The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to the Present/Volume 1/Chapter 1

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The primitive Briton and the sea—Early British vessels—Commercial relations with the continent—Ships of the Veneti—Maritime impotence of Britain at Cæsar’s invasion—Pictæ—Cæsar’s ships—Britain under the Romans—Roman harbours in Britain—The Scots and Picts—The Saxon invaders—Their origin and character—Anglo-Saxon ships—Rise of Mercia—Offa's fleet—Rise of Wessex—Alfred's maritime policy—Edgar—Danegeld—The Danish invaders—Greatness of Canute—Danish ships—Port dues—Tenures of the maritime towns—Smallness of the permanent navy—The Gokstad ship and its construction.

AMONG the inhabitants of Britain, a large number have in all ages followed the sea. In the days of extreme antiquity, when the greater part of the island was covered with forests in which wild beasts, and possibly wilder human beings, roamed, knowing no law save that of the strongest; when marshes and lakes were more common, and watercourses broader, than they are now, and when there was little tillage, the seas and rivers yielded a readier harvest than the land.

So long as society remained unorganised, the man who planted a field gave to precarious fortune most valuable hostages in the shape of his labour and his seed. Any man more powerful than he might, without much trouble, deprive him of the fruit of both by driving him from his hard-won patch, and occupying it. Yet, even while society was in its earliest infancy, there was a certain kind of safety afloat for him who knew how to manage paddle and sail. He could not easily be ousted from his chosen fishing-grounds. To oust him—nay, seriously to interfere with him afloat—required not merely brute strength but also skill and experience. The lowest man in the scale of that dawning civilisation could handle the club and the mattock; but, from the first, the trade of seaman or fisherman was an art and mystery. The primitive Briton was, therefore, more secure in his position, as well as more independent, as a seaman, or at least as a riverman, than as a landsman. On the water he escaped having to contend with wild beasts and with much human tyranny. As for the elements, he made it the peculiar business of his life to understand and adopt them. They cannot have been more cruel than the dangers of the shore. And from river, lake, and sea he could be sure of drawing supplies of food without the trouble either of sowing or of reaping.

These considerations must have powerfully influenced the early Britons who found themselves near stream or ocean or mere, for they have profoundly influenced all primitive peoples, and especially those of the old world. They led them, not merely to seek their living on the water, but also to build their habitations on or above the water. In the neolithic period there were lake dwellings in Britain as well as in Switzerland and other parts of Europe; and many of the Irish "crannoges," or artificial islands, which were strongholds of petty chiefs as late as the sixteenth century, were structures dating back to prehistoric times. Soon, of course, as the numbers of those who lived on or by the water increased, the relative security of their calling diminished. Boats began to be stolen, nets to be destroyed, lines to be removed. Still, however, there was the substantial attraction of the never failing harvest of the waters; and still a man enjoyed more liberty afloat than he could hope to enjoy ashore, unless, indeed, he happened to be a very powerful personage.

It is impossible to determine with certainty what was the nature of the earliest British vessels. But it is established by Cæsar[1] that in his time the inhabitants made use, probably in addition to craft of stronger build, of boats very little different from the coracles which may still be occasionally seen on the upper reaches of the Severn, and from the light and unstable skiffs wherein the fishermen of Mayo and Galway venture to sea to this day in almost all weathers. They were, in effect, canoes, framed of light wood so arranged as to support and give strength to a hull of basket-work, and then covered with hides. They may have well existed long before Cæsar's time; and they probably represented the first type of British vessel that was anything more than a raft. There seems to have been generally no sail or mast; and the instrument of propulsion was, almost without doubt, the paddle.

Yet, although the hide canoe appears to have been the earliest craft known to our ancestors, it is difficult to believe that, as late as the days of Cæsar, the islanders had nothing better. Pytheas,[2] about 330 b.c., found, in what is now Kent, a degree of civilisation which surprised even his highly civilised companions from Massilia. Posidonius, who was Cicero's tutor, describes the tin-workers of the island as being civilised and clever at their work, and as possessing waggons of some sort. In those times there were certainly iron-works in the valley of the Severn, and British princelings certainly coined money in distant imitation of Greek originals. Moreover, it is incredible that the Britons, who for generations had seen Phœnician ships and craft from the Greek colonies in the Mediterranean, visiting their coasts for tin, could have omitted to copy the superior foreign types. Nor is it probable that if our ancestors owned only hide canoes, they could have habitually crossed the British Channel, as Cæsar himself suggests that they did cross it.

There is no evidence that any prince of Britain, inspired by principles of general policy, organised a combination of his fellow princes, either to send maritime assistance to the mainlanders who resisted the Roman seizure of the continental shores of the Channel, or to repel the threatened invasion of his own country. Indeed, the evidence is rather to the effect that the more powerful princes were on such ill terms among themselves that they could not combine, at least for operations by sea. Yet there was some combination for offensive defence, if not among the princes of Britain, then among the merchants and shipowners of the seaboard. It was, no doubt, dictated by considerations of common interests, rather than by the formal behests of people in authority; and the probable explanation is that the fishermen and traders of the southern British coasts, who had long had some maritime traffic with the tribes ever against them on the coasts of Gaul, apprehended in some vague way that a Roman conquest would deprive them of it. We may even suppose blood ties to have existed between the two races, and the menaced mainlanders to have appealed, in their hour of peril, to the friendship of the islanders. Be this as it may, both Cæsar and Strabo, as well as native traditions, declare Britain and Gaul to have had commercial relations for a long period anterior to the Julian invasion;[3] and we have Cæsar's word for it that when, in his advance, he came into contact with the Veneti, who dwelt near the mouth of what is now the Loire, he found that he had to fight not only them, but also a British flotilla acting with them.

Unhappily, Cæsar does not expressly describe the vessels of the British contingent. It has been seen that he elsewhere mentions certain British craft as having been made of wicker covered with hide. Of these he speaks contemptuously, when he criticises their suitability for war; and Lucan[4] takes up much the same position. But neither Cæsar nor Lucan applies this criticism to the craft that co-operated with the Veneti; and, when we pay regard to the fact that to enter the mouth of the Loire our ancestors, in addition to crossing the stormy Channel, must have braved the terrors of the Bay of Biscay, we are almost driven to the conclusion that the ships which helped the Veneti were not hide canoes. It is much more likely, seeing that Cæsar devotes no special description to them, that they were not very different from the ships of the Veneti themselves. These he does describe, and in some detail. "Their ships,"[5] he says, "were built and fitted out in this manner. The bottoms were somewhat flatter than those of our vessels, the better to adapt them to the shallows, and to enable them to withstand without danger the ebbing of the tide. Their bows, as likewise their sterns, were very lofty and erect, the better to bear the magnitude of the waves and the violence of the tempests. The hull of each vessel was entirely of oak, to resist the shocks and assaults of that stormy sea. The benches for the rowers were made of strong beams of about a foot in breadth, and were fastened with iron bolts an inch thick. They fastened their anchors with iron chains[6] instead of with cables; and they used skins and a sort of thin pliant leather for sails, either because they lacked canvas and were ignorant of the art of making sailcloth, or more probably because they believed that canvas sails were not so fit to bear the stress of tempests and the rage and fury of the winds, and to drive ships of that bulk and burden. Our fleet and the vessels of such construction were as follows as regards fighting capabilities. In the matter of manœuvring power and ready command of oars, we had an advantage; but in other respects, looking to the situation of the coast and the stormy weather, all ran very much in their favour; for neither could our ships injure theirs with their prows, so great were the strength and solidity of the hostile craft, nor could we easily throw in our darts, because of the loftiness of the foe above us. And this last fact was also a reason why we found it extremely difficult to grapple with him, and bring him to close action. More than all, when the sea began to get up, and when the enemy was obliged to run before it, he, fearing nothing from the rocks and cliffs when the tide should ebb, could, in addition to weathering the storm better, trust himself more confidently among the shallows." A complete victory[7] was gained, nevertheless; and, no doubt, the British contingent was destroyed.

That Selden wrote primarily as a politician, and only secondarily as a historian, when he produced 'Mare Clausum,' has been too much overlooked by later writers, and especially by Dr. John Campbell[8] and his editors, who follow Selden[9] in finding, in a statement by Cæsar, evidence that the ancient Britons "had the dominion of their own seas in the most absolute degree." The statement is to the effect that Cæsar could get no information concerning the country or ports of Britain, because the inhabitants permitted none but merchants to visit their island, and restrained even them from travelling up the country.[10] As well might it be argued that the Chinese of our own days "have the dominion of their own seas in the most absolute degree," because they have succeeded in limiting the intercourse of foreigners with the interior. All that we know points to a different conclusion. Whatever naval power the Britains, probably those of the western part of the island, possessed, seems to have been entirely expended in the fruitless co-operation with the Veneti. Thenceforward, the British fleet vanished from the scene; and Cæsar met with absolutely no resistance afloat.

Yet, although the Britons were weak at sea, they were not so ignorant that the cultured Romans had nothing to learn from them concerning ship construction. We have seen what Cæsar's opinion was of the British hide canoes. But we learn elsewhere[11] that the conquerors found in Britain another type of boat which they thought it worth while to copy for their own purposes. It was a species of long, fast-sailing pinnace, known to the Romans as picta. It was smeared with wax, apparently to lessen the friction while running through the water, and it carried twenty rowers. It was useful for scouting and dispatch purposes; and to decrease its visibility its sail was dyed light blue, and its crew were dressed in clothing of the same colour. Here is a very early example of something like a naval uniform for seamen. But, with regard to the science of naval architecture generally, the Romans must have been immensely ahead of the Britons. The Roman vessels were not so large, but that they could be hauled upon the beach; while they were large enough to transport, upon an average, about 125 soldiers,[12] with baggage in each; and if it be true that Cæsar carried with him to Britain a war elephant,[13] some, at least, of his ships must have been of imposing size and strength.

The results of Cæsar's expeditions led subsequent Latin writers to use such expressions as Britannos subjugare and Vincula dare oceano almost as if they were equivalent phrases; and the fact has ever since created a false impression that the conqueror in some way wrested the dominion of the sea from the vanquished islanders. The truth is that, after he had won the action in the mouth of the Loire, Cæsar had to contend afloat with few besides natural difficulties; and that the Briton of his day was overcome not at sea but ashore. If the Britons had any ships and seamen beyond those destroyed on the coast of Gaul, they had at least no union, no common aims, no central authority strong enough to wield effectively the naval arm. The country was broken up into petty principalities and chieftainships, and while little co-operation between the jealousies and hatreds of rivals was possible on shore, none at all was to be expected at sea, where only from co-operation, guided by authority, can success be hoped for, even amid the most favourable circumstances.

The descents of Cæsar, and the fear of new invasions certainly disciplined the country to a degree previously unexampled. We need not suppose that the coast populations became suddenly orderly, and hastened to give up their primitive habits of piracy; and, indeed, we find that, a little later, these habits, far from having disappeared, were more firmly rooted than ever. Yet, for the time, the Britons paid or promised tribute, in order to keep Augustus[14] at a distance; and, under Tiberius, they were wise enough to refrain from plundering certain soldiers of Germanicus,[15] who were wrecked on their shores. The improvement may have been partly owing to the growth of central authority within the island; for it seems probable that Cymbeline, though monarch only of a portion of the country, attained much greater power and influence than had before been reached by any British prince, and was often able, more or less, directly to control nearly the whole of the southern part of the island. Even Cymbeline,[16] however, was not always powerful enough to control all his dependents, nor all the members of his own family. Just before his death, he was dragged, apparently much against his will, into a serious difficulty with Rome; and, although he did not live to witness the invasion of the Emperor Claudius, he must have known, ere he breathed his last, that Britain, which, since the time of Cæsar, had been allowed to take very much its own course, was about to lose all semblance of independence.

Claudius was not opposed by sea; nor do ships seem to have played any part in the revolt under Boadicea in the time of Suetonius Paulinus. Indeed, during more than two hundred years, the country's naval progress went on so noiselessly as to have escaped the attention of historians. But progress under the Romans there must have been; for the bold and successful enterprise of Caius Carausius could not have terminated as it did, had not the leader had at his command not only good ships but also good seamen. The exploits of Carausius, and of his successor, will be found summarised in the next chapter. Progress continued steadily in the later days of the Roman dominion, when the ports as well as the fleet received much attention. The navy nearly always proved itself strong enough to repress piracy in the surrounding seas; and among the places which sprang into naval importance as military and commercial harbours or refuges were, according to Selden:[17] Othona, which Camden identifies with Hastings; Dubris, now Dover; Lemmanis, now either Hythe or Limehill hard by it; Branodunum, now Brancaster Bay, in Norfolk; Gariannonum, now Yarmouth; Regulbium, now Reculver; Rutupiæ, now Richborough; Anderida now perhaps Newenden, in Kent; and Adurni, now Ederington, near Shoreham. The position of many of these places

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to Present Volume 1 - Chapter 1 A ROMAN WARSHIP (LATER PERIOD).jpg


(From Johann Scheffer's 'De Militia Navali Veterum,' Upsala, 1654.)

a. Chalatorii funes.
b. Epitonus.
c. Ceruchi.
d. Hyperæ.
e. Pedes.
f. Prota.
g. Calones.
h. Thoracium.
i. Maleola.
k. Antenna.
l. Cornua.
m. Dolon.
n. Velum aliud.
o. Anserculus cum aplustri.
p. Stylus cum tœnia.
q. Propedes.
r. Anchorale.
s. Elacate.

(Whether a topsail was really used in such a vessel is very doubtful.)

is in itself indication that there was at the time an important amount of intercourse with the continent; and that trade flourished under the Roman dominion is known. But after the departure of Gallio, about a.d. 430, the unfortunate Britons, who had been emasculated by luxury, and whose dependent position had gradually taught them to look to the Roman power and not to help themselves, even for so necessary a business as the police of their own coasts, suddenly found themselves thrown upon their own very inadequate resources. It looks as if the Romans can have left scarcely a ship behind them; probably they did not leave an officer.

The Scots and Picts immediately became very troublesome. The Romans, almost to the last, had wielded sea power enough to oblige these freebooters to exercise great circumspection in all their operations. A Roman fleet was always at sea, ready to act upon the flanks of the pirates, and to sever their communications with their northern fastnesses. Landings could not, in consequence, be attempted without the gravest risk. But the Roman fleet being withdrawn, and there being no British fleet to take its place, all risk disappeared.

Whether the ancient Britons were ever much inclined to military pursuits may be doubted. Certain it is that the long period of more or less intimate association with the Roman empire in its decadent days did not leave them much more military than it had found them. The degree of relative security afforded by the Roman occupation encouraged them to turn their attention to agriculture and commerce, rather than to arms. Those of them who were from time to time obliged to serve under the Roman eagles must have returned, with relief, if they returned at all, to peaceful pursuits. And the increasing softness of Roman manners corrupted and demoralised them, as it demoralised the Romans themselves. The Roman influence conferred some arts and evanescent culture upon a small proportion of the people, but it did not train the Britons in habits of independence and self-reliance, nor did it leave great scope for patriotism.

Much of the detailed history of the period lies in impenetrable obscurity. Very little can be collected concerning the social life of the people. But there can be no question that at the time of the first advent of the Saxons the Britons were a feeble and even contemptible folk, disunited to a greater degree than has ever been common, save among barbarous tribes of the lowest type, and scarcely deserving a better fate than awaited them. Their thin sluggish blood sadly needed the iron that was eventually infused into it by the young heroes of the wild Berserker brood from across the North Sea. Had these Saxons and the kindred Danes and Normans, pirates every one, not come, England might have grown learned, and possibly rich; but she could never have become great. She must have lacked manhood and tone. She must have lacked muscle, stomach, and daring. The successive invasions of the northern pirates slowly transformed the race from one of effeminate and disorderly weaklings into one of sternly disciplined men. The raw material may have had some latent stamina; otherwise the bitterness of those north-east blasts would surely have extinguished it altogether. But the stamina required a very long process of development ere it became good for much. It needed many centuries to change the Briton into the Englishman, and during all those centuries, the sea, and the men and influences from across it, did more than any other factors towards completing the transformation.

The so-called Saxon[18] invaders represented at least three tribes. There were the Saxons proper who, originally from Holstein, had spread inland over what are now Hannover and Oldenburg, and had established themselves among the northern Frisian islands. There were the Angles, originally from beyond the Elbe, who had established themselves in what is now Schleswig; and there were the Jutes, probably from the modern Jutland. The British traveller in the Denmark and Holstein of to-day will scarcely fail to be struck with the great general resemblance of the racial type still prevalent in those countries to the type characteristic of eastern and southern England. Nay, he will even find other things to remind him of his native land. In few parts of the world save England and Schleswig-Holstein are hedges an ordinary feature of the rural landscape; and in no non-English speaking community in the world will the Englishman feel so much at home, and so completely able to sympathise with and enter into the habits and ideas of the people, as in this Dano-German district. It is really, as Ethelward,[19] the tenth century chronicler, called it, Anglia Vetus.

All these tribes were piratical, if we use the word in its fullest modern sense; but with them piracy was not a shameful but a noble and dignified employment. The might of Rome had failed to conquer these tribes, and had only succeeded in driving them into undying hostility to it, and to Roman civilisation. Wealth, polish, and luxury were what the decadent Romans set store by. They were exactly the things which the Saxons most cordially despised. These last prided themselves upon the manner in which they endured hardships and surmounted difficulties; they regarded bluntness and roughness as manly virtues rather than as defects, and they held it disgraceful and womanish for a man to seek to lie soft, or to idle at home, when there were spoils to be won abroad by good seamanship, and by axe and sword. Brutal they were; dissolute they were; drunken they were; but their brutality was the brutality of strength and high spirits, and not of premeditation; their dissoluteness sprang from natural cravings and not from artificial vices; and though they drank deep, they did not allow their orgies to interfere with their work in the world.

The Anglo-Saxon ships[20] seem to have been nothing more than long, deep, undecked boats, sometimes, perhaps, of as much as fifty tons' burden, yet never having more than single mast, provided with a single lug-shaped sail. There was no rudder. The steersman sat in the stern, holding on his right or "steerboard" side a paddle, with which he controlled the vessel's course. This paddle was probably fixed by a thong, or by a thole-pin passing through it, so as to preserve it from loss, and to assist the steersman, whose other hand held the gathered up end of the sail. The arrangement was, thus, much like that of still earlier ships, and it recalls, strikingly enough, Virgil's description:[21]

"Ipse sedens clavumque regit, velisque ministrat."

It is unlikely that the crew ever exceeded fifty or sixty men. The ships[22] were usually, if not invariably, clincher built, that is, they were covered with planks so disposed that the lower edges of the superior ones overlapped the upper edges of the inferior ones. The bow was raised, and generally bore, as a figure-head, a carved model of the upper part of some fierce or fabulous beast. The stern also was raised, and occasionally ornamented, though less elaborately than the bow, and the sail was often striped in two or more colours. A few of the larger vessels may have been half-decked, or covered in at the extremities; but this is not certain. All were propelled by oars as well as by sail power. All were constructed with a view to being drawn up on shore, where they lay when not in use. Arrangements of pulleys, perhaps not very different from the rough capstans employed by modern English fishermen for their smaller boats, were arranged on the beach to facilitate the dragging of the vessels up and down. There is evidence, also, that some boats, intended exclusively for war purposes, were fitted with iron gunwales, or had their gunwales covered with iron.

At first the Anglo-Saxons in Britain were continually reinforced from the continent, but after a time they discouraged immigration. They grudged sharing with newcomers the advantages which they had already won, and they began a system of coast fortification designed to keep out further arrivals.

In the meanwhile, various chiefs reduced the interior of the island, and little by little a number of petty kingdoms sprang into existence. These, actuated by inevitable jealousies, were almost perpetually at war one with another, and, perhaps because sea warfare was at first more congenial than land warfare to the Saxon races, the internecine struggle seems to have weakened the seaboard kingdoms more rapidly than it weakened the inland ones.

The central kingdom of Mercia, which marched with the Welsh border behind which, thanks to the natural difficulties of the country, the fugitive Britons still held out, was, in the interval, gaining valuable experience in land warfare, and when the coast kingdoms began to be exhausted by their feuds, and had frittered away their naval strength, the opportunity of Mercia arose. First Penda, some time in alliance with the Welsh, and them Ethelbald and Offa in succession, enlarged the borders of the middle kingdom until they touched the sea in more places than one; and when Offa, by the exercise of his strong personality and indomitable energy, had made himself by far the most potent prince in England, he was wise enough to do what none of the more petty Anglo-Saxon princes had done before him—he created a great fleet. The possession of this enabled him to treat on equal terms with even so powerful a monarch as Charlemagne,[23] and it convinced him so clearly of the value of a powerful navy, that, according to the Saxon Chronicle, he left to his successors the maxin that "he who would be secure on land must be supreme at sea."

Mercian ascendancy presently made way for West Saxon, under Egbert, and West Saxon influence, though much hindered by continual incursions of the Danes, as well as by Anglo-Saxon feuds, and by British irreconcilableness, gradually increased, particularly under Alfred and Edward the Elder, until it became no longer West Saxon but English; and so, for the first time, England was, in some sort, a state.

But the unity of England was still little more than nominal. Alfred came to the throne of a country which had been ravaged and despoiled in all directions by Danish raiders, operating with the sea as their base, and which was impoverished to the last degree. Had he been a Briton and not a Saxon, he must surely have despaired of his ragged inheritance. But he did not despair for a moment. When he could employ force, he employed it; when his only available weapons were gold and diplomacy, he employed them. He was never inactive, nor did he ever lose sight of Offa's maxim. Steadily, even in his darkest days, he applied himself to the creation of a naval force. He seems indeed to have realised the nature of sea power in something like a scientific manner.[24] He continually put in force the principle of offensive defence as being the best, and in fact, the only sound one. Whenever it was possible, he sought his enemy at sea, instead of waiting for him to attack or to land. Nor was he content to employ merely such ships as had been employed by his ancestors. He invented new types. His "long ships" embodied improvements upon any war vessels that had previously been seen in England. Says the Saxon Chronicle:—"They were full twice as long as the others; some had sixty[25] oars, and some had more; they were both swifter and steadier, and also higher than the others; they were shaped neither like the Frisian nor the Danish, but so as it seemed to him that they would be most efficient." Moreover, he paid much attention to the selection and seasoning of his materials, to the victualling, and to the supply of arms, as well as to the training of his seamen; and, being in desperate straits, and regarding the Danes as pirates, he forbade the granting to them of quarter.[26]

All these innovations by the strong and fearless hand of Alfred conduced to the general disciplining of the nation, for the condition of the fleet could not but react upon the condition of the coast towns, and the condition of the coast towns, then the most important, and, with one or two exceptions, the most populous in the kingdom, naturally influenced the state of the entire country. All luxuries—all things, indeed, that ranked much above the bare necessaries of life—reached the interior from the coast towns, and it is notorious that even in much earlier ages the ports, civilised by intercourse with abroad, and full of rich merchants, set a fashion in all sorts of matters to the inland towns and villages. There came a time when the ports were rougher and less polished than the inland districts, but that was not until external influences had been digested by the country.

At the end of the ninth century, when Alfred lived and ruled, the king was still a man chosen to rule on account of his bravery and capacity. That he generally inherited his office was an accident. When he failed to prove himself worthy of it, he was seldom able to retain it for long. Alfred set up an unusually high standard of kingship, and it is greatly to the credit of his immediate successors that, viewed even by the side of him, they loom large as men well worthy of their position. Of Edward, Freeman truly enough says: "It is only the unequalled glory of his father which has condemned this prince, one of the greatest rulers that England ever beheld, to a smaller degree of popular fame than he deserves." As for Athelstan,[27] he exacted tribute from the Danish pirates, who, in spite of the efforts of Alfred and Edward, still held Northumbria; and, first of the English kings, he caused his alliance to be seriously valued and sought for abroad.

Both these monarchs fostered the fleet, which, indeed, under the latter of them must have reached unusual efficiency, as well as great numerical strength, if it be true, as the Saxon Chronicle relates, that Anlaff (Olaf), the Danish king in Ireland, carried to the aid of the Scots a larger fleet than had previously been seen in their waters, yet, with his allies, was crushingly defeated by Athelstan.

The reigns of Edmund, Edred, and Edwy, were less brilliant; but they can have witnessed little or no change in the prosecution of Offa's and Alfred's naval policy, for they immediately preceded the reign of Edgar,[28] who found the fleet in fair order. He vastly increased it, and although he had happily but small occasion to use it—for strong navies make unwilling enemies-it is generally admitted that he raised it to a point of excellence which it had never before approached. His fault was too great a love of peace. Instead of chastising and driving off the Danish freebooters who clung tenaciously to English soil in several places, he admitted them to equality before the law with his Angles and Saxons, and by his unwise mildness he prepared the way for many subsequent troubles to his country. Such mildness was not understood in those times. It did not induce the Danes in England to become Englishmen; it led them rather to despise a people who could be voluntarily and deliberately guilty of the weakness of clemency. Edgar was too strong for them to strike at, but they foresaw that Edgar would not always rule, and that, pending the arrival of the day when it might be safe to strike, the advantages conceded to them would enable them to enormously improve their chances of ultimately subjugating the whole country.

He was, nevertheless, a great king. The wording of the charter, cited by Selden[29] as having been granted by him in 964 to the Church of Worcester, is probably spurious; but we do not depend upon that instrument, in which Edgar is made to claim lordship of "the islands, and of the ocean lying around Britain," for an estimate of the position to which the king—alas, only temporarily—raised his country at sea. The Saxon Chronicle tells us, quoting a metrical eulogy:—

"Was no fleet so insolent,
No host so strong,
That, mid the English race,
Took from him aught,
The while the noble king
Reigned on his throne. [30]

We need not attach implicit credence to Hoveden's statement[31] that Edgar's fleet consisted of three thousand six hundred sail, all "very stout ones"; nor to Bromton's,[32] that it comprised four thousand; not to Matthew of Westminster's,[33] that it was four thousand eight hundred strong; but we may well believe an assertion which is made in substance by more than one writer, that, during his sixteen years' reign, no thief was found in his realm on shore, and no pirate heard of in the surrounding seas. Under him, the Anglo-Saxon monarchy in England reached its highest pitch of power. When the hand of Edgar was relaxed by death, the fabric which Alfred and his successors had so laboriously created collapsed with startling rapidity.

Edward the Martyr never reached manhood, and in his name the land was governed by weak women and self-seeking priests. Ethelred the Purposeless was also, during great part of his reign, in the same hands. In Edgar, one strong man had stood for the nation. Babies, fainéants, and women could not take Edgar's place; and there was no national life to carry on his work. All became confusion. Six years after the death of Edgar, the Danes[34] did as they liked in the narrow seas; and by 991 the spirit of the country was so crushed that Ethelred agreed to buy off the free-booters with an annual tribute of ten thousand pounds, which was raised, under the name of Danegeld,[35] by a tax of two shillings[36] per hide on land.

It was then that Edgar's mild unwisdom bore fruit. The Danes contemptuously accepted the tribute; but, holding a strong position in that part of the country known as the Danelagh, where the inhabitants were largely of Danish blood, and still full of Scandinavian sympathies; and despising a race which thus ignobly confessed its inability to defend itself, they did not for one moment desist from their course of raid and rapine. England had corrupted its once hardy Saxon conquerors, who were no longer a match for Norse pirates, led by men who never slept beneath a raftered roof, and never sat down to drink by a sheltered hearth. The Danish scourge was needed to do for the Saxons what the Saxon scourge had done for the Britons; but it was none the less terrible while it was being applied. Ethelred bought off one viking only to find another pirate clamouring, sword in hand, for similar treatment. Even his own court betrayed him repeatedly. Nearly every year larger sums were paid to the foe; every year the foe became bolder and more exacting. Recognising the impotence of the king, the English nobles raised a fleet of their own, but, being mismanaged, it did nothing beyond contribute to the general exhaustion. Everywhere there were treachery and desertion. To add to the confusion, difficulties arose with Normandy. The year 1002 saw English desperation seeking relief by means of a general massacre of the Danes throughout the realm.

This provoked Sweyn, Prince of Denmark, to throw himself officially into a quarrel which previously had been chiefly waged by the more irresponsible and adventurous of his father's nominal subjects, including Sweyn himself, when a young man. Upon his accession to the Danish throne, the attainment of the sovereignty of England became his main object in life.

The Danegeld seems to have been diverted at this time from its original and shameful purpose, and to have been employed for the more creditable and legitimate end of raising and maintaining a fleet wherewith to offer some sort of opposition to the national enemy. It temporarily became Heregeld, or money for the support of a fighting force. But it was too late. The collapse had made too great progress; Ethelred, after a brief struggle, fled to Normandy; and, by 1013, England was practically at the feet of the conqueror. When Swweyn died, Ethelred returned, and gained some successes, as did also his son, the gallant Edmund Ironside; but Edmund's death left Canute's son master of the whole kingdom.

Canute began his government with a series of the hardest severities. He nearly annihilated the English royal family; and he squeezed from the impoverished country a levy of £83,000, most of which sum he gave, as a pirate chief's largesse, to his Danish seamen. Yet, when he had established himself, he ruled well, and even generously. He abolished distinctions between Danes and Englishmen; he put Englishmen, like Godwin and Leofric, into positions of trust; he favoured the church, although his father had been an apostate; and, while he also ruled Denmark, and Norway, which he conquered in 1028, and had Scotland and Sweden as his vassals, he was essentially and primarily a great king of England.

There can be no doubt that the British collapse resulted rather from British disunion and mismanagement than from paucity of means wherewith to make resistance. All Edgar's successors had fleets; some of them at times had very large ones; but every squadron, and almost every ship, seem to have been jealous and distrustful of every other. Many of the English leaders at the most critical period of the struggle must have had Danish connections, if not Danish blood in their veins; and the mere presence in England of a tolerated Danelagh, or Danish pale, acted as a perpetual reminder to every weak-kneed Englishman that a large extension of the Danish power was not only possible, but probable. Hence, there were encouragements to half-heartedness, and, indeed, to continual double dealing. Many sought to stand well with both English and Danes, not certain which of the two would eventually gain the upper hand. Resistance, consequently, was partial and inefficient on the side of almost all, except those few whose fortunes were inextricably bound up with the fortunes of the royal house of Wessex.

Edgar was able, and probably understood how, to employ sea power; but his Anglo-Saxon successors certainly failed in the task, even if they comprehended the nature of it. It is abundantly clear that from the year of Edgar's death sea power in the narrow seas belonged almost exclusively to the Danes. What some of the Danish ships of the period were like we know from the 'Heims Kringla,'[37] in Snorri Sturluson's 'Edda.' They were high-decked, and each bore the emblem of her commander. The prow was ornamented with a figurehead of gilt copper, and at the truck was a vane. The vessels were painted externally, and carried round their bulwarks the polished steel shields of the crew. Sweyn's own ship, in 1004, called the Great Dragon, was in the form of the legendary animal of that name. His standard,[38] a black raven embroidered on white silk, was not hoisted on board, and was only displayed when English soil was reached. The importance of the Danish navy in the economy of the State may be gauged by the fact that Canute, though only a younger son, owed his election to the fleet,[39] and that although his elder brother Harold seized the throne of Denmark, the latter could not have held it had the sailor prince cared to take it. Until Harold's early death, Canute, a pirate king in the true sense of the words, swept the seas, and afterwards he succeeded in Denmark without opposition.

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to Present Volume 1 - The Gokstad Ship, Elevation and Deck Plan.jpg

[To face page 18.

The Gokstad Ship, Elevation and Deck Plan.

It is probable that the Danes of this period built ships for war purposes only, though they may have incidentally used some of them for trade. The Anglo-Saxons, on the other hand, possessed two distinct classes of vessels, one expressly designed for each object. In Ethelred's laws[40] the distinction is often alluded to. And commerce was specially encouraged by the Saxons after they had fairly settled down in England; for, after having made certain commercial ventures on his own account, and in his own ship, a churl might, by right, attain the rank of thane, or thane that of earl.

There was already regular system of tolls or port dues.[41] At Billingsgate, a small vessel paid one halfpenny, and a sailing craft one penny. If a ceol, or hulk—apparently something still bigger—arrived, she paid fourpence. From vessel laden with planks, a toll of one plank was exacted.[42] It is evident that there was much trade with the continent in wool, cloth, wine, and fish.

The Saxon war navy was supported by pecuniary levies, or Heregeld, raised upon the cultivated land, and was reinforced by contingents obligatorily furnished, in accordance with their tenures, by the chief ports;[43] which also provided a certain number of men. Other towns, including inland ones, had to provide men and stores.[44] But there seems to have been only a very small permanent war navy. Canute, and Harold I. following him, maintained a somewhat larger one; but all approach to permanent naval establishment was ill regarded in the Midlands, and payment of Heregeld for the purpose was there frequently resisted, up to the time when it was abolished by Edward the Confessor.[45]

General descriptions have already been given of the ships of the Saxons and of the Danes, but the subject is of sufficient interest to warrant a return to it; and space may well be found here for an account of the vessel[46] which, in 1880, was dug up from beneath a sepulchral tumulus known as the King's Mound, in Lower Gokstad, on a peninsula of Southern Norway. It cannot be decided with certainty when the vessel was buried; though Mr. N. Nicolaysen, who was then President of the Antiquarian Society of Christiana, assigned the craft to the later iron age, or between a.d. 700 and 1000, and inclined to the belief that she was of the ninth century. Nor can it be determined whose ship she was, and where built. She may have formed the tomb of some leader who died while on a foray far from home. On the other hand, she may have belonged to a chief whose home was at Gokstad. Other so-called Viking ships

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to Present Volume 1 - Chapter 1 The Gokstad Ship (Plan of Oar).jpg

(Plan of Oar.)

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to Present Volume 1 - Chapter 1 The Gokstad Ship (Details of Planking).jpg

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to Present Volume 1 - Chapter 1 The Gokstad Ship (Supporters for the Awning).jpg

(Details of Planking.)
(Supporters for the Awning.)

have been discovered, but none larger or finer than the one in question; and we may, perhaps, safely take it that this Gokstad relic fairly represents the type of vessel that was ordinarily employed by the northern pirates, whether Danish or Saxon, of the days of Alfred the Great.

The dimensions of the ship are: length over all, seventy-eight feet; length on keel, sixty-six feet: beam, sixteen feet six inches, and depth, four feet. The hull is of oak, unpainted, but the stem and sternposts are decorated. The planking is laid clincher-wise over the frame timbers, and the planks are fastened to one another with iron bolts, and to the frames by lashings of cord made from the roots of trees. The seams are caulked with hair made into three-strand cord; but this, instead of being driven in, was laid in during the process of construction. The decorations of the prow, gunwale, and sternpost seem to suggest early Irish influence. On each side are sixteen strakes of planking, and, in the third strake from the top, are holes, sixteen on each beam, or thirty-two in all, for the reception of oars. The planks thus pierced are nearly twice as thick as the rest; and at the sides of the apertures there are slits to admit of the passage of the blades of the oars. The oars varied in size, the larger ones being amidships, and the smaller at the

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to Present Volume 1 - Chapter 1 Section of the Gokstad Ship.jpg

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to Present Volume 1 - Chapter 1 The Gokstad Ship (Details of Supporters for the Awning).jpg

(Details of Supporters for the Awning.)

extremities. When not in use, the rowlocks or ports could be stopped by means of ingeniously constructed wooden shutters. The vessel is double-ended, with great sharpness of build and fine sheer: and amidships the bottom is flattened. The rudder is in effect a fixed paddle, pivoted near the stern on the starbord side. The ship carried at least three small boats, was fitted with a single mast, and, as she must have needed two men at each of the oars, which are heavy, had sixty-four rowers, besides officers and, probably, fighting men. The shields ranged round the ship are circular, and are painted alternately black and yellow. There is a wooden framework, over which an awning seems to have been stretched at night, and there is a flooring, but no deck; and this last fact suggests that the Gokstad ship was not of the largest size known to the period, for some of her contemporaries were certainly decked. Unfortunately, no arms were found with the ship, the tumulus having evidently been already rifled for valuables; but a large copper caldron, a tub of pine staves, and the chief's skeleton, that of a man six feet three inches in height, were discovered, together with many other remains.


(Carving on Oar.)

  1. 'De Bell. Civ.,' i. 54.
  2. Fragments of his 'Periplus', ed. Arwedson.
  3. 'Cæsar, 'De Bell. Gall.,' iii. 21; iv. 20.
  4. 'Pharsal.,' iv.
  5. 'De Bell. Gall.,' iii. 13.
  6. An example of "nothing new under the sun." Chain cables for ships of war were again adopted in the nineteenth century, after hempen cables had served for upwards of a thousand years.
  7. 'De Bell. Gall.,' iii. 14.
  8. 'Lives of the British Admirals,' edit. of 1817, ch. i.
  9. 'Mare Claus.,' ii. 2.
  10. 'De Bell. Gall.,' iv. 18.
  11. Flav. Veg. 'De Re Mil.,' iv. 37.
  12. Eighty transports conveyed two legions. 'De Bell. Gall.,' iv. 22.
  13. As Polynæus says.
  14. Hor. 'Carm.,' i. 35.
  15. Tacit., 'Ann.,' ii.
  16. 'Hist. Britan.,' iv. 12.
  17. 'Mare Claus.,' ii. 6, 7.
  18. Elton's 'Origins of English History,' xii.; Kemble's 'Saxons'; Freeman's 'Norman Conquest.'
  19. Chronicle printed in Savile's 'Scriptores post Bedam,' and in 'Monum. Hist. Brit.'
  20. 'Mémoires des Belles Lettres,' Stockholm, 1783; Mems. of Roy. Soc. of Copenhagen,' viii.; Charnock's 'Mar. Architecture.' But see more detailed account, at end of chapter, of the Gokstad boat.
  21. Applied by Mr. Dallaway in 'Archæologia,' xxi. 81.
  22. Some ships of this period are called "ceols" (keels), others "hulks," others "long ships," and still others "æses." It seems impossible to say exactly what each was.
  23. Will. of Malmesbury, i. 5; and Alcuin.
  24. Will. of Malmesbury, ii. 4; Henry of Hunt., v.; Ethelward, iv. 3; Sax. Chron.
  25. Henry of Hunt. says "forty oars or more."
  26. Henry of Hunt., v.; Will. of Malmesbury, ii. 4, etc.
  27. Will. of Malmesbury, ii. 6; Roger Hoveden.
  28. Flor. of Winch.; Roger Hoveden; Bromton.
  29. 'Mare Clausum,' ii. 12; Will. of Malmesbury, ii. Kemble considers it a forgery: 'Cod. Dipl. Æv. Sax.' ii. 404. The wording, translated front the Latin, runs: "Edgar, King of England, and of all the Kings of the Islands, and of the Ocean lying around Britain, and of all the Nations included within the circuit thereof, Supreme Lord and Governor," etc. It is also found in 'Patent Rolls,' I Edw. IV., m. 23.
  30. Sax. Chron. 395.
  31. Hoveden, 244.
  32. Bromton, 870.
  33. Matt. of West., 192.
  34. Sax. Chron., anno 981.
  35. Sax. Chron., anno 991; Will. of Malmesbury, ii. 10. See especially Webb's 'Treatise on Danegeld,' 1756.
  36. Later, apparently, twelvepence, Church property being excepted.
  37. 'Heims Kringla,' ii. 125.
  38. Said to have been embroidered in one night by three of Sweyn's sisters.
  39. Sax. Chron., 420 (ed. Ingram).
  40. 'Anct. Laws and Instits. of Eng.,' ii. 2, and v. 27.
  41. The dues of Sandwich were granted by Canute to Christ Church, Canterbury.
  42. For other rules, see 'Anct. Laws and Instits. of Eng.,' p. 127; and Bromton, 897.
  43. Domesday, i. 3. Dover and Sandwich each furnished the king with twenty ships for fifteen days once a year, each vessel carrying twenty-one men. Probably other ports, notably these later known as Cinque Ports, had similar obligations.
  44. There are numerous examples, some very curious, in Domesday.
  45. Sax. Chron., p. 445 (ed. Ingram). It was afterwards revived. See 'Anct. Laws and Instits. of Eng.,' pp. 217, 224, 228.
  46. The particulars are summarised from a paper on 'The Viking Ship,' by John S. White, in Scribner’s Magazine, Nov. 1887. To Messrs. Scribner I am indebted for permission to reproduce the accompanying illustrations.