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22 July 2013 @ 08:09 pm
The Safeguard of the Sea  
For Reasons, I decided I wanted to know more about the Age of Sail, but along the way I somehow got side-tracked into the history of the Royal Navy. The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649 by N. A. M. Rodger, you will observe, stops short of the Age of Sail or at least those parts of it involving baggy sleeves and dapper waistcoats.

This was a fascinating book. It revealed the extent to which the school curriculum I was taught failed to focus on naval matters, and the alternative perspective was at the same time both familiar and disconcerting. Rodger has an easy prose style and a sly sense of humour

The English response to these new and formidable naval threats was to impose compulsory archery practice and ban football; an admirable measure, but no substitute for a navy.

I liked the sense of personality that came through. Having waxed lyrical about certain Saxon monarchs, Rodger then spends most of the first third of the book in despair at the inability of medieval monarchs to get to grips with ships and the sea (with the exceptions of Richard I and Henry V) but perked up with the arrival of the Tudors. One of the real strengths of the book, I felt, was the emphasis Rodger consistently places on the administration and finances required to run an effective navy, as well as on the details of ship styles, battles, raids and other engagements.

The book does have its weaknesses. It is not, despite the title, a Naval History of Britain. Scottish navies are only mentioned when they interact with the English navy, or when Rodger wishes to contrast the approaches of the two kingdoms. I suspect this is because the book is part of a series which takes as its subject the history of the British Navy which has its roots in the English Elizabethan Navy rather than in the medieval Scottish navies. It is, similarly, charmingly inclined to attribute all major English victories and defeats (including battles such as Agincourt and Bosworth) on the presence or absence of a navy or at least on war leaders with some understanding of ships and the sea - Henry VII doesn't get much credit for nautical awareness, but is allowed more than Richard III. As a lay person with a passing interest in history, rather than a historian, I also found the extensive quotation of primary sources somewhat wearing. I was mostly prepared to accept that, for instance, discipline was poor without reading a page of contemporaries complaining about ill-discipline.

As well as the emphasis on naval administration, and the account of English history through the lens of her naval resources, I also enjoyed the aspects of social history that were included. I was particularly fascinated to learn that "swabbing the decks" arose out of a genuine interest in hygiene as a mechanism to control disease. While disease itself was attributed to foul vapours rather than to any modern concepts such as bacteria or viruses, it was understood that a clean ship was a health(ier) one, and when a ship's crew became very disease ridden it was customary to put ashore and then clean the entire ship with vinegar. Sadly, the death rates from typhus on long voyages, suggest these measures were not as effective as they might have been.

A fascinating book all told, and one I'd recommend to anyone interested in reading a narrative of Medieval and Early Modern English history from a specific unique viewpoint.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/102466.html.
jhgowenjhgowen on July 22nd, 2013 09:13 pm (UTC)
Sounds fascinating. Starting at 660, what does it give about the navy of Alfred, and does it blame the battle of Hastings on the lack of a navy to repel invasion?
louisedennislouisedennis on July 22nd, 2013 09:28 pm (UTC)
Hastings was all about manoeuvrings to do with the fleet. Harold was attempting to keep William pinned on the peninsula until the fleet arrived, William, recognising the danger pressed to attack. Though, it has to be said, that Rodger is in despair about the Normans and the boats so it is an example of a battle won despite nautical incompetence.

Rodger is, in general, a fan of the Saxons, but he's a bit vague about Alfred, though he'd obviously like to be able to attribute to him a revolution in ship design. He's a big fan of Edgar and Edward the Confessor though.

No other English king, Edgar perhaps excepted, used his fleet so often, or commanded it so frequently in person, as Edward the Confessor. In no other reign was it so common, indeed almost universal, for the great men of the kingdom, the ealdormen, earls and bishops, to serve at sea.