The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to the Present/Volume 1/Chapter 6

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H. W. Wilson.

Effect of the conquest on navigation—Voyage of Saewulf to Palestine—Encounter with the Saracens—His route home—Depredations of the Orkney men—English pirates in the Mediterranean—Rognvald of Orkney's voyage—Battle with the Saracen cogs—Manner of boarding—Adelard—The Crusades—Voyages to the north—Scotland.

THE invasion and conquest of England by the Normans must have strengthened the connection between England and the continent, and so have promoted trade and navigation. In 1052 just before the conquest, the Cinque Ports are noted as possessing many ships, but English craft do not as yet appear to have ventured outside the Bay of Biscay to the south, whilst navigation to the north was, it is probable, mainly in the hands of Scandinavians. In 1095 is a curious notice of joint ownership of ships, when we hear that Godric, who later became a saint, a native of Walpole, in Norfolk, held one-half of one ship and quarter of another. The almost absolute silence of contemporary authorities on the subject of seafaring during the Norman period, is at least remarkable, though it does not by my means prove that there were no voyages. Early in the twelfth century the Scots annalists mention the present of an Arab horse and Turkish armour, as given by King Alexander to St. Andrews. This would point to intercourse with the Mediterranean countries.

In the year 1102 one Saewulf, a merchant who afterwards became a monk at Malmesbury, pilgrimaged to the Holy Land. As usual, he seems to have gone overland to Italy, whence he sailed to the Ionian Isles, and there disembarking, travelled on foot to Negropont. After this he took ship and sailed by Tinos, Syros, Mykonos, Naxia, Karos, Amorgos, Samos, Scio, Mitylene, Patmos, Cnidus, and Cyprus to Joppa, where he found a great fleet of ships assembled, bringing pilgrims. A violent storm arose and his ship was wrecked, but he had escaped by going ashore before the gale reached its height.[1] On his return he embarked at Joppa, but did not dare to venture out to the open sea for fear of Saracens; a statement which clearly indicates that navigators had begun to sail direct for their destination instead of deviously following the outline of the coast. Coasting along near Acre, his ship, in company with others, encountered a fleet of twenty-six Saracen vessels, which were conveying an army to "Babylonia." The Saracens surrounded the pilgrims, and two of the Christian ships fled. "But our men," says Saewulf, "ready to meet death in the cause of Christ, took their arms when the foe was a bow-shot off, and stationed themselves as quickly as might be on the forecastle of our ship—for our dromon carried two hundred men-at-arms." For an hour the enemy debated whether to attack, and then, noting the bold face of the pilgrims, hauled off. Three of his ships were taken afterwards by certain Joppa Christians. Thence Saewulf sailed along Syria to Cyprus and Little Antioch, being hereabouts ofttimes assailed by pirates, who were beaten off. Then he went by Patras, Rhodes, Stromlo (Stampali), Samos, Scio, Smyrna, Mitylene, Tenis (Tenedos), and Gallipolis to Raclea (Heraclea, now Eregli, on the Sea of Marmora), where his narrative abruptly ends.[2]

The Orkneymen in the Norman period caused some trouble by their depredations on the coast. In 1075, as the Saxon Chronicle tells us, a large fleet under Hakon of Norway came to plunder, but retired incontinently on hearing something of William's administration. In the days of Stephen an Orkney fleet pillaged Aberdeen, Hartlepool, Whitby, Pilawick, and Langton. On the other hand, the English had themselves taken to playing pirate in the Mediterranean. In 1102 one Hardine, an Englishman,[3] was with a fleet of two hundred ships which put into Joppa, and in 1105 an English pirate named Godric sails boldly into the same port, with King Baldwin of Jerusalem. The Saracens off the port, with "20 gallies and 13 shippes," endeavoured to surround them, but "by God's help the billows of the sea swelling up and raging against them, and the king's ship gliding and passing through the waves with an easy and nimble course, arrived suddenly in the harbour of Joppa."[4] A few years later a fleet of English, Danish, and Flemish ships arrived. The crusading warfare with the Saracens was familiarising our navigators with the waters of the Mediterranean.

In 1150 the Orkneyingers' Saga tells us of a great expedition made by Earl Rognvald of Orkney to the Mediterranean and Palestine. The expedition started first from Bergen, and then picked up a number of Orkney ships, sailing rather late in the summer with fifteen vessels in all. They voyaged by Scotland, Northumberland, England, and France, and came without further incident to Nerbon (probably Bilbao). There they were entertained by Queen Ermingerd, whose husband was dead; the earl took her hand and set her on his knee, as she poured out wine for him, and her folk wished him to marry her, but he would not till he had done his voyage. So he sailed west to Galicialand, in the winter before Yule, and meant to tarry there for Yuletide. And in that place was the castle of a stranger lord, which the townsmen besought him to take. This he presently assailed, heaping wood round the walls and kindling it. Then the walls of the castle yielded before the fire, and Rognvald sent for water to cool the rubble, and they cooled it and rushed in and took the castle. After this they departed from Galicialand and held on west, harrying the heathen who dwelt thereabouts. And when off Spain a great storm smote them and they lay three days at anchor, so that they shipped much water and all but lost their ships.

Anon they hoisted sail and beat out to Njörfa Sound (Gut of Gibraltar) with a cross wind, and sailed through Njörfa Sound, when the weather mended; but six ships parted company from the earl and sailed to Marseilles. Then they came to the south of Sarkland, and near Sardinia, yet they knew not that they were near land. The weather was calm, and the sea smooth, but mists hung over it though the nights were light, so that they saw scarcely at all from their ships. Now it came to pass that one morning the mist lifted, and they stood up and looked eagerly, and then saw two small islets narrow and steep; and looking again one islet had gone. Then said the earl: "Needs must these be ships which they call dromons; they are big as islands to look upon." And then he called together the bishop and his captains, and said: "I call you together for this: see ye any chance that we may win victory over those of the dromon?" And the bishop answered: "A dromon is hard to grapple with a longship; and they can pour brimstone and burning pitch under your feet and over your heads." Then said a captain, Erling: "There will be little hope in rowing against them. Yet somehow it seemeth to me that should we run under the dromon: in this way her bolts will pass over us, if we hug her very close." And the earl said: "That is spoken like a man. Now will we make ready and row against them. And if they are Christians, then will we make peace with them; but if they are heathens, then Almighty God will yield us this mercy that we shall win the victory over them." Then the men got out their arms and heightened the bulwarks, and rowed briskly up to the enemy; and it seemed to them that those on the dromon dared them to come on with shoutings and hailings.

Earl Rognvald laid his ship aft alongside the dromon, and Erling, too, laid his aft. John and Astak laid their ships forward on either board, and the others were also on either board; and the sides of the dromon stood up so high that they could not reach up, and pitch and brimstone were poured upon them, but the weight of weapons fell beyond them in the sea. And as their onslaught prospered not, the bishop, with two others, pushed off and with bowmen drove the dromon's men to cover. Then Rognvald shouted to his men to hew asunder the broadside of the dromon; and above Erling's ship hung the great anchor of the dromon, and the stock pointed downwards. Then was Audun the Red lifted up on the anchor stock, and others he helped up to him, till they stood thick on the stock, and hewed till they could enter the dromon. And the earl and his men boarded by the lower hold, and Erling and his by the upper; and there were many Saracens and blackamoors on hoard, so that it was an exceeding hard fight. Then they slew much folk and got much goods, and took a man taller and fairer than the rest, and other captives; and after the battle they feasted, and stripped the dromon and set her on fire. Then it was as if molten metal did flow from her, and they knew that she had carried hidden silver and gold.

Thence they sailed under Sarkland to a coast town, and made truce with the townsmen, and sold their prisoners; hut the tall man none would buy, wherefore the earl set him free. Then he rode up the country, bidding Rognvald godspeed; but Rognvald fared to Crete in foul weather, and after whiles a fair wind came for them to go to Acreburg, and they sailed thither, and fared to the Jordan, and came back: and after that they sailed for Micklegarth (Constantinople), and they took great pains with their sailing and came with great pomp. Menelaus was emperor of Micklegarth, and gave them much goods. They stayed there the winter; then Rognvald departed home, by Bulgarialand and Dyrrachburg (Durazzo), and Poule (Apulia) and Rome, to Norway.[5] In the desperate fighting of this voyage we seem, as has been justly remarked, to have a foretaste of the exploits of Drake and Greville.

About this time, or a few years earlier, Adelard, or Acthelhard of Bath, travelled or voyaged round Spain, North Africa, Greece, and Asia Minor. Little or nothing is known about him or his adventures.[6] Now too we begin to find evidence of constant voyages and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, though few details are given, and we have little beyond the bare record. Thus in 1128, Hakluyt tells us that William, an Englishman, a canon regular of Jerusalem, was made Archbishop of Tyre.[7] About 1143, Robertus Ketenensis travelled to Dalmatia, Greece, and Asia. A little later the Crusades began to stimulate the development of English shipping, as the knights and their followers required generally to be conveyed by sea to the Holy Land. At the same time the Norman contempt for trade was dying out, and voyages were being made from Bristowe or Bristol, to Iceland and Norway.[8] From Grimsby chapmen sailed to the Orkneys,[9] Norway, Scotland, and the Südereyar (Hebrides). Berwick-on-Tweed has numerous ships, and one Canute of that town, on a ship of his being captured by the east of Orkney, hired fifteen vessels, gave chase, and recaptured her.[10] So, too, in Scotland statutes appear granting certain privileges to merchants who are trading abroad, and English fishermen begin to cross the Firth of Forth.[11] English traders are found resident at Montpelier,[12] and a treaty between Barbarossa and Henry II. concerning merchants and merchandise, testifies to the growing intercourse between England and Germany.[13] At the same time the defective geographical knowledge of Giraldus Cambrensis, who flourished towards the close of the twelfth century, proves that the writers and chroniclers were ignorant of the results of these voyages.

  1. Of thirty ships, all but seven were wrecked.
  2. Wright, T., 'Early Travels in Palestine' (London, 1847), pp. xxi., 31-50.
  3. Hakluyt, B. L. ii. 15.
  4. Ib., ii. 12.
  5. Dasent, op. cit. 163. I have abbreviated the original, striving to retain the archaism of style.
  6. Dict. Nat. Biogr., 'Adelard of Bath.'
  7. Hakluyt, ii. 16.
  8. Will. Malmesbury, 'De Gest. Pont.,' 161.
  9. Orkneyingar Saga, 97, 98.
  10. Torfæus Arcades, i. 32.
  11. Macpherson, 'Annals of Commerce,' i. 324.
  12. Macpherson, 335, supposes that they did not come there by sea. I do not understand why not.
  13. Hakluyt i. 128, 129.