In the absence of royal initiative in England, however, there were others who were willing and able to wield the strength derived from a force of ships to intervene in the increasingly complex struggles between competing factions and claimants to the throne. This is most clearly seen in the case of the Earl of Warwick, but the Duke of Burgundy and the king of France were also prepared to provide naval forces to support their favoured candidate for the English throne.
Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick had been captain of Calais since 1456 and had taken the opportunity afforded by a relatively secure base to build up a squadron of ships. These were used in the manner most likely to advance the fortunes of the Earl himself and the Yorkist cause, which, at that time, he supported. To many English men his naval exploits in the Channel were a welcome sign of ‘enterprise upon the see’. Jack Cade’s proclamation in 1450 at the outset of the Kentish rebellion had bewailed the facts that, ‘the sea is lost, France is lost’. The French raid on Sandwich in August 1457 had been a humiliating reminder of the impotence of English defence. Now John Bale, himself a merchant and a ship-owner, could laud Warwick in his chronicle, praising his ‘greet pollecy and dedes doyng of worship in fortefieng of Cales and other feates of armes’. To modern writers Warwick’s deeds seem at least semi-piratical but to his contemporaries his attack on a Spanish squadron of 28 sail off Calais in early June 1458 and his taking of around 17 prizes out of the Hanse fleet returning with Bay salt later the same summer were victories to savour. It even seems not to have affected his reputation that the first engagement was not entirely successful. John Jernyngham’s letter to Margaret Paston which gives details of the encounter, recounts how he and his crew boarded a large Spanish ship but were unable to hold her. He concludes, ‘and for sooth we were well and truly beat’. The point to contemporaries was that Warwick, who was in fact bound by an indenture of November 1457 to keep the seas, seemed to be acting energetically and speedily even if not all his opponents were clearly ‘the londes adversaries’.
His activities in 1459 and 1460 demonstrate with greater force the way in which the possession of a squadron of ships with experienced crews was greatly to the political advantage of both Warwick personally and the Yorkist cause. After plundering Spanish and Genoese shipping in the Straits in the summer of 1459, Warwick, who had joined the Yorkists in England, seemed to have miscalculated when he was forced to flee from the battle of Ludford Bridge. He reached his base in Calais safely, however, and from that point acted with great skill. Lord Rivers and Sir Gervase Clifton for the king had by December managed to impound Warwick’s ships in Sandwich harbour. The Crown also mustered a small force under William Scott to patrol off Winchelsea to repel any attack by Warwick. Warwick had many friends in the Southern counties, perhaps beneficiaries of his earlier actions in the Channel. Through them he was well aware of the Crown’s plans. In January a force from Calais commanded by John Dinham, slipped into Sandwich early in the morning, while Rivers was still abed, and persuaded Warwick’s erstwhile shipmasters and crews to return with them to Calais. The royal government attempted to counter this loss by commissioning further forces to serve at sea against Warwick. The Duke of Exeter in May 1460 in fact encountered Warwick’s fleet at some point to the east of Dartmouth and arguably had the opportunity at least to damage very severely the Yorkist cause if not put paid to it entirely. Yet as the Great Chronicle of London put it ‘they fowght not’. Richmond sees this as ‘one of those critical moments when action was essential but was not forthcoming’. In his view Warwick had what the Crown did not, a fleet and a fleet which was used to keep the sea. The use of that fleet was an important factor in the course taken by the domestic politics of England and to Richmond sealed the fate of the Lancastrians.
In 1470, Warwick was personally in a much weaker position. He may still have had some vessels of his own; on his flight from England, after the failure of his intrigues on behalf of the Duke of Clarence, pursued by Lord Howard, he had taken prizes from the Burgundians. He could not, however from his own resources hope to mount an invasion of England to restore his new master Henry VI. He and Queen Margaret were dependent on the aid of Louis XI of France to provide such a fleet. This aid was forthcoming because of the seeming advantage to France in the restoration of the Lancastrians and their adherence to an alliance against Burgundy. Both English and Burgundian naval forces, however, were at sea all summer in an endeavour to keep Warwick’s French fleet in port. Their efforts seemed successful; by August Warwick’s men were demanding their pay and the people of Barfleur and Valognes had had enough of their presence. A summer gale then dispersed the Yorkist ships at sea and Warwick sailed across unopposed landing on 9 September near Exeter. By the end of the month Edward IV was himself a fugitive restlessly watching the North Sea from his refuge at Bruges with Louis de Gruthuyse, the Burgundian governor of Holland. If he in his turn was to regain his throne his need also was for ships. The Duke of Burgundy was perhaps more discreet in his support for his brother-in-law than Louis XI had been for his cousin, Margaret of Anjou. In March 1471, however, Edward left Flushing with 36 ships and about 2000 men and once ashore at Ravenspur by guile and good luck recovered his Crown.
In the 20 or so years from 1455, therefore, it can be argued that the possession of the potential for naval warfare could be of great advantage to those who wished to be major players in both internal and external politics. No very great or glorious encounters between the vessels of rival powers took place in the Channel or the North Sea. The typical action was that of the commerce raider; a brief violent boarding action ending probably in the surrender of the weaker crew in an attempt to save their skins. Kings and other rulers possessed very few or no ships of their own and were reliant on the general resources of the maritime community. Yet, despite this, the perception of the pressure, which could be exerted by a fleet in being, was more widely appreciated. Warwick has been held up as the individual whose actions demonstrate this most clearly and it is hard to argue against this opinion. He, perhaps, until the fatal moment on the field at the battle of Barnet, also had luck. Would he have fared well if Exeter had attacked off Dartmouth in 1460? The reasons for Exeter’s loss of nerve are not really clear. Exeter had many warships including the Grace Dieu, built by John Tavener of Hull and formerly Warwick’s own flagship. The Great Chronicle of London speaks vaguely of Exeter’s crews being unwilling to oppose Warwick while the English Chronicle states baldly that Exeter was afraid to fight. Waurin, a Burgundian chronicler, has a circumstantial account of Warwick approaching the coming conflict with great circumspection, sending out fast small vessels ahead of the main fleet to gather intelligence and then calling a council of war of all his ship masters.47 The decision was taken to attack with vigour and maybe the sight of Warwick’s ships coming on at speed with the advantage of the wind terrified Exeter. His lack of courage was certainly a disastrous blow for his party.
On a wider canvas, the situation in these waters as far as the relations between rulers goes has become much more open. In the first third of the century the conflict between England and France was the dominant factor with other states being drawn in as allies of one or the other combatant. After the middle of the century states pursued their own commercial and political interests in a more fluid situation. Naval power was diffuse, not necessarily concentrated in government hands, and the advantage might swing quickly from one state or group of traders to another.