The Naval History Blog: No. 3

Why Does Naval History Matter?

From the early sixteenth-century to the middle of the twentieth; England, then Great Britain, became a superpower.[1]  Lambert explains “. . . one critical advantage: naval power”.[2] Contemporary writers put forward two arguments about British Naval history; the first is that Britain and especially its Navy founded the modern global system;[3] the second is the powerful cultural aspect ” . . . of what binds and unites the nation “.[4]  Naval history matters and it belongs to everyone.

To understand Britain one has to understand its relation to the Navy and by extension, its maritime heritage.  A distinguished overseas commentator [5] has described British history as “. . . so pelagic . . . you can stand on the national deck and breathe in this bracing, spumey past”.[6]  What a delightful and insightful comment – it conjures up Vikings, Normans, Drake, Nelson, fish and chips, sandcastles, damp foggy days along the seashore and “salt-caked smoke stack”.[7]  The sea brings us our goods, our weather, our friends, our recreation and for many centuries it brought our invaders.[8]  Rodger notes that English governments were overthrown nine times after the Norman Conquest and there were at least seven other successful landings of major forces in England and two others in Scotland, the last of these in 1708.  This in spite of the sea: “Which serves it in the office of a wall”.[9]  On both counts: civil and cultural, the sea and the navy have shaped us; they have defined our politics and our passions; naval history matters!

In 1694 Lord Halifax stated: “The first article of an Englishman’s political creed must be, that he believeth in the sea”.[10] Alfred Mahan echoed this on a global scale when he asserted that the history of Western civilisation has been the history of sea power.[11]  Mahan was a significant influence on nation states in the early twentieth-century and naval history is critical to an understanding of his, then, formidable reach. For centuries sea power and naval affairs mattered a great deal in English political life, ironically however, “. . . the shipping which men discussed in parliament was not exactly the same as the shipping which actually put to sea”.[12] Lambert discusses how by 1815 naval dominance became as much an Englishman’s birthright as freedom from slavery, although neither claim had any basis in fact.[13]  So naval history matters; it helps us unpack myths such as sea power, naval power, the Royal Navy or the Jack Tar.

Hill writes of the Ironclad Age as producing “idolized Jack Tars” between 1855 and 1905.[14]   History and myth are inextricably intertwined – most Britons would say the last invasion of the islands was 1066.[15]  Many would say that Drake led the navy at the Armada, many would be shocked if they read that navies might be a maritime protection racket[16].  Heart of Oak is a popular song, certainly at the Last Night of the Proms, but we have “To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves”.[17]  Where does impressment fit into that scenario? Naval affairs both matter and need explaining.

Although “I would say that wouldn’t I?”, more celebrated writers feel naval history matters.[18]  Harding  discusses the role that navies had in the global balance of power and also how they affected, if not to a large part accelerated, globalisation by ensuring a secure means of communication.[19]  Cain and Hopkins discuss how Britain could not control continental Europe and so turned her balance of advantage in blue water interests to such good effect that those who supported it (Navy and the City in particular) “. . . became defenders of the national interest and not merely advocates of sectional advantage”.[20]  They produce data that shows Europe’s share of Britain’s total overseas trade dropped from 74% in 1713 -17 to 33% by 1803-07.  Black unequivocally states “Sea power, however, made the empire what it was”.[21]  The political case is, I suggest, well made by these four authors, writing in what is a congested yet relatively uncontested space.

The cultural aspect is less congested but more contested.[22]  Black refers to it; the “seaborne” character and the “interdependent” character who became more important with time.  Harding discusses the continuing interest of the social history of life in the Royal Navy.[23]  He refers to Gilray’s presentation of sailors and talks of how a richer picture is emerging of the societies and circumstance that surrounded them. Interestingly he states that in the 21st century it will be the shrinking of navies that will be studied but, a very big but, the “legacy of the naval dimension in national culture remains”.[24] Again a pointer to and a reason for the study of naval history.

O’Hara notes that before 1914 few Britons would have thought of the nation, ‘national character’ or the past without imagining it against a grey-green background.[25]  In 1915 it would not in any sense have seemed curious to have a seven year-old wish to go to sea “On the Iron Duke with Jellicoe” nor indeed to want to sink the warships of the Huns.[26]  Similarly “. . . we knitted shapeless gloves from string for men in mine-sweepers”.[[27]]  Life has changed today but we do have an increasing interest in and demand for history, especially in the sense of heritage.   It’s this broader type of history, particularly family history and Remembrance which helps to make naval history alive today and not just for academics.  Ask the 1.4 million who visited the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth in 2015; ask the 350 or so volunteers who meet and greet them; ask the permanent staff – to all of these and so many more – naval history matters.[28]




[1] Andrew Lambert, Admirals (London: Faber & Faber, 2008), xv

[2] Lambert, Admirals, xv

[3] Arthur Herman, To Rule the Waves (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998), xvii

[4] John Peck, Maritime Fiction. Sailors and the Sea in British and American Novels, 1719-1917 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), 1

[5] Raymond Seitz, American Ambassador to the UK 1991 – 1994

[6] Raymond Seitz, Over Here (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1998), 180

[7] John Masefield, Cargoes in Salt-water Ballads (London: Grant Richards, 1902)

[8] Nicholas Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 429

[9] William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act II, Scene 1 spoken by John of Gaunt.  Churchill used this in House of Commons “We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be”, 4th June 1940

[10] Lord Halifax 1694.  In many references – e.g. Arthur Bryant in address given at Chatham House in 1946 “Factors underlying British Foreign Policy

[11] Alfred Mahan, The influence of sea power on history 1660 – 1783 (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1890)

[12] Nicholas Rodger, Queen Elizabeth and the Myth of English Sea Power (Royal Historical Society, 2004)

[13] Andrew Lambert, The Construction of Naval History 1815–1914 (The Mariner’s Mirror, 97:1), 219. Lambert (220) also notes that national culture adopted the sea.

[14] Richard Hill, War at Sea in the Ironclad Age (London: Cassell, 2006), 26

[15] Ian Lavender (aka Private Pike, Dad’s Army) Home Front Heroes, More4, 6 Nov 2016 “In 1940 Britain hadn’t been invaded for nearly a 1000 years”.

[16] Richard Harding, Navies and Societies: Widening the Research Agenda in Modern Naval History: Debates & Prospects (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 110

[17] Heart of Oak (1760) is the official march of the Royal Navy. The music of “Heart of Oak” was composed by William Boyce, and the words were written by the 18th-century English actor David Garrick.

[18] Another cultural and political reference.

[19] Harding, Navies and Societies, 109

[20] P. J. Cain & A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism: 1688 – 2000 (Harlow: Pearson, 2002), 89

[21] Jeremy Black, The British Seaborne Empire (London: Yale University Press, 2004), x

[22] Glen O’Hara ‘The Sea is Swinging Into View’: Modern British Maritime History in a Globalised World  (English Historical Review  Vol.  CXXIV No.  510). This article offers an excellent summary of the political and the cultural aspects of maritime/naval history.

[[23]] Harding, Navies and Societies, 121

[24] Harding,Navies and Societies, 128

[25]] 0′ Hara, Sea Swinging, 1132

[26] The Royal Navy: An ABC for Little Britons (Royal Navy, 1915)

[27] John Betjeman, Summoned by Bells (London: John Murray,1960), 45

[28] Figures kindly provided by Alice Roberts-Pratt and Dave Hartley of the National Museum of the Royal Navy. Visitor figures (1,353,131 in 2015 (Historic Dockyard and Mary Rose) – verified by Association of Leading Visitor Attractions – Volunteer figures are: NMRN Front of House (includes Victory, Museum and M33) – 40; other Museum – 80; Mary Rose – 100; HMS Warrior 1860 – 80, Boathouse 4 – 45).  Permanent staff number about 375.  Volunteer and staff numbers vary seasonally.

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