The English Navy

Charles I Navy

Before the Civil War Charles I's English navy comprised about twenty two ships (the Royal Sovereign 1st rate ship of 100 guns - - the Royal Prince 3rd rate of 85 guns – ten more capable of carrying more than 50 guns and another ten of thirty to fifty guns, including half a dozen listed as frigates.

The Rump Parliament Navy

During the Wars of the Three Kingdoms Parliament added twenty rated ships (20+ guns) and eight sloops (10-18 guns) to transport Cromwell's army and keep it supplied. Before the defection of nine ships in the mutiny of 1648 the navy stood at over forty ships.

The mutiny added another problem as Prince Rupert's squadron was preying on English merchants. The parliamentarian navy now had to pursue these pirates as well as defend against the Spanish privateers of Dunkirk and cope with the needs of the army.

With the trial and execution of Charles, the Rump Parliament was well aware of the horror with which the Kingdoms of Europe viewed Regicide and realised war-torn England would be seen as easy prey by hostile Catholic powers being implored by Charles Prince of Wales to help him reclaim his father's throne.

In February 1649 The Council of State established a new rank of General-at-Sea which it bestowed upon three successful military commanders Robert Blake, Richard Deane and Edward Popham (on his death he was replaced by Monck) – converting them to naval duty. Under these progressive generals, especially Blake, the English navy adopted a strategy of destroying enemy ships with fire-power rather than boarding them and fighting hand-to-hand. Blake immediately set about writing the first rules and regulations for the Navy - The Laws of War and Ordinances of the Sea which was , the first version of which, containing 20 provisions, was approved by Parliament on 5th March 1649.

The only defence against invasion was a strong navy and within two years the English navy was increased by two dozen ships, half of them carrying more than forty guns. Maintaining such a large navy in addition to the huge standing New Model Army would be expensive and Parliament's thoughts turned from merely defending the coastline and merchantmen towards asserting restrictive trading policies and raiding other countries' convoys.

The Dutch were far and away the most active country in commercial shipping and the 1651 Navigation Act, which restricted trade with English Colonies to English ships, was sure to bring conflict with the Dutch. The English navy could not compete in numbers with the Dutch, who by supplementing their standing navy with merchant ships commandeered and armed with extra cannon, could muster more than 100 ships of 20 to 30 guns. But the English had more large ships that could mount heavy cannon with longer range and could outgun the opposition.

By 19th May 1652, the Battle of Dover, the first battle of the then undeclared first Dutch War, Tromp complained that the English had more than twenty ships that outgunned anything the Dutch could offer, but the greater numbers of more mobile Dutch ships matched the English in battle. Continued ship-building and captured enemy ships grew the navy still further and towards the end of the war England could bring more than a hundred ships to battle, the same number as the Dutch, but the English fleet was far more powerful, with fifty ships of more than forty guns, and another fifty of 30 to forty guns.

In March 1653 Blake published texts on naval tactics  as 'Sailing Instructions' and 'Fighting Instructions' which included the first known detailing of the single line ahead battle formation used by Tromp at the Battle of the Downs in 1639.

In 1653 the Dutch sent a fleet to the Mediterranean where, in March Van Gale's sixteen ships defeated Appleton's eight at the Battle of Livorno and then chased off Badiley's reinforcements to secure control of the Mediterranean trade, but the depleted Dutch navy in home waters was outfought by a combination of power and discipline. The English began to use line ahead formation to concentrate their enormous firepower on a few enemy ships and this resulted in two significant English victories; the first at Gabbard off Lowestoft when eleven Dutch ships were captured and the second at Schevingen where up to 30 Dutch ships were captured or sunk.

The Protectorate Navy

The Dutch switched tactics and avoided pitched battles, preferring to guard their own convoys and attack English merchantmen wit privateers. This battle of attrition against the merchant fleet did not suit the English, and Cromwell was keen to come to terms; the war officially ending on 15th April 1654.

Cromwell's warmongering against Spain demanded a strong fleet and the Protectorate kept building large ships, with nine ships of more than 60 guns completed in 1654, the 86 gun Naseby in 1655, the eighty gun Dunbar and 76 gun London in 1656, and the eighty gun Richard in 1658.

The English Navy was, of course, involved in the attempted invasion of the Spanish West Indies, beginning with the failed attack on fortified Hispaniola and then the subsequent attack and landing on unfortified Jamaica. This effectively declared war. In 1657 Blake took forty ships of the Protectorate Navy and blockaded Cadiz for

A year causing great damage to the Spanish economy, but as the Spanish captured an estimated 1500 to 200 merchant ships – virtually wiping out England's mercantile fleet and handing the trade back to the Dutch – it was a somewhat Pyhrric victory. It did, however establish the English Navy as a force to be reckoned with.

In May 1658 Edward Montague blockaded Dunkirk with 18 ships, helping France to defeat Spain in the Battle of the Dunes.

Restoration England

At the Restoration the English Navy of over a hundred and ten ships included forty of more than 50 guns.

Needless to say all of the ships named for Parliamentarians or Parliament victories over Royalists were rebadged for member of the Royal Family or their supporters, with the Naseby becoming the Royal Charles and the Richard becoming the Royal James.

Charles II inherited a large well organised navy. He and his brother James, Duke of York were keen sailors who recognised the benefits of a strong navy. The size and power of the navy encouraged Charles II to revive his grandfather's Scottish interpretation of, and his father's uncompromising insistence on, the rights of ‘English sovereignty of the seas' (which would eventually give excuse for yet another fruitless war against the Dutch).  

In 1661 Lord Sandwich was sent to the Mediterranean with the dual mission of subduing the Algerian Corsairs and ensuring the smooth transition of power from Portugal to England in Tangier, without interference from the Dutch or the Spanish.

Sandwich reached Algiers at the end of July and bombarded the coastal batteries, but his plan to attack Corsair ships in harbour was frustrated by poor weather. He captured a few small ships and sank an Ottoman Corsair fleet, then sailed to Lisbon to re-provision, leaving Lawson to patrol the Straits of Gibraltar to guard against the Dutch or Spanish.

Sandwich eventually sailed to Tangier, arriving 13th October and waited there until Peterborough arrived on 29th January 1662.


Main Sources:

Barratt, J., Cromwell's Wars at Sea (Barnsley 2006)

Corbett, Sr JS. London 1904

Gardiner, S.R., History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. iv (London 1903)

Napier, Lt. T. M., Robert Blake The Naval Society 1925