The Tudors and the Royal Navy

The Tudor era was a critical one in the development of the Royal Navy.

Henry VII

Henry VII deserves a large share of credit in the establishment of a standing navy. Although there is no evidence for a conscious change of policy, Henry soon embarked on a program of building ships larger than heretofore. He also invested in dockyards, and commissioned the oldest surviving dry dock (and the first in Europe) in 1495 at Portsmouth.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII inherited a force of some 15 ships, and continued expansion in great ships (eg Mary Rose, using the idea of firing through gunports in the sides of a ship, an idea only invented sometime between 1505 and 1509), infrastructure (including Trinity House) and facilities apace in expectation of war with France; in 1512 Sir Edward Howard took over as Lord Admiral, and attacked on 10 August, with inconclusive results despite a memorable slugging match between the English Regent and the French Cordelière resulting in the destruction of both. Additional combat in 1513 resulted in the death of Sir Edward, and his brother Thomas Howard took his place. In 1514 the 1,500-ton carrack Great Harry was launched, the first English two-decker and one of the earliest warships equipped with gunports and heavy bronze cannon.

Henry also commissioned the Anthony Roll (now in the Pepys Library), a survey of his navy as it was c.1546, from which comes much of the pictorial evidence for his ships.

In the end, the chief result of the war with France was a decision to keep the 30 ships active during peacetime. This entailed the establishment of a number of shore facilities, and the hiring of additional administrators; a royal shipwright appears in 1538. By 1540 the navy consisted of 45 ships, and in 1545 Lord Lisle had a force of 160 ships fighting with a French force of 130 attempting to invade England at the Battle of the Solent. In the same year a memorandum established a "king's majesty's council of his marine", a first formal organization comprising seven officers, each in charge of a specific area, presided over by "Lieutenant" or Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Clere.

Edward and Mary

Edward VI and Mary I added little new to their father's navy. Although the navy was involved in the maneuverings following the death of Henry VIII, it was ineffective. Mary maintained the building program, the navy performed satisfactorily if not outstandingly (it did not prevent the loss of Calais) in the war with France of 1557 to 1559.

Elizabeth I

A fleet review on Elizabeth I's accession in 1559 showed the navy to consist of 39 ships, and there were plans to build another 30, to be grouped into five categories (a foreshadowing of the rating system). Elizabeth kept the navy at a constant expenditure for the next 20 years, and maintained a steady construction rate.

By the 1580s, tensions with Spain had reached the breaking point, exacerbated by Elizabeth's support for the privateering expeditions of Hawkins, Drake, and others, and capped by the Cadiz raid of 1587, in which Drake destroyed dozens of Spanish ships. In 1588, Philip II of Spain launched the Spanish Armada against England, but after a running battle lasting over a week, the Armada was scattered and limped home. These famous battles were early actions in the long and costly Anglo-Spanish War of 15851604.


Important though this period was, it represents a soon-lost high point. After 1601 the efficiency of the Navy declined gradually, while corruption grew until brought under control in an inquiry of 1618.

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