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5 Key Takeaways on the Rise of the Tudor Navy

I’ve been on a bit of a Boat Craze over on the Renaissance English History Podcast for the past few months. I did an episode on the Rise of the Tudor Navy, the Iron Industry of the Weald (which helped propel the navy forward with the blast iron furnace that made artillery so much cheaper), and then January was Armada Month followed by an interview with a PhD candidate who studies the Tudor Navy.

I’ve learned a lot in the past four months about boats. Boat construction. Fighting on boats. Grappling. Francis Drake.

Next, I’ll be moving into the theater with episodes on Shakespeare and the rise of the Theater in general (Burbage, etc).

So as I leave this unit behind, here are five key takeaways I’ve learned about English Renaissance Boats. Consider this your Cliff’s Notes. I learn about boats so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

  1. Henry VIII wasn’t the father of the Tudor Navy. His father was. So he was the son of the father of the Tudor Navy. 
    Henry VII built the first dry dock in Portsmouth so ships could be repaired irregardless of the tide. He also built several large ships, including the Regent.  The famous Mary Rose was built in 1510, and Henry VII died in 1509, so it’s possible that he had even built the plans for that ship. In short, Henry VIII built upon what his father started, and since he was so into ships anyway (they were like big-boy toys) he added a lot to it. But he didn’t start the whole process.
  2. Phillip II made a pretty serious miscalculation.
    The Spanish Phillip II was a young man when he married Mary Tudor, who was over a decade older than he was. She hadn’t had much interest in the navy, but he recognized the importance of it to an island nation like England, and also probably thought it would be easier to control the channel having a strong presence on both sides (he ruled the Spanish Netherlands). So he invested money and resources into making the English navy strong again after a decade of it being largely ignored.
    Thirty years later, that would come back to bite him in the ass when Elizabeth I gave the Spanish Armada a trouncing.
  3. But actually, Elizabeth didn’t so much beat Phillip.
    The Protestant Winds did. And Phillip’s bad planning. And his inability to not be a control freak. The Spanish had an opportunity to destroy the English early on, but didn’t take it. Then they were caught near Calais waiting to rendezvous with the commander in the Spanish Netherlands, who was ticked off that he wasn’t in charge, and didn’t really put much effort into the whole thing. England attacked, but ran out of ammunition and eventually had to pull back. The Spanish ships kept going, and decided they would head north around Scotland, and then back down west of Ireland, back to Spain. Which would have meant they might have been able to attack again. But because no one accurately knew how to calculate longitude, they were much closer to land than they had expected, and when a storm came in, their ships were battered along the coast. The ships limped home, lots more men died of sickness than fighting, and the Armada was well and truly defeated.
  4. Grappling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
    The main way people would fight on boats before the Renaissance was grappling. You would pull up next to, and board the enemy ship. Fight and kill all the soldiers, and then keep the boat for yourself. Nice and easy. Except when it wasn’t. Like the time an English commander had boarded the enemy ship but the ropes were cut before his men could come on board, and he was literally trapped on the enemy boat watching his men float away. Not a good situation. Or the time a fire on board one ship caused both to go down.
    By the end of the 16th century, navies would be headed towards using artillery to fight. You didn’t get to keep the ship afterwards, but it seemed to be easier to plan.
  5. You can’t get to China by heading North from England.
    Hugh Willougby and Richard Chancellor found that out. Spain and Portugal already had dibs on all the routes West, so they decided to go North, around Russia, down into China. Except they got caught in storms. Chancellor lived and managed to get to Moscow where he met Ivan the Terrible (who later proposed to Elizabeth I), but Hugh Willougby and all his men died. They were discovered by Russian fisherman in their boats the next spring. Frozen solid.