How did the British Navy develop between 1660 and 1805? What were its main functions? Where did it operate and for what purposes? Most importantly, how did the role of the navy contribute to the development of the British Empire?Maintaining the Royal Navy at its Cromwellian size and efficiency was a major problem. Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, took on the challenge. Pepys first worked for the Navy Board and then effectively created the Admiralty as an efficient department of state. Two further wars against the Dutch followed between 1664 – 1674 but with mixed results.
Wars against France
In 1688 a political revolution that saw the fall of Pepys heralded the beginning of a series of great wars against France that lasted until 1815. This was a struggle in which navies were extremely important. France had to divide its power between land and sea, while Britain could direct its main strength onto the world’s oceans. A series of notable victories over the French marked these years: Russell’s at Barfleur and La Hogue in 1692, Anson’s off Cape Finisterre in 1747, Hawke’s at Quiberon Bay in 1759, Howe’s on the Glorious First of June in 1794 and most famously Nelson’s at the Nile in 1798 , and Trafalgar 1805 .
However, France was far from defenceless. In the war of 1689 – 1697 she defeated an Anglo-Dutch fleet off Beachy Head and carried out effective campaigns against British merchant shipping.
After major reforms which made its navy more effective, France won the American’s their War of Independence in 1783, although the British fleet of Admiral Rodney had a major naval success at Les Saintes in the West Indies in 1782.
The French Revolution of 1793 halted the French naval revival and the professional skills of French naval personnel declined. This created an opportunity for the remarkable successes of the Royal Navy in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
Wars against Spain
The faltering Spanish Empire remained a major target of British sea power. In 1704 Admiral Rooke captured Gibraltar which became the major British base in the western Mediterranean. This attack used special naval infantry, and marked the first major impact of the Royal Marines. ‘Gibraltar’ remains the Corps only battle honour although it has fought in many places since. When war broke out in 1739, Admiral Anson took a squadron to prey on Spanish trade. This confirmed not only his wealth but his position as the pre-eminent sailor of his generation who was as effective at administration as he was commanding at sea.
Nelson made his name with his contribution to Jervis’s victory over the Spanish at St Vincent in 1797 and the fleet he defeated at Trafalgar had a substantial Spanish force.
The war with France went on for another ten years. The Royal Navy’s greatest contribution during this period was the unremitting blockade; this not only prevented Napoleon rebuilding his fleet but also encouraged enemies in Europe to rise up against him. In 1812 war broke out with America after disputes made worse by the blockade. After some reverses in minor frigate actions, Britain was able to deploy sufficient maritime strength along America’s eastern seaboard to bring peace in 1814. By 1815 Britain, through the Royal Navy, was unchallenged mistress of the oceans.
Surveying the world
The Eighteenth Century Royal Navy also carried out more peaceful tasks. A major programme of scientific surveying greatly increased knowledge of the geography of the world. The most notable personality was Captain James Cook whose genius for seamanship saw him map out New Zealand and the east coast of Australia, and discover Hawaii. Such expeditions were helped by improvements in health on board allowing ships to stay at sea for longer periods.
Ships of the Line
Only larger ships could be safely used in the main line of battle, leading to term line of battle-ship or just plain battleship, for the most powerful ships of the day. A ship needed at least 50 guns to survive in the line of battle in 1715 increasing to 60 in 1760 and 74 in 1805.
Ships were classified by a system of ‘rates’ in relation to their size and gun power, originally a reflection of the captain’s pay which depended on the size of his ship.
The largest vessels were First Rates with three decks and 100 guns of which HMS Victory , Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, is the best known example. Second Rates also had three decks and between 90-98 guns. The 74 gun Third Rate with two decks was the most numerous and best balanced ship of line in the second half of the Eighteenth century; all but one of fourteen British ships at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 were 74s. Fourth Rates with 50-60 guns had largely died about by the end of the Eighteenth Century, only those with 60 guns being regarded as ships of the line after 1757.
Frigates in the Age of Sail
A new type of warship, the frigate, emerged in the mid Eighteenth century to protect merchant shipping and for fleet scouting. There were two types both mounting their guns on the upper deck; Fifth Rates carried 32-36 guns and Sixth Rates had 28 weapons.
In the 1790s the Americans built some very large 44 gun frigates with an extra gun deck on top of the normal one. After the success of these ships in the war of 1812, Britain also commissioned some similar ships of 40-50 guns.
Manning the fleet
The fleet greatly increased in size, from about 270 ships in 1700 to about 500 in 1793 and almost 950 vessels in 1805. The larger size fleet required more seamen. In peacetime the numbers were much less than in today’s Navy and varied from 12,000 to 20,000 men during the Eighteenth Century.
In wartime strength increased from 40,000 in the Wars of 1739-1748 to 150,000 at the peak of the Napoleonic Wars. This situation required the infamous press gang, as Parliament would not allow alternative means of recruitment. It was considered fairer to let sailors take their chance as to whether they fell into the navy’s hands.
J.D. Davies “A Permanent Maritime Fighting Force”, J.B. Hattendorf, “The Struggle with France” and D.A. Baugh “The Eighteenth Century Navy as a National Institution” all in J.R. Hill (Ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy (Oxford, 1995).
B. Lavery, Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation 1793-1815 (London, 1989).