The Founder of the Royal Navy




The Mary Rose is a Tudor ship, built in 1510. In service for 34 years. Sank in 1545. Discovered in 1971. Raised in 1982. Now in the final stages of conservation, she takes her place in a stunning and unique museum.

To send expeditions to France Henry used the first-rate naval force that he created. Several historians have credited him with founding the Royal Navy—an honour he supposedly shares with Alfred the Great. But the navy Alfred helped found consisted basically of floating castles. Broad in the beam, they were unable to sail much into wind, but waddled lubberly downwind. In battle they almost drifted into each other: sailors fought hand to hand, trying to defeat the enemy by boarding. Height was so vital that at the expense of sea-worthiness ships had high castles at either end from which archers could fire down upon the enemy (hence the word ‘forecastle’).

During the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries shipbuilders developed what Geoffrey Parker, a leading military historian, has called ‘one of the greatest technological achievements of medieval Europe’. They constructed long, relatively narrow vessels with three masts that could sail faster (since speed is proportionate to length), and point further into wind, their deep hulls being able to grip the water. Such ships could carry enough stores and cargoes for long voyages. After the invention of hinged gunports, they mounted heavy cannon on their lower decks, lowering their centre of gravity and thus making them more seaworthy. In the 1540s William Levett, rector of Buxted, Sussex, developed a process of casting iron cannon from high-phosphorous ore in vertical moulds barrel up, which allowed impurities to rise to the top, thus strengthening the end of the cannon where the initial explosion took place. At a third of the cost of the old bronze weapons, iron cannon could be fired much faster with a higher muzzle velocity, which enhanced the impact of their rounds. Since cutting a hole in the bow or stern of a vessel dangerously weakened her hull, cannon ports were built into the side. Attempts to widen the ports so cannon could be slewed for and aft were of limited use, so over the next four centuries ships fought broadside to each other.

These new ships were so expensive that only wealthy states could afford them. Having inherited seven ships from his father, Henry built eighteen more in the first six years of his reign, including the Great Harry, a monstrous vessel of over a thousand tons, with 43 heavy and 141 light guns. After peaking at twenty-five ships in 1520, the size of the Royal Navy fell to eleven in 1540, and then increased to thirty-two in 1545, reaching thirty-seven five years later. These were modern vessels, averaging 459 tons. Equally important, they were supported by a sophisticated series of bases at Portsmouth, Deptford and Woolwich, which were administered by the Office of Ordnance, founded in 1544, and the Navy Board, established two years later.

While these administrative changes were most important, giving the Royal Navy a permanent bureaucratic foundation, they must be seen in context. Compared to the French or Spanish, the English navy was small. It lacked a blue-water capability since its primary mission was coastal defence and supporting amphibious operations: the first time an English ship sailed south of the equator was in 1555. The navy carried troops to France, and supported English invasions of Scotland. But it was not strong enough to be relied upon to defend England from invasion. To complement the navy’s coastal defence role Henry spent £375,500 building twenty-four forts stretching from Calais to Berwick, from the Thames around the south coast to Milford Haven, which were ‘larger in scale than anything attempted until the twentieth century’.

Without doubt the greatest ship Henry built was the Mary Rose. Unlike previous fighting ships, Mary Rose had a high length to width ratio, its length giving it a much faster maximum theoretical sailing speed. Its heavy iron cannon were located low down, lowering the Mary Rose’s centre of gravity, enabling her to sail faster in a beam or head wind. This advantage was lost when refits of 1529 and 1536 added an additional upper deck, making her top heavy. Ropes between the cannon and the side of the hull absorbed the recoil when the guns were fired through raised ports, which were supposed to be lowered in heavy seas to keep water out. Open gunports, plus the new higher centre of gravity, proved the Mary Rose’s undoing. On 19 July 1545 the French attacked Portsmouth, and the Mary Rose was ordered to make sail to repulse them. As she was making a sudden turn, the top-heavy ship heeled over, and was hit by a sudden gust. It was enough to allow water to flood into the gun ports, whose lids were lashed open in anticipation of action. Discipline broke down. Captain Sir George Carew shouted he had lost control of his crew. As the ship rolled, chaos turned into panic, and more water flooded aboard. Guns, cannon balls and stores fell free, worsening the list. Within moments, in front of a horrified crowd that included the king, she capsized, taking as many as seven hundred men to the bottom of the Solent. (There she remained until 11 October 1982, when she was raised to be exhibited in Portsmouth Dockyard as one of the most important ships in the Royal Navy’s history.)

Henry’s wars and massive military expenditures left one lasting legacy— a financial one—that showed the king up as ‘a rank amateur with money to burn’. It could be argued that Henry’s continental wars may have delayed English colonization of America and conquest of Ireland by half a century. Without doubt they cost a great deal in men and money. The king made extensive use of expensive foreign mercenaries—six thousand in 1513 and again in 1522, and ten thousand in 1544. Between 1510 and 1523 Henry summoned seven parliaments, all to vote taxes for war. The last request, misleadingly known as the ‘Amicable Grant’, engendered a taxpayer revolt that forced the king to back down. During the French and Scots wars of the 1540s, three-quarters of the aristocracy—virtually all the able-bodied—saw service. During the last five years of his life, Henry spent roughly £2 million on war. He raised this gigantic sum by debasing the coinage (which helped produce massive inflation), by selling a third of the land he had confiscated from the monasteries during the Reformation, and by resorting to forced loans and gifts: he ‘borrowed’ church plate, which he promptly melted down for silver coins. ‘God help us,’ exclaimed Sir Thomas Wriothesley, the councillor responsible for raising all this money, ‘it maketh me weary of my life.’

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