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?

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