Wednesday, October 21, 2009

OARS, SAILS AND GUNS: THE ENGLISH AND WAR AT SEA, c.1200–c.1500 Part I


The warships in the North in 12th century obtained the second mast. On the mast, which stands nearer to the bow with the small inclination forward, was fastened the sail, which made possible for vessel to sail in the crosswind. On such vessels had a large enough deck they could transport horses.


By Ian Friel
This is a survey which focuses on technological change and war at sea as seen through the evidence of English sources. England was a regional naval power in northern Europe between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. For much of this period, the main enemies were France, and, to a lesser extent, Scotland and the Welsh princes. The French, Scottish and Welsh wars meant that the operations of English ships at war were restricted mostly to the waters around the British Isles and to the coasts between northern Spain and the Low Countries. The demands on English naval forces were limited compared to what would come after the mid-seventeenth century.

The shipping resources available to English governments in this period varied considerably. Although royally owned ships were generally at the core of major naval operations, at no time before the seventeenth century was the government able to undertake major naval expeditions without using substantial numbers of ships owned by commoners. Medieval English governments for the most part also lacked naval dockyards and had to rely on the ‘civilian’ shipbuilding industry to supply some of its vessels. This means that the financial accounts and other records of medieval English naval activity are also important sources for the history of English merchant shipping and for the general history of maritime technology. The technology of naval warfare changed for England in the later Middle Ages. How much the development of ships and guns changed practice at sea is difficult to assess but certainly the effects contributed to the evolution of standing naval forces.

Until the fourteenth century, oared vessels provided a major part of the striking power in English war fleets. The English called them ‘galleys’. As far as we can make out, these were clinker-built vessels with a double-ended hull form, carrying a single square sail. Until the late thirteenth century, or perhaps slightly before, they were steered by a side- or quarter-rudder alone, although it is apparent that by the 1290s stern rudders were also fitted to some big English galleys. It is also clear that by the 1290s, if not earlier, some had fighting castles at the bow, stern and masthead.1 All this said, there is still much that is not known about them. Were they Anglicised descendants of Viking drakkar, or did they derive ultimately from the big oared warships built for King Alfred of Wessex in the late 890s?2 Only archaeology can help to answer that question now.

The term ‘galley’ declined in English usage in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Even by the early fifteenth century, the English were tending to use ‘galley’ to designate Mediterranean-style vessels. From the second half of the fourteenth century to the late fifteenth century most English oared fighting ships were called balingers or barges, or, latterly, ‘barks’.3 These were also clinker-built oared fighting ships, indistinguishable in their recorded written details from the earlier galleys (apart, in the fifteenth century, from changes in rig), whatever they actually looked like. Some of these oared fighting vessels could be very big. In the early thirteenth century, King John had galleys with at least seventy rowers, and out of eight galleys built for Edward I in the 1290s, five had one hundred oars or more. As late as 1401, a hundred-oar balinger was built for Henry IV.4 Oared fighting ships remained part of the English naval inventory right into the sixteenth century, although their status and numbers changed. The first English-based navy of any significance to be created after the Norman Conquest was built up by kings Richard I and John in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, to fight the French king. The loss of the Duchy of Normandy to France in 1204 placed an important seafaring region in the hands of an enemy, accentuating the need for naval forces. In 1206, John had forty-seven galleys on station at ports from King’s Lynn to Gloucester, plus another five in Ireland, a massive royal fleet for the Middle Ages. He also had sailing ships of various sizes but the galleys were clearly the principal combat arms.5 Oared fighting ships needed large crews and this probably limited their ability to stay at sea. Their great military advantage was a tactical one: they could move independently of the wind in combat. Long-distance travel under oars was probably never much of an option, but one should not exclude the possibility that such feats did take place. There is little doubt that the English Crown made much use of oared craft between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. Contemporary financial accounts record the purchase of large numbers of oars, and the crews of galleys, barges and balingers were generally much larger than those of sailing vessels of equivalent tonnage, because of the need to have enough men to work the oars. Analysis of surviving tonnage and crew data for English royal ships between 1399 and 1422 suggests a sharp disparity between the crew sizes of oared and sailing vessels of the same tonnage, with oared vessels on average having nearly twice as many men for a given tonnage.6

That said, it is evident that by the early fifteenth century, sailing ships had supplanted oared craft as the main striking force in English war fleets. The growing size of sailing vessels, and the adoption of fighting castles, may well have been one reason for the downgrading of the oared vessel in English service. The Danish archaeologist Ole Crumlin Pedersen has put forward the hypothesis that the introduction of fighting castles from the late twelfth century onwards (they are first depicted on a seal of 1199) was perhaps originally developed to give oared craft an edge in combat against higher-sided sail-driven ships like the cog. Cogs and their like of course acquired castles, re-establishing their height advantage. Although other scholars, such as Jan Bill, have challenged this hypothesis, it remains a possibility.7 Height and crew size were crucial advantages in medieval sea warfare, and it is likely that large, castle-equipped sailing ships could only have been defeated, in most cases, by ships of similar type. This helped to undermine the value of the galley and similar oared vessels as a primary type of warship in late medieval northern Europe, at least in English service. Certainly by the time of King Henry V (1413–22), there had been a decisive shift in the composition of English royal naval forces. Oared balingers and barges were still important, but more as reconnaissance and patrol craft. For example, Henry V’s personal fleet was probably at its peak strength, if not peak numbers, in about March 1417. It then had twenty-seven operational vessels with an estimated total tonnage of 6400 tons with 600 tons of this being estimated since the tonnages of one carrack and four balingers are unknown. Eleven of the twenty-seven vessels were oared balingers, but they only made up about 10 per cent of the total tonnage. The other approximately 90 per cent consisted of sailing ships. The English naval victories at Harfleur in 1416 and off the Chef de Caux in 1417 involved the capture of seven very large Genoese carracks, something that would have been very difficult if not impossible for oared ships alone as the carracks enjoyed a substantial height advantage over oared warships. There can be little doubt that these two victories were chiefly gained by sailing ships.8 In fifteenth-century English war fleets the oared vessel seems to have been an important auxiliary craft, but never much more than that.9

Until the early fifteenth century, English ships, like those elsewhere in northern Europe, used the common north European one-masted rig with a single square sail. This rig was exported to the Mediterranean in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries along with the hull form of the cog. In the fourteenth century Mediterranean sailors added a smaller lateen mizzen to this rig to help make the new, large ship-type, the cocha, called a carrack by the English and other northerners, more manoeuvrable.

The earliest-known English record of a two-master dates from 1410, when a two-masted Genoese carrack captured by pirates was acquired by King Henry IV. The English Crown began using and building two-masted vessels in the years 1416 and 1417, probably learning about the technology from captured ships and seamen. The purpose-built two-masters were either large sailing ships or long, low balingers, which were perhaps perceived to benefit from the improved manoeuvrability. It seems that the 1400-ton great ship Grace Dieu, completed in 1418, had three masts, although the precise arrangement is unknown. However, it is clear that in the 1430s an English royal balinger was rebuilt as a three-master, with a small square-rigged foresail to help improve its handling. It is possible that the square-rigged foremast was an English invention, but such developments could hardly be kept secret. By the 1450s and 1460s the three-masted square-rig was spreading across both northern and southern Europe and undergoing development. The result was a handier ship, undoubtedly much better suited to the rigours of transoceanic travel than the old one-masters would have been. As such, the three-master became one of the major instruments of oceanic colonisation and conquest, along with other types like the Portuguese caravel.10

The Portuguese, whether willingly or not, were also significant in the transmission of southern skeleton-building technology to northern Europe between the 1430s and 1450s. The new type was generally called a carvel by northerners, after the ‘caravel’. The first known English-built carvel, Sir John Howard’s Edward, was constructed in the 1460s. By the early decades of the sixteenth century the technique was being used for the construction of major English war carracks.11 These two epoch-making technological developments in sail plan and hull construction transformed the nature of European shipping and made European transoceanic enterprise feasible, but their precise effect on naval warfare is less easy to chart. The new rig made ships more manoeuvrable, but it became a general standard, not something that conferred a special tactical advantage on any one power. Skeleton construction later made possible the creation of lidded gun ports and gunrooms, but that did not come until the sixteenth century.12

The first recorded shipboard gun was a small weapon, used for firing lead pellets and quarrels or crossbow bolts, bought for the English royal ship All Hallows Cog in 1337 or 1338. Guns seem to have remained relatively unimportant in English sea warfare until the fifteenth century. Of the thirty or so ships possessed by Henry V between 1413 and 1422, only about half had guns and the total of actual weapons did not exceed forty-two. The most heavily armed ship was the 760-ton ‘great ship’ Holigost, with seven guns. Where their material is stated, the guns were almost invariably made of iron, although in 1411 a barge of Henry IV’s had both an iron gun and a bronze one. The weapons were called both ‘cannons’ and ‘guns’ although the terms were seldom used interchangeably for the weaponry of the same ship, perhaps hinting at technical differences. The guns were breach-loaders, often with two or even three separate powder-chambers apiece, to speed reloading. We do not know if these were wheeled cannon or swivel guns.

Surviving English ship inventories are rare between the early 1420s and the late 1470s and there are no royal ship inventories between the mid-1430s and the mid-1480s. This is unfortunate as major developments in rig and ship-borne gunnery took place in this period. For one thing it is clear that between the 1420s and the 1480s a revolution had occurred in the provision and use of shipboard guns. Although overshadowed by the introduction of lidded gun ports in the sixteenth century, it was clearly one of the major stages in the development of the warship, and comparatively little is known about it.13

Records of the 1470s and 1480s reveal that significant increases had taken place in the numbers of ship-borne guns since the 1420s. In the late 1470s Sir John Howard owned two private warships, the George Howard and Edward Howard. They carried, respectively, 16 and 15 wrought-iron breech-loading ‘bombards’. A few years later, in 1485, a royal ship, the Mary of the Tower, had 48 guns and 11 chambers, plus 12 hakbushes, a crude form of musket. Another royal vessel, the Martin Garsia, had 30 guns, 86 chambers, 100 gunstones, that is, round shot made of stone, and 300 tampions or shot wads. The two largest of Henry VII’s ships, the 1000-ton Regent and the 600-ton Sovereign, built in the 1480s, carried prodigious numbers of guns. The 1495 inventory of the Sovereign lists 130 guns of three types, serpentines of iron and bronze and stone guns, all breech-loaders, and all mounted on swivels, called ‘miches’, rather than carriages. These technological changes were complemented by changes in personnel. Gunners began to appear as separate specialists aboard English warships in the 1470s, and were common on large warships by the 1490s.14

Despite the increasing numbers of guns, there is no sign that they had much effect on English naval tactics before the sixteenth century. All late-fifteenth century English warships carried large numbers of bills, bows and other hand weapons, arms that were used to fight the boarding actions that still decided the outcome of any naval battle. There is no reason to believe that the English had much notion of the effective use of stand-off gunnery until well into the sixteenth century. Famously, both the Regent and the French warship La Cordeliere were destroyed when both caught fire during a boarding action in 1512. Swivel guns of the type which bristled from ships in the 1490s would have been only useful as anti-personnel weapons. It is possible that one reason for their use in large numbers was that it was anticipated that a significant number would be unreliable. Twenty-nine of the Regent’s guns were lost in unspecified ways in the 1497 English campaign against Scotland.15 Heavy ship-borne guns that could sink other vessels only began to make their appearance in north European waters in the early sixteenth century. For most contemporary seafarers the aim in battle was to capture an enemy ship, not sink it, if at all possible. A captured ship could be a valuable prize, and surviving officers could be ransomed. A sunken ship might mean one less enemy vessel, but it was otherwise no use to anyone.
1 Ian Friel, The Good Ship: Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England, 1200–1520 (London, 1995), 39–115, passim.
2 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. Michael Swanton (London, 1996), 90.
3 Dorothy Burwash, English Merchant Shipping 1460–1540 (Newton Abbot, 1969), 103 ff.
4 L. G. Carr Laughton, ‘Naval Accounts for 1209–1211’, Mariner’s Mirror, 28 (1942),74–7; Friel, The Good Ship, 113.
5 N. A. M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, Volume I: 660–1649 (London, 1997), 45–54.
6 Ian Friel, ‘Documentary Sources and the Medieval Ship: Some Aspects of the Evidence’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 12 (1983), 55.
7 Ole Crumlin Pedersen, ‘The Vikings and Hanseatic Merchants’, in G. Bass, ed., A History of Seafaring Based on Underwater Archaeology (London, 1972), 181–204.
8 Public Records Office E364/59, passim; Friel, The Good Ship, 151–2; Rodger, Safeguard of the Sea, 143–4.
9 N. A. M. Rodger, ‘The Development of Broadside Gunnery 1450–1650’, Mariner’s Mirror, 82 (1996), 301–24.
10 Friel, The Good Ship, 84–109 and 157–70.
11 Ibid., 170–80.
12 Cf. Rodger, ‘Broadside Gunnery’.
13 Friel, The Good Ship, 150–6.
14 PRO C76/163, m.6; Michael Oppenheim, ed., Naval Account and Inventories in the Reign of Henry VII 1495–7, Navy Records Society 8 (London, 1896), 38, 50, 69, 194–5, 261 and 339–44; Rodger, Safeguard of the Sea, 160–1.
15 Rodger, Safeguard of the Sea, 170; Oppenheim, Naval Accounts, vol. 8, 279.

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