Tudor Sea Power: The Foundation of Greatness

David Loades looks at a rich tapestry of information on the Tudor navy

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Reviewed by: David Loades
Author: David Childs
Publisher: Seaforth
Price (RRP): £40

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This book is a major compilation of information, anecdotes and first-hand comment relating to the Tudor navy. 

It does not claim to be a work of original research, and its manuscript basis is slight, but the author has read exhaustively and profitably in the printed primary and secondary sources and as a result has recorded a multiplicity of stories and contemporary opinions, not otherwise available even to the informed reader.

One of his bases is naturally the Mary Rose Trust, of which he is the development director, but he has drawn on resources from far and wide, from the letters and papers of Henry VIII to the Alderney Trust website, and woven an extremely rich tapestry in consequence.

The book is thematically arranged, both by chapters and within chapters. For example, that on Arming the Fleet is organised by weapon type rather than chronology, and on Feeding the Fleet by the nature of the victuals provided. In this latter case there is no reference to the supplements which the pursers are known to have provided, or to the ‘special diets’ which the officers provided for themselves. However the information content generally is excellent, and although this system of organisation inevitably leads to a certain amount of repetition, as the same background is explained in different contexts, it has the advantage that each chapter can be used independently. For the most part, Childs’s points are tightly argued from the evidence, but in his comments on 16th-century mores, and particularly on the attitudes of the Tudors themselves, he is sometimes less than judicious, taking contemporary opinions rather too much at face value.

Modern comparisons may also be helpful to the 21st-century reader in search of something to take a bearing from, but are seldom illuminating when it comes to understanding 16th-century decisions, and why they were made. This tendency is a minor irritation when assessing a major work of scholarship, but what it does indicate is that the author is a little uncertain of his readership. Whereas these observations are entirely appropriate for the general reader, most of the work seems to be aimed at a specialist, not to say an academic audience. 

This book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, drawings and graphs, and well supplied with informative tables, including one on the entire establishment of the navy from 1473 to 1603 – not original but very useful. The photographs, particularly those of contemporary or near contemporary seascapes, are rather dark, and not always relevant to the texts to which they are juxtaposed. However, generally the illustrative tactics employed work very well, providing what might be called a ‘museum’ dimension to the whole work. This is usefully augmented by a list of relevant exhibitions and ‘open’ houses, which is provided at the end. Eventually David Childs justifies his theme by taking a broad overview of the period, which is somewhat at odds with his comments on individual Tudors.  

In commending the publishers on producing a fine book, it must be said that it could have done with more careful proof reading. Errors of fact are rare (although they do occur), but typographical mistakes are rather more common, and that is a pity in a work of this quality. 

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Professor David Loades is author of The Fighting Tudors (National Archives, 2009)