British Empire > Royal Navy

Royal Navy

Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration


The Royal Navy was the official standing navy of the British Empire. The Royal Navy while initially weak, grew stronger over time and was eventually able to successfully establish British hegemony over the water. The idea of a standing navy in Britain originated in the early 16th century following the expansion of the Spanish Armada under the guidance of Henry VIII. It would really expand under Elizabeth I who helped use the Royal Navy to plunder Spanish settlements in the New World.


Privateering Era

The Spanish Armada

In 1588 King Philip II of Spain sent the infamous Spanish Armada to stop the English Sea Dogs that had really threatened Spanish hegemony in the New World. They wanted to remove the Protestant Elizabeth I from power and install Catholicism as the major religion. Sailing from the Portuguese capital at Lisbon, the Spanish were to rendezvous with a fleet from the Spanish controlled Netherlands however, this did not occur due to many different circumstances.

In addition to poor planning the part of the Spanish, a blockade on part of the Dutch and other efforts by the English the two fleets were unable to meet up and converge to their true strength. The English were also responsible for constructing the English Armada, also known as the Counter Armada. They attempted an invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1589 but were unable to achieve any significant military victories in the region. The English Sea Dogs the Spanish sent to defeat actually commanded the Counter Armada and under the guidance of Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Walter Raleigh and Martin Frobisher the British were victorious.

Buccaneering Era

During the 17th century and the Buccaneering Era the naval superiority of Britain declined and the empire faced a significant increase in raids by the Barbary Corsairs who raided British coastal towns and captured people as slaves. The English were powerless to stop this subjugation and the navy provided little relief from the Arabic pirates.

In the West Indies the buccaneers were the main form of the English navy and were responsible for all the significant military victories in the region. While the Crown "owned" the colonies in the sense they claimed them on paper the buccaneers were the true power structure in the New World. Colonial governors throughout history facilitated piracy because it bolstered their local economy as well as their own pocket. In fact, history has proven most of them were in on the take.

Under the reign of King Charles I the British began a new campaign of naval building and his efforts to create a small but powerful squadron of ships led to the outbreak of the English Civil War. Under the rule of Oliver Cromwell the monarchy was abolished and the Commonwealth of England was established. This new sovereign was threatened by all of the Catholic nations and therefore reinitiated the campaign of naval construction.

First Anglo-Dutch War

Eventually the British Navy would grow to become the most powerful in the world and led to the development of the mercantilist trade polices of the Crown. These draconian trade laws restricted the colonies to only purchase manufactured goods from the motherland supplied by raw materials from the New World. This was in direct opposition to the free trade the Dutch Republic wanted and led to the outbreak of the First Anglo-Dutch War between 1652 and 1654.

The Royal Navy

English tactical improvements resulted in a series of crushing victories in 1653 at Portland, the Gabbard and Scheveningen, bringing peace on favourable terms.[23] This was the first war fought largely, on the English side, by purpose-built, state-owned warships. The English monarchy was restored in May 1660, and Charles II assumed the throne. One of his first acts was to re-establish the Navy, but from this point on, it ceased to be the personal possession of the reigning monarch, and instead became a national institution – with the title of "The Royal Navy". As a result of their defeat in the First Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch had transformed their navy and the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667) was a closely fought struggle between evenly matched opponents, with an English victory at the Battle of Lowestoft (1665) countered by Dutch triumph in the epic Four Days Battle (1666).[24] In 1667 the restored royal government of Charles II was forced to lay up the fleet in port for lack of money to keep it at sea, while negotiating for peace. Disaster followed, as the Dutch fleet mounted the Raid on the Medway, breaking into Chatham Dockyard and capturing or burning many of the Navy's largest ships at their moorings.[25] In the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672–1674), Charles II allied with Louis XIV of France against the Dutch, but the combined Anglo-French fleet was fought to a standstill in a series of inconclusive battles, while the French invasion by land was warded off.[26] The Dutch Raid on the Medway in 1667 during the Second Anglo–Dutch War During the 1670s and 1680s, the Navy succeeded in permanently ending the threat to English shipping from the Barbary corsairs, inflicting defeats which induced the Barbary states to conclude long-lasting peace treaties.[27] Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, England joined the European coalition against Louis XIV in the War of the Grand Alliance (1688–1697) in alliance with the Dutch. The allies were defeated at Beachy Head (1690), but victory at Barfleur-La Hogue (1692) was a turning-point marking the end of France's brief pre-eminence at sea and the beginning of an enduring English, later British, supremacy.[28] In the course of the 17th century, the Navy completed the transition from a semi-amateur Navy Royal fighting in conjunction with private vessels into a fully professional institution, a Royal Navy. Its financial provisions were gradually regularised, it came to rely on dedicated warships only, and it developed a professional officer corps with a defined career structure, superseding an earlier mix of sailors and socially prominent former soldiers.[29] Development of Britain's navy[edit] 1707–1815[edit] HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar, is still a commissioned Royal Navy ship, although she is now permanently kept in dry-dock The 1707 Acts of Union, which created the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, established the Royal Navy of the newly united kingdom by the merger of the three-ship Royal Scots Navy with the Royal Navy of England. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Royal Navy was the largest maritime force in the world, but until 1805 combinations of enemies repeatedly matched or exceeded its forces in numbers.[30] Despite this, it was able to maintain an almost uninterrupted ascendancy over its rivals through superiority in financing, tactics, training, organisation, social cohesion, hygiene, dockyard facilities, logistical support and (from the middle of the 18th century) warship design and construction.[31]

War of the Spanish Succession

During the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1714), the Navy operated in conjunction with the Dutch against the navies of France and Spain. Naval operations in European waters focused on the acquisition of a Mediterranean base, contributing to a renewal of the long-lasting alliance with Portugal in 1703 and to the capture of Gibraltar (1704) and Minorca (1708) (both of which Britain retained after the war), and on supporting the efforts of Britain's Austrian Habsburg allies to seize control of Spain and its Mediterranean dependencies from the Bourbons. French naval squadrons did considerable damage to English and Dutch commercial convoys during the early years of the war. However, a major victory over France and Spain at the Battle of Vigo Bay (1702), further successes in battle, and the scuttling of the entire French Mediterranean fleet at Toulon in 1707 virtually cleared the Navy's opponents from the seas for the latter part of the war. Naval operations also enabled the conquest of the French colonies in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.[32] Further conflict with Spain followed in the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718–1720), in which the Navy helped thwart a Spanish attempt to regain Sicily and Sardinia from Austria and Savoy, defeating a Spanish fleet at Cape Passaro (1718), and in an undeclared war in the 1720s, in which Spain tried to retake Gibraltar and Minorca.

Post Spanish Succession Period

After a period of relative peace, the Navy became engaged in the War of Jenkins' Ear (1739–1748) against Spain, which was dominated by a series of costly and mostly unsuccessful attacks on Spanish ports in the Caribbean. During the Battle of Cartagena de Indias in 1741, the Navy deployed a huge force of over 27,000 men in 135 transports and 50 warships[33] against the Spanish port city of Cartagena in modern-day Colombia. The siege ended in defeat and huge losses for the British navy and army.[34] In 1742 the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was driven to withdraw from the war in the space of half an hour by the threat of a bombardment of its capital Naples by a small British squadron. The war became subsumed in the wider War of the Austrian Succession (1744–1748), once again pitting Britain against France. Naval fighting in this war, which for the first time included major operations in the Indian Ocean, was largely inconclusive, the most significant event being the failure of an attempted French invasion of England in 1744.[35] The subsequent Seven Years' War (1756–1763) saw the Navy conduct amphibious campaigns leading to the conquest of French Canada, of French colonies in the Caribbean and in West Africa and of small islands off the French coast, while operations in the Indian Ocean contributed to the destruction of French power in India.[36] A new French attempt to invade Britain was thwarted by the extraordinary Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759, fought in a gale on a dangerous lee shore. Once again the British fleet effectively eliminated the French navy from the war, leading France to abandon major operations.[37] In 1762 the resumption of hostilities with Spain led to the British capture of Havana (along with a Spanish fleet sheltering there) and of Manila.[38] The Battle of the Saintes (1782). On the right, the French flagship, the Ville de Paris, in action against HMS Barfleur

American Revolution

In the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) the Royal Navy readily obliterated the small Continental Navy of frigates fielded by the rebel colonists, but the entry of France, Spain and the Netherlands into the war against Britain produced a combination of opposing forces which deprived the Navy of its position of superiority for the first time since the 1690s, briefly but decisively. The war saw a series of indecisive battles in the Atlantic and Caribbean, in which the Navy failed to achieve the conclusive victories needed to secure the supply lines of British forces in North America and to cut off the colonial rebels from outside support.[39] The most important operation of the war came in 1781 when, in the Battle of the Chesapeake, the British fleet failed to lift the French blockade of Lord Cornwallis's army, resulting in Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown.[40] Although this disaster effectively concluded the fighting in North America, hostilities continued in the Indian Ocean, where the French were prevented from re-establishing a meaningful foothold in India, and in the Caribbean. British Caribbean victories in the Battle of the Saintes in 1782 and in the relief of Gibraltar later the same year symbolised the restoration of British naval ascendancy, but this came too late to prevent the independence of the Thirteen Colonies.[41] The Bombardment of Algiers in 1816 to support the ultimatum to release European slaves Disease, particularly scurvy, caused catastrophic losses in the Royal Navy.[42] The eradication of scurvy from the Royal Navy in the 1790s came about due to the efforts of Gilbert Blane, chairman of the Navy's Sick and Hurt Board, which ordered fresh lemon juice to be given to sailors on ships. Other navies soon adopted this successful solution.[43]

French Revolution & Napoleon

The French Revolutionary Wars (1793–1801) and Napoleonic Wars (1803–1814 and 1815) saw the Royal Navy reach a peak of efficiency, dominating the navies of all Britain's adversaries, which spent most of the war blockaded in port. The Navy achieved an emphatic early victory at the Glorious First of June (1794), and gained a number of smaller victories while supporting abortive French Royalist efforts to regain control of France. In the course of one such operation, the majority of the French Mediterranean fleet was captured or destroyed during a short-lived occupation of Toulon in 1793.[44] The military successes of the French Revolutionary régime brought the Spanish and Dutch navies into the war on the French side, but the losses inflicted on the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797 and the surrender of their surviving fleet to a landing force at Den Helder in 1799 effectively eliminated the Dutch navy from the war.[45] The Spithead and Nore mutinies in 1797 incapacitated the Channel and North Sea fleets, leaving Britain potentially exposed to invasion, but were rapidly resolved.[46] The British Mediterranean fleet under Nelson failed to intercept Napoleon Bonaparte's 1798 expedition to invade Egypt, but annihilated the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, leaving Bonaparte's army isolated.[47] The emergence of a Baltic coalition opposed to Britain led to an attack on Denmark, which lost much of its fleet in the Battle of Copenhagen (1801) and came to terms with Britain.[48] The Battle of Trafalgar, depicted here in its opening phase During these years, the Navy also conducted amphibious operations that captured most of the French Caribbean islands and the Dutch colonies at the Cape of Good Hope, Ceylon and in the Dutch East Indies; but, except for Ceylon and Trinidad, these gains were returned following the Peace of Amiens in 1802, which briefly halted the fighting.[49] War resumed in 1803 and Napoleon attempted to assemble a large enough fleet from the French and Spanish squadrons blockaded in various ports to cover an invasion of England. The Navy frustrated these efforts, and following the abandonment of the invasion plan, Nelson defeated the combined Franco-Spanish fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar (1805).[50] This victory marked the culmination of decades of developing British naval dominance, and left the Navy in a position of uncontested hegemony at sea which endured until the early years of the 20th century. After Trafalgar, large-scale fighting at sea remained limited to the destruction of small, fugitive French squadrons and to amphibious operations which again captured the colonies which had been restored at Amiens, along with France's Indian Ocean base at Mauritius.[51] In 1807 French plans to seize the Danish fleet led to a pre-emptive British attack in the second Battle of Copenhagen, resulting in the surrender of the entire Danish navy.[52] At the time of Trafalgar, over half of the Royal Navy's 120,000 sailors were pressed men.[53] The impressment of British and American sailors from American ships contributed to the outbreak of the War of 1812 (1812–1814) against the United States, in which the naval fighting was largely confined to commerce raiding and single-ship actions.[54] The brief renewal of war after Napoleon's return to power in 1815 did not bring a resumption of naval comba

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