Guns, Gales & God: Elizabeth I’s ‘Merchant Navy’

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By Ian Friel | Published in History Today Volume: 60 Issue: 1 2010 

Ian Friel argues that popular ideas of the nature of Elizabethan sea power are distorted by concentration on big names and major events. Elizabethan England’s emergence on to the world stage owed much more to merchant ships and common seamen than we might think.

During the night of August 29th, 1577, a young English sailor named William Smyth had a nightmare. ‘He dreamed that he was cast overboard, and that the boatswain had him by the hand, and could not save him.’ Smyth was master of the Gabriel, a 30-ton bark which had sailed in the explorer Martin Frobisher’s second voyage to Arctic Canada and was now heading home through stormy weather. The tiny ship was rigged with chest-high safety ropes but, despite these precautions, the following day both Smyth and the boatswain were washed overboard. The boatswain had grabbed a rope and tried to save the young man, but could not hold him.

Smyth mentioned the nightmare, apparently as a joke, to his captain, Edward Fenton, and an account of the tragedy was later published by the Elizabethan chronicler Richard Hakluyt.Whatever the truth of it, the story contradicts the traditional ‘blood and thunder’ image of Elizabethan seafarers. It shows one shipmate trying to save another, a concern for safety measures and an easy relationship between master and captain (a captain was normally the overall commander of a ship on an expedition or war voyage and not always a seaman; a ship’s master was a seaman in charge of sailing a ship and usually also the commander of a merchant vessel). The nature of Smyth’s secret terror is less surprising, for it underlines why so few 16th-century seamen lived, as one contemporary put it, to ‘grow to grey hairs’.

The maritime history of Elizabethan England can be explored in greater detail than is possible for earlier periods because of the huge number of surviving documents. Yet the popular image of seafaring at this time has been dominated by a limited range of topics: the Armada, the voyages of exploration, Francis Drake and the other well-known ‘sea dogs’. These are fascinating subjects, but concentration on them has created some misleading impressions. One is that England during this period was a global maritime superpower. In fact, many of its transoceanic ventures ended in failure and England was dwarfed by the might of its main adversary, Spain.

Between 1585 and 1603 England and Spain waged a bitter maritime war that England survived rather than won. Its deliverance owed much to Spanish errors, bad weather and the problems of staging long-range seaborne invasions. But English capabilities at sea also played a central role in fending-off invasion and carrying the war to the waters of the Spanish empire.

Elizabeth I’s ‘navy royal’ was never a large force. It did not have a permanent body of sea officers and mariners.As a result, the royal fleet relied on manpower from the ‘merchant navy’ and the support of merchantmen as additional warships, stores vessels and troop transports. In 1588, out of some 226 English vessels mustered to face the Armada, only 34 were the queen’s ships. The rest belonged to her subjects. The term ‘merchant navy’ is anachronistic, but it is not inappropriate as a description of the often combative merchant fleet of Elizabethan England.

Elizabethan government surveys of the country’s defence capability reveal the numbers and distribution of merchant and other vessels, as well as their sizes (officially the lowest size for a merchant vessel capable of fighting was reckoned at 100 tons burden, or carrying capacity). The national merchant fleet was not very big even in the early in 1580s, but it was to grow considerably from the late 16th century. A 1582 survey counted over 1,600 vessels of all sizes (of which only 177 exceeded 100 tons). London was easily the greatest port,with the majority of the largest vessels. The government paid ‘tonnage bounties’ to private owners for the construction of ‘defensible’ ships of 100 tons or more and grants were given for just over 500 ships between 1560 and 1610. Known by a variety of names depending on their size, from ‘pinnaces’ and ‘barks’ to ‘galleons’, many English ships of the period were three-masted.A merchant ship of around 100 feet (30 metres) in length would have exceeded 200 tons burden, making it a sizeable vessel in Elizabethan terms. Most were probably built in England, but some vessels were acquired from abroad by purchase, capture or legal seizure.

The records show a dearth of larger ships before the mid-1590s and then a sharp rise in construction rates of bigger vessels. The increase was probably in response to a growing demand for larger trading ships on long-distance routes or as privateers (private warships licenced by the state to attack enemy shipping). Larger vessels had a greater chance of survival on longer voyages where the risks of disease, shipwreck or attack rose sharply. A bigger ship could carry more men and more guns and was easier to defend. For example, in 1590 the 250-ton Centurion, returning from the Mediterranean and becalmed in the Straits of Gibraltar, was attacked by five Spanish galleys. The crew endured a five-and-a-half hour assault, fighting off numerous boarding attempts. Although ‘battered very ... sore’ by cannon and small-arms fire, the Centurion survived and eventually reached London.

Most ships were built for the purpose of trade and cloth was the main English export throughout the period. In the first half of the 16th century the English maritime economy was dominated by the trade between London and Antwerp. Economic and political crises led to the decline and eventual collapse of the Antwerp market in the 1550s and 1560s. This prompted merchants in London and other ports to start looking further afield. From the 1550s onwards a succession of voyages to the more distant parts of Europe, as well as growing numbers of transoceanic enterprises, sought to open new markets and gain access to exotic, high-value goods. London merchants were the principal financiers of this expansion and the capital’s elite was probably the main beneficiary. Joint stock companies were set up to exploit trading possibilities, the most famous of which was the East India Company, created in 1599 with the aim of breaking into the valuable spice trade of the Far East. But though the volume of trade increased, the overall pattern was slow to change. In 1600 the majority of English ships still sailed on coastal or short-range routes to France, the Low Countries and Germany.

Shipowners were predominantly merchants and shipmasters, but members of the gentry and aristocracy also invested in vessels and there was some financial involvement from lower down the social scale. Ships were expensive to build and maintain and part-ownership was common because it helped spread the risk of financial loss from shipwreck or capture. Even small ships were costly: in 1576, the 30-ton hull of William Smyth’s Gabriel cost £83 to construct. This figure, which does not include the cost of masts, rigging and other equipment, was equivalent to at least seven years’ pay for a merchant seaman.However, costs could be defrayed over a long period and it was not unusual for ships to stay in service for ten years or more.

Sea trading was risky but it could offer high returns,which explains why owners and investors hazarded their money. Cargoes were generally worth a good deal more than the ships that carried them. Sometimes the difference was extraordinary. In 1588 the English High Court of Admiralty (HCA) seized a small, old Dunkirk ‘flyboat’. Its cargo of cloth and goods on board proved to be 56 times more valuable than the paltry £15-worth of vessel that carried it.

Shipboard facilities were primitive. Cabins were few and limited to senior officers and sleeping arrangements for ordinary sailors were haphazard and basic.Hammocks were used in some Elizabethan warships but may not have been common in merchantmen. The ship’s kitchen or ‘cook room’ was rudimentary, often sited amid the ballast in the depths of a ship, usually the unhealthiest part of any vessel. Boiled fare was probably common, but it is clear that some sea-cooks were also able to toast, grill or fry food at sea, for HCA appraisals from the 1580s record griddles and frying-pans aboard various merchantmen. Fresh victuals were sometimes available on shorter voyages, but normal shipboard fare consisted of food made to last: salted beef, pork and fish, cheese, Pease, butter and biscuit or ‘hard tack’. Beer was the usual drink by custom, because it could be stored for longer than water without becoming contaminated.

A modern study has suggested that the quantities of rations prescribed for seamen in some victualling lists could have provided enough calories for heavy work in wet and cold conditions.However, the food was not good for long-term health due to its high salt content, sometimes poor quality and lack of vitamins. Scurvy, the deadly disease caused by vitamin C deficiency, was first encountered by Elizabethan sailors on long-distance voyages. Some seafarers knew that fresh fruit and vegetables could be used to treat or prevent scurvy, but it took centuries for this knowledge to change the sailor’s diet significantly.

Despite efforts to keep vessels clean, rats, fleas and other vermin were common and the filth that accumulated amid the ballast could produce a pervasive stench, perceived as a kind of contagion in itself. Prudent instructions for a voyage to Russia in 1557 ordered that ‘no beer nor broth, or any other liquor be spilt upon the ballast’. Crowded conditions meant that disease could spread rapidly.Although surgeons and other people with medical knowledge served at sea, there was little they could do in the face of either food poisoning incidents or major epidemics.

Tudor seamen differed in their views of how to treat that commonest of maritime maladies, seasickness. Richard Madox, a chaplain on an Atlantic voyage in 1582, heard of a couple of remedies including ‘a saffron paper on the stomach’ and drinking bitter wormwood juice.His own advice was to keep warm, defecate moderately, eat well and ‘bear it with a good courage’.

A 1582 survey noted over 16,000 seafarers in England, including fishermen and Thames watermen. Over 2,200 of these men were in London, but Devon and Cornwall were also significant,with about a quarter of the recorded sailors. Class-consciousness and social subordination prevailed in the Elizabethan world.However, ordinary seafarers occupied an odd social position, for within their own sphere sailors had some autonomy and status. Professional ability and personal qualities could count for more at sea than birth or social position,which helps to explain the rise of men like Drake.Mariners learned their craft by going to sea. It is likely that many started out very young, as ships’ boys, though most probably did not progress beyond the level of ordinary seaman.A minority gained apprenticeships (often through family connections),which could be a route to officer status. Merchant sailors normally negotiated their own wages and signed up for just a single voyage. The casual nature of this employment was the source of the seaman’s relative freedom, but it could also be the freedom to starve.Work was often uncertain and, if a ship was lost, any survivors were paid nothing.

On the positive side, tradition gave some status to common sailors, for it dictated that commanders should consult their crews on major courses of action. This form of shipboard ‘democracy’ was at odds with the way the rest of society operated and contributed to the reputation of seamen being difficult to control. However, such consultation was less common on voyages of exploration and virtually non-existent in naval vessels.

It is impossible to generalise about the ‘character’ of Elizabethan seamen. Many displayed high levels of professional skill, but they worked in a difficult, dangerous and frequently violent environment and often behaved accordingly. Sailors were constantly at risk from shipwreck, attack, drowning and shipboard accidents. Some displayed incredible ruthlessness, like John Hawkins and Francis Drake,who traded in African slaves in the 1560s. Others showed mercy to enemies or risked their lives to save shipmates; Drake himself is known later to have freed some Africans found aboard captured ships.

Danger and discomfort

Given its discomforts and dangers, why did men go to sea? Family tradition or the prospect of freedom undoubtedly drove some, but it is probable that most became sailors because it offered a hope of escaping poverty or perhaps even the chance of getting rich. Whatever the conditions, service aboard a merchant ship provided a poor man with wages, accommodation and regular meals. Privateer and pirate crews were paid by means of shares in the ships and cargoes they captured, if any, and privateering often turned into piracy. One example of this is the story of the 120-ton galleon Fenner, arrested by the HCA in 1585 on suspicion of having been used ‘pirateously’. This ship had a crew of about 70 and carried 15 cannon, 13 anti-personnel pieces and many small arms.Owned by the Fenner family, prominent Chichester gentry, the galleon had sailed with a privateering licence granted by the pretender to the Portuguese throne. It was then apparently used to capture anything its owners could lay their hands on. Despite the arrest, there is no further evidence that the Fenners were punished for their crimes.

Piracy was endemic in the 16th century and many merchant ships were armed. The war with Spain turned privateering into a major industry. The historian John Appleby has estimated that each year between 100 and 200 (sometimes more) English ships were engaged in privateering and piracy during the conflict. Inventories for ships seized by the High Court of Admiralty in the period 1579-90 show that, of 119 ships arrested (most of them probably of less than 150 tons), half had weapons and even a tiny 14-ton bark sported a couple of small cannon. The most common guns recorded were falconets, falcons and minions (firing 1½ to 4 pound shot),with a few six-pounder sakers.However, few merchantmen could match the firepower of the queen’s warships with their many demi-culverins (9-pound shot) and larger weapons.

In trying to tackle piracy, the Elizabethan government faced a long-standing problem: the most successful pirates were often the people most needed to defend the country at sea. The profit motive ran through the seafaring community, from bottom to top. The prospect of loot even led Francis Drake to desert his station temporarily during the 1588 Armada campaign, in pursuit of a disabled Spanish warship.

Some of the beliefs and concerns of Elizabethan mariners are revealed in the names given to the many ‘tonnage bounty’ ships constructed between 1560 and 1610. Overtly patriotic or warlike names were uncommon, possibly because more violent designations were considered unlucky. They were certainly outnumbered by animal and flower names. These associated vessels with qualities symbolised by particular fauna and flora, such as Golden Hind for speed, Lion or Dragon for courage and ferocity, Daisy for love and Violet for faithfulness. There were some minor changes in naming practices in the period 1589-1610, perhaps reflecting the rise of a better-educated generation and developments in business.Names derived from classical mythology (such as the 1604 Ulysses of London) were slightly more numerous and, from the 1590s, there was also a small rise in appellations denoting euphoric emotions (Delight, Desire and Pleasure, for example) and with harmony or agreement (such as Amity, ContentConsent). The latter were probably more to do with growing numbers of business partnerships, as new investors were drawn into joint-stock privateering ventures, than an outbreak of love and trust among shipowners.

The most frequent kinds of name in the 1560-1610 sample were male and female personal names, with a fairly even ‘gender’ balance. After these, the commonest were either related to the hope of fortune, such as the Edward Bonaventure of 1598 (‘Bonaventure’ meaning good luck) or to religion. The religious names encompassed a desire for divine protection against the perils of the deep, but also reflected religious identity. They tend mostly to be Protestant in nature, such as the Jesus Be With Us of London, built in 1574.

God’s Will

Religion was a constant presence at sea, with services held once or twice a day aboard most ships. Also, it was not unknown for sailors, whose standards of literacy seem to have been higher than those of the general population, to possess religious texts.

Typical of many sailors’ wills was the one made by Harry Nuttall, master of the Paul, in a Cretan port in 1590. The sentiments he expressed were entirely Protestant in nature with no mention of intercession by the Virgin Mary or the saints. Another Protestant feature of the will was a substantial bequest of ten shillings he left to fund the preaching of a sermon in Stepney Church.

Given the brutal religious conflicts of the period, sailors were able to claim the highest motives for theft, destruction and violence. This was certainly apparent with some of Edward Fenton’s men during his 1582 expedition to Africa and South America. They declared that they were ‘bound in duty to spoil all papists, as enemies to God & our sovereign, of what country so ever they were’.

When Elizabeth I died in 1603 England was a much more significant force in sea trade and conflict than it had been in the 1550s.However it was not the superpower that later myth has made it, nor were its ‘sea dogs’ always the stuff of legend. It is likely that most of the men who crewed English ships were driven to do so by poverty or greed, or both, rather than by desire for glory.Yet without the sailors and ships of the merchant fleet, it is unlikely that the ‘navy royal’ could have kept the country free from a Spanish invasion. Conversely, English ships carried the war to the coastal towns and waters of Spain and its empire and probably made the Spanish see England as more of a threat than it really was. The fleet therefore enabled the country to ‘punch above its weight’ in the conflict, although by the early 1600s indiscriminate English privateering and piracy was having a bad effect on England’s relations with other European powers.

English merchant ships also opened up or renewed long-distance trade routes to the Baltic and the Mediterranean and were the backbone of transoceanic expeditions. Before Elizabeth’s reign, England had been little more than a northwest European maritime power. The voyages of trade, privateering, piracy and exploration made English ships a regular presence from northern Russia to the Mediterranean, as well as in parts of the Americas, Africa and Asia. Even if many English ventures failed, the country’s growing merchant navy and experienced seafaring community enabled England to move on to the world stage for the first time.

Further reading:

  • Kenneth R. Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement. Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire 1480-1630 (Cambridge University Press, 1984)
  • John Appleby, Under the Bloody Flag: Pirates of the Tudor Age (The History Press, 2008)
  • Cheryl A. Fury, Tides in the Affairs of Men: The Social History of Elizabethan Seamen, 1580-1603 (Greenwood Press, 2002)
  • N.A.M Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Great Britain. Volume One, 660-1649 (Harper Collins, 1997)
  • E.S. Donno (ed), An Elizabethan in 1582: The Diary of Richard Madox, Fellow of All Souls (Hakluyt Society, 1976)

Ian Friel is a historian and museum consultant and the author of The British Museum Maritime History of Britain and Ireland c.400-2001 (British Museum Press, 2003).

Guns, Gales & God: Elizabeth I’s ‘Merchant Navy’ | History Today

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