Benjamin W. D. Redding’s new book is a unique comparative study of English and French naval history that examines the birth of modern state navies during a period of significant economic, political, social and religious change.
Historic warships are objects of fascination, wonder, and inspiration. Celebrated maritime discoveries such as the Swedish Vasa of Stockholm and the Mary Rose of Portsmouth have enthralling museums dedicated to preserving them. They not only serve as items of curiosity but also expand our knowledge of their periods of origin. Partly on account of their influences, when we reflect on early modern navies today, we think of these big ships, the large-scale battles that they participated in, and the disasters that occasionally befell them. Yet their significance is greater than just the conflicts and events in which they were involved. They were also products of, as well as contributors to, the development of states.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are often described as having facilitated the birth of England as a sea power, while France, a large and powerful continental kingdom, has been presented unfairly as never truly being able to make its mark at sea. The English and French Navies throws these misunderstandings overboard to explore the rise and decline of sea forces, placing warships like the Mary Rose within their wider transnational contexts. It explores the importance of state strength and patronage to naval advances, and asks, why were some powers able to expand in naval strength, while others seemingly floundered?
Controlling a potent naval force for a prolonged period owed more to the role of leading administrators, such as Sir John Hawkins and the Cardinal de Richelieu, and less to military commanders (although, as the case of Hawkins shows, it was possible to serve as both). Royal navies could only be expanded and sustained across successive regimes when their connected states had the competence, framework, and drive to maintain them. Without this stability and support, only basic impromptu fleets that possessed fewer tailored warships as part of their makeup were constructed and hired. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the latter would largely suffice, but as ship design and technology improved with time, state-owned warships increased in importance.
In a period of experimentation and innovation, England and France were unable to experience a rise in maritime superiority without also floundering in the process. While states faced different crises caused by economic, political, and religious factors, naval strength was directly impacted. As one example, during the 1650s both states needed to recover and rebuild their sea forces after political fallouts that impaired their fleets. No single state ruled militarily supreme at sea during this initial period of the Age of Sail because they lacked the infrastructure, investment, and resources to do so.
England’s navy has been a subject of interest for scholars and the wider public for many generations, although some topics, such as the Elizabethans, have been provided with greater focus than others. As a point of contrast, in both English and French speaking contexts, France’s naval programme before 1650 has been given far less attention. In part, its history during this period is one of two halves, with two very different characters: first, the period before the French Wars of Religion (after which the navy is said to have been obliterated by civil unrest), and second, the period that started with the Cardinal de Richelieu (from 1626). Even this description is contestable, for despite the royal fleets being severely impacted by the religious wars of the late sixteenth century, the French crown continued to commission armed ships at sea throughout the sixteenth century, albeit in a considerably diminished strength by its end. Far from sitting idle, France is shown to have been a major European power that controlled fleets in both its northern and southern sea theatres: a sailing fleet for the Atlantic and Northern Sea, and a galley fleet for the Mediterranean. Geography, it is argued, was a determining factor that caused the English and French navies to appear so very different. Notwithstanding these obstacles, French naval power was able to match and often surpass English sea strength, even though English national propaganda would imply otherwise. The common image of England as a maritime superstate, while France only faced inward, is not true for this period of study; this book both addresses and resolves this.
War served as the perfect harbinger to naval advancement. For this reason, a study of the English and French fleets is very fitting considering that the two kingdoms fought against each other on no fewer than nine occasions between 1500 and 1650. Yet, although conflict was important to these developments, the communication and cooperation between the two states could be as equally significant for accelerating improvement to naval forces. Placed within a transnational and European context, The English and French Navies explores how strengthened state navies were not the products of isolated rogue powers but were instead developed within a theatre of thriving multinational maritime activity and politics. Through this marine environment, developments in shipbuilding, weaponry, and tactics were able to be enhanced at an unprecedented rate.
BENJAMIN W. D. REDDING is a Senior Research Assistant in Early Modern Naval History at the University of East Anglia.