Annus Mirabilis: Or, a Very Good Time for 17th Century Naval History

This is turning into something of an annus mirabilis for we few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters), who nail our tattered colours to the rickety mast of seventeenth century naval history.

Next month, on 4 July, there’s what promises to be a fascinating day at Hastings under the auspices of the splendid Shipwreck Museum there, devoted to the wreck of the warship Anne. This year is the 325th anniversary of the Battle of Beachy Head in 1690, after which the Anne, a third rate and one of the ‘thirty new ships’ built for Charles II between 1677 and 1685, was driven ashore and burned. The wreck survives at Pett Level and is sometimes exposed at exceptionally low tides; I’ve blogged about her, and my visits to her, here and here. There’s a terrific line-up of expert speakers: Ann Coats, Richard Endsor, Peter Marsden and Robert Stone. Unfortunately, the day also features some idiot rambling inanely about Pepys’s Navy, and then reading the account by Frank Fox, avec la participation de Peter Le Fevre and Richard Endsor (as they say in French films), which provides a highly likely identification of the important and enigmatic Normans Bay wreck and which was originally published on this site.

Three weeks later, the National Maritime Museum is staging a major conference on Tudor and Stuart seafaring, which I’ll be going to. It’s a sign of how the study of naval and maritime history has broadened in the last 30 years or so that this includes topics as diverse as shipboard stress aboard early East India company ships, pirate executions, maritime law and state formation, women and the navy in the British civil wars, the cultural politics of early modern sea captains, and 17th century Scottish ship models. (Not a battle to be seen, as I’ve commented previously on this site.) This is a preliminary to the opening in November of a new exhibition about Samuel Pepys, itself a forerunner of the 400th anniversary of the Queen’s House next year and the subsequent opening of the NMM’s new permanent gallery on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The latter will apparently include some of the fantastic art and ship models of the period; if it’s half as good as the Nelson, Navy, Nation gallery that opened a couple of years back, I’ll be installing a camp bed and making it my permanent address.

On 4 and 5 September, at Portsmouth, the Ordnance Society is holding a conference on ‘Guns From the Sea’, although sadly, I won’t be able to get to that one. The programme looks absolutely fascinating, though, and contains a significant amount of seventeenth century interest. For example, there are papers on the ordnance of Louis XIV’s navy, and on some of the finds from the wreck of the London in the Thames estuary. The London, which blew up off Southend on 7 March 1665, was one of the great ships of both the Commonwealth and Restoration navies, and the wreck site has yielded, and continues to yield, a remarkable amount of valuable material. Moreover, its destruction provided me with a crucial scene in the third Quinton novel, The Blast That Tears The Skies, although I used a fair amount of dramatic licence in order to get Samuel Pepys to the wreck site not long after the explosion took place!

Outside the realms of naval history, too, these are halcyon days for seventeenth century buffs in the UK. A new National Civil War Centre recently opened in Newark, and I hope to hack up the A1 to investigate it in the not too distant future. So on the back of all these terrific developments for UK-based fans of the seventeenth century, all we need is a major TV series to finally drive those pesky Tudors off our screens and provide us with a Stuart version of Poldark.


As it happens, I can think of a suitable series of books with lots of action and intrigue, with a handsome young hero who takes his shirt off from time to time…


  1. rebelhand says:

    I’m looking forward to your posts about all these events. No pressure… And thanks for pointing to the Pepys and Queen’s House exhibitions. Like Gillian, I’m going to make sure not to miss them.


  2. Oh, God, I’m jealous! So wish I could go to any or all of these events and exhibitions. Got to get back to England before too long!


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