How Britannia Ruled the Waves

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Whoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1558-1618)

From the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 to the Second World War, the Royal Navy was one of the most formidable fighting forces the world has ever seen. Thanks to constant innovation, it has secured Britain’s borders and spread her influence across the globe, creating the Empire on which the sun never set.

Before the reign of Henry VIII, England had no navy to speak of – its ships were not used for warfare, but merely troop transport. Over his nearly 40-year reign, he oversaw the construction of more than 40 battleships and many new ports, including the current Royal Navy headquarters, Portsmouth.

The firepower of these new warships had increased greatly and the ability to fire ‘broadside’ – firing all the guns on one side of the ship at a target simultaneously – was introduced. The most famous of these new purpose-built ‘men o’ war’ was the Mary Rose, which had a crew of over 400 men manning 80 canons, with many more weapons stored on the decks. It was the embodiment of this pioneering new type of fighting ship.

The investment in the development of the navy under Henry VIII was especially prudent. By capitalising on Great Britain’s geographic advantage as an island, Britain was made impenetrable to her fierce continental rivals, such as France and Spain. The first display of Britain’s newfound naval dominance was the 1588 victory over the Spanish Armada, against extreme odds.

Another seminal figure in the Royal Navy’s history was Robert Blake (1598-1657), often called ‘the Father of the Royal Navy’. He was revered in his time for being seemingly the only officer in the Navy able to command loyalty without resorting to violence, and the loyalty which he commanded was fierce. He also had a litany of achievements, including developing the techniques of naval blockade and amphibious landing.

His most enduring legacy was that of his revolutionary ‘fighting instructions’, which included tactics such as forming a long line of ships, called a ‘firing line’, enabling the navy to maximise the damage inflicted and minimise damage received. Blake’s tactics led to countless victories against the Spanish Navy, including the famous battle of Santa Cruz in 1657, where Blake sailed into the Spanish port and destroyed their whole fleet without the loss of a single British ship. Such was Blake’s reputation that, commenting on his predecessor’s victory at Santa Cruz, Admiral Nelson himself said: “I shall never be the equal of Blake”.

Later pioneers added their own unique contribution to Britain’s naval supremacy. The first of these was the writer Samuel Pepys. Today known mostly for his Diaries, his contributions to naval organisation and efficiency were crucial. When Pepys joined the navy in 1660, he found it rife with corruption and dysfunction. By terminating the ability to buy ranks, he both curbed corruption and improved the capability of the Navy by creating a meritocracy.

Crucially, Pepys realised the importance of morale to Navy success. Morale could be fostered, he believed, by good living conditions. Thus, he introduced rationing and ensured proper nutrition for the sailors, greatly improving productivity. He also realised the importance of proper navigation, and made it a requirement for all officers to pass an examination with an emphasis on mathematics. This modernisation of the navy came at a critical time for Britain as, near the end of the 17th Century under Louis XIV, France had built up a formidable navy of its own. 

Pepys was an administrator, not a commander: he did not win any famous victories like Blake, or later Nelson. However, he was just as important, if not more, in the history of the Royal Navy: he laid the administrative foundations of naval excellence that has indirectly won Britain countless battles in the centuries since.

Another notable innovator for the Royal Navy was John Harrison. Harrison, similarly to Pepys, realised the importance of navigation to naval success. Fundamentally, if you could get somewhere faster and more efficiently than your enemy, you would have the upper hand. This led Harrison in 1759 to develop a far more practically sized timekeeping device (around five inches in diameter), the forerunner of the modern watch, that enabled sailors to keep time, and pinpoint their locations, more accurately and efficiently. This was ground-breaking, and allowed British sailors to navigate the oceans far faster and safer than their rivals.

John Clerk also contributed to British naval dominance by introducing new strategies in his Essay on Naval Tactics. Blake’s tactics were becoming obsolete, as shown by the Battle of Chesapeake in 1781, where the French navy managed to counter lining up for the first time. He theorised that, by using lighter and faster ships, the navy could charge the enemy at the weakest point, as opposed to lining up. Clerk’s new tactics proved to be extremely effective: George Rodney adopted them in 1782 at the Battle of the Sainte, capturing five French ships, including their flagship, and they were even employed during the Napoleonic Wars.

The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 saw Lord Nelson destroy the French and Spanish fleets off the Spanish coast. The battle was an exhibition of all that made the Royal Navy great: its fast, well-built ships and its superior strategy and tactics. Nelson used John Clerk’s strategies to break up the allied fleet, allowing him to destroy and capture 22 ships, losing none of his own.

The destruction of the French and Spanish fleet had foiled Napoleon’s plans for invading Britain, while cementing the Royal Navy as the world’s strongest, facilitating the British Empire’s rapid expansion in the 19th Century. With Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, Britain was now the hegemonic world power, and a new age of Pax Britannica dawned. Britannia ruled the waves.

The Royal Navy was no longer a mere aspect of Britain’s defence: it was the key to Britain’s supreme global power. There were no major naval movements, of any nation, without the blessing of the Royal Navy. This authority ensured British exploration and trade missions went untouched. Under the protection of their navy, the British could turn commerce into conquest and allow institutions such as the East India Company to efficiently colonise vast swathes of South East Asia. The East India Company generated enormous wealth for Britain through the spice trade, which went undisturbed under the Royal Navy’s watchful eye. By 1848, Britain had installed 55 foreign outposts and ports and had 129 warships patrolling the seas: from Hong Kong to the Caribbean, there was a network of British naval influence allowing for the enormous expansion of the British empire.

In 1807, the UK had become one of the first nations to end its own participation in the slave trade, and went on to lead an international campaign to put a final end to the transatlantic trade, and ultimately slavery itself. In 1819 the West Africa Squadron was formed, with the task of stopping as many slave ships as possible, earning the Royal Navy their moniker as the ‘global policeman’.

There is an irony in the Royal Navy embarking on such an ambitious moral crusade while continuing to facilitate oppressive colonisation, but it was undeniably committed. The mission was incredibly costly and incredibly effective. 150,000 slaves were freed and 1,600 ships stopped, with 1,500 British soldiers dying in the process. These freed slaves were then returned to Africa or given jobs either in the Royal Navy or as apprentices throughout the colonies.

When the world plunged once more into global conflict in the 20th Century, naval power remained as important as ever. Convoyed merchant shipping secured imported supplies of food and arms for Britain. Naval forces prevailed, whether in the slow attritional warfare on the Atlantic or in the amphibious triumph of the D-Day Landings – or in simply dissuading any enemies of the British from attempting an invasion.

Throughout the First World War, and for much of the Second, the Royal Navy was still the largest in the world. The global network of ports and bases amassed over centuries of imperial dominance proved to be vital. The Navy ensured the protection of the Suez Canal, the ‘artery of the British empire’, for the transport of the oil needed to fuel wartime Britain, and resisted the Germans all over the globe. For example, at the Battle of the River Plate in 1939, the Royal Navy was able to capture the infamous Graf Spee off the coast of Argentina.

However, for the first time in over a century, Britain’s supremacy was no longer unquestioned, and by the end of the Second World War, Britannia no longer ruled the waves. They had traded many strategic naval bases in the Destroyers-for-Bases Agreement in 1940 – effectively trading global naval power for US support and some defunct ships. Under the post-war Labour government, the Royal Navy was reduced to just one operational vessel due to funding cutbacks. As Empire declined, so did Britain’s once-formidable Royal Navy.

Into the breach stepped the United States. The USA’s economic power was so great that Britain could not hope to compete. With fighting a war on two fronts, against Japan in the Pacific and on the western front against Nazi Germany, the US ploughed their immense financial resources into their naval power. They claimed the long-held British mantle of the ‘global policemen’.

From the reign of Henry VIII to the mid-20th century, the unrivalled innovation of the Royal Navy has shaped our world for more than 400 years. Britain’s ‘wooden walls’ have long preserved its island, from Philip II of Spain to Hitler, and, more recently, extended its influence has extended to every corner of the world. As said by William Blackstone, the famous 18th Century lawyer and politician, “The Royal Navy of England hath ever been its greatest defence and ornament; it is its ancient and natural strength – the floating bulwark of our island.”

Kennedy, P., 2017. The Rise And Fall of British Naval Mastery. Penguin.

Lavery, B., 2009. Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World. Naval Institute Press.

Leland, J., 2019. The Royal Navy: Its Influence in English History and in the Growth of Empire. Wentworth Press.