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A Description of Elizabethan England.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Chapter XVI

Of the Navy of England

[1577, Book II., Chapter 13; 1587, Book II., Chapter 17.]

THERE is nothing that hath brought me into more admiration of the power and force of antiquity than their diligence and care had of their navies: wherein, whether I consider their speedy building, or great number of ships which some one kingdom or region possessed at one instant, it giveth me still occasion either to suspect the history, or to think that in our times we come very far behind them.…

I must needs confess therefore that the ancient vessels far exceeded ours for capacity, nevertheless if you regard the form, and the assurance from peril of the sea, and therewithal the strength and nimbleness of such as are made in our time, you shall easily find that ours are of more value than theirs: for as the greatest vessel is not always the fastest, so that of most huge capacity is not always the aptest to shift and brook the seas: as might be seen by the Great Henry, the hugest vessel that ever England framed in our times. Neither were the ships of old like unto ours in mould and manner of building above the water (for of low galleys in our seas we make small account) nor so full of ease within, since time hath engendered more skill in the wrights, and brought all things to more perfection than they had in the beginning. And now to come unto our purpose at the first intended.

The navy of England may be divided into three sorts, of which the one serveth for the wars, the other for burden, and the third for fishermen which get their living by fishing on the sea. How many of the first order are maintained within the realm it passeth my cunning to express; yet, since it may be parted into the navy royal and common fleet, I think good to speak of those that belong unto the prince, and so much the rather, for that their number is certain and well known to very many. Certainly there is no prince in Europe that hath a more beautiful or gallant sort of ships than the queen’s majesty of England at this present, and those generally are of such exceeding force that two of them, being well appointed and furnished as they ought, will not let to encounter with three or four of those of other countries, and either bowge them or put them to flight, if they may not bring them home.

Neither are the moulds of any foreign barks so conveniently made, to brook so well one sea as another lying upon the shore of any part of the continent, as those of England. And therefore the common report that strangers make of our ships amongst themselves is daily confirmed to be true, which is, that for strength, assurance, nimbleness, and swiftness of sailing, there are no vessels in the world to be compared with ours. And all these are committed to the regiment and safe custody of the admiral, who is so called (as some imagine) of the Greek word almiras, a captain on the sea; for so saith Zonaras in Basilio Macedone and Basilio Porphyriogenito, though others fetch it from ad mare, the Latin words, another sort from Amyras, the Saracen magistrate, or from some French derivation: but these things are not for this place, and therefore I pass them over. The queen’s highness hath at this present (which is the four-and-twentieth of her reign) already made and furnished, to the number of four or five-and-twenty great ships, which lie for the most part in Gillingham Road, beside three galleys, of whose particular names and furniture (so far forth as I can come by them) it shall not be amiss to make report at this time.

  • The names of so many ships belonging to her majesty as I could come by at this present.
  • The Bonadventure.
  • Elizabeth Jonas.
  • Triumph.
  • Bull.
  • Tiger.
  • Antelope.
  • Hope.
  • Lion.
  • Victory.
  • Mary Rose.
  • Foresight.
  • Swift sute.
  • White Bear.
  • Philip and Mary.
  • Aid.
  • Handmaid.
  • Dreadnought.
  • Swallow.
  • Genet.
  • Bark of Bullen.
  • Achates.
  • Falcon.
  • George.
  • Revenge.
  • It is said that as kings and princes have in the young days of the world, and long since, framed themselves to erect every year a city in some one place or other of their kingdom (and no small wonder that Sardanapalus should begin and finish two, to wit, Anchialus and Tarsus, in one day), so her grace doth yearly build one ship or other to the better defence of her frontiers from the enemy. But, as of this report I have no assured certainly, so it shall suffice to have said of so much these things; yet this I think worthy further to be added, that if they should all be driven to service at one instance (which God forbid) she should have a power by sea of about nine or ten thousand men, which were a notable company, beside the supply of other vessels appertaining to her subjects to furnish up her voyage.

    Beside these, her grace hath other in hand also, of whom hereafter, as their turns do come about, I will not let to leave some furthhr remembrance She hath likewise three notable galleys: the Speedwell, the Try Right, and the Black Galley, with the sight whereof, and the rest of the navy royal, it is incredible to say how greatly her grace is delighted: and not without great cause (I say) since by their means her coasts are kept in quiet, and sundry foreign enemies put back, which otherwise would invade us. The number of those that serve for burden with the other, whereof I have made mention already and whose use is daily seen, as occasion serveth in time of the wars, is to me utterly unknown. Yet if the report of one record be anything at all to be credited, there are one hundred and thirty-five ships that exceed five hundred ton; topmen, under one hundred and above forty, six hundred and fifty-six; hoys, one hundred; but of hulks, catches, fisherboats, and crayers, it lieth not in me to deliver the just account, since they are hard to come by. Of these also there are some of the queen’s majesty’s subjects that have two or three; some, four or six; and (as I heard of late) one man, whose name I suppress for modesty’s sake, hath been known not long since to have had sixteen or seventeen, and employed them wholly to the wafting in and out of our merchants, whereby he hath reaped no small commodity and gain. I might take occasion to tell of the notable and difficult voyages made into strange countries by Englishmen, and of their daily success there; but as these things are nothing incident to my purpose, so I surcease to speak of them. Only this will I add, to the end all men shall understand somewhat of the great masses of treasure daily employed upon our navy, how there are few of those ships, of the first and second sort, that, being apparelled and made ready to sail, are not worth one thousand pounds, or three thousand ducats at the least, if they should presently be sold. What shall we think then of the greater, but especially of the navy royal, of which some one vessel is worth two of the other, as the shipwrights have often told me? It is possible that some covetous person, hearing this report, will either not credit it at all, or suppose money so employed to be nothing profitable to the queen’s coffers: as a good husband said once when he heard there should be a provision made for armour, wishing the queen’s money to be rather laid out to some speedier return of gain unto her grace, “because the realm (saith he) is in case good enough,” and so peradventure he thought. But if, as by store of armour for the defence of the country, he had likewise understanded that the good keeping of the sea is the safeguard of our land, he would have altered his censure, and soon given over his judgment. For in times past, when our nation made small account of navigation, how soon did the Romans, then the Saxons, and last of all the Danes, invade this island? whose cruelty in the end enforced our countrymen, as it were even against their wills, to provide for ships from other places, and build at home of their own, whereby their enemies were oftentimes distressed. But most of all were the Normans therein to be commended. For, in a short process of time after the conquest of this island, and good consideration had for the well-keeping of the same, they supposed nothing more commodious for the defence of the country than the maintenance of a strong navy, which they speedily provided, maintained, and thereby reaped in the end their wished security, wherewith before their times this island was never acquainted. Before the coming of the Romans I do not read that we had any ships at all, except a few made of wicker and covered with buffalo hides, like unto which there are some to be seen at this present in Scotland (as I hear), although there be a little (I wot not well what) difference between them. Of the same also Solinus speaketh, so far as I remember: nevertheless it may be gathered from his words how the upper parts of them above the water only were framed of the said wickers, and that the Britons did use to fast all the whiles they went to the sea in them; but whether it were done for policy or superstition, as yet I do not read.

    In the beginning of the Saxon’s regiment we had some ships also; but as their number and mould was little, and nothing to the purpose, so Egbert was the first prince that ever thoroughly began to know this necessity of a navy and use the service thereof in the defence of his country. After him also other princes, as Alfred, Edgar, Ethelred, etc., endeavoured more and more to store themselves at the full with ships of all quantities, but chiefly Edgar, for he provided a navy of 16000 aliàs 3600 sail, which he divided into four parts, and sent them to abide upon four sundry coasts of the land, to keep the same from pirates. Next unto him (and worthy to be remembered) is Ethelred, who made a law that every man that hold 310 hidelands should find a ship furnished to serve him in the wars. Howbeit, as I said before, when all their navy was at the greatest, it was not comparable for force and sure building to that which afterward the Normans provided, neither that of the Normans anything like to the same that is to be seen now in these our days. For the journeys also of our ships, you shall understand that a well-builded vessel will run or sail commonly three hundred leagues or nine hundred miles in a week, or peradventure some will go 2200 leagues in six weeks and a half. And surely, if their lading be ready against they come thither, there be of them that will be here, at the WesttIndies, and home again in twelve or thirteen weeks from Colchester, although the said Indies be eight hundred leagues from the cape or point of Cornwall, as I have been informed. This also I understand by report of some travellers, that, if any of our vessels happen to make to a voyage to Hispaniola of New Spain (called in time past Quinquegia and Haiti), which lieth between the north tropic and the Equator, after they have once touched at the Canaries (which are eight days’ sailing or two hundred and fifty leagues from St. Lucas de Barameda, in Spain) they will be there in thirty of forty days, and home again in Cornwall in other eight weeks, which is a goodly matter, beside the safety and quietness in the passage, but more of this elsewhere.