J D Davies Historian and Author

The 17th Century Navy

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Above, the armour of Sir William Penn, general-at-sea under the Commonwealth and the only 'great captain commander' in the history of the Royal Navy (1665): St Mary Redcliffe church, Bristol.
Below, a 'Rupertino' cannon-of-seven cast to a design patented by King Charles II's cousin Prince Rupert. A famous cavalry general of the civil wars, Rupert served as an admiral during the Dutch wars and commanded the fleet (with controversial results) in 1673. Firing a 42-pound shot from a 7.05 inch bore, this gun, survey number 6381, was cast by John Brown and delivered on 29 November 1673. 

I intend to expand this section of the website into a major resource about 17th century naval history, including information and pictures about relatively little known aspects of what is in any case a relatively little known subject. This will be very much a work in progress, so please check back regularly for updates!

To begin with, I thought I'd address a question I'm often asked, either by those who contact me via this website or who attend the talks that I give:

How did the late seventeenth century navy differ from that of Nelson's time?

The short answer is that there are a great many differences, but of course there were many similarities too - seamen's pay, for one, which remained the same between 1652 and 1797! It's also true that many aspects of 'Nelson's navy' were first developed during this period - e.g. the concept of 'red, white and blue' squadrons, first introduced in 1653. However, here are five particularly important differences:
 

  • The hierarchy aboard a ship was entirely different. By the late 18th century, a large warship had up to half-a-dozen lieutenants and many midshipmen. In the late 17th, most warships - even very large ones - had only two commissioned officers, the captain and lieutenant, although second lieutenants, and a very few thirds, were introduced on the largest ships during this period. This meant that the warrant officers (master, boatswain, gunner etc) in particular, but also the petty officers to some extent, had a higher status - many former captains and lieutenants subsequently served in warrant posts, which would have been inconceivable a hundred years later.

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      • There was no naval uniform. Although ships' companies would often have had a vaguely 'uniform' appearance due to the bulk purchase of slop clothes, officers wore whatever they liked. In battle, for example, this could still include breastplates.

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          • Fleets were far larger. Nelson fought at Trafalgar with twenty-seven ships; the British fleet in the largest battles of the Anglo-Dutch wars consisted of over one hundred vessels. Inevitably this made command and control highly problematic, especially as the system of flag signals was rudimentary compared with that which existed by Nelson's time.

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              • A much smaller proportion of ships' crews was press-ganged. In peacetime, the fleet was usually manned exclusively by volunteers; even in wartime, when the fleet was manned by 25-30,000 men (a larger 'population' than all British cities except London and Norwich), volunteers formed between one third and two thirds or more of ships' companies, and many of these men were dedicated 'followers' of their captain, probably coming from the same area as him, perhaps even related to him, and following him from ship to ship during his career.

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                  • The king had a direct and active role in naval affairs, particularly from 1660 to 1688. A parliamentary board of Admiralty, the central administrative body of the navy in the 18th century, was first instituted in 1679 but only lasted until 1684. The Lord High Admiral himself - James, Duke of York, later King James II & VII - commanded fleets in battle in 1665 and 1672.

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