Kings on the Way

Cue drum roll… I’m delighted to be able to announce that my new non-fiction book, Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II and the Royal Navy, has gone off to Seaforth Publishing, and should be published next summer. And here, for the first time online, is the cover –

In many ways, I feel that Kings of the Sea marks the culmination of the work I’ve done on the Restoration navy over more than thirty years. The book radically reassesses the working relationship of three men, and their contributions to the history of the navy – the men in question being Kings Charles and James, and the great naval administrator who served them both, Samuel Pepys. It also challenges some of the assessments of the two kings which appear in some of the principal studies of their lives, and aims to confront head-on the still common assumption that it is perfectly possible to write a major history of Britain during the late seventeenth century which effectively ignores the navy. So the book is often provocative, sometimes controversial, and doesn’t pull its punches. I’m expecting it to raise eyebrows and hackles in equal measure!

One of the other things I’ve tried to do in the book is to set the attitudes to naval matters of Charles and James in the context of the Stuart dynasty’s entire relationship with the sea. So the first chapter examines the Scottish monarchs of the line, and their sometimes remarkable involvement in naval warfare, especially under James IV and James V. This chapter also covers James VI and I’s English reign, often seen as a ‘dark age’ of naval history. In the second chapter, I take a look at Charles I, the Sovereign of the Seas, and the early seafaring experiences of his sons, Charles and James; the chapter ends just after the Restoration, with the astonishing naval elements of Charles II’s coronation procession.

In the third chapter, I analyse the ship naming policy of the royal brothers – and if that sounds dull, it’s anything but! This chapter takes some material originally published on this blog and expands it considerably, looking at the ways in which the choice of ship names was incredibly political, and actually remarkably revealing of the Stuarts’ thinking about political issues at different points in their reigns. Chapter Four goes on to study the extent and nature of the royal brothers’ interest in, and technical knowledge of, the art of shipbuilding, concentrating particularly on Charles. I have to admit to a particular soft spot for Chapter Five, which looks at the use of the royal yachts – and many of the uses are very far removed from what we might expect of vessels traditionally described as ‘pleasure boats’! In fact, the story of the yachts casts unexpected light on some ‘hidden histories’ of the reigns of the Stuart monarchs, and reveals some startling new evidence about, for instance, Charles II’s attitude to Catholics during the ‘Exclusion Crisis’.

In Chapter Six, ‘Governing the Navy’, I look at the roles of both Charles and James in naval administration, and how they interacted with Pepys. This chapter is connected to an appendix, and taken together, they provide a radical new interpretation of how the navy was actually run during the Restoration age. Chapter Seven takes me back to my most familiar stamping ground of all, the officer corps of the Stuart navy. But after all these years, I’ve found plenty of new things to say about it, to ask questions that I didn’t ask when I first worked on the subject, and to present answers that have sometimes startled me, let alone any potential readers.

Chapters Eight and Nine are, in some ways, the heart of the book’s line of argument. They focus on the claim of seventeenth century monarchs to be ‘sovereigns of the seas’ around Britain’s coasts; but whereas this theme has often been approached from a legalistic angle, I concentrate on the ways in which this claim generated incessant clashes with many other states, and, above all, the ways in which it made the Stuarts’ relationship with France rather more fraught than is sometimes assumed. But it was also a part of a wider agenda which embraced overseas colonies, the activities of the Royal Society, voyages of exploration, and even the establishment of the Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital – all themes which are analysed here.

Chapter Ten, ‘Warlords’, does what it says on the tin, and analyses the roles of Charles and James as war leaders. To what extent were the strategic blunders of the second and third Anglo-Dutch wars the fault of the former, and the tactical failings of the wars the fault of the latter? The chapter reassesses such momentous events as the Battle of Solebay (1672) and places them in the context of the Stuarts’ personal ambitions. In Chapter Eleven, James finally takes the stage on his own, as King – and although I’ve written detailed studies of the navy’s part in the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ twice before, I was still slightly taken aback by the amount of new evidence I was able to unearth, and the very different perspectives that these gave me.

Finally, Chapter Twelve returns to the overarching theme of ‘the Stuarts and the Sea’, and looks at ‘The Jacobite Navy’. And before you all chorus ‘there’s no such thing!’ (‘oh yes there is!’…etc), the naval side of the Jacobite movement is actually fundamentally important to any understanding of the entire subject – after all, and to put in the crudest possible terms, how, exactly, were the Old and Young Pretenders and their supporters meant to physically get to the British Isles? I had huge fun with this chapter, and managed to work in mentions – and relevant mentions to boot! – of Nelson, Blackbeard, Irish poetry, Peter the Great, and my old friends the Stepney family.

So all in all, I’m reasonably pleased with the way Kings of the Sea has turned out. It’ll also be lavishly illustrated, thanks to the wonderful people at Seaforth Publishing, and I’ve taken the opportunity to include plenty of images that, to the best of my knowledge, haven’t previously been seen in an English language book. So if you’re one of those unbelievably efficient people who’s already completed their Christmas shopping for this year, may I recommend Kings of the Sea to you for your 2017 list?


  1. Alan James says:

    Fantastic. Just let me know when I can order a copy!


  2. M.A. Crosbie says:

    Congratulations! This sounds absolutely brilliant. Can’t wait to get a copy.


  3. jsmjf2 says:

    That’s a stunning cover! Well done and congratulations — I always enjoy a book that is “provocative, sometimes controversial, and doesn’t pull its punches”. As far as I’m concerned, this is exactly what history is meant to do. When is it out again?


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