The author began a detailed history and account of British Warships with a volume covering the period 1793-1817, following with a second volume covering the period 1714-1792. With this new volume, he is extending his review back to the next period 1603-1714.
NAME: British Warships in the Age of Sail 1603-1714 – Design, Construction, Careers and Fates
CLASSIFICATION: Book Reviews
AUTHOR: Rif Winfield
BINDING: Hard back
PRICE: GB £50.00
GENRE: Non fiction
SUBJECT: Stuart navy, warships, technology, design, shipbuilding, deployment, disposal, fates, armament, classes
DESCRIPTION: The author began a detailed history and account of British Warships with a volume covering the period 1793-1817, following with a second volume covering the period 1714-1792. With this new volume, he is extending his review back to the next period 1603-1714. It is to be hoped that he will continue further back in time although it will become more difficult to research the Tudor and pre-Tudor periods back to the first Navy Royal of King Alfred. The research in this Stuart period book matches the meticulous work displayed in the earlier volumes. It is a particularly valuable book because historians have concentrated on the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in the period 1793-1817 and the First and Second World Wars. Of the remaining periods, only the period from 1714-1792 has faired reasonably well although even here the concentration on the Seven Years War has left large areas poorly covered. The legend of Nelson has distorted British naval history by concentrating on the end of a process that formed the unique British Empire, encompassing half of the world’s population. King Alfred established the first standing royal navy as the first King of the English. From his small fleet of longships ordered by the Crown, and the vessels contributed as auxilliaries, a pattern was established that continued on through the Tudor period, with the Crown expanding the size of the standing navy. Where in King Alfred’s time a village could still find the resources to construct one or more longships that could be used in battle and for trade, the developing naval technologies made it increasingly difficult for anyone other than the Crown to construct and operate state-of-the-art warships. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the auxilliary warship was dying out and the move to iron ships with steam power and complex weapons systems completed that process. The period 1603-1714 was perhaps the most interesting stage in this process. It included the romantic period of piracy which was always a cruel, bloody and more desperate activity than legend recalls. It was possible because auxilliary warships still equalled or outnumbered deployed naval vessels under the control of the Crown. In time of war, these private warships operated under Letters of Marque. Where most Royal Navy warships were allowed to rot in port during a period of peace, their crews dispersed ashore, the private auxilliaries had to earn their living and continued to raid commerce. It became increasingly common for privateers to operate in the rich areas off the new colonies and it became a priority for the Royal Navy to develop superiority over competing European nations in war and to protect trade from piracy in times of relative peace. This required the establishment of a system of training and command to complement increasingly powerful warships and to begin to establish a system of support and logistics. The period of the Stuart Kings and Queens saw this development of a professional standing navy with varying levels of success. James I (James VI of Scotland) brought together the very small Scottish fleet with the much larger English Fleet. This created the first truly British Royal Navy. It was still poorly funded and organized. Charles I made genuine efforts to improve the situation and this required heavier taxation to pay for the warships and their equipment, leading to the hated Ship Money tax that was one contributory factor to the Civil War where two British Fleets, Royalist and Parliamentarian, fought each other to the enjoyment of Spain, France and Holland. At the end of the Civil War the establishment of the Commonwealth under General Cromwell saw attempts to reform and improve the structure of the navy along the lines of the New Model Army which had proved so effective on land. The Restoration of Charles II saw some real effort put into rooting out the corruption that was widespread in the system of support and supply for the Fleet. The replacement of James II by William Prince of Orange and Mary Stuart saw a combination of Dutch and British interests although colonial rivalry was to continue. The Royal Navy benefited in this period and contributed to the accession of British Arms during the reign of Queen Anne. It can therefore be argued that the period from 1603 to 1714 was the most important period in the development of the Royal Navy and the environment that enabled the British Empire to become established. The relationship between technology and politics is always difficult to relate. In naval terms, new technology has to be developed to provide the advantage over the enemy and is a continuing race between competing nations. That race determines changes in tactics, structure, logistical support and deployment. It is a situation of chicken and egg where explaining what comes first is not easy. The author has covered this significant period in British Naval History through extensive research effort. The level of detail is considerable and must have taken many long hours. It is impossible to say whether the author has missed any warships because there is no other work of this detail to compare with. With the preceding volumes, particularly the volume covering 1793-1817, there are other authors who have produced a substantial quantity of information that allows comparison. Certainly the feel of this book is that no British warship of any importance that operated within the period from 1603 to 1714 has been missed. The author has shown how the Fleet inherited from Elizabeth I was based on a standard in the form of a race-built galleon. There was variation in size but it was essentially a single broad class of warship including vessels re-built as race-built galleons. He has then taken the development process through to the end of the period where a common general form of warship was dividing into classes that were essentially marked by the armament they carried setting the process that was to continue to the end of the Age of the Sail. What makes this new book even more valuable is that it is part of what is currently a three volume set covering the Age of Sail Warship from 1603 to 1817. It means that there is now a detailed history where the volumes follow a common style allowing comparisons between the vessels covered. The only criticism is that the publisher has confined colour illustration to the dust jacket. The quality of illustration within the body of the book is variable because some original drawings are now fading and difficult to reproduce. These drawings and some sharp illustration that has survived the years well is augmented with photographs of detailed models. At least some of these images would be available in full colour and some reproductions of paintings would also be originally in full colour. It is easy to appreciate the quandary faced by a publisher when a book is already at a cost level that requires a £50 price label. Adding colour plates could have added 20% to the production cost and taken the book beyond the reach of readers who can accept a £50 volume price. That criticism aside, the book is excellent value for its quality of production and excellence of research that make it indispensable in any enthusiast’s library.