The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to the Present/Volume 1/Chapter 4

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Ships of the eleventh century—The Long Serpent—Harold's fleet—Reasons for its failure to oppose William I.—The Normans—William I. as pirate—His claims to the English crown—His preparations—His ships—The Mora—The Danegeld revived—William as conqueror—The admiral's court—The law of wrecks—Ships of the twelfth century—Loss of the White Ship—Size of ancient vessels probably underrated—Rarity of trustworthy representations of them—M. Jal's remarks.

THE Anglo-Saxon ships of the period of the Norman conquest did not, in all probability, differ materially from those of a somewhat earlier date, save in that they were larger. The warships can scarcely have been very different from those of the contemporary Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians, with whom the Anglo-Saxons of the first half of the eleventh century came into such frequent and unpleasant contact. The dimensions of the Gokstad ship have been given. In the eleventh century, they were largely exceeded. Even Olaf Tryggvesson, who died or disappeared about the year 1000, had a ship, the Long Sepent, measuring no less than 117 feet in length, and carrying 600 men. Such a vessel[1] was, of course, decked; and the usual division of the hull was into five cabins or compartments. The foremost one was the "lokit," in which, in a royal vessel, the king's standard-bearers were quartered. Next came the "sax," probably a general store-room, and the "krap-room," where sails and tackle were kept. Abaft this was the "fore-room," containing the arms-chest, and forming the living-room of the warriors; and astern of all was the "lofting" or great cabin, which was devoted to the commander. In port, at night, the deck was covered with a "tilt" or ridge-pole with pillars and rafters, supporting a cloth, the ends of which seem to have been fastened with cords to the ship's side at a level with the deck. Beneath this the rowers may have slept.

The build of merchantmen was much like that of men-of-war, except that the latter had more length in proportion to beam. A saga tells how at Nidaros[2] in 1199, King Sverre Sigurdsson seized some trading ships, hewed them in two transversely, and lengthened out their keels and sides that they might be used as war vessels. But it may well be that Harold never possessed any ships as large as the Long Serpent, and that most of his vessels closely resembled the Gokstad relic.

There is absolutely no reason to doubt that Harold had a

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to Present Volume 1 - Chapter 4 -NORMAN WAR VESSEL OF THE ELEVENTH CENTURY.jpg

(As restored by M. A. Jal, after the indications in the Bayeux Tapestry, the "Roman de Rou" and the "Roman de Brut.")

considerable fleet. Indeed, the Saxon Chronicle expressly says that in the spring of 1066 the largest fleet and army ever seen in England were assembled at Sandwich to resist the invasion threatened by William of Normandy. It is not clear that any squadron of importance was detached from Sandwich against Tostig and Harold Hardrada, and therefore it becomes interesting to inquire why William, when he came, was not opposed at sea.

The explanation in the Saxon Chronicle[3] is a little vague and unsatisfactory. It is to the effect that the crews refused to serve after September 8th, the feast of the nativity of the Virgin, and that, their provisions being gone, "no man could keep them there any longer." The men went to their homes, and the ships were sent up to London, many being lost on the passage. It is just possible that Edward's abolition of the Danegeld or Heregeld—re-established later, but not under Harold—may have had an influence, concerning which we know nothing definite, upon the condition of the English fleet at the moment of the Norman invasion; but it is still more likely that the king's departure from Kent to put down the troubles in Yorkshire, coupled with the fact that the seamen had been on continuous service for the unusually long period of five or six months, accounts for everything. They were not prepared nor accustomed to remain from home for so great a time; the harvest may have been spoiling in the fields, and, what more natural than that, when the royal eye was withdrawn from the fleet, the men should quit it?

The loss, no matter the explanation of it, of the command of the Channel, was very dangerous, as it must always be, to England; but it cannot be shown, either that Harold underrated the importance of having a fleet, or that he did not do all that lay in his power to hold his fleet together, while he was in the south. That Harold fought two great battles ashore, one near York and the other near Hastings, within three weeks, having been wounded in the first, and having, between the first and the second, crossed with a large army the rugged and almost roadless England of that day, is a proof, not only of extraordinary energy, but also of the terrible nature of the difficulties with which this gallant prince was harassed. Even had he, in his brief and stormy reign, failed to do half what he did, he could scarcely have been reproached.

The new conquerors of England were, with the Danes and the Saxons who had preceded them, the children of the common stock of northern pirates, assuredly the strongest stock that ever influenced the destinies of the world. But, as Professor James Rowley[4] puts it, the Normans had been advanced in civilisation some stages further than the others by a few generations of residence in the land of a more humanised people, and in the neighbourhood of settled states.

He continues: "Their marvellous efficiency in their palmy days is probably explained by their having kept their native hardiness of character—their moral muscularity, as we may call it—and their bold spirit of enterprise, unimpaired by the culture, the turn for art and taste for the finer pursuits, that they acquired by living in Gaul. Their new experience merely added intellectual keenness, deftness, and brilliancy of stroke to their resources for action; the old stimulating forces, their courage and their endurance, remained. Their ferocity had become valour, and their bodily strength the mastery of circumstances. That they owed the qualities which made their practical capacity to the good fortune that planted them on French soil, is suggested by the totally different history of their kinsfolk who had taken up their abode in other lands. The marauding bands of Norwegian pirates that had been roaming about and forming settlements along the Seine in the ninth and tenth centuries, were at last admitted to an authorised participation in the soil by an agreement that Charles the Simple made, in 912, at St. Clair, on the Epte, with their most formidable leader, Rolf the Norseman. Thus taken within the pale of continental civilisation, they rapidly profited by their advantages. They became Christians; they discarded their own and adopted the French language; they cast aside their semi-barbarous legal usages, and took those of the French cultivators of the soil, over whom they dominated; they learnt or discovered improved modes and principles of fighting; they acquired new weapons, the shield, the hauberk, the lance, and the long-bow; they became masterly horsemen; they developed an impressive style of architecture, and built churches and monasteries; they founded bishoprics; in a word, they soon furnished themselves with the whole moral, spiritual, and practical garniture of human conduct then available, with additions and improvements of their own. Their territory had increased by taking in both kindred settlements, and the lands of neighbouring peoples, till, from a vaguely described 'land of the Norsemen,' it became historic Normandy. Yet this wonderful growth was compatible with a political condition which was often not far removed from anarchy. The aristocratic class that the free-living, hot-natured pirate leaders had founded, and the unrestrained passions of the dukes, replenished from generation to generation, were ever on the watch for an opportunity to break loose from all rule, and govern themselves and the native tillers of the soil that lay beneath them, at their sole discretion. Nor did the sense of moral obligation keep pace with the other elements of progress; a connection free from the marriage tie was held no shame; bastardy brought no taint. But in spite of these defects, the Normans made themselves the foremost race in Europe."

The period of English history ending in 1066, relieved though it was by episodes of national union and conspicuous patriotic devotion, must, upon the whole, be regarded as a period of almost continuous piratical struggles for the dominion of the island. The leading prince of the day, no matter whether he was called Cymbeline, Carausius, Allectus, Æsc, Egbert, Edward the Elder, Edgar, Canute, or Harold, was, it must be feared, little better than the strongest pirate who happened at the moment to have ships in the Narrow Seas. That several of these pirates used their power beneficently, and that a few more were, in addition, great statesmen and enlightened monarchs, can scarcely be held to alter the facts. Might counted for everything: right, and the general good of the people and of the State, for little, and often for nothing at all. Until Godwin's time, even popular opinion was practically a dormant factor; and the middle classes, as well as the masses, were only so many pawns in the stirring games played by the big sea rovers. In 1066 England was conquered by pirates for the last time.

Duke William claimed the crown of England[5] by right of donation from Edward the Confessor; by election; by grant from the Pope; and by right of arms; but he was a prince who regarded the first three grounds of claim as of small importance and cogency in comparison with the fourth. Upon the strength of the first three, he gained only a relatively feeble following; nor was the indignation of his friends much stirred either by the recollection that the Norman bishops had been driven from England by the instrumentality of the family of Godwin, or by the knowledge that Harold had forgotten his oath. The great lever wherewith William induced his nobles to identify themselves with his projects was, rather, a promise of spoil;[6] for the old pirate traditions were still flourishing vigorously in the hearts of all Normans, whether bishops,[7] barons, or burghers. The Pope's consecrated Gonfanon was useful; the ring with a hair of St. Peter served its turn; but the conquest would not have been effected, nor even attempted, had not William been able to paint in glowing colours a seductive picture of booty to be taken, and place to be won. The whole adventure was essentially piratical.

The preparations for the expedition are graphically portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry.[8] "Workmen," says Wace, "were employed in all the ports, cutting of planks, framing of ships and boats, stretching of sails, and rearing of masts." Many of the craft were built, no doubt, with a view to the particular service, and no other; just as, more than seven centuries later, Napoleon's invasion flotilla was brought into being. For the most part, they were clearly not of the type of the regular sea-going fighting ships of the day, but much smaller, and of lighter scantling. A few only appear to have been of stouter character.

It is quite impossible to say how many ships were assembled. Wace gives the number at 696; Simeon of Durham, at 900; the 'Chronique de Normandie,' at 907 "great ships"; William of Jumièges, at "three thousand which carried sails"; and a contemporary manuscript, preserved in the Bodleian,[9] at 1000. William of Poitiers notes that while Agamemnon needed but 1000 vessels to conquer Troy, William required more to win the crown of England. Thierry's conclusions are that the fleet consisted of 400 capital ships, and more than a 1000 transports, carrying 60,000 troops.

This estimate gives a mean of about forty-two men per ship; but nothing like that number can be distinguished on board any of the craft figured in the Bayeux Tapestry. Even in William's flagship, the Mora, only ten are visible, although thirteen shields are to be seen ranged along the starboard gunwale, and although these and the corresponding shields on the port side may lead us to suppose that at least twenty-six fighting men were present.

How far the Tapestry should be trusted as a real, and not merely a conventional representation of the events of the expedition, is a problem excessively difficult to solve; but if it be recollected that the work of illustration was done by women; that, in all probability, none of these women were with the fleet; and that in no age have women been the most accurate and trustworthy delineators of episodes in naval history, we may perhaps safely decline to consider this interesting and remarkable piece of needlework as a very serious historical document. Yet, as regards some details, it is corroborated by outside evidence. The Bodleian manuscript already referred to, says of the Mora:—"In prora ejusdem navis fecit fieri cadem Matildes, infantulum de auro, dextro indice monstrantem Angliam et sinistra mano imprimentem cornu eburneum ori": which, being translated, is: "In the prow of the same ship the said Mathilda caused to be fashioned a golden figure of a boy, pointing with his right fore-finger towards England, and with his left hand pressing an ivory horn to his mouth." The Tapestry shows what is evidently this boy, but places the figure at the stern instead of at the prow, and puts the horn into the right hand, and a gonfanon into the left. This is exactly the kind of not entirely baseless inaccuracy which might be expected in a canvas worked on hearsay evidence by ladies personally unfamiliar with the matters to be celebrated; and

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to Present Volume 1 - The Mora. (From the Bayeux Tapestry.).jpg

(From the Bayeux Tapestry.)

it possibly affords a fair general measure of the amount of confidence that ought to be placed in the Tapestry.

In the picture of the Mora, the single mast is surmounted by a gold cross,[10] below which appears a banner of white, charged with a gold cross within a blue border. There is a single sail, the sheet of which is held by the steersman; and this sail is of vertical stripes, red, brown,[11] and red. In his right hand, over the starboard quarter, the steersman holds the clavus, which is shaped somewhat like a capital J, with a cross-piece recalling the yoke of a modern boat's rudder. Other vessels in the Tapestry have an anchor hanging at the bows; or are being pulled by rowers; or are being drawn to the water by means of ropes running through a block attached to a post; or have their single mast struck by being lowered forward; or are laden with from three to eight horses, as well as with men. The hulls of all are painted in horizontal stripes, blue, yellow, and red being the predominating colours. The horses are represented as reaching the shore by the simple process of jumping over the gunwales into the water, and then wading or swimming. The captain of the Mora was Stephen Fitz Erard, father or grandfather of the Thomas Fitz Stephen, who, in 1120, commanded the Blanche Nef, and perished with her, Prince William, and about one hundred and forty of the nobility, besides servants, on the rocks of the Ras de Carteville. Mathilda, wife of the Conqueror, for her services in providing the Mora, was given the county of Kent.[12] Fitz Erard was exempted from taxation in respect of his house at Southampton.[13]

According to some authorities, among whom Wace is to be included, William destroyed or burnt his fleet after he had effected his landing in England; but the fact is doubtful. The probability is, that if he destroyed any craft at all, he destroyed only the small temporary vessels which had been knocked together for the invasion, and which promised to be useless for other purposes; for there is no evidence that he ever underrated the value of a navy; and all that we know of him tends to prove the contrary. It is true, however, that at the beginning of his reign, he seems to have had but a small one. The greater part of the old navy of Harold had been carried off to Ireland, after that prince's death, by his sons Godwin, Magnus, and Edmund; and the comparative impunity of the various sea rovers and others who attacked the kingdom soon after the Conquest, shows that William's fleet was insignificant for the moment. It may, nevertheless, have still included all the regular warships which had taken part in the descent of 1066. But at the earliest opportunity the Conqueror largely increased it; and five years after his success, if not before, he had a respectable fighting force at sea.

It was partially supported, at least towards the conclusion of the reign, by means of a revived Danegeld, or Heregeld. In 1084 the rate was six shillings the hide of land. Under William Rufus, a Danegeld, of four shillings the hide, property of the Church not excepted, was levied for the defence of Normandy. Under Henry I., the annual Danegeld is said[14] to have been twelve pence the hide, "which was sometimes given to the tything men." Stephen at his coronation promised to remit the tax; but Selden[15] declares that it was occasionally paid in the time of Henry II., though it may be questioned whether the tax which formed a subject of dispute between Henry and Becket in 1163 was really Danegeld, in spite of the fact that in that year "Danegeld"[16] ceased to be a distinct item in the royal revenue, and made room for "donum" or "auxilium" (aid). The navy was, however, more particularly and regularly supported by the furnishing of contingents of ships and men from the ports and towns, as stipulated by their tenures. And sometimes the crown made special arrangements, as, for example, when William I.[17] exchanged a carucate of land near Lincoln for the ship of one Utchel, as recorded in 'Domesday.'

There should be no misapprehension as to William's attitude towards England after his success. Walsingham speaks of him as "rex electus": Matthew Paris and Matthew of Westminster call him "rex acclamatus"; but he was in fact a despotic conqueror, and England was his spoil and booty. He seized the estates of the conquered, and gave them to his friends; and nothing can be more convincing upon this score than the words of William of Poitiers,[18] a fighting priest, who was one of William's chaplains. "The English merchants," he says, "add to the opulence of their country, rich in its own fertility, still greater riches and more valuable treasures by importation. These imported treasures, which were considerable, both for their quantity and their quality, were either to have been hoarded up for the gratification of their avarice, or to have been dissipated in the indulgence of their luxurious inclinations. But William seized them, and bestowed part on his victorious army, part on churches and monasteries; and to the Pope and the Church of Rome he sent an incredible mass of money in gold, and many ornaments that would have been admired even at Constantinople."

Much has been made of the fact that William, after Senlac and the advance on London, was actually offered the crown by the elders of the kingdom; but it must be borne in mind that Edgar Atheling was the first choice of these elders, and that it was only after they realised that William had power to compel submission that, probably with a view to saving their possessions from total confiscation, they submitted. Nor did the country, as a whole, submit even then. The west was unconquered until 1068; the north was undominated for two years longer. While we allow William to have been a great statesman, and Norman rule to have been a wholesome tonic episode for England, we need not shut our eyes to the truth that the Conqueror took and held the conquest by the might of his sword, and without the smallest regard to the wishes of any section of the native population. In this respect, he differed from William III. who, also, in some sense, was a conqueror. William I. struck upon his own initiative, and for his own ends: William II. came over with a mandate in his pocket from the best part of the nation. After 1066, in consequence, England was merged in William I.; while, after 1688, William III. was merged in England.

There was much naval activity, as will appear in the next chapter, in the reigns of William I. and William Rufus; but few records bearing upon the subject of naval improvements, or of the civil side of maritime affairs, have reached us, either from those reigns or from the reign of Stephen.

But the reign of Henry I. is interesting as having, apparently, witnessed the first definite establishment of an Admiral's Court (Court of Admiralty) in England, and as having produced several laws regulating maritime affairs. The Admiral's Court was, no doubt, a gradual outgrowth of institutions which had existed under the Saxon kings, every admiral or superior sea-commander having, of necessity, a certain jurisdiction, in order to enable him to maintain discipline and to protect the interests of those under him. Prynne, commentating Coke, alludes to an ordinance[19] made at Ipswich, in the reign of Henry I., by the Admirals of the North and West, containing the procedure for outlawing and banishing persons attainted in the Admiral's Court of felony or trespass; and as there is no earlier mention of such a court, but only of previous ordinances, it my be concluded that the Admiral's Court, known by that name, dates from that time.

The ancient Common Law, relating to wrecks, directed that when a vessel was lost at sea, and the goods or cargo floated to land, they should belong to the king, in accordance with a harsh principle to the effect that, as Blackstone says, by the loss of the ship, all property in it passes away from the original owner. But Henry modified this, and ordained that, if any person escaped alive from the ship, it should not be deemed to be a wreck.[20]

Some judgment my be formed of the size and nature of ships of the period, from the story of the accident which has already been touched upon as having befallen several members of the royal family, in the year 1120. Henry I. had been for some time in Normandy and, in November, assembled a squadron at Barfleur to convoy him back to England. He was met by Thomas Fitz Stephen, commanding a vessel described as La Blanche Nef, who, upon the strength of his ancestor having steered William I. to England, prayed the king to go on board his ship, and make the passage in her. The White Ship had been lately built to the order of Prince William, Henry's only legitimate son, a young man of about eighteen, who had, a very short time before, married a daughter of the Count of Anjou. Henry had made other arrangements for his own passage, but bade Thomas Fitz Stephen carry over the princes and princesses. Accordingly, there went on board, Prince William, his natural brother Richard, his natural sister Mary, Countess of Perche, Richard, Earl of Chester, and his wife Lucia, niece to the king, and about a hundred and forty nobles, of whom eighteen were ladies of high rank. There was an equal number of servants, seamen, etc., or about three hundred in all. The White Ship pulled fifty oars, and Prince William, who was interested in her, induced the captain and sailors, by plying them with wine, to race the royal galley, in which Henry was.

The king's ship had already sailed when the White Ship weighed after sundown. Fitz Stephen, in hopes of gaining on the chase, kept his vessel as close in shore as possible, trusting to the bright moonlight to enable him to avoid the rocks; but he presently struck on a reef in the Ras de Catteville, and stove in the White Ship's port side. "The crowded state of the vessel," says Nicolas, "and perhaps the inebriated condition of the crew," rendered useless all efforts to get the ship into a position of safety, and she soon went down. When she first struck, the seamen got out a boat, and put Prince William and a few more into it; and these pushed off, and might have escaped, had not the prince insisted on returning to the rescue of his half-sister. As the boat neared the wreck, so many people leapt into her that she capsized, and all in her were lost. Two persons clung to the mast of the White Ship. One, cramped by the chill of the night, fell off and was drowned; and the only man who survived, to be saved next morning by fishermen from the shore, was Berauld, a butcher of Rouen.[21]

Nicolas[22] considers that the numbers said to have embarked in the White Ship on this occasion must have been exaggerated, "for it is exceedingly doubtful if any vessel of the period was capable of holding so many people." It seems unnecessary to raise such an objection. We have little definite information concerning the dimensions of the largest ships of the time, but if Olaf Tryggvesson, at the end of the tenth century, built, as the Norse chroniclers tell us, a vessel 117 feet long, there is surely no reason why Prince William, in the first quarter of the twelfth century, should not have built a ship of equal length; and such an one could have carried three hundred people without much difficulty.

We are, most of us, liable to be influenced in our estimate of the ships of remote periods by the rude and obviously inaccurate representations that have been handed down to us, especially on coins and sculptures. In those days there were no people who, after following the sea and learning what ships were like, did as artistically inclined naval officers of the nineteenth century have done over and over again. The painter, the medallist, and the sculptor were landsmen; and we are no wiser in trusting their versions of what ships were like, than we should be in trusting a modern North Sea fisherman's version of what some totally unfamiliar instrument, such as a pulsometer, or a polariscope, is like.[23]

Moreover, in those ages, all artistic representation was highly conventional. What would the Oriental artist who designed the first willow-pattern plate give us by way of a picture of a torpedo-boat destroyer? How far an ingrained instinct for the conventional treatment of things may lead the artist astray, was well shown in some of the Japanese and Chinese illustrations of events in the war between China and Japan in 1894-95. Many of the most curious of these were executed by eye-witnesses of the operations commemorated, and were obviously intended to be honest records, so far as the conventionalities permitted. Where absolute ignorance of the real nature of the object represented has co-operated with conventionalism as abject as any that ever limited a Chinaman, no result that can be very edifying to the modern eye is to be expected.

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to Present Volume 1 - Chapter 4 -MISLEADING EFFIGY OF A SHIP. (From Jal).jpg

(From Jal's 'Archéologie Navale,' 1840.)

  1. See Nicolaysen’s paper on the Viking Ship.
  2. Now Trondhjem. The ancient name is still borne by a Norwegian man-of-war.
  3. p. 463.
  4. In 'Dict. of Eng. Hist.,' p. 766.
  5. 'Chron. de Norm.,' xiii. 235; Thierry, i. 283. See also Freeman, passim.
  6. Eadmer, Hist. i. 7; Will. of Malmes. 'De Gest. Pont. Angl.,' 290.
  7. The Bishop of Bayeux contributed forty, and the Bishop of Le Mans thirty ships. Remi, priest of Fécamp, sent twenty men-at-arms in exchange for a promise of an English bishopric.
  8. Now at Bayeux, in the Hôtel de Ville.
  9. MS. 3632.
  10. Wace says, by a gilt brass vane and a lantern. The cross, or vane, is, unfortunately, cut off in the illustration.
  11. Or yellow. The colors have faded.
  12. But Odo was later made Earl of Kent. He is believed to have died 1096, at the siege of Antioch—a fine type of turbulent fighting bishop.
  13. 'Domesday,' i. 52.
  14. Anct. Laws, 228.
  15. 'Mare Claus.,' xxv.
  16. For the whole subject, see Freeman's 'Norm. Conq.,' iv., and Stubbs's 'Constit. Hist.'
  17. 'Domesday,' i. 336.
  18. Will. of Poit., 266.
  19. In the 'Black Book of the Admiralty.'
  20. Blackstone, i. 290.
  21. Sim. of Durham, 242; Bromton, 1012; Will. of Malmes. ii. 653; Ord. Vit. 867, etc.
  22. I. 101.
  23. M. Jal, writing on this subject, calls attention to the small bas-reliefs of ships cast on the gas-standards for the Paris boulevards by M. A. Muel in 1837 (see cut, next page), and to the extraordinary representations of galleys to be found in various modern paintings and sculptures of the arms of Paris: and he imagines an archæologist of some future age commenting as follows upon relics discovered in the ruins of the French capital: "The vessels which we find represented on the bases of candelabras, on the beaks of rostral columns, on shields, and on the pedestals of certain statues emblematic of towns, faithfully figure the French vessels of the early years of the nineteenth century. This is beyond all doubt. A plan of Paris for 1839 shows us the Ministry of Marine close to the place which was thus ornamented with so many ships, probably on account of the vicinity of that Ministry, and in order to commemorate the transport to France, by the French navy, of the obelisk of Luxor. Here is one proof. The 'Almanack Royal et National' of the same date informs us that in the Louvre there was a Naval Museum, that at the head of the Ministry of Marine there was a vice-admiral, that to assist this vice-admiral there was a Conseil de l'Amirauté, and, finally, that there were two painters attached to the Ministry. Here is another proof. It is impossible to suppose that, under the very noses of such authorities, artists could have made imaginary representations of ships, and the Government could have adopted such representations in prefrence to more accurate ones." As may be seen, the artist of 1837 played fast and loose as well with the wind as with the ship. His wind blows in two directions simultaneously; and the ship apparently progresses stern foremost. 'Archéologie Navale' i. 36-38.