England is often portrayed in historic dramas and texts as a seafaring nation. In ‘ruling the waves’, England controlled the seas around its shores and beyond, employing ships built for the purpose and equipped with heavy guns. Master and Commander and Hornblower come to mind. A proud legacy, perhaps, one where the Crown recognised the importance of securing the interests of the realm against foreign invaders, merchants and marauders?
Looking through the maritime accounts from the later medieval period, however, it was not until Henry V’s Great Ships that we see what might be considered the first purpose-built warships, owned by the Crown, since the late Saxon period. The collection of ships included ‘repurposed’ vessels such as the Cog John – possibly repatriated from foreign traders – a common enough practice to populate a fleet. But five new ships were also comissioned by the King, something usually avoided because of the drain on the royal coffers. The Trinity Royal, a fine, large ship at 540 tuns, was used to carry Henry V to war in France. Perhaps one of the most well known of Henry’s Great Ships is the Grace Dieu, hit by lightning in 1439 and sinking where she still lies today in the River Hamble, Hampshire.
This new rash of shipbuilding didn’t last. On his death in 1421, the bulk of Henry’s navy was sold to pay off his debts.
The following decades of civil war ensured minds and monies lay focused elsewhere, although Edward IV began to acquire a few ships in the 1470s, including the Falcon (1475) and the Mary of the Tower (1479). Otherwise, even if born of necessity, the flawed policy of relying on private vessels to serve the Crown when required continued. By the early 1480s, Richard III had at least six ships, but any plans he might have had to continue the expansion of the royal fleet died with him.
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