Longbowmen and crossbowmen take aim at one another in this depiction of a fifteenth-century naval battle. (Cotton Jul. E VI Art. 6 f. 18, British Library)
During the WARS OF THE ROSES, England had no standing fleet, and naval needs were met by indenting (contracting) with merchants and nobles to supply ships and crews to perform a specified service for a specified time. Not meant for voyaging in the open sea, civil war naval forces operated mainly in the Narrow Seas (i.e., the English Channel), where they undertook to intercept invaders, ward off coastal raiders, transport English armies, protect English traders, and maintain communication and supply lines with CALAIS.
After Henry V’s death in 1422, the powerful but expensive fleet that he had built to support military operations in FRANCE was disbanded. Because Henry’s conquest of the Norman coast denied the French access to Channel ports, the need for a large English navy seemed to disappear, and the minority government of HENRY VI sold off ships and discharged experienced ship’s masters. By the late 1450s, with Normandy lost and civil war looming, Henry VI had no fleet and no money to build one. As a result, control of the Channel fell to the house of YORK after 1456, thanks mainly to the piratical activities of Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick. As captain of Calais, Warwick appropriated wool revenues to build a fleet that plundered merchant vessels of various nationalities. While Warwick’s piracy embroiled the Lancastrian government with outraged foreign powers, it won the earl and the Yorkist cause much popularity, especially in LONDON, where Warwick was seen as a bold commander striking a much needed blow for English national pride. Warwick’s naval success was also a PROPAGANDA windfall for the Yorkists, because it could be profitably contrasted with Lancastrian ineffectiveness, especially in August 1457 when the government failed to prevent a French squadron under Pierre de BRÉZÉ from sacking Sandwich. In 1460, Warwick defeated the royal fleet under Henry HOLLAND, duke of Exeter, and also attacked Sandwich, where he destroyed a squadron then under construction and captured the Lancastrian commander, Richard WOODVILLE, Lord Rivers, in his bed. Unopposed in the Channel, Warwick crossed to England in June; his popularity as a naval commander convinced London authorities to admit the Yorkists and allowed Warwick to gather the army with which he defeated and captured the king at the Battle of NORTHAMPTON in July.
In the spring of 1470, after the failure of his second coup attempt against EDWARD IV, Warwick put to sea in the naval squadron he had maintained during the 1460s. Denied entry to Calais, Warwick resumed indiscriminate piracy in the Channel before landing in France, where he concluded the ANGERS AGREEMENT with Queen MARGARET OF ANJOU. Now acting in the Lancastrian interest, Warwick eluded the small royal fleet and landed in England, where in October he restored the house of LANCASTER and forced Edward IV to flee to BURGUNDY (see EDWARD IV, OVERTHROW OF). However, Edward, thanks in part to anger generated by Warwick’s piracy, was by March 1471 able to obtain shipping to England from the HANSEATIC LEAGUE, a German merchant alliance with which his government had previously been at war.
After defeating Warwick and regaining the throne (see EDWARD IV, RESTORATION OF), Edward began rebuilding the royal fleet by constructing ships and gathering a new cadre of experienced ship’s masters. In the 1460s, he had built the first English royal caravel, the Edward, and, after 1471, he constructed fleets to support his invasions of France (1475) and SCOTLAND (early 1480s). Although still meant to carry land troops to fight battles at sea, caravels were smaller, faster vessels than Henry V’s high, bulky carracks, and they foreshadowed the quick, agile vessels with which Elizabethan England later defied the might of Spain. Despite these achievements, Edward still desired a small, inexpensive navy, and he maintained his fleet largely to protect trade and intercept invaders, a task that RICHARD III’s flotilla of watching vessels failed to accomplish in August 1485 when Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, set sail for WALES.
After defeating and killing Richard at the Battle of BOSWORTH FIELD, Richmond, now HENRY VII, continued the naval policy of Edward IV, building new ships and establishing a naval base at Southampton. However, he still indented for vessels when he took an army to defend BRITTANY in 1492, and he, like his predecessor, lacked the naval strength to intercept the invasion forces of such Yorkist pretenders as Lambert SIMNEL and Perkin WARBECK, who both had to be defeated in land battles (see STOKE, BATTLE OF) after their arrival in England.
Further Reading: Rodger, N.A. M., The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).