The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to the Present/Volume 1/Chapter 12

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



H. W. Wilson.

Trade with Spain—Pirates—Voyages to the Baltic—Relations with Prussia—Voyages to the Mediterranean—Trade with the North—Voyages to Iceland—Depredations of the English there—English ships forbidden to visit Iceland—Further depredations—‘Libel of English Policie’—Search for O’Brazil—English Consul at Pisa.

DURING the fifteenth century, on the eve of the great Spanish and Portuguese discoveries, or indeed whilst these were actually being made, the records of English voyages are provokingly slight. From the allusions in the ‘Libel of English Policie,’ we know that there must have been considerable trade with Spain and Portugal; but our seas appear to have been very insecure till Henry VII. came to the throne. The Paston Letters contain more than one allusion to pirates, who landed and swept the vicinity of the coasts of valuables and kidnapped men. Under Henry VI. there existed an organised band of pirates who called themselves “Rovers of the Sea.” London and Norwich even had to defend themselves against such attacks by booms and chains. Ships sailed in large companies to protect one another, and the whole convoy was usually under one selected captain. So great were the English losses that an Act was passed in Henry VI.’s reign directed expressly against the neutrals who were stealing the English trade.

Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth-century voyages to Norway and the Baltic appear to have been common.[1] In 1361 the English merchants had factories at the now strangely decayed town of Wisby in the island of Gotland. In 1388 there was a treaty of reciprocity with the Grand Master of Prussia, whose territories then lay between Danzig and Memel.[2] There is in the treaty mention of English ships at Danzig and of Prussian ships at Lynn. Both sides seem to have plundered one another freely, and hence the trouble. At the same time there is mention of negotiations with the Hanse Towns. In 1393 three Lynn ships of large size were allowed to aid Margaret of Denmark against the Hanse Towns. It does not, then, surprise us to discover in 1399, that the English merchants complain of bad treatment on the part of Prussia in the Hanse Towns, Lübcek, Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, and Greifswald, where pirates plundered them right and left. In 1394 Bergen in Norway was burnt by freebooters, and twenty-one houses, valued at £146, belonging to merchants of Lynn, were destroyed. In 1401 there were more complaints of Prussia, against ships of Lynn,[3] and counter-charges on the part of the English king for the seizure of English ships by Prussia. Acts of piracy were not, however, repressed, and in 1403 there are the old complaints again, settled by a fresh treaty of reciprocity and amity between England and Prussia. In 1408 we find that the English settlement at Bergen is important enough to have a governor of its own, who resides there for the direction of the English trade to Scandinavia. In 1409 the Hanse Towns and Henry IV. exchanged sums of money for damage done by pirates on either side, and piracy appears to have somewhat abated. William Waldron, Lord Mayor of London in 1412 and 1422, ships £24,000 worth of cargo to the Mediterranean in 1412, which was promptly seized by the jealous Genoese. In 1417 patent was issued granting annuities to the masters or owners of large ships. Some years later is a treaty of reciprocity between Scotland and Norway. In 1429 the King of Denmark forbade English merchants to sail to Finmark, or indeed to any place but Bergen.

In 1446 one Gibson of Glasgow is mentioned as trading to Polaud, France, and Holland, in pickled salmon. In 1449 John Taverner of Hull built a very large merchant ship, and was graciously permitted to sail with her to Italy for trading purposes. Now, too, Canyng, Mayor of Bristol, was sending ships to Danzig, Iceland, and Finmark, in spite of the Danish prohibition. In 1467 there was a treaty of reciprocity with Denmark. A large passenger trade was also springing up with Spain; and in 1445 we find ships which could contain two hundred passengers sailing in summer for Spain, with pilgrims who wished to visit the shrine of Compostella.

During the fifteenth century that intercourse between England and Iceland, which we have noted as existing in the fourteenth century, continued and developed. Thus we know from the Icelandic annals that in 1407 news reached the Icelanders of the murder of the Archbishop of York. In 1412 we hear that a fishing vessel arrived from England at Dyrholm Isle, and that five men came ashore from her, as she was short of provisions, and wintered in the island. Next year came an English merchant in a vessel freighted with waves, which he was, by the King of Norway’s leave, to be allowed to land without toll. Thirty Eglish “fish doggers” also arrived, whilst it is noted, seemingly as strange, that “a ship came safe and sound from Norway to Iceland.” Already the English adventurers were taking the Viking Norseman’s place in the northern seas. The English fishermen, we read, seized sheep and were disorderly. In 1414 there were five English ships, apparently all laden with goods; the annals notice in the course of this year the destruction of the “English yard” at Bergen by fire. In 1416 there were six English vessels, one of which conveyed home fifty lasts of stockfish and much burnt silver. In 1419 twenty-five English ships were wrecked round the coast on Maundy Thursday, when there was a heavy gale. All the men were lost, but the goods were cast on shore. In this same year, Thorleif Arnisson sailed from Iceland to Denmark to complain to the Danish king of the harm done by the English, who, it appeared, ill-treated the Icelanders, and were guilty of rapine and manslaughter.[4] The King of Denmark had already complained to Henry V., who in 1415 had ordered that during this year no subject of his should visit the coasts of the islands belonging to Denmark and Norway, least of all Iceland, for the purpose of trading and fishing, otherwise than according to ancient custom.[5] The notice was sent to Lynn, Scarborough, Whitby, Hull, and other places, but it does not seem to have had much effect. It has been conjectured that the English were ordered only to refrain from fishing inshore. Thorlief Arnisson on his way to Denmark was attacked by an English pirate, but took refuge at the Faröes, and finally came safely to his destination. In 1420, too, English ships, under John Marris and Rawlin Tirrington, were at Vestmannäyjar in Iceland, and stole nine lasts of the king's stockfish. About the same time we hear of ten English clerks or merchants, by name, who traded with Iceland, and dwelt there through the winter. So also the English crews landed, killed a Danish officer, and robbed and plundered. In 1424 they carried off six more lasts of dried fish, and had actually entrenched bases on the detached islets of the coast. In 1425 they carried off Hans Paulsson and one Balthazar, besides despoiling the cloisters of Helgafell. In 1430 the Icelandic annals end, but in 1436 the Bishop of Iceland is licensed to engage John May with his ship Katherine to sail to Iceland; and in the same year the name of a London stockfish dealer is well known to the Icelanders. In 1440 two ships are sent by the king laden with goods, as the Icelanders had neither wine nor salt in the country. In 1450 a treaty between England and Denmark prohibits Englishmen from trading to Iceland; but Thomas Canyng, Mayor of Bristol, is exempted, because he has done the Icelanders great service. He was allowed to send out two ships to load with fish. In 1445 two men of Lynn are punished for kidnapping a boy in Iceland. And, in 1478, Robert Alcock, of Hull, was permitted to send a ship, which was to bring back fish or other goods.[6] The 'Libel of English Policie,' devotes several lines to the "commodious stockfish of Iceland," adding that —

"Out of Bristowe and costes many one Men have practised by nedle and by stone, Thider wardes within a little while Within twelve yers and without perill, Gon and come, as men were wont of old, Of Scarborough unto the costes cold. And nowe so fele shippes this yeere there ware That moch losse for unfreight they bare."[7]

Again, in his letters, Columbus writes: "I sailed (in February, 1477) a hundred leagues beyond the island of Tile, the southern part of which is not as some will have it 63° but 73° from the equinoctial line. It lies much more to the west than the western meridian of Ptolemy. This island is as large as England, and the English, especially those of Bristol, go there with their merchandise. At the time that I was there the sea was not frozen."[8] His statement that the sea was not frozen is corroborated by the Icelandic annals, and his Tile must have been Iceland or "Thule." His testimony to the activity of the Bristol traders is interesting. On July 15, 1480, Thomas Lloyd sailed from the port of Bristol, with "ships of 80 tons burden" belonging to John Say. His object was to discover the mysterious island of Brasylle or O'Brazil, which was reported to lie out in the Atlantic—to the west of Ireland. His voyage lasted nine months, but it was fruitless.[9] But all these early voyages want a vates sacer. The last indication of early travel with which our record fitly closes, comes from the other extreme of Europe, where Strozzi was in 1485 appointed English consul at Pisa for the Mediterranean, and where a treaty of reciprocity was concluded with Florence.[10]


  1. From the number of letters, treaties, etc., in Rymer’s ‘Fœdera’ (q.v. for these years), the volume of trade to the Baltic must have been considerable.
  2. ‘Fœdera,’ vii. 599.
  3. Ib., viii. 203.
  4. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, xlix. 404 ff.
  5. Rymer, ‘Fœdera,’ ix. 322.
  6. Icelandic Sagas, Chronicles and Rolls Series, iv. 421 ff.; and De Costa, 'Inventio Fortunata,' p. 11-13.
  7. Hakluyt, B. L. i. 201.
  8. Major, 'Zeni,' xviii.
  9. Harrisse, 'Discovery of North America', 659.
  10. A few events which rightly belong to the latter part of this period are, for the sake of convenience, dealt with in Chap. XVI.