.

Gunpowder accordingly created the possibility of efficient mass armies which slowly got the better of efficient but scarce medieval specialists. It did not, however, solve, and may have exacerbated, the problems of provisioning and ‘infrastructure’. Meanwhile, it created entirely new opportunities for the maritime Atlantic societies, who were to dominate the world for the three centuries after the terminal date of Rodger’s Volume I. Rodger will have to face even greater problems with the Whiggish expectations of his readers in Volume II, and one wonders how he will cut Nelson and the ‘band of brothers’ down to size.