Where history happened: the Tudor navy

Charlotte Hodgman speaks to David Loades, emeritus professor of history at the University of Wales, about the rise of the Tudor navy, and takes a look at eight related places...  

Holy Island, Northumberland, England

This article was first published in the Christmas 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Ask most people what they associate with the Tudor navy and the answer will probably be the Spanish Armada and the sinking of Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose. But England’s 16th‑century maritime fighting force, developed by Henry VIII and continued by his successors, has far more significance for English history than simply these two landmark events.
Sea battles in the medieval period were rare and tended to be fought close to shore, usually taking the form of galley skirmishes sparked by coastal raids. But naval warfare underwent major changes during the course of the 16th century, and the advent of heavy artillery made a huge difference to combat at sea.
Henry VIII, known to many as the ‘father of the Royal Navy’, was the first king to make a concerted effort to turn England into a sea power to be reckoned with, realising that command of the sea was crucial to any successful military campaign.
“Henry always intended to fight the French,” says David Loades ,“and he knew that getting his fleet to sea before the enemy would give him an enormous advantage.”
Having a standing navy, rather than one that had to be assembled from scratch for every campaign, would serve this purpose best and, with this in mind, Henry increased his fleet from five ships to around 40 by the time of his death in 1547. “Although Henry VII started a programme of building warships for a navy,” says Loades, “it was his son who shaped it.”
Henry’s navy saw action off Brittany in 1512 and 1513 and raided the French coast in 1522 and 1523. It also mounted summer and winter patrols against pirates during the 1520s and 1530s. Meanwhile, Henry’s break with Rome in 1534 saw England at serious risk of an invasion endorsed by the pope, and the fleet was mobilised during an invasion scare in 1539, although it did not see any action.
Says Loades: “Ships were built mostly in various small yards along the Thames and the Medway, with several constructed at Woolwich. There were also yards at Portsmouth and Southampton, where the Mary Rose and the Peter Pomegranate, among others, were built at the beginning of Henry’s reign. These differed from their predecessors in that many of them were larger (500–1,000 tons), and they were customised warships, built with gun decks.”
But while Henry VIII was passionate about increasing the size of his sea army – seeing its primary function as taking the fight to France – Elizabeth I was more preoccupied with tackling piracy, and with a potential war with Spain. Huge ships like the Mary Rose, and the even larger Henry Grace Dieu, were too slow and unwieldy to keep up with the smaller, faster pirate ships, so Elizabeth specialised in building galleons of various sizes, suitable both for oceanic travel and confronting Spain in the New World.
“Elizabeth never made any recorded decision about the size of her navy, but was advised by her council that it should not exceed 30 ships”, says Loades. “Warships were expensive to maintain, whether they were in use or not, so the navy stayed at about that level through the 1560s and 1570s, and was adequate for what it was asked to do. By 1580, however, it had been overtaken by events, as war with Spain loomed closer, so it was increased to about 60 ships.
“However, less than half the fleet deployed against the Spanish Armada in 1588 was actually owned by the queen; the rest were contributed by merchants and courtiers, as had been done before in times of emergency. Economy was always in the front of Elizabeth’s mind, as her resources were so limited.”
Elizabeth was also a keen supporter of exploratory voyages, and loaned ships to adventurers when they were not urgently required for military duties. Among these was Sir Martin Frobisher, who made three voyages to the New World to look for a new sea route through the Arctic Ocean. Sir Francis Drake, the most famous of all Tudor explorers, was popular with both queen and country for his services to England as second-in-command of the fleet against the Spanish Armada, and for his circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580.
As well as successfully defending England from foreign invasion, the Tudor navy was largely responsible for creating the enduring image of England as a great maritime power.
It was during this time, too, that English mariners developed the confidence to undertake long-distance voyages and the navigational skills necessary for them. “The legacy of the Tudor navy was a highly developed infrastructure, and a culture of success”, says Loades. “Both of these were severely dented under the early Stuarts, but survived in the mythology of ‘good Queen Bess’s glorious days’ to inspire the navy of the Commonwealth and Restoration periods.”

Eight other places associated with the Tudor navy

1) The Tudor House and Gardens, Southampton
Where a prominent shipbuilder ordered the construction of the Mary Rose
Southampton’s Tudor House and Gardens once belonged to one of the town’s most prominent citizens and played a significant role in supporting the growth of Henry VIII’s standing navy and protecting the country from a French invasion.
Shipbuilder Sir John Dawtrey, who owned the house between 1491 and 1518, and who built the current version of the house, was overseer of the port of Southampton and collector of the king’s customs. Henry VIII gave him money to provide food for the navy and for the building, fitting out and provisioning of ships in case of a French invasion.
Indeed, a warrant to John Dawtrey, dated 29 January 1510, authorised that £700 be spent on materials for the construction of two ships – one of 400 and the other of 300 tons. Although the ships are not mentioned by name, it is believed that this money may have been used to build the Mary Rose and the Peter Pomegranate.
Southampton’s Tudor House and Gardens is one of the city’s most important historical buildings and is open to the public as a museum. As well as a range of Tudor artefacts, the trade room, on the first floor, boasts a rare collection of late 16th and early 17th-century graffiti.
2) Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Hampshire
Where Henry VIII’s beloved flagship sank before his eyes
Founded by Henry VII in 1495, Portsmouth’s dockyard (now a popular visitor attraction) was once a major naval base, the premier naval port of Henry VIII’s reign, and home to the first permanent Royal Navy. But the city was also the location of one of the greatest naval tragedies of Henry VIII’s reign, when the king’s beloved flagship, the Mary Rose, sank before his eyes during a clash with the French fleet in July 1545.
The Mary Rose and the fleet’s largest ship, the 1,500-ton Henry Grace Dieu, were leading an attack on a French fleet when the Mary Rose turned to fire the second of her broadsides. What is thought to have been a sudden gust of wind pressed the ship over and, since her low gun-ports had not been closed, she quickly filled and sank. About 90 per cent of the ship’s 400-man crew are believed to have drowned, trapped under netting put in place to prevent enemy boarding.
Warships such as the Mary Rose, with their powerful batteries of heavy cannon, were the height of Tudor technology and capable of causing considerable damage to enemy ships.
Serious investigation into the Mary Rose only became possible in the 1970s. The remains of the ship, lifted from the seabed in 1982, will be on show at the Mary Rose Museum when it opens in 2013. Little remains of Tudor Portsmouth, but Portsmouth Grammar School stands on the site where breweries were built to supply ale for Henry’s fleet.
3) Pendennis Castle, Falmouth
Where Tudor monarchs prepared for threats from Spain and France
Constructed between 1540 and 1545, Pendennis Castle and the nearby St Mawes Castle were built by Henry as part of a chain of coastal artillery fortresses designed to protect England from invasions by the French army, and Charles V’s imperial army.
Cornwall was of immense strategic importance to both Henry VIII and, later, Elizabeth I, as it guarded the western approaches to the Channel. During his reign, Henry built a series of about 30 strongholds, known as Device Forts, along England’s southern coasts. Elizabeth, too, commissioned major enhancements of her coastal defences, including those at Pendennis, which included a larger defensive rampart around the original fort.
Visitors to Pendennis Castle today can see a Tudor gunroom, and it’s from the turret on the castle roof that lookouts are thought to have made the first sightings of the Spanish Armada from the mainland.
4) Tower of London, London
Where a Tudor official created the only known inventory of Henry VIII’s navy
At the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign, the king had four or five ships of his own, costing about £3,000 a year. However, between 1511 and 1514, this number expanded to between 18 and 20, remaining at roughly that level until 1543 and the build-up to a war with France.
In 1546, Anthony Anthony, an official of the ordnance, and later gunner at the Tower of London, compiled the only known fully illustrated inventory of ships in the Tudor navy. Known as the ‘Anthony Roll’, the manuscripts provided a visual record of all the ships in Henry’s navy, along with a list of their seamen and armaments, and were presented to the king and then archived in the royal collections.
All of Henry’s most famous ships were included in the inventory, which was originally a set of three separate vellum rolls, including information and hand-drawn illustrations for the Mary Rose, Grand Mistress, Henry Grace Dieu and Peter Pomegranate.
In later years, Charles II gave two of these rolls to Samuel Pepys, who was engaged on a history of the Royal Navy. Pepys bound them into a single volume and these can be found in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. The third roll is held at the British Library in London.
The Tower of London, where Anthony spent much of his career as a gunner, is one of London’s most popular tourist attractions.
5) Pinkie Cleugh, Musselburgh
Where Henry VIII pitched his naval and land forces against the Scots
Prior to his death in 1547, Henry VIII made repeated attempts to secure a marriage between his nine-year-old son, the future Edward VI, and the four-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots. When diplomacy failed, Henry launched a war against the Scots, a conflict known to many as the ‘Rough Wooing’.
In September 1547, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset and lord protector, led an English army, with naval support, into Scotland to win a bride for Edward. According to the Calendar of Scottish Papers, the 80-strong armada that accompanied England’s land forces to Scotland in 1547 was crewed by some 9,222 mariner-soldiers, and it was this fleet that skirted the Scottish coastline while English land forces advanced. Among them was the Henry Grace Dieu, itself carrying 50 guns.
Although Seymour succeeded in defeating the Scottish forces at the battle of Pinkie Cleugh, the infant Mary was smuggled out of the country to France where she was betrothed to the French dauphin. Many historians see Pinkie Cleugh as the first ‘modern’ battle on British soil, featuring combined fire arms, infantry, artillery and cavalry and a naval bombardment.
Today, a stone marks the site of the English army encampment at the village of Inveresk on the eve of the battle, and a similar marker can be found on the battlefield itself. The building of Somerset House in London, now a major arts and cultural centre, was begun by Seymour but completed in 1553, a year after his death. It can still be visited.
6) St James’s Church, Stanstead Abbotts
Where a Tudor nobleman is remembered in stone        
Edward Baeshe was a naval administrator and politician. And in 1550, three years into the reign of Edward VI, he was granted the office of surveyor-general of victuals for the navy, a post that commanded a salary of £50 a year.
Sailors in the Tudor navy would have lived on a simple diet of salted beef, salted fish and ship’s biscuits. Crews of this period were generally well fed: in 1565, each sailor received seven pounds of biscuit, seven gallons of beer, eight pounds of salt beef, three-quarters of a pound of stockfish, three-eighths of a pound of butter and three-fifths of a pound of cheese a week.
Divers exploring the Mary Rose found nine barrels of cattle bones, plus pig and fish bones and a basket of plum stones. Ships needed regular supplies of food and drink: beer in particular was key to keeping a happy, and hardworking, crew. In 1565, navy victuallers were contracted to supply each man in the fleet with their quota of beer each week.
The north chapel of St James’s Church boasts a monument to Baeshe, who died in 1587, having served four monarchs.
7) Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Island, Berwick-upon-Tweed
Where a former priory became a naval depot
In 1536, following the dissolution of the monasteries, Lindisfarne Priory’s lands on Holy Island came under royal control and the priory buildings became a military and naval depot, catering for the growth of Henry’s “great war machine”.
Lindisfarne Castle itself was built in 1550 to protect the former priory’s role in providing for the navy: its position, at around six miles from the once volatile Anglo-Scottish border, offered an important vantage point for spotting invading ships, and threats inland. The first mention of soldiers serving there was recorded in 1559.
During the Anglo-Scottish wars – a series of conflicts between the two nations that ended with the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603 – the fort’s main priority was to protect the island’s harbour, and it continued to guard against foreign enemies until 1893.
The castle was redesigned in the early 20th century, but some Tudor elements still remain. The road to Holy Island can only be accessed at low tide.
Holy Island, Northumberland, England
Lindisfarne Castle is on Holy Island on the Northumberland coast. (Getty Images)
8) Chatham, Kent
Where England prepared to face the might of the Spanish Armada
By the time Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, the river Medway at Chatham was England’s principal fleet base.
Like Portsmouth and Southampton, Chatham was responsible for the building of a number of warships, including the Sunne, a pinnace of five guns, which was launched in 1586. However, Chatham had a far greater role to play in history, when its shipbuilders were tasked with preparing the queen’s warships to face the Spanish Armada in 1588.
The Armada was commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, with the aim of ousting Elizabeth I and restoring Catholicism to England. “The size of both fleets were not all that different,” says Loades. “England had about 130 ships at sea, as opposed to the Armada’s circa 160, and the largest ships on both sides were roughly equal in size. England’s advantage lay in the fact that the majority of its fleet were fighting ships, whereas many of the Spanish fleet were slow, cumbersome urcas, or hulks, used as troop transports.”
The English fleet also had the wind in its favour and was able to inflict considerable damage on the Spanish ships, making many of them unseaworthy and driving the Armada into the North Sea.
The dockyard moved to its present site in 1613, and the Tudor yard was redeveloped for the Ordnance Board’s facilities at Chatham. Its exact location was unknown until archaeologists found what is believed to be evidence of the Tudor shipyard at the Command House pub near the river Medway.
Words by Charlotte Hodgman. The historical advisor was David Loades, emeritus professor of history at the University of Wales and author of Mary Rose (Amberley, 2012).